The Road To Sinai
(For an introduction to the principles of Kabbalah please click here)
Each of the Sefirot on the Tree of Life can be considered to act as archetypes of characters and situations found throughout creation.
The best stories encompass all the archetypes either in the characters or in the narrative itself.
The account of how the Israelites left Egypt and received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai is a good example. There are ten distinct events on the journey which correspond to the ten sefirot and which help us to realise the importance of this story.
Although the physicality of slavery might suggest that the first stage, the Exodus, should be placed at Malkut it is the escape from slavery with which are concerned here. Going on the journey initiates a new cycle so the story is best viewed by starting at Keter.
1. Keter – The Exodus
“And [Pharaoh[ called for Moses and Aaron by night and said: ‘Rise up, get you forth from among my people; both you and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord as ye have said’” Exodus 12:31
When the Israelites left Egypt they did not know where they were going – they just knew that they were being led out of Egypt where they had been slaves for 430 years. This formlessness is entirely consistent with the nature of Keter.
The ten stages of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai set on the Tree of Life. Each stages is representative of one of the aspects of God known as the Sefirot (singular Sefirah).
It is the Crown through which every other experience is poured and yet those experiences could not happen without the point of departure – in this case the Exodus from Egypt.
2. Hokhmah – Parting the Sea
“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the dry sea land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” Exodus 14:21-22.
The Red sea parted with walls of water on either side and the cloud which led the Israelites on their journey
After God had led the Israelites into the wilderness he hardened Pharaoh’s heart just as he had done during the process of the Ten Plagues so that the Egyptians pursued the Israelites and came upon them while they were camped by the sea. Hokhmah is the sefirah called the “pattern smasher” by the medieval Rabbi, Avraham ibn Ezra. It is the place where the established order is overturned, effectively where miracles can
appear to happen although the miraculous is better described as the intervention of one world upon another through the great triad of the spirit (Hokhmah-Binah-Tiferet).
The Israelites, fearing they would be killed by the Egyptians were given a means of escape when God instructed Moses to raise his rod and part the waters of the sea thus allowing the children of Israel to pass through on dry land. An angel who went in front of the children of Israel was also deputed to move the cloud that led them so that it was between the Israelites and the Egyptians preventing the latter from seeing what was going on and giving immediate chase. (Exodus 14:19-20).
3. Binah – Closing the Sea
“And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘stretch out thy hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.’ And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.” Exodus 14:26-27.
At first sight this appears to be another miracle – the exact mirror of the opening of the sea yet the event demonstrates the twin polarities of the universe. Where the first event opened the sea and led to action the second even leads to inaction, or death. When the sea is opened the Israelites, previously static in their camp by the water’s edge, are spurred to action. When the sea closes the Egyptians are no longer able to move as they have died. Hokhmah and Binah sit at the top of the pillars of activity and passivity respectively and the symbolism of these acts demonstrates these positions perfectly.
3 a) Da’at – Drowning of the Egyptians
“And the waters returned and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them.” Exodus 14:28.
Although it is not a sefirah Da’at is an access point between two worlds and represents a transition from one world to another. It is therefore a metaphor for a death when the life force leaves the physical body. The drowning of the Egyptians is also not an action itself but a consequence of the action representing Binah – the closing of the sea.
4. Hesed – The Song at the Sea
“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord…” Exodus 15:1
Hesed is one point of the triad of positive emotion – the others being Netzach and Tiferet. We can only imagine the sheer joy in the emotional release which must have been felt by each Israelite when they emerged safely from the sea and their pursuers lay dead on the shore. They had escaped death in miraculous fashion and from a more imminent threat than when they had lived as slaves in Egypt. Their joy and pent up emotion was released through song.
5. Gevurah – the Waters of Marah
“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. And the Lord showed [Moses] a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet.” Exodus 15:23 and 25.
Gevurah represents the strength needed to overcome disappointment and bitterness is often associated with this sefirah. It therefore fits naturally to the bitter waters of Marah.
Just as joy is associated with Hesed as expressed by the song at the sea, so disappointment is associated with Gevurah where the waters are bitter.
Each emotion contains the seed of the opposite – the joy of Hesed contains the element of misery as the Israelites travel three days only to find there is no water while the remedy for this lack is contained in the tree which Moses is shown.
It requires human consciousness – and Divine instruction – to bring the sickness and the cure together to effect a healing of the water which the Israelites could then drink.
6. Tiferet – Manna
“Then said the Lord unto Moses ‘Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you’” Exodus 16:4
After slaking their thirst the Israelites continue on their journey but find no food. When they found no water the Israelites’ complaint was taken to god by Moses whereas the answer to the problem of lack of food is dealt with directly by God with no intervention.
Manna is the basic food which sustains the life force and corresponds to Tiferet which is the central point of the Tree. In the physical body this represents the central nervous system while in the psyche it is our greater consciousness, the gadlut.
Although we may lose touch with this for much of our lives it is vital to our functioning effectively. Physical food, manna, does the same symbolically in this journey.
The giving of Manna is also vital in another aspect for it marks the giving of the Sabbath to the Children of Israel.
They are instructed to gather one portion each day and the full double portion which would be be given on the sixth day as the following day had been designated as the Sabbath. Those who did not rest but went out into the desert on the Sabbath were disappointed to find that nothing was there for them to eat.
The Sabbath was considered so important that it was given even before its inclusion in the Ten Commandments a few chapters later.
The Manna continued to appear for the full 40 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land.
7. Netzach – Striking the Rock
“[And the Lord] said ‘Behold, I will stand before thee there on the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink’” Exodus 17:6
The Israelites complain again that there is no water and Moses takes this complaint to God who gives the above instruction.
This is a good demonstration of the difference between Gevurah and Netzach.
Gevurah corresponds to all military matters and battles which at first sight would seem to belong to the active side of the Tree. However, the objective in any battle is to use minimum effort in order to achieve maximum effect and when Moses sweetened the waters of Marah he did so simply by placing the tree he was shown in the water.
In contrast, Netzach which corresponds to matters of art and romance, might be thought to be on the passive side of the tree but such activities require the application of paint to canvas or the deliberate wooing of one’s potential partner – this is the principle of activity. If you do nothing in these matters then nothing will happen.In the same way, the correspondence with Netzach in this
Moses striking the rock at Horeb - Henri Grobet
journey is the requirement for Moses to strike the rock. Crucially, this is under direct instruction from God and later in the 40 year journey when Moses strikes another rock to obtain water without a divine instruction to do so he is punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The same problem may not require the same remedy on all occasions.
8. Hod – The Amalekites
“And the Lord unto said Moses…..‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’” Exodus 17:14
The Amalekites attacked the Israelites at Rephidim during their journey and were defeated by Moses holding his rod out above the battlefield.
To read this verse at the purely physical level invites much misunderstanding and strife.
The Israelites are on a physical journey where the events that befall them are designed to activate psychological principles. The Amalekites may be seen to correspond to bad psychological habits and the purification of the Israelites prior to their being allowed to enter the Promised Land meant that they should rid themselves of all these habits.
If they did not total obliterate them – and even their memory of them – then the same bad habits (or Amalekites) would return to attack and infect them in the future.
9. Yesod – Jethro
“Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such….to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties and rulers of tens.” Exodus 18:21.
The Israelites continue their journey and camp near the home of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, with whom he meets. It is implied that Jethro is a wise man for Moses bows before him and kisses the hem of his robe.
Jethro’s wisdom, however, comes from a different tradition and when Moses has related the extraordinary events which have taken place since the Exodus from Egypt he, Jethro, concedes that “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.” (18:11).
Moses is close to what we might term executive burn out due to listening in person to every single complaint which is made. Jethro counsels him that he needs to appoint deputies who will hear the less important cases while Moses himself should only deal with major complaints.
Psychologically, Yesod represents the lower level of consciousness which is perfectly adequate for dealing with many day to day matters in our everyday lives. There are times when we can function satisfactorily on the auto pilot of Yesod without calling a full meeting of the upper House of Tiferet. This relationship is shown by the principle of delegation which Jethro suggests.
10. Malkut – Sinai
“And God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:1-2
The rocky mountain of Sinai represents Malkut – physical reality – which marks the end of this particular journey.
The first commandment is not actually a commandment but a statement of the presence of God and His action; it is the Keter of the Tree of Life when the ten Commandments are placed upon it.The first commandment is frequently given as “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” with the second half of
The Ten Commandments – better expressed as the Ten Words or Declarations
the same commandment – “thou shalt not make a graven image” - becoming the second commandment.
Traditional Jewish thought unifies both halves of the verse into a single second commandment with the statement in 20:1 forming the first of the Ten Commandments – better translated as the Ten Words or Statements.
The “tablets of stone” on which the Ten Commandments” are carved provides a further correspondence to the physical mineral level of Malkut.
Debates among academics – and in some religious sectors – continue unabated as to whether or how the Exodus could have physically happened especially since there is a dearth of archaeological evidence for it buried under the sands of the Sinai Peninsula.
To dwell exclusively on these physical aspects cuts us off from the psychological importance of the narrative which takes us on a mythical journey in order to demonstrate some spiritual truths. It is upon such myths, legends and stories that feed our souls just as the manna fed the physical needs of the Israelites for 40 years in the desert.
© Jonathon Clark 2020