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NOTE: For a PDF copy of this segment, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 1]
Key Concepts of Mishlei 16-32 (Willpower)
Anyone can find himself in a situation where he is momentarily subject to powerful emotions such as anger, greed, love, jealousy, or hatred. If he is an intelligent person he will realize that thoughtlessly giving in to the force of his emotions is a self-destructive choice.
This is because emotions are by nature instinctive rather than rational. Giving in to an emotion may result in the right course of action or a foolish course of action. The only way a person can hope to know what is right is if he consciously delays his reaction until he has taken the time to think about what is happening.
It takes strength of character and willpower for a person to hold his emotions in check until he has had the opportunity to evaluate his situation and decide to the best of his ability how to proceed.
A typical situation where such a challenge arises is when a person feels resentment at being unfairly treated. If he allows his rational mind to go blank or “sees red” while he reacts with bitterness, he will probably regret it later. However, if he practices forbearance and resists hasty action, he will be grateful for being blessed with willpower.
Exploring Mishlei
(לב) טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר:
A man of forbearance is superior to a man of might, and a master of his emotions [is superior] to the conqueror of a city.
This proverb talks about the willpower that enables a person to show forbearance despite a justified feeling of anger. Mishlei compares such willpower to that which a fighter exerts when he forces his enemy to yield to him in a physical struggle. The point that Mishlei is making here is that it takes more willpower to control forces within a person than to make another person to yield to him in battle.
By praising the willpower needed to restrain oneself, Mishlei is encouraging the angry person to summon the internal strength that he needs to show forbearance.
The proverb continues with a second comparison, using the example of a conqueror instead of a fighter. The conqueror has even a greater challenge than a fighter because he needs to overcome the wishes of a large population and needs to get them to give up hope of independence. Despite the great willpower needed by such a conqueror, Mishlei points out that the ability to exert self-control in the face of powerful emotions is even greater. In addition to the basic emotions involved there is a powerful instinct to immediately get rid of uncertainty rather than continue to live with unresolved anger.
This is actually the fifth proverb to show the importance of forbearance in the face of provocation. Segment 15-18 summarizes the previous four proverbs dealing with this issue.
Learning Mishlei
(לב) טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר 
וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר:
A man of forbearance in the face his own feeling of anger is superior to a man of might — טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר . And a master of his emotions — וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ is superior to the conqueror of a city — מִלֹּכֵד עִיר .
Additional Insights
A series of insights illuminating this proverb are presented below. The numbers identifying the insights refer to the listing of sources at the end of the segment.
(1) The man of forbearance exerts his willpower by refraining from action. This can be very difficult. In contrast the fighter has it easier since he puts his energies into active battle.
(2) There is a difference between the man of forbearance ( אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם ) and the master of his emotions ( מֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ ). The man of forbearance waits until his anger calms down and then decides how to respond, if at all. However, the master of his emotions has completely overcome his anger and has no desire whatsoever to take vengeance.
(3) The master of his emotions controls other types emotion besides anger, including intense physical desires. This ability is more difficult to achieve and therefore he is compared to a man who conquers a city. Such a man is concerned not only with destruction, but with rebuilding the city according to his plans.
The primary sources used for the additional insights illuminating this segment are listed below.
(1) – מצודות
(2) – מלבים, רבינו יונה
(3) – הגר”א