Updated: Jul 15, 2020
Rav Tzadok Hakohen draws a parallel between the middos of our forefathers and the different stages of life (Gallant, 2010). He describes Avraham Avinu, chesed, lovingkindness, as the first stage. This stage is about learning what it means to give. Giving involves knowing yourself, knowing your own needs, taking care of your own needs, and then learning to see those same needs as valid and important in someone else, and being able to take care of their needs as well. This is like childhood, where we grow up and learn about ourselves, eventually emerging as young adults, ready to enter into the ultimate chesed through marriage and childrearing. This stage is about validating the valid, accepting our feelings as real experiences of our world. Feelings and sensations are what they are – you cannot tell someone their foot doesn’t really hurt when they say it hurts because unless you actually were to enter their body, there is no way to possibly know. A feeling is a feeling. Feeling I am being unfairly treated is a thought, not a feeling. Feelings are sad, happy, scared, irritated, frustrated, disgusted, etc. (See January: Mindfulness of Feelings). Feelings are what they are. You can't tell someone "nope, you're not feeling sad because there's no reason to be sad." It's a feeling, and it is what it is; it's not invalid. Chesed is about the acknowledgment and wholehearted, unconditional love and acceptance of ours and others’ emotions and experience. Next comes Yitzchak Avinu, gevura, strength. This step is about overcoming desires, sticking like glue to the facts, to what needs to happen. Yitzchak was willing to be the akeida in akeidas Yitzchak, Avraham was not holding him at gunpoint. Can we say he wanted to be an akeida? Only in the form of gevura, in upholding principles and guarding values. This is the second stage, middle adulthood, wherein we have core values and principles by which we are willing to live and make sacrifices for. As an example, there are kollel wives who work jobs that they do not particularly enjoy and spend their days away from their children. Is this really what they want? Yes, in that they value their husbands’ learning and the home they are building. Teachers work long days, then spend extra time preparing, grading papers, making lesson plans. Do they want to do this? Of course! Just like Yitzchak wanted to be an akeida. In the context of gevura, of living according to ideals of handing over knowledge and mesorah to the next generation, of building children. Finally comes Yaakov Avinu, emes, truth. What is the ultimate goal? Is it better to be like Avraham or like Yitzchak? The answer is that ultimately, the Torah emphasizes Yaakov’s middah of emes as the best choice, to reach a place of synthesis, a place that acknowledges both chesed and gevura. Hashem created a world with both din and rachamim, and we also strive to live in balance with both chesed and gevura. This is emes (Gallant, 2010). When practicing formal mindfulness we may access more of our chesed mind than our gevura mind. Our goal of practicing, however, is not to spend our lives in chesed mind. Things need to get done! Deadlines met! Papers graded! Supper served! Shabbos candles lit! Children on the school bus! Bills paid! So, what is the “best” way to spend our lives? Dialectical behavior therapy describes the state of mind called wise mind, which we can think of as emes mind, as being the goal of mindfulness (Linehan, 2015). The goal of mindfulness is not to spend our lives in chesed mind or in gevura mind, but to spend as much of our time in emes mind as possible, making decisions, experiencing life, and acting according to our emes mind, a place which acknowledges both our emotional experiences as well as the logical and rational and what needs to get done. It incorporates values and meaning and purpose and giving and receiving and relationships with the day-to-day what to wear, how to get out of the house, put up the cholent, check on this and that, make sure this is taken care of, and realize when it is time to take a step back to take care of ourselves.