The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men.—U.S. Navy SEAL Creed
Dwight Eisenhower once visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and shared the following story. Lincoln once went to see General George McClellan at his house. McClellan, on the other hand, decided that he did not want to see Lincoln, so he went to bed—an appalling affront to the President of the United States. Lincoln’s friends criticized him roundly for allowing the General to treat him that way. But Lincoln wasn’t fazed. “All I want from General McClellan is a victory. If holding his horse will bring it, I will gladly hold his horse.” Lincoln kept his emotions in check, and eventually he got his wish.
It’s not that Lincoln didn’t feel anger or hurt. He did. But he discharged those emotions in innocuous ways. For example, according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, Lincoln often wrote emotionally-charged letters when he was angry—”hot letters,” he called them—only to throw them in the stove.
The “hot letter” response is particularly apt, since emotions are like fire: When you control them, they keep you warm in adverse conditions; when they control you, they’ll burn your house down.
Esav epitomized the burning house.
Filled with all the enmity in the world at having had the blessings taken from him, Esav marched his 400-man army towards Yaakov with the intent to kill him. It seemed that nothing would stop him, and Yaakov made his three-pronged preparations. At long last, there would be a clash of some sort.
But then something changed. “And he (Yaakov) took from what he had with him a present to Esav his brother…and Esav ran toward him and embraced him…and kissed him” (Bereishis 33:4). Esav kissed Yaakov and they both wept. Esav no longer hated Yaakov. He loved him—wholeheartedly, according to some (see Rashi, Bereishis 33:4).
What happened to all that pent-up hatred? How could Esav’s hate so quickly turn to love?
Esav simply wasn’t in control of his emotions. So when confronted with Yaakov’s munificence, Esav found himself disarmed. His lust for wealth predominated, his objective dissolved, and there no longer was room in his heart for hatred of Yaakov.
While this particular encounter ended well for Yaakov, it reinforces the notion that “the wicked are controlled by their hearts, while the righteous control their hearts” (Bereishis Rabba 34:11 and 67:7; see Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. 5, pg. 351; Pirkei Kinyan Da’as, pg. 72-76)—a concept so fundamental that it would be sufficient if this were the entire Torah (Chochma U’Mussar, Vol. 1, No. 179).
The wicked sin because their lives are governed and dominated by their emotions (Shabbos 31b). Paroh, for example, failed to bow to G-d’s open and awesome miracles not because he failed to see them but because he couldn’t control his emotions—his hatred of the Jewish people held sway over him (Alshich, Shemos 7:14, 8:11).
So different is “the one who rules his spirit,” who “is stronger than one who conquers a city” (Mishlei 16:32).
R’ Moshe Meisels was a loyal follower of R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. After Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, R’ Moshe received a secret letter from the Rebbe containing directives for a critical mission: help Czar Alexander repel Napoleon’s onslaught and win the war.
When Napoleon’s armies reached Vilna, R’ Moshe positioned himself in the occupied zone. There, he befriended the French officers who were impressed with his education and linguistic abilities. So when an interpreter was needed to question captured soldiers or manage the locals, the French officers turned to R’ Moshe, who soon enjoyed the full confidence of the French army staff. Through these clandestine activities, R’ Moshe learned military secrets and conveyed them to Russian generals.
Once, R’ Moshe happened to be in the French headquarters when the generals were planning their next offensive. Maps were sprawled out across the table while officers debated the military options that would give the Russians a decisive blow. R’ Moshe pretended not to understand what was going on, and the generals paid him no heed.
The door burst open suddenly and in strutted Napoleon himself. The generals sprang to their feet and stood at attention.
“Who is this stranger?” Napoleon demanded to know, pointing directly at R’ Moshe. And without breaking stride, Napoleon dashed towards him, declaring, “You, sir, are a spy!” Napoleon quickly pressed his hand to R’ Moshe’s chest to feel if his heart was beating rapidly.
But R’ Moshe was in full command of his emotional response: his heart did not pound and his face did not pale and his palms did not sweat. “Your Majesty,” he replied calmly and in an impeccable French, “your generals appointed me interpreter, and I await their orders.” His ability to control his emotions had saved him from certain death.
When two men wagered 400 zuz to see if they could anger Hillel, but failed to do so, Hillel replied—calmly—“It is better that you lose 400 zuz, than Hillel get angry” (Shabbos 31a). He was in control of his emotions.
Don’t get me wrong: emotions are adaptive functions that hold important functions in our development. Anger can show that we care deeply about something. Sadness can show empathy. Fear enables us to protect ourselves. Jealousy can push us to achieve new heights (Shabbos Inbox, Queens Jewish Link, Vol. IV, No. 41). Anxiety can improve preparation. Emotions are a critical and positive aspect of our lives.
But there is an unhealthy preoccupation with emotions, presupposing that we are beholden to them. He made me angry. This makes me jealous. That makes me sad. But these are misnomers. Nothing and no one can “make” you feel anything. Things may contribute to your emotions, but only you control them. As Oscar Wilde resolved, “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
Indeed, the Torah rejects the modern-day glorification of “emotions” as unyielding, because while many commandments direct actions (e.g., matza, tefillin, Shabbos), many others direct the emotions: “You shall love Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 6:5); “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17); “You shall not desire your neighbor’s house…” (Devarim 5:18). These commandments instruct us to fashion our emotions—implicitly telling us we have the ability to do so.
How do we control our emotions? That question is more difficult to answer. Some suggest taming them through intellectual effort, i.e., by internalizing facts that belie our emotions (Ibn Ezra, Shemos 20:13; see also Chazon Ish, Hilchos Shabbos 56:4). For instance, someone who is easily angered might contemplate the repercussions of anger and how it accomplishes nothing. To others, emotional control is purely about willpower (Sefer HaChinuch, No. 416). But clearly we have the capacity to master our feelings.
Before Pesach one year, two emissaries of a sizeable town travelled to R’ Aryeh Leib Yellin in Bielsk to sell the town’s chometz. R’ Aryeh Leib sat down and meticulously recorded every item of chometz in the town, as well as the names and addresses of the owners and the locations where the chometz would be stored over Pesach.
After filling several pages in this manner, one of the emissaries accidentally knocked over the bottle of ink, spilling its contents all over the handwritten pages and effectively blacking-out all the information R’ Aryeh Leib had painstakingly chronicled. The emissaries were petrified. Not only had they wasted R’ Aryeh Leib’s time and effort, they even caused him to lose a nearly full bottle of ink, itself a valuable commodity in those days.
But to their surprise, R’ Leib did not say a word. He simply pulled a new sheet of paper from the ream and rewrote the entire list from memory.
A similar story is told about R’ Moshe Feinstein. When his student, R’ Nisson Alpert, once inadvertently spilled a bottle of ink on a volume of R’ Moshe’s prized Shulsinger Shas, R’ Moshe is said to have commented, “How beautiful the Gemara looks on blue paper!” On another occasion, R’ Moshe was picked up by a student to drive to an appointment. The student helped R’ Moshe into the car and then closed the door. At his destination, R’ Moshe was greeted by another student who noticed that his hand was swollen and bleeding. “What happened?” the second student asked. R’ Moshe explained that the first student slammed the door on his hand, but he didn’t say anything so not to embarrass the student.
I don’t suggest for a second that we hide or suppress emotions. Judaism is decidedly emotional and encourages us to feel. “G-d wants the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b). He wants us to feel, to experience, to exhibit emotion. Apathy is to be avoided at all costs (Toras Ha’Adam [Ramban]). But while we can and should feel deeply, our emotions must be guided by intellect and moral and ethical obligations. It is precisely because our feelings are so important that we must control them, not vice versa.
We live in unprecedented times, where there is more than ample reason to be consumed with emotion. Pain. Fear. Anxiety. Despair. Jealousy. Pity. Disgust. Anger. All these are normal emotional reactions to things happening in the world around us.
The challenge is not succumbing to our emotions. The challenge is controlling them.