Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.

#3 Discipline: The Power of Restraint
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com

The famous “Marshmallow Test” presented children with the choice of receiving either one marshmallow now, or waiting 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows. Long-term follow-up studies showed that children who patiently waited for the second marshmallow went on to have more successful marriages, careers, and lives in general.

“Discipline” (Gevurah in Hebrew) is crucial because it lies at the intersection of the human dichotomy: physical body and spiritual soul. The body seeks comfort and immediate gratification: food, sleep, wealth. The spirit yearns for intangible, eternal pleasures: meaning, love, unity, charity, immortality.

As anyone on a diet can attest, every moment presents a binary choice: between short-term, instant gratification of the body, and deeper, long-term pleasures of the soul. The ability to freely choose is what makes us uniquely human.


seeks comfort seeks growth
immediate gratification delayed gratification
short-term reward long-term reward
temporal pleasure eternal pleasure
material pleasure intangible pleasure
self-centered focused on others and God

The Yetzer Hara is the internal voice enticing us to choose the instant temporal pleasures. Particularly in today’s flashy, media-rich world, we are prone to choosing the allure of the body – the path of least resistance.

That is why discipline is so crucial to achieving any goal. Without discipline, we’re like an octopus on roller skates – plenty of movement, but no forward progress. Discipline turns dreams into accomplishment.

The power of “freedom” is often misunderstood. Freedom is not the ability to act out whims of momentary subconscious impulse. Rather true freedom is the discipline to be free from the forces of laziness, peer pressure, and fleeting desire.

Without a choice of “no,” there ceases to be choice.

Don’t feel like going to the gym today? With discipline, you’ll make the choice to go. More convenient to eat junk-food because you’re so busy? With discipline, you’ll monitor what you put in your body.

In the words of author Zorka Hereford, discipline is the key to “make the decisions, take the actions, and execute your game plan in the face of obstacles, discomfort, or difficulties that may come your way.”

Moments of choice between “body and soul” define us as humans with the gift of free will – the very definition of “created in the image of God.” Without a choice of “no,” there ceases to be choice.

Mitzvahs Build Discipline Muscles

God says: “I have created the Yetzer Hara, and created the Torah as the antidote.” (Talmud – Kiddushin 30b)

The Torah’s clear guidelines provide for the constant exercise of discipline. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: Jewish law is an ongoing training regime in willpower. Can you eat this not that? Can you exercise spiritually three times a day? Can you rest one day in seven? Can you defer the gratification of instinct – what Freud took to be the mark of civilization?

Deferred gratification is a hallmark of civilization.

Keeping kosher is one example. With discipline for what and when to eat, it follows that we’ll have discipline in other areas of life as well. Kashrut requires waiting between milk and meat, and not eating certain animals or combinations of foods. (Even when hungry!) These many conscious choices over our “animal urge” instills self-control and raises our spiritual health.

As the Talmud says: “Who is the strong person? He who conquers his lower desires.” (Avot 4:1)

Gevurah is key to successful parenting. When the answer to a child’s request is “no,” the child needs to know that “no” means “no.” If incessant whining and screaming wears the parent down, the short-term relief of our “giving in” produces a heavy long-term price: the child comes to believe that no boundaries are absolute. And a valuable opportunity to achieve discipline is lost.

On a trip to the grocery store, an African-American mother was heard saying to her daughter: “No, that candy’s not kosher.” When asked if she’s Jewish, the woman replied, “No, but when I hear Jewish mothers saying it, their kids quickly calm down and accept it.”

Tools for Building Gevurah

Here are some practical tools to strengthen self-discipline:

(1) Avoid temptation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) advises: For things you find hard to resist, avoid situations that challenge your self-control. If you’re on a diet, don’t visit the bakery. We all make mistakes and the risk of failure is not worth it. God will send enough challenges without needing to tempt ourselves.

(2) Build “discipline muscles.” Choice is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The more you train, the stronger you become. Set achievable short-term goals by addressing small (yet significant) issues: e.g. eating healthier; better time management; more even-tempered.

(3) Undertake disciplined hobbies. Playing a musical instrument – the focus, repetition and structure – is a great way to build discipline. Ditto for the rules and regulations of sports. The key is to set goals, focus your mental and emotional energies, and work hard to do your best. The sense of discipline will integrate into everyday life.

(4) Sufficient rest. When we’re tired, our ability to resist – to say “no” – is weakened. Don’t let “willpower fatigue” cost you mistakes.

The biblical paradigm of Gevurah is Isaac (Yitzhak) who – at age 37 – voluntarily climbed atop the altar with steely fortitude, prepared to become a sacrifice. (Genesis chapter 22)

While we’re unlikely to attain that level, discipline remains at the core of human achievement, giving us the crucial ability “to say yes to no.”

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