WES Counts the Omer: April 18, 2017
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Week Two: Gevurah / Strength and Restraint
This second week of Counting the Omer focuses on Gevurah. In this context, Gevurah is one of those words whose plain translation in English does not convey the layering of meaning implicit in the Hebrew term. Gevurah balances Chesed in Kabbalistic terms and means self-restraint, the strength required to limit our exuberance and our impulses, the strength that enables us to channel our energies most usefully.
Alan Morinis, “Gevurah: Learning to draw the line on our desires,” (excerpted), http://www.jewishpathways.com
A man who does not restrain his own spirit is likened to a breached city without a protective wall. (Proverbs 25:28)
The middah or soul-trait of gevurah means “strength.” It shows up in many places and many ways, and you can read an entire newspaper as a commentary on the role of gevurah in public and private life. Are the police using too much unrestrained power? Should the government draw the line on certain behaviors that are happening in society? Was the family lax in discipline? Where’s the limit to the display of sexuality on television and advertising?
Take a look at the daily news from this point of view and you will see what an important trait gevurah is, and how illuminating it is to bring this framework to understanding ordinary events.
In Mussar thought, the strength that concerns us is not the power to move mountains, but the strength you need to overcome your greatest challenge: yourself. This is an especially important concern for our generation because we live surrounded by a culture that exuberantly celebrates self-indulgence, the very opposite quality of self-restraint.
The notion of “self-restraint” can scare us off because it makes us feel like we are setting ourselves up to lose something. The truth is that you stand to gain much more than whatever loss you might incur, because even as you muster the strength to say no to the body, no to desire, no to habit… at the same time, you are saying yes… yes to the soul.
Exercising self-restraint has always been difficult. Maybe that’s why a form of the word gevurah – gibor – means “hero” in Hebrew. Self restraint is nothing less than a heroic act!
Week Two (2016): Gevurah/Boundaries and Limits
We begin our second week of Omer Counting. Today, we begin the week of Gevurah–the week of exploring boundaries and limits. Earlier this year in values-based discussions at West End, many of us were uncomfortable with the emphasis on boundaries that appeared in the description of several of the values. So this, for us, might be a week to examine why the idea of boundaries was so off-putting to so many of us.
As our discussions proceeded, we exchanged the word boundaries for membranes along with several other alternatives. We recognized that these boundaries do not have to be walls; in using the word membrane, we recognized the various types of membranes that exist–impermeable, semi-permeable and permeable.
In the same way, we may want to recognize that some, perhaps all, of our values cannot be seen as absolutes; i.e., this is the right way to live by this value, that way is bad. Instead, we might want to see our values as existing on continua with markers for “good”/ “bad,” “right” / “wrong,” “useful” / “hurtful” often in flux.
Perhaps this week of Gevurah can be a week when we think carefully about the boundaries in our lives, the ways in which they may protect us, and the ways in which they may harm us.
Day Eight: Chesed of Gevurah, Lovingkindness at the Heart of Our Strength
In the piece that I wrote last year to introduce the theme of this second week of Counting the Omer, to introduce Gevurah, I recalled West End’s discussions about boundaries. We shied away from the ideas of walls (and how much, this year, do we all shy from building walls [sorry, brief political moment, I’ll try to limit them]) and instead spoke of membranes that might be impermeable, semi-permeable and permeable. Perhaps that is where our Chesed comes into this idea of Gevurah—when we allow our lovingkindness to make our boundaries breachable, to allow them to become semi-permeable and permeable.
As Reconstructionists, we know that our religion continues to evolve and that our understanding, our study and our practices are in process, with regular growth and minor adjustments. Perhaps we might wish to understand our values as also in process. This is not to suggest that they are “situational” and change at the drop of a hat. But they evolve.
Many years ago, I was in conversation with West End’s then-rabbi about our practices in the case of a member’s death when both members of the couple were not Jewish. The rabbi was very clear about when we would support a shiva minyan and when we would not. Since I held different views, I decided to continue the discussion by personalizing it. “Okay,” I said, “what if it is [a particular non-Jew, heaven forbid] who dies and [name withheld] wants to sit shiva, are you saying we wouldn’t support that?” “Well, of course, we would,” replied the rabbi. “And, what if the situation is reversed,” I asked, “and it is [same name withheld above] who dies and [the particular non-Jew] wants to sit shiva, what would we do?” “Well, of course, we would be there,” responded the rabbi.
Sometimes, a way to test the membrane of an ethical value is to put actual names on a situation and see if that alters what you think is the “right” behavior. Sometimes, we find that our views and values have evolved without our noticing and sometimes we find that our values remain unshaken. Evolution can be a very slow process and we should remain impervious to the siren call of change for change sake. However, Judaism would urge us to heed the call of chesed and find ways to permeate our restraints and limits with lovingkindness.
It’s interesting. We worry that in our modern era, we have become too loose about maintaining our ethics but Judaism has always evolved in response to the tensions of the world in which Jews found themselves.
Susan R. Schorr
Day 8 (2016): Chesed of Gevurah, Lovingkindness in Our Boundaries
Too often, we make judgments quickly and too often, we make judgments harshly. We draw lines—lines separating us from others, lines drawing us away from how others have acted. What would it be like if every time we judged, we then stopped to ask if our judgment might be lightened or changed by allowing chesed / lovingkindness to also have its say?
Day 8 (2015): The Chesed of Gevurah, Lovingkindness in Justice and Strength
A week ago, the message about Gevurah of Chesed was about the boundaries in lovingkindness, those we need to protect ourselves and those that keep us from doing what we might. Today, we invert that to talk about finding the lovingkindness in our strengths and our boundaries. That seems the harder task. When we are focused on being strong and disciplined, it can seem a reversal to focus on love and kindness. Rabbi Simon Jacobson below suggests that we focus on the way the discipline we impose on ourselves and on others is an expression of love.
I’d like to offer another approach based on something I read in a posting on a Huffington Post blog. Perhaps the lovingkindness we seek to find on this day in justice and strength is the help that others can give us so that we can be strong. And the lovingkindness that we can offer to others is to bolster their strength. When the Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites, Joshua led the fighters while Moses held high the “rod of God” from the top of a nearby hill. In Exodus 17:11-12, it says “whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.” Even Moses needed help from his brother and brother-in-law to be as strong as the Israelites needed him to be.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson’s Daily Omer Meditations
The underlying intention and motive in discipline is love. Why do we measure our behavior, why do we establish standards and expect people to live up to them ― only because of love. Chesed of gevurah is the love in discipline; it is the recognition that your personal discipline and the discipline you expect of others is only an expression of love. It is the understanding that we have no right to judge others; we have a right only to love them and that includes wanting them to be their best.
Ask yourself: when I judge and criticize another is it in any way tinged with any of my own contempt and irritation? Is there any hidden satisfaction in his failure? Or is it only out of love for the other?
Exercise for the day: Before you criticize someone today, think twice: Is it out of concern and love?
Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, “Counting of the Omer,” Posted April 25, 2016 to RavBlog, Reform Rabbis Speak
These days, with four small children in our house, I count a lot. I inventory lunches and shoes and loads of laundry. I track little back packs and waters bottles and ouchies. I measure fevers and hours of screen time and outside play. I tally toys and turns and the children themselves every few minutes. Every day fills itself with small, sometimes forgotten numbers.
When each of my children were born, we counted their lives according to hours, or feedings, or dirty diapers. As they aged, the measuring stick dilated into weeks or months, but never much longer than that. Ella, my first child, was only sixteen months when Aidan was born; and the twins, Daniel and David, followed just twenty four months and one week later. Now, for more than half a decade – since my pregnancy with Ella – I counted our lives in days, sometimes in weeks, and occasionally, in months. But the twins marked the last pregnancy my body can healthily carry. As they age, the measuring stick lengthens and stretches with their no-longer-so-little bodies. And steadily, my subconscious practice of counting the time since their birth in days, then weeks, then months faded into the bittersweet ease of measuring their lives in years.
The practice of the counting of the Omer reminds us of each day’s preciousness. Some days are more exciting than others (I’m looking at you, Lag B’Omer) but every day merits a blessing. Marking and measuring the small things, the circadian passage of time, is what makes up the majority of our lives. Bigger milestones come and go, and I am grateful for them. But the counting of the Omer reminds me again of the joys of measuring our time in smaller increments.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer’s “Omer Calendar of Biblical Women”Chesed she’begevurah
- Love within Strength
Eve (Chava) (Genesis 2-4)
Eve is a new creature, dwelling in a perfect garden full of fruits of all kind, but she and her male partner have been limited in one way: they are forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When Eve disobeys God and eats the forbidden fruit, she and Adam are punished with mortality and exile. Yet the fruit Eve picks also gives her wisdom and self-knowledge. All the humans that ever come to exist are born because of Eve’s decision to disobey God. Out of the gevurah, the judgment, that God decrees comes the chesed, the ongoing expansion of the generations that descend from Adam and Eve.
Eve’s life continues to hold limitations. She has to work hard for her living and suffers pain in childbirth. Her second-born son is murdered by her first-born son. Yet she does not give up the potential for love. She goes on to have another child, and she names him Seth, meaning foundation or gift. She is able to feel love and gratitude in spite of what she has suffered. Chesed shebegevurah is the knowledge that our lives are limited, finite vessels, but they are still full of love.