The G-dly realm of Atzilut

    August 2011          
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Primer of Mystical Concepts, Part Seven

By Yechezkel Gold

This is Part Seven of our online mystical primer. Click here for Part One,
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five, and
Part Six.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero likened the G-dly realm of Atzilut to a glowing ember: if someone blows on the ember, the inner fire emerges to the outside. Similarly, unrevealed G-dly reality above the worlds, from keter and above, is like that ember, and Atzilut is like that fire emerging coming into proper existence - when someone blows onto it. Through Atzilut, G-d "emerges" to create, direct and reign over the world. Atzilut, highest of the four worlds, has ten G-dly sefirot acting in unified fashion. We described the first three sefirot, chochma bina and daat, in the preceding article. They are "intellectual" modes, and as such focus on the very essence and "character" of G-dliness itself.

In contrast, the next six sefirot denote relation to an "other", to a separate reality not subsumed in the G-dly reality of Atzilut. Both the sefirot of Atzilut and of the non-G-dly worlds have a definite form, as opposed to the reality within keter and above (i.e. the ember) which is simply infinite and without any definition. However, the character of the sefirot of Atzilut is that these modes of being are subsumed within the Infinite Light; they are G-dly. The character of the non-G-dly worlds is not subsumed within that Infinite Light; they exist as an other, and because they are not intrinsic to G-dliness, they had to be created. Atzilut, on the other hand, preceded creation. Atzilut is eternal. An example: G-dly truths and G-dly significance are eternal.

Collectively, the six midot are called z'er anpin, usually abbreviated z"a. Although the midot relate to the "other" whereas chochma and bina focus on the very essence and "character" of G-dliness itself, they are connected to each other and form a unit: Atzilut. The midot derive from the intellectual sefirot, especially bina. The progression works as follows: The fundamental essence, reality and starting point of Atzilut is chochma. Chochma is elucidated and developed by bina. Through bina, chochma's implications also extend beyond the intellectual sphere to the six midot.

A human analogy will help explain this point. For example, if for chochma we take the notion that G-d exists (this is not the chochma of Atzilut, which is a much loftier level, not merely an intellectual construct for people), bina will expand this notion to elucidate it and to derive its implications. This elucidation first entails exploring what we mean by G-d (a very challenging task). Generally, it means conceptualizing and realizing the existence of a reality that is infinite, eternal, ungraspable, holy, and not material. This coming to terms is still a purely intellectual operation, akin to the idea of definition. The next step is to explore what is the proper way to relate to Him, such as to love, fear, exalt, etc. These are human midot that human bina derives from the notion, chochma, that G-d exists.

From this perspective one can understand that chochma is often refered to as "aba", father, and bina as "ima", mother. The baby emerges after developing inside the mother for nine months. Similarly, the central point of chochma, also deemed the "seed", develops within bina until it emerges through the midot.

This analogy is on a human level. In Atzilut, however, chochma is the first revelation of the Infinite Light, as we explained in the preceding article. It is not a concept. Nor is bina of Atzilut a cognitive operation analogous to human understanding. Rather, bina grasps and unifies with chochma in a very real, intimate manner. For instance, the holy cabalist Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that the unification of chochma and bina is the spiritual root of the mitzvah to sanctify G-d's Name through self sacrifice [under circumstances that the Torah commands us to do so].

To explain: In Atzilut, chochma reveals the Infinite G-dly Light. Bina grasps this revelation. Through bina the reality of an infinitely exalted Being before Whom all else is insignificant emerges and connects with the world. When a Jew sacrifices his life for G-d, it is because his soul has connected to that reality, to the unification of chochma and bina. Because G-d is infinitely sublime and good, it is only right to be prepared to give one's life, for example, when one is presented with the option of denying His reality. All else even life itself - is insignificant in comparison. This is one instance of the spiritual reality contained in bina of Atzilut.

That exalted spiritual state in which the utter insignificance of any thing besides G-d is experienced, is the character of bina unified with chochma itself. [That unification is also known as daat elyon]. However, when bina is not unified with chochma itself but only receives a reflection of chochma's light, it also develops the revelation further, in a manner that gives greater room for the world's existence. On the one hand, that further development is a lower level than the unification of chochma and bina. Bina brings that lower level into being through the midot. Nevertheless, that the midot do bring about existence of a lower reality indicates that somehow they transcend even daat elyon. This transcendence has its spiritual root even above chochma, in keter.

The midot that bina of Atzilut derives from chochma's revelation are "G-d's" midot, the manner in which He relates to existence, to the "other", to the created world. That is, beyond elucidating the revelation of the G-dly Light in chochma, bina also develops the implications of chochma beyond the scope of chochma and bina. For example, bina will infer from chochma that it is appropriate G-dly - for the infinite G-d to be good and kind. That is the first of the midot, chesed. Kindness is a mido from which creation directly evolves: without G-d's kindness to relate to and maintain the world, it would not exist.

The midot do emerge through bina, but from another perspective, they form and express the Divine Light that cannot be contained by the intellectual sefirot. Therefore, they burst outward and extend beyond chochma and bina. The mystical texts denote this by saying that the spiritual root of the six sefirot, the midot, is keter. A human analogy is apt here. When we recognize a situation, and even when we come to conclusions about the appropriate way to react to it, we are dealing on an intellectual level. Let us say that our intellectual assessment is that we are in danger. These are like the midot developing in bina. We conclude still an intellectual operation that we must escape. Our reaction, though, is likely to be much more extreme than our conclusions. When we are afraid (or love, or otherwise emotionally involved or affected) we tend to go beyond a calm, rational response to things. This is analogous to the root of midot in keter. Connection between the midot and keter is engineered through daat, known more precisely as daat takhton, as described in the preceding article.

Of course, from the Creator's perspective, the "other", the created world(s), exist only by virtue of God relating to them. Thus, the midot of Atzilut are the source of creation. Each of the six days of creation corresponds to one of these six relational sefirot, successively: the first day corresponds to chesed, the second to gevura, the third to tif'eress, the fourth to netzach, the fifth to hod, and the sixth to yesod (see our previous article). The seventh day corresponds to the sefira of malchut which is not one of the six midot of z"a. Therefore, on the seventh day G-d "rested"; it is Sabbath.

Since being chosen to exist for Divine purposes is a privilege for the created being, all the relational sefirot (i.e. midot) are ultimately a relation of kindness: Thus, the Zohar states that the first day (the sefira of chesed) accompanies all of the other days. "For I said a world of kindness will be built" (Psalms 89, 3).

In the diagram of the sefirot, chesed is beneath that of chochma. Chochma, an intellectual sefira, is an open, spontaneous outpouring of wisdom. It gives rise particularly to chesed, open generosity and latitude. Thus, chesed is termed the branch of chochma. In contrast, bina, also an intellectual sefira, is a careful, exacting analysis of matters, preserving boundaries and clarifying structure. The relational sefira to which bina gives particular rise is gevura, associated with fear, control, strictness and judgment.

Each sefira has an inner and outer dimension. (Sometimes the literature speaks of a middle dimension as well.) Thus, love is the inner dimension of chesed while generosity is its outer dimension. Similarly, fear is the inner dimension of gevura while power and strictness are the outer dimension.

While the spiritual root of chesed in keter is the Divine pleasure and will to be generous and give (and that pleasure is revealed by the act of chesed), the spiritual root of gevura in keter is the Divine pleasure and will to overcome evil, i.e. any impediment to expression of the Divine. In human terms, the spiritual root of gevura is the pleasure in solving problems and overcoming obstacles, in attainment and in rising above circumstances. In people, the analog of these faculties may also take a negative form: bad chesed is lust and bad gevura is cruelty and pride. However, regarding Atzilut the sages quoted and interpret the verse (Psalms 5) that no evil exists in proximity to G-d.

Tif'eress means beauty. As we see in its position among the sefirot (see preceding article), Tif'eress is central, a balance between chesed and gevura. It is also midway between the upper midot, chesed and gevura,and the lower ones, netzach, hod and yesod. Tif'eress integrates all the other sefirot. From that perspective, tif'eress is the essential ingredient of tikun, the state of wholeness, perfection and integration. It is the most important sefira of zair anpin. The harmonious blend of contrasting elements produces beauty, tif'eress. Clearly, the beauty of Atzilut is not simply physical beauty. It is G-dly beauty. This also includes the inspiring beauty of nature. For this reason many of the great cabalists such as the holy Ari, Maharal, the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Hasidic masters, his followers, spent time in the mountains and forests, contemplating the wonders of G-d's creation. However, primary beauty of Atzilut is expressed through the inspiring character of Torah and the Commandments. The awesome insights and graceful, refined lifestyle based on them are true spiritual beauty.

Whereas chesed and gevura, being drawn toward or away from something, can lead to extremes and instability, tif'eress tends toward stability and balance. From this perspective we can understand why the sefira of tif'eress is placed somewhat further removed from the supernal source of spirituality: chesed and gevura's greater closeness symbolize greater involvement and energy which tend to destabilize and lead to change. In love and generosity there may be a tendency toward merging with the loved object, or dominating it. Fear can lead people to over-react, to nullify their own better judgment and overcome their poise. Tif'eress, being somewhat removed, implies objectivity, balance and stability. Nevertheless, its ultimate spiritual root is higher than that of chesed and gevura.

The third intellectual sefira, daat, makes a particular contribution to Tif'eress, the third relational sefira. That is, daat, recognition and feeling spirituality's and intellect's truth and importance, gives rise to tif'eress. In turn, through tif'eress - appreciating the truth and beauty of spirituality is spiritual delight that elevates the spiritual matter to sublime levels. Thus, Hasidic mysticism states that the ultimate root of tif'eress is in Atik, the infinite, inner aspect of keter while the roots of chesed and gevura are in Arikh, the somewhat less lofty, more definite and circumscribed outer aspect of keter.

Tif'eress is the sefira connected with truth. As such, tif'eress connects to the central spiritual point of any matter. The truth and central spiritual point of any matter is its ideal. That is, the ideal of something is its true reality. The truth of anything is how it is viewed in a G-dly perspective. Moreover, truth is a balanced perspective that encompasses a variety of aspects and outlooks. For example, truth must bridge spirituality and materiality. Not only do they both exist, they also co-exist and complement and enhance each other. This becomes evident through tif'eress. Spirituality without actualization is empty, and physicality without spiritual meaning is equally empty. Tif'eress joins the two.

Tif'eress is also associated with empathy and compassion, the attribute of rachamim, mercy. It is to connect with the inner truth and ideal of a person rather than onkly with his/her outer aspects. Empathy, identifying with another person, is an aspect of how the sages describe the blessing G-d gave to the Patriarch Jacob who is especially associated with tif'eress: G-d blessed Jacob to have an inheritance without boundaries. That is, G-d's rachamim (compassion) and tif'eress extend to all and to everything. (Regarding the other two forefathers, Abraham is especially associated with chesed, and Isaac with gevura). From this perspective we can understand that Jacob is considered the most excellent of the three righteous patriarchs.

Nevertheless, tif'eress as a relational sefira operates within a hierarchy. There are higher levels and lower levels of beauty and, most significant to our immediate point, of truth. Thus, when tif'eress attributes simple material truth to something, it is less cogent and important than to attribute spiritual or moral truth.

Accordingly, when claims (e.g. based on scientific interpretation) about material facts are inconsistent with Torah truths, they must give way to the higher, more cogent and important truth of God's Torah. A limited rationalist perspective might decry this idea. The rationalist assumes there must be a basic uniform consistency among all elements of reality. Thus, nothing could contradict the findings of science.

While the notion of basic, unifying concepts, for instance within a contained area of Torah, is important in Judaism, the mystical perspective perceives the notion of a central, unifying concept to be an inaccurate depiction of reality. Reality has many truths. The entirety is ungraspable, because G-d and even G-dliness, is ultimately beyond understanding. Part of reality is that lesser truths must give way to more important ones. For example, it is truer and more important that human life is sacred and murder forbidden, than that gravity draws masses together or that caring for sickly or retarded people places great strain on the economy.

The recognition of a hierarchy of truths renders iskafia, overcoming one's bad tendencies (evil inclination) and natural limitations (through the agency of gevura) for holier, higher purposes spiritually and intellectually justified and proper.

The centrality of tif'eress bespeaks the character of stable balance, of the ideal, of truth, compassion and beauty (inspiration) to connect disparate elements. From this perspective, the cabalists (e.g. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero) often describe the contact and even the unification of the upper and lower realms as taking place through tif'eress. This unification integrating disparate elements such as upper and lower realms - occurs when the ideal is actualized. For this to occur there must be a way to translate Infinite Light into an ideal, into terms and operations that can be actualized. The role of tif'eress is to render the intangible perfection of the Infinite Light in the form of an ideal that can be realized in the lower realms. As we will discuss in our next article, this connection between tif'eress (i.e. the ideal) and malchut (source of actual existence) generally takes place through the sefira underneath tif'eress in the central line of the sefirot, yesod.


from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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