Consider the elements fire and water.
One dries things out and the other hydrates. One burns and the other soothes. We need them to live, but too much, when uncontained, can kill us.
The right amount of fire can warm us, heat our homes, cook our food, and sterilize equipment. In some places we need fire to boil water to purify the water and make it safe to drink. But in its extreme and when not contained, fire burns what’s in its path and can kill indiscriminately.
Water is necessary for us to stay alive; we are 70% water. It provides hydration to us and to the earth, helping plants to grow. It carries information nutrients throughout the body. When left stagnant and standing, water can generate mold that poisons us. Without containment and in extreme amounts it can cause floods that erode soil, and drown us.
Nothing is fully benevolent or malevolent.
Fire and water are generally seen as polarities. Like all polarities, they can be mediated, but mediating this polarity isn’t just about combining the elements indiscriminately.
If you pour water on top of fire, you have technically “combined” the elements, but you end up with nothing. You kill the fire but you also have no water left. This is a “compromise” in which everyone loses.
On the other hand, if you put the water in a container and set it on top of fire, you can create steam, an entirely new thing that has its own transformative qualities.
The Magic of Alchemy
This is the magic of alchemy: one thing plus another thing creates a third thing.
This magic emerges from how the elements are combined.
Water is still “on top” of fire, but by creating structure to the combination we can combine them in a way that takes the best of each to create something entirely new that honors what is.
This is how nature works at its best, and serves as a lesson for mediating all polarities.
It’s not about finding the “middle path” in terms of “compromise,” where each element must sacrifice some aspect of itself for the sake of the whole. Rather, it’s about creating a container that allows for the full expression of each element that creates an entirely new modality.
Tiferet: Finding Beauty Through Integration
When the disparate elements of apparent polarities are thoughtfully combined in this way to create something entirely new, we find a state of beauty and harmony.
In the Kabbalistic teachings, this is the attribute of Tiferet, the third of the 7 emotional spheres, or sefirot, that comprise our human experience.
Tiferet is often described as finding the balance between Chesed, the attribute loving-kindness, which gives with benevolence, and Gevurah, the attribute of restraint, which holds back and restricts. But Tiferet is more than just finding balance. As Rabbi Shimon Leiberman explains, it is about creating integration or synthesis of conflicting elements, taking the best of them to create an entirely different mode of activity.
As we refine our attribute of Tiferet, the invitation is to explore how we can resolve the apparent polarities we encounter by creating a third thing that integrates the best of each element.