The Creation story as told in the Hebrew Book of Beginnings is an allegory in the ancient manner, and when understood stands tall among other creation myths found the world over. Unhappily, for centuries it has been interpreted too literally by most of its believers, Jew and Gentile alike. Yet the Torah or "Law" (chiefly the Pentateuch) was never intended to be so read; but written in symbol every word and sentence contains "an elevated sense and a sublime mystery," its narratives being but the garment of truth.
Now, there is no work of the Holy One so recondite but he has recorded it in the Torah; and the Torah reveals it for an instant and then straightway clothes it with another garment, so that it is hidden there and does not show itself. But the wise, whose wisdom makes them full of eyes, pierce through the garment to the very essence of the word that is hidden thereby. And when the word is momentarily revealed in that first instant of which we have spoken, those whose eyes are wise can see it, though it is so soon hidden again. — Zohar, ii, 98b
Thanks to the fervor of the Hebrew soul for closeness to his God, and for deep and prayerful contemplation on the paths of communion laid down in the name of the Holy One, the hardened soil of Rabbinical theology has been watered continually by underground streams of mystical and profoundly intuitive perceptions. The most penetrative of these is Qabbalah, an ancient Jewish theosophy scrupulously guarded by "a small group of esoterics" until the 13th century when Rabbi Moses de Leon of Spain published a supposedly Aramaic manuscript, soon to be known as Sepher ha-Zohar or "Book of Splendor" — not under his own name, but as the work of Shimeon ben Yohhai, a 2nd century Rabbi who had courageously denounced the Roman authorities for their part in the death of his beloved Teacher, Rabbi Aqiba. Its publication in 1275 acted as a catalyst, for not only did the learned among the Qabbalists begin to expound and elaborate on their once secret teachings, but a number of dedicated Christian humanists in Britain and throughout Europe seized upon one or more aspects of Qabbalistic thought, in their search for the living spirit behind the letter of scripture. (Cf. Joseph Leon Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance.)
But what is Qabbalah? Is it a book or series of books, a literature; is it a religion, a philosophy or, possibly, a kind of mysticism or interior discipline? Perhaps it is the sum of all of these, yet no one of them alone. Qabbalah is a Hebrew word meaning "tradition," that which has been "received," i.e. the sacred and secret wisdom — Hhochmah Nistorah — that has been transmitted into prepared hearts from rabbi to rabbi for untold generations. As a system it is "no more Jewish than is sunlight; it is universal." That there exists a genuine "secret wisdom" we cannot dispute; for whatever name it may bear, its exemplars, the self-illumined of every land and race, have always been, and ever will be, its faithful custodians.
Central to the Qabbalah is the theme of creation: the outflowing of divine potency from 'Eyn Soph, the "boundless," that which is beyond knowing, indescriptible, unnamable, through a series of ten "numbers" or Sephiroth, these being imaged in numerous ways: as a Tree of Life, 'Ets Hhayyim, which took form in an Ideal or Archetypal Man, Adam Qadmon — literally "Eastern" Adam — the first of a succession of Adams of descending spiritual stature, the last Adam giving birth to our present humanity.
A favorite metaphor for describing the emanation from the Unmanifest through the three upper into the seven lower Sephiroth was this: first there was the unfathomable sea (Kether) issuing forth in a great stream (Hhochmah), which then spread itself upon the earth and formed a giant reservoir (Binah), from which seven smaller streams (the seven remaining Sephiroth) resembling seven long vessels poured forth — and these all together make up the ten. "And when the master breaks the vessels which he has made, the waters return to the source, and then only remain the pieces of these vessels, dried up and without any water. It "is in this way that the Cause of Causes gave rise to the ten Sephiroth" (Zohar, I, 42b; C. D. Ginsburg, The Kabbalah, its Doctrines, Development, and Literature, p. 95).
Well aware that the Infinite, the Boundless, 'Eyn Soph, has no attributes or finite qualities and therefore cannot be described, still so subtle in logic and so fertile in imagery was the Qabbalistic mind that it solved the dilemma by envisioning "three veils of negative existence" between the Darkness of utter nonbeing and the Light of the manifested world: "Bright Space son of Dark Space" emerging from the "depths of the great dark waters," as the Stanza of Dzyan expresses it (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:39).
Thus we have: 1) 'Ayin, "nothing," pure nonexistence, giving way to 2) 'Eyn Soph, "no limit, no end," the illimitable vastness of Space, and from these there burst forth 3) 'Eyn Soph 'Or, "limitless light" — "And amid the insupportable brilliance of that mighty light, as it were, the likeness of a head appeareth" — this being the head of Adam Qadmon, otherwise called Kether, the "Crown," or Sephirah (the singular form of Sephiroth), the first emanation (Siphra di-Tseniu'tha', ii, 47; S. L. MacGregor Mathers, The Kabbalah Unveiled, p. 76).
What is within the Thought no one can conceive, much less can one know the En Sof, of which no trace can be found and to which thought cannot reach by any means. But from the midst of the impenetrable mystery, from the first descent of the En Sof there glimmers a faint undiscernible light like the point of a needle, the hidden recess of thought, which even yet is not knowable until there extends from it a light . . . — Zohar, i, 21a
Simply put, 'Eyn Soph, impelled by divine thought and will to manifest an aspect or phase of itself, "concentrated its essence" into a single point, the "primordial point," and this was Sephirah, the primal emanation from which the full tenfold Sephirothal Tree of Life unfolds. This concentration of power and energy is called Tsimtsum, a word meaning "contraction" (with its polar opposite "expansion" implicit), "restraint, a drawing away," and hence implying a pressing together of potency into a point of zero. A conception found in many ancient philosophies, yet modern also; for this rhythmic contraction of essence into a "single point" (Kether) followed by the expansion into "nine splendid lights" (or Sephiroth) suggests not only the current cosmogonic theories of the "pulsating universe," but likewise the "singular points" of Sir James Jeans and the "laya-centers" of modern theosophy. It is most interesting to discover the Zohar also teaching of several "prior worlds," abortive creations which were destroyed, because not "in conformation." These are called "primordial kings" which, being imperfect, were removed; they are compared to "sparks which fly forth, flame and scintillate, but shortly they are extinguished." But once the Holy Aged assumes command, and proceeds "unto His work," then the Sephiroth of perfect "balance" come into being (Ha 'Idra' Zuta' Qaddisha', x, 420-24; Mathers, p. 301).
To the Qabbalist the universe was the outflow and reflection of the supernal will, the living temple of the Concealed of the Concealed which, however unknowable, nevertheless was alive in every point of his creation. Therefore his energies (rays) followed definite channels or pathways of circulation, passing into and from each Sephirah in turn. Even though it is impossible to delineate in symbol how the Eternal Mystery, the One, manifests itself in the Many, in a plurality of globes or principles or planes, the Qabbalist sought again and again to do just this.
The Sephiroth can be depicted as a series of Triads, the highest with its point upward, receiving in fullness the effulgence from 'Eyn Soph, the two lower Triads with their points downward suggesting the gradual descent of spirit, with the lowest, Malchuth, the receiver and container of the full tenfold Sephirothic power. Each Sephirah has its own divine name and quality; also its appropriate corresponding focus and expression in the physical body of man.
Three currents of force flowing vertically, as it were: 1) the active or masculine stream, called the Pillar of Mercy or Compassion; 2) the receptive or feminine stream; complementing and thus supportive of the masculine, called the Pillar of Judgment; and 3) the central current, named the Pillar of Harmony or Stability. It is important to remember that each Pillar, Triad, or individual Sephirah, in descending degree, is both a receiver of the "light" from above and a transmitter of that light to the one below; just so in the same way each is regarded at one time as manifesting the feminine, and at another the masculine.
Sometimes the Sephiroth are shown as a series of concentric circles and thus correlated to the constellations of the zodiac and the "seven sacred planets," the Primum Mobile (the Hebrew term for this is Re'shith ha-Galgallim, literally "the beginning of wheelings or revolvings," i.e. Primordial Motion) as the outermost circle standing for Kether, the primal emanation, the first "receiver" of 'Eyn Soph — the limitless expanse which cannot be defined by any imagined sphere —with the succeeding Sephiroth descending in potency as they reach Malchuth at the hub. Others reverse the conception, showing Kether at the center, the "primordial point," the dynamic link with the invisible 'Eyn Soph, and Malchuth at the circumference.
Of particular interest is the doctrine of the four Worlds in relation to the four Adams, each finding expression in a corresponding World or 'Olam of descending spiritual power. The doctrine is not mentioned in the Zohar as such, but was developed by later Qabbalists, notably Cordovero of Safed and Isaac Luria, from earlier ideas (Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, pp. 268-9). It would appear, however, to be a natural evolution of the Zoharic principle that "the lower world is made after the pattern of the upper world" because all that had been emanated, "all the creatures of the universe, in whatever age they were to exist, before they ever entered into this world, were present before God in their true form" (Zohar, iii, 20a).
The first 'Olam is called the "World of Junction" — well named as the link between Kether and 'Eyn Soph on which the highest Sephirothal Tree of Life is manifest. This is the abode of Adam Qadmon, also called Adam 'Illa'ah, the "Elevated" or Heavenly Adam. Androyne, he is the archetype or model for the three lower Adams; in this Upper Adam we find Neshamah, the highest "breath" dominant, with Ruahh, the "breath" of the spiritual soul, and Nephesh, the vital "breath," also present, all three being in their perfect form.
The second 'Olam is the "World of Production" or creation, and has its own ten Sephiroth which, being a step removed from the original Tree of Life, are of slightly diminished potency. The second Adam, also androgyne, is made in the "image" — tselem — of the first Adam, and likewise has its three breaths, but of less supernal quality, Ruahh being strongest here.
From this issues a third 'Olam, the "World of Formation" of still greater materiality, on which the preterrestrial or "innocent Adam" dwells and where Nephesh is most developed. It also has a Sephirothal Tree of corresponding quality. This 'Olam serves as the model or image for the fourth, the "World of Making" inhabited by the fourth Adam, that is "the Third Adam as he was after the Fall," our earthly sexual humanity, which works through Nephesh and Guph, the "shell" or physical body (Isaac Myer, Qabbalah, pp. 418-20). The correspondence here to the Ages of Hesiod, the Golden, Silver, Brazen, and Iron Ages and to the Four Yugas of Brahmanical chronology, from the Satya- or Krita-yuga on down to our own present Kali-yuga or Age of Darkness, would seem more than coincidental. Incidentally, this fourth world is also called the realm of "shells" or rinds, sometimes of "skins." This is highly interesting in that we started out on our evolutionary journey clothed in garments of light and only later, as Genesis tells us, did we have need for "coats of skin," these being in very truth the husks of ourselves, which we have ultimately to slough off if we would make use of our original "cloaks of light."
Along this line, we mention in passing a cardinal theme of the Zohar: That just as everything below has its divine counterpart in the celestial realms, so the "seven firmaments" above, which "envelop one another like the skins of an onion," are similar to the "even earths below, . . ." (Zohar, iii, 9b).
Esoterically, the man below corresponds entirely to the Man above. Just as in the firmament, which covers the whole universe, we behold different shapes formed by the conjunction of stars and planets to make us aware of hidden things and deep mysteries; so upon the skin which covers our body and which is, as it were, the body's firmament, covering all, there are shapes and designs — the stars and planets of the body's firmament, the skin through which the wise of heart may behold the hidden things and the deep mysteries indicated by these shapes and expressed in the human form. — Zohar, ii, 76a
All of this may seem rather complicated and not closely related to a creation myth, but when we forget structure and forms and think of the Sephiroth and of the several Adams that are ourselves as symbols of living beings, divinities in different stages of their evolution — or in Qabbalistic terms, as light sparks, luminous emanations, each in varying degree imbodying the essence of 'Eyn Soph, the will, thought and word made manifest — we begin to intuit something of the wondrous unfolding of divine and spiritual potency from the sublimest we can conceive of down to the tiniest particle of consciousness in space. Mercy, love, compassion balanced by severity and justice — karma, if we like — the tension between light and darkness goes on unceasingly, all the while man, part forgetful and part mindful of the guardianship that is his, struggles to find his way back to his source, to the God that is "Longsuffering and merciful" (Scholem, p. 212). Dr. Scholem's translation of 'Arich 'Anpin as "Longsuffering and merciful," instead of the usual "Great Face," adds a deeper dimension to the mystical symbolism of the two 'Idras, just as does his translation of Ze'eir 'Anpin as the "Impatient" one, instead of "Small Face."
There is a small treatise in the Zohar tucked among the commentaries on Exodus titled Siphra'di-Tseni'utha. While the cryptic verses are not easy to interpret, here and there are lines that move the soul, such as this, speaking of the incomprehensible, the Ancient One: "His eye is ever open and sleepeth not, for it continually keepeth watch" (i, 14). A Silent and Solitary Watcher indeed, and how like Krishna, in his quality of Supreme Spirit, who remains ever "indefatigable in action," fulfilling his caring role, lest "the world and all in it perish" (Bhagavad-Gita, iii, 23-4).
And so we bring to a close our telling of the Creation story of the Hebrews — really the story of all men everywhere. If Torah, Talmud and Qabbalah have yielded to many little more than the rinds or shells of understanding, it is not the fault of the message. The lack is in ourselves, for gleams from the "hidden wisdom," the Hhochmah Nistorah of the ages, continue to guide the earnest seeker. One day the intrepid of heart will reach their goal, and then they will remember why the Light perennially shines — not merely because out of the Darkness of Space, out of the "closed eye" of 'Eyn Soph, there burst forth Bright Space and another world found birth, but primarily because of the "open eye" of Kether — the Nameless One, who in his compassion remains at his post until the last "exile" turns toward the Light.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)
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