THE TREE OF LIFE
“Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, who does not stand in the path of sinners, who does not sit in the place of scorners, but who desires God’s Torah, and immerses himself in it day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water.” —Psalms 1:1-3
The theory of the Sefirot is an attempt to explain how the infinite God can have a relationship with any finite thing, and how an unknowable God can be known by man. The Sefirot refer to ten aspects, or emanations, of the incorporeal, unchangeable, incomprehensible Creator known as Eyn Sof. They are the bridge across the abyss, the connective tissue between the infinite God and the finite world. By climbing the ladder of the Sefirot, beginning at the root of the Tree with the Divine Presence in its earthly manifestation (known as Shechina or Malkuth), the soul can come into closer contact with and deeper understanding of an otherwise unfathomable God.
The relationship between the Sefirot and Eyn Sof can be compared to that between the body and soul. The soul dwells within the body, acting through a variety of physical organs, and yet is not to be identified with any of those organs. In the same way the Sefirot are the instruments through which Eyn Sof acts, and any seeming changes or inconsistencies in God’s behavior are in fact only a reflection of the various modes by which the Sefirot channel, reflect, and employ the essence of Eyn Sof.
A brief description of the specific nature of each Sefirah and its relationship to the others can be found below.
Keter/Crown—This represents the first stirrings of the Will within the Godhead, the primal impulse that precedes thought but is necessary for action. It is also called Ayin/Nothingness, because it was out of the infinite void that the Almighty first created. This is the highest, most inaccessible state of the Godhead.
Chohmah/Wisdom—This represents the first impulse to create, the flash of intuition or inspiration that precedes conscious thought. It is considered to be a male aspect of the Divinity.
Binah/Understanding—This represents the point at which Divine inspiration begins to take on definite form. It signifies analytic, distinguishing thought, rather than contemplative intuition. The Binah is the uppermost female element of the Sefirot, and the womb from which the lower seven Sefirot were born.
Chesed/Love—This represents the generous, benevolent side of God, the quality of unconditional Divine Love. It is connected to the masculine intuition of Chohmah, and serves as a counterpart of the potential destructiveness of Geburah/Judgement.
Geburah/Judgement—This is the aspect of God manifested as a wrathful Divinity of awful punishment. It is considered to be feminine, like the analytic thought of Binah, and serves as a counterbalance for Chesed, so that the world is not so overwhelmed by God’s love that it is reabsorbed into the Divine.
Tipereth/Beauty—Also translated as “glory,” this is the balancing force between Chesed and Geburah, and is in fact considered to be their offspring. This force unites the upper nine Sefirot.
Nedzach/Endurance—This represents God’s active grace and benevolence in the world—it is a more earthly manifestation of Chesed.
Hod/Majesty—This represents the manner in which the judgment of the Deity is dispensed on earth—it is a more earthly manifestation of Geburah.
Yesod/Foundation—This is the channel by which Tipereth connects to (or impregnates) Shechina or Malkuth, the path through which Divine Creativity and Fertility are visited upon all creation.
Malkuth/Physical Reality—Also referred to as Shechina, this is the culmination and synthesis of all the attributes of God, the quality that links the Eternal Sovereign to the “real” world. It is the Divine Presence, God’s immanent and female aspect, the way in which humans experience the Divine.
For a description of the historical development of the concept of the ten Sefirot, see the Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah and Hasidism section of this guide.