Keter, Hochmah, Binah
The “top” triad of the sefirot is, in a sense, the mind of God. Keter, meaning “crown,” is transrational, and beyond all cognition. We can say almost nothing about it, except that it is the first stirring of what we would call “will” within the Infinite. In the world of keter, nothing exists: not “God,” not the universe, only the Ein Sof, with the most subtle intention to expand into manifestation. (It’s important that we keep reminding ourselves, by the way, that the spatial and temporal language of theosophical Kabbalah is analogical only. There is no before and after in this world of the Divine, and there is no near and far. Everything is now, and here; all these primordial processes are, from our perspective, constantly occurring.)
Hochmah, meaning wisdom, is like a point: no dimension of its own, but the beginning point for dimensionality. From our perspective, hochmah is that “higher wisdom” that some systems call primordial Awareness. It is the first quality to proceed from Nothingness: that Being knows. This noetic quality of the universe — that every leaf “knows” when to fall in the autumn, that every atom “knows” how to organize itself — is, for the Kabbalists, the most refined quality of the manifested world. If you’d like to imagine the emanation of the sefirot in terms of the Big Bang, hochmah is the singularity with no size, but with the “laws of nature” already instantiated. There is nothing there, but there is the Divine Wisdom which organizes all of creation.
—Binah, meaning understanding, is a kind of partner to Hochmah. The sefirot are often gendered (sometimes multi-gendered), and their interaction is often depicted as a series of erotic interchanges. In this case, hochmah is the male and Binah is female, the Divine womb, the generative principle of the rest of the universe. Binah gives birth to the sefirot, and thus to the world of manifestation itself. She is the concealed, hidden, supernal Divine mother. She is also the beginning of separation — binah is related to the words for knowledge based upon distinctions. Binah is the ocean, the many-chambered palace (note the Jungian flavor to the symbolic associations here), and womb in which Hochmah sows the seed of creation. She is the ground of space and time — not yet expanded, not yet contracted, but the principle of spatiality and temporality itself, ready to give birth to the world.
(You may see in some diagrams of the sefirot an additional principle known as “da’at,” or knowledge. Da’at is usually seen as the synthesis of hochmah and binah, and a kind of reflection, in our minds, of keter. Da’at is not one of the ten sefirot, but as a mediating and synthesizing principle between hochmah and binah, it is important in some systems. We will leave it aside for now.)
Let’s pause for just a moment to explore a few of the subtleties — just the tip of the iceberg, really — in these first three sefirot. First, notice that even at this highest, most abstract level, many of the themes of the Kabbalah are already in play. For those who expect only male god-language, and who suppose there is a hard and fast distinction between religion and sexuality — well, surprise. The Kabbalah is rich in feminine goddess-language, even as it strives to integrate these different faces of the Divine within a monotheistic system. The Kabbalah is also rich in erotic metaphor — if hochmah and binah seem surprisingly embodied, wait until we get to tiferet, yesod, and shechinah/malchut. Nor is eros merely metaphor — it’s not “like” sexual union, it is the essence of sexual union; it’s what generativity and sexuality are ultimately about. Whether the union between masculine and feminine takes place between two people, or within one person, it is ultimately about the play of the Divine itself.
Notice also the remarkable correlations between the Kabbalah and other systems of thought. Binah and hochmah map easily onto “left brain” and “right brain” thinking, even though the Kabbalists presumably had no scientific knowledge of the brain’s internal structure. I have already made an analogy to the Big Bang theory of cosmic origination. Many people suggest similarities between the tree of the sefirot and the Hindu system of the chakras, energy-centers within the body. And, as we proceed through the remaining sefirot, you will see an astonishingly rich emotional, embodied, and cognitive vocabulary — perhaps not what you might expect from a group of medieval rabbis. How we relate to these similarities is up to us, but it’s important to be aware of how you find yourself processing them. On the one hand, the chakras and the sefirot are different systems. We don’t know of historical links between them, and there are differences as well as similarities. On the other hand, it would be overly narrow to deny the similarities, and it’s interesting to speculate as to how two completely different systems arrived at such similar renditions of their truths. Clearly, in the case of sefirot/chakras, we all experience the world through similar bodily structures, so it makes sense that there will be some overlap. But it’s a little harder to explain the Big Bang.
In any case, I would suggest, in the mode of the Kabbalah itself, a dynamic allowing of multiple discourses to take place within you at the same time. Keep your cognitive, historical, conceptual mind operating. But also let your intuitive, phenomenological, spiritual mind (and heart) soar, and play, and improvise with these concepts and ideas. Indeed, with all the combinations and permutations of sefirot, letters, breaths, and numbers, you may begin to feel that Kabbalah is just a matter of play. In a way, it is. Jumping from symbol to symbol is like playing with Divine toys, in God’s playground. Try it! Play hide and seek with God and see who you find.
Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet
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.
Netzach, Hod, Yesod
These are the next triad of sefirot: netzach, hod, and yesod. Many sources say these are the hardest sefirot to understand, and I assure you that the explanation I give here, though grounded in Cordovero and in Hasidic thought, is not the only one. You’ll easily find others which contradict it. Remember, there is no central authority patrolling the dogma of Kabbalah. It’s a bit like Tibetan Buddhism, with multiple lineages, and respect among them, so long as the conduct and intention of teachers is known to be upright.
Netzach means “eternity;” it is the aspect of revelation which stretches horizontally for all time, and the attribute of endurance within the Divine — in the sense both of “God’s mercy endures forever” and the more common usage of endurance through difficult times. Hod, its complement, means “splendor.” It is the aspect of revelation which exists vertically, as a peak experience, or contact with that which is transcendence. It is the source of what Heschel called the experience of radical amazement: the shattering encounter with the numinous that engenders the birth of wonder.
On the more mundane planes, we can (borrowing from Thomas Edison) understand hod as inspiration, and netzach as perspiration. Hod are those moments of insight at which we sing and shout “awwww!” Netzach are the rest of the times. Hod are, in relationship, those perfect evenings on tropical islands, where the sun sets over the water and the night is filled with love. Netzach are the times you pick your lover up at the airport. To paraphrase Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, hod is like a Ferrari; netzach like a Jeep. To paraphrase Jack Kornfield, hod is the ecstasy; netzach is the laundry.
In our culture, there is often a tendency to flee from netzach and embrace only the hod. Ours is an escapist popular culture, grounded in an economic system which endures precisely by providing lots of moments of mini-hod to distract us from our netzach reality. Consequently, since netzach becomes seen as the boring day-to-day and hod (even in bastardized, miniaturized forms like aggressive pastimes or cheap thrills) is the fun part, netzach becomes that which is merely to be endured. Mysticism is about ecstasy, not laundry; love is about passion, not reliability. Even as most Americans live safe lives in the suburbs (netzach), their advertising-based cultural discourse tells them their car is born to be wild (hod).
As you know by now, if you have been reading this site linearly, this is not at all the Kabbalistic approach. We never want to value one sefirah over the other; we want to value the balance and dynamism between them. Sometimes netzach, sometimes hod; both are necessary to unite in yesod, which is the foundation of generativity and productivity. When you are working with netzach, know that you’re working with netzach; be mindful of whether you might be out of balance, but do not denigrate one sefirah in favor of another. Likewise, when you are experiencing an expansive moment of hod, know that you’re experiencing hod; don’t imagine it will last forever, but don’t blow it off as merely a “high” either. Hod moments give us the juice to keep going on; netzach is the going on itself.
Again to draw a parallel from relationships, a partnership that lacks hod is a partnership without spice, without a spark. It will ultimately (one might even say hopefully) be unsatisfying. Likewise, a partnership without netzach is a partnership without stability. Great sex, sure; but where is s/he in the morning?
In the Kabbalistic schema, netzach and hod balance into yesod. If tiferet is the heart center, bringing together the various emotional energies to the core of inner balance, yesod is the sexual organ, bringing together the various productive energies to the place of generativity. Recall that all sefirot have anatomical correspondences: hesed, gevurah and tiferet are right arm, left arm and heart-center; netzach, hod, and yesod are right leg, left leg, and sex organ.
In some charts of the sefirot, yesod is simply the phallus, and in many Kabbalistic texts, it does function in this way. But the situation is actually more complicated. Sexually, yesod is the conduit between male and female energy, and as such includes both male and female genitalia. Think of it in terms of generation and procreation. Yesod is where the energies come together — the Kabbalists did not have an idea of “genetic material” as we do, though it maps on quite well — and are united into manifestation, which is malchut — the last sefirah which we’ll get to next. For a man, this can be understood as bringing together all the energies and projecting them out into the world. For a woman, it might be understood as bringing together all the energies so that their manifestation can be birthed.
Hopefully, it is clear that this sexual imagery is both metaphorical and actual. We use generative language in our common speech all the time: “the idea is gestating,” for example. And certainly, that applies to yesod as well. Yet microcosm reflects macrocosm; our experience of union reflects the structure of the universe.
Incidentally, this is true regardless of how we experience sexuality. Though the Kabbalistic system is obviously heteronormative, it also includes a variety of gender permutations: between two female sefirot, between a male figure who is gendered female and a Divine energy that is gendered male, and so on. In other places, I have gone into these aspects of the Kabbalah in greater detail. Still, for some, it may not be useful to see that which is produced as “female” and that which produces as “male,” or, reflecting back on hesed and gevurah, to see that which expands as “male” and that which receives as “female.” Some may see this sort of language as reinforcing hierarchies and stereotypes, and it would be unwise to try to shade or apologize for this aspect of the Kabbalah by pretending it is other than what it is. But it would be a shame to lose the experiential aspect of theosophical Kabbalah: the eroticization of experience itself, the deep knowing of all reality to be the Divine lovemaking.
Inspiration, determination, and action: the two condition the third, sustain it, and allow what was once merely a thought to manifest into actualization. Now let’s finish our tour of the sefirot with Malchut, the Divine feminine as manifested in the world…. on the next page.