Gevurah: Sacred, Life-Giving Boundaries

I have found myself these days reminiscing a lot on my adolescence.

I’ve been listening to my favourite 90s bands. Peeking in on high school friends on Facebook. Even playing retro video games for escapism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the joys and even the anxieties of those unbridled years.

Stephanie, my wife, caught me yesterday looking at old photos: “You’re very steeped in nostalgia,” she teased me.

She’s so right.

Why? Thinking about home – about my childhood and teenage years – it’s a fondness for a time that seemed boundless.

I’m not the only one escaping into the past. “I’m nostalgic for February, which feels ridiculous,” writes Kaitlyn Tiffany in the Atlantic.

No wonder that in a time of seclusion we crave immersion in memories of an open, boundless past.

But, of course, teenager life isn’t free of limits. It’s exactly the opposite for most.

Childhoods boundaries are just a different kind than most of us are dealing with now.

If we’re lucky and blessed, the walls of our childhood homes were expressions of loving boundedness: walls of safety, shelter, and care.

The idea of home is to cross the threshold into a place that reminds us who we are and of our purpose in life. That’s the difference between my nostalgia for childhood’s boundaries and the confines of today. One gives us strength, purpose and expansiveness. The other feels so restrictive and limiting.

Our task, now, is to transform the constriction of today’s physical walls into the emotional expansiveness of yesterday’s.

We can do it. We know how. It’s in our natural nostalgia and in our collective memory.

The Kabbalistic mystics teach that these days have special resonance. These 49 days in between Pesach and Shavuot are a time of great spiritual significance; a time to refine our soul’s character through introspection and inner growth.

Each week during these 49 days, the mystics teach us to focus on one of seven different attributes of our souls: kindness, strength, humility, endurance, acceptance.

Last night, we began the week of working on the attribute of gevurah – of strength, or “boundedness.”

This is a time to focus on when distinctions and boundaries are necessary.

As in our childhood – when limits are an expression of love and life.

Or when saying “no” can be nourishing.

I’m someone who tends to say “yes” to everything, so this is a particularly important week of reflection for me.

Last week we focused on chesed – loving-kindness. The type of boundless kindness that is offered freely to all out of an awareness of our interconnectedness.

We feel that urge especially these days, too.

The beauty of these weeks of introspection is that they underscore how life is not black or white.

The balance between chesed and gevurah is a kind of yin and yang: Between open kindness and fortifying boundaries.

We need both. We can’t have life without this distinction.

This idea is in the Torah, this week, too:

God spoke to Aaron, saying… that you may not die, this is a law for all time throughout the ages: you must distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the impure and the pure.”

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל

To distinguish between the holy and the ordinary.

To setup sacred boundaries.

To know when to say no.

That we may live and not die.

This week offers us the opportunity to approach gevurah – the boundaries of our lives – from a growth mindset.

The walls we live behind now have a profoundly sacred, life-giving purpose. They are a true expression of gevurah.

As with the mystics’ genius, they are a sustaining force in the universe.

As with the Torah’s instructions to Aaron and us, they are a way to choose life over death.

How can we bring out our gevurah – establish new sacred boundaries?

Distancing, yes. That’s the big one.

But also, little routines:

My Bubbie shared with me the other day: “I’m still getting up every day and combing my hair, even if not going out – I’m not a recluse!” Gevurah!

For me, it’s resisting the urge to stay in sweatpants all day. Gevurah!

It’s saying no to checking more email, so you can say yes to your partner. Gevurah!

Or think about what it is about the walls of nostalgia that are so nourishing in this moment.

What sacred boundaries can we bring forward from the past to nourish us in this moment, and help bring more holiness and balance into this world?

“From our inception we have been committed to a spiritual path which understands that the sacred may be found only at borders which integrate gevurah and chesed,” teaches Rabbi Marc Margolius.

Today is the day of chesed sheb’gevurah – infinite kindness that emerges from the strength of boundaries.

May we be blessed with the embrace of safety, of strength, and of shelter. Of knowing when to say no. And of “boundaries strong enough to define and protect, and permeable enough to connect people and countries on either side.” (Margolius)

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