The Higher Sefirot

All the names of G‑d, with which the men of the Middle Ages were so entranced, are really descriptions, or titles, that serve as explanations of the Divine. In terms of the Kabbalah, what is being considered are the various attributes of G‑d, and the Sefirot are listed in hierarchical order beginning with His Will, which is identified with Keter. Following are ChaBaD, which are the three attributes of Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding) and Daat (Knowledge). The next three are Chesed (Love, Kindness), Gevurah (Strength, Control) and Tiferet (Beauty, Mercy). And the last are Netzach (Victory), Hod (Splendor), Yesod (Foundation), and Malchut (Kingdom).

Chesed is the act of giving—it is unlimited love and benevolence; Gevurah is the act of taking, restraining, or controlling, according to Divine understanding and by the use of Divine power, so that it results in Tiferet. Tiferet can be Rachamim or Mercy, Divine Pity, or it can be the Beautiful, emerging as a result of controlled and specifically directed abundance. The difference between the giving of Chesed and the giving of Tiferet or Rachamim is that when one gives out of mercy or pity, this is based on the fact that the other needs something that one wishes to provide, whereas Chesed is a giving that has no limit, that is, the limit is proportional to the measure of Chesed. Some may love more, others may love less. In Rachamim or Mercy, the measure is defined by the need, and it is in this sense that it becomes an act of splendor or beauty, that which is sometimes termed harmony; in certain places it is called truth, and elsewhere it is known as the measure of the Torah. There is an objective quality about it that is not to be found in either Chesed or Gevurah. That is to say, whether one loves or whether one hates, one is hardly objective; the feeling is essentially drawn from within oneself and is relatively independent of the recipient. In contrast, Rachamim or Tiferet has to be based on an objective grasp of the situation; a feeling of compassion is directed toward something in particular. Thus, all the names or descriptions of G‑d are Divine attributes, but they point to very specific aspects of reality.

The fact that man cannot get out of himself makes everything he does or thinks an extension of himself. For better or for worse, that is the way man conceives things and ideas. Where there is no physical, sensual basis, we make some picture of its effect on us and we form the world of the other accordingly. Man cannot have a mental grasp of anything except through the limited structure of the human mind. As Ibn Ezra said, the human soul conceives everything according to its own capacities, raising the inferior and lowering that which is above it. Anthropomorphism can function in two directions and can confer on lower creatures as well as on higher creatures all sorts of human qualities. Thus, in certain kinds of animal stories, the beasts and birds are made to feel and talk like people. It is the same kind of error, in a way, as describing the acts of angels or even G‑d in a humanly comprehensible fashion. Thus, when one speaks of love, for example, it is considered to be the same kind of things for animals, men, and angels.

To be sure, it is claimed that love is always subjective; there can be no other love but that which one feels oneself. In answer to which, let us presume that Chesed can be conceived theoretically as a certain kind of Divine attribute, a quality of attraction and benevolence that can assume a multitude of forms. But in one’s own expression of this love, it is always very limited. Every creature experiences it differently, but it is the same paradigm, the same model.

Are we then bound to our own models? Can we not create new paradigms of experience? According to Baal HaTanya, we cannot, as was stated within a different context of thought. Thus, let us consider another Sefirah—like Keter (Crown)—the primary sense. It is too high, too abstract. So that we have to translate the concept of Keter as Will, which is something that can be grasped. And then, even though we are fully aware that this translation, or this image we now form in our minds, is not correct, we are unable to free ourselves of it. The ranges of our vocabulary and our thought processes is too restricted, and what is more, the mind always returns to its own private realms of experience. We are limited by the fact that even ideas of vast proportions cannot be expressed except by ourselves. And all we can do is admit that the expression is not completely true, that it is woefully inadequate.

Anyone who needs models or metaphors for his work has often encountered the difficulty of being unable to extricate himself from the model and of going back to the original. The simplified sample has a hold over the mind that the complex source cannot always have. Indeed, everyone clings to a particular model of things, and this often serves an obstacle to the truth of the matter. Of course, without these models it is virtually impossible to solve many problems. Indeed, in all the fields of human knowledge, we have the dilemma of the model that serves as an aid and becomes an obstacle to understanding. It may be likened to the previously discussed relationship between form and content, the inner and the outer, the light and the vessel to contain it. The light cannot exist without a vessel, it cannot manifest without something to reflect it, but when it does appear, one sees the object, the vessel, and not the light itself. The two have become one.

What is being explained here is the need for dependable points of departure. We define things, and our definitions certainly have a meaning. Nevertheless, they can get beyond the grasp of our intelligence. When one goes a little beyond the limits of one’s powers of conceptualization, one no longer knows what one is talking about.

At the same time, we do choose one particular model rather than another, and no matter which we choose, the connection with the original concept is maintained. Thus, we make a model of the atom, for example, knowing full well that none of the relations are accurate and that neither the electron, nor any of the other particles, whether neutron or proton, are solid pieces of matter. Nevertheless, the model itself helps us to understand the atom so that it is possible to work on it. It is not at all a model in the sense of an exact reproduction on a ­different scale. It is a working model, an abstraction. The important thing is the inner relations between the parts.

In the same way, the human body is often used to express various and metaphorical concepts. Thus, when we say that Chesed and Gevurah may be charted on a diagram of the Sefirot as right and left in terms of function, we do not mean to insinuate that Chesed is like the right hand of
G‑d or that it has anything to do with the right hand of a man. It is a model of only limited homologous relations that has value only because it enables the mind to grasp certain truths. Thus, too, many of the source incidents of the Halachah, as described in the Scriptures, are really only models. A butting ox, an exposed pit, and the like are models of legal problems or rather of relations between litigants. Unfortunately, too many of those who study Talmud find it hard to extricate themselves from the confines of the model. In this case, as in all instances of being trapped by the metaphor, the model becomes something absurd.

It is the imagination that interferes. One has to learn to function on two levels—one, recognizing that the model helps us to understand something, the other, that it doesn’t really express the things itself. This sort of intellectual difficulty is sometimes the chief obstacle in the way of certain cultures that seek to adapt themselves to a scientific approach. They confuse the model with the original object, often as a result of a long tradition of idolatry, of failing to distinguish the instruments of Divinity from Divinity. And the failure to free oneself from the model and to relate to the source is idolatry.

No matter, then, how much one praises G‑d, He is still far beyond anything one can say or conceive, whether great or small. As far as created beings are concerned, the first attribute is Wisdom. It is the source. Nevertheless, it is with Daat (Knowledge) that the other attributes are most directly connected, and this is itself derived from Chochmah (Wisdom), so that love, fear, and so on need to “know” an object of their emotions. Which also explains why children are often so angry and cruel—they do not have sufficient connection with Daat (Knowledge) and with Wisdom. Cruelty is, in most instances, a matter of not being able to grasp the essence of another creature, of not being able to put oneself in the place of another and to imagine his reaction.

The same thing is true of anger. Incidentally, Judaism never looked on children as innocent and pure. They were never considered little angels. On the contrary, they were considered liable to sin and cruelty out of ignorance. Man is not born human; he comes into the world as a wild young creature. As he grows, he may become tame. His wildness as a child is a result of not grasping the existence of the other; it is ignorance, a lack of knowledge, that makes empathy impossible.

Are we hereby accepting the principle of “natural” order, in which the big fish eat the little fish and everyone must fight for himself? To be sure, fish are not burdened with knowledge, whereas man does have some sort of knowledge of the other that is translatable as empathy and that repudiates anger and aggression. Cruelty, we say, is the result of ignorance, and ignorance of the other person, that is, and not an intellectual ignorance. Because a person can be very intelligent and lack knowledge of another person. There is even an expression to describe such a type: “A scholar without Daat,” which is sadly appropriate for many of our intellectuals.

The idea here is that Knowledge and Wisdom have decisive influence over the other attributes. Thus, it follows, for example, that love cannot exist in the abstract. There has to be a certain amount of knowledge or conscious relation to something in order for love to manifest. There can be a great deal of attraction to something or someone, but this is not the same thing. All emotions and the attributes need Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and Daat (Knowledge) in order to grow.

In fact, the three higher Sefirot, called from their initials, ChaBaD (Chochmah, Binah, and Daat), create the background for the existence of all the other attributes and their various activities. One loves or hates or pities, and this in turn stirs up thought processes that take form in worlds. To be more specific, there are two stages: one is that of the thought before it is expressed in words, and the other, when the thought enters into words and becomes indistinguishable from them.

The relation between thought, speech, and action is fairly dear and one leads mentally to another as, for instance, in giving an instruction. When it is an instruction given to oneself, as in operating according to plan, then the vessel is the body, and speech, or expressed ideas, is the soul. In terms of the holy letters, however, the letters of speech are the instruments, the body, while the letters of thought are the contents, or the soul, of the same thing. Ultimately, as mentioned, thought itself is also physical; it is a part and function of the brain and, therefore, of the body.

Insofar as the emotional attributes are concerned, like love and hate, words are not necessary at first. Only afterward are the emotions expressed in thoughts that act as the source for certain words. These words of thought, which are still far from being spoken, are what are called the letters of thought.

In other words, the “sechel” or conscious intelligence constituting all of the three ChaBaD Sefirot, is the soul of all the other, the emotional, attributes, constituting the seven remaining Sefirot. ChaBaD can even be concentrated in the Sefirah of Wisdom alone as the source, so that wisdom can be considered the soul of all the rest of existence. “Sechel” or “ChaBaD” vivifies the other attributes, the various attributes vivify thought, thought vivifies speech, and speech vivifies action.

Now the essential point here is that there is no difference between the first Sefirah of Wisdom and the last stage of action. Even though, for us humans, the distance between the two is the vastness of the whole spectrum of existence. This is all that we can possibly know, and the two are at the opposite ends. For G‑d, however, the difference is of no consequence. What is for us a vast range of the spectrum of existence is for the Divine a mere speck of reality. It is we who have formed a scale of values, and there is no reason why it should bind G‑d in any way.



The Sustaining Utterance. (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1989)

Reprinted with permission of the author