The second triad in the tree of the sefirot is that of hesed, gevurah, and tiferet, or lovingkindness, judgment, and harmony. This triad is probably the easiest to understand, and I often begin with it when teaching beginning students, though there are many subtleties within it (as within all of the sefirot) as well.
I sometimes express the dynamic relationship between hesed and gevurah in terms of human relationship. We might suppose that all we want in the world is more hesed, more lovingkindness, and a person should try to cultivate and express as much of it as possible. Often, that may be true. But imagine a relationship in which one partner is always full of hesed, doing everything for the other partner, not caring for his/her own needs, and trying, all the time, to help, nurture, feed, support, guide, provide for, and generally love the other. Quickly, such a relationship will become dysfunctional. Eventually the other partner will form a dependence on the first one, or will feel smothered, or will yearn for self-expression and some degree of self-sufficiency. A relationship in which separateness is completely lost is not a healthy relationship. So even in the case of two lovers, gevurah — restraint, holding back — is necessary.
Kal v'chomer — how much more so — in daily life. When I come back from meditation retreat, I, like most people, experience much more hesed than usual. I want to tell the subway clerk how much I appreciate her hard work. I want to sign all my business emails "Love." In general, I am in a beautiful, open, and extremely sensitive place — but one completely inappropriate for ordinary social interaction, in which boundaries are important.
Now, these examples are usually the exception rather than the rule. I think we could all agree with Burt Bacharach that what the world needs now is more love, not more boundaries — and certainly not more judgment. But I am using these examples to demonstrate a critical aspect of how theosophical Kabbalah sees the world: as in need of balance. Usually, yes, what our world needs is more hesed, more lovingkindness; more extension of the self to help and nurture others. But not for the sake of hesed, but for the sake of tiferet — harmony, beauty, compassion — the place of balance between hesed and gevurah. In the human realm and in the divine realm, it is balance which is constantly sought, and balance which is always elusive. We do not settle our questions of hesed and gevurah once and for all, whether in relationship or in our professional lives or even in our physical being. Every moment, one might say, is a moment of change within the sefirotic energies, and contact with the ayin the primordial nothingness. And so every moment warrants attention.
Another key principle of theosophical Kabbalah is that our actions "below" affect the divine realms "above." This is, on the face of it, a shocking and radically anti-philosophical notion. We change God? God needs us to bring balance to the sefirot? It's helpful to remember, though, that in general we are working within a nondual framework: as the Hindu Vedantists like to say, You are That. At your deepest, you are that whom you are seeking; you are the only subject and object that exists in the universe. It's easy to slip into dualism when we say things like "human realms" and "divine realms." But there is only one realm, really, and the sovereign is also the subject. Still, from our perspective, there does seem to be a split between the supernal and the temporal — yet for theosophical Kabbalists, the realms interpenetrate and affect one another.
Consequently, one finds in the Kabbalistic literature hundreds (if not thousands) of prayers and practices designed to "sweeten" gevurah with more hesed. Remember, the Kabbalah was not written by Burt Bacharach; it is a literature of exile, persecution, and hope. Many of the most important Kabbalists experienced life traumas that you and I will, God willing, never know. In the Jewish world one often hears sentiments expressed that the holocaust was a unique event, without precedent. Maybe so, but the Spanish Expulsion, the Chmielnicki massacres, the Crusades — these certainly come close. Kabbalah is a literature by the oppressed for the oppressed; its writers and practitioners knew much better than we do that more hesed is needed in the world.
And they believed that ritual action, prayer, and right intention could bring the sefirot into better balance. The Kabbalists may have been powerless in the earthly realms, but they believed themselves to possess great power in the divine ones. The Temple remains unbuilt, but the heavenly Temple — the one accessible through meditation, and maintained through prayer and piety — endures.
It may seem like a strange leap from dysfunctional relationships to supernal Temples. But not for theosophical Kabbalah. Remember, microcosm and macrocosm mirror one another: our experience reflects the Divine experience, because it is the Divine experience, on a micro-scale. The patterns of our lives, of our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits, resemble the patterns of Divine manifestation because all of those phenomena are Divine manifestation. That's how we can say we are created "in the image of God."
You can experience the oscillations between hesed, gevurah, and tiferet in your own life. All that you need to do is cultivate some attention to how the energies are working within you. You can do this on the level of the body, heart, mind, or spirit, though heart is probably the easiest for this triad. Notice, when you speak, how hesed and gevurah are operating in the way you talk, how much you share, and what you leave out. As you interact with someone, see which energy — and I don't mean anything physical or paranormal by that word; I just mean what some call "feeling-tone" — you are experiencing from them. Chances are you, like most of us, retreat within shells of gevurah in order to protect yourself in a sometimes callous world. Can you, when you are in a safer space, open up and expand with hesed?
One final point on hesed and gevurah. Since we know that the sefirot are gendered, we might expect hesed (love) to be feminine, like sweet maternal love, and tough gevurah to be masculine. Actually, the opposite is the case. Hesed is gendered male because it is that which expands, which bursts forth; it is an active, yang-like principle. Gevurah is gendered female because it receives, encloses, even constricts; it is like the yin principle. The patriarch Abraham is associated with hesed, and look what he does: he leaves his homeland, he goes out of his way to establish relationships with others, and in his life-defining moment, the binding of his son Isaac, he is the active principle, ready to send forth his hand against his son. Isaac is associated with gevurah. He is the receptive party in the akedah drama, and he is passive throughout most of his life (e.g., as the recipient of the tricks of Rebecca and Jacob).
Notice that the Kabbalah has no trouble, it seems, with men who have feminine aspects: Isaac and King David are both associated with female-gendered sefirot. Kabbalah understands that souls are complicated, and that men may have feminine traits just as women may have masculine ones. Indeed, both Jacob and Joseph are described in the Biblical narratives as possessing both male and female attributes. Notice, too, that our assumptions about what those attributes are, which are, of course, conditioned by our culture, are not necessarily accurate. We have our culturally-constructed notions of gender, and walk around supposing that everyone shares them. Not so! Within the dyad of hesed and gevurah, and their resolution in tiferet, we see not only an unusual mapping of gender, but a transcendence of the dyadic notion itself.
Hesed and gevurah together sustain the world. If there were no Divine love, there would not be a world at all. If there were no Divine restraint, the world would be overwhelmed. If there were no gevurah on the cultural level, there would be no justice; but without hesed, there would be no mercy. In the language of the Kabbalah, we are always striving for the balance of tiferet, whether we know it or not and however we conceive its unfolding. Most importantly, all parts of ourselves are valuable, even those we have taught ourselves to scorn. Perhaps they are out of balance, and are in need of sweetening. But never absolute negation.
Next: netzach, hod, yesod.