Jerry Hahn told me that when Adlai Stevenson was campaigning for president in 1952, someone jumped up in the middle of his speech and said: “Anyone who is smart will vote for you for president, Adlai!” And, Stevenson, immediately shot back: “That’s not enough. We need a majority.”
That comment sums up this year’s election campaign. Imagine the following dilemma. You have one candidate who publicly demeans women. But, he supports Planned Parenthood. Then you have another candidate who is polite to women, but supports policies that would endanger the health of women. Whom would you vote for?
Life is complicated. And, moral choices are complicated. What worries me about this election is the growing tendency to un-complicate life. What we keep hearing from all the pundits is that what is driving this election campaign more than anything else is anger. Voters on the right are angry, so they’re voting for Donald Trump. Voters on the left are angry, so they’re voting for Bernie Sanders.
Everyone is angry. And everyone is reveling in their anger. It kind makes me angry. I don’t know why we are so tolerant of this anger. Anger is a notoriously uncomplicated emotion. And, it worries me that we could make a decision that could affect the whole world on the basis of anger.
In today’s parasha, the Torah tells us: lo t’vaaru esh b’chol moshvoteichem b’yom ha’shabbat. Do not burn a fire in all your dwellings on Shabbat. That’s why we light candles at the beginning of Shabbat, because we’re forbidden to create fire on Shabbat.
But a Hasidic commentator interprets the verse metaphorically. ‘Fire,’ he says, ‘represents anger. On Shabbat, we have to put away our anger. Shabbat is a day to forgive and forget. Shabbat is a day to put away our resentments and our petty squabbles and love each other.’
The implication is that anger is OK after Shabbat. And, that actually make sense. At the end of Shabbat, we light a bold flame for Havdalah. And, that flame symbolizes our creative power. And, anger is a useful tool in creating the new. Anger motivates us to want to change things. There are things which should make us angry. We get angry at our children sometimes. It’s a sign that we care. God gets angry when humanity is filled with violence in the age of Noah. God gets angry at the people of Sodom when they abuse the stranger. Moses gets angry at the Jewish people when we worshipped the Golden Calf. His anger helped bring us to our senses.
So, Judaism doesn’t reject anger as a tool for human change. But, it’s a tool that must be used very sparingly. And, the Bible tells us why. The quintessential angry man of the Bible was the prophet Jonah. God commanded Jonah to go to the city of Ninveh and demand that they repent their evil ways or God would destroy the city.
And, Jonah didn’t want to go. He ran away. When, under pressure, Jonah finally did go, the people of Ninveh repented, and God forgave them. And, that made Jonah very angry. Jonah thought that evil people should be punished, not forgiven.
So, God caused a plant to grow up and shield Jonah from the hot sun. Then God brought a worm to eat up the plant and Jonah was upset again. And, God turns to Jonah and says: ‘ha’heiteiv chara lecha’ – what are you so angry about? Do you really have a right to be angry? You had compassion for this little plant that was born yesterday and died yesterday. And, you expect me not to have compassion for a city of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children?
In other words, anger is a narcissistic emotion. When we are filled with righteous indignation, we divide the world into good and evil. We are good and the other side is evil. There are no moral dilemmas when we are angry. We don’t have to struggle between two difficult choices. We don’t have to think very hard. Anger is simple and pure and that’s why it’s so satisfying. And, that’s also why it’s so dangerous.
The left and the right can’t possibly be angry at the same thing. But, we have found common ground in our belief that we are entitled to our righteous anger. And it is an entitlement. It is an indulgence. But, as David Brooks wrote recently, that sense of entitlement is alien to democracy. Democracy is about moral humility and compromise.
In our tradition we call the democratic process ‘machloket l’shem shamayim’/an argument for the sake of heaven. An argument for the sake of heaven is a debate in which both sides have respect for the other as human beings. Both sides believe the other side is sincere in their pursuit of the right way. There is a willingness on both sides to see some validity in their opponent’s arguments. There is passion, but not hatred. There is no contempt. And, there is certainly no violence.
It is stunning to me that we could have a presidential nominee who embodies the polar opposite of these democratic principles. The politics of Donald Trump is the politics of contempt and ridicule. He told Carly Fiorina she had an ugly face. He made fun of Hillary Clinton for going to the bathroom in the middle of a debate. He lashed out at Meghan Kelly with a crude remark about her time of the month. He encourages his followers to look at political opponents with abject contempt bordering on hatred. And, as David Brooks, notes, there is a whiff of violence. He talks about wanting to smash people in the mouth who don’t agree with him.
That’s a scary thing in a democratic society. But, Trump is only the latest manifestation of the politics of anger. The Tea Party has repeatedly rejected the very idea of compromise, because if America is made up of good guys and bad guys, it’s a sellout to compromise with the bad guys.
And, this culture has affected the Jewish community. I have heard Jews who I otherwise respect as generally intelligent and moderate people refer to President Obama, whose closest associates are Jews as evil and an anti-semite. Recently, I’ve heard Jews refer to Hillary Clinton as evil and an anti-semite. Really? Hillary Clinton an anti-semite? We’ve really lowered the bar on what you have to do to get into that club.
But, this is what happens when righteous anger becomes the primary way we have conversations about moral issues. And, it’s not limited to one side of the political spectrum. Simone Zimmerman wrote in Haaretz this past week that her generation, millennials, are angry with Israel. Why are they angry? She writes: “We need for the community to stop willfully blinding itself to the disastrous reality of holding millions of Palestinians under military occupation – No public relations trick can save Israel’s reputation – the problem is rampant racism in Israeli society.”
Really? Rampant racism? Where do you see that? Holding millions of Palestinians under military occupation? Is it really that simple? Do the Israelis get up in the morning and say to themselves, “let’s see how we can make the lives of the Palestinians more miserable? If Israel withdrew from the West Bank tomorrow, would Hamas stop murdering homosexuals? Would Hezbollah send Israel a box of chocolates?
So many people are angry with Israel. All of Europe is angry with Israel. Jewish studies programs on college campuses are helping the BDS movement. Why is everyone so angry? As God said to Jonah, ‘ha’heiteiv chara lecha/do you really have a right to be angry?
No one knows what to do about Syria. That is complicated. No one knows what to do about the refugees. Europeans are already closing their doors. Because it’s complicated. But, Israel is simple. Israel is black and white. Israeli is an occupier and everyone else around Israel are righteous saints.
Anger is an overrated emotion. Being angry makes you feel right, but that is not the same as being right. That’s why our holiest day, Shabbat, is supposed to be a day without anger. That’s why Moses had to hang up his spikes when his anger got the better of him.
That’s why after killing the Egyptian, Moses goes out the next day to break up a fight between two Jews, and the aggressor says to Moses: ha’lehargeini ata omeir, kaasher haragta et ha’mitzri/are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian? That’s why Moses’s greatest moments as a leader are when he restrains God’s anger and persuades God to use words and not violence to effect change in the Jewish people.
My wife has a saying: You can be right. Or, you can be happy. Right now, a lot of people in our country are choosing the smug self-satisfaction of being right.
But, it’s not too late to choose ‘happy.’