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Rabbi Larry Tabick

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The Ten Sefirot

The most common way of presenting the Ten Sefirot is as a tree. This tree is often referred to by the Biblical phrase “The Tree of Life,” but I should point out that this is only the most popular approach to the structure of the sefirot. There are in fact, many other ways, including the Ten Sefirot as a circle, as concentric circles or letters, and as a spiral – but let’s stick with the tree for the moment.

The tree is, in fact, upside down, but deliberately so, for its root is in Keter or “Crown,” which is the point of direct contact with the Infinite, ’Ayn Sof. Keter is in such close contact with ’Ayn Sof that it also has the alternative name of ’Ayin, “Nothing,” because nothing can be said of it and yet it is the root of everything. It is not “nothing” as we usually understand that word, but “nothing yet.” That is, Keter is everything in potential, but nothing in actuality. It is the Nothing from which all things emerge. It is also known as the “Will” (in the sense of “the will to exist”), because it precedes all that follows, as our will precedes our rationalizations and justifications, not to mention our actions.

From Keter emerges Hochmah, “Wisdom.” Hochmah is the flash of inspiration or insight, the “Father” of the lower sefirot. Its partner is Binah, “Understanding,” the “Mother,” which emerges from it, and which represents the working out of the implications of the inspiration that is Hochmah. These two are said to be in constant union, as the development of a thought in Binah may lead to further inspiration in Hochmah, and this in turn leads to further development in Binah. And as a result of this union, from within Binah emerge the seven lower sefirot, their “children.” As their names imply, the first three sefirot represent the mental or intellectual realms. The next three represent the emotional realms.

Hesed or “Loving kindness” is that aspect which wants to give endlessly, generously, without restraint or consideration of whether the recipient is deserving or the conditions right. Its opposite is Gevurah or “Strength,” also known as Din, “Judgment” or Pachad, “Fear, Awe.” This is the aspect that sets limits and boundaries, and, although by no means evil in itself, it is said to be the source of the energies that give rise to evil, since the setting of limits and boundaries implies that some things will, by definition, be outside those limits. If Hesed is an unconditional “yes,” then Gevurah is a firm “no.” These opposites are balanced and reconciled in Tif’eret or “Beauty,” also known as Tzedek, “Justice.”

Below them are three more sefirot, Netzach, “Victory” or “Eternity,” Hod, “Majesty,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” These represent the further mixture of the qualities of those immediately above them and the practical steps needed for them to come to fruition in this world. And beyond that, Yesod is also the focal point for energies of all the other sefirot so that they can be channeled into Malchut.

Malchut is the lowest of the sefirot, and the one that serves as the interface between this world and the world of the sefirot. It is identical to the Shechinah, the In-dwelling Presence of God in the world. In other words, we live in a universe suffused with divine energies channeled through Malchut which surrounds and fills all that exists here.

Above, I wrote of Hochmah and Binah as a pair, one masculine and one feminine. There are other such pairs among the sefirot, but the most important of these is Tif’eret and Malchut, whose union is mediated through Yesod. But, unlike the union of Hochmah and Binah, which is said to be permanent, the union between Tif’eret and Malchut is intermittent, and dependent on human behavior. When we behave well, observing both ethical and ritual precepts, we stimulate the activity of Hesed, which in turn brings Tif’eret and Malchut together. When we behave badly or neglect the precepts, we stimulate the activity of Gevurah, which in turn separates Tif’eret, the “husband,” from Malchut, his “wife.”

These brief remarks on the sefirot are by no means the only way to think about them. They may be thought of individually, in pairs or triads, or as a whole. The metaphors by which they, and their interactions, are described are numerous and multifaceted, and they are present in all aspects of existence. According to Prof. Moshe Idel, broadly speaking, they may be thought of in three ways: as describing processes that take place within God’s more revealed aspect, as a chain of existence that links God to the universe and ourselves back to God, and as elements that are present within everything and within each of us. In short, the sefirot can be a powerful tool for thinking about the processes that preceded Creation, or the processes that take place within history, or within the human soul. They were designed less an attempt to describe external reality, and more as a speculative and meditational scheme for making sense of life and the world. Only regular immersion in the relevant literature and in meditation on the sefirot can truly reveal their significance.

Under Renate’s gentle encouragement, I have trying to think about this basic kabbalistic scheme in relation to my own inner life. I believe that this attempt is legitimate within the Jewish tradition, first, because of the notion, expressed in Genesis chapter 1, that human beings are made in the divine image. Therefore, the kabbalists teach, our ideas of God can be understood as having something important to say about us, and vice versa, despite the vast unfathomable spiritual distance that lies between us and God. And, they go on to say, the ten sefirot exist within us, too. And secondly, this scheme I have just outlined is itself the product of human creativity. Luria and his predecessors and successors may therefore also be saying something processes within themselves and within human beings in general.

Occasionally I write poetry. I leave other people to judge whether it is of any literary merit or spiritual value. I am not really interested in that. It is simply that I find that for me, poetry is a method of saying things, especially spiritual things, that gives me more freedom to express myself, without all the ‘ifs, ands or buts,’ all the caveats and conditions, that seem to fill my prose writing.

Usually, I do not analyze the process whereby a poem begins in my mind and takes shape until I put it down on paper and save it on my computer. I just want to get it ready and get it down before I lose it.

But thinking about it, the process seems to start with a kind of tzimtzum for me. I need to withdraw by getting out of my office and home and being by myself, or I have to wait until everyone else in the house is asleep and there are no distractions. Sometimes when I do this, very occasionally, a thought comes, a word or more usually a phrase. I often feel that this initial thought comes from nowhere, from nothingness, with no apparent antecedents. This Nothingness would seem to parallel the highest sefirah, Keter, or Crown. As with all the sefirot, Keter has alternative names and symbols. One of these is ’Ayin, Nothing. Keter is the Nothingness that is full of everything in potential, but is itself nothing… yet.

Out of Keter emerges Hochmah, Wisdom. This sefirah too has many symbols. One of them is a point; it is the start of the process of producing something out of nothing. It is also identified as the flash of inspiration, the thought that arrives from Nowhere. Hence, Hochmah is also known as Machshavah, Thought.

Within moments of the initial thought, more words come, clustering around the original; these phrases begin to form themselves into patterns, with some rhythm, perhaps with rhyme. The patterns expand, contract, re-shape themselves in my mind. This seems to parallel what the kabbalists say about the relationship between Hochmah, Wisdom, and Binah, Understanding. If Hochmah, Wisdom, is the flash of inspiration, then Binah, Understanding, is the mental working out of that initial thought. What are its ramifications? How can the initial idea be developed, or modified? Perhaps it should even be discarded. In which case, I try to forget about it. If not…

I reach for the paper, usually a notebook. With pen in hand, the idea I started with seems to undergo a process of emanation. What was an idea in my mind gradually becomes refined and tested and turned into words on a page. These in turn are refined and tested. There is much crossing out, insertion of new words, or both. Thus, words that entered my mind at Hochmah, Wisdom, and were refined in Binah, Understanding, ultimately emerge into physical reality through what might be termed Malchut, Sovereignty.

This process seems to parallel that of atzilut (‘emanation’). Just as there is said to be continuous flow of energies between the sefirot, following the channels that correspond to the letters, so too a kind of mental conversation seems to take place within me, in which ideas are put forward, and quickly judged, and perhaps modified or discarded. Perhaps, others replace them. After a while, the conversation settles down. I know what I want to write. The emanation process has concluded. I put pen to paper to try to bring my thoughts to reality.

I always transfer the results to my computer, but rarely is what I save to the hard drive quite the same as what is in my notebook. Each poem undergoes a process of tikkun (‘repair’) to correct and improve any passages that don’t seem right, whose ‘vessels’ are broken and whose ‘sparks’ need liberating.

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