Transcending Ourselves

One of the hardest challenges any of us face is changing ourselves.  While everyone agrees that growth and development are good, even changes we desire are often hard to make.  When called to outgrow things we’re comfortable with, see as admirable, and which receive a lot of outside praise for, it becomes close to impossible.

Avraham faced this very challenge when commanded by God to offer his beloved son, Yitzchak, as a sacrifice.  Not only did he have to overcome his own innate personality which, we’re frequently reminded, was based on Chesed, loving-kindness, he also had to change his entire understanding of God Whom he had also seen as almost exclusively Chesed.

As we approach the mystical side of Judaism, one of the first concepts we meet is the Sefirot, divine energies which correspond to personality traits, the seven “lower” ones often arranged on the Eitz Chayim, the tree of life.  In this schema, the sefirot/traits on the right side, headed by Chesed, seem most attractive and favored.  Chesed itself is also called Ahava, love, and Gedola, expansiveness, while the left side is topped by Gevura, strength, which is also called Din, strict judgement, or Yirah, both awe and also fear, and is related to the concept of Tzimtzum, contraction.

Likewise, we tend to admire people we associate with love and kindness and generosity and giving.  While we admit the need, and often have at least grudging respect, for stricter, more organized and disciplined people, we’re less often drawn to them.

Many of us have the custom, when opening a new bottle of wine, to add a drop of two of water.  One of several reasons for this custom relates to the teaching that God’s first thought of creating our world was to base it entirely on Din, justice, but when he saw that we would not be able to withstand so strict and unforgiving an environment, he mixed in some Chesed as well.  One should note, though, that the wine, itself, dominates the flavor, not the water.

The obvious reality is that both sides of the tree are vital to the continued existence of our world.  Even the most beautiful and altruistic goals need hard work, organization and discipline to become more than just pretty thoughts.  While a society can and should reward and promote good deeds, unfortunately, that’s rarely sufficient to protect the weaker among us–as distasteful as it might be, we also have to get our own hands dirty punishing wrong-doers as well.  As most responsible and loving parents have learned, as much as we wish the carrot of reward always effective, not availing ourselves to punishment when necessary really doesn’t help the child but, rather, merely strokes our self-image with a mistaken idea of kindness.  And, as our tradition teaches, if you’re kind to the cruel you end up being cruel to the kind.

So, it’s not hard to see why Avraham was so deeply vested in Chesed.  Also, this being his dominant inclination, it would be even more difficult for him to see beyond it.  Nonetheless, his belief and trust in God, his humility in realizing that his own ideas and viewpoint could never be complete and foolproof, allowed him integrate Din/Gevura into his worldview, passing the tenth and most difficult of his tests/trials/miracle/signposts (some of the meanings associated with the word נסיון, Nisayon, the word to describe Avraham’s trials).

As I often teach, one of the reasons our observances are cyclical is because we need to continue growing, always resisting complaisance.  No matter how proud we are of last years Pesach insights, in order to reach our next level of freedom we need to let them go and reach even higher, knowing that next year these gems will also have to be released.  It takes great Emuna, belief, that we really can reach the next level and the next and then the next after that.  For Avraham to see beyond Chesed, to incorporate the hardness of Gevura to create the balance we call Tiferet, beauty, we should be inspired to always look higher, dig deeper take each next step in our journeys.

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