The Nature of the Spiritual Universe
Q. What can you tell me about the Kabbalistic Doctrine of the Ten Sefirot? How do they relate to the human body?
A. You’ve asked a tough question, but here goes! One of the great problems Jewish mystics grappled with is the question of how an utterly transcendent and ineffable God can be related to a cosmos? How can the One be the source for the many? How is it possible for evil to exist in the world if God, the source of all things, is truly good? The Sefirot are the means through which God introduced compositeness into creation. Without the Sefirot, the world would never have developed its own unique sense of consciousness or personhood. The Sefirot are like the various organs of the human body which serve to house and manifest the power of the soul.
God uses the Sefirot much like a fine teacher uses all of his various skills and intellectual powers to convey an obtuse idea to a struggling student. The teacher must utilize his creative powers, but still must be understanding; he must be willing to feel the anxiety of the student. The road to knowledge must be paved by the teacher through similes and parables designed to win over the student’s heart as well as his intellect.
The capacity to be patient, as well as the will power to triumph over all obstacles and lastly the ability to be communicative with the student makes it possible for him to realize knowledge.
Each attribute of the Sefirot is essential in the birthing of the student’s consciousness. Without the teacher’s self-imposed limitations, the student would remain in a state of ignorance and unknowing.
God’s utter transcendence and Mystery is described in the Kabbala as the Ein Sof (“The Endless One”), and the ten qualities of divine being that emanate from within the depths of Ein Sof, known as the “Sefirot [” which is related to the Hebrew word Sappir, loosely translated as ‘sapphire’ and interpreted as the radiance of God.) i.e., the Ten Radiances” Each of the Sefirot represented a different revelation of God’s creative power. Through the Sefirot, the light of the God becomes manifest in the world.
According to Genesis 1:27, the human being is created in the image of God; the Sefirot are the divine template and archetypal energies God used to create humankind. At the dawn of Adam’s creation, he lived in complete harmony with the cosmos, the upper spiritual worlds were one with the lower spiritual worlds C it was a period of undifferentiated consciousness. Now as a result of the Fall, the harmony became dissonant and disrupted, the story of humankind is to bring about a Tikkun “a restoration” of this world and to connect the lower and upper realms so that the Kingship of God shall reign over all creation as He did at the beginning of creation.
Some Jewish mystics suggest that the word Sefirot comes from the word “sapare” meaning “telling” in that through the Sefirot, a story about God is told, and in our emulation of God’s Sefirot, God’s story becomes told through us. Some Kabbalistic texts compare the Sefirot to the various organs and limbs of the body. Other Kabbalistic texts compare the Sefirot to garments i..e., which give expression to the wearer’s personality and beauty, in the same way the Sefirot express God’s “personality” so to speak.
Here is another way to think of the Sefirot—fingers. Imagine for moment: what do we use our fingers for? The answer will vary from person to person depending on what s/he does at any given time of the day. An artist uses his fingers to create beauty; the writer uses his fingers to create literature; the baseball player uses his fingers to hold the bat, while the pitcher uses his fingers to throw a baseball. A musician uses his fingers to play music. In short, fingers have myriad applications. Just as our body serves as the medium through which the soul interacts with the world, so too does God interact with the Sefirot when revealing His Presence in the world. Job said “From my flesh I behold God.” [Job 19:26] in other words, from understanding the microcosm, we may understand the macrocosm of the Universe. Truth is immanent in the universe and this reality is no less present within the human body.
Sometimes the Sefirot are also known as garments. It has been said “Clothes makes the man.” Garments serve to reveal the personality of the person who wears them. For instance, the fireman, the doctor, the priest, the baseball player all wears a uniform that pertains to the activity associated with that particular skill. In the same manner, God clothes Himself in the Sefirot, but His true essence is simple and unadulterated.
Ancient Kabbalists conceived of a Great Chain of Being which emanating from an energetic, superabundant Spirit which composes every level of existence. We need not seek this Spirit enshrined in some synagogue or some other holy place, nor must we search this Spirit in some hidden esoteric writings. We are manifestations of this Spirit; everything we do and are reveals the Spirit from which we cannot be separated, for there is nothing else but Spirit.
The body is a microcosm whose various processes corresponds to those of the physical world and yet whose root is embedded in the celestial realm. “A well-known aphorism expresses the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm: “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.” the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm; whereby the human soul was regarded as a microcosm of the forces and principles contained in the macrocosm of the universe. The universal template that is the blueprints for the macro and microcosmic order are the Sefirot.
The Sefirot serve as God’s instruments or tools through which God performs His various activities in the world, much like the soul that operates through the organs of the human body. The body in and of itself is dead, it is the soul that gives the human body its personality and life. Were it not for the Sefirot, the world would be utterly suffused with the light of God’s infinite Being, and it is through God’s severity, human freedom has the spiritual space so to speak in which to function.
In the spiritual sense too, the Sefirot represents the great chain of being that links all things that exist, all of which is calibrated to our moral and spiritual behavior. Each deed, however small it may seem in our eyes, can have great repercussions in evolution of spiritual consciousness. Like stone reverberating in a pool of water, so too, our deeds reverberate in all worlds, and in all dimensions. The Sefirot serve as a spiritual mirror for God’s Presence in the world; each Sefirah reveals something about the personality of God.
According to the great 16th century Moshe Cordovero, the attribute of judgment (din) is a necessary condition for the survival of any existence. What is too near to the abundance of God’s infinite compassion cannot exist, and therefore the highest thoughts were abolished, so that the Sefirot could be formed only when emanation reached the Sefirah of Binah (“Discernment”), which already contains judgment (din).
Thus, the world we experience inside and outside us rests on a transcendental background which is the spiritual source and structure of the physical universe. Within our consciousness exists the realm of the Sefiort providing the archetypal patterns that give rise to a world of diversity and personality. Human beings reflect the order that exists in the higher spiritual dimensions.
Thus, the person who acts with compassion, mirrors and reveals God’s own compassion in the world. When a man acts stingily, he mirrors an image of God that is severe and withholding. Only in our creative and goodly deeds do we step forth into the Divine light and reveal a God that is wholesome and complete.
Each Sefirah points to an aspect of God in His capacity of Creator, forming at the same time a whole world of divine light in the chain of being. The doctrine of the Sefirot teach us that the world is not governed by chance, but by is under the ever watchful Eye of Divine providence which is always present and yet hidden in all the planes of creation, and particularly in the world of humankind. The Sefirot depict dynamic principles of Divine Providence which are ever manifested in our world.
This of course is not a new idea. The ancient rabbis also intuited this notion in non-mystical terms, but certainly intended just the same. Hama bar Hanina, who expounded the verse, “After the Lord your God ye shall walk” (Deut. 13:5): “How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead” (Sota 14a ) This ancient intuition inspired Moshe Cordevero to write one of his most far-reaching kabbalistic texts Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah, tr. by L. Jacobs, 1960), which begins:
“It is proper for man to imitate his Creator, resembling Him in both likeness and image according to the secret of the Supernal Form. Because the chief Supernal image and likeness is in deeds, a human resemblance merely in bodily appearance and not in deeds debases that Form… Consequently, it is proper for man to imitate the acts of the Supernal Crown which are the 13 highest attributes of mercy”( Louis Jacob’s introduction to The Palm Tree of Deborah, p. 37).
Sometimes the Sefirot have often been portrayed as a tree. They are linked together as a vital organism, like a tree whose root is the Infinite, with the kingdom as the trunk, the foundation as the point from which the branches begin to spread, the Sefira of harmony is at the center while Keter [crown –representing transcendence] at the top.
Gershom Scholem wrote in his classic work Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: “The point to keep in mind is that the sefirot are not secondary or intermediary spheres which interpose between God and the universe . . . not steps of a ladder between God and the world, but various planes in the manifestation of the Divinity which proceed from and succeed each other” (Scholem, 1961, pp. 208-209). This last point of Scholem is significant, for many of the objections Jews had towards the Trinity, many anti-kabbalists had toward the Sefirot! One famous 14th century Rabbinic Sage, Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet [a.k.a. the Rivash,] wrote in a famous responsa about a certain Kabbalistic practice he held with disdain:
I asked a Kabbalist, Rabbi Don Yosef [of whom he highly regarded] the following question: How can you Kabbalists intend with each blessing [of the Eighteen Benedictions,] intend that each of the blessings to be directed to a separate divine attribute [sefirah]. And all of this is quite strange to those who are not kabbalists like themselves and think that this is a belief in dualistic tendencies [emunat sheniyut]. Once I heard one of those involved in philosophy, speak contemptuously about the Kabbalists saying, “the idolaters believe in a Trinity, and the Kabbalists believe in a Tenfold God!….Concerning what Rabbi Shimson of Chinon, of blessed memory, whom I already mentioned earlier, use to declare that he prayed like a young child [kiTinuk] ie., he had in mind only the simplest meaning of his prayers, in contrast to the Kabbalists who now have in mind this Sefirah or that Sefirah [and so on]. Is it not better to pray directly [stam] to the Lord, may He be blessed, with simple intention rather than advising God how to grant his request?” Responsa 157
Rabbi Perfet’s Kabbalistic colleague rejoined: that whenever a Kabbalist prays, he mindfully tries to draw the Divine flow of energy through the specific Sefirot of the Divine. The worshiper prays that God should reveal His attribute of justice in the world; or that God should allow an epiphany of His Love to be made through the Sefirah of Chesed, and so on. By focusing on the individual Sefirot, the worshiper in effect draws and directs God’s infinite power into the phenomenal and spiritual realms. Rabbi Ibn Shoshan’s answer in effect is what is known as theurgy (which comes from the Greek work theourgia) which means literally something like “actuating the divine.” Theurgy refers to actions that induce or bring about the presence of the Divine. Theurgy stresses the role of contemplation in raising the soul to fellowship and intimacy with God. Theurgy should not be confused with magic, for its aim is primarily spiritual to achieve unification with the Divine unlike magic whose aim is to control and manipulate spiritual energies.
In summary, when speaking about the nature of the Sefirot, we must always remember that we are using terms of analogy. Such is the principle of all religious discussion. We can only use images and concepts drawn from our human experience, which always falls short from the truth. Everything that is said about the Sefirot all must be understood in terms of metaphor and parable.
Rabbi Michael Samuel