Jay Michaelson: Presenter for Upcoming Workshop: “What is Tiferet? Kabbalah and the Spirituality of Integration” on April 3.
The center of the tree of the sefirot is tiferet — beauty and harmony. It sits as the synthesis of two other sefirot, hesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (judgment and boundary).
I sometimes express the dynamic relationship between hesed and gevurah in terms of human relationship. We might suppose that all we want in the world is more hesed, more lovingkindness, and a person should try to cultivate and express as much of it as possible. Often, that may be true. But imagine a relationship in which one partner is always full of hesed, doing everything for the other partner, not caring for his/her own needs, and trying, all the time, to help, nurture, feed, support, guide, provide for, and generally love the other. Quickly, such a relationship will become dysfunctional. Eventually the other partner will form a dependence on the first one, or will feel smothered, or will yearn for self-expression and some degree of self-sufficiency. A relationship in which separateness is completely lost is not a healthy relationship. So even in the case of two lovers, gevurah — restraint, holding back — is necessary.
So what we’re looking for is neither one extreme nor the other, but a dynamic oscillation between the two. Tiferet isn’t a vacuous “middle way” — it’s a point of balance that is constantly shifting.
Now, in general, I think we could all agree with Burt Bacharach that what the world needs now is more love, not more boundaries — and certainly not more judgment. But I am using these examples to demonstrate a critical aspect of how theosophical Kabbalah sees the world: as in need of balance. Usually, yes, what our world needs is more hesed, more lovingkindness; more extension of the self to help and nurture others. But not for the sake of hesed, but for the sake of tiferet — harmony, beauty, compassion — the place of balance between hesed and gevurah. In the human realm and in the divine realm, it is balance which is constantly sought, and balance which is always elusive. We do not settle our questions of hesed and gevurah once and for all, whether in relationship or in our professional lives or even in our physical being. Every moment, one might say, is a moment of change within the sefirotic energies, and contact with the ayin the primordial nothingness. And so every moment warrants attention.
One finds in the Kabbalistic literature hundreds (if not thousands) of prayers and practices designed to “sweeten” gevurah with more hesed. The Kabbalistic library is a literature of exile, persecution, and hope. Many of the most important Kabbalists experienced life traumas that you and I will, God willing, never know. In the Jewish world one often hears sentiments expressed that the holocaust was a unique event, without precedent. Maybe so, but the Spanish Expulsion, the Chmielnicki massacres, the Crusades — these certainly come close. Kabbalah is a literature by the oppressed for the oppressed; its writers and practitioners knew much better than we do that more hesed is needed in the world.
And they believed that ritual action, prayer, and right intention could bring the sefirot into better balance. The Kabbalists may have been powerless in the earthly realms, but they believed themselves to possess great power in the divine ones. The Temple remains unbuilt, but the heavenly Temple — the one accessible through meditation, and maintained through prayer and piety — endures.
It may seem like a strange leap from dysfunctional relationships to supernal Temples. But not for theosophical Kabbalah. Remember, microcosm and macrocosm mirror one another: our experience reflects the Divine experience, because it is the Divine experience, on a micro-scale. The patterns of our lives, of our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits, resemble the patterns of Divine manifestation because all of those phenomena are Divine manifestation. That’s how we can say we are created “in the image of God.”
You can experience the oscillations between hesed, gevurah, and tiferet in your own life. All that you need to do is cultivate some attention to how the energies are working within you. You can do this on the level of the body, heart, mind, or spirit, though heart is probably the easiest for this triad. Notice, when you speak, how hesed and gevurah are operating in the way you talk, how much you share, and what you leave out. As you interact with someone, see which energy — and I don’t mean anything physical or paranormal by that word; I just mean what some call “feeling-tone” — you are experiencing from them. Chances are you, like most of us, retreat within shells of gevurah in order to protect yourself in a sometimes callous world. Can you, when you are in a safer space, open up and expand with hesed?
Hesed and gevurah together sustain the world, which is why finding the right shifting balance point between them – tiferet – is so important. If there were no Divine love, there would not be a world at all. If there were no Divine restraint, the world would be overwhelmed. If there were no gevurah on the cultural level, there would be no justice; but without hesed, there would be no mercy. In the language of the Kabbalah, we are always striving for the balance of tiferet, whether we know it or not and however we conceive its unfolding. Most importantly, all parts of ourselves are valuable, even those we have taught ourselves to scorn. Perhaps they are out of balance, and are in need of sweetening. But never absolute negation.
Jay Michaelson is the author of three books and two hundred articles on the intersections of Judaism, spirituality, sexuality, and law. A columnist for the Forward, Huffington Post, Zeek, Tikkun, and Religion Dispatches magazines, Jay is the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice (2006), Another Word for Sky: Poems (2007), and Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (2009). Jay holds a J.D. from Yale, and is completing his Ph.D in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; he has held teaching positions at Boston University Law School, City College of New York, and Yale University. In 2008-09, he spent five months on silent meditation retreat, mostly in Nepal.