Dealing with Adversity – Controlling Our Thoughts

Toward the end of his life, the Vilna Gaon decided to leave his family to travel to Eretz Yisrael. He penned a heartfelt, powerful letter for his family instructing them in the ways of mussar (known as Igeres HaGra). He begins the letter by telling his mother and his family, “I ask you to refrain from being distressed, as you truly promised me, and not to worry.” The implication is that if this move would have caused his family pain, he would not have gone. He had already gained the assurance of his mother and his wife. (Ultimately, he never made it to Eretz Yisrael; he turned back en route and gave the cryptic explanation, “I do not have permis­sion from Shamayim.)

How is it possible to request someone not to be affected by their emotions and feelings in such a situation? They exist. Harav Don Segal, shlita, explains that from the words of the Gaon, we understand that a person can take control of his emotions. If a person did not have this ability, the Gaon would not have requested his family not to become distressed. He explains that one can achieve that if one believes and has a clear understanding that everything is under Hashem’s supervision and all is for good, achieved through constant review. One’s intel­lect can govern one’s emotions.


The Torah includes proscriptions that regu­late how we are to feel such as lo sisnah — do not hate your brother in your heart, and lo sachmod — do not covet. The Torah does not ask of us that which we cannot fulfill; the mes­sage of these laws is that just as we have the ability to refrain from a forbidden act, we can disallow a negative, counterproductive feeling.

Regarding the mitzvah of lo sachmod, Ibn Ezra famously asks this question in the context of the mitzvah not to be jealous (lo sachmod). How can one be told how to react if his friend possesses something he lacks? How does the Torah command a person not to feel jealous?

He answers with a famous mashal of a peasant that qualifies the prohibition of not coveting: A simple peasant will not desire to marry the princess. Considering his ancestry and background she is beyond his reach. It is human nature to desire only that in the realm of possibility. One does not covet things that are not relevant to him and therefore “out of his league.” This is a rational approach to deal­ing with one’s emotions and feelings.


It is naturally more difficult to control our thoughts and feelings than to forgo actions. it is attainable, however, with some creativity and practice, as the following story related by Harav Shmuel Wosner, zt”l, bears out. (It was recounted by Rabbi Yisroel Brog, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Tiferes Avigdor in Cleveland.)

When he was a talmid at Yeshivas Cho­chmei Lublin in Poland, Rav Wosner once accompanied the Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, to visit a fellow talmid who was gravely ill and in great pain. Despite his dire straits, they found the bachur, inexplicably, in a happy and uplifted state of mind. The Rosh Yeshivah asked him the reason for his simchah. The bachur replied that he had been pondering why, given his poor health, he was still alive. He reminded himself of the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos 12b which says that the Shechinah rests above the head of a sick person, along with the explanation that a choleh’s function is to bring the Shechinah into the world. “That is a wonderful tafkid,” declared the bachur. He then cited another Gemara in Shabbos (30b) that says the Shechinah does not come to rest upon a person in a state of sadness. “Therefore, I try mightily not to be sad, since that will drive away the Shechinah. By being sad, I would be undermining my tafkid to bring the Shechinah. That is why you see me bsimchah. I constantly contemplate that, by doing so, I am maintain­ing the presence of the Shechinah here.”

Rav Meir Shapiro was awed that his talmid in such circumstances should think up this explication and commented to Rav Wosner that it was worthy of being shared with future generations.

Interestingly, the letters of the word b’simchah — with joy — when transposed, spell machshavah — thought. The message is that how we think helps to determine our level of joy.


A caveat to this idea that our thoughts help us to navigate stressful situations is that it may take time. To paraphrase the comments of a young Rabbi and author from the Five Towns, Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, who had a Downs Syn­drome baby: In life, you just have to flow with the situation, and resolution comes by itself later … “Mah shelo yaaseh hasechel yaaseh hazman — What intelligence doesn’t accom­plish, time will.”

Rabbi Yosef Gesser is a longtime writer for Hamodia Newspaper as well as an inspirational speaker on vari­ous topics, including dealing with adversity. He can be reached at

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