The Essential Yes of a Strong No

Mushka Silberberg, Lincolnwood, Illinois
Essays 2019 / Student Winners / Winning Essays

Why saying no is not a weakness

The Problem:

It feels so much nicer to be able to say yes than to have to say no.

Western society has inculcated within us a certain perspective: the romanticization of ‘yes’. Since infancy, people are bombarded with slogans such as ‘follow your heart’, or phrases like ‘why not?’, which strongly suggest the idea that saying ‘no’ implies that a person is weak because he/she cannot say yes.

As a result, society has produced people who not only have issues disciplining themselves, but also feel ‘restricted’ when it’s necessary to practice self-discipline. People have issues with saying ‘no’ to others or to experiences, even if they have no interest in those particular individuals or experiences. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is an apt description of people who lack the power of ‘no’ and cannot restrict themselves to becoming a master over one thing. In truth, however, the very lack of restriction in their lives restricts them to never becoming a master over their lives.

The Solution:

People’s fear of saying no is ironic because the original reason for the very existence of people, the world, and all of creation, is a very powerful ‘No’. Chassidus teaches that creation only occurred because of the restriction of the infinite, G-dly light. This implies that if there was no discipline, G-dliness would not have been able to create anything. In this essay, the concepts of צמצום, כלי and גבורה (literally: contraction, vessel and severity), as explained in Chassidus, will be discussed in order to answer the question: “Why should I say no if saying yes makes me feel so much better?”

The secular world which claims that although it is inherently undesirable, discipline is a ‘necessary evil’ due to an existential weakness – the inability to do everything; Chassidus teaches that discipline is our most powerful tool. Chassidus shows that it truly is much nicer to be strong enough to be able to say no, than to have to, out of weakness, say yes.

The enablers of creation: גבורה, כלים, צמצום

In the second book of Tanya titled “שער היחוד והאמונה” (the gate of unity and faith), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the ‘Baal HaTanya’) explains how creation, limited as it may be to time, space, and matter, came into existence from the original infinite, G-dly light. In chapter four, the Baal HaTanya explains that G-d created the world by using the tool of גבורה (severity) to create צמצום (contraction) of the infinite light. Just like radio waves cannot be accessed without an antenna tuned to a limited frequency, so too, infinity has to be limited in order to create viable creations.

At the end of the chapter, in parenthesis, the Baal HaTanya adds that the power of צמצום is called כלי (vessel), and the G-dliness that is being tempered through the צמצום, is called אור (light). Explaining these words[1], the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn) says that, contrary to the notion that the power of contraction just holds light back and has no form of its own, the fact that צמצום is called ‘vessel’ implies that the power of contraction itself has a form which shapes the substance put inside. The effect of the vessel on the light, then, is twofold: 1- the light is limited by the capacity of the vessel, and 2- the light conforms to the properties of the vessel, just like the light shining from a red lightbulb will appear red.

Takeaways:         1. The power of contraction is the only way that light can be revealed.

  1. Light gets molded according to the character of the contraction.

Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (the Rebbe Rashab) explains that the spiritual source of the vessel must be higher than the light, by virtue of the fact that the vessel is able to contract and manipulate the light[2]. While one would commonly think that the light is stronger because the light is the ‘giver’ to the vessel which ‘receives’ the light, the Rebbe Rashab explains that the light is the real receiver in this case. It is precisely the elevated source of the vessel that makes the light gravitate towards the vessel, which gives the light direction and the ability to shine.

In another Chassidic treatise[3], the Rebbe Rashab says that the infinity of the G-dly light can only be limited and shaped by something which is sourced higher than itself[4]. That is why the intensely spiritual revelation of G-d in the Ten Commandments had to come through the G-dly name of אלוקים, which represents contraction and limits.

Takeaway:          3. Contraction must come from a sourced that is higher than the light it reveals, by virtue of the fact that the light is shaped and changed by the contraction.

The idea that the power of holding back light is stronger than the light itself was applied by the Rebbe in an explanation[5] of the Mishna[6] “איזהו גיבור הכובש את יצרו” – “Who is strong? One who conquers his natural inclination”. As proof for this concept, the Mishna cites a verse from משלי (Proverbs)[7] which states that one who masters his own spirit is stronger than one who conquers a city. The Rebbe notes that this Mishna is counterintuitive; a go-getter type of person, one who is able to conquer an entire city, would seem to be so much stronger than a person who simply disciplines himself.

The explanation: when a warrior conquers a city, he brings his natural energy from dormant potential into actuality. While he definitely displays physical strength, he does not show any internal strength. True strength, however, is when a person is able to control the very energy that is inside of him; when he is able to control his heart. Logically, the controller of something must be higher than the thing he controls, so one who can control his/her own desires is truly is stronger than one who just brings his inner energy (desires) into actuality.

Takeaway:          4. Saying no to one’s self is the ultimate display of strength.

We can thus conclude from the aforementioned ideas that the power of contraction, i.e. saying ‘no’, is the power that allows for creation and, therefore, represents the ultimate strength of G-d in creation, as well as that of people in their daily decisions.

Chassidus, however, makes a disclaimer: גבורה is only good if it is channeling light. The Rebbe discusses this idea[8] while explaining why Yitzchak had many displays of [9]חסד (kindness, corresponding to the light that the vessels contract) in his life, when it is known that his life work was actually in the area [10]גבורה. He explains that, essentially, גבורה is so powerful because it allows for the ultimate manifestation of חסד and revelation of good (as explained above). Therefore, Yitzchak had so much חסד in his life, representing the light that he was channeling through his גבורה. This implies, however, that if גבורה is not used to channel goodness, but rather imposes empty limits without higher reasoning, it is indeed very bad. That גבורה can be evil when not used for holiness is manifested in Esav, Yitzchak’s evil son[11] [12]. Although Yitzchak’s service of G-d surpassed even Avraham’s because of the superior quality that severity has over kindness, his severity was taken in the wrong direction by Esav, who used severity to conceal holiness.

Takeaway:          5. Restriction is very powerful, but it is only good when used to channel goodness.

When discipline is used to streamline holiness, it can hardly be called restriction, because the restriction is essentially saying yes to properly contained light. This concept is described by the Rebbe in an explanation[13] of a statement of Rabi Akiva in connection with the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva opines that when the Jewish people heard each of the Ten Commandments from G-d, they responded “yes, we will do it” to each commandment, whether it was a positive commandment or a prohibition. Rabi Akiva’s opinion is in contrast to that of Rabbi Yishmael who states that the Jews said “yes, we will do it” to every positive commandment and “no, we will not do it” to every prohibition.

While Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion is easily understood, the Rebbe explains that the basis of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion is profound. Rabbi Akiva holds that the Jewish people weren’t paying attention to the details of the commandments that they heard; rather, they were paying attention to the Commander. They realized that with the fulfillment of every commandment, they were saying “yes” to G-d Himself, whether the technical commandment was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Additionally, according to Rabbi Akiva, they realized the immense holiness they would bring into the world with the fulfillment of each prohibition, so the “yes” to the prohibition was a “yes” to holiness.

Takeaway:          6. When the ‘no’ is infused with the light it is containing, the ‘no’ seams more like a ‘yes’ to the light that it is allowing shine.

Putting the ideas into practice: How to say ‘no’

In the Chassidic view, the word ‘no’ just sounds like a rectified form of ‘yes’. The power to say no and overcome temptations is not only the strongest power that we have inside of us, but it is also the only way that our desires can be expressed as we really want them to be.

Thus, cultivating the strength to be able to say ‘no’ can be broken down into 5 simple steps. To follow the steps, give yourself some time, and sit down with:

  • A Pen
  • A few papers
  • Flashcards

Optional but highly recommended:

  • Light-colored crayon
  • Watercolor paint and water
  • Watercolor paper
  • Paintbrush

Step #1- Visualization.

In his writings[14], Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn states that real understanding happens when a person can visualize the concepts that he/she is studying.

To visualize the power of no, try ‘crayon resist’[15] art: take a piece of watercolor paper and draw a design on it with a light crayon. After that, use your watercolors to paint on top of the crayon marks. Watch the crayon marks resist the watercolors, making the paint form around the marks. Notice:

  • While the watercolors are the ‘meat’ of the painting, the crayon marks shape the paint into a picture with detail and design. This is analogous to the fact that creation (picture) can only happen with contractions (the crayon) limiting the light (watercolors) to form something beautiful – see Takeaway #1.
  • You can draw any sort of design with the crayons, and the paint will form to it. This corresponds to the fact that limitations (vessels) don’t just push light to the side; rather, they have a precise, desired form – see Takeaway #2. Also notice that the limits on the watercolors (crayon marks) come from what you want to see happen to the picture; the limits come from a deeper place in you than do the ‘colors’ – see Takeaway #3.

Realize: by making limits in your life you are designing the ‘crayon marks’ that give direction and purpose to your life.

Step #2- Inner awareness: When do you want to say yes?

Before you can start thinking about when you should say no, your desires need to be identified, because a ‘no’ without a light to channel is detrimental (see Takeaway #5). Write down as many practical things as you can think of that you’d like to have in your life. The list should include deep desires (ex. meaningful days, loving relationship with spouse, feeling of importance) and also simpler desires (ex. a new car, vacation, a clean home). Don’t move on to the next step until you feel that your list is complete.

Step #3 – ‘No’ as a container for ‘yes’

This is where you become the master over yourself (Takeaway #4). Choose any desire, put it in the center of a page, and mind-map all of the nos you’ll need to implement in order to accomplish that desire. Repeat with the rest of your desires. Examples:

Step #4- Change the ‘nos’ to ‘yeses’

Now re-write each no in a positive form, focusing on what the limit will accomplish, and put each statement on a separate flashcard. This step puts Takeaway #6 to practice. Examples (from the mind maps above):

“I will infuse every day with meaning by waking up early and joining the minyan”.

“I will get a new car by not slacking at work and hopefully getting a raise”.

“I will acquire a good self-image by not wearing revealing clothing”.

Step #4 is also the litmus test of whether ‘no’ is appropriate: if the ‘no’ cannot be written in a satisfactory positive form, then it is not channeling any good, and yes would be the appropriate answer in that case.

Step #5- Implementation, the צמצום way

As with everything, the implementation of the nos in your life must be done in a contracted way as well. Starting to do them all at once will result in failure to accomplish any of them. Therefore, flip through your deck of flashcards and choose 2-3 cards to work on for now. They can be fulfilling the same desire or not – your choice. Check back in two weeks. Ask yourself: am I solid in the nos that I have implemented? Am I ready to add another no to my life?” If yes – go for it! Add one no. If your current nos aren’t going easily, keep working on them and check back again in a week.

Remember, saying no to saying no now doesn’t mean you never will!


Contrary to what the world says, Chassidus teaches that saying ‘no’ displays one’s ultimate strength. Instead of focusing on all the things one can do, Chassidus shows a person to ask “To what should I say no in order to enable the manifestation of what I really want?”.

Because people generally like saying ‘yes’, the trick is to turn all of the nos into yeses; that’s what nos are essentially anyway. In using the Chassidic formula in cultivating a proper mindset of ‘no’, one not only mirrors the formula for creation, but also becomes the true master over his/her life.

[1]                  שיחות קודש, פרשת משפטים תשכ”ז, ס”ה, ע’ 341-342

[2]                  ספר המאמרים תרמ”ט, פרשת אחרי מות, אות ואו, ע’ רמב-רמד

[3]                  ספר המאמרים ,יום טוב של ראש השנה, תרס”ו, ש”פ יתרו, ע’ תקסב

[4]                  The source of the כלים is the העלם העצמי, the essential hiddenness of G-d. The העלם העצמי is beyond the level of light because light implies revelation to an ‘other’, whereas hiddenness is just G-d in His most essential, non-revealed, state. The technical way that כלים came about is through the letters of the רשימו which have the power of shaping and revealing the light, as discussed in the treatise.

[5]                  שיחות קודש, פרשת קרח תש”מ, סנ”ג-נ”ד, ע’ 466-467

[6]                  (Ethics of our Fathers, chapter 4, Mishna 1) ד, משנה א פרקי אבות, פרק

[7]                  משלי טז לב

[8]                  לקוטי שיחות חלק ל’ שיחה א’, אותיות א-ז

[9]                  The חסד in Yitzchak’s life can be seen in the following examples (among others): 1- the fact that he was born on Pesach, a time of spiritual kindness. 2- his name means laughing (צחוק=laughter). 3- the Torah says that Yitzchak was very successful. 4- Yitzchak was the fulfillment of Avraham’s blessing of having a multitude of descendants.

[10]                Yaakov describes Yitzchak with the term “פחד יצחק” – “the fear of Yitzchak”(בראשית לא, מב) alluding to the idea that Yitzchak excelled in the area of severity in the service of G-d.

[11]                תורת שמואל ספר תרל”ט, ע’ כז

[12]                Esav stems from the ‘waste products’ of the גבורה of Yitzchak, called סוספיתא דדהבא in the terminology of the Zohar

[13]                לקוטי שיחות חלק ו’, פרשת יתרו שיחה ב’, אותיות ט-י’, ע’ 124-127

[14]                לקוטי דיבורים, ליקוט ז’

[15]                To see an example of crayon resist art: