March 31, 2013 by mcknz
Last week Rachel wrote about the importance of understanding and embracing chesed, loving kindness toward ourselves and others. This week, our thoughts turn toward another universal and important theme in Jewish thought, gevurah or might.
Starting on the 8th day of the Omer, Jews around the world will take time each night for one week to reflect on the meaning of “might” in their lives as they follow the mystical calendar of the Omer cycle. In a way, reflecting on the idea of might is both an easy and a difficult task. We have all seen forces of might in our lives. Huge storms, dangerous weapons, and powerful dictators throughout the generations have left massive imprints on our history and our hearts showing us what it means to be mighty while at the same time teaching us what it means to feel small.
God too is often called mighty. Many Jews proclaim three-times daily in their Amidah prayer, “You, God, are forever mighty.” The prayer then goes on to explain ways that God might express that might, namely causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall and lifting up those that have died. Whether one sees these attributes as literal or metaphorical, there is little question that the idea of might is a critical theological tenant. “Who can retell the might of God?” asks the ancient poet of the Psalms (106:2).
However, God’s might isn’t just in God’s power but in other attributes of God. Two thousand years ago, there was an argument among a group of Rabbis about whether, faced with slavery and bloodshed, one may still refer to God as mighty (Yoma 69b). If God is so powerful, goes the argument, shouldn’t God be able to stop our suffering. Eventually, a group of rabbis called the “Men the Great Assembly” stepped in and argued that “might” doesn’t always equate with power. God is equally mighty when suppressing God’s own wrath. As the argument goes, God wants to wipe out all those who do injustice. God’s might however stops this, giving space for humanity and the world to play out their own free will and aspirations.
In a way, the redefinition of might as inner control lived on well past its time and has a great deal to teach us about the way we as humans relate to the world. Faced with a history where Jews have rarely been the most powerful people in the land, Jewish tradition long ago redefined might. Perhaps the most famous statement about the subject was authored by Rabbi Ben Zoma who famously wrote, “Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32) “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” (Mishnah Avot 4:1). Suddenly, a mighty people are an introspective people. We are at our strongest when we can understand our emotions and can get ahead of them. In an instant, might moves off the battlefield and into the psychologists chair.
But Ben Zoma doesn’t get the last word. When the idea of might moved off the battlefield it moved in a number of other directions. Perhaps the most famous (beside Ben Zoma’s interpretation) is into the study hall. The great warriors for generations of Jews have been the great scholars. We see this very early on in Roman times when the gladiator Resh Lakish is taunted by Rabbi Yochanan “Your strength should be for Torah” and in a conversionary experience, the great fighter become the great sage (Baba Metzia 84a). In contemporaneous text it was written, “the only kind of might is that of the Torah might.” (Avot D’rebbie Natan 25).
What then is the true meaning of might today? There is none. When we hear the word g’vurah or might, we are faced with a matrix of meaning. Might is power but it is also control. Might is brawn but also brains. Therefore I invite you to focus on the following seven questions that may frame your understanding of might over the coming seven days.
8th day of the Omer
When you hear God described as mighty what does that mean to you? Would you rather believe in a God who is powerful but callous or less powerful but careful.
9th day of the Omer
When have you controlled your impulses and passions over the past year? Do you consider it a mighty act?
10th day of the Omer
Are you more in awe of those with physical might or mental acumen? Which definition of might best describes you?
11th day of the Omer
Watch the following clip from Schindler’s list. Do you agree with this definition of might / power? How does this interface with Jewish understandings of might? For reflection: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lK-AFHdD7Vw
12th day of the Omer
When have you felt mighty over the past year? When have you felt powerless?
13th day of the Omer
Can you come up with your own definition of might beside those described in the essay above?
14th day of the Omer
Who is the mightiest person you know? What makes them so?
Rabbi Marc Katz
Originally from Barrington RI, Marc received a B.A. from Tufts University in 2006. At Tufts, he studied Comparative Religion while serving as the captain of his college swim team. Before entering rabbinical school, Marc worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism lobbying for environmental protection and health care reform on behalf of the Reform movement.
After returning from his first year of rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Marc has grown to love working at CBE first as a religious school teacher and then, starting in the fall of 2009, as Revson Rabbinic Intern. Over the past three years, Marc has taught in the academy program, run a weekly introduction to Judaism class, studied Torah with our adult Chevre Torah group, and served as program director for Brooklyn Jews, CBE’s outreach program to young professionals. He lives with his wife Cantor Julia Katz in Park Slope and can often be found running in Prospect Park, shopping at the Park Slope Food Co-op (when he’s not suspended), and eating at the host of Thai restaurants in the neighborhood.