It is no accident that Israel has only three Patriarchs. Each Patriarch personifies a qualitative law of existence. Abraham is the paradigm of Hesed or Graciousness. Abraham’s graciousness toward his fellow men stems from his intellectual love of God—intellectual because he understood that the universe and life itself could not exist were it not for the Hesed of the Creator. Hesed is a profound love of life, which logically requires caring for others. By virtue of his Hesed and love of God, Abraham is the wellspring of ethical monotheism.
Although Hesed involves concern for the good of others, it is not to be confused with selflessness. Abraham was an iconoclastic individual. Having rejected the idolatry and cruelty of his polytheistic society, he left his country and his kindred, and, inspired by God, went forth to found a rational and ethical community conducive to his own well-being and spiritual fulfillment.
To establish such a model community or nation has ever been the mission of the Jewish people. Be not surprised that thoughtful gentiles—philosophers and statesmen—have credited the Jewish people as the bearers of reason and morality, yes, as the greatest benefactors of mankind.
Thus, when political scientists and psychologists portray mankind as animated by the desire for power or wealth or sensual pleasure, they are merely describing the untoward nature of man implied in the Torah prohibitions against murder, stealing, covetousness, and sexual immorality. In other words, social scientists who conclude that all human conduct is motivated by egoism are basically correct, but this conclusion does not apply to those whose self-love is modulated by Hesed, by a love of life, conceived as God’s greatest blessing to mankind.
Nations that have been elevated by this love of life and who know it’s inseparable from ethical monotheism can trace their blessings to Abraham (Gen. 22:18, 26:5). But now I must point out that the ethical life requires more than Hesed, which is why Abraham is only the first of the three Patriarchs. Concern for the good of others requires a contrasting principle, namely, concern for one’s own good.
Accordingly, Isaac, the second Patriarch, personifies Gevura, a difficult concept to translate. Gevura may be defined as strength or power, as well as rigor or severity. Gevura also involves the ability to resist external influence, hence independence, selfhood or self-preservation. At the same time, Gevura, as a qualititative law of existence, preserves things in their proper order. This is why Gevura connotes the rigor or the restraining power of law or justice. Needless to say, chaos would ensue in the physical world were it not for rigorous laws of nature. The same may be said of the human world, where chaos would follow were it not for the Gevura that underlies the restraining laws of morality. In Isaac, however, Gevura is the power of self-restraint, a power directed toward one’s own perfection.
It should be obvious that Hesed and Gevura are not mutually exclusive but complementary qualities. Indeed, together they are essential for any decent society. It cannot be said too often, especially in a age given to extremes, that one cannot deal rightly and effectively with the real world solely by means of either Hesed or Gevura, reducing the former to concern for others, the latter to concern for oneself. As Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I care only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Unless modulated by Gevura, Hesed loses its rational character and degenerates into sentimental (if not sanctimonious) love. One of the world religions often erroneously succumbs to this emotion. Conversely, unless modulated by Hesed, Gevura degenerates into irrational hostility toward others, the awful tendency of another world religion.
To deal justly and effectively with others, be they individuals or nations, varying proportions of graciousness and rigorous justice are required. Both traits unite to perfection in the third Patriarch, Jacob, who personifies Emet, meaning Truth or Completeness.
The character of Jacob is supposed to be manifested by Israel. Alas, the pathetic State of Israel. But let’s speak only of Israel’s government. The Hesed of this government toward Israel’s enemies is irrational, resulting in decades of cruelty to Jews. The Gevura of this government is irrational, for it is directed against Israel’s most patriotic Jews. As for Emet, this government is afraid of truth, indeed, immerses itself in lies.
But wait! God has given Israel the most appropriate enemies—enemies whose culture is steeped in hatred, in violence, in falsehood. The challenge is enormous. But so it must be to rid Israel of its dross. Soon, b’ezrat HaShem.