Last week's Torah Portion, Parshat Vayeira, is full of the most well-known stories in the Torah. Abraham and Sarah are visited by angels who prophesy Isaac's birth, Abraham argues with God about Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, the couple then cast out Hagar and Yishmael, and finally Abraham's near-sacrifice or Isaac.
I want to focus on one particular recurring dynamic, and that is use and misuse of power. One of the Hebrew words for power is koakh, and it actually means both power and potential. This highlights the reality that power is not good or bad in and of itself. Power is the potential to act with great consequences. Its consequences, however, depend on how we use our potential and power.
In our Parshah, as in the Torah overall, God has the power of life and death. However, in contrast to the Flood in Noah's time, that power is used much more discriminately now with Abraham. God doesn't just destroy Sodom and Gemorrah because of their wickedness towards each other, but instead solidifies the relationship with Abraham, saying, "... shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do..." (Genesis 18:17). God is angry, and eventually acts on that anger, but first enters into relationship, into dialogue, and a joint discussion about what to do.
Later in the story, it is Abraham who has power. As the family nears the town of Gerar, Abraham is afraid. Based on that fear, he passes off Sarah as his sister instead of his wife. The commentary tells us that he is afraid that in this town, the people would not be respectful of their marriage, and simply take Sarah by force, killing him as the husband in the process. The sister-farce is well and good for Abraham, as it protects him, but Sarah is left even more vulnerable than she would be as his wife. Abraham uses his power, as the husband, to protect himself, and only himself. In the end, Sarah is protected by God, but Abraham has nonetheless showed himself to be vulnerable to fear. As is often the case, the misuse of power is driven by fear.
Let us now see what the Rabbis in later generations had to say about power, wisdom, and strength. "Ben Zoma said, Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is written, "I have learned from all of my teachers," (Psalm 119:99). Who is strong? He who subdues his passions, as it is written, "One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and those who know how to channel their anger, stronger than those who conquer a city."" (Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1)
The ability to learn from others is not a magical skill all by itself. It depends on being able to pay attention, to empathize, and eventually to humble oneself before those around us. God displays this by entering into relationship with Abraham. In regard to anger, interestingly, Ben Zoma does not tell us we should not feel angry, nor that we should refrain from acting upon anger. He simply instructs us to be slow, and to know how to channel what we feel. Anger, after all, carries vital information. It informs us that we've been hurt, offended, or startled in some painful way. It tells us: something must be done! Ignoring our anger, won't make the causing event go away, nor prevent similar events in the future. I think this is why Ben Zoma starts out by telling us about wisdom, about empathy, and humility, and about taking things slowly before we act. You see, anger does not have to destroy our relationships. When expressed clearly and compassionately, it can actually be a bridge to begin the process of mending and rebuilding that which has been destroyed.
We all, intentionally and inadvertently, use our potential in a way that is hurtful to others from time to time. There's no way around it, that's just part of being human and therefore imperfect. However, we all also have the potential to rebuild and heal. We can use our koakh, our potential and power, to find ways to express, or re-express, anger in constructive ways. After all, if we don't tell someone that we're upset and why, we close off the potential for healing. The same is true on the receiving end. When someone shares their anger with us, it will bring up anger of our own in defense. Then too we will have a choice: Can we be slow with our anger? Can we find the patience to empathize even when we feel hurt? Can we humble ourselves to learn from our mistakes and from the people we might have hurt? The way in which we share and receive expressions of anger, is a significant reflection of the strength of our relationships and community. We can't be perfect and never cause any harm, but we can always grow in our ability to respond to our own and other people's imperfections.