An Introduction to Kabbalah, Part 10: The Kabbalah of Inspiration

As we've seen over the last nine installments" in this series, Kabbalah is largely about balance: love and boundary, mercy and judgment, upper and lower, symbolic and literal, physical and spiritual. Balance, and how things go out of balance. For theosophical Kabbalists, this is true of the godhead, of the cosmos, and even of our own lives.

In our look at the Sefirot so far, we have spoken primarily of forces that are largely mental -- Hochmah, Binah, and Daat's reflection of Keter are aspects within the mind - and emotional: Hesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet are forces within the heart. But what about the body? What are the processes which convert our will, through our thoughts and our emotions, into actions?

These are the next triad of sefirot: Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. Many sources say these are the hardest sefirot to understand, and I assure you that the explanation I give here, though grounded in Hasidic thought, is not the only one. (Remember, there is no central authority patrolling the dogma of Kabbalah. Anyone who tells you there is - is not telling the truth.) But really, this "lower triad" of the Sefirot is just the Kabbalah's version of Thomas Jefferson's saying that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Netzach means "eternity;" it is the aspect of revelation which stretches horizontally for all time, and the attribute of endurance -- in the sense both of "God's mercy endures forever" and the more common usage of our own endurance through difficult times. Hod, its complement, means "splendor." It is the aspect of revelation which exists vertically, as a peak experience, or contact with that which is transcendence. It is the source of what theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called the experience of radical amazement: the shattering encounter with the numinous that engenders the birth of wonder.

On the more mundane planes, we can understand hod as Edison's inspiration, and netzach as his perspiration. Hod are those moments of insight at which we sing and shout "awwww!" Netzach are the rest of the times. Hod are, in relationship, those perfect evenings on tropical islands, where the sun sets over the water and the night is filled with love. Netzach are the times you pick your lover up at the airport. To paraphrase Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, hod is like a Ferrari; netzach like a Jeep. To paraphrase Jack Kornfield, hod is the ecstasy; netzach is the laundry.

In our culture, there is often a tendency to flee from netzach and embrace only the hod. Ours is an escapist popular culture, grounded in an economic system which endures precisely by providing lots of moments of mini-hod to distract us from our netzach reality. Consequently, since netzach becomes seen as the boring day-to-day and hod (even in bastardized, miniaturized forms like aggressive pastimes or cheap thrills) is the fun part, netzach becomes that which is merely to be endured. Mysticism is about ecstasy, not laundry; love is about passion, not reliability. Even as most Americans live safe lives in the suburbs (netzach), their advertising-based cultural discourse tells them their car is born to be wild (hod).

As you know by now, if you have been reading this series, this is not at all the Kabbalistic approach. We never want to value one sefirah over the other; we want to value the balance and dynamism between them. Sometimes netzach, sometimes hod; both are necessary to unite in yesod, which is the foundation of generativity and productivity. When you are working with netzach, know that you're working with netzach; be mindful of whether you might be out of balance, but do not denigrate one sefirah in favor of another. Likewise, when you are experiencing an expansive moment of hod, know that you're experiencing hod; don't imagine it will last forever, but don't blow it off as merely a "high" either. Hod moments give us the juice to keep going on; netzach is the going on itself.

Again to draw a parallel from relationships, a partnership that lacks hod is a partnership without spice, without a spark. It will ultimately (one might even say hopefully) be unsatisfying. Likewise, a partnership without netzach is a partnership without stability. Great sex, sure; but where is s/he in the morning? All hod is Jack Kerouac:

the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "AWWW!"

Which is great, but have you ever had a "mad one" as a boyfriend? Oy.

Kabbalah can be very full of itself, full of symbols and whiz-bang ideas about the cosmos and God. Which is fine, I guess. But where I find it actually has value is where it helps me live my own life of balance, appreciation, and gratitude. And in this, I find the theosophical Kabbalah can have real value when it calls my attention to which of these emotional dyads is predominant at any given moment. Is this moment one of too much hod or too much netzach? And how can it be brought into balance? In this way, the abstruse language of the Kabbalah becomes just another map of the heart, another perspective on the dynamic flux that makes living worthwhile.

Speaking of which, in our next installment: Sex.