Humblilng the Humble
Anger is an emotion that comes as a response when one feels that his/her ego has been violated or damaged; it is an overflow of negative expression. This emotion will cause a person to exhibit incontrollable behavior, ignoring his true principles and disapproval of getting angry.
Anger, like any other emotion, is triggered by a thought, even a subconscious one. This "automatic" thought, despite its irrationality, will often surface when the ego is challenged. It's a kind of reflex, generated by some underlying core belief. If we challenge the core belief, these thoughts will be more rational. This is what the Ramban means when he writes in the Iggeret Haramban that the strategy for avoiding anger is always to speak calmly to whomever we meet. There is no effective strategy for stopping anger once one has already entered such an emotional state. The only effective way to deal with anger and correct it is by preventing its onset through altering our core beliefs about our expectations from the world around us. When training ourselves to speak in a low tone of voice, we are stabilizing our ego as well as expressing our recognition that I am not greater than my surroundings. Then the ego is generally balanced enough that it is not so vulnerable to the stepped-on feeling and we can stay within our anti-anger boundaries.
This method is valid in dealing with gossip and slander as well. We remember that speaking lashon hara, derogatory speech, is forbidden by the Torah. However, in certain situations, where an automatic negative thought arises against another person, we do indulge in this kind of talk. This thought triggers an emotion that overcomes us, and we cannot keep the thought to ourselves.
The way that we can control our emotions is by controlling our core beliefs - those which generate the automatic thoughts. We control our core beliefs by recognizing them and questioning them. And, the Torah tells us exactly what core beliefs cause a person to speak gossip or slander.
This week's Torah portion discusses the slanderer who has become a metzorah, a leper. After his repentance, he had to go through a purification procedure involving a Kohen who took from the leper two kosher birds, a piece of cedar wood, a string of red wool and an ezov (hyssop) grass. One bird was to be slaughtered over a cup of water, and the other live bird, together with the cedar and wool string, would be dipped into the cup of blood and water and sprinkled on the metzorah.
Our rabbis tell us the meaning behind the components of the ritual. The birds were to remind the slanderer that he had done a birdlike act of nonstop 'chirping'. The piece of wood was there to remind him that the cedar, being the tallest tree, represents the core belief of arrogance in the person who is speaking gossip or slander. This is a primary cause of all gossip. The reason for involvement of the ezov, or hyssop, is that it is the lowest of all trees. Rashi writes here that the lesson is to tell the metzorah that in order for him to be cured of his unacceptable behavior, first he had to come down from his arrogance and self pride, resembling the lowly ezov and tolaat (worm).
The Avnei Nezer presents a question: The metzorah, at this stage of purification, has already repented and is currently looking at himself in a more humble manner. How, then, could the Torah tell him that he has to lower his self image in order to be cured? Isn't he already humbled?
The Avnei Nezer answers that the humbling feeling that the metzorah feels might be only temporary and external. If it results from pain or suffering that befalls him in life (i.e. from the leprosy), this humility may disappear along with the pain and suffering when they go away. In God's mercy, this level of humbling is accepted as repentance. However, a lasting humility is not achieved until one arrives at the recognition of the greatness of God and the minuteness of man. This humbling feeling is a far greater one, as it is not dependent on circumstance. It will remain even after the pain subsides. This deeper humbleness will help the leper not to speak forbidden talk in the future, even after he passes this degrading stage of impurity and isolation.
We are all only human, and humans make mistakes. At his utmost core belief, the slanderer can realize that although he feels flawless in comparison to his fellow, when he compares himself to God, he sees that he is filled with flaws, no less than his friend. When one works on this type of humbling, he may find it easier for himself to overcome his "habit" of speaking in a way that he himself disapproves of.