Tree of Life

The New Kabbalah


Kabbalist’s have long utilized the image of a tree to depict the growth and development as well as the organic unity of the ten Sefirot that are said to be the archetypal elements of creation and thus the basic value structure of the world. The following  “Tree of Life” (Etz Chayyim) is based upon the Kabbalah of Rabbi  Isaac Luria (1534-72), and includes not only the Sefirot, but a number of other elements of the Lurianic system that are significant for a theory of value (axiology). The tree provides a Kabbalistic “value firmament,” and thus a guide for life, that is derived from Kabbalistic sources and corresponds to the Lurianic theosophy. The elements of the Lurianic theosophy appear in black, and their associated values in blue. One might better grasp the ideas presented in this tree if one remembers that the roots of the Kabbalistic tree, and thus the foundations of Kabbalistic values, are in the air (i.e. at the top) and that the branches and leaves, i.e. the life-values, spread downward. It may be useful to read the (blue) values as follows : “The value of…” (e.g. “The value of wonder and awe).

The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

(Note: It may be easier to work with this chart if you leave the New Kabbalah Website, go to, type in New Kabbalah, click on New Kabbalah Home Page and then click on The Tree of Life link.  This will remove the Flash contents on the left and provide a wider view of the table.)

You can click on bracketed numbers for in-depth explanations of each element and value in the Tree of Life chart.





Back to Lurianic Kabbalah


The Tree of Life














Wonder and awe[2]



Self-nullification (bittul)[4]

No image of God[5]














Infinite dialog[7]



Infinite Value[9]











Coincidence of Opposites[12]









Divine Unity[13]

















Personal contraction[18]

Divine concealment[19]

Personal independence[20]









Adam Kadmon[25]






























































































Truth (Emeth)[47]











The Law[51]


(Power, Judgment)[52]










(Compassion, Beauty)[56]






















































Otiyot Yesod

(Foundational Letters)[63]












The Holy One Blessed Be He[68]

Giving to the needy[69]

Acts of Kindness[70]

Creation ,




Righteousness and Humility[73]













The Metaphysical[81]






Freedom of choice[83]

























Love of God[86]



(Higher Worlds)[88]


Spiritual Ascent[90]





























































Shevirat ha-Kelim

(The Breaking of the Vessels)[98]

















Avoidance of Dogma, Rigidity[101]





Liberation. freedom[103]






Avoidance of Anger[104]

Avoidance of Evil[105]

Sitra Achra

(The Other Side)

Integrating the “Shadow”[106]

Value of Evil Impulse[107]







Netzotzot, Birur

(Liberation of divine sparks[108]
















Spiritual and Earthly Work[109]



Tikkun ha-Olam

(Restoration, Emendation of the World)[111]



Performance of Mitzvoth[113]


























Attika Kaddisha[115]


























Ze’ir Anpin[125]









The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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[1] Ayin is the primal nothingness out of which Ein-sof weaves the being of itself and the cosmos. At times, the Kabbalists identify both Ein-sof, the infinite God, and Keter (Crown) the first Sefirah with nothingness.


The 13th century Kabbalist David Ben Abraham ha-Lavan’s held that  Ein-Sof is a completely simple totality, beyond distinction or categorization and as such Ein-Sof cannot be identified as any thing in particular.  According to David Ben Abraham Ein-Sof has “more being than any other being in the world, but since it is simple, and all other simple things are complex when compared with its simplicity, so in comparison it is called “nothing” (G.  Scholem,  Kabbalah, p. 95). The  Zohar states that when Ein Sof removes Himself from His connection with creation  “He has no name of His own at all” and is thus Ayin or nothingness (Zohar III 225a, Raya Mehemma; Tishby, I, Wisdom of The Zohar , Vol. I, p.259). The Kabbalist, Azriel spoke of the complete interdependence and even equivalence  between Ein-sof and Ayin: “He who brings forth Being from Nought is thereby lacking nothing, for the Being is in the Nought after the manner of the Nought, and the Nought is in the Being after the manner [according to the modality] of the Being.  And the author of the Book of Yetzirah said: He made his Nought into his Being, and did not say: He made the Being from the Nought.  This teaches us that the Nought is the Being and Being is the Nought (Scholem, G.  Origins of the Kabbalah,  p. 423). R. Joseph Ben Scholem of Barcelona’s [c. 1300] held that there is no change, alteration, or transformation, in short no creative act at all, in which the abyss of nothingness is not crossed and for “a fleeting mystical moment becomes visible” (Scholem, G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 217).   For Joseph Ben Scholem, God, in order to be the creator, must have an element of negation or nothingness as part of his very essence, and it is just this nothingness which the deity calls upon in creating the world ex nihilo. There is a “nothingness” implicit in all things, and this nothingness is that thing’s participation in Ein-Sof.  In referring to Ein-Sof, the Kabbalists  are speaking about an entity so vast, so all-inclusive, as to include, and be, both everything and nothing.  God, for the Kabbalah, is not only both everything and nothing, he is completely identifiable both with every void and every finite thing as well.  If God were simply the “totality of all things”, and not also nothingness and each finite thing as well, there would be some things which were excluded from God’s essence, or which, although they are included in God as parts, would be distinguishable from Him. On this view Ein-Sof is nothing but is also all other things as well.


From an existential point of view, contact with Ayin, or nothingness is the ultimate religious experience.  According to Azriel:  “He who prays must cast off everything that obstructs him, and must lead the world back to its origin - literally to its Nought”. And this contact with one’s origins in nothingness provides the self with the “power for its own existence” (Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 416).  “Nothingness”, for the Kabbalists is the activator of the finite world in general, and of human existence, in particular.  

For further reflections on Ayin, see  S. Drob: Ein-Sof, Nothingness and the Problem of Creation Ex Nihilo

[2] Wonder and Awe: The first value to be derived from the Kabbalistic tree is one that spontaneously arises from a deep contemplation of the world and an awareness of our ignorance of its origins, giving rise to an experience of wonder and awe at the miracle of creation. How utterly improbable, it seems that  anything whatsoever should exist at all, that there should even be a state of affairs called “nothing” let alone the fullness of nature, the totality of the human world, one’s own body and consciousness, and an awareness of the totality of existence.


[3] Not knowing: For the Kabbalists, the Infinite’s association with Ayin, nothingness, is one means of asserting divine unknowability. Ein-sof, as nothing, is no-thing in particular, and thus cannot be circumscribed by any concept or idea. While “ignorance” is usually not thought of in this way, there is a supreme ethical value in “not-knowing”.  Those who believe that they fully comprehend the nature and the ways of God and the inner workings of the world are at great risk for rigidity, authoritarianism, dogmatism and intolerance. The belief that one’s own conception of the divine plan is the only true one gives rise to the notion that others are infidels, to be damned and destroyed. We need not look beyond contemporary events to see the results of such absolute knowledge. While the Kabbalah certainly purports to provide deep insight into the inner workings of God and the world, such insight rests upon a profound recognition of our ignorance of the ultimate nature of reality. Along with the experience of wonder and awe at creation (what the theologian Rudolf Bultmann spoke of as an experience of the mysterium tremendum) one should cultivate a deep sense of unknowing and ignorance as one begins one’s mystical and theosophical quest. Such a sense of unknowing leads to respect for, and openness to, others’ points of view as well as to the very important realization that one can learn something new from every person and every situation one encounters in life.


The notion that truth involves unknowing and ignorance is a paradox that is often neglected in spiritual teachings. One often hears that one must develop an absolute certainty regarding one’s relationship to God, one’s commitment to a particular teaching or even teacher. There is certainly  something comforting and even spiritually uplifting about such certainty, and it is (unfortunately) at the foundation of many if not most spiritual paths. However, a path based on certainty is at best fragile and incomplete and at worst open to arrogance and demagoguery. 



[4] Self-nullification (bittul ha-yesh): The Kabbalists held that one should always strive to nullify oneself before God. In common with other spiritual traditions, the Kabbalah holds that the individual ego must be transcended in favor of a mystical identification with the absolute. As noted above in connection with our discussion of Ayin (nothingness) one must cast off one’s attachments to self, world, and earthly achievement, and return to one’s origins in nothingness. Only by doing so does one gain the motive power for a renewed spiritual existence. How can this be understood? On the one hand the Kabbalists are speaking about a de-identification with one’s empirical self, of a nullification the “self” that is subject to death and which (in ordinary spiritual terms) is the subject of a hoped for personal immortality. When one fully identifies with something wider than oneself; for example, a spiritual, ethical, or creative quest, one’s attachment to one’s “ego” is diminished and one’s personal self is made correspondingly bittul, i.e. null. If one cleaves (devekut) to God, or experiences a mystical, ecstatic union, with the divine, one has again (in this case more radically) nullified oneself in favor of a higher value. The recognition of one’s mortality, the confrontation with nothingness, is the first step towards a mystical self-nullification. In the face of the existential abyss one is prompted to identify oneself with something that transcends finitude and death; for example, a creative venture, an ethical or political cause, a spiritual community, and in making such an identification one begins the process of self-nullification. If and when such a process is complete one no longer wishes for personal immortality, the wheel (gilgul) of reincarnation comes to an end, and one returns to the Ayin/Ei-nsof, the nothing-infinite, which is one’s origins.


Self-nullification is only frightening to those who feel they must cling to their own personality, desires, and possessions. Indeed, the very experience of fear arises out of an identification with the finite self that is vulnerable to loss. To the extent that one realizes that others are of equal or greater significance and value than oneself, and to the extent that one applies one’s energy in the service of others (and by this I mean anything, e.g. the environment, a cause, a community, that is  part of the “not-me”) one transcends one’s fears, in particular the fear one’s personal demise.


It is important, however, to recognize that we are not required to simply abandon our desires, our goals and personal quests. Rather such desires and quests must be fulfilled, but always with the end in mind of placing that fulfillment into a wider context or cause. Self-actualization is indeed a Kabbalistic ideal, but the fully actualized self is one that has already moved beyond it-self. Indeed, Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, tells us that “there are two aspects in the service of the Lord.  One seeks to leave its sheath of bodily material.  The second is the… aspect of the drawing down of the divinity from above precisely in the various vessels in Torah and the commandments (Schneur Zalman, Torah Or, p. 49, quoted in R. Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God,  op. cit. p. 134). According to the “Alter Rebbe”, while each of us must strive to nullify  ourselves in ethical and spiritual service, we are also creatures of this world who must engage the world in such a manner that Godliness is drawn into ourselves and the world around us.



[5] No Image of God: The Biblical injunction against making a “graven image” of God was taken by the Kabbalists to mean that God is indeed unfathomable in His essence and His nature can neither be circumscribed by thought nor articulated in language. The Torah is clear, no image or likeness can be made of God (Ex 20:4; Deut 4:35). The prophet Isaiah rhetorically asks “To whom, then, can you liken God? With what likeness will you compare Him? (Isa. 40:18), and while the Bible extols God’s “greatness (gedullah), power (Gevurah), beauty (tiferet), victory (netzach), majesty (Hod)… Kingdom (malchut) and other attributes (Chronicles 29:11), it is clear that no list of these attributes amounts to or enables us to grasp the divine essence. While the Kabbalist’s spoke of the Sefirot as divine traits, correlating them with the divine attributes enumerated in the Bible, they were clear that any description of God was meant only as an “aid to the understanding” and “from the human point of view”. According to the 13th century Kabbalist, Azriel of Gerona,


Ein-Sof cannot be an object of thought, let alone of speech, even though there is an indication of it in everything, for there is nothing beyond it.  Consequently, there is no letter, no name, no writing, and no word that can comprise it (Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar. Vol. 1, p. 234).


In Tikkunei Zohar we read, “High above all and concealed beyond all concealments, no thought can grasp you...” (Tikkunei Zohar, Intro. 17a-b).  The Lurianic Kabbalists affirmed the total unknowability of Ein Sof, ChayyimVital informing us that the term Ein-sof (Without End),


indicates that there is absolutely no way to comprehend Him, either by thought or by contemplation, because He is completely inconceivable and far removed from any kind of thought (Sefer Etz Chayyim 1:1; p. 21, Menzi and Padeh, The Tree of Life, p. 6.


The first Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, makes it clear that the unknowability of  Ein-Sof is not a function of the depth or difficulty of the concepts involved: 


But it is not at all proper to say concerning the Holy One, blessed be He, who transcends intellect and wisdom, that it is impossible to apprehend Him because of the depth of the concept, for He is not within the realm of comprehension at all (Schneur Zalman,  Likutei Amarim-Tanya, Kehot Bi-lingual edition, p. 327).


What value, might we ask, is taught by the proscription against graven images and the consequent Jewish and Kabbalistic traditions that the divine essence can neither be expressed nor conceived? That the absolute is unknowable and inexpressible serves as a caution against human arrogance. If God is unfathomable in His essence, who are we to think that we can define and circumscribe the absolute?  Who are we to think that we have the answers to the ultimate problems of heaven and earth? And who are we to impose our views on these matters on others? The injunction against graven images teaches us “epistemological humility”, the value of saying “I don’t know” and the need to be wary of any and all dogma. In holding that we cannot know and define God, the Jewish tradition close one possibility, but opens a myriad of others: the possibility to multiple points of view, spiritual and intellectual creativity, “unknowing”, and infinite dialog on the great questions of religion and philosophy.





[7] Infinite Dialog: Ein-sof is said by the Kabbalists to be “without end,” to be both everything and nothing, to include within itself all oppositions and contradictions, to be both the creator of and created by humankind, and to be the source of both faith and unbelief. As such Ein-sof is not only infinite in its being, but the attributions by which it is characterized and understood are potentially infinite as well. Indeed, if Ein-sof is infinite and serves as the origin and container for all, why should dialog, questioning, speculation and doubt about it ever come to an end? If one could circumscribe Ein-sof in thought, if one “had all the answers,” and could provide a full and comprehensive account of God, the world, and humanity’s role within the cosmos, such an account would necessarily be of some delimited thing, and could not be about Ein-sof, the infinite. Ein-sof, both by definition and by virtue of Kabbalistic doctrine (viz. the notion of Tzimtzum) can only be limited by itself.


The primary distinction between the old and the new Kabbalah rest upon the latter’s distinctively modern, even post-modern, view of the nature of divine infinity. The old Kabbalah, in spite of its pronouncements that both Torah and cosmos are subject to an infinity of transformations and interpretations, and in spite of its integration of important foreign (e.g. Greek, Gnostic and likely even “eastern”) elements into its theoretical framework, is nevertheless a closed system of ideas, one whose boundaries are set by the Jewish religion, and, in particular, the halakha, Jewish law, by the rabbis and tradition, by a set of incorrigible beliefs regarding such topics as at the authorship, authority and transmission of sacred texts (e.g. the Torah and, in particular, the Zohar), by the distinction between Jew and Gentile, man and woman, kosher and non-kosher, scared and profane, the “true” and the false, by ideas regarding the coming of the messiah and the end of days, the nature (and precise penance) for certain sexual transgressions—the list could, of course, be continued indefinitely. This, of course, could not have been otherwise, as the Kabbalah (however we date its origins) arose at a time when all thought and experience was bound and limited by an inherited and largely unquestioned and unquestionable world-view. What is remarkable is the extent to which the kabbalists at times approached the ideal of critical, open thinking, something, of course, that worried the rabbinic authorities and made them place severe restrictions on kabbalistic studies.


The notion of infinite dialog means that each of the assumptions of the traditional Jewish and Kabbalistic world-view are open to doubt, critique and/or support as the case may be. However, those who lived within the “system” of the old Kabbalah, as well as those who attempt to do so today, live(d) within a matrix of meaning that, except within certain narrow parameters, knows no doubt, challenge or “outside.” Like a computer program that assures that whatever one types-- however free it may seem to the typist—always remains “within the program,” the old Kabbalah set (and continues to set) profound limits on what one could think, say or do, even as it opened up spiritual and intellectual treasures for its adherents.


The New Kabbalah, on the other hand, utilizes the very terms and symbols of the old Kabbalah in order to, as it were, move the Kabbalah beyond itself to a form of thought that challenges, doubts, and inverts itself, that admits what is outside of itself, and sees this outside as part of its very core; indeed which sees doubt, atheism and loss of faith, as well as revelation, mystical unity and trust in God, as integral to spiritual life and theology and essential for a comprehensive world-view. The New Kabbalah makes use of those Kabbalistic symbols and ideas, such as Ein-sof (the Infinite), Shevirat ha-Kelim (the Breaking of the vessesls), ha-achdut ha-shvaah (coincidence of opposites), and the infinite interpretability of texts, which, when they are provided a rational (philosophical and/or psychological) interpretation, inexorably lead into infinite dialogue and the open economy of thought.


Infinite dialog means giving a genuine hearing to the voices of all religions, philosophies and cultures, western and eastern, “primitive” and “modern,” Jewish and non-Jewish; thus underlying the importance of comparative studies, such as those I have attempted to undertake in my book, Kabbalistic Metaphors. Infinite dialog and comparative religion and philosophy is seen as the only viable approach to Ein-sof in our own time.  Any attempt to re-parochialize ourselves, to see Ein-sof, the Kabbalah, and religion in general in either/or or authority based terms is a self-deluded effort to return to a womb, from which, by virtue of our having been born into the modern world we have, of necessity, already, and permanently, emerged.  The Kabbalah, particularly as it is expressed in the theosophy of Isaac Luria, offers us the rare opportunity from within a religious and mythical system to escape from the rigidity and dogmatism of traditional religion and emerge into an open economy of thought, without having to, at the same time, jettison religion, myth and symbol in the process. Those, such as Moshe Idel, who have noted the striking affinities between Kabbalistic and post-modern thought, point us clearly in the direction of this opportunity.



[11] Infinite Interpretation: Moshe Idel points out that as early as the second half of the 13th century certain Kabbalists adopted the view that the Bible contains an infinite number of meanings. (Idel, Absorbing Perfections p. 83). The Kabbalists based their hermeneutics of infinity on such factors as  (1) the indeterminacy in pronunciation of the Torah text which is written without vowels and spacing, thus permitting an indefinite number of variant readings, (2) the notion that God’s infinite wisdom cannot be circumscribed by a finite number of interpretations, (3) the idea that the Hebrew letters, the constituent elements of the Torah (which are also the constituent elements of the world) could be recombined in an infinite number of ways to create new meanings and entities, (4) the notion that each word in the Torah points to one or more of the Sefirot, the divine archetypes, whose combinations thereby create new meanings, (5) the possibility of adducing an infinite number of meanings through Gematria, the idea that each letter in the Torah, and thus each word has a specific numerical equivalent, making it interchangeable with words or phrases that yield an equal number, and (6) the notion that with each changing moment, the worlds and thus the significance of the scared texts, are altered, and (7) since the souls of different interpreters are each informed by a different source amongst an infinity of worlds, each interpreter brings a unique interpretive perspective to the scared text. However, unlike contemporary deconstructionists, who hold that interpretive possibilities of a text are infinite because the meaning of the text is indeterminate, the Kabbalists held that the infinity of interpretations exist within the text, as part of the divine, authorial intent. It is unclear whether the two views of infinity yield a practical difference, as any interpretation, if it is accepted on other grounds, can be (and as a practical matter, generally is) construed as a discovery of an additional layer of textual meaning. Of significance in the present context is that for the Kabbalists, enormous, if not infinite, interpretive latitude was a value they justified on a variety of hermeneutic and theological grounds.  The value of infinite interpretability is an important corollary to the value of infinite dialogue, and each are critical foundations or roots of the New Kabbalistic Tree.

For further reflections on infinite interpretability, see  S. Drob: The Torah of the Tree of Life: Kabbalistic Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Infinity in Scholem, Idel, Dan, Fine and Tishby.

[12] Coincidence of Opposites: The idea that opposing, even apparently contradictory ideas, attitudes and emotions, should be entertained simultaneously, understood as interdependent, and ultimately reconciled, is one of the supreme contributions of mystical thought (and Jewish mystical thought in particular) to humankind. That such dialectical conciliation should be pursued as a divine value in our intellectual, spiritual, and personal lives, follows from the Kabbalistic/Hasidic principle that God Himself is a unity of opposites who reconciles within Himself all contradictions.


 The Kabbalists use the term, achdut hashvaah, to denote that Ein-sof, the Infinite God, is a “unity of opposites,” one that reconciles within itself even those aspects of the cosmos that are opposed to or contradict one another.  In the 13th century the Kabbalist Azriel spoke of Ein Sof as unifying within itself both being and nothingness and as being the common root of both faith and unbelief” (Scholem.  Origins of the Kabbalah,  pp. 441-2). For Azriel, the Sefirot, the archetypes through which the world was created and is sustained, embody a union of opposites, a union that actually provides the energy for the cosmos (Azriel, The Explanation of the Ten Sefirot. In Dan, The Early Kabbalah, p. 94.) According to Azriel: “The nature of sefirah is the synthesis of every thing and its opposite. For if they did not possess the power of synthesis, there would be no energy in anything.  For that which is light is not dark and that which is darkness is not-light” (ibid). For Azriel, the coincidence of opposites is also a property of the human psyche; “we should liken their (the Sefirot) nature to the will of the soul, for it is the synthesis of all the desires and thoughts stemming from it.  Even though they may be multifarious, their source is one, either in thesis or antithesis (ibid.)”


The notion that God, man, and the world are each a unity of opposites is a theme that is present in several kabbalistic sources, including Sefer-Yetzirah, Sefer ha-Bahir and the early Kabbalistic the Source of Wisdom. The Zohar, in declaring that “He who ‘keeps’ the precepts of the Law and ‘walks’ in God’s ways…‘makes’ Him who is above” (Zohar III, 113a.  Sperling and Simon, The Zohar, Vol. 5, p. 153) suggests a coincidentia oppositorum between the ideas that God creates man and man creates God. Chayyim Vital, the great disciple of R. Isaac Luria, spoke of the divine light of creation as a single hashvaah (unity of opposites) which is called the Light of the Infinite (. Chayyim Vital, Sefer Etz Chayyim (Warsaw, 1891), “Sha’are ha-Hakdamot”). Quoted in Elior, R. The Paradoxical Ascent to God p. 68) While Vital’s account suggests a unity of opposites in the godhead only prior to creation, a close examination of the major Lurianic symbols expresses a coincidence of opposites between ideas that are thought to contradict one another in ordinary thought and discourse. For example, Luria held that the divine principle of the cosmos is both Ein-sof (without end) and Ayin (absolute nothingness), that creation is both a hitpashut (emanation) and a Tzimtzum (contraction), that Ein-sof is both the creator of the world and is itself created and completed through Tikkun ha-Olam, the spiritual, ethical and  “world restoring” acts of humanity, and, finally, that the Sefirot are both the originating elements of the cosmos and only fully realized when the cosmos is displaced and shattered (via Shevirat ha-Kelim, the Breaking of the Vessels).


The doctrine of coincidentia oppositorum, achieves its fullest Jewish expression in the philosophy of the Chabad Hasidim, where it becomes the governing principle for both God and the world.   For Chabad, all things, both infinite and finite, involve a unity or coincidence of opposites. One of the early Chabad thinkers, R. Aaron Ha-Levi Horowitz of Staroselye (1766-1828), a pupil of the first Chabad- Lubavitcher rabbi, Schneur Zalman (1745-1813) held that “the revelation of anything is actually through its opposite,”( Elior, R. The Paradoxical Ascent to God p. 64.) and that “all created things in the world are hidden within His essence, be He blessed, in one potential, in coincidentia oppositorum...” Elior, “Chabad: The Contemplative Ascent to God”, p. 163. Schneur Zalman ‘s son, Rabbi Dov Baer, wrote “within everything is its opposite and also it is truly revealed as its opposite.”


The coincidence of opposites that characterizes God, humanity and the world can be approximately understood by the simultaneous adoption of two points of view. As put by the founder of the Chabad movement, Schneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1813): “(Looking) upwards from below, as it appears to eyes of flesh, the tangible world seems to be Yesh and a thing, while spirituality, which is above, is an aspect of Ayin (nothingness).  (But looking) downwards from above the world is an aspect of Ayin, and everything which is linked downwards and descends lower and lower is more and more Ayin and is considered as naught truly as nothing and null.”  (Schneur Zalman Likutei Torah, Devarim, fol. 83a.; Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God, p. 137-8. For Chabad, it is indeed simultaneously true that God is the one reality that creates an illusory world, and that the world, in particular humankind, is the one reality that gives actuality to an otherwise empty, if not illusory, God. As Azriel suggests, Ein-sof is the broadest of all possible unities that simultaneously encompasses each of these seemingly contradictory points of view.


In the life of the intellect and the spirit, and even in the daily life of human relationships and emotions, we frequently arrive at a juncture where we seem to believe and indeed “live” two or more contradictory attitudes, feelings or ideas. Our tendency is to assume that one pole of our “contradiction” is good and true while the other is wrong (even evil) and false. The Kabbalistic principle of achdut hashvaah asks us to desist from this polarizing tendency and to broaden our intellect, soul and very being to the point where we can contain each pole of the opposition, and perhaps even understand their complete interdependence.

For further reflections on the Coincidence of Opposites,see  S. Drob: The Coincidence of Opposites In Jewish Mysticism.

Those interested in the application of the coincidentia oppositorum idea to the problem of arriving at a comprehensive understanding of the human psyche may want to read:  S. Drob: Fragmentation In Contemporary Psychology: A Dialectical Solution.







[33] Joy (Sameach): In Judaism, sameach, “joy” or “happiness” is actually a divine commandment! The Torah (Deutoronomy 26:11) commands” You shall rejoice with all the good that the Almighty has given you.” The Zohar (I:183b) says that “the Shekinah does not dwell amid sad surroundings, but only where there is cheerfulness” (Zohar, Sperling & Simon edition, Vol, 2, p. 190-191). While the Kabbalist of Safed engaged in many ascetic practices they were clear that a life of joy was a prerequisite for both mystical experience and world-redemption. Chayyim Vital held that nothing impedes mystical inspiration …as much as the quality of sadness.” The founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel Baal Shem Tov, the “Besht” held that “One should always be in a state of joy,” and indeed the entire Chasidic movement can be characterized by its unremitting effort to re-inject joy into a religious life that had become routine, obsessive and over-intellectualized. The Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav went so far as to hold that the raising of the sparks and the overcoming of evil and darkness in both the lower and upper worlds results primarily from humankind’s joyful state of mind.


Just as God is said to “rejoice in His works” (Psalms 104:31) humanity, by participating in the creation and perfection of the world (Tikkun ha-Olam) experiences a joy that mirrors that of divinity. Psychotherapy, as I understand it, is primarily directed to promoting the individual’s expression of his/her unique creativity, and joy and happiness is an inevitable byproduct of such creativity and self-actualization. Nevertheless, one must also consciously work on cultivating personal happiness, and the Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about how this can be achieved. Our sages prescription for happiness actually traverses several of our contemporary schools or paradigms in psychology, including the cognitive, behavioral and the humanistic-existential. 


At the risk of gross over-simplification I will try to very briefly hint at some of what the Jewish, particularly the Jewish mystical, tradition offers as a “prescription” for human happiness.


(1) On a purely behavioral level the tradition enjoins us to endeavor to always maintain a pleasant countenance and deportment in each of our interactions with others. (2) From a more “cognitive” point of view, we are told not to allow our happiness to become dependent upon any factor over which we have limited or no control (e.g. wealth, possessions)—this is implied in the Kabbalist Elijah de Vidas’ axiom that a person should derive more pleasure from serving God and performing mitzvoth than from obtaining all the money on earth. Indeed a person should (3) seek out and attempt to enhance the possibilities of creativity, joy and tikkun in each situation, event and person he/she encounters on life’s path. (4) A corollary to this is the Jewish maxim that a person’s pleasure should derive from what one can creatively give to others and do to improve the world rather than from what one can obtain for oneself. (5) A person should strive to always take pleasure in the gift of life itself and the myriad details of the world’s existence. (6) The Kabbalists held that great joy can be derived from developing those character traits that are implied by each of the Sefirot, e.g. knowledge, wisdom, kindness, compassion, etc. and in particular by cultivating humility, avoiding honor, and limiting anger, hatred and resentment. Finally, one should (7) practice Tzimtzum, (and refrain from loshon hora—malicious gossip) by limiting. measuring and controlling one’s malicious speech, as so much that is said thoughtlessly leads to unhappiness both for others and oneself. However, an individual should never attempt to force these conditions upon him or herself, particularly in the absence of efforts to understand his/her own desires and enhance his psychological openness and creativity; rather these traits and behaviors should grow organically in the context of what I have been describing as the psychotherapeutic attitude: the open economy of thought and feeling that leads to both self-actualization and self-transcendence. As I said just a few moments ago, the infinite dialog and respect for the ‘other’ in which psychotherapy consists leads beyond the “personal ego” and also beyond the acquisitive conception of happiness that dictates most people’s lives. It is in this context that the “prescription” for happiness that I have just described can take permanent root and effect. (The preceding discussion has been adapted from an interview with the author on the subject of Kabbalah and Psychotherapy that appears on this website: An Interview with Sanford Drob on Kabbalah and Psychotherapy.).


[55] Compassion (Rachamim): The Zohar tells us that God “in creating the world, meant it to be based on justice (din).” However, a world based on pure justice could not endures, so “God screened it with mercy, which tempers pure justice and prevents it from destroying the world” (Zohar I:180b, The Zohar, Sperling & Simon, I, p. 190). Biblical tradition emphasized God’s compassion. In the Psalms (78:38) we read that God is “full of compassion, forgives iniquity, and does not destroy.” Humanity is commanded to be like God in showing compassion and mercy to others (“Show mercy and compassion every man to his brother, “Zech. 7:9; “I desire mercy, not (animal) sacrifice: Hos. 6:6). When one is merciful and compassionate to others it “does good to one’s own soul” Prov. 11;17).b The rabbinic tradition inferred 13 divine attributes of mercy from Exodus 34:6-7:


The Safed Kabbalist, Moses Cordovero, considered the trait of compassion/mercy to be of such importance that he described as an essential moral lesson to be gleaned from the Sefirot Chochmah (Wisdom) and Binah, “Understanding.” For Cordovero, a basic function of Wisdom is to extend compassion and mercy to all created things whether they be mineral, plant, animal or human (Palm Tree of Deborah, Ch. III), and the basic function of the Understanding is to “sweeten all judgments” and neutralize the bitterness of divine decrees, so that humankind can repent and rectify each of its flaws (Palm Tree of Deborah, Ch. IV). Cordovero held that just as God is merciful to humankind, we should always show compassion and mercy, especially to those who offend or provoke us, because even they have good qualities that should soothe our anger and cause our heart to delight in their virtue. (Ch. I. Attribute 6).  Just as God holds a penitent in higher esteem than the totally righteous (Talmud Ber. 34b), those who have offended, provoked, and angered us but who later come to us  in peace should be received with greater kindness and love than had they never offended us at all (Ch. I, Attribute 7). Cordovero’s conception of compassion extends especially to the environment: one “should not uproot anything that grows, unless it is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary,” and even such necessary killing is lamentable and is, Cordovero tells us [in contradistinction to the rabbinic tradition], “the reason for despising food”[!] [Cordovero here appears to be in agreement with the 20th century philosopher J.N. Findlay who I once heard painfully voice the view that while it was natural for tigers and other carnivores to kill and eat their prey it was nevertheless thoroughly lamentable and in some deep axiological sense, wrong. Cordovero seems to extend this view to all eating whatsoever!]