Monday, May 02, 2011

Counting the Omer: Gevurah

[#2 in a series]

Let's start with Jewish joke #54:
On Yom Kippur, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates himself beside the bema, and cries out, "Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!"

Saul Rosenberg, president of the temple is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately throws himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cries, "Oh, God! Before you, I am nothing!"

Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor, jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, "Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!"

Rosenberg nudges the rabbi and whispers, "So look who thinks he's nothing!"
There is no simple English translation of the term Gevurah, which suggests boundaries, limits, discipline, humility, strength, and judgement. It's something of an antinomy or dual with chesed, so where chesed suggests a somewhat sloppy, overflowing sense of love, gevurah is severe, withholding, proper. Perhaps accuracy is a good word to use. The idea is not to abase yourself, but to have an accurate representation of yourself, to be neither grandiose or unnecessarily small.

I usually worship limitlessness, at least in the intellectual plane. My goal has always been to know everything, connect everything, take home every book in the library and somehow incorporate it into myself, to not be limited by any field or discipline. This is of course impossible, ridiculous. It's a bit disturbing how much the world has evolved towards making this ridiculous goal sort-of realized, what with devices that provide internet everywhere and much of the world's knowledge at the other end. But sadly, having all that at my fingertips doesn't quite equate to my actually knowing everything, in fact it just makes it all the more clear how little I actually know.

So limits, boundaries, structure, to whatever it is I am trying to do sound amazingly useful. Simply agreeing to follow the Omer for a few weeks creates some structure and focus. A sense of humility might also be useful, in that recognizing my finite, serial-processing brain is never going to be able to absorb even a small fraction of the interesting and worthwhile material available to it. Somehow I need to face these limits squarely rather than dance around them. Embrace finitude.

I've written before how the social media seem to screw up boundaries -- of social spaces, and of the self. They create connections and break down barriers, to good and ill effect -- but in that post I was complaining about the generalized mush it makes of our social connections, reducing a rich texture of bounded spaces into flatland.

Boundaries are obviously important political issues, whether literally as in borders and immigration policies, or more subtle questions of what the boundaries of citizenship are, what it means to belong or not belong, to be an insider or outsider. Boundaries are also social constructs, meaning they are part illusory, part permeable, and that work has to be put into maintaining them. Again, my first strong instinct is resentment and indignation at borders, seeing as how they are tools of the state to control individuals. But then again I don't want the whole world tramping through my living room. Some boundaries are not only useful but necessary, and institutions like individuals need some kind of membrane that sets them off from everything else.

I am looking for the right balance between respecting and resenting these walls, between acknowledging them and bypassing them.

A software engineer's meditations on humility

1 comment:

lightning bulb (aka ngvrnd) said...

I think the Dead Milkmen said it best when they sang "I walk the thinnest line".