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Character Development

Overcoming Negative Traits - Distance Yourself from Anger

Where should one begin the task of overcoming negative traits? Rabbi Zamir Cohen explains how to repair our character traits by following the route laid down by our Sages

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Distance Yourself from Anger

The Ramban opens his legendary letter with words of affectionate encouragement, the same words used by Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei (1;8) as he administered the reproof – “Shema beni mussar avicha, veal titosh toras imecha” — Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and don’t forsake your mother’s teaching.

The Ramban then progresses directly to practical guidance. “Accustom yourself to always talking calmly, to every person, at all times — and this way you shall save yourself from anger, for it is a serious character flaw which causes people to sin. As our Sages, z”l, have said: ‘He who angers is ruled by all manners of Gehinnom’. And once you have saved yourself from anger, the trait of humility shall enter your heart, which is the finest trait of all admirable traits.”

When a person approaches the task of overcoming his negative traits with joy, enthusiasm and a genuine desire to achieve perfection and a healthy balance — he often grapples with the question: Where should I start? There are so many traits I could work upon: pride, anger, hatred, lust, honor, laziness, etc. Which one should I focus on first?

The first step, says the Ramban, as we strive to acquire good middos, is to distance ourselves from anger. The Ramban also hands us some practical advice on how to reach this goal: “Accustom yourself to always talking gently, to every person, at all times.” 

This is a succinct sentence that covers so much!

One should become accustomed to always talking gently: “to every person” — husband or wife, child, neighbour, employer, employee — in fact anyone one talks to!

“…at all times,” —any time. Don’t excuse your behaviour by saying that you are usually careful not to anger, or that “I only get angry when someone makes me angry…”. Our challenge lies in talking gently even when being provoked — that is the only opportunity we get to truly work on one’s anger.

By doing so, says the Ramban: “…you shall be saved from anger,” —  anger is like an enemy one needs to be saved from!

And why must we eradicate this particular character trait before all others? “…for it is a serious character flaw that causes people to sin. As our Sages, z”l, have said: ‘He who angers is ruled by all manners of Gehinnom’. All manners of destruction, troubles, diseases, and damage result from anger, to the extent that man is ruled by them.

And because “one’s heart is drawn after one’s actions”, as written in Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 16), the human heart adapts itself to man’s customary way of behaving. This is the reason why it is imperative for man to accustom himself to talking gently!

There are people who have become used to getting worked up and angry over every little thing. When they get angry, it almost as if a thick black screen obscures their vision and they can’t see anything else. In their fury, they might blurt out inappropriate words, destroy objects, and cause devastating ruin. Regret soon follows. But it is often too late. What was done, was done. The scars remain, and the dreadful consequences are painful to bear.

If, however, these people had accustomed themselves to talking gently before they found themselves facing the challenge that led them to anger, it would have been far easier for them to withstand their trial with equanimity, and to refrain from getting overwhelmed by anger. For, once a person habituates himself to talk calmly — to all people, at all times — he becomes a calmer person in the way he conducts himself. He influences his inner character in a positive way.

Thus, even when certain frustrations might gnaw at him from within, his external façade exerts itself over his internal landscape. He will manage to continue talking with composure until he feels that he has gained complete control over his frustrations. He will then continue with his calm attempts to problem-solve though respectful dialogue.

Alternatively, if the situation is irreversible, he may even decide to accept the status quo, through observing and understanding that everything is for the best. With the passage of time he will realize, to his great joy, that any anger he may have felt would have been totally unnecessary, and he is far better off for not having lost his composure.

Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English