Letting Go – Parshat Shoftim 5779

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On his children’s television show, Fred Rogers sang a song (written by him) called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” He also used the lyrics from the song as part of his testimony in a now famous appearance before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication in 1969. The song helps children understand that emotions like anger are normal, and there are healthy ways to express them.

I, like other people I know, sometimes have difficulty letting go of a perceived wrong or a disagreement. If something touches my soul or digs deeply into my beliefs, it tends to stay with me. I still remember the kids in elementary school who invited me to a sleepover just to torment me. I never fully forgave them, possibly because I didn’t use the tools Mister Rogers suggests in his song. Instead, I mostly kept it bottled up and only let it out in other, less healthy ways. Having a memory like I do, I remember everything really well and have to work diligently at letting things go. For better or worse, my daughter Shiri remembers every last detail too, and I know where she gets it.

Everyone has their own process for dealing with anger and then forgiving; sometimes it serves our best interests, and sometimes it causes more grief than it’s worth. The Torah picks up on this process in Parshat Shoftim, this week’s portion, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, on justice, and on context. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot. We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. The notion of motive comes to light as the Torah discusses the challenge in proving intent.

In chapter 19, verse 4 we learn about a person who has wronged another in the past. “Yesterday, or the day before” are the words the Torah uses, suggesting that a quarrel normally lasts three days. After that, people can be assumed to have overcome their conflict. And if the resentment lingers, perhaps it is because the aggrieved party is deliberately prolonging it.

Sometimes it feels good to be angry, maybe because we feel justified in our hurt or because we subconsciously want others to feel some pain too. But if the anger lasts longer than it should and becomes a grudge, then it’s time to seriously consider the consequences. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that anger without healthy expression and grudges without forgiveness simply don’t solve problems, they compound them. So, what do you do with the mad that you feel? The High Holidays are just the right time to consider that question . . . and maybe sing about it.

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