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Parshat Naso: A Jewish Definition of Power

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Numbers co-published by OU Press,Maggid  Books, and YU Press;  edited by  Stuart  Halpern

A Jewish Definition of Power*

Our haftara this morning tells of the birth of one of the most colorful personalities in biblical history, Samson. He is the only biblical figure known in Jewish literature as a gibor, a hero or strongman. His power was proverbial.

This would not be remarkable if Samson were only a rare specimen of brute force who could slay a lion with his bare hands, throw fear into the hearts of his enemies, smite them with the jawbone of an ass, and cause a great building to collapse by pulling down the pillars. But Samson is also known to us as one of the shoftim, the “judges.” He experienced hashra’at haShekhina, divine inspiration and prophecy. And he was, from before his birth, consecrated as a Nazirite, one who for reasons of saintliness abstains from wine and the cutting of his hair. Does this not indicate something unusual about him? Indeed, are we not here offered a new insight into the whole concept of gibor and gevura, a new Jewish definition of power?

Our question is: What is that definition? What, in the context of the Jewish tradition, is gevura, strength or heroism? It obviously is not mere brawn. What then?

For an answer to our question, let us turn to the Kabbala, that infinitely rich mystical mine of Jewish ideas and ideals. The Kabbala understood creation not as a single event, but as a two-step process. The first step was hitpashtut, an overflowing or emanation of God, a flood of divine creativity released at the moment He determined to create the world. However, this alone is not enough. For when an infinite God creates, the creation too tends to be infinite – there is too much, it proceeds without limit, and hence a real world cannot exist. Therefore there must be a second step to counteract this ever-spreading emanation from God, and that is tzimtzum, divine restraint, God’s self-limitation. Thus, God calls a halt to His own creative endeavors. He limits, as it were, his own impulse to keep on producing world upon world.

The first step, the divine effusion, His overflowing and emanation, the Kabbalists referred to the attribute of chessed, loving-kindness, and because true love knows no bounds, it always seeks to increase, grow, and intensify. However, while we call it chessed, the same idea of expansion can refer to any drive or will or passion.

The second element, that of restraint and self-limitation, is referred to by the Kabbalists as the quality of gevura, strength. Gevura thus means the ability to limit oneself, for it certainly takes moral strength to know when to stop.

This, then, is essentially the definition of power or heroism: self-restraint, self-contraction. And as with God, so with man: gevura means not brawn, not grasping for more and more, but on the contrary – self-limitation, self-control. True strength is not the passion for power, but knowing when, and when not, to use it; not the quest for bigness, but recognizing when big becomes too big; not in growth, but in retrenchment; not in dominating others, but in dominating oneself. Gevura consists of knowing when to call a halt to man’s outgoing and outreaching drives.

This is, of course, true in every aspect of life. Growth is good, but not too much or too fast. The body’s cells which proliferate without end are the cause of cancer. An economy which rises too quickly and without inner controls is liable to collapse in the long run. A child who grows but grows without limits is actually sick. A teacher who tries to impart all his knowledge to his charges without modifying his information to fit the child will be a failure.

Even the desire of knowledge, meritorious as it is, must be controlled by man’s moral principles. The chessed of increased knowledge of the world, as it is expressed in modern science and technology, can no doubt be a good thing. We are all beneficiaries of the constantly ongoing programs for unlocking the secrets of nature. But if we moderns also are threatened with sudden and calamitous extinction it is because we have not merged gevura with chessed; because we have not exercised moral restraint in directing the goals and purposes of our scientific research. If more nations were to learn how to make atomic bombs, as they surely will, and each of them were to conduct atmospheric tests, there is no doubt that the function of chessed would be achieved – more scientific knowledge would be accumulated. But because of the lack of moral heroism in self-control and denying one’s self this increased scientific information, the whole world may destroy itself or, at the very least, irrevocably cripple all future generations. Chessed without gevura, in science as well as in the formation of the world, leads to destruction and not to creation.

Consider another example, a more personal one, of the moral courage called gevura. Love is a wonderful thing. But it sometimes can be so overdone that it destroys the object of affection – reminding us of the bitter observation of Oscar Wilde that, “Every man kills the thing he loves.” I refer to too much love expressed by parents for children, love given in such excess that it becomes possessive and interferes in the life of a child. This kind of unrestrained chessed has rightly been called “smother love.” All parents know this instinctively. More sophisticated ones are aware of it consciously. Yet it bears repetition and reminder. Too much paternal and maternal affection can lead to making too many decisions for the child so that he never learns to think for himself, choose for himself, or decide for himself. An overdose of chessed can make a child’s personality permanently immature. A parent whose heart overflows with tender affection for a child needs the divine quality of gevura, of moral courage to discipline, control, and guide his parental love – or at least the expression of it – for the good of the child. Unless a parent controls his outgoing love for a child, unless he limits it intelligently and at the right times, the child will never learn that life has its harsh aspects, that without discipline one cannot live in a civilized society, that one must be prepared to deal with people who will view him critically and objectively and not always with unthinking admiration and affection.

The problems of Jewish education are also affected by the combination of chessed and gevura. As a rabbi, I have heard every good and legitimate reason for a loving parent not to subject a child to the regimen of the study of Torah: there is too little time for fresh air, there is too great a competition for getting into better high schools and colleges, there are so many other things that one must learn in order to achieve a “rounded personality.” And so parents often love their children so much that they deny them the opportunity to learn the meaning of life, the roots of their people, the history and destiny of their own spirit.

Perhaps it is for this reason that in Yiddish, a wealthy man of decent instincts is often called a gevir, a word which is derived from gevura, meaning heroism and strength. True wealth, in the Jewish sense, is the exercise of gevura as we have defined it: moral restraint, refraining from ostentation, self-indulgence, or domination of others; ethical control in acquiring riches and character control in spending them; a quality of graciousness and generosity. This is true heroism, true gevura. This kind of man is never nouveau riche; he is a true gevir.

In today’s sidra we read the commandment of God that the priests should bless the Children of Israel with the three-fold blessing. The first one is: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Blessing, or berakha, has always been understood in our tradition to mean: hosafa, increase, growth, expansion. It is a quality of chessed. “Keeping,” shemira, always refers to moral control and ethical limitation, as in “hishamer lekha pen…” (see, for instance, Genesis 24:6). Thus, the priests extend to us the blessing of God: May you have a great deal, more than you have now. But may your berakha be graced with shemira. May you learn how to keep your naturalness and humility intact, regarding your money and your wealth as a trust; may you learn how to retain your dignity and suppress arrogance and haughtiness so that you will achieve true blessing.

Indeed, the quality of gevura is a fundamental prerequisite for the religious life of the Jew. What distinguishes the Jewish religion is not the holidays – for other people have them too; not a synagogue – other people have their churches or mosques; but rather, the Halakha, the Jewish regimen which extends into every aspect of a person’s existence. A life of Jewish law, of mitzvot, is an expression of the moral courage we have called gevura – for it means that the Jew must learn to restrain himself and his appetites in every phase of life. His desire to eat indiscriminately must be curbed by the inner strength that comes from observing the rules of kashrut. His desire to exploit nature, by means of industry or farming or doing business, must be curbed by the inner discipline that causes him to rest on Shabbat in the manner decreed by Jewish law. His lust and his passion, what the Torah in one place has called chessed and Freud has called the libido, must be restrained by the gevura of the Torah’s code of sexual morality. The discipline life of the Jew is his greatest strength. “Ein giborim ela giborei Torah,” “There are none as heroic as the heroes of Torah” (Avot DeRabbi Natan 1:23). Physical strength is transitory; military power is ephemeral; political influence is impermanent. Only the moral strength of Torah is abiding and everlasting.

Now, I believe, we may understand why one of the most cherished of biblical characters is called Samson the gibor, the man of strength, the hero. If Samson had only possessed ko’ach, brute physical power, he would have been no better than any Philistine. But he was charged to keep his great physical strength secondary and subordinate to his gevura, his spiritual power and moral courage. His greatness lay in that he was consecrated to exercise greater power over himself than over others.

Unfortunately, Samson was not consistently successful. At a crucial moment in his life when he failed, when he forfeited his moral gevura and became a spiritual weakling – allowing himself to be tempted by Delilah – his physical power proved to be useless and insignificant too. The strength of Samson lay not in his muscles, but in his morals; not in his biceps but in his spirit. When the spirit and the morals failed, all else was valueless.

No wonder that Samson was commanded to be a Nazirite, to abstain from wine, as were his parents from the moment that – as recorded in today’s haftara – they were informed by the angel that they would have a child. For wine releases inhibitions, it weakens one’s self-control; it makes a man effusive and gives him a feeling of limitlessness and omnipotence. He becomes all chessed, no gevura. The abstention from wine was therefore both a symbol and charge to Samson to exercise the moral self-limitation which is the gevura of a religious man.

Perhaps all this can be summed up in the words of the Rabbis in Avot (4:1): “Eizehu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro,” “Who is strong? He who suppresses his [evil] inclination.” The word for inclination, yetzer, derives from the Hebrew yetzira, creation. The passions and inclinations of man are directed towards self-aggrandizement, reaching out for more power, more conquest, more insight, more affection, more influ­ence. The first impulse of creativity, with man as with God, is yetzira or yetzer – the centrifugal movement, the outward expansion of force, character, desire, and interest. But a world cannot exist with this alone. It needs the quality of gevura, of limitation. And therefore: Who is the gibor, the true hero or strong man? He who can suppress his yetzer, his chessed, his desire to go and grow farther and faster.

We conclude with the words of David (I Chronicles 29:11): “Lekha Hashem hagedula vehagevura vehatiferet” – “To you O God, is the greatness and the strength and the beauty.” The Kabbala has taught that when both tendencies, that of expansion, called chessed or gedula, and that of contraction, called gevura, are united in the proper proportions, the result is tiferet – beauty, harmony, majesty. From God’s example we human beings may learn the great secret of combining chessed and gevura to produce tiferet. May we and all the world be blessed with the quality of tiferet – beauty of life, majesty of ideals, and nobility of destiny.

  • June 16, 1962