Chesed and Gevura

26th of Nissan in the Year of the Corona Virus

As a grandparent of four, I often wonder about my unique role in sharing with my grandchildren the beauty and brilliance of Judaism. What are Jewish values and why do they matter? What makes them Jewish? How do I share these values with my grandchildren in a way that inspires them to learn more and to cultivate these values in their own lives?

Some of these answers can be found in this time of the year when we engage Sefirat HaOmer, the practice of counting each of the 49 days from the second night of Pesach until Shavuot. This essay was written on day 12 of the counting of the Omer in 2020.

The word Omer literally means “sheaf.” This period, between Pesach and Shavuot, is the beginning of the barley harvest when in ancient times the Jews would bring early offerings of the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest.

Over the centuries the meaning of Shavuot has broadened to include the giving of the Torah. So, this period of time recalls a process of physical freedom, but also as a journey of liberation of the soul, or spirit.  Spiritual liberation is achieved through inner growth, the cultivation of middot, or soul traits or character, through self-reflection and inner work. These soul traits already exist within us; our work is to remove the barriers to their fullest and wisest expression in the world, in relationship with other beings.

The Kabbalists attributed each of these seven weeks of counting to a different middah, corresponding to one of the seven lower sephirot[1] or the seven lower branches of the Tree of Life. The middah for the first week, chesed, is loving kindness. The second week, which we are in now, (at the time of this writing), is gevurah, power or strength.  And so on for each of the seven weeks as we descend the tree of life.

The most common interpretation of chesed is loving-kindness, but I invite you to see chesed as loving connection, the deep truth that we are all connected in love. The poet Janie Hirshfeld writes that “we feel like separate water droplets – but we are also ocean.” This middah is essential because most of the time, we lose touch with how interconnected we are. I feel this more acutely, paradoxically, in this time of confinement, when although my physical body is separate, I feel how much of my well-being in this world depends upon everyone and everything else. We truly are all interconnected and interdependent.

It feels effortless to be in touch with my chesed essence when I am with my grandchildren, when my overflowing love is unbounded by the everyday obligations of parenthood. Discipline? Boundaries? Well, I can pay less attention to these because I am free from the responsibilities of child-rearing. I depend upon their parents to provide those limits. I know they are fed healthy meals so if they want dessert before dinner when they come to visit me, I’m usually happy to oblige!

But we can’t ignore the importance of gevurah, and in fact do so at our peril. The definition of gevurah is power, or strength. But it could also mean setting wise limits and boundaries.  Wise limits contain our love in healthy, protective, and flexible structures. Although our essence is chesed, if left unchecked it will run away with itself. What makes loving connection powerful is balancing our chesed with gevurah. This results in a stronger chesed that can be directed, and a gevurah of flexible but clear limits.

Chesed is our essence, but gevurah is the essence of creation, and our creativity. Gevurah protects our loving energy and gives it power. Chesed left unbounded dissipates. Gevurah without chesed becomes ossified, devoid of the life force within us.

In my grand parenting life, I rejoice in expressing the unending love and chesed that I feel, and yet I am mindful of my need to respect the gevurah, or boundaries that my children have set, and to see these limits as gifts, as long as they remain flexible and enjoined with the chesed that inspires their creation, binding us to one another in loving connection. .

May we move forward in our work as grandparents, remaining in touch with the deep river of chesed within us, infused with gevurah. May we grandparent Jewishly and wisely, setting emotional, spiritual and structural boundaries so that our love is powerful and transformative.

A Poem (author unknown)

Furled tops of red pop
at the tip of every maple branch
bright against a clouded sky.

I know there’s blue
stretching above that white ceiling
even when I can’t see it,

I know beyond our thin atmosphere
we’re cradled in the vastness of space,
even when I feel stuck in my skin

In the seclusion of social distancing
cloaked in masks and gloves,
unable to touch

[1] Sefirot; Hebrew: סְפִירוֹת, meaning emanations, are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals Himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms

Terry Rosenberg is a member of the Jewish Grandparents Network National Advisory Board and the immediate past Chair of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, board member, Mayyim Haim, Boston. Terry is a grandmother of four.