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Parshas Shoftim: Of Feelings and Fugitives

When considering the manifold ways in which Torah and psychology intersect, an obvious area of exploration is that of the Torah’s commentary on human emotions. As we’ve discussed in various places, Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not shy away, so to speak, from addressing our feelings; in fact, the Mitzvos frequently reflect our nuanced psychological wiring, and even go so far as to command or make demands of our emotions.

One such example of the Torah’s implicit understanding of human emotions is found in our Parsha. Parshas Shoftim (19:1-10) outlines a strange set of laws pertaining to one who murders his fellow Jew accidentally. For this tragic circumstance, Moshe prepares the Jewish people by commanding them to set up Arei Miklat, cities of refuge, three in each Nachalah, to which murderers can run to escape the vengeance of their victim’s family. The Pasuk notes that the reason for the Arei Miklat is to protect the person who committed the murder from being killed himself, “pen yirdof goel hadam acharei harotzeach,” lest the relative of the victim go after the murderer, “ki yeicham livavo,” because his heart is heated.

Reading these Pesukim, it is fascinating to note that we dedicate a sizeable portion of our Torah laws to those pertaining to the Arei Miklat. Rashi (19:3) even notes that in addition to setting aside these cities in each Shevet’s portion of land, part of the Mitzvah included putting up multiple signs pointing out the city of refuge. It seems as though we are inordinately preoccupied with protecting murderers! What can we learn from the emphasis placed on the Arei Miklat?

The purpose of the Arei Miklat is to protect those who murdered another Jew by accident from being killed not because a Beis Din found them guilty of murder or negligence, but due to the murderous rage of the Goel HaDam. The Pasuk’s use of the term “ki yeicham livavo” is in essence a euphemistic way of describing the vengeful anger that we expect the Goel Hadam to feel in response to learning about his loved one’s tragic death. The laws of the Arei Miklat illustrate that Hakadosh Baruch Hu understands anger to be an expected response to such circumstances.

When discussing anger, I cannot help but think of Rambam’s approach to Middos and, consequently, to the emotional experiences that underly them. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 1-2) explains that there is a spectrum of human experiences, temperaments, feelings, and desires, and we tend toward the extreme when it comes to our dispositions. Rambam posits that in almost all cases, it is important to embrace what he calls the “Shvil HaZahav,” or the golden mean, which perhaps we might call in DBT terms “the middle path” when it comes to Middos, being careful not to veer too far to one end of the spectrum with any feeling or character trait.

For example, if our Middas HaChesed, perhaps driven by emotions such as love, compassion, empathy, or joy, is too powerful, we can end up blurring boundaries and making grave interpersonal errors. At the same time, we cannot be too rigid with our boundaries, for that might render us vulnerable to becoming apathetic, or even cruel. Thus, the Shvil HaZahav is the synthesis between Chesed and Gevurah, generosity and compassion balanced with boundaries and self-control.

There is, however, one Middah and one emotion for which Rambam proposes there is no middle path, and that is Gaavah, haughtiness, and anger. The Rambam teaches that one should train oneself not to get angry and cites Chazal (Nedarim 22b) who equate anger to worshipping Avodah Zarah.

The connection, of course, between anger and Gaavah is that both are traits that remove G-d from the equation. When we get angry, it is often because we feel that our agenda is being disrupted, and this derives from a sense that we are actually in control, when in fact we are not. Similarly, haughtiness is a matter of thinking ourselves bigger than we actually are. In neither case, explains Rambam, is there room for a middle path.

What, then, can we make of the laws of Ir Miklat, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s obvious recognition and perhaps even acceptance of anger as a natural, expected reaction of the Goel Hadam? Is anger an acceptable trait or emotional response, or not?

To better answer this question, I turn once again to the wise words of Viktor Frankl, “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” When something devastating, tragic, even unspeakable, happens to us, we may have all sorts of reactions that others may deem unacceptable or abnormal. We may retreat inward or lash out, grieve and suffer silently or rage openly. This is certainly true when it comes to murder and tragedy and can also be understandable in similarly life-altering, traumatic and painful circumstances.

In DBT terms, there is a concept that “everything is as it should be,” that all the circumstances of one’s life, including our biological wiring, our upbringing and early experiences, and the habitual responses we’ve formed to keep ourselves afloat in life bring us to where we are, even if there are problems in that place, chinks in the carefully crafted armor of how we survive. I once heard a fascinating take on this idea by Rabbi Dr. Scott Friedman, psychologist and head of school of Ohr Yisrael in New Jersey, who was interviewed on the Consciously podcast by therapist Menachem Poznanski. R’ Friedman posits that like the binary of normal and abnormal, the terms “healthy” and “unhealthy” are similarly misleading. While there may be a point at which certain feelings and behaviors cease to be helpful and instead become harmful, a person’s response to his life circumstances is typically protective, even life-preserving, at some point in time. As such, there is room to say that even behaviors that become destructive may be “healthy” for someone who has until now found these coping mechanisms useful for survival.

Anger may be highly destructive. It is, as Rambam writes, important for us to curb it, manage it, even seek to quell it, in most cases. And, anger – even rage – may at times fit the facts of our circumstances, and may be a seemingly abnormal response to an abnormal set of circumstances, rendering it actually quite normal. When understanding Rambam’s view on anger, for which he seems to say there is a zero-tolerance policy, in the context of the Goel Hadam’s murderous rage, it is imperative that we be able to think dialectically. On the one hand, Hakadosh Baruch Hu understands that sometimes, anger fits the facts. When the ‘natural order of things,’ the mask Hashem wears in this world, is disrupted in such a devastating and catastrophic way, we are not expected to automatically react with acceptance. In fact, the Rambam writes that those who succeed in fully eliminating anger are true Tzadikim; as such, for most of us, we might strive to manage our anger, but we are fully expected to feel it, at least at first. The goal, however, is that we try not to be hijacked by anger, particularly when it comes to the more mundane minutiae of everyday life. Insofar as we are able, we are asked to keep G-d in the equation, to remember that our control is quite limited.

The main thing that the Ir Miklat accomplishes is that it buys time. Primarily, it buys time for the fugitive to seek refuge and safety to await formal trial, but perhaps it also allows for the anger of the Goel HaDam to subside. In that time, he can contemplate and reflect, seek guidance and comfort, and perhaps find ways to decrease his urge for revenge, channeling it instead toward seeking justice through more appropriate avenues. Sometimes, even our most heightened, frightening emotions are a normal response to an abnormal situation, and we must allow for them, leave space for them, and even embrace them. And, we must also be careful to keep Hakadosh Baruch Hu in the picture. With time, with contemplation, and with effortful steps to connect with Hashem through our pain, anger can subside.

This week, let us consider where we are struggling with anger. Though there may not be a Shvil Hazahav to seek when it comes to anger, there also is hope and a path to follow if we are looking to manage our anger better. Sometimes, anger is justifiable. At the same time, we can still lean into our Bitachon and manage our anger so that it does not blind us completely. If we allow space in our hearts and our consciousness for both of these truths, perhaps then we can fulfill what the Rambam says and accept hardships with love and even joy.

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