Kabbalists believe the universe began with a benevolent sacrifice by God. Unlike Christianity, which says God sacrificed his only son to save the world, Kabbalah teaches that God sacrificed himself so that the world and the human race might flourish. Kabbalists describe God’s sacrifice as tsimtsum, the Hebrew word for “withdrawal.”
Kabbalists believe God existed in the form of pure energy in the time before creation. The power of God’s energy was so vast that it prevented anything else from existing in the universe. To make room for the human race and everything else in the universe, God first had to recoil into itself. In the process of withdrawal, God’s identity shattered, dispersing God’s energy throughout the universe. Aspects of God, in the form of the ten sefirot, then descended through time and space into the newly created world of material reality—the world in which humans live. Every kabbalist’s main duty is tikkun, the process of restoring Kabbalah’s fractured God to a state of wholeness through righteousness and good deeds.
In religions like Christianity and Judaism, God creates and then withdraws, but in Kabbalah God withdraws first in order to create. God still remains a presence after creation, but in a divided form, dependent on the help of human beings to restore its wholeness. Whereas many religions conceive of God as a humanlike figure to whom they can speak and pray, Kabbalah views God as a boundless unknowable force. The finite human mind cannot ever truly comprehend God, but the collective faith and devotion of the followers of Kabbalah can make God whole and knowable once more. The only way Kabbalah followers can begin to understand Ein Sof is by becoming acquainted with the sefirot, the ten aspects of Ein Sof’s identity that Ein Sof emitted while creating the world.
Understanding and cultivating the sefirot requires a lifetime of study and devotion, but Kabbalah provides even beginners with a way of knowing God in everyday life. Shekhinah, the tenth sefirah, represents God’s presence in the material world and provides the first glimpse into knowing and understanding God. As kabbalists continue to study and honor the teachings of Kabbalah, they can ascend sequentially through each sefirah, in turn gaining a more and more profound understanding of their divinity.
In The Essential Zohar, Rav Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre and the spiritual leader of contemporary Kabbalah, writes, “No idea in Kabbalah is more important than the true meaning of fear.” At first glance, Berg’s proclamation might seem out of place, since Kabbalah tends to encompass such a positive, hopeful set of ideals. As Berg explains, the true meaning of fear in Kabbalah differs strongly from what most people expect it to mean.
We tend to think of fear as a negative emotion, the source of anxiety and discouragement. Kabbalah instead presents fear as the primary motivator of every righteous thought and deed in the universe. To understand this surprising portrayal of fear, we need to understand the three types of fear described in the Zohar, Kabbalah’s main text. The first type of fear involves the things we hold dear in our lives on earth: our home, our health, our friends, and our possessions. Fearing the loss of any of the above does not qualify as fear in Kabbalah. Similarly, Kabbalah considers fear of damnation, or any type of consequence in the afterlife, an unacceptable application of the concept of fear. Kabbalah refers to fear of loss in the material world and in the world hereafter as “evil fear.”
The third type of fear is the only fear kabbalists must honor and cultivate, and that’s the fear of God. In The Essential Zohar, Berg insists that kabbalists replace the word “fear” with “awe” in describing the emotion they should feel when contemplating God. Though “fear of God” appears in the Old Testament and in the Zohar, Berg believes the phrase was intended to convey a feeling of respect and admiration, not worry or concern. Awe in the face of God, the third fear described in the Zohar, is the most powerful gift God gives us. It is the awareness that God is the source of all the energy, wisdom, and strength in the universe.
Berg views this awareness as the key to kabbalistic faith, the beacon that keeps followers loyal to their only goal: bridging the gap between the perfect world that God initially created and the broken world that human beings inherited after God withdrew. By always remaining in awe of God’s power and self-sacrifice, kabbalists should never indulge in doubt or self-pity. Instead, they should draw inspiration from God’s power and achievement and strive to honor God by restoring its wholeness.
Kabbalists believe God created a perfect world that we’ve never known. Just after the moment of creation, when God’s identity shattered, the paradise we would have inherited instead descended into chaos. In place of the Garden of Eden, humans encountered a world fraught with danger, disease, and countless other perils. Many religions blame human beings for the problems we encounter on earth. Rav Berg refers to a famous sermon by puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to point out how other religions portray God as spiteful and resentful of human beings for their sinfulness. Edwards notoriously described man as a piddling insect that God would be delighted to cast into the flames of hell.
Kabbalah presents God in a very different light. Though Ein Sof sacrificed its own identity to create the universe for human beings, kabbalists describe their God as a forgiving, endlessly loving force. Kabbalists typically portray their relationship with God as a marriage of sorts, a give and take in which God depends on people to restore its wholeness, and people depend on God to inspire them to act righteously in order to heal their fractured God. Kabbalah does not include a doctrine of irremediable sin, but instead conceives of everyone, even God, as continually becoming, rather than being. Kabbalah therefore believes that even the vilest sinner always has a shot at forgiveness in the eyes of God: even in the final moments of life, hope remains.
Kabbalah’s strong sense of hope and optimism derives from its conception of God as an infinite, ever-present force. Since God created everything and everyone in the universe, everything and everyone in the universe contains elements of God’s perfection. The aim of Kabbalah is to provide everyone with a set of tools for use in discovering their connection to God. These tools typically include the study of the Zohar, the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hebrew language. Once enough followers of Kabbalah bridge the gap between the chaotic human world and the perfect world God first created, paradise will once again reign on earth.