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)

                       /   (Crown)    \
                      /       |        \
                     /        |         \
                    /         |          \
                Binah         |        Chokhmah
            (Understanding)__________  (Wisdom)
             (Intelligence)   |           |
                  |\          |          /|
                  | \       Daath       / |
                  |  \   (Knowledge)   /  |
                  |   \       |       /   |
               Gevurah \      |      /  Chesed
              (Strength)\_____|_____/__ (Mercy)
                  |      \    |    /    (Love)
                  | \     \   |   /     / |
                  |  \     \  |  /     /  |
                  |   \   Tipheret    /   |
                  |   /   (Beauty)    \   |
                  |  /        |        \  |
                  | /         |         \ |
                  |/          |          \|
                 Hod          |        Netzach
               (Glory) _______________(Victory)
              (Splendour)     |       (Firmness)
                 \ \          |           / /
                  \ \         |          / /
                  \  \        |         / /
                   \  \       |        /  /
                   \   \    Yesod     /  /
                    \    (Foundation)   /
                     \                 /
                      \       |       /
                       \      |      /
                        \     |     /

                           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 “energized” 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:1

“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 nd   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  crystallized 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 crystallized.  This point was the  crown  of creation, the sephira Kether, and within Kether was contained all the unrealized 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 balloon 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 characterizes  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 recognize 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  realized  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”2 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.

Notes on Kabbalah
The author grants the right to copy and distribute these Notes provided they remain unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained. The author retains both the right and intention to modify and extend these Notes.

  1. Scholem,  Gershom  G.  Major Trends in  Jewish  Mysticism, Schoken Books 1974. []
  2. Westcott, W. Wynn, ed. Sepher Yetzirah. Many reprintings. []