Let There Be An Expanse: The Cosmology of the Zohar’s Parashat Be-Reshit

This is a continuation of this website’s series on the Zohar. For the first part of this series, click here.  This commentary used the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, Volume One by Daniel Matt.

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Parashat Be-reshit is a passionate reading of the Book of Genesis. Through its passages it follows the deluge of emanation back into the infinite. Seeking this universal corona is described in the Zohar as “a journey on concealed paths.”

The beginning of the cosmos woke within Ein Sof, the endless. To emphasize the non-conceptual nature of Ein Sof, words are invoked and just as quickly discarded. Like a mountain disappearing into the clouds, our landmarks collapse and withdraw into singularity.  The Zohar takes the reader on an odyssey back to the birth of existence as it gives way to its own expansion:

At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity – a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed with the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all . . . Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: ‘Her stock of seed is holiness’ (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! [Radiance!] Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk, wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. (107-110)

The Zohar does not shy away from drawing provocative conclusions from its interpretations of Torah. As it continues, it gives the reader a unique rendering of the sentence Be-reshit bara Elohim. The sentence is turned into an opaque treatise on emergence. It is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created.” In the Zohar, God’s origin stands out as a lacuna in that sentence, referring back to Ein Sof, “the unknown concealed one.” This gives an inspired twist to the sentence’s meaning:

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, ‘God.’ The secret is, Ba-reshit bara Elohim, ‘With beginning, ______ created God’ (Genesis 1:1).

This universal history, sketched out in Be-Reshit, is contained within the iconic map of the Sephirot.

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The Sephirot are key to understanding Kabbalah in many ways. One level of interpretation describes the characteristics of God as He manifested. These are the qualities of will, wisdom, understanding, and so on. The first three Sephirot are the beginning of this dilation. Out of Ein Sof comes Keter, the will, transitioning into Hokmah. Hokmah is a point of light, the beginning act that moves on to fertilize Binah, creating the palace of the world. The imagery utilized in these descriptions is of the two Sephirot of Hokmah and Binah uniting in a current of energy. Binah then becomes the womb of all forms:

The primordial point is inner radiance – there is no way to gauge its translucency, tenacity, or purity until an expanse expanded from it. The expansion of of that point became a palace, in which the point was clothed – a radiance unknowable, so intense its lucency. This palace, a garment for that concealed point, is a radiance beyond measure, yet not as gossamer or translucent as the primordial point, hidden and treasured. That palace expanded an expanse: primordial light. That expansion of primordial light is a garment for the palace, which is a gossamer, translucent radiance, deeper within. From here on, this expands into this, this is clothed in this, so that this is a garment for this, and this for this. This the kernel; this the shell. Although a garment, it becomes the kernel of another layer . . . All for the arrayal of the world, and so the world is. (152).

After Binah followed Hesed, “Love,” which then fragmented into darkness. The Zohar does not retreat from is its inspection and elucidation of evil in the world, which is represented by the left column of the Sephirot, and referred to as the Other Side. Evil is found on “the Countenance of Days” in a complex and subtle sense. Evil twisted apart from the unity at the beginning of creation as a destructive force.

Good and evil are bound together as the right and left hand of God. The radical nature of this is that evil is not separate from the divine. Instead, the Zohar reveals how darkness is another name of God:

‘Darkness’ – upon it rests the name Elohim . . . Here is mystery in detail, separating upper waters from lower through mystery of the left. Here conflict was created through the left side. For until here was mystery of the right, and here is mystery of the left, so conflict raged between this and the right. Right is consummate of all, so all is written by the right, for upon it depends all consummation. When the left aroused, conflict aroused, and through that conflict blazed the fire of wrath. Out of that conflict aroused by the left, emerged Hell. Hell aroused on the left and clung. The wisdom of Moses: he contemplated this, gazing into the act of Creation. In the act of Creation a conflict aroused between left and right, and in that conflict aroused by the left, Hell emerged, clinging there. The central pillar, who is the third day, entered between them, mediating the conflict, reconciling the two sides. Hell descended, left merged in right, and peace prevailed over all. (127-131).

God absorbed good and evil within itself, creating Tif’eret, “beauty,” “compassion,” or “heaven.” In the same way that good and evil are enjoined, the initial separation allowed for reconciliation. Without separation, there could be no mending. The Other Side remained, its forces responsible for punishing sin, then called Gevurah or “judgment.” Tif’eret combined the other Sephirot’s energy, moving down into Yesod, the Vitality of the Worlds, which feeds our level of existence. The world we inhabit is called Malkhut, or “kingdom,” and is depicted using the feminine symbol of Shekinah. Shekinah is the bride, with the Kabbalist as the bridgegroom.  Human sin has dislocated Shekinah, diminishing the flow of energy to Malkuth. The Kabbalist blends with Shekinah to reconnect the male and female God.

The world trembles in the thrall of judgment. Demons now lie over the altar in a broken temple, their numbers growing into widespread contagion.

One monster below, on the left side, swims through all those rivers. He approaches the side, all his scales iron-hard, stretches to suck, and defiles the site. All lights darken before him. His mouth and tongue flame with fire, his tongue sharp as a steely sword, till he penetrates the sanctuary within the sea. Then the sanctuary is desecrated, lights extinguished, supernal lights ascend from the sea. The waters of the sea split on the left side, and the sea conceals, its waters flowing no more. So the mystery of the word is as written: ‘Now the serpent was slier than any creature of the field that YHVH Elohim had made (Genesis 3:1) – mystery of the evil serpent descending from above, skimming the surface of bitter waters, seducing below till they fall into his nets. This serpent is death of the world, penetrating a person’s blind gut. He is on the left, while another, of life, is on the right, both accompanying each human, as they have established. ‘Than any creature of the field.’ For no other creature of the field is as cunning in perpetrating evil, for his is the dross of gold. Woe to one drawn to him, for he inflicts death upon him and upon all those following him! This they have established. Adam was drawn down toward him, descending to know everything below. As he descended, his will and ways were drawn toward them, until they reached that serpent, discovering worldly desire, straying at that site. Then he rose, drawn toward Adam and his wife, clung to them, inflicted death upon them and all subsequent generations. Until Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, his slime never ceased infecting the world, as has been explained. (288-289)

This reconciliation is also reflected in the Adam and Eve creation story. Since humanity mirrors God, separation is found in us as well. Love and unity fall into evil and sin, only to be redeemed in the light of heaven, found in the heart by uniting what has been cast down.

The Zohar depicts Adam and Eve in the bliss of the garden, culminating in eating the fruit of knowledge. In this reading, Adam and Eve simultaneously absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, becoming like God in the process. Among the roots of the Tree of Life, Adam grasped his own mortality and a world that “embraces all” its accompanying shadow. At the same time Adam became aware of good, then evil presented itself to him:

The blessed Holy One ate from this tree and then created the world . . . Eat from it and you will be creating worlds! So, ‘God knows that on the day you eat from it [your eyes will be opened and you will become like God . . . ]’ (ibid., 5). Because He knows this, He commanded you concerning it . . . Certainly all touched upon this tree, by which they are embraced. Whoever takes it by itself, takes it together with hordes below embraced by it, takes idolatry, murder, and exposing nudity . . . So in them all he was commanded concerning this tree. When he ate from it, he violated them all, for it embraces all . . . ‘The eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Opened to perceive the evil of the world, unknown to them till now. Once they knew and were open to knowing evil, then ‘they knew that they were naked (ibid.), for they had lost the supernal radiance enveloping them, which disappeared, leaving them ‘naked.’ (225-229)

In pursuing sin, Adam allowed evil to fracture the world, bringing death and judgment to bear.  The Zohar reads this as Adam expelling God, instantly remapping the Tree of Life and removing Shekinah from the Sephirot. The separation that Adam enacts in himself is transferred upwards through the Sephriot as well.

Come and see: When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, he transmogrified that tree into a universal source of death; he caused a defect, separating the Woman from Her Husband. The fault of this defect stood out in the moon, until Israel stood at Mount Sinai, when that defect disappeared from the moon, enabling her to constantly shine. Once Israel sinned with the calf, She relapsed into defectiveness; the evil serpent prevailed and seized Her, dragging Her to him. (294)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created a new level of understanding for Adam and Eve. In Eden, Adam and Eve are not really free, as they are unable to choose for themselves between good and evil. Since they chose materiality, they removed themselves from the oceanic unity of the garden. This distances the spiritual further from everyday life and helps to articulate evil in the world.

This evil may take the form of an extreme self-centeredness. This selfishness is all too often realized at the expense of others. Ultimately these actions are a bitter salve for our feelings of separation. This separation has its roots in human development, for as we become older we tend to acquire habits, desires, experiences, and propensities to act. These become codified into a self-image which we feel is separate from others. The pursuit of our imagined self’s desires exacerbates this separation, entrenching us in a cycles of dissatisfaction. However, a way out of these cycles remains.  The same action that creates our separateness can show us a way out as our awareness increases.

Both perceptions lay inside reality – self-centeredness and separation, and a cosmic, life-giving expansion. Both these paths exist inside of the human soul as well. Through evil, we understand the full range of our ability to shape cause and effect.

Interestingly, this conception has parallels to the phrase “the kingdom of God is within you.” As we journey along the Sephirotic path in ourselves, we encounter occluded knowledge, rising up like disparate and unknown lands. “Heaven” is the beauty of our fractured, contradictory existence, and of realizing these contradictions within us. Consciously striving for the good cause Heaven and Kingdom to join together.  In order to discover this, we have to take the plunge into the evil that shields love, sifting through our ever-present potential for sin.

It seems that the world continually remakes and goes beyond itself. The world is free, and humans have the privilege of remaking the Tree of Life.  Enlightened individuals recognize this, and see the light of creation in every existent thing. In the Zohar’s conception, these individuals hold up the pavilion of Shekinah. They are caretakers that work to heal what humanity has torn asunder. Moving outside of the self-centeredness that many humans take for granted, they aid the world in all its forms. They are “the mending of the moon,” restoring Shekinah through beneficial action. As they meld with her, they harmonize the full span of the Sephirot.

The enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky – these are pillars and sockets of that pavilion. The enlightened – supernal pillars and sockets, contemplating in wisdom everything needed by that pavilion and its supports. This mystery accords with what is said: ‘Happy is one who considers, the poor’ (Psalms 41:2). ‘Will shine’ – for unless they shine and radiate, they cannot contemplate that pavilion, looking out for all it needs. ‘Like the radiance, of the sky’ – standing above ‘the enlightened,’ of whom is written: ‘An image above the heads of the living being, a sky like awesome ice’ (Ezekiel 1:22). ‘Radiance’ – illumining Torah. ‘Radiance’ – illumining the ‘heads of that living being. Those ‘heads’ are the ‘enlightened,’ who constantly radiate and shine, contemplating that ‘sky,’ the radiance flashing from there, radiance of Torah, sparkling constantly, never ceasing. (117-118).

For they constitute the mending of the moon.’ (168)

The Zohar’s radiant words show us to wholeness, and in exploring it, we find our participation in God. Let there be an expanse, above and below, to fuse all into unity. May there be good and evil, so that humanity can know them both, and be free. And let those who see this become like Tif’eret, guiding others back to the paths of judgment and compassion.

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