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sermon: Yom Kippur, 5780

From Anger to Action, by Rabbi Lisa Delson

But what I’m asking us to see on this day of reckoning with our emotions, is that anger moves toward action. When we act that gives us hope that it might change in the future.

In front of the open ark we hear the words Adonai, Adonai, el rachum, v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed l’alafim….. Known in English, as the 13 attributes of God, they say, “Adonai, Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exodus 34:6) When chanting these words, we learn about God through these attributes AND we are supposed to model our lives based on them as well.

But, what if we can’t do that? What if we don’t feel merciful or haven’t acted with lovingkindness, were not slow to anger? What do we do with our anger?

It seems that people are angry in 2019. I know I am. I am angry, mad, and fed up. There is a feeling of being unsettled because there is a lot that is dangerously out of the norm right now. This anger operates on two levels, personally and societally.

In 2019, we were barraged with words like these from at 12 year old immigrant boy at the Clint Migrant Detention center in Texas, “I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” (1)

I’m angry that our country, once known as a safe-haven for the weary and down-trodden, is a place of torment for immigrant families and children.

We need a full remodeling of our national immigration policy, one that will include widely differing perspectives, but the starving of children and the separation of families is beyond the pale.

As a woman, I am still angry about #metoo, after another year. It seemed as if there was going to be a sea-change. And, while we have made some strides, there is still a long way to go.

On a personal level, this past May, I attended the Consultation on Conscience in Washington DC with other Reform Jews concerned with social justice. After an uplifting morning of speakers and feeling powerful
we were on our way to meet with Senator Feinstein’s office. On the way there, I was walking next to a man from a Reform congregation elsewhere in California and he asked, “Who is leading this group?” I said, “I am, I’m one of the rabbis.” Slightly confused he looked at me and said, “You are one of the rabbis? Where is your beard?” Where’s my beard? Come on man. That comment should never be made in our age or perhaps ever.
Reminding me that, to some, women will always be seen as less-than as rabbis because of our gender. That’s personal.

Societally, we continue to witness the silencing of women’s voices who have come forward with accusations of sexual harassment. One example was during the hearings of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In that hearing, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford decided to come forward and share her personal experience of torment that she had kept hidden for many years out of fear and shame with a man who would become a Supreme Court Justice. There are some who thought things were going to be different. That what happened to Anita Hill in the 90s couldn’t possibly happen again. Throughout the hearings, her stories were discounted and she was silenced. It made many people angry.

Personally and societally, the same day my son started kindergarten, I watched a safety video at PTS for the Big 5 Protocols for San Mateo Country of children play-acting barricading their classroom while a gunman entered their school. Why should my 6 year-old have to practice hiding in his classroom for fear of being shot? Anger brought tears to my eyes that day. Not tears of fear but desperation because guns are so easily obtained and schools are a target.

It’s not only the young children, our Burlingame High School students recently had to endure anti-semtitc, homophobic, and racist vandalism
with the intent to terrorize communities, like ours, on the walls of their school just a few weeks ago. I’m angry that they have to spend their time wondering if those who wrote the graffiti aimed it at them.

To all of our middle school and high school students in the congregation this morning, know that this is a safe space. A place where we, your clergy, are angry along with you and will do what we can to help the school districts deal with this in a meaningful way.

The environment is also a flashpoint of anger in 2019. For 30 years we have been hearing that the ice caps are melting, the seas will rise, and that the weather will become more extreme. Now we are feeling the effects.

The anger shouted by our young people during the Climate Strike on September 20th was palpable. We are angry that earth science has become political and the calls for change are falling on deaf ears.

What might have passed for sadness or frustration in the past has moved to the anger category because these issues seem intractable. Our world has changed. This is not only a personal anger, this is communal and deep.

What are we supposed to do with this anger at the High Holy Days,
a time of year when we explore our actions and our feelings?

Jewish tradition actually has a lot to say about anger. As you might imagine there are texts like these, “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools!”(2) Proverbs says, “Better to be slow to anger than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city.(3) The Ethics of our Fathers – Pirke Avot says, “Calm, persevering patience is generally a virtue, but especially so for Torah study, for anger causes errors in judgment and leads one to forget one’s learning.”(4) These texts echo the 13 Attributes of God that we chant in front of the ark, however those attributes do not deny that God gets angry, just that God is slow to anger.

However, even Maimonides teaches that one should choose the middle path between being hot-tempered and being like a corpse with no feeling at all. He continues by saying that one should get “angry only for a grave cause that rightly calls for indignation, in order to prevent anything similar from occurring again.”(5) Maimonides is taking into account when something is egregious that we should take action.

On this Yom Kippur, let us not fear our anger. Dr. Karen Habib in her book The Positive Power of Anger says, “As humans, we’re all going to feel angry from time to time. Avoiding it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, is destructive.”(6)

Let our anger help us see injustices in the world. When we deny ourselves the experience of anger, we are denying a part of ourselves. Our anger helps us see injustice.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words,“Like the spark that ignites the fuel in an engine, anger is the stimulus that initiates action.”
It is something that we should harness for its inventive and generative power. Anger has the ability to help us make change.

Of the 63 tractates of the Talmud, little space is given to the experience of women from a woman’s perspective. Even though there is much written about women’s bodies and statuses, very little is written from our perspective. I would like to share one story that actually quotes a woman named Yalta who has the chance to have emotions about the world around her.

I learned the following text from one of my HUC professors, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi. (7) Here is my telling of it. A man named Ullah, was well-known and frequent traveler back and forth from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia. Back and forth each time, he brought rabbinic teachings and a healthy portion of rabbinic gossip.

One time he was invited to a dinner party of Rav Nachman and his wife, Yalta. Dinner went on for hours, the conversation was lively, and everyone had their fill of food and drink.

As the evening was winding down, it was time to say Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal followed by another cup of wine. The men at the table passed the cup from one hand to the next to the next until, finally, it reached Yalta. Ullah, the guest says, “she doesn’t get any.” Rav Nachman, Yalta’s husband, says to Ullah, “Don’t you think you could give her a sip?”

Ullah declined. Instead, he offered a teaching in the name of another rabbi, basically saying that women are not able to drink from the cup of blessing because her husband has taken care of it for her. She is just an extension of her husband. Red-in-the-face, Yalta heard this teaching and stormed off in anger. She ran down to the wine cellar and smashed 400 barrels of her own wine!

Upon hearing the ruckus, Rav Nahman, Yalta’s husband, tries again to get his guest to share the cup with his wife. Ultimately, Ullah complies and “sends her the message: All of this is blessed wine (nivga).”

Yalta offers a rabbinic-era burn that involves beggars, rags, and lice that basically says too little, too late. Her anger is not abated by offering her the cup. There was no apology just a man who was called out by an observer and strong armed into changing his story.

You might be asking yourself, what change did Yalta actually make with her scene in the wine cellar? Just by the fact that her voice was recorded in the Talmud is an act of change. It helps us to know that a Jewish woman in Talmudic times refused to agree to being so disrespected. The rabbis did not need to include this. However, the place for women’s anger whether in the Talmud or in contemporary life is still up for debate.

Rebecca Traister, in her book called Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (8), makes the case that women’s anger is not acceptable in modern society. Women are expected to either stay silent about the things that anger them or have to couch it in how it affects their family. When women do express real, unadulterated rage, they are either ignored, or considered crazy, or worse. This is anger-producing because women are held to a different standard than men when it comes to the ability to express anger.

When men get angry they are applauded, when women are angry they are disparaged. When reading Yalta’s story, we must grapple with whether her action of smashing the bottles would have been as poignant if it were a man or if we find it so radical because she was a woman.

This past year, our PTS staff and clergy joined with all of the other Jewish organizations around the Bay Area to discuss workplace sexual harassment and bullying. The conference began with first-hand accounts of this transgression in the Jewish community. Our first step was to listen to the painful personal stories and then collectively admit what happened in our community. We heard how the anger, hurt, and fear of a few women
led to big changes in how Jewish organizations acknowledge and react to accusations of misconduct.

Without their anger, we, as a Jewish community would still be covering up
and moving around perpetrators just because they were big donors or legacy employees. Instead, as a community we have made a commitment to believing women and their stories of inequality and harassment. This has led to a big change.

In our own congregation, last spring we held a round of house meetings to hear the stories of our congregants. What was keeping you up at night?
What are the issues of the world that make you angry? After 14 house meetings we learned that there are quite a few issues that are on the hearts and minds of our congregation.

Top of the list were three problems – bias and anti-semitism, lack of affordable housing, and immigrant injustice. Each one of these problems stems from a sense of anger, seeing injustices in our own community and in others. We are currently conducting research meetings to learn from other non-profits and professionals who are already working in these areas.
You might be interested to know, based off of those house meetings and these research meetings, we are actively seeking out a campaign either on housing, immigration, or bias, that can engage our entire congregant population. If your personal anger is at a point of wanting to create change, Come talk to me after or send me an email.

Alone as individuals, we cannot make change in these areas,
but together, we can.

The issues of our world seem so big.
It feels like all we have is anger at the big issues facing our country and our community. But what I’m asking us to see on this day of reckoning with our emotions, is that anger moves toward action. When we act that gives us hope that it might change in the future.

On this Yom Kippur, let us not be afraid of our personal and communal anger. Let it propel us to action. This is bottle smashing of another sort.

G’mar Chatima Tova

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(1)  For These Things Do I Weep; Multifaith Lament on Immigrants and Refugees Sunday, August 11, 2019

(2) Ecclesiastes 7:9

(3) Proverbs 16:32

(4) The Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.416

(5) Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot  [Human Dispositions] Chapter 1:4

(6) THE POSITIVE POWER OF ANGER by Karen Habib PhD – January 14, 2014

(7) https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jsUrCXd9VnCxLc–A9OBLUy4cQNgxPxJbCuZoN70UJI/edit

(8) Traister, Rebecca; Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Simon & Schuster, 2018.