In the Jewish mystical understanding of human nature (humans being a microcosm of the cosmos as a whole), there is a dynamic tension between the forces of “lovingkindness” and strict judgment. Chesed is the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” Gevurah is strict judgment.

In the Jewish mystical understanding of human nature (humans being a microcosm of the cosmos as a whole), there is a dynamic tension between the forces of “lovingkindness” and strict judgment. Chesed is the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” Gevurah is strict judgment.


Too much of one at the expense of the other, and life is intolerable. Both in our emotional life, and in our interactions with others, the healthy goal is balance.


What some people call the Inner Judge is a manifestation of too much Gevurah, strict judgment insufficiently balanced by “lovingkindness.” I know from personal experience, this voice of judgment can be merciless. Unrelenting. Taking it a step further, the mystics boldly assert that Gevurah untempered by Chesed is the source of evil in the world.


Rosh Hashanah teters on this balance between Gevurah and Chesed.


Our high holiday liturgy is filled with expressions of the cosmic quality of judgment. It’s hard to miss. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were designed by the ancient rabbis to evoke in us the sense of trembling before God the King, awaiting judgment.


On the chesed side are all the references to God our Father, Avinu. These ancient prayers envision a loving father who, although stern when necessary, will ultimately act out of love and caring.


Out of this dynamic balance, according to the mystics, flows Rachamim, compassion – from the Hebrew root word rechem/womb.


How to understand that the balancing of Chesed and Gevurah leads to the flow of Rachamim? Let’s take a concrete example. Someone says or does something, and your feelings are hurt. The Gevurah is the clear-seeing of what is right and wrong, the judging of the person’s actions as being hurtful, the clear naming of the offense.


Now, it is possible to do this judging with a sledge-hammer – which would be pure Gevurah – and it is possible to do this judging with an awareness of and appreciation for the inherent goodness of the person who offended you. This is “lovingkindness” in the sense of accepting the essential humanness of the person. Hating the deed, but not the person, you might say. Recognizing that at any given moment, people are – by definition – doing the best they can.


When we balance clear judgment of the deed with awareness of the pure soul of the do-er, what can arise is a sense of compassion. Rachamim – the womb-like sensitivity to the pain inherent in the human condition. A felt understanding that the hurtful action (which we are right to judge) arose out of pain in the other person. Ah, pain – we all know what pain feels like. We all experience it. So we can get it that wrong action arises out of pain. Rachamim is the place of feeling – at a gut level – that we are all on this human trip together. Knowing that on a deeper level, pain is pain – it is not “my” pain or “your” pain, and no one’s pain is of greater or lesser value than anyone else’s.


OK, so here’s the part that’s hard for me, and perhaps for you as well. All of what I have just said is equally true when the person we are judging is ourselves. Do we judge ourselves with the sledgehammer of total Gevurah? (And, similarly, do we accept the sledgehammer with which some people criticize us, projecting their “stuff” onto us?) Or are we able to balance that Gevurah with a sense of kindliness towards our precious, oh-so-imperfect selves? Where is the Chesed for ourselves? Where is our recollection of our inherent goodness, of that spark of the divine that our tradition tells us is twinkling in every human being? What leads us to be so harsh in judging ourselves?


In the Kabbalistic tree of life that maps out these various attributes or qualities as sefirot, the sefira of Rachamim is also known as Tiferet, or beauty. It is also called Emet – truth. A Gevurah perspective alone, or a Chesed perspective alone, is not the truth. The word Emet is itself symbolic – the letters aleph, mem, and tet are the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So Emet – Truth – is the Big Picture.


Rabbi Kafka serves Temple Israel South Shore, an independent Reform congregation in North Easton, Mass. You can reach her at rkafka@comcast.net.