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Anger is Contagious Like the Flu, How Can You Inoculate Yourself and Your Family?

on Thursday, February 28 2019. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Flu season is currently making itself known around the community, first among kids and now hitting adults.  But diseases and illnesses are not the only things that are contagious.  Without you even realizing it, how you are feeling today is likely influencing and impacting the feelings of people around you. According to Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, “If someone smiles at you, you smile back at them.  That’s a very fleeting contagion of emotion from one person to another.”  He found that if you are exhibiting happiness, a friend living nearby has a 25% higher chance of becoming happy too. 

But Dr. Christakis found that the opposite is also true. His research shows that if you display anger, those around you will fill with anger too. The contagiousness of happiness is welcome, but when anger spreads, it is toxic, destructive and can have devastating consequences.

Our parsha contains the admonition, Lo seva’aru eish b’chol moshvoseichem b’yom ha’Shabbos, do not kindle a fire in any of your residences on Shabbos.  In its literal sense, this pasuk is the source of the prohibition to light a fire on Shabbos. However, the Shelah HaKadosh, R’ Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz (1558-1630) offers a homiletical interpretation.

He suggests that eish, fire, is an allusion to anger and rage. The pasuk is instructing us that a person must never let anger or machlokes burn on erev shabbos or shabbos.  The Zohar says that moshvoseichem, guarding “your house” from fire, refers to your heart and guarding it from being filled with emotional fire: anger, bitterness, or negativity. 

The Rambam writes that real anger is never healthy, it is never warranted or productive.  At most, one may exhibit anger in order to communicate a message or accomplish a goal but one can never actually give in to the emotion of anger. 

An angry person loses judgment and vision, and often acts in a self-destructive fashion.  The Sefer Chareidim (Teshuvah, Ch. 4) writes:  If one lost a beautiful flower, it would be madness for him to react by breaking a precious object worth thousands of times more than the small flower. Similarly, the person who loses his temper shatters his peace of mind – a commodity far more precious than the relatively trivial loss which triggered his anger.

The word “rage” comes from the Latin rabies, meaning madness.  Giving in to rage is an act of madness because you give up so much and get nothing in return.  The Rambam in Hilchos Dei’os (2:3) writes that anger diminishes a person’s overall quality of life: “Those who frequently become angry have no quality of life; therefore, [the Sages] instructed us to distance ourselves from anger to the farthest degree, until a person acts as though he does not sense even those things that would justifiably anger a person.”

Shabbos is characterized by serenity, tranquility and contentment.  There is no room for even the appearance of anger, impatience, or controversy. Erev Shabbos is particularly predisposed to anger, with everyone rushing and hurrying, much to do, and often children who are not cooperating or adults who are not meeting our expectations of what needs to be done.  Shabbos, too, we can easily be tempted to be angry when the meals don’t go the way we want, our nap is disrupted, or the rabbi went on too long with his derasha. 

Shabbos is a particularly important time to conquer the urge for anger and maintain cool.  In the special Retzei paragraph in Shabbos benching, we ask – shelo sehei tzarah v’yagon v’anachah b’yom menuchaseinu, let there be no distress, grief or negativity on this day of our contentment.”

We often think of anger as an instinctive emotion, a reaction that we cannot help or control.  Clearly, the Zohar, the Shelah and others didn’t see it that way.  Kindling a fire is prohibited on Shabbos because it is meleches machsheves, a constructive, creative act.  Anger, too, is a creation, not simply a natural reaction.  When we get angry, we have made a decision, consciously or subconsciously, to create anger and to allow ourselves to be angry, but we don’t have to.  Lo seva’aru eish, don’t create anger.  Be in control and resist the urge which can in fact be overcome. 

In an article titled, “10 Things I Learned When I Stopped Yelling at My Kid,”  an anonymous mother describes the moment she decided to change.  She had lost it with her children in front of a handyman and was mortified.  She pledged to go one year, 365 straight days, without yelling.  When she wrote the article she was over 400 days without giving in to her urge to yell or scream or get angry and she shared the top 10 things she learned in the process. Here are a few of them:

1. Yelling isn’t the only thing I haven’t done in over a year.

I also haven’t gone to bed with a gut-wrenching pit in my stomach because I felt like the worst mom ever.

2. My kids are my most important audience.

When I had my “no more yelling epiphany,” I realized that I don’t yell in the presence of others because I want them to believe I am a loving and patient mom. The truth is, I already was that way… but rarely when I was alone, just always when I was in public with an audience to judge me. This is so backwards! I always have an audience — my four boys are always watching me and THEY are the audience that matters most; they are the ones I want to show just how loving, patient and “yell-free” I can be. I remember this whenever I am home and thinking I can’t keep it together; obviously I can… I do it out and about all the time!

7. Two words you should always remember are “at least.”

my new favorite words: “at least.” These two small words give me great perspective and remind me to chill out. I use them readily in any annoying but not yell worthy kid situation. “He just dropped an entire jug of milk on the floor… at least it wasn’t glass and at least he was trying to help!” I also use them readily when I want to give up: “Okay, this is hard but at least there are only three hours until bedtime, not 12.”

10. Not yelling feels phenomenal for everyone.

Now that I have stopped yelling, not only do I feel happier and calmer, I also feel lighter. I go to bed guilt-free and wake up more confident that I can parent with greater understanding of my kids, my needs, and how to be more loving and patient. And I am pretty sure my kids feel happier and calmer too.

Knowing how contagious they are, we take every precaution to avoid illnesses that can be transmitted from one person to another.  We must be just as cautious to not only avoid getting angry ourselves, but from contracting the propensity for anger that is contagious and can be transmitted from others.  Each and every Shabbos we experience the anger test challenging us not to light a fire in our dwelling, our home, or in our hearts.  When we pass, that sense of patience and tranquility not only fills our home for Shabbos, but carries over to the week. 

We would never light a fire or turn on a light on Shabbos, let’s not let the fire of anger or rage burn as well. 

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