Holy Annoyance

I'm annoyed on a daily basis.  Sometimes my annoyance is from petty concerns and sometimes it arises from righteousness and morality. We must distinguish annoyance that internally harms from annoyance that externally inspires. The challenge is to quell the first and harness the second.

I learned from Rabbi Irwin Kula that the Jewish urge to complain, our persistent dissatisfaction, can be "holy annoyance." After all, we're the people who champion tikkun olam (repairing the world) – preternaturally not fully satisfied with the status quo, always striving to improve and fix and heal. Maybe it's holy annoyance that presses Jews to be scientists who cure disease, lawyers who advocate justice, builders and dreamers of all sorts who vision a more caring world in countless ways.  

My friend, Laura Katz Cutler, continues to demonstrate on behalf of Darfur long after the world forgot that war-torn region and its suffering. Her annoyance is righteous and indefatigable, and utterly part of her Jewish identity. Her annoyance is for the sake of heaven. 

Other annoyance plainly isn't for heaven's sake. It's our impatient lane-changing while driving, our snippiness with bureaucracy, our short fuses when the financial demands of material affluence tire us. This kind of annoyance can make us surly or worse: we become unpleasant, grouchy and confrontational. We withhold kindness in favor of kvetching. Our gears grind toward less productivity, charity and joy. That kind of annoyance sometimes morphs into destructive anger.  

But precisely because these two kinds of annoyance are related, we have the power to channel one into the other. We can redirect what's unproductive and unhealthy into positive behaviors for the sake of heaven. My own tools include writing, praying, yoga and sleep. I'm not always successful: sometimes I need coaching from friends and colleagues – and a bit of relevant Torah often helps, too.

In this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends them home to fetch their father, Jacob, with parting words:

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” 

The juxtaposition of annoyance for the sake of heaven and the quarrelsome brothers brings this thought to mind. Annoyance can lead to advocacy and cause for improvement. Annoyance can also be a destructive force that, when it festers, rips at families, impedes progress, and even causes ill health.

As the secular New Year begins, let these words send you on the journey of 2017 with a nuanced understanding of Joseph’s salutation. While on your way, use annoyance for holy endeavors. When frustration, embarrassment or impatience arise within you, recognize them as an opportunity to cultivate spiritual growth to become more caring and understanding. A better you would be a New Year’s gift to the world.

R' Evan Krame