Gevurah... strength, fierceness, and resistance!

Gevurah means strength, but is alternately explained as fierceness, judgment, limitation, or bravery. On the map of the Kabbalistic tree of life, it sits opposite Chesed (lovingkindess, compassion).

This evening begins the 14th day of the Counting of the Omer... the final day in the second of seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) tradition makes an explicit link between "sefira"(counting) and "sefirot" (the Divine emanations, or aspects of God). Each week of Sefirat Ha-Omer is associated with one of God's special qualities; this second week is the week of Gevurah.

Gevurah means strength, but is alternately explained as fierceness, judgment, limitation, or bravery. On the map of the Kabbalistic tree of life, it sits opposite Chesed (lovingkindess, compassion).  

This year, I noticed for the first time -- as Yom HaShoah fell in this same week -- that there’s another, contemporary linguistic connection layered into the Jewish calendar. When Yom HaShoah became instituted as a Jewish holiday, by the State of Israel in the 1950's, the date chosen for this commemoration was the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the full name given to the new holiday was "Yom HaZikaron la-Shoah u'la-Gevurah," "Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and for Heroism." This name was a powerful statement, that we needed to pause and remember not only the six million Jewish lives and all that was lost in the Holocaust (although certainly that!), but also the bravery of those who resisted. Resistance took so many forms, including both those who fought back during the war (whether in the Warsaw Ghetto, as part of the Underground, as partisans in the woods of Eastern Europe, etc.) and also those who fiercely rebuilt their lives and worlds after the war, bringing unbelievable resilience and creativity to bear. This played out in both Israel and also in the American Jewish community, and this quality of Gevurah in response to the trauma of the Holocaust has left an indelible imprint on every aspect of our Jewish lives and being.

This aspect of Gevurah - of strength, fierceness, judgment and courage - has an impact on how so many of us Jews perceive the world around us, even today. I am not a survivor (nor a direct descendant of survivors), and yet, during the past six weeks as I've been mostly home-bound, I've thought about this Covid-19 pandemic experience through a Holocaust lens more times than I care to admit. (Nazis haunt my dreams sometimes, but when I'm awake, it's mostly a counter-point... that is, I'm grateful that I live in more square feet than Anne Frank and her family, and don't live in fear of being hunted down.)  Gevurah is also the reason that I so disdain propaganda, and am so sensitive to hearing hatred stirred up against any particular group of people. In this moment, given our Jewish legacy, this is part of what’s so painful and terrifying to me: seeing a president who is using this challenging pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power, condone riots and violence, and fan flames of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. (Yehuda Amichai expresses all of this much more poetically than I ever could... click here and scroll down to poem #6 to read his poem "I wasn't one of the six million...")

Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian, is one voice I've found to be a lifeline during these challenging times. This week, she wrote: "It is altogether reasonable to be concerned... Being concerned is half the battle. It means you're paying attention, and that, in turn, means you can stand up for what you believe in. It's when no one is paying attention that we are helpless to change the course of events."

I believe she is correct, and this week of living within the quality of Gevurah helps to strengthen my resolve. In this second week of the Omer, which is also the week of Yom HaShoah, we remember that we have been forged, through fire, into something fierce. Out of trauma, we have emerged with courage and resolve, a belief in the power of human kindness, and a commitment to human dignity. May these traits serve us well, helping us endure the challenges of our day and to apply the lessons we have learned through our life decisions.

With all the fierceness and resolve, courage and strength that Gevurah encompasses,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum