Holding Back

                                    by Chana Klein



Why hold back from what we feel like doing? Holding back sounds so difficult and even boring.  Why not do what we want, when we want?

As I grew in experience and wisdom, I found that by holding back, I drew God and people closer to me.

Have you noticed that people are more attracted to you when you keep a distance from them? In other words, when you hold back do you notice that people want to bring you closer to them? Even in dating, don't people usually want the person who holds back, rather than the one who comes on strong?

When we are young, we don't yet know the value of holding back. Children say what comes to mind, even pointing to and calling a lady "fat" or another child "weird."

When I was very young, and had never heard of Torah, I also did not understand the value of holding back. I could still feel the sting of the actions I took at the time.

Excerpt from my book (not yet published):

The Complainer

I am moved into the hospital children's ward. The girls in the children's ward talk with me. I make friends with Kim whose bed is several beds away from mine, on the other side of the ward. We like talking with each other and we have fun even though we are mostly stuck in our beds.

In the bed next to mine, on my left, is Audrey’s bed. Audrey is blond and medium build. She is here in the hospital for a head injury that she got at home when she fell down the stairs. Audrey is getting on my nerves because she is complaining and moaning all day and all night. It’s hard to even sleep with all that moaning.

Kim and I are both annoyed with Audrey and so we have staff people help us build a clothesline contraption with string and a handmade box that allows us to send private notes and pictures back and forth to each other.  We make pictures of Audrey expressing our annoyance and anger at her. We are really into criticizing her together.

Somehow, weeks later, I overhear that Audrey’s skull was broken by the fall and that it is very painful. I hear that it cannot be fixed, and that she will likely die.

Now I can’t believe how cruel I have been. I feel totally guilty for being so annoyed at her. My regret is great and I vow to never again hurt anyone like that and for the rest of my life I try to stick to my vow.

I learned very early the bad feeling of speaking negatively about a person, the bad feeling of judging another unfavorably.

As I got older, there were times when I did hold back and found that when I managed to do that it made me feel great.

It was like when I was trying to diet and had a good day. I felt good about myself and more connected to Heaven's blessings. Whereas when I felt shame about what I ate, I faced my creator from a place of not feeling as deserving.

It's as if holding a boundary between me and the world lessened the boundary between me and God.

That awareness was highlighted for me a few years ago.

My husband, Heshie, and I had purchased a system for the house from a factory owned by a childhood friend of Heshie's. It turned out that the salesman appointed to handle the purchase was an acquaintance as well. He came to the house to take our order. When we got the system that we purchased, there were some problems. The salesperson came back to the house and as we were explaining the problem to him, he had a sort of tantrum. He screamed something at us and then ran down the stairs and out the door. We were confused and upset.  We called him and when he did not answer, we left a message to see if he was okay.

Later, I just forgot about it and lived with the problem until we got someone in to fix it.

About two years after the incident, I was on my way to learning with a group of women. As I was walking with several of the women, the salesman was nearby and his wife was complaining about him. She was not happy. And it was quite a scene.

Well, it was perfect. I wanted to run home and share this glorious news with Heshie. But wait!  I happened to have been studying the laws of Shmirat Ha Lashon (Guarding Speech) every Sunday. We were reading the Chofetz Chaim’s original work.

So, I held back. I did not say a word to Heshie or to anyone else about that incident. Was it difficult? Yes! But that holding back made me feel wonderful. I actually felt a high. It was as if I were with God himself and He were smiling at me.

To this day, nine years later, my husband has no idea of what took place on that day. As a matter of fact, the details of this story the way I have written them are intentionally distorted so that he will never know.

Sure, it would have felt great to tell him and commiserate about what a bad man that guy is and how good we are in comparison. But the good feeling would have been very short lived, sort of like eating a forbidden food. While having a boundary against gossiping gave me a high that is still with me.

So,  when I want to do something in the material world that is not congruent with who I want to be, like speaking negatively about another person, I keep in mind how great it feels after I have held back. It feels so much better to keep the boundary and thereby be more connected with God.

It sounds so simple. Just hold back, refrain. But it's not really easy and I believe that the Almighty knows it's not easy. Perhaps that is why there is such great reward from the inside in feeling great self esteem, and from the outside in things just working out better.

We read about holding back early in the Torah.

In my mind, Yitzchak Avinu is the epitome of holding back.  His father held the knife and the fire in his hand as he placed wood for an offering on Yitzhak.

When Yitzchak did not see a lamb that was to be sacrificed, when he likely figured out that he might be the one on the wood (the altar), that's all he said was "Avi!" ("My father!")

Perhaps he was saying,  "Are you my father?"  Or "As my father, how can you do this?"

Then he asked, "Where is the lamb?"

He didn't scream. He didn't have an outburst of emotion. He didn't even have angry words.

Is that holding back or what?


What did Yitzchak get from this holding back?

One can look at the text and see that he met Rivka his wife right after that incident, whom it also says he loved. What better reward is there than to find the one you love and to spend the rest of your life with that person?

And what did the holding back do for Yitzchak inside? The text does not explain that. But I think it is clear that a lot has to happen inside oneself before finding an eternal soul mate. Yitzchak developed his Gevurah. Part of Gevurah is holding back from saying something. It means choosing your words carefully. That takes a lot of holding back.

We can look in the Torah and find, as well, some greats, who although they were great, did not hold back. And that failure to hold back had huge consequences for them as well as causing bad feelings and confusion for those near to them.

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon HaKohen, died suddenly when bringing a strange fire before God. (Leviticus 10:1-3) They lost their lives when they did not hold back from doing what they wanted. They overstepped the boundaries set for them by Moshe and Aaron.

This was not the first time that Nadav and Avihu failed to hold back before God. Exodus 24:1 tells us that the Almighty himself was standing before them. What did they do before the Almighty? "They gazed at G-d, yet they ate and drank."  If you were to see God standing before you, as they did, would you be able to eat or drink?

Rashi tells us that they did not have the proper reverence when looking at the presence of God. He says that the punishments were delayed until they brought the strange fire. Both of these situations involved a lack of boundaries.

Nadav and Avihu were very great men. The Medrash tells us that they could have been greater than Moshe and Aharon. If only they had held back.

One more observation on holding back that occurred to me this past Simchat Torah.

I noticed that all year the Torah Scrolls remain in their arc to be taken out at select times by select individuals.  The whole congregation stands when the arc is open, exposing the scrolls. The scrolls are treated with such great reverence and respect.

Then, on Simchat Torah, it's as if the relationship changes. The Torah Scrolls are taken out of their home and all the people in the congregation hold them close to their bodies and they dance with them.

The pauper dances with the wealthy, the street person with the rabbi and each of them with the Torah. How come it's okay on Simchat Torah but a big no-no the rest of the year to treat the Torah Scrolls with such familiarity? Are the scrolls, by then, so happy to see us that they want us to dance with them? Is that our reward, the result of keeping a boundary, of holding back the rest of the year?

This is a metaphor for life. When we wait to express something, when we hold back, we become closer to the thing we want.

What can we learn from the examples of Yitzchak Avinu and of Nadav and Avihu. What can we learn in this area as our own lives unfold?

The more we respect the boundaries in our lives, the less boundary there is between us and God. When I refrain from loshon hara, from overindulging in physical pleasures, from hurting another, I become closer to God as I feel the barriers between myself and Heaven diminish.

Holding back increases one's self esteem and accesses blessings. It's a more effective way of being in relationship with others; and it's a way to get closer to the Almighty.

How much greater can each of us become when we work at holding back?

Copyright © 2009 Chana Klein



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