Ethics Now & Then 86 – Avot 5:14

Pirkei Avot 5:14

There are four types of temperament: He who is easily angered and easily pacified, his loss is canceled by his gain. One who is hard to anger and hard to pacify, his gain is canceled by his loss. He whom it is hard to anger and easy to pacify, is a chassid (pious one). He whom it is easy to anger and hard to pacify is a wicked person.

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He who is easily angered and easily pacified, his loss is canceled by his gain. 

We can certainly agree that anger is a negative, and at times, destructive emotion. Most people experience and struggle with differing degrees of anger and often it is a cause for much sin and heartbreak.  It is taught in the Talmud that when a man gives way to anger “… if he is wise, his wisdom leaves him” and, conversely, “Among those whom the Holy Blessed One loves is a person who does not become angry as a rule, and one who will overlook irritating causes for retaliation.”*

This first type of temperament combines a virtue with a vice, a positive attribute with a fault.  A person can be easily angered but then, as quickly, can calm down and be pacified. Ultimately, this latter ability nullifies the anger. Little damage is done and, at the end of the day, he will have made peace and can sleep with serenity. He affirms the injunction, “Never go to bed angry.”

One who is hard to anger and hard to pacify, his gain is canceled by his loss. 

With the second type of temperament, on the other hand, the positive trait of being hard to anger is outweighed, and any benefit lost, by the inability to quickly subdue and release the anger. Once enraged, the person remains so and can spend much time, sometimes years, in brooding resentment and sulking in anger over the issue in question. In this scenario, while causing harm to others, the person he hurts most is himself.

In both this and the former type, we find negative aspects. If a person is often angered, even though they are able to calm down quickly,  there will be serious repercussions amongst those they are with on a regular basis. There are times that a show of anger is necessary and constructive; unrighteous anger, however, should be faced and overcome with persistent effort and determination.

He whom it is hard to anger and easy to pacify, is a chassid (righteous person).

A good and righteous person will not harbor any anger. He overlooks the common irritations  that may be insulting or anger-inducing. He has learned what is important and deserving of attention and what should be ignored and forgiven and forgotten. When a serious situation arises that may provoke him to anger, he strives to calm down as quickly as possible and to readily release any bitter remnants of rage or resentment.

Seldom does this ability to easily overcome what is believed to be righteous anger come naturally. It is an indication of a truly righteous person who has grown in maturity and who, in sincerity and humility, has worked to refine his character. He does so because he respects the value of all who are created in the image of God and, most importantly, he loves and honors God Himself.

 He whom it is easy to anger and hard to pacify is a wicked person.

Sometimes bouts of anger and a temper tantrum can be effective in making a person sound important and powerful; someone to be feared. One who is angered easily and often flies into a rage and, in addition, is reluctant to calm down and be pacified is defined as a wicked person. Anger, in general, has its roots in pride and self-importance. The angry person is not concerned with the harmful effect  their anger has on others, nor upon themselves. Worse yet, they show no concern for the Almighty Himself. The Sages say: “When any man gives way to rage, even the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, has no importance for him.” In addition, “Whoever is enraged, all kinds of hell have power over him.”** A wicked person allows the anger to possess and control him. Irving Bunim refers to the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel, who says: “If we but stopped a moment to observe what fury can do to a person, we would get far away from it. When a man is angry, he loses his taste for food and his understanding of the simplest things. Rage and hate will eat into his very bones until his life begins to be an abomination and he grows to hate himself. Shame will ever cover his face.”***

On an encouraging note, the medieval commentator Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach pointed out that negative character traits are not ‘set in stone,’ as it were, but rather are qualities that we have the power to improve.**** A person can be freed from anger, with the Almighty’s help and, with discipline and wisdom, can enjoy  a life of inner calm. The decision is ours to make.

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Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 66b and 113b

**Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 22b and 22a

***Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol 3, 151

****William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 167

 

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