The Tree Of Life

Tree signifies nought but Torah for it is written: (Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 13:12, p. 524.)

She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her.
And happy is every one that holdeth her fast.
(Proverbs 3:17)

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
And all her paths are peace.
(Proverbs 3:18.)

The Gerer Rabbi explained a parable in Midrash Rabbah (Numbers, 17:7).

A man fell from a boat into the sea; the skipper of the vessel threw him a rope and shouted:

Take hold of this rope, and do not let go; if you do, you will lose your life.

The Rabbi then remarked:

This parable explains the verse

It is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her. (Proverbs 3:18)

If you let go of her, you will lose your life. (Lewis Newman, The Hasidic Anthology, (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), p. 478.)

Rabbi Jose of the Zohar teaches:

How great is the power of the Torah, and how it is exalted above all, since he who occupies himself with the Torah fears no adversaries either above or below, nor any evil haps of the world, because he is attached to the Tree of Life and eats therefrom every day. (The Zohar, Vol 5, (III, 260a), trans. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling (London: Soncino Press, 1978), p. 341.)

Rabbi Judah of the Zohar teaches:

The Tree of Life is the Torah, which is a great and mighty tree. It is called Torah (lit. showing) because it shows and reveals that which was hidden and unknown; and all life from above is comprised in it and issues from it. He that "takes hold" of the Torah takes hold of all, above and below. (The Zohar, Vol 5, (III, 53b), trans. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling (London: Soncino Press, 1978), p. 28.)

The Zohar ties the Tree of Life to the verse:

A river went forth from Eden. Genesis 2:10)

The Zohar says:

It has been laid down that the name of that river is Jubilee, but in the book of Rab Hammuna the Elder it is called Life, because life issues thence to the world. We have also laid down that the great and mighty Tree in which is food for all is called the Tree of Life, because its roots are in that Life. We have learned that the river sends forth deep streams with the oil of plenitude to water the Garden and feed the trees and shoots. These streams flow on and unite in two pillars which are called Jachin and Boaz. Thence the streams flow on and come to rest in a grade called Zaddik, and from hence they flow further till they all are gathered into the place called Sea, which is the sea of Wisdom. But the current of that river never ceases, and therefore the streams flow back to the two pillars, Nezach and Hod, whence they traverse that Zaddik to find there blessings and joy. The Matrona is called the "time" of the Zaddik, and therefore all who are fed below are fed from this place, as it is written:
The eyes of all wait on thee and thou givest them their meat in due season. (Psalms 145:15)

When these two are joined, worlds have gladness and blessing, and there is peace among upper and lower beings. But when through the sins of this world there are not blessings from these streams, and the "time" sucks from the "other side," then judgement impends over the world and there is no peace. (The Zohar, Vol 5, (III, 58a), trans. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling (London: Soncino Press, 1978), p. 38.)

We read in the Zohar:

There is a place on high that moves outwards and kindles all the lights on every side, and it is called the world to come, and from it a tree emerges in order to be nourished and prepared. This tree is exalted and honored above all the other trees. ... This world to come, which extends outwards cares for this tree all the time, watering it and preparing it through its work, crowning it with crowns, never at any time witholding its streams from it. Faith depends on this tree; it is more to be found in this tree than in any other tree; everything is sustained by it. For this reason it is written

whatsoever God does it shall be forever (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

-- there is no doubt that He was, He is, and He will be --

nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

Therefore, it is written in the Torah,

You shall not add to it, nor subtract from it (Deuteronomy 13:1)

for this tree is [the tree] of the Torah, and this place is cared for by God always. (The Zohar, Vol. 3, Isaiah Tishby, trans. David Goldstein, (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp 356-367.)

Rabbi Hiya of the Zohar teaches the following interpretation of the verse:

For with thee is the fountain of life, in thy light we shall see light. (Psalms 36:10)

The fountain of life, he said, is the supernal oil which flows continually and is stored in the midst of that most high Wisdom, from which it never separates. It is the source which dispenses life to the supernal Tree and kindles the lights (of the emanations). And that tree is call the Tree of Life, because it is planted on account of that source of life. Therefore, too,

in thy light we shall see light (Psalms 36:10)

in that light which is treasured for the righteous in the world to come and with which Israel will be illuminated. (The Zohar, Vol 4, trans. Harry Sperling, Maurice Simon, and Paul Levertoff (London: The Soncino Press, 1978), p. 390.)

Again in the Zohar,

He gave the Torah of truth, the Tree of Life, whoever takes hold of which achieves life in this world and in the world to come. Now the Tree of Life extends from above downward, and it is the Sun which illumines all. Its radiance commences at the top and extends through the whole trunk in a straight line. It is composed of two sides, one to the north, one to the south, one to the right and one to the left. The "chamber" from which he goes forth is the starting-point of all. From that point he goes forth veritably as a bridegroom to meet his bride, the beloved of his soul, whom he receives with outstretched arm. The sun proceeds and makes his way toward the west; when the west is approached the north side bestirs itself to come forward to meet it, and joins it. Then

he rejoices as a strong man to run his course, (Psalms 19:6)

so as to shed his light on the moon. Now the words:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron, and say to him, When thou lightest the lamps the seven lamps shall give light toward the body of the candlestick. And Aaron did so. (Numbers 8:1-3.),

[These words] contain an allusion to the celestial lamps, all of which are lit up together from the radiance of the sun. (The Zohar, Vol. 5, trans. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling, (London: Soncino Press, 1978), p. 203.)

The Torah

The Torah has a purpose. We read in Midrash Rabbah

From the very first day on which the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world He was eager to dwell with his creatures in the terrestrial regions. (Midrash Rabbah, Vol. 6, Numbers (13:6), (London: The Soncino Press, 1983), p. 516.)

Schochet explains:

The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have an abode in the lower worlds. Thus it is man's task to establish an abode for Divinity in the terrestrial realm.

Man is to manifest God's immanence in the physical world. The achievement of this manifestation establishes the ultimate unity of God, that is, that God is recognized to be the sole true reality. To that end man was given the Torah, the revelation of the Divine Precepts which instruct man precisely

The way in which he is to walk,
And the deed he is to do.
(Exodus 18:20)

Torah is the intermediary between man and the world and the Divine. Creation comes about through Torah. The world is sustained through Torah: the very existence of the universe and all therein, man's every need, all man has and receives, depend on the Torah. The Torah thus is the direct link between the upper and the lower, between God and man, in both directions: it is the channel through which the supernal effusions and emanations flow downward to sustain all beings, and it is the channel through which man attaches himself to the Divine. (Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Chasidic Dimensions, (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1990), pp. 158-159.)

What is the nature of this channel? We read in Isaiah:

And they who wait upon the Lord shall exchange strength.
They shall mount up with wings as eagles;
They shall run, and not be weary;
They shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

The Hebrew of the first verse is:

וקוי יהוה יחליפו כח
The verb יחליפו is the Hiphil third person masculine plural imperfect of the root חלף which means to change, substitute, or exchange. This is the same root that Jacob uses in the imperative mode in saying to his household as he prepares them to leave Laban:

Put away the strange gods that are among you,
And purify yourselves,
And change your garments.
And let us arise
And go to Beth-El;
And I will make there an altar to God.
(Genesis 35:2-3)

It is interesting that the verse after the use of the root חלף uses verbs meaning mount or arise. This is the basis of the explanation that the Berditshever Rabbi gives to the verse

And they who wait upon the Lord shall exchange strength. (Isaiah 40:31)

He teaches:

This means that those who seek the Lord give their strength unto Him, and receive in return from Him new strength to serve Him further. (Lewis Newman, The Hasidic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), p. 132.)

We read in Psalms:

The Torah of the Lord is perfect,
Bringing back soul;
(Psalms 19:8)

The strength we give the Lord is our soul. The strength given back to us is soul. And this is life.

The Sefirot

The tree has ten Sefirot, ספירות. It is not by chance that the word ספירות is related to the English word spirit, just about letter for letter. The singular is Sefirah ספירה. It means counting or numeration. It is related to words like: ספר which means book; ספר which means border, frontier, or border district; ספור which means story, tale, or narrative; ספורה which means sphere, and ספיר, which means sapphire.

The earliest written discussion of the Sefirot is in Sepher Yetzirah, The Book of Formation.

By means of thirty and two surprising hidden paths of wisdom Yah, Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, Living God, King of Concealment, God, Almighty, compassionate and gracious, high and exalted, dwelling in eternity, lofty and holy is his name, hollowed out and thereby created His universe within the three borders of idea, order, and expression.

Ten ineffable Sefirot twenty and two foundation letters: three mothers, seven doubles, and twelve simples.

Ten ineffable Sefirot from the counting of the ten fingers, five that are against five, and the unique covenant oriented in the center like the word of the tongue and like the word of the pudenda.

Ten ineffable Sefirot, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Establish understanding in wisdom and be wise with understanding. Examine inside them and probe through them. Station and speak to the Creator and return the maker to His foundation.

Ten ineffable Sefirot, their ten measures which are nothing compared to their finish: profoundness of beginning and profoundness of the end, profoundness of good and profoundness of evil, profoundness of above and profoundness of below, profoundness of east and profoundness of west, profoundness of north and profoundness of south. Only One Master, God, faithful King, governs all of them from his Holy habitation forever until eternity.

Ten ineffable Sefirot whose appearance is like seeing lightning flashing. And their purpose has no limit to them. And His word in them is overflowing and transforming. And according to His longed for decree, they will run and in the presence of His throne prostrate themselves.

Ten ineffable Sefirot, their end inherent in their beginnings, and their beginnings in their end, like a flaming fire bound within a burning coal. Because the Master is singular and there is none second to him, then in the presence of the One, what can you express?

We read in the Bahir:

Why are they called Sefirot ספירות Because it is written,

The heavens declare מספרים the glory of God. (Psalms 19:2)

The Zohar calls the Sefirot crowns.

The Holy One, blessed be He, has produced ten holy crowns above wherewith He crowns and invests Himself, and He is they and they are He, being linked together like the flame and the coal. (The Zohar, Vol 5, (III, 70a), trans. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling (London: Soncino Press, 1978), p. 66.

We read in the Zohar:

Elijah began and said: Master of the worlds, You are one but not in number; You are the highest of the high, the secret of all secrets; You are altogether beyond the reach of thought. You are He that produced ten Tikkunim, which we call ten Sefirot, so that through them You might guide the secret worlds that are not revealed, and the worlds that are revealed. And through them You are concealed from mankind, and You bind them and unite them. Since You are within, whoever separates one of the ten from its fellow is thought of as making a separation in You.

These ten Sefirot follow the order in which they are one long, one short and one intermediate. You are the one who guides them, and there is no one to guide You, neither above, nor below, nor on any side. You have prepared garments for them, from which the souls fly to the children of men. Several bodies have You prepared for them, which are called ``body'' in respect of the garments that cover them. And they are named, in this arrangement, as follows: Hesed -- right arm; Gevurah -- left arm; Tiferet -- torso; Nezah and Hod -- two legs; Yesod -- the completion of the body, the sign of the holy covenant; Malkhut -- mouth, which we call the oral Torah. The brain is Chochmah, the inner thought; Binah is the heart, of which it is said "the heart understands." Of these two it is written,

The hidden things belongs to the Lord our God. ( Deuteronomy 29:28)

The supernal Keter is the crown of royalty Malchut, of which it is said,

It declares the end from the beginning. (Isaiah 46:10)

and it is the headpiece of the tefillin. Inwardly it is Yod, He, Vav, He, which is the way of emanation. It is the water-place of the tree, with its arms and its boughs, like water that waters the tree, and it grows because of the watering.

Master of the worlds, You are the Cause of causes, the First Cause, who waters the tree with a spring, and this spring is like the soul to the body, for it is like the life of the body. In You, there is no image, and no likeness of what is within, or of what is without. You created heaven and earth, and You have produced from them sun and moon and stars and planets, and, in the earth, trees and grasses and the Garden of Eden and wild beasts and birds and fish and men, so that through them the upper realms might be known, and how the upper and lower realms are governed, and how the upper and lower realms might be distinguished.

There is none that knows anything of You, and besides You there is no singleness and no unity in the upper or the lower worlds, and You are acknowledged as Lord over all. As for all the Sefirot, each one has a known name, and the angels are designated by them, but You have no known name, for You fill all names, and You are the perfect completion of them all. And when You remove Yourself from them, all the names are left like a body without a soul. (The Wisdom of the Zohar, Fischel Lachower and Isaiah Tishby, Hebrew translators; David Goldstein, English translator, Oxford University Press, 1991, p259-261.)

The Zohar tells us:

The Holy One, blessed be He, has produced ten holy crowns above wherewith He crowns and invests Himself, and He is they and they are He, being linked together like the flame and the coal. (The Zohar, Vol. 5 (London: The Soncino Press, 1978), p. 66.)

Schochet tells us that: (Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism, (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1988), p. 63)

All differentiation is but from our perspective and relative to our knowledge, while above all is One; all is set in one balance, unvarying and eternal, as it is written

I, the Eternal, I have not changed. (Malachi 3:6)

We read in the Bahir:

What are the ten kings? They are the seven voices and three sayings.

What are the sayings? [They are the ones alluded to in the verse]

God has said for you today. (Deuteronomy 26:18)

What are the three? [Two are mentioned in the verse]

The beginning is Wisdom: Acquire Wisdom, with all your acquisition, acquire Understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)

It is thus written

The soul of Shadai gives them Understanding. (Job 32:8)

What is the third one? As the old man said to the child,

What is hidden from you, do not seek, and what is concealed from you, do not probe. Where you have authority, seek to understand, but you have nothing to do with mysteries.

We also read in the Zohar:

In Psalm 29, the "voice of the Lord" is mentioned seven times, and R. Jose explained them thus:

The voice of the Lord is on the waters; this is Abraham.
The voice of the Lord is in strength; this is Isaac.
The voice of the Lord is in beauty; this is Jacob.
The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; this is Nezach (Victory).
The voice of the Lord heweth flames of fire; this is Hod (Majesty).
The voice of the Lord causeth the wilderness to tremble; this is Zaddik (Righteous One).
And all bring blessings on to the world from the replenishment which they themselves receive. (The Zohar, vol. 4, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (London: The Soncino Press, 1978), p. 386)