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The Tree of Life

The Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life

Central to modern Kabbalistic study is the diagram Otz Chiim, the Tree of Life. The Tree encapsulates creation, existence and the return to the divine (or the path to enlightenment) in ten sefirot ("numbers," "emanations" or "spheres;" singular, sefira) and the twenty-two paths through which they interrelate (introduced in our Introduction to the Kabbalah).

The Tree of Life describes the descent of the divine into the manifest world, and methods by which divine union may be attained in this life. It can be viewed as a map of the human psyche and of the workings of creation, both manifest and unmanifest. Indeed, any system can be more fully understood both in itself and relative to any other system by viewing it in relation to the Tree of Life. The Tree allows and requires a more holistic understanding of any topic to which it is applied - reason, spiritual perception and intuition are all needed, as is clear from the structure of the Tree itself.

It is important to realize that the pure nature of divinity is unity, and that the seemingly separate aspects or emanations exist only in view of the emanated, living in a state of illusory separation. This is expressed in the Zohar:

"In creating this world below, the world above lost nothing. It is the same for each sefira: if one is illuminated, the next loses none of its brilliance."

The absolute divine light can be said to be refracted through the prism of the sefirot into the apparently multifarious world of creation.

The Structure of the Tree

The Tree may be seen in many different ways by grouping subsets of the sefirot together depending on circumstance. The most important groups are the three pillars of severity (sefirot 3, 5 and 8), equilibrium (sefirot 1, 6, 9 and 10) and mercy (sefirot 2, 4 and 7); and the three major triangles: the supernal triangle (sefirot 1, 2 and 3), the ethical triangle (sefirot 4, 5 and 6) and the astral triangle (sefirot 7, 8 and 9). Also worthy of note are the seven planes of the tree and the correspondence between the sefirot and the chakras of eastern mysticism.

In viewing the Tree as composed of the three pillars, each sefira can be classed as either negative (restrictive, passive and destructive), balancing or positive (expansive, active and constructive) depending upon whether it lies on the pillar of severity, equilibrium (sometimes mildness) or mercy respectively. It is important to realize that no value judgment is implied in the terms "positive" and "negative:" neither is better or worse than the other. Indeed, it can be said that evil is a synonym for imbalance (as found in the infernal Tree of the Qelippot), highlighting the vital, complementary natures of the pillars.

Each sefira in itself has a dual aspect of negative and positive: namely, it is negative or receptive in relation to the preceding sefira and positive or transmissive in relation to the succeeding sefira. So, for example, Tifereth is negative to Geburah and positive to Netsach. This has the consequence that, taking the Tree in isolation, Kether may be considered as entirely positive or masculine and Malkuth entirely negative or feminine (again, no value judgment is implied in these terms), in that they have no preceding or succeeding sefira respectively. However, as can be seen in our discussion of the Four Worlds, "Malkuth in one world is Kether of the next:" even these sefirot can be viewed in their dual aspect.

There are other positive-negative relationships of the sefirot, too. For example, sefirot in the same pillar can be viewed in relation to each other. Thus Chesed may be seen as negative to Chokmah and positive to Netsach. Sefirot on the middle pillar also have a strong sense of balance, each being a balance or resolving point of one or more of the three dualities (Chokmah-Binah, Chesed-Geburah and Netsach-Hod) found between the outer pillars.

Before leaving the pillars, let us reiterate their use as a means to synthesize the Kabbalah with threefold systems. Examples of analogies between the pillars of severity, equilibrium and mercy and other trinities include Taoist concepts (yin, Tao and yang); tantric energy channels (ida, sushumna and pingala); Hindu (Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu) and Christian (Holy Spirit, Father and Son) trinities; alchemical concepts (Sulfur, Mercury and Salt); aspects of the Goddess (Crone, Mother and Maiden); phases of the moon (waning, full and waxing); and the Hebrew "Mother" letters (Mem, Aleph and Shin). Knowledge of any of these can help enrich knowledge of the Kabbalah through association with the Tree, and vice versa. This method of analogy can be applied to each sefira individually, to the pillars or triangles of the Tree, to the planes, the Worlds and any other way the Tree can be conceived. The balance of structure and flexibility in the Tree gives it its great strength as a means of assimilation, understanding and interconnectivity.

One final attribution of the pillars that is well worth reflecting upon is that of the three precepts to Enlightenment, which can correspond to the pillars of severity, mercy and mildness respectively: Self-control, Self-knowledge and Self-realization.

When is a Sefira not a Sefira?

In addition to the ten sefirot, the diagram of the Tree of Life above shows the dark and unnumbered "sefira which is not a sefira," Da'ath.

"Ten sefirot of nothingness, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven."

This quote from the Sefer Yetsirah (1:4) hammers home the point that Da'ath is not a sefira, so it has no number and no position on the Tree in relation to the other sefirot, though when it is represented it is "placed" centrally in the Abyss (between the planes of Binah-Chokmah and Geburah-Chesed) with no explicit connection to any other sphere. Da'ath is Knowledge and is sometimes thought of as an expression of Binah and Chokmah combined. It is a place of balanced power.