Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
Last week we celebrated a special anniversary: it has been one year since my husband and I became foster parents to a wonderful 18-year-old refugee from West Africa. It has been a year of great blessing and joy and also of tremendous learning, as you can imagine, given that this is our first time parenting and we jumped right into teenagerhood – not to mention all kinds of cultural differences.
And yet, a year in, I realize that so much of the learning is simply refining the work we are engaged in all the time anyway. For example, one way to frame it is to take the spectrum between Netzach (victory, engagement) and Hod (receptivity, gratitude). These two categories are sephirot, part of the mystical map of how Divinity moves from the infinite to the tangible in our lives. That may sound very esoteric, but the applications are actually practical and can be very helpful.
What are these two ways of being? Netzach is the quality that urges us to get involved, to fix things, to form and act and create. It is about drive and success and doing. Hod, on the other hand, which literally means “glory,” is the quality of giving space, letting it be, feeling thankful for the ways things are, not needing to change a thing. Interestingly, both of these are understood to be divine qualities that can manifest in us and both of them are worthy of cultivation as part of our spiritual repertoire. The question is when do we bring what to bear.
So: when do we push (encourage) our foster son to do certain things and when do we stand back? When do we ask questions and when do we just give him his space? When do we lead with feeling energized and active and when do we lead with simply feeling grateful for the miracle of our family coming together?
These are the questions in every relationship – with children, parents, partners, friends, co-workers and neighbors. These are the questions we can ask looking out at our country and our world. And these are the questions we can ask of our own sweet lives. How much action? How much acceptance? How do we find the wise balance? How do we respond to what is needed at this moment again and again?
Sometimes just having the framework of these two qualities can help us notice our habitual responses and make better decisions. We hope that this investigation of netzach and hod will support you in your practice.
Netzach means victory, it refers to unrelenting effort, grit, and tenacity toward improving upon our world. Hod connotes surrender, humility, acknowledging our smallness and limitations and accepting that we can’t do it all. A healthy sense of self that isn’t too large and overbearing or too small and self-deprecating lies in the balance between these two, which this meditation practice is meant to help us cultivate in real time. In this teaching and guided practice, Rabbi Sam Feinsmith guides us through the dynamic, complementary interplay between these two attributes. He frames his practice around a teaching Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha, who taught that we should carry two notes, one in each pocket. On one we should write, Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other we should write, V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” Between these two teachings, we will be able to remind ourselves of whatever we need to know, depending on our given moment.
How aware are you of your legs?
For many of us, our legs do a great deal of work. They hold us up. They take us from place to place. They brace us in moments of surprise. They propel us toward our goals, literally and figuratively. They clue us into our emotions and our health. They support us, drive us, and ground us.
In the sephirot, the spiritual map of the Divine, Netzach (victory, engagement) and Hod (gratitude, receptivity) take the figurative roles of our right and left legs, respectively. They are the filters through which Chesed (lovingkindness) and Gevurah (discipline) are guided into the world. Netzach and Hod are connected through Yesod (foundation), and function as a triad much like our legs and core.
Netzach and Hod are simultaneously both complementary and in opposition to one another. Netzach is driven: it is victory, goal-oriented, forward-focused. It is seeking; it wants to move ahead, to succeed, and in its purest form it is loving, as it is tied to Chesed, and is the tool through which lovingkindness enters the world.
In turn, Hod is splendor and gratitude, receptivity to what is and already exists. Hod is acceptance of what one is and what one has, of what is beautiful and what is painful. The potential of Hod to become accepting to the point of self-sacrifice is tempered by its connection to Gevurah, discipline: balancing open-heartedness and awe of the world God has created with the strength to move through the world with mindful judgment.
Just as one foot might step forward on its own but cannot fully leave the rest of our body behind, Netzach and Hod may work independently, but are ultimately intertwined. As Netzach drives us to push towards our goals, to succeed in life, and to reach our desires – at times at the expense of others – Hod reminds us to express gratitude for what we already have, to acknowledge the splendor of the world, to be open-hearted towards and give space to others’ wants and needs. When Hod tempts us to stay in place, entirely accepting of the world as it is and our place in it, Netzach pushes us forward, driving us to pursue bigger and better things, from career goals to a brighter and more just world.
Each of us may relate to either Netzach or Hod more strongly, or have positive or negative feelings towards one or the other. This makes sense for any of the sephirot that we map onto the body, as so many of us have complicated relationships with our physical selves that are just as complex and evolving as our relationships with our spiritual selves. It may be especially difficult to think of our spiritual legs as grounding, awe-filled, or driven for those of us with disabilities related to our physical legs or mobility. Yet the practice of exploring our relationship to Netzach and Hod, as individual attributes and in connection to each other, helps us to gain a deeper insight to the ways we relate to action and inaction, to motivation and stillness, to awe and to yearning, to gratitude and to goals.
As a practice for connecting to Netzach, take a moment, the next time it makes sense, to become aware of what sensations embody the feeling of moving forward. It may be the feeling of your foot leaving, or connecting with, the ground, of your knees bending or your hips flexing, or perhaps the motion of your hands, arms, or shoulders using a mobility device. In turn, as a practice for connecting to Hod, turn your attention to what embodies stillness and acceptance. Is it the movement of breath through your lungs? The pressure of your sit bones against a meditation cushion or chair? As we come to know what embodies both movement and stillness, motivation and rest, we can call these sensations to mind when we need them, using them skillfully: using Netzach in the service of Chesed, and Hod in the service of Gevurah.
So: how aware are you of your legs?
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
In the Jewish mystical conception of the Godhead, there are three triads of emergent aspects of the Divine Being. They are not separate from God, but are each different modes through which we might experience divinity in the world and in ourselves. They are made up of forces or inner psycho-social orientations that we might all recognize. These aspects of divinity emerge (particularly in the lower two triads) as thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In the second triad, lovingkindness is met by rigor and limitation; expansive love is met by fear and awe; all resolve in balance, beauty and truth. This triad is made up of Chesed and Gevurah (or Ahavah and Yirah) and Tiferet.
The third triad is made up of Netzach, Hod and Yesod. In general, these are experienced as pointed-effort, grateful receptivity and inner connection. By rights, given the nature of the mystical conception, Netzach – pointed-effort – should be an expression of love. Yet the word itself signifies leadership, victory, eternity. These are forceful acts or qualities – more in line with overwhelming the other or overcoming obstacles, almost to the exclusion of anything else. In the face of Netzach, it might seem that there is no place for diversity, no welcome for the other. Yet, inasmuch as this is the first element of the triad, it has the quality of lovingkindnesss; there is love even in the overwhelming force.
Hod is its opposite. By rights, given its origins, it should be a limiting force. But the meaning of Hod is glory or splendor, but also gratitude, acceptance, acknowledgement. The energy of Hod is to welcome what is; to accept what may be difficult or painful as what is true in this moment; to acknowledge that in this instant nothing can be different. Hod is open, even loving, and so seemingly the opposite of its side of limitation and rigor. Yet, through Hod we find that even gratitude can exist in situations of limitation or loss. The energy of Netzach is received and softened in Hod, and the two are balanced in Yesod, connection.
The paradox here is that the energies of Netzach and Hod seem to be the opposite of their origins. Netzach “should” be closer to love and welcome; Hod “should” be more like limitation and rigor. In their expression they make known alternative dimensions of their roots. Yet, as they are paired, they still balance one another, in beauty and wholeness. We cannot be whole, ourselves, without learning to express both, to hold the tension, living in paradox with welcome and curiosity. In this meditation, we learn to embody aspects of each of these divine qualities – and find their connection.
Rabbi Marc Margolius
The kabbalistic sephirah of Netzach represents energetic desire to fulfill that which has not yet been realized: a sense of desiring more. Hod, which complements it in the kabbalistic rubric, represents satiety: the sense of being and having enough. Netzach represents our drive to improve, and can be associated with the six days of work; Hod represents our capacity to experience what is as sufficient, and can be associated with Shabbat. Each quality is essential, and must be held in paradoxical tension with the other as part of Jewish spiritual practice.
Much if not most of the time, we are in “Netzach mode,” driven by judgment about what can be improved in ourselves, others, and the world. This mode is essential in our role assisting the unfolding of life and the realization of our Divine potential. Yet it also can contribute to a mindset of perpetual insufficiency and inadequacy. The antidote is hodayah (gratitude), a sense of fullness for that which exists in the present.
The classic teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot 4:1 represents the most succinct, classic prescription for practicing hodayah: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with one’s portion.” The Hassidic commentator Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi ascribes the Israelites’ descent to slavery in Egypt to ingratitude on the part of Jacob:
[Laban] sought to distract Jacob so that he would reject the goodness of the blessed Creator, and so be punished. This then brought it about that he went down to Egypt, as Scripture says “He went down to Egypt.” This is a warning to us not to reject the good that God sends us, and to recognize it as true goodness, and not to confuse us in our devotions. Rather we are to thank God and praise God for all the good. This is the intent of Rashi’s comment on Deut. 26:3, “[You shall go to the priest in charge at that time] and say to him”: you are to say to him that “you are not ungrateful.” And, so in all your ways you are to know God, even when you are overwhelmed by the good, as above.
We cannot summon hodayah/gratitude on demand. Some of us may chastise ourselves for not experiencing a sense of thankfulness when we “should.” Our yetzer hara, our inner obstacles, may obstruct the natural flow of gratitude.
Paradoxically, the path to gratitude may involve not seeking out our blessings, but rather allow them to find us, as the Hassidic Torah commentator Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim teaches in his Degel Machaneh Ephraim:
[W]e would expect a person to strive after blessings, not that blessings run after him. But this is what King David prayed: “Surely goodness and love shall pursue me [all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of YHVH forever]” (Psalm 23:6) – sometimes we flee even from the good, but due to our constricted and diminished consciousness we don’t know if it is indeed good. Therefore King David prayed: “may goodness and love pursue me – let them run after me and overtake me, even when I don’t know to pursue them myself.”
In practice, we explore without judgement the thoughts and emotions which can lead us to a paralyzing sense of discontent. Through kind attention to the pain and fear generating these thoughts and feelings, we may notice them losing their grip. In a moment of ease, we open to awareness of the greater reality sustaining us, and words of gratitude more easily arise. At least for a moment, we feel that we are and have enough. This is Hod, the Divine attribute of “enough,” active within us.
Rather than “power through” periods of ingratitude to generate a sense of thankfulness, the wiser course may be to allow the blessings to “catch up” with us. As we accept what is instead of yearning for what is not, gratitude may bubble up. As Sylvia Boorstein teaches, we “assume the peace and ease of the heart and mind, which are the natural peace and ease of the heart and mind, we notice what disturbs it” and we allow that to pass, opening space in our previously constricted heart for hodayah/gratitude to enter.
This is practice is both simple and yet difficult and counter-cultural, as the late Rabbi Sheryl Lewart z”l described:
Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. If you’ve lost your job, but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for. If you can’t move around much, but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for. Gratitude affirms. Most of us tend to focus on what is missing in our lives, we barely notice all the good that offsets it. … Recognize the good … and resolve that the good is more than “good enough” – celebrate a life based on gratitude.