October 11, 2011
Preserving our story
Some months ago, I was asked by a group of Christian pastors to lead a series of study sessions on Jewish mysticism. We agreed to explore Isaac Luria’s late medieval kabbalistic model.
For readers less familiar with the subject of kabbalah, all you need to know about Lurianic kabbalah is that it presumes several Divine Attributes, or spiritual traits, that align in pairs as they descend from the Divine realm into our world must either counterbalance or complement one another.
When studying with the group of pastors, two counterbalancing Divine Attributes emerged as an important and fascinating topic of conversation. Chesed, unbound and unceasing lovingkindness, and gevurah, willingness and strength to withhold it when advisable, seemed at first to be simple and straightforward enough as a pair. To love unconditionally is an important virtue; forgiveness, generosity and other virtues stem from this attribute. On the other hand, to know when and how to limit a loving disposition for the sake of self-preservation is vitally important, both for individuals and communities, and even for nations and societies.
One pastor asked a practical question that generated considerable reflection: How can one know where to draw the line? When should chesed end and gevurah begin?
Between sources consulted, life experiences and pastoral insights, we each posited numerous responses: draw the line when the law is broken; implement gevurah when someone is at risk of being (irreparably) hurt; the welfare of the community must be taken into account; etc.
At our next study session, I suggested an alternative line in the sand, another way to know when it is time for chesed to be limited, if not withdrawn entirely, and for gevurah to be threatened credibly if not implemented entirely. Our identities as individuals and as communities, as ethnic groups and as nations, are born of our personal or collective experiences. To the extent that data is available, our stories can be validated as factual histories more objectively, whether they are ancient, of a more recent past or yesterday’s news.
There is little that is more dispiriting to anyone — be it an individual, a nation or anything in between — than to deny the existence of its story or history (so long as it is not patently false and does not deprive anyone else of his or her own existence). To steal someone’s story constitutes an act of spiritual homicide, and it has served throughout history as a desensitizing and deligitimizing precursor to attempts at horrific persecution and even genocide, often perpetrated against the Jewish people.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are guilty of attempting to rob the Jewish people of our story, not only years and months ago, but right now, this month, and with much of the world’s complicity.
What Lurianic kabbalah teaches, in effect, is that if the victim of the history/story theft has enough gevurah to act to stop the theft and fails to act, the corollary to the spiritual homicide that would then occur is, in effect, an act of spiritual suicide. It is a choice not to use your gevurah to stop an aggressor, if you have enough gevurah to stop them. And, if the bystanders and onlookers of such an occurrence are powerful enough to act in defense of the victim and choose not to do so, they, too, are far from blameless.
Chesed extended beyond its limits is not a reasonable strategic choice of engagement; it is an irresponsible and unconscionable act of appeasing an abuser at the expense of a victim. And once gevurah is lost and cannot be implemented effectively to save one’s story — or, heaven forbid, one’s life — chesed is lost as well.
On Sukkot, we celebrate our liberation from Egypt, reminding ourselves that while the Egyptians enslaved us to build for them structures of brick and mortar, God provided for us ample shelter in the harsh desert with mere huts of twigs, under the cover of clouds. We recall how only decades thereafter, in similar sukkot (huts), we began an uninterrupted chain of thousands of years of harvesting the land God promised to us, the Land of Israel.
Let us be sure to keep both our Jewish story and our Jewish history safe and secure, balancing chesed and gevurah carefully and supporting the democratically selected leadership of the State of Israel with our advocacy on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship, as Israel’s government seeks to protect Israel’s story and that of the Jewish People from those who mean it, and Israel, grievous harm. Let us celebrate our ancient story and history this Sukkot — and always!