In last week’s Torah portion, we read the universally known affirmation: “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha — Love your fellow like yourself” (Lev 19:18). But this is not the only time in Torah that we are called to love. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find another “V’ahavta,” the one that commands us to love God (Deut. 6:5), and which is duplicated in our prayer books as part of the Sh’ma and its blessings.
We might be tempted to derive from these two Biblical verses that religion is there to teach us love and insist on compassion. But our sages recognized that love alone is not enough; compassion alone is not enough. They were concerned that teaching primarily about love might run the risk of keeping the focus of the practitioner exclusively on him or herself. Viewed narrowly this way, religion might simply become about the narcissistic pursuit of self-betterment — more about how one feels than about what one does. Ultimately, religion might end up solely an individualistic, exclusively personal practice, rather than also providing a communal framework that regulates interpersonal conduct.
Consequently, our rabbis teach us that “chesed,” the attribute of love and compassion, needs to be met with “gevurah,” the attribute of justice, to be in balance. Though we certainly must cultivate love within ourselves and live with an open heart and a forgiving attitude, at the same time it is both imperative and critical that we develop a strong sense of duty toward the other.
This balance between these two opposites is the gift I believe religion brings to humanity. In a world devoid of gevurah, people are left to act on the more primitive/baser instincts of self-preservation, with exclusive concern for one’s inner circle. Gevurah nudges us to broaden our humanity — extend ourselves — to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, even if we don’t feel like it.
Paradoxically, this insular concern may be what we are seeing as the new cultural standard of modern society, where the dominating worldview is one that sees all relationships as transactional, where extreme individualism is the norm, and the world is increasingly polarizing and alienating. In this environment, we don’t have to look far to see how we have, as a society, abdicated our mandate to provide services and appropriate help for those who are poor, sick and mentally ill. They are at best neglected if not downright abandoned by those entrusted with their care: Us.
We live at a time in history where the attributes of gevurah, of justice, are in dire need to be brought back to the fore. One of the ways our tradition has ensured that gevurah always came to temper the influence of chesed — of love — over the centuries, has been through the path of mitzvot. The system of mitzvot is designed to make us transcend the limitations of our emotional variability, to move us beyond the limits of love, and help us step beyond the narrow confines of the ego. Today, we all pick and choose to some extent our level of orthodoxy of practice, which minhagim, which halachot to follow, if any. But this also means that the path of mitzvot is alive and well and can be reinterpreted and embraced anew as a relevant guide to our postmodern global lives.
Our reclaiming the energies of gevurah through our renewed practice of such mitzvot as ba’al tash’chit (protecting our planet’s ecosystem), bikur cholim (meeting the need of those who are sick or mentally ill), kibud av v’em (caring for the elderly), kashrut (consuming humanely raised and sustainably grown foods as well as socially conscious products and services), or tzedakah (supporting others to help themselves) positions us as a counter-cultural force to today’s societal norm. Once again, the Jewish community is poised to reclaim its prophetic voice, calling for change, calling for justice. We have an opportunity to recreate ourselves as communities where an opposing set of values and priorities is practiced, to constitute ourselves as religious institutions that embody the kind of world, the kind of society we truly aspire to be a part of, and seek to see manifested for our children: Communities that truly embody love (chesed) and justice (gevurah) for everyone.
As we seek to transform our synagogues into microcosms of the holistic communities of tomorrow, we work to strike the balance between love and duty, compassion and responsibility, self-transcendence and communal care, and create institutions that respond to today’s yearning for congregations that teach and model a way of being whereby people know themselves to be arevim zeh l’zeh — responsible for one another.