How’s Your Gevurah?
“How’s your gevurah?” I was asked this recently by a rabbi. It took me a minute to understand what she meant. She used the Ashkenaz pronunciation (geh-VOO-rah), literally meaning strength. In the Kabbalistic system, gevurah is one of the ten attributes (sephirot) through which the Ein Sof, the Limitless Unknowable One, reveals Him/Her/Itself. God is said to always be balancing between gevurah – a spirit of righteous judgment – and chesed, rachmanes —mercy and boundless kindness. We humans, too, must find a balance between these aspects of ourselves.
“How’s your gevurah?” I don’t know about you, but I struggle with mine. As a woman, I feel I am not encouraged to express it. I’m told I should be soft, kind, forgiving. I’m uncomfortable with conflict, but gevurah will have its say and sometimes I end up being too fierce or too rigid. Wishy-washy or ferocious – not the best choices! When is it time for a clear, discerning judgment, and when is it time to simply be kind? Can we manage both?
The Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh (the new month), Isaiah 66, contains both the merciful and the judging aspects of God. It offers surprisingly graphic imagery of Jerusalem as a nursing mother, who will “suckle” us and “dandle us on her knees,” but it begins with a statement of God’s vast might – “the earth is my footstool. What house could you build for me and what place could be my resting place?”
This is the same God who, when Job complains of his suffering, answers, “So nu? Where were you when I built the world?” In other words, God is too big to explain God’s self. In addition to consolation, Isaiahoffers a threat of God’s fierce justice: “For behold, Adonai will come in fire – to vent His anger with wrath and His rebuke with flaming fire. For Adonai will enter into judgment in fire, and His sword against all flesh…”
We wince at this depiction of God. We’ve all heard the canard against Judaism – that our “Old Testament” is a vengeful, bloodthirsty document and our God is a pitiless one who has been superseded by the limitlessly merciful Jesus. Yet in fact, Jesus didn’t hesitate to throw out the money-lenders from the Temple, or to rant at the Pharisees for what he saw as their hypocrisy.Like the prophets before him, Jesus balanced his chesed with his gevurah.
How do we find the spirit of discerning justice in ourselves, the spirit that sets limits? Simon Jacobson writes, “If love (chesed) is the bedrock of human expression, discipline (gevurah) is the channels through which we express love. It gives our life and love direction and focus. […]Another aspect of gevurah is respect and awe. Healthy love requires respect for the one you love.”Are we finding the right balance? Are we compassionate enough? Fair enough? Do we speak up for justice when it needs to be spoken for? Do we act with love when someone needs us? How far apart are these two qualities really – gevurah and chesed? Does a mother really love her children if she doesn’t set limits or tell them when they are doing wrong? Does a father really love his children if he doesn’t hug them and hold them and “dandle them on his knee”?
I write this the day after Rosh Chodesh Elul. I took my shofar outside this morning and blew: tekiah, shevarim, teruah! Today we begin again our annual process of teshuvah – of return. We hear the call of the shofar, reminding us to choose blessing over curse – the blessing of being a complete human being, acting as we are made, in the image of God. What averts God’s stern decree from us? The High Holy Day Amidah, “U’Netanehtokef” tells us: u’teshuvah, u’t’fillah, u’tzedaka. Return — to our better natures, to our holiness; prayer – the practice of deep peaceful connection with the Divine; and tzedaka – acts of justice. Tzedaka is not charity –from Latin caritas, it means unconditional love. Tzedaka is based in Tzedek – justice. Our gevurah directs us toward Tzedek and tzedaka. Our gevurah directs us to social justice, toward doing the right thing even when it is hard. So – Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik. May we go from strength to strength, balancing justice and mercy.