A Note from the Boss

The article below is an excerpt from Rabbi Roth's book, "Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty-First Century". Taking selections from Ethics of the Fathers, the book shows how the classic text of Pirkei Avos pertains to the modern world, and is as vibrant and contemporary as if it was written today. For more information, or to order a copy, click here.

פרק ה' משנה י''א: אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּדֵעוֹת. נוֹחַ לִכְעוֹס וְנוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת, יָצָא שְׂכָרוֹ בְהֶפְסֵדוֹ. קָשֶׁה לִכְעוֹס וְקָשֶׁה לִרְצוֹת, יָצָא הֶפְסֵדוֹ בִּשְׂכָרוֹ. קָשֶׁה לִכְעוֹס וְנוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת, חָסִיד. נוֹחַ לִכְעוֹס וְקָשֶׁה לִרְצוֹת, רָשָׁע.

Perek 5, Mishnah 11: There are four types of dispositions:
One who is quick to anger and quick to calm down — his gain is offset by his loss.
One who is slow to anger and slow to calm down — his loss is offset by his gain.
One who is slow to anger and quick to calm down is pious.
One who is quick to anger and slow to calm down is wicked.

In 1986, scientists at the Harvard Medical School tested the psychological well-being of 1,305 men. Using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), which includes a section designed to quantify anger, the scientists gave each participant a score that indicated his level of anger and hostility. The men returned for comprehensive medical examinations every seven years, at which time they were checked for heart disease.

When the study began, all the participants were healthy; but during the seven years of observation, 110 of them developed heart disease. The men with the highest anger scores were at the greatest risk for developing heart disease. And the risk was substantial: heart disease was diagnosed three times more often in the in the most angry men than in the least angry men.

These statistics are frightening, but our Mishnah makes it clear that anger can be overcome.

The Mishnah describes four types of people, each personality with its own set of character traits. There is a fundamental difference, however, between the descriptions of the first two personality types and the second two. Regarding the first two cases — those who are either quick or slow to both become angry and calm down — the Mishnah does not label these people, but rather describes their relative gains or losses. But, in the last two cases — those who are quick to one and slow to the other—the Mishnah actually labels these people, describing them as either pious or wicked. What is the distinction between the first and last two categories that leads the Mishnah to address them differently?

Understanding Inborn Traits

We must examine the personality types more closely to answer this question.

People naturally retain the character traits they are born with. Someone with a slower temperament may not anger quickly, but he will also take longer to calm down after he has been provoked. On the other hand, a person who is excitable may get angry quickly, but, having fleeting emotions, he will also calm down more easily and find it less difficult to get over the incident.

This being the case, the first two groups in our Mishnah — those who are quick or slow to both — describe people whose temperaments have been fairly constant since birth. Not having altered their character traits one way or the other, these people cannot be assigned labels such as “good,” “bad,” or “average,” because their dispositions are inborn. The Mishnah says about these people only that the very traits that make them strong in some areas also form their weaknesses in other areas.

However, someone who is easily angered but is not easily pacified has clearly changed his nature. Because a person is born to be one way or another, someone who is slow to one and quick to another must have changed his disposition. If he is now quick to anger and slow to calm down, it can only be because he has destroyed one of his naturally good qualities. Hence the Mishnah labels this person wicked.

Conversely, someone who is slow to anger and quick to calm down must have worked on himself to overcome one of his innate characteristics. This person is therefore described as pious.

We see that even a person whose tendency is to become angry quickly can change his temperament and become slow to anger. The Mishnah teaches us how.

Changing Our Natures

It opens with the phrase: Arba midos be’deos, which we have translated: “There are four types of dispositions.” Literally, de’os means that which one knows, thinks, or maintains. By using this word to describe character traits, the Mishnah teaches that we can change our character traits by changing our way of thinking.

What new thought patterns can we adopt to raise our anger-threshold?

Nearly all anger is rooted in the thought that “I can control the situation.” This thought leads us to form mental images of what should be happening to us and how other people ought to treat us. When these expectations are not fulfilled, we become angry.

This concept is clearly illustrated by parent-child relationships. Perhaps one of the reasons people so frequently find themselves angered by their children is that parents have such profound feelings of control over them. Having brought them into the world and having provided them with everything they need — clothes, food, schooling — a parent feels he “owns” his children, just as he owns a piece of property. Since he has mental images of how they should behave, he becomes frustrated when they act up.

Of course, it is a parent’s responsibility to educate his children and make certain that they behave properly, but at the end of the day, children have their own free will. If they disobey, the correct response is not unrestrained anger, but another attempt to calmly teach them better. Even when the best way to teach them is through showing anger, it is meant to be an external, premeditated show of anger, never a real, inner, spur-of-the-moment anger.

Besides persuading himself that he controls other people, a person also imagines that he controls his time. That is why nothing rattles a person more than when his meticulously planned schedule goes awry. We can all relate to the frustration of missing a plane or watching the clock tick by as we wait for a friend, knowing that our time for lunch together is getting shorter and shorter. Convinced that he has some kind of ownership over his time, he becomes irritated when faced with the stark reality that he is not really in charge after all.

Who’s Really in Charge?

Since anger is often rooted in issues of control, one way to overcome anger is to come to terms with the reality that we are not in control of our lives — G-d is. As the wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech, said, “Man makes many detailed plans, but the counsel of G-d alone prevails.” Life demands flexibility; to be able to adjust easily from one’s envisaged plans to those of the Master Planner is a key element in conquering anger and calmly dealing with the unexpected. One needs to be able to easily say, “I thought I should be doing ______ now, but if my attention is needed elsewhere, that means that G-d has different designs, and I will happily follow His will.”

Once a person understands and accepts that G-d is in control, a large amount of anger can be eliminated from his life. But this knowledge also helps overcome anger in another way, namely, by changing the focal point. Instead of focusing solely on the outcome — that things didn’t turn out as expected — one thinks more about the intermediate steps. Take, for example, being late for a meeting or wedding: When running behind schedule, the reason a person finds himself angry with anyone who gets in his way is that he is concentrating exclusively on the end result of being on time. He views the preceding steps — the process of getting there — as inconsequential and, therefore he is frustrated when they don’t go as planned.

When one bears in mind that G-d is in control, his perspective changes, for he realizes that the end result is not in his own hands, but in G-d’s. One who is late no longer gets annoyed, as he understands that what matters most is not whether he arrives on time, but whether he is the best person he can be along the way.

We can all benefit from this change in perspective on erev Shabbos. When there is only one hour left until candle-lighting and the house is still in chaos, people tend to be short-tempered. They’re focusing on the end result: a clean house, a set table, being dressed for Shabbos, getting to davening on time, and are frustrated by anything that stands in their way. Of course it would have been better had they allowed more preparation time, but it doesn’t occur to most people that, under the circumstances, G-d much prefers a house that is disorderly but serene to a clean one filled with discord.

Imagine that you found this letter under your pillow on Thursday night:


You would find the bathroom occupied, but instead of being annoyed, you would sing with joy, thanking G-d for the challenge and the opportunity to grow. People would get in your way, but instead of shouting, you would smile and speak calmly, knowing that G-d is watching.

The same person who is usually enraged over mishaps on erev Shabbos becomes a model of serenity when he knows that G-d is testing him and observing his reactions. This demonstrates that when a person expects frustrations and mentally prepares himself for them, he is capable of managing almost any challenge. The reason people are so frequently frustrated is that they are not expecting the test. They think only of the end result — getting to the meeting on time or being ready for Shabbos — and view any obstacle along the way as a nuisance. Had they received a note like ours, they would have realized that the “obstacle” is not an obstacle at all, but the main point of the event.

The idea that the purpose of our lives is to face challenges and meet them in a way that pleases G-d is one of the fundamentals of Jewish belief. As Chazal teach us, the point of our being placed in this world is to conquer our undesirable character traits and cleave to G-d, thereby earning ourselves a share in the World to Come.

We don’t have to wait to find such a letter under our pillows before reacting calmly in aggravating situations. We already have such a letter in our possession. It is called the Torah. We merely need to carry its teachings around with us, and pull its message out whenever we find ourselves in trying circumstances.


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