Chapter 4: Self-mastery and self-discipline
“Who is mighty? One who conquers one’s passions, as it is said: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over one’s spirit is better than one who conquers a city” (Proverbs 16:32) –Ben Zoma, Pirke Avot 4:1
Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, and reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. -- Pirkei 2:20
The son of Hei Hei says: According to the exertion is the reward.-- Pirkei Avot 5:27
Judaism in general and the Talmud in particular place a high value on self-restraint, self-discipline, and diligent labor. The Rabbis are especially keen to mitigate (if not eliminate) the terribly destructive effects of unbridled anger. In Proverbs, we are taught that, “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Proverbs (Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 785). Indeed, Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff notes that erekh apayim--being slow to anger--is “one of the thirteen attributes of God...” (Avot . Toperoff, 1997, p. 280). Similarly, a real mensch does not explode at others or yield to rage.
The mensch is also expected to restrain and regulate other strong emotions or desires. In general, Judaism emphasizes redirecting rather than extirpating passions. Passion “…should be mastered, not destroyed.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 213). As Unterman puts it, “Instead of the extirpation of desire, Judaism demands a more complicated and problematical achievement--that man, by dint of his will, discipline his desire--that everything be held within proper limits by control and will power.” (Unterman, 1964, p. 214). Thus, “…sexuality…is not repressed or denied but is channeled positively within marriage.” (Katz & Schwartz, 1997, p.73). And even within marriage, Maimonides insists that a man should not “…be with his wife like a rooster” (Laws Concerning Character Traits; in Weiss & Butterworth, 1983, p. 42).
Anger, however, is dealt with somewhat ambivalently in the rabbinical tradition. The Vilna Gaon believed that anger “…must be totally eradicated, as it has almost no redeeming value.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 213). But the word “almost” is important here. Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah (Twersky, p. 54) describes anger as “an exceedingly bad passion, and one should avoid it to the last extreme.” And yet, even Rambam notes the occasional value of simulating anger, as when one wants to discipline one’s children--so long as one “does not really feel” anger. Thus, Maimonides seems to say that anger is not an inherently evil emotion; but rather, a passion to be bridled and mastered so that one doesn’t truly “feel” it. Notably, Pirkei Avot does not admonish us, “Never get angry!” Rather, Ben Zoma urges us to be “slow to anger”, and Rabbi Eliezer instructs us, “...do not anger easily...” (Pirke Avot 2:15). Indeed, Lieber wisely observes,
“It is really impossible never to get angry, so the mishnah (Pirke Avot ) instructs us not to anger easily. We must be level headed enough to assess whether the incident that sparked our anger is sufficient cause for an outburst. We should actively attempt to find reasons not to be angry.”
(Lieber, 1995, p. 106).
Even in those rare circumstances when it may be a mitzvah (commandment) to show anger—for example, when there is a public breach of the law—our expression of anger “…should be done like all other mitzvos—calmly and with much forethought.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 106). In short: the mensch has the complicated task of showing, at most, a kind of highly refined and nearly “rational” form of anger! This is clearly not an easy line to walk.
Michelle was an attractive, 38-year-old mother of two who had just been promoted at work. Having struggled for many years in “the boys’ club” world of a major
We have to give Michelle a great deal of credit for “ruling over her spirit”. Many women (and men) in a similar situation would have reacted with rage, insults, or maybe even the delivery of a smack in the face! Michelle resisted these understandable urges, and managed to keep her cool. At the same time, she was not passive or subservient to Mr. Forbes: she calmly and politely but assertively made her displeasure known to the boss.
In the Judaic tradition, anger is closely allied with pride or arrogance.
As Rabbis Byron L. Sherwin and Seymour J. Cohen put it, “Anger places the ego at the center, displacing God and others, and causing the alienation of relationships.” Sherwin and Cohen add, astutely, that “…the paradox of anger is that while focusing on the ego, it causes one to lose control of the self.” (Sherwin & Cohen, 2001, p. 84). We’ll say much more about pride and arrogance in Chapter 6.
On the other hand, we can learn a great deal about the person when he or she is angry. As a famous 15th century code of Jewish ethics puts it, “…When one is angry, one’s true nature can be recognized.” (from Orhot Zaddikim, cited in Sherwin & Cohen, p. 84). The true mensch is not necessarily a person who never gets angry—essentially the nature of a god or an automaton!—but rather, one who knows how to express and channel anger in a constructive manner, in order to correct some injustice. Indeed, as Sherwin and Cohen point out,
“Orhot Zaddikim also discusses a positive side to anger; i.e., anger is a necessary spur to survival, and…a necessary stimulus in confronting evil and evil people.” (Sherwin & Cohen, 2001, p. 252).
For example, Michelle might consider meeting with the other female partners of her firm, and organizing some kind of support group or committee to look into the issue of sexual harassment. Or, if Michelle wanted to confront Mr. Forbes’s boorish behavior more directly, she and her colleagues might arrange a meeting with him, in which they present their grievances as a group—or even consider suing him for sexual harassment. But clearly, the latter course carries with it substantial professional and personal risks.
The point is simply that anger is not to be suppressed or extirpated entirely in the face of injustice or evil; rather, it should serve as a finely-honed instrument to promote beneficial change. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) may have anticipated some of these Judaic ideas in his Nichomachean Ethics, when he said, “The good-tempered [person] is always angry under the right circumstances, with the right people, in the right manner and degree, at the right time, and for the right length of time." (Book IV, chapter 5).
Jim had come home late, after a rough day at the office. His wife, Karen, had also come home late from her nursing job at the pediatric intensive care unit. Both Jim and Karen were “stressed out” and emotionally exhausted. Neither had made any plans at all for dinner, and neither was in any mood to cook. Karen turned to Jim with a look of exasperation and snapped, “You don’t get it, do you? I have to deal with sick kids all day, and then I come home to find out that I’m supposed to cook dinner! That’s just plain selfish on your part! How about taking charge for once and picking up something on your way home, or even cooking us a meal, for godssake!” Jim felt hurt and angry upon hearing this diatribe from Karen, believing with some justice that he had been criticized unfairly: after all, he had not suggested that it was Karen’s job to cook dinner. But Jim also understood that Karen had been dealing all day with sick and perhaps dying children; that her job placed enormous demands upon her; and that she was entitled to “lose it a little” upon returning home and finding that neither of them had thought about dinner. Jim turned to Karen and said, “Hon, you’re right. I could have picked up something for us. I’m sorry, I just didn’t think of it. I know we’ve both had a rough day. How about if we just order a pizza now, or I can whip us up some eggs?”
A mensch not only controls his own anger, but also knows how to absorb or deflect anger expressed by others. In Proverbs, we are told, “A soft answer turns away anger.” (15:1). As Rabbi Lori Forman advises, “The next time you come up against anger, see if you can respond with a soft or gentle word to disarm its acceleration.” (Olitzky & Forman, p. 26). I think the Rabbis would conclude that, in this instance, Jim had responded like a mensch!
Incidentally, a recent study led by Dr. Jean-Philippe Gouin appearing in the December 19, 2007 issue of Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that healing of skin blisters (an index of immune system health) occurred more quickly in those who expressed anger calmly than in those who “flew off the handle”. As the BBC reported, “Whether one directed one's anger externally or internally proved to have no bearing on recovery - what was crucial was just how much control the individual was able to exert over their feelings.” (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7252415.stm).
Perhaps the Rabbis of the Talmudic era were ahead of our modern-day scientists?
Personal encounter: How Hillel Restrained His Anger
Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century BCE, was one of the greatest of the great Talmudic sages. He is perhaps best known for two teachings: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirke Avot ); and that famous formulation of the “Golden Rule”, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you…” (Shabbat 31a). There is a wonderful story in the Talmud concerning Hillel’s renowned powers of self-control in the face of provocation. As told by Steinsaltz (1997, pp. 8-9), we find Hillel the victim of a perverse wager: two men bet four hundred zuz (a large sum!) on whether either one of them can make Hillel angry. One of the men presents himself at Hillel’s home over and over again, asking what most of us would term, “ridiculous questions”—for example, “Why are the heads of Babylonians round?” and “Why are the eyes of the Palmyreans blearied?” Yet, time after time, Hillel does not berate the man or disparage his questions; instead, Hillel responds in each case, “My son, you have asked a great question!” Finally, the provocateur gives up. He tells Hillel, in effect, “I hope there aren’t many more of you in
Mitch had spent four years in his PhD program, and was “ABD” in the field of English Literature: “All But Dissertation”. Unfortunately, Mitch was having constant disagreements with his dissertation supervisor. The supervisor kept insisting on changes in Mitch’s arguments, but no matter what Mitch did, his supervisor never seemed to be satisfied. This was taking a toll on both Mitch and his fiancée, who complained that Mitch “was falling apart under the pressure.” Mitch began to drink increasing amounts of wine, and would find excuse after excuse for avoiding work on his thesis. When his fiancée confronted Mitch on these behaviors, he replied, “I just don’t have time to get the work done. There are too many distractions. And besides, no matter what I do, this clown is never satisfied!” Mitch began to sleep in until late in the afternoon, and spent more and more time wandering around a near-by shopping mall. His explanation was, “There’s a bookstore I go to just to clear my head. It’s important that I approach my work feeling refreshed.”
Many of us who have experienced pressure and frustration in an academic or business setting will sympathize with Mitch—who wouldn’t be driven to distraction, given a supervisor who is always criticizing, and a task that seems insurmountable? Yet the Talmud tells us that a real mensch must find the self-discipline and “stick-to-itiveness” to get back to work.
At the beginning of this chapter, we quoted Rabbi Tarfon to the effect that, “The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, and reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.” (Pirke Avot 2:20). What did Rabbi Tarfon mean by that? God, of course, is the “Master” for whom we are—or should be!—working. But as human beings, we tend to get lazy, despite the potential rewards that come from spiritual growth. Especially when faced with a complex or frustrating task, we tend to react like Mitch: we avoid, we rationalize, and we find a multitude of unhealthy distractions. This is not the way of the mensch, of course!
The foundational text for the teaching of Pirke Avot 2:20 may be found in Proverbs 6.6-11:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer, and gathers her sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” (OAB, p. 775).
Lieber notes that “…one should not waste a moment of the precious few years…granted in this world. Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather treasure; once the time is up… [we] can no longer earn anything.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 124). On the other hand, if we are good stewards of our time, we will find ways to gather spiritual treasure. As Toperoff remarks, “if we divided our days into well defined compartments, we should find ample time to satisfy all our needs, material and spiritual.” (Toperoff, 1997, p. 130).
The role of study in the Judaic tradition can hardly be stressed enough. The Talmud tells us that, “in the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment…”, one of the questions the person is asked is, “Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a; cited in Telushkin, 1994, p. 3). On the other hand, the Rabbis did not intend us only to study. They knew that we must earn a living, and encouraged the acquisition of some practical skill. The mensch must strike a balance between the active and the contemplative life. Thus, in Pirke Avot (2:2), Rabban Gamliel tells us:
“The study of Torah combined with an occupation is an excellent thing, for the exertion demanded by both together causes sin to be forgotten, while any Torah study without work ultimately fails and causes sin.”
The lesson for the mensch is to avoid becoming what in Yiddish is known as a luftmensch. This is usually defined as “…a person who has no profession, trade…or any visible means of support…” (Steinmetz, 2005, p. 100). (The reader will recall our description of Morty, the schnorrer!). The term luftmensch also carries the connotation of someone who is impractical, quixotic, or “spacey”. In contrast, the idea of self-discipline in Judaism entails productive labor.
Furthermore, study without ethical action is not praised by the Rabbis. As Borowitz and Schwartz make clear, “Torah is doing.” Indeed, “…a man who has no good deeds to his credit, though he has studied Torah, is like one who builds a structure and lays down a foundation of clay bricks and puts the stones above that. Then even a little water will undermine the building.” (Elisha ben Abuyah in Avot de Rabbi Natan, 24, cited in Borowitz & Schwartz, 1999, pp. 257-58 ). In essence, if we do not transform study of Torah into practice of its commandments, our spiritual “home” will ultimately be washed away. We will have much more to say about study and the mensch’s responsibility to acquire wisdom in Chapter 18 [Acquiring Knowledge and Wisdom].
Personal encounter: Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) and the Idea of Self-Discipline
Maimonides (1135-1204) must have been one of the most self-disciplined individuals in the history of Judaic scholarship. Imagine spending your adult life fleeing persecution in your native country; working as a physician in an alien culture; dealing with the death of your beloved sibling while supporting your family; and all the while producing the most voluminous and influential corpus of Jewish philosophy in all of the Middle Ages! As the great Maimonides scholar Isadore Twersky put it,
“ Maimonides’ life was a mosaic of anxiety, tribulation, and, at best, incredibly strenuous work and intellectual exertion.” (Twersky, 1972, p. 1)
Maimonides understood self-discipline primarily as a “cognitive-behavioral” skill. Indeed, in many ways, Maimonides was the “father” of our modern field of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT (Pies, 1997). Here is what Maimonides has to say about self-discipline:
"The more mental training man has, the less affected he will be by luck or misfortune. He will not get excited over a very fortunate event and will not exaggerate its value. Likewise, if one meets disaster, he will not be disturbed and aggrieved, but will bear it valiantly." (Minkin, 1987, p. 389).
Furthermore, according to Maimonides, we acquire healthy, balanced dispositions or character traits only by constant practice of “the middle way”:
“Let him practice again and again the actions prompted by those dispositions which are the mean between the extremes and repeat them continually until they become easy and...no longer irksome...whoever walks in this way secures for himself happiness and blessing...” (Kranzler, 1993, p. 54)
At times, Maimonides can seem unduly “stoical” or even unfeeling in his austere beliefs. Yet I believe that much of his philosophy of self-control developed in reaction to the death of his beloved brother, David, who was lost at sea. It was a blow from which Maimonides may never have recovered fully—but his philosophy of self-mastery is still well worth emulating. We will say much more about moderation and “the middle way” in chapter 5.