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The Pillars & the Lightning Flash
In Chapter 1. the Tree of Life was derived from three concepts, or rather one primary concept and two derivative concepts which are “contained” within it. The primary concept was called consciousness, and it was said to “contain” within it the two complementary concepts of force and form. This chapter builds on the idea by introducing the three Pillars of the Tree, and uses the Pillars to clarify a process called the Lightning Flash.
The Three Pillars are shown in Figure 8. below.
Pillar Pillar Pillar of of of Form Consciousness Force (Severity) (Mildness) (Mercy) Kether / (Crown) \ / | \ / | \ / | \ Binah | Chokhmah (Understanding)__________ (Wisdom) (Intelligence) | | |\ | /| | \ Daath / | | \ (Knowledge) / | | \ | / | Gevurah \ | / Chesed (Strength)\_____|_____/__ (Mercy) | \ | / (Love) | \ \ | / / | | \ \ | / / | | \ Tipheret / | | / (Beauty) \ | | / | \ | | / | \ | |/ | \| Hod | Netzach (Glory) _______________(Victory) (Splendour) | (Firmness) \ \ | / / \ \ | / / \ \ | / / \ \ | / / \ \ Yesod / / \ (Foundation) / \ / \ | / \ | / \ | / Malkuth (Kingdom) Figure 8
Not surprisingly the three pillars are referred to as the pillars of consciousness, force and form. The pillar of consciousness contains the sephiroth Kether, Tiphereth, Yesod and Malkuth; the pillar of force contains the sephiroth Chokhmah, Chesed and Netzach; the pillar of form contains the sephiroth Binah, Gevurah and Hod. In older Kabbalistic texts the pillars are referred to as the pillars of mildness, mercy and severity, and it is not immediately obvious how the older jargon relates to the new. To the medieval Kabbalist (and this is a recurring metaphor in the Zohar) the creation as an emanation of God is a delicate balance (metheqela) between two opposing tendencies: the mercy of God, the outflowing, creative, life-giving and sustaining tendency in God, and the severity or strict judgement of God, the limiting, defining, life-taking and ultimately wrathful or destructive tendency in God. The creation is “energised” by these two tendencies as if stretched between the poles of a battery.
Modern Kabbalah makes a half-hearted attempt to remove the more obvious anthropomorphisms in the descriptions of “God”; mercy and severity are misleading terms, apt to remind one of a man with a white beard, and even in medieval times the terms had distinctly technical meanings as the following quotation shows :
“It must be remembered that to the Kabbalist, judgement [Din - judgement, another title of Gevurah] means the imposition of limits and the correct determination of things. According to Cordovero the quality of judgement is inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its boundaries.”
I understand the word “form” in precisely this sense - it is that which defines what a thing is, the structure whereby a given thing is distinct from every other thing.
As for “consciousness”, I use the word “consciousness” in a sense so abstract that it is virtually meaningless, and according to whim I use the word God instead, where it is understood that both words are placeholders for something which is potentially knowable in the gnostic sense only - consciousness can be defined according to the forms it takes, in which case we are defining the forms, not the consciousness. The same qualification applies to the word “force”. My inability to define two of the three concepts which underpin the structure of the Tree is a nuisance which is tackled traditionally by the use of extravagent metaphors, and by elimination (“not this, not that”).
The classification of sephiroth into three pillars is a way of saying that each sephira in a pillar partakes of a common quality which is “inherited” in a progressively more developed and structured form from of the top of a pillar to the bottom. Tipheret, Yesod and Malkuth all share with Kether the quality of “consciousness in balance” or “synthesis of opposing qualities”, or but in each case it is expressed differently according to the increased degree of structure imposed. Likewise, Chokhmah, Chesed and Netzach share the quality of force or energy or expansiveness, and Binah, Gevurah and Hod share the quality of form, definition and limitation. From Kether down to Malkuth, force and form are combined; the symbolism of the Tree has something in common with a production line, with molten metal coming in one end and finished cars coming out the other, and with that metaphor we are now ready to describe the Lightning Flash, the process whereby God takes on flesh, the process which created and sustains the creation.
In the beginning…was Something. Or Nothing. It doesn't really matter which term we use, as both are equally meaningless in this context. Nothing is probably the better of the two terms, because I can use Something in the next paragraph. Kabbalists call this Nothing “En Soph” which literally means “no end” or infinity, and understand by this a hidden, unmanifest God-in-Itself.
Out of this incomprehensible and indescribable Nothing came Something. Probably more words have been devoted to this moment than any other in Kabbalah, and it is all too easy to make fun the effort which has gone into elaborating the indescribable, so I won't, but in return do not expect me to provide a justification for why Something came out of Nothing. It just did. A point crystallised in the En Soph. In some versions of the story the En Soph “contracted” to “make room” for the creation (Isaac Luria's theory of Tsimtsum), and this is probably an important clarification for those who have rubbed noses with the hidden face of God, but for the purposes of these notes it is enough that a point crystallised. This point was the crown of creation, the sephira Kether, and within Kether was contained all the unrealised potential of the creation.
An aspect of Kether is the raw creative force of God which blasts into the creation like the blast of hot gas which keeps a hot air ballon in the air. Kabbalists are quite clear about this; the creation didn't just happen a long time ago - it is happening all the time, and without the force to sustain it the creation would crumple like a balloon. The force-like aspect within Kether is the sephira Chokhmah and it can be thought of as the will of God, because without it the creation would cease to be. The whole of creation is maintained by this ravening, primeval desire to be, to become, to exist, to change, to evolve. The experiential distinction between Kether, the point of emanation, and Chokhmah, the creative outpouring, is elusive, but some of the difference is captured in the phrases “I am” and “I become”.
Force by itself achieves nothing; it needs to be contained, and the balloon analogy is appropriate again. Chokhmah contains within it the necessity of Binah, the Mother of Form. The person who taught me Kabbalah (a woman) told me Chokhmah (Abba, the Father) was God's prick, and Binah (Aima, the mother) was God's womb, and left me with the picture of one half of God continuously ejaculating into the other half. The author of the Zohar also makes frequent use of sexual polarity as a metaphor to describe the relationship between force and form, or mercy and severity (although the most vivid sexual metaphors are used for the marriage of the Microprosopus and his bride, the Queen and Inferior Mother, the sephira Malkuth).
The sephira Binah is the Mother of Form; form exists within Binah as a potentiality, not as an actuality, just as a womb contains the potential of a baby. Without the possibility of form, no thing would be distinct from any other thing; it would be impossible to distinguish between things, impossible to have individuality or identity or change. The Mother of Form contains the potential of form within her womb and gives birth to form when a creative impulse crosses the Abyss to the Pillar of Force and emanates through the sephira Chesed. Again we have the idea of “becoming”, of outflowing creative energy, but at a lower level. The sephira Chesed is the point at which form becomes perciptible to the mind as an inspiration, an idea, a vision, that “Eureka!” moment immediately prior to rushing around shouting “I've got it! I've got it!” Chesed is that quality of genuine inspiration, a sense of being “plugged in” which characterises the visionary leaders who drive the human race onwards into every new kind of endeavour. It can be for good or evil; a leader who can tap the petty malice and vindictiveness in any person and channel it into a vision of a new order and genocide is just as much a visionary as any other, but the positive side of Chesed is the humanitarian leader who brings about genuine improvements to our common life.
No change comes easy; as Cordova points out “everything wishes to remain what it is”. The creation of form is balanced in the sephira Gevurah by the preservation and destruction of form. Any impulse of change is channelled through Gevurah, and if it is not resisted then something will be destroyed. If you want to make paper you cut down a tree. If you want to abolish slavery you have to destroy the culture which perpetuates it. If you want to change someone's mind you have to destroy that person's beliefs about the matter in question. The sephira Gevurah is the quality of strict judgement which opposes change, destroys the unfamiliar, and corresponds in many ways to an immune system within the body of God.
There has to be a balance between creation and destruction. Too much change, too many ideas, too many things happening too quickly can have the quality of chaos (and can literally become that), whereas too little change, no new ideas, too much form and structure and protocol can suffocate and stifle. There has to be a balance which “makes sense” and this “idea of balance” or “making sense” is expressed in the sephira Tiphereth. It is an instinctive morality, and it isn't present by default in the human species. It isn't based on cultural norms; it doesn't have its roots in upbringing (although it is easily destroyed by it). Some people have it in a large measure, and some people are (to all intents and purposes) completely lacking in it. It doesn't necessarily respect conventional morality: it may laugh in its face. I can't say what it is in any detail, because it is peculiar and individual, but those who have it have a natural quality of integrity, soundness of judgement, an instinctive sense of rightness, justice and compassion, and a willingness to fight or suffer in defense of that sense of justice. Tiphereth is a paradoxical sephira because in many people it is simply not there. It can be developed, and that is one of the goals of initiation, but for many people Tiphereth is a room with nothing in it.
Having passed through Gevurah on the Pillar of Form, and found its way through the moral filter of Tiphereth, a creative impulse picks up energy once more on the Pillar of Force via the Sephira Netzach, where the energy of “becoming” finds its final expression in the form of “vital urges”. Why do we carry on living? Why bother? What is it that compels us to do things? An artist may have a vision of a piece of art, but what actually compels the artist to paint or sculpt or write? Why do we want to compete and win? Why do we care what happens to others? The sephira Netzach expresses the basic vital creative urges in a form we can recognise as drives, feelings and emotions. Netzach is pre-verbal; ask a child why he wants a toy and the answer will be
“I just do”.
“But why,” you ask, wondering why he doesn't want the much more “sensible” toy you had in mind. “Why don't you want this one here.”
“I just don't. I want this one.”
“But what's so good about that one.”
“I don't know what to say…I just like it.”
This conversation is not fictitious and is quintessentially Netzach. The structure of the Tree of Life posits that the basic driving forces which characterise our behaviour are pre-verbal and non-rational; anyone who has tried to change another person's basic nature or beliefs through force of rational argument will know this.
After Netzach we go to the sephira Hod to pick up our last cargo of Form. Ask a child why they want something and they say “I just do”. Press an adult and you will get an earful of “reasons”. We live in a culture where it is important (often essential) to give reasons for the things we do, and Hod is the sephira of form where it is possible to give shape to our wants in terms of reasons and explanations. Hod is the sephira of abstraction, reason, logic, language and communication, and a reflection of the Mother of Form in the human mind. We have a innate capacity to abstract, to go immediately from the particular to the general, and we have an innate capacity to communicate these abstractions using language, and it should be clear why the alternative translation of Binah is “intelligence”; Binah is the “intelligence of God”, and Hod underpins what we generally recognise as intelligence in people - the ability to grasp complex abstractions, reason about them, and articulate this understanding using some means of communication.
The synthesis of Hod and Netzach on the Pillar of Consciousness is the sephira Yesod. Yesod is the sephira of interface, and the comparison with computer peripheral interfaces is an excellent one. Yesod is sometimes called “the Receptacle of the Emanations”, and it interfaces the emanations of all three pillars to the sephira Malkuth, and it is through Yesod that the final abstract form of something is realised in matter. Form in Yesod is no longer abstract; it is explicit, but not yet individual - that last quality is reserved for Malkuth alone. Yesod is like the mold in a bottle factory - the mold is a realisation of the abstract idea “bottle” in so far as it expresses the shape of a particular bottle design in every detail, but it is not itself an individual bottle.
The final step in the process is the sephira Malkuth, where God becomes flesh, and every abstract form is realised in actuality, in the “real world”. There is much to say about this, but I will keep it for later.
The process I have described is called the Lightning Flash. The Lightning Flash runs as follows: Kether, Chokhmah, Binah, Chesed, Gevurah, Tiphereth, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, Malkuth, and if you trace the Lighning Flash on a diagram of the Tree you will see that it has the zig-zag shape of a lightning flash. The sephiroth are numbered according to their order on the lightning flash: Kether is 1, Chokhmah is 2, and so on. The “Sepher Yetzirah”  has this to say about the sephiroth:
“When you think of the ten sephiroth cover your heart and seal the desire of your lips to announce their divinity. Yoke your mind. Should it escape your grasp, reach out and bring it back under your control. As it was said, 'And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning,' in such a manner was the Covenant created.”
The quotation within the quotation comes from Ezekiel 1.14, a text which inspired a large amount of early Kabbalistic speculation, and it is probable that the Lightning Flash as described is one of the earliest components of the idea of sephirothic emanation.
The Lightning Flash describes the creative process, beginning with the unknown, unmanifest hidden God, and follows it through ten distinct stages to a change in the material world. It can be used to describe any change - lighting a match, picking your nose, walking the dog - and novices are usually set the exercise of analysing any arbitrarily chosen event in terms of the Lightning Flash. Because the Lightning Flash can be used to understand the inner process whereby the material world of the senses changes and evolves, it is a key to practical magical work, and because it is intended to account for all change it follows that all change is equally magical, and the word “magic” is essentially meaningless (but nevertheless useful for distinguishing between “normal” and “abnormal” states of consciousness, and the modes of causality which pertain to each).
It also follows that the key to understanding our “spiritual nature” does not belong in the spiritual empyrean, where it remains inaccessible, but in all the routine and unexciting little things in life. Everything is is equally “spiritual”, equally “divine”, and there is more to be learned from picking one's nose than there is in a spiritual discipline which puts you “here” and God “over there”. The Lightning Flash ends in Malkuth, and it can be followed like a thread through the hidden pathways of creation until one arrives back at the source. The next chapter will retrace the Lightning Flash by examining the qualities of each sephira in more detail.
- Scholem, Gershom G. “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”, Schoken Books 1974
- Westcott, W. Wynn, ed. “Sepher Yetzirah”. Many reprintings.
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