Strength of Spirit, Disciplines of Love

what-is-your-greatest-strength2Week two of the Omer count: Gevurah, i.e. strength, discipline, judgment.

Reflect on two different explorations of the meaning of gevurah, one based on Biblical language; one based on the thoughts of a great Kabbalistic teacher.


Beyond Physical Strength (2014/5774)

The word gevurah appears in the Tanakh only five times. It has its roots in gibbor, military hero. But gevurah offers a unique interpretation of the root: strength flows not from military might, but from justice, wisdom, knowledge, and humility.

God has gevurah, strength beyond any earthly army, but the real “foundations of God’s throne are righteousness and justice” (Psalm 89:14). Wisdom says: “I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have understanding; therefore, I have gevurah” (Proverbs 8:14). Establishing gevurah requires knowledge; thus God asks the too-proud Job, “Can you give a horse gevurah?” (Job 39:19). Gevurah is an attribute of the archetypal divine ruler; so King David reminds us at the coronation of his son Solomon, who establishes his reign through wisdom (I Chronicles 29:11).

Isn’t it odd that a single word, gevurah, can refer to so many kinds of strength? “Strength” is an example of what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) called a “family resemblance concept.” We can’t pin it down with one essential definition; instead, it refers to a network of related qualities. In your own experience, how is physical strength related to strength of character, strength of conviction, or depth of insight?

We know a lot about systematically developing physical strength, through programs of good nutrition and exercise. You probably have such a program – and this is a good week to check in with yourself on how it’s going. Most of us know a bit less about developing other kinds of strength. What is your personal program for establishing habits of justice, or for inquiring into deeper understanding of self, others, and the world?


Discipline DilemmaDiscipline Dilemma (5773/2013)

In some of his writings, Sigmund Freud describes the human psyche as composed of id, ego, and superego. The id is a set of natural, passionate, un-socialized drives. The ego mediates between the id and the demands of the social world, channeling the id constructively. The superego judges the ego’s work, using criteria taught by parents at the early stages of socialization.

When Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (aka the Ramak, 1522-1570) discusses the sephirah of gevurah, he presents ideas similar to Freud’s. Our human psyche includes a yetzer hara. Traditionally translated as “evil inclination,” the yetzer hara is actually a set of instinctive drives that can be channeled well or poorly.

When the yetzer hara is poorly directed, gevurah, judgment, is aroused. The superego speaks within a person, offering self-criticism. The Divine Parent also judges the person negatively. But simple awareness of negative judgments is not sufficient to redirect the yetzer hara.

Only chesed, love for others, can set a person on the right course. Only the ego’s appreciation for social life can channel the yetzer hara to a constructive end. Suppose, for example, the yetzer hara is aroused by materialism. Add in chesed, and a person may amass wealth so that they can share it with others. Suppose the yetzer hara is erotically aroused. Add in chesed, and a person may use their passion to bond with a partner.

In other words, teaches the Ramak, effective gevurah, discipline, can only be created with chesed, love.

Where in your life have you tried to create discipline and failed? How might love help you in that area?

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