The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth

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9780738705071: The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth

2005 Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR) 2nd Runner Up in Non-Fiction category!

Kabbalah's most famous symbol, the Tree of Life, has become the organizing principle behind our human efforts to understand the world. Using Hermann Haindl's lush depiction of the Tree of Life, Rachel Pollack examines the message behind this ancient symbol. She takes a non-denominational approach - drawing upon unusual sources such as tribal and shamanic traditions, modern science, contemporary Kabbalists, tarot interpreters, and a comic book writer - to explore the Tree's meaning. Along the way, we learn more about Kabbalah's history, texts, mystical concepts, and why this esoteric tradition has sprung up again in the twenty-first century.

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About the Author:

Rachel  is considered one of the World’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot. She is also a poet, an award-winning novelist, and a Tarot card and comic book artist. She has published 12 books on the Tarot, including 78 Degrees of Wisdom (Thorsons, 1998), considered a modern classic and “the Bible of Tarot reading.” Its’ marriage of common sense, wide-ranging knowledge, and esoteric awareness have inspired many tens of thousands of readers worldwide to a deeper knowledge of the Tarot.

She is a member of the American Tarot Association, the International Tarot Society, and the Tarot Guild of Australia. With fellow Tarot author Mary Greer, she has taught at the famed Omega Institute for the past twelve years. She has been conferred the title of “Tarot Grand Master” by the Tarot Certification Board, an independent body located in Las Vegas, Nevada.

As a fiction writer, Pollack has been bestowed many honors and awards, among them the famed Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction (for Unquenchable Fire) and the World Fantasy Award (for Godmother Night). She is a recommended member of PEN International, and has written for numerous publications.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

The Tree and the Ladder

Think of the image of a tree. Strong, graceful, its branches reach up like long fingers into the sky. It is hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. And now think of a tree older than all, a tree whose trunk and branches connect heaven and earth, whose roots reach down into the dark mysteries below our normal consciousness, into the very origins of existence; a tree of dreams, a tree of beauty, a tree of God.A tree of life. Is our world, with all its complications, hopes, and dangers, no more than a child's treehouse set in a vast tree that stretches through worlds upon worlds?

Now play with this image. If the tree is the connection of all life, does it begin in the dark underworld, stretch up through the existence we narrowly think of as "reality," and reach beyond to the spiritual heaven we imagine as somewhere far above our heads? But suppose all life, all existence beg ins with the Cr eator. Shouldn't the tree begin in "heaven"? And suppose our true home lies not in the world of pain and sorrow but in the divine perfection, what the legendary Welsh shaman/bard Taliesin called "the region of the summer stars." If the tree has its roots in heaven, and its branches reach down to us, does that mean that the tree grows upside down? Maybe we are upside down-that is, confused and seeing reality the wrong way around. If we could learn to see the true way, from the point of view of the divine rather than our ordinary "common sense" view (for that which is commonly agreed on is not necessarily true), then maybe the Tree of Life would stand revealed to us.And maybe we could learn to climb the tree and return to our roots as divine creations, made in the image of the Creator but ignorant of what that really means.

People climb trees. They find their way, branch by branch, into the higher regions. Before the invention of machines of flight-balloons, gliders, airplanes-giant trees were the only way people could leave the surface of the earth. So a tree becomes a ladder, and if the tree reaches high enough it becomes a ladder to heaven itself.

Now this is a literal image, and we should not confuse ourselves and believe there actually is a tree somewhere, or a giant ladder, that climbs up into the sky (why, in fact, should heaven be literally above us, in the sky?).And we should not believe that people in ancient times were much more simple-minded than our sophisticated selves, and so believed in such concrete trees and ladders. Images are metaphors,ways to make real in our minds what we understand as intuition.

A tree that reaches into heaven, however, is a very vivid and enticing metaphor, and so has proved useful to humans the world over as a way to formulate our desire to encounter the divine. In the set of traditions known as shamanism (the word comes from a specific people in Siberia but describes practices and religious approaches found wherever humans have lived), healers and visionaries travel in trance to the spirit world.To aid their journeys they use the literal image, sometimes a pole or even a small tree, sometimes a ladder.They will set this up in the ceremony, and when they enter trance they will experience a climb up the tree or ladder into the realm of the gods, where they may find some power object or even battle the spirits for the captured soul of a sick person. Thirty years or so of books on shamanism and trance workshops have made such visions and journeys sound almost ordinary to modern people. At the same time, those of us who grew up in mainstream Western religious traditions may assume that our own culture contains no such trance climbs up a tree or a ladder. In fact, the Bible contains several such images. Most obviously, there is the Tree of Life itself, from the Garden of Eden, and we will look closely at just what this story tells us in a mo- ment. But there also exists an image of a ladder that reaches from heaven to earth.

In the book of Genesis, Jacob has fled his brother's anger and is traveling in the wilderness. At night, in a place called Luz, he sets some stones for a pillow and goes to sleep. Now, stones set into a pile are themselves an image of the heavenly ascent, which is one reason why we find sacred pyramids in Egypt, Babylon, and Mexico, and why people in the Stone Age created mounds and giant hills so large they seem part of the natural landscape. Asleep, Jacob has "a vision in a dream." He sees a ladder set on the ground, reaching up all the way to heaven. Angels-the original Hebrew word means "messengers," for angels are messengers of the divine- ascend and descend. The power of the world above-the "kingdom of God," as a much later prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, called it- moves freely between the exalted existence of the divine and the difficult world of mortals.

Notice that the angels do not just descend from their realm to ours. Instead, they move in both directions, for if you have a ladder it does not go in only one direction.This, in fact, is a basic principle of esoteric ideas in general, and the Tree of Life in particular, that existence goes in both directions, from spirit "down" into physical matter, and from matter "up" into spirit. Neither is actually superior, for a full existence depends on both of them and the interchange between them. To really understand who we are we need to recognize that we, too, contain both spirit and matter, and that these qualities actually move up and down each other. When Watson, Crick,Wilkins, and Franklin discovered the double-spiral structure of DNA, the genetic basis of life, occultists recognized this as the same image found in spiritual teachings.

We might understand this double-spiral movement a little better if we think of the creative process in humans. And here we have an excellent example in Hermann Haindl himself. Haindl is the epitome of what we could call an intuitive artist. He will often begin a work by letting paint splash on the canvas and seeing what pictures seem to emerge.We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking he acts without thought. From this instinctive response he moves to a highly conceptual work in which his life experiences, political beliefs, and sacred knowledge all combine to form a coherent whole.We might say, therefore, that an original image "descends" down the tree or ladder into physical reality on the canvas. The act of painting, and the thought that goes into it, then "ascends" into a work of art that is as intellectual as it is visual.

In the Genesis story, Jacob does not himself travel up the ladder. Unlike the shamans, he does not ascend. In a sense, there is really no need, for in the next moment, God actually appears and speaks to Jacob directly, saying that Jacob's sons will become a great nation. When Jacob wakes up he names the place Beth-el, the "house of God," and calls it the "gate" of heaven for, he says,"God was in this place and I did not know it."These ideas, especially the gate, are also part of the shamanic, and later Kabbalist, idea of the tree, or ladder, that reaches to the realm of the divine. The Tree of Life is the path by which we climb to the sacred and then return to our true selves.Wherever and whenever we perceive it we find the gate of heaven. Jacob then marks the spot with yet another prehistoric image of the link between heaven and earth, a stone pillar.

The shamans often climb the ladder or tree to struggle, even battle, the gods for the sake of helpless humans. Jacob only watches. But maybe he simply is not yet ready. Kabbalist tradition suggests that a man must not begin the study of Kabbalah until he has married and fathered children -in other words, until he has become mature and responsible. Only then can he face the powerful forces hidden within the study and practices of Kabbalah. (These traditions originated in a patriarchal culture that only rarely recognized the possibility for women to enter into them. As with so much else, the introduction of women's points of view has radically opened new ideas and approaches to the Tree of Life and other aspects of Kabbalah.) Jacob, too,must become the master of his own life before he can go further in his knowledge of the divine.

Years after his dream vision, after he has married and begun his family, Jacob must once again confront his twin brother, with whom he has wrestled all his life, from their first moments in their mother's womb. Once more he sleeps in the wilderness, far from human civilization, with all its safety nets of assumed reality.This, too, is a shamanic experience, to find the sacred outside everyday life. Now, instead of a vision of powers that travel up and down a ladder, Jacob encounters a single figure, a "stranger" whose face he cannot quite see.And all night the two wrestle, neither one able to defeat the other.

Tradition identifies this figure as an angel but that is not what the text actually says.When Jacob demands a blessing from the mysterious figure, the stranger gives him a new name (another common shamanic experience), Isra-el, "one who has wrestled with God." Jacob then names the place Peni-el, the "face of God," for he says,"I have seen God face to face and survived." And having done this, Jacob finds the courage to go to his brother and seek peace.

As shamanic as this story is, it also is deeply Kabbalist.Though the ultimate truth of God lies beyond even the Tree of Life, the teachers identified aspects of the tree as a "greater" and "lesser face," and one goal of the study and meditation on the ten sephiroth becomes the ability to see those divine faces-and, like Jacob, survive the experience and then go on to seek peace. Jewish Kabbalists actually identify the "lesser face" as the central sephirah, Tiferet, which they also identify with Jacob, as the image of the perfect man; Christian Kabbalists see this sephirah as Christ. With his two visions, the ladder and the struggle, Jacob embodies the very qualities of those shamans who use poles, ladders, pillars, and living trees as vehicles to ascend to the heavenly world and claim humanity's place among the divine. For this reason, another name for the Tree of Life, with its ten lights and tw enty-two pathways, is Jacob's ladder. The Tree of Life diagram developed over many centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and continuing to the late nineteenth century. Its origins-the roots of the tree,we might say-go back to the beginning of the Common Era (the term non-Christians use for the last two thousand years to avoid anno domini,"year of our lord"), with a remarkable work called the Sefer Yetsirah, the Book of Formation. In this very short text the anonymous writer first describes the sephiroth, the ten emanations of divine light, and the mystical power of the twentytwo Hebrew letters.The actual tree will be many centuries off, but this is where it began.

We will look at the Sefer Yetsirah more closely, but it is worth considering a religious mystical movement going on at that time in ancient Judaea for what it tells us about the origins of Kabbalah and its goals, and therefore for ways we can approach the Tree of Life, both in its diagram form and in Her mann Haindl's remarkable painting. Two thousand y ears ago, right around the time of the teachings of Jesus, Judaism faced a great crisis. Rome was trying to crush the Jewish desire to follow its own traditions, and in the year 70, in response to Jewish rebellion, the Roman army destroyed the vast Temple of Solomon that had stood as the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life for hundreds of years.

Without the temple, and its seasonal rituals and sacrifices, how would people join themselves to God? The Sefer Yetsirah was, in fact, one answer, and it began a strain in mystical religion called "the work of creation," that is, the contemplation of the origins and structure of existence. Through meditation on the wonders of the sephiroth and the letters, and their place in the creation of the world, the mystic comes to a sense of the divine power that fills all existence, especially our own lives. Another response was a kind of shamanic revival called "the work of the merkavah," or the work of the chariot.The chariot refers to a mystic vision described in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel lived during the Babylonian Exile, after the destruction of the first temple (Rome actually destroyed a second temple, rebuilt after the return from Babylon). His experience was therefore meaningful to those going through the pain of Roman attacks.The prophet described a highly detailed vision he had of a heavenly chariot, wheels within wheels and winged creatures with four faces. The merkavah mystics used this vision as their own vehicle for trance journeys into the seven hekhaloth (palaces) of heaven.The purpose of these journeys was to see the divine face to face, the very experience Jacob describes after his night of wrestling.

The great detail of the merkavah writings show that the journeyers considered the hekhaloth real places and not just hallucinations or subjective images.They warn of improper responses one might make at certain points in the journey. At the same time they recognized that all this took place on an inner level, stimulated by meditation and magical practices, for they described the experience as a "descent" to the chariot, even as the traveler ascended to the palaces. The chariot was inside the self as well as in the heavenly realms.

Because the tree uses the ten sephiroth and the twenty-two pathways we naturally think of it as derived from the Sefer Yetsirah and the work of creation. And of course it is, not just because of its structure but because of its tradition of contemplating the wonders of existence. But it also derives from the work of the chariot, for the tree is a vehicle as much as a thing of wonder.We use it not just to understand how life exists, or even how to understand divine laws;we use it to understand ourselves. And we use it to move ourselves through the journey of the pathways, step by step, until we discover our own vision, as much as we are able, of divine truth. And it is the special wonder of Hermann Haindl's painting that he shows this vehicle to be one truly of life and not just abstract thought.

When Haindl writes on his painting "der baum ist der baum ist der baum ist der baum" ("The tree is the tree is the tree is the tree," reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's legendary poem "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"), he returns the philosophical concept to its literal roots. Around the world we find the Tree of Life seen as an actual tree, alive in the world. In the West we have lost our connections to nature as a divine revelation so that we tend to think of spiritual ideas as apart from the living world.We even may see the two as opposed, with anything physical being temporary and ultimately empty, while the spiritual becomes the thought that transcends nature.The Haindl tree, however, reminds us that we exist in nature, and if we cannot find the divine in living things then perhaps we will find it nowhere.

In Africa and many other places, trees with white sap have signified the Mother Goddess, for they give "milk" yet, unlike short-lived humans, they remain strong and graceful over many decades, even centuries. Ancient Egypt identified the sycamore with the goddesses Nut (of the night sky, possibly the oldest goddess), Hathor (identified with the cow goddess), and Isis, founder of civilization, bringer of Osiris back from the dead. Osiris himself becomes embedded in a tree at one point of his story. His brother Set imprisons him in a jeweled coffin and floats him away down the Nile. The coffin drifts out to sea and lands at a place called Byblos, where a tree grows up around ...

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