The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt (1996)
The Ten Sefirot
THE BODY OF GOD
RABBI ISHMAEL said, “I saw the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, sitting on a throne, high and exalted, with his soldiers standing before him, on his right and on his left. The Prince of the Countenance, Metatron, spoke to me.
“What is the measure of the stature of the Holy One, blessed be he, concealed from all creatures?
“The soles of his feet fill the entire universe; their height is 30 million parasangs. From the sole of his foot to his ankle is 10 million parasangs. From his ankle to his knees is 190 million parasangs. From his knees to his thighs is 120 million parasangs. From his thighs to his neck is 240 million parasangs. His neck extends 130 million parasangs. The circumference of his head is over 3 billion parasangs—something the mouth cannot express, nor the ear hear. His beard is 11,500 parasangs. His face and cheeks are like spirit and soul, which no soul can perceive.
“His body is like aquamarine. His radiance scintillates, awesome from within the darkness. Dense clouds surround him. All the angels of the Presence pour themselves out before him as water pouring from a pitcher.
“His tongue extends from one end of the universe to the other. The width of his forehead is 130 million parasangs; on it are written seventy letters. The black of his right eye is 11,500 parasangs, and so on the left. From his right shoulder to his left shoulder is 160 million parasangs. From his right arm to his left arm is 120 million parasangs. His arms are folded. The fingers on each of his hands are 150 million parasangs, each finger 30 million. His palms are each 40 million parasangs. His toes are 100 million parasangs, each one 20 million. Therefore he is called ‘the great, mighty, and awesome God.’
“But then Metatron told me how to calculate the parasangs. What is their measure? Each parasang is three miles, each mile is 10,000 cubits, each cubit is two spans—measured according to God’s span, which spans the entire universe.”
THE TEN SEFIROT
YAH YHVH TSEVA’OT engraved thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom, creating the universe in three ciphers: boundary, language, and number.
Ten sefirot belimah—numerals of nothingness, entities of emptiness—and twenty-two elemental letters.
Ten sefirot belimah, corresponding to the ten fingers, five opposite five, with the covenant of oneness precisely in the middle, in the word of the tongue and in circumcision.
Ten sefirot belimah, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand in wisdom, be wise in understanding. Examine them, explore them. Know, contemplate, and visualize. Establish the matter thoroughly, and restore the Creator to his abode. Their measure is ten, yet infinite.
Ten sefirot belimah. Bridle your mind from imagining, your mouth from speaking. If your mind races, return to the place you departed. Remember what is written: “The creatures darting to and fro.” Concerning this a covenant has been made.
Ten sefirot belimah. Their measure is ten, yet infinite. Their end is embedded in their beginning, their beginning in their end, like a flame joined to a burning coal. Know, contemplate, and visualize that the Creator is one, without a second. Before one what can you count’
Ten sefirot belimah. Their measure is ten, yet infinite. Depth of beginning, depth of end, depth of good, depth of evil, depth of above, depth of below, depth of east, depth of west, depth of north, depth of south. God alone rules them all from his holy abode to eternities of eternity.
Ten sefirot belimah. A vision flashing like lightning. Their limit has no end. God’s word surges through them.
THE COSMIC TREE
I AM the one who planted this tree for all the world to delight in. With it I spanned the All, calling it All, for all depends on it, all emanates from it, all need it, all gaze upon it and await it. From here souls fly forth in joy.
Alone I was when I made it. When I spread out my earth, in which I planted and rooted this tree—giving them joy in one another, rejoicing along with them—who was with me? To whom could I reveal this secret of mine?
THE RIGHTEOUS PILLAR
ONE PILLAR extends from earth to heaven. Its name is Righteous One, named for the righteous. If there are righteous people in the world, the pillar is strengthened; if not, it is weakened. It upholds the entire world, as it is written: “The righteous one is the foundation of the world.” If it weakens, the world cannot endure. So if the world contains just one righteous person, that person sustains the world.
THE POWER OF THE RIGHTEOUS
THE RIGHTEOUS ONE stands gazing out at humanity. When he sees human beings engaged in Torah and mitsvot, seeking to refine themselves, to conduct themselves in purity, then the Righteous One expands, filling himself with all kinds of flowing emanation from above, to pour into Shekhinah, the divine presence, in order to reward those purifying themselves, those cleaving to Torah and mitsvot. Thus, the entire world is blessed by those righteous humans, and Shekhinah is likewise blessed through them.
But if humans defile themselves by distancing themselves from Torah and mitsvot, by perpetrating evil, injustice, and violence, then the Righteous One stands to gaze at what they have done. When he sees, he gathers and contracts himself, ascending higher and higher. Then the flow of all the channels ceases, and Shekhinah is left dry and empty, lacking all good.
One who understands this secret understands the immense power a human has to build and to destroy. Now, come and see the power of the righteous: they can unite all the sefirot, harmonizing the upper and the lower worlds.
THE SECRET OF SABBATH
THE SECRET of Sabbath: She is Sabbath.
United in the secret of one
to draw upon her the secret of one.
When Sabbath enters she is alone,
separated from the Other Side, all judgments removed from her.
Basking in the oneness of holy light,
she is crowned over and over to face the holy King.
All powers of wrath and masters of judgment flee from her.
There is no power in all the worlds aside from her.
Her face shines with a light from beyond;
she is crowned below by holy people,
all of whom are crowned with new souls.
Then the beginning of prayer,
blessing her with joy, with beaming faces.
HUMAN AND DIVINE LIMBS
THE TRUE ESSENCE of God cannot be grasped by anyone but God. There is not a single angel in heaven who knows God’s location—and certainly not God’s true essence. Don’t you realize what the angels say: “Blessed he the presence of YHVH from his place”? In other words, wherever God’s place may be. If the celestial creatures do not know, then how could earthly creatures ever know;
So all those descriptions that we read in the Torah, of God’s hand, foot, ear, and eye—what do they mean? Know and believe that although those descriptions indicate God’s true being, no creature can know or contemplate the essence of what is called “hand,” “foot,” “ear,” or the like. Though we are made in the divine image and likeness, do not imagine that the divine eye is actually in the form of an eye or the divine hand in the form of a hand. Rather, these are inner—innermost—aspects of the divine reality, from which the fountain flows to all creatures through the divine decree. But the essence of the divine hand is not like the essence of the human hand, nor is their form the same, as it is written: “To whom can I be compared?”
Know and understand that there is no similarity in substance or structure between God and us—except for the intention of the forms of our organs and limbs, which are fashioned as symbols of hidden, supernal realities. The mind cannot know these realities directly; it can only be reminded of them. As when one writes “Reuben son of Jacob.” The form of these letters is not the form, structure, and essence of the real Reuben son of Jacob but simply a mnemonic device. “Reuben son of Jacob” is a symbol of the particular entity called by that name.
Since God wanted to purify us, he created in the human body various organs and limbs—hidden and revealed—as symbols of the divine structure. If one succeeds in purifying a particular organ or limb, it becomes a throne for the sublime, inner reality called by that name: “eye,” “hand,” or any other one.
THE PALM TREE OF DEBORAH
IMITATE YOUR CREATOR. Then you will enter the mystery of the supernal form, the divine image in which you were created. If you resemble the divine in body but not in action, you distort the form. People will say of you: “A lovely form whose deeds are ugly.” For the essence of the divine image is action. What good is it if your anatomy corresponds to the supernal form, while your actions do not resemble God’s; So imitate the acts of Keter, the thirteen qualities of compassion alluded to by the prophet Micah: “Who is a God like you, delighting in love? You will again have compassion upon us. You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
You should desire the well-being of your fellow creature, eying his good fortune benevolently. Let his honor be as precious to you as your own, for you and your fellow are one and the same. That is why we are commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You should desire what is right for your fellow; never denigrate him or wish for his disgrace. Just as God desires neither our disgrace nor our suffering, because of our close relationship with him, so you should not desire someone else’s disgrace, suffering, or ruin. You should feel as bad for such suffering as if it were your own. Similarly, rejoice over another’s good fortune as if you were basking in it.
God does not behave as a human being normally behaves. If one person angers another, even after they are reconciled the latter cannot bring himself to love the one who offended him as he loved him before. Yet if you sin and then return to God, your status is higher. As the saying goes, “Those who return to God occupy a place where even the completely righteous cannot stand.” So when you return to God, and God restores the divine presence to you, his love for you is not the same as before but all the greater. This is the meaning of: “You will again have compassion upon us.” God will increase his compassion, mending us, bringing us closer.
This is how you should behave toward your fellow human being. Do not bear a grudge from the anger you felt. When you see that he wants to make up, be much more compassionate and loving than before. Say to yourself: “He is like one of those who return to God, unrivaled by even the completely righteous.” Cultivate a more intimate relationship with him than with those who have been completely righteous with you, who have never offended you.
These are some of the qualities by which you resemble your Creator. The sublime qualities of compassion have a precious characteristic: just as you conduct yourself below, so are you worthy of opening the corresponding sublime quality above. Exactly as you behave, so it emanates from above. You cause that quality to shine in the world.
THE QUALITY of humility includes all qualities, since it pertains to Keter. Although Keter transcends all the other qualities, it does not exalt itself; on the contrary, it descends, constantly gazing below. Its emanator constantly gazes into it, bestowing goodness, while it gazes at those beneath.
God nourishes everything, from the horned buffalo to nits, disdaining no creature—for if he disdained creatures due to their insignificance, they could not endure for even a moment. Rather, he gazes and emanates compassion upon them all. So should you be good to all creatures, disdaining none. Even the most insignificant creature should assume importance in your eyes; attend to it. Do good to whomever needs your goodness.
YOUR FOREHEAD should not be tense at all but rather always resemble the forehead of the Will, so that you soothe everyone. Even if you come across angry people, soothe and calm them with your goodwill. For the forehead of the Will constantly accepts and soothes the harsh powers, reintegrating them. So should you soothe those overwhelmed by anger. Induce them with goodwill, drawing on great wisdom to extinguish their anger before it transgresses the boundary and causes damage. Model yourself on the Will, which emanates from the wondrous wisdom in the forehead of the Ancient One, from where it soothes everything. Derive the power to be genial with others. If your character is somewhat harsh, people will not be soothed. This is why the Mishnah teaches: “If the spirit of people delights in someone, so does the spirit of God.”
Your ears should always be tuned to hear the good, while rumors and gossip should never be let in, according to the secret of sublime listening. There, no harsh shouting enters, no tongue of evil leaves a blemish. So listen only to positive, useful things, not to things that provoke anger.
Your eyes should not gaze at anything disgraceful. Rather, they should always be open to notice those who suffer, to be compassionate toward them as much as possible. When you see a poor person suffering, do not close your eyes in the slightest. On the contrary, keep him in mind as much as you can; arouse compassion for him—from God and from people.
Your face should always be shining. Welcome each person with a friendly countenance. For with regard to Keter Elyon, the supernal crown, it is said: “In the light of the king’s face is life.” No redness or harsh judgment gains entrance there. So, too, the light of your face should never change; whoever looks at you will find only joy and a friendly expression. Nothing should disturb you.
Your mouth should produce nothing but good. The words you speak should be Torah and an expression of goodwill. Never generate angry or ugly words, curses, or nonsense. Let your mouth resemble the upper mouth, which is never closed, never silent, never withholding the good. Speak positively, always with benevolent words.
All of these good qualities gather under the banner of humility, each one constituting a limb in Keter above. When you wish to draw near to the upper worlds, to resemble God, to open the fountains to those beneath, you must become proficient in these chapters.
It is impossible, of course, to conduct yourself according to these qualities constantly. Accustom yourself to them little by little. The essential quality to attain, the key to them all, is humility, for this is the very first aspect of Keter, under which all the rest are subsumed. If you constantly strive to attain this quality, all the others follow in its wake. For the first quality of Keter is that it considers itself as nothing in the face of its emanator. So, too, you should consider yourself as actually nothing. This will lead to the attainment of all the good qualities.
I have found an effective potion for the cure of pride. This consists of training yourself to do two things. First, respect all creatures, recognizing in them the sublime nature of the Creator, who fashions human beings in wisdom and whose wisdom inheres in each created thing. Second, train yourself to bring the love of your fellow human beings into your heart, even the wicked, as if they were your brothers and sisters, even more, until the love of all human beings is firm in your heart. Love even the wicked, thinking: “I wish that they were righteous, turning back to God, making themselves desirable to the Omnipresent.” In this way your heart will turn toward the good, and you will train yourself to contemplate the various good qualities.
HOW SHOULD you train yourself in the quality of Hokhmah, Wisdom?
Supernal wisdom, though concealed and transcendent, spreads over every single thing that exists. Concerning this, it is said: “How manifold are your works, O God! In wisdom you have made them all.” So should your wisdom be accessible to all. Teach people what will be useful to them, according to each one’s capacity, pouring out to each as much wisdom as you can. Don’t let anything deter you.
Wisdom has two faces. The upper face turns toward Keter; not gazing below, it receives from above. The second face, the lower one, turns below to gaze at the sefirot, emanating its wisdom to them. You too should have two facets. The first is your aloneness with God, to increase and refine your wisdom. The second, to teach others some of the wisdom that God has poured out upon you. As Wisdom emanates to each sefirah according to its dimensions and need, so should you emanate to each person according to the dimensions of his mind, whatever he can handle, what addresses his needs. Be careful not to give more than the mind of the recipient can hold, to prevent any mishap, just as the highest sefirah does not exceed the limits of its recipient.
Let your compassion extend to all creatures, neither despising nor destroying any of them. For Wisdom spreads over all created things: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Each was created in Wisdom. Do not uproot anything that grows, unless it is necessary. Do not kill any living creature, unless it is necessary.
HOW SHOULD you train yourself in the quality of Binah, Understanding?
By returning to God. Nothing is more important, for this corrects every flaw. As Binah, Understanding, sweetens all powers of judgment, neutralizing their bitterness, so should you return to God and correct each flaw. If you meditate on returning every day, you stimulate Binah to illumine each day. In consequence all your days join in returning, that is, you integrate yourself within Binah, who is called Returning. Each day of your life is adorned with the mystery of supernal return.
Do not say that returning is good only for the holy portion within you; the evil portion, too, is sweetened, in the manner of this quality. Do not think that because you incline toward evil there is no remedy. This is false. If you do well, rooting yourself in Returning, you can ascend there through the goodness rooted there. For the root of every supernal bitterness is sweet; you can enter through this root and make yourself good. Thereby you transform the bad deeds themselves into good; your intentional sins turn into merits. The misdeeds you committed have been accusing you from the Left Side. Once you return completely, you raise those deeds and root them above. Those accusers are not annihilated but ameliorated, rooted in holiness.
HOW SHOULD you train yourself in the quality of Hesed, Love? The basic way you enter the mystery of Hesed is by loving God to the extreme, not abandoning devotion for any reason at all, since nothing attracts you in the least, compared to loving God. So first attend to the demands of your devotion; the remainder of your time is for whatever else you need.
“Who is a hasid? One who acts in love toward God.” In expressing love to creatures here below, intend that you are mending up above, after the same pattern. You thereby bestow love on God.