Working within your limits


Rabbi Josh Feigelson reflects on the Jewish value of “gevura” and offers a mindfulness practice for setting limits with awareness and self-compassion.

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I have three children: Jonah, Micah, and Toby.

When Jonah and Micah were little, I remember they would come downstairs when they woke up and I’d say, “Good morning! What would you like for breakfast?” Normal question.

But then there would be this inevitable, unsatisfying back and forth. 

“I dunno.”



“Corn flakes?” 




“Well, tell me what you *do* want.”

“I dunno.”

After it went on like this for a minute, I’d wind up deciding for them. “Okay, here’s some Cheerios. Take it or leave it.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

If you have been a parent or a child–and all of us have been at least one of those–then some version of this exchange might sound familiar. It’s annoying and frustrating. It never made me feel good about myself, and something always bothered me about it.

One day it hit me: I was starting with the wrong question. “What do you want for breakfast?” is way too open-ended. It puts so much work on the kid, especially early in the morning. And it also suggests something a little too… maybe presumptuous–as though I’m enabling my kids to feel “of course I can have whatever I want for breakfast… My children have, thank God, never known hunger or deprivation. But, really, I want them to be aware of the gift of food and of the privilege it is to even have choices in the morning.

So I changed the question — I narrowed it. Instead of asking, “What do you want for breakfast?” I shifted, very subtly, to “Which of these would you like: Cheerios, corn flakes, or pancakes?” Three options, choose one. Less work for them, less negotiating for me, and a little more sense that I’m not a custom-order private chef at their beck and call.

Another way to understand what I did here was that I shifted from the open-ended value of Hesed, that expansive loving connection we talked about in our last episode, to the more limiting and containing value of Gevura, or setting wise boundaries, which is our theme for this week. [Quick refresher: We’re in the second week of the Omer period, which runs for seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.]

In effect, I said, “Yes, I love you; that’s the hesed part, why I’m taking care of your breakfast for you. But no, gevura also matters. You can’t have anything you want. There are limits to what I can do, so let’s work within those limits.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

I don’t know about you, but I’m prone to over-committing. It’s uncomfortable to say no. I want people to be happy — so I want to say yes! But saying yes too often and too easily can quickly become a problem for everyone.

In our Jewish mindfulness practice, we can think of Gevura as the natural complement to Hesed. You can’t really have one without the other.

If Hesed is that loving connection that motivates us to care for others, to give selflessly, to sacrifice our time and energy and money, Gevura is what helps us to say, “You know, I’m only human. I can’t go on infinitely. I need some rest. I need some food. I need some alone time.” Gevura is the mindfulness practice of setting limits, of saying no with awareness and self-compassion.

If Hesed is that loving connection that motivates us to care for others, to give selflessly…Gevura is what helps us to say, “I’m only human. I can’t go on infinitely. I need some rest.”

Gevura is a virtue I feel like I need to work on a lot. Here’s one way I try to do that, and you’re invited to try it out too. Either right now, or next time you get a five-minute break.

Are you ready? Okay.

Close your eyes. Try to visualize someone coming to you with a really exciting and heartfelt request. Maybe it’s your friend asking if you can go out tonight when you know you also have a big exam soon. Maybe it’s someone from work asking you to take on some new responsibility. Maybe it’s a sibling, or a child of yours, who really wants to do something fun with you. 

Try to imagine the sensations here and really feel them. If you’re like me, you want to say yes! Maybe you’re feeling flattered. Maybe you don’t want to let this person down. Maybe you’re afraid of disappointing them. Maybe it’s another sensation, or a combination of them. Just notice the feelings.

Now, here’s the crucial part: Pause. You might even say, “Huh — I notice excitement is arising.” Or: “Flattery.” Or: “Fear of disappointment.” The point is to name it. Put your finger on the sensation, the feeling that’s coming up.

And, create a little separation. You are not these feelings! You have a choice! And. Before you make that choice, while you’re still in this pause zone, think ahead a little bit: What might happen if I say yes to this? Are there other commitments I won’t be able to keep? Is it going to cost me sleep or time or exercise, or something else important?

Before you make that choice…think ahead a little bit. What might happen if I say yes to this? Are there other commitments I won’t be able to keep? Is it going to cost me sleep or time or exercise, or something else important?

Try to visualize what it might be like a month from now if you say yes. If the image that comes to mind includes letting people down later on — or being exhausted or sick or anxious— remind yourself: I have a choice to make here. I have the power of choice.

Give yourself permission. Encouragement even: It’s not just okay to say no. It might well be good to say no. Because by saying no to this, I’m saying yes to other important things. 

Then try out how it feels to say no. Does it feel better than if you had just reactively said yes?

I want to tell you: I find this to be such a hard practice. But it’s so important. In our world that is so connected all the time, it can feel difficult if not impossible to create good boundaries. But we are human beings. Our bodies, our minds, our spirits need time and space.

Gevura is about giving ourselves that time and space, about saying no to some things so that we can offer a full-hearted yes to others. So give this practice a try — and let us know how it goes for you.

Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.

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