Controlling Your Emotions

A person has to be able to adapt
himself to situations that are less than ideal and make the best of them. In
order to do that, a person has to be able to control himself. That means that,
rather than letting his emotions control him, he controls his
emotions. A person who can’t cope because he’s depressed or upset is not in
control. He’s being controlled. In order to be in control, a person has to
arouse himself and move himself to what he does. He can’t just function and
carry on because he’s being carried along.

The midrash tells us that Rebbe Akiva was giving a drosho and
his students were falling asleep. In order to arouse them, he said something
very puzzling: “What did Esther see that inspired her to rule over 127
countries? Let Esther, who was the descendent of Sarah Imeinu, who lived
127 years, rule over 127 countries.” If Rebbe Akiva just wanted to get their
attention, he could have just made a joke or perhaps just any remark that would
seem out of place and awaken their curiosity. Why did he say this? Because it
was relevant to the reason that they were falling asleep.

Esther was in a less than ideal situation. She won a beauty
contest against her will—she didn’t want the prize, either—and was forced
to be the wife of a gentile king. It was a terrible situation. What did Esther
see that enabled her to make the best of the situation and rule over 127
countries (which in the end was of great help to the Jewish People) and not look
at things so negatively that nothing could ever come of it? What gave her the
inner strength and inspiration? She remembered Sarah Imeinu, who lived
127 years, and the midrash that comments that all 127 years equally good. Now,
Sarah Imeinu had lots of troubles: She was taken by Paro, she was taken
by Avimelech, she didn’t have any children until Yitzchak was born when she
was 90 years old. So she suffered tremendously. So how can the midrash say that
they were all equally good? Well, what the midrash actually says is that they
were all equally for good. Sarah Imeinu used every moment of her
life for the good. She made the best of every situation and accommodated herself
to the difficulties she faced and brought the best out of it. Remembering Sarah Imeinu,
Esther found inspiration and strength to cope with a difficult situation in a
constructive way. But she could do that only because she was in control. If she
allowed herself to be overpowered by her emotions, she couldn’t have done it.

This was Rebbe Akiva’s mild rebuke to his students for
loosing control of themselves and allowing themselves to be overtaken by sleep.
You’re bored by my class? Make the best of it! But to do that, you’ve got to
stay awake. If you’re in control, you can make the best out of a bad
situation. Sarah did it, Esther did it. You can do it also!

We find that a person is expected to rule over his emotions.
Ideally, even crying, which is usually spontaneous and sometimes even
embarrassing, should be controlled so that a person only cries when he deems it
fit to cry. He cries only if his judgment tells him that it is the right time
and the right place to cry.

We find that the halachah tells us when to cry. On the first
three days of aveilus, one is supposed to cry. A person should control
his emotions. Every Erev Yom Kippur, they used to make the Kohen Gadol make an
oath that he wouldn’t do the avodah on Yom Kippur like the Tzaddukim
(Sadducees). After the oath was administered, the Kohen Gadol turned away and
cried and the Chochomim turned away and cried. We can well imagine what
an upsetting occasion is must have been. The Kohen felt bad because he was
suspected of being a Tzadduki and the Chochomim felt bad because they had
to subject the Kohen to this painful and embarrassing oath (which, by the way,
even a real Tzadduki would keep because he recognized it as having authority
from the Torah). But after it had been done year after year, we can well imagine
that it became a routine and that no one cried. But that’s not what the Rambam
says. The Rambam brings down the crying as a halachah, as though to say: This is
an occasion which demands crying. A person on the right level of spiritual
sensitivity and control would be capable of crying at that moment because he
knows that crying is the appropriate response to the situation.

If it seems remarkable that a person could control even his
crying, so that, because he knows he should, he really cries, just remember that
actors can do it. They know how to elicit real tears because they have a certain
gift—which they develop as part of their training—for arousing and
controlling their emotions—at least on stage. It’s not the real thing, the
level of inner control that we’re talking about. It’s for the theater, but
like the theater, it gives us an image of the real thing, and that makes it
easier to believe that real control of emotions—to elicit emotion as well as
to withhold it—is possible.