haYom sh’mona yomim, sh’heim shavua echad v’yom echad, laOmer: chesed she b’gevurah

” a Torah scholar must learn 3 things: writing, ritual slaughter, and circumcision”

so we learn in Talmud, Hullin 9a, that a wise scholar, a talmid hakham, must be not only a rabbi, but also a sofer, a shochet, and a mohel.  the wise must master both pen and sword. as he wields the pen, the talmid may but incisive, cutting in distinctions with understandings. creating worlds of severity as easily as words of gentleness. we in the west hold that the pen is mightier than the sword, that the power of words is so great that it can bring about cessation of war.  mere words, no matter how old, in something like the US Constitution, can control the actions of the most mighty military on the planet currently.

so it is in Torah. you must offer words of peace before you besiege or sack a city (Deuteronomy 20:10-12; Leviticus 7:11).  the ways of Torah are pleasant and all its paths peace.

consider the parallel but somewhat different way of bushido, requiring the samurai to be proficient at both pen and sword, anchoring them most memorably in the death poem that would be written immediately before the ritual self-disemboweling of seppuku. a striking 14th century example from Shiaku Nyudo:

“holding forth this sword/ i cut vacuity in twain;/ in the midst of the great fire,/ a stream of refreshing breeze.”

but i cannot imagine the prophet Jeremiah, in whose bones burned the Word of G’d (20:9), taking up a sword to release the great fire within him. instead he opened his mouth and spoke forth in gevurah, pointing out that Israel had sinned its way into its sorry state, but giving also the balm of promised deliverance.

in the wielding of the sword of the shochet, the word comes first in blessing. the killing of animals for food and for sacrifices is a divine compromise with the bloodlust of humankind from the time of Noach. we are all gevurah in our desire for meat.

we are all chesed, however, in the rules of slaughter. the knife must kill with a single carefully placed and swiftly drawn stroke. the blade used must be minutely inspected for nicks and other irregularites before use and AGAIN immediately afterward.  the slightest flaw is thought to be able to give pain to the animal being killed. if flaw is found after the cut, the carcass is rendered treif, ‘torn’ and not kosher for consumption by jews. such carcasses will instead be sold to nonjews, unless, of course, they are following the same stringent guidelines.

the injection of chesed into gevurah makes us careful molders of our moral world (with physical effects in the case of slaughter). we are locked into the interplay between the two. even if we elect not to eat meat, kosher or otherwise, we require kosher parchment for mezuzot and Torah scrolls, and kosher leather for t’fillin.  the emergence of eco-kashrut adds yet another set of considerations into our moments of gevurah, of stern consumption and taking; a chesed, loving-kindness, for the environment on a larger scale than that of the intimacy of shochet and animal. every bit of consumption we do, all of which is the product of consuming selection, measurement, technological repurposing, and a taking, must come under strictures of caring for what is consumed.

chesed in gevurah is symbolized beautifully in the touch of circumcision, a cutting that is the seal-making of covenant. it is the sword made into a pen to mark the covenantal agreement in each generation. seppuku of foreskin.

mussar for chesed she b’gevurah

chesed -gevurah with another….bein adam l’chaveiro   the Rabbis teach that the court that sentences any to death more than once in 70 years is cruel, yet the death penalty is not forbidden. it is the way it is used–more importantly–the merciful (chesed) seeking of ways not impose it that matters.  we learn that ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ is forbidden through the standard of loving your neighbor as yourself. painless as you would want your own death should be the death of another….if die anyone must.  when you feel wronged, you are exercising gevurah, but G’d decided at the time of Creations that the world could not survive in strong justice alone. extend forgiveness to one who has hurt or offended you today.

chesed-gevurah with yourself….bein adam l’atzmo   our everyday actions have effects beyond what we anticipate, and the direction of those effects can be either good or bad. when you take a decision, any decision, you are exercising the power of your judgment, your spirit in gevurah. are you being careful to decide with both good and bad unexpected consequences in mind?  consider carefully how people may view your actions, for nothing you do has effect only on you. seek to act in the world today in ways that will be kiddush haShem, that is, that will project the holiness of the Name of G’d into the minds of those around you.

kabbalah for chesed she b’gevurah

in assiyah….the world of doing/completion   most of you are returning to eating chametz after the constraint of matzah for the last week. you are now free and you may enjoy the taste of freedom. but lessons learned through restraint during Passover should linger thereafter. meditate on the ways restraint should work to mold freedom….and savor both the blessing and the taste of that first piece!

in yetzirah….the world of feeling/formation   in the aleinu prayer, we refer to G’d as ‘yotzer breishit‘, the former of Creation. this suggest not a momentary blast of power, but a contemplative manipulation of the stuff of creation.  we create ourselves by way of manipulating our own feelings, modulating between decision making, and letting decisions be made for us.  contemplate on when you have exercised your own power in forcing a decision. have you ever felt better after not taking a decision that you once thought unavoidable?

in b’riyah….the world of thought/creation   the famous house of Shammai was said to be always very strict in assessing halachah. the house of Hillel was said to have been more liberal in its decisions on how we should behave.  yet we are told that both opinions are correct, both left and right of the tree are correct. study some Torah and then imagine a strict way of interpretation and a liberal way.  meditate on how you will bring both to bear in your own thoughts and actions.

in atzilut….the world of nearness to G’d/intuition  “kol haneshamah tehallel y-h, halleluyah” how do you hallel, praise G’d now? do you quietly mouth the words in the siddur, relying on silence to carry you message? do you sing out loud to push your words heavenward? do you shout the primal holler?  cry tears that flow to G’d?  try a method today that is not your usual way. try one that your sense of decorum does not allow usually, and learn from it.

kinyan 8 of 48 ways to acquire Torah

Taharah….Purity.  Rambam teaches (Moreh Nevuchim) that we are where our mind is. if we are thinking G’dly thoughts, we are closer to him than when we are dreaming of material pleasures….or planning our next consumer purchase.  the mind is where we both glean words of Torah and develop teachings. it will only be as ritually fit for that purpose as we keep it so.  we wear tzitzit to keep from following our eyes into paths of thought that are unworthy, let alone to keep from acting in ways that are hillul haShem (profanation of the Name of G’d).

“those who love a pure heart and are gracious in speech will have the King as a friend”

(Proverbs 22:11)

how important is it to keep loading our brain with the good? consider the story told by the followers of Kotzk:

once a person came up to the Kotzker Rebbe saying that his prayers are always interrupted by ‘foreign thoughts.’  the Kotzker Rebbe turned in surprise and said plainly, ‘foreign thoughts? they are not foreign. they are your own!

so, what do you think?

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