from the heart of jerusalem

Stifling angry speech: Better to be quiet than sorry


Anger is one of life’s greatest challenges. Who can resist and overcome its formidable temptations?

There is a fascinating moment in this week’s parsha of Vayishlach that demonstrates this point:

After the death of Yaakov’s beloved wife Rachel (Bereishit 35:19) the Torah tells us that “Reuven went and bedded (vayishkav et) Bilhah, the handmaiden of his father, and Yisrael (Yaakov) heard; and the sons of Yaakov were 12.”

Although the verse seems to imply that Yaakov’s eldest son Reuven actually slept with his father’s concubine, the Talmud (Shabbat 55b) suggests otherwise:

“R. Samuel b. Nachman said in R. Jonathan’s name: ‘Whoever maintains that Reuven sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, “Now the sons of Yaakov were 12,” teaching that they were all equal.’ Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine? This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch, and the verse blames him as though he had lain with her.”

Whatever happened in that moment, it is clear that Reuven crossed a line and did something terrible. In fact, many years later, on his deathbed, Yaakov seems to recall this moment and takes Reuven to task for it:

“Reuben, you are my first-born. … Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer. For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought…” (ibid. 49:3-4)

Yet in the actual moment we see no such response from Yaakov and a close look at the verse in question suggests something is not quite right. The verse in Hebrew has a fascinating rare occurrence — a particular scribal phenomenon known as a “piska be’emtsa passuk” (a break in the middle of a verse). Grammatically the verse makes no sense, telling us that Israel heard and then seemingly changing the subject to exclaim that the sons of Yaakov were 12, a fact we already know, which seems to have no connection to the first part of the verse.

I once heard from Rav Riskin in the name of Rav Soleveitchik that Yaakov understood here that he had to remain silent; even if what Reuven did was “only” to switch the bed of his father and move it into the tent of his mother Leah out of a love for and sensitivity to the distress and pain of his mother, it was still a highly inappropriate thing to do.

Yaakov, suggests Rav Soleveitchik, understood he was at a critical juncture in his relationship with Reuven. And that is why the verse continues by saying that the sons of Yaakov were 12 — because an angry word might have alienated Reuven forever. And because Yaakov, in his righteous anger, succeeded in remaining silent, Reuven remained in the fold and Yaakov had all his 12 sons with him the next day.

It is interesting to note, in support of this idea that there is an interplay between the two names of the patriarch, Yaakov and Yisrael. Yisrael (ibid. 32:29) is the second name given to Yaakov when he succeeds in his great midnight battle. This name represents the victory of a struggle. The name Yaakov however, a name given because Yaakov was born holding the heel (the akev) of Esau (ibid 25:26) represents a life of great struggle. And although the verse begins using the name Yisrael (as Yaakov is finally living in peace in the land) it concludes with the name Yaakov — “the sons of Yaakov were 12” — indicating a great struggle.

In the face of such a painful distressing and inappropriate moment, perpetrated by his eldest son no less, how did Yaakov control his anger? Simply put, he remained silent

It is a great life lesson to understand that words spoken in anger never come out right. No matter how right a person may be, if they react in anger they will always realize later on that they could have done a better job communicating.

Indeed Rambam, the great advocate of the balanced approach to life (see Hilchot Deot, the laws of character development, chapter 1), has an interesting take on anger.

Despite pointing out in chapter one that the ideal in Judaism is to lead a balanced life midway between the extremes of any character trait, when it comes to anger (2:3) Rambam suggests it is an extremely negative character trait which a person should always avoid. Indeed, even in a rare occurrence when anger might be appear to be a worthwhile tool to prevent an event from recurring (1:4; 2:3), he suggests that a person should feign anger while internally maintaining a balanced composure. Because one cannot be balanced and angry at the same time, anger is by definition an imbalanced state of mind. 

So what should one do when feeling anger? Quite simply, one should be quiet.

A person will almost always regret what he or she says in anger. When thinking about it later, one usually will realize they could have done a better job; so the smartest thing to do when angry is simply to keep quiet.

And that is precisely what Yaakov does — he remains silent, with no words causing irreparable damage. And thus Reuven remains in the family.

And what does one do in that state of silence? What thoughts would be worthwhile to have when in a state of anger?.

Well, anger is really all about expectations. We get angry because we expect a better outcome, which most often, even if subconsciously, means we think we deserve better. But if we accept that Hashem runs the world, we would spend less time in a state of anger over what happened, and more time in a state of soul-searching as to why it happened and what Hashem was trying to teach us, which of course would leave much less room for anger.

This, as the Torah intimates here, would result in our being much more together, and “the children of Israel would be 12,” with all of us together at the table.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.