Notes on Kabbalah Suite (2011) by Yochanan Sebastian Winston
My Kabbalah Suite (Meditations on the Ten Sefirot – 2011) was originally inspired by a trip to Carmel, California with my daughter Sarah in the Spring of 2010. While driving through Carmel, I was struck by how many intelligent and seemingly spiritual gentiles there were who I felt would profit from exposure to the traditional Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah. When I returned home to San Diego, I began a conversation with Rabbi Philip Graubart of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla that subsequently resulted in his commission for a piece based upon the Kabbalistic notion of the ten sefirot. A partial première (four movements) was performed at Beth El on Selichot (September 4), 2010 with the world première of the complete work following on Selichot (September 24), 2011.
The compositional genesis of the piece began with an analysis of each sefirah’s gematria (numerology). I then assigned the numbers to a series of pitches, rendering ten chords (one for each sefirah’s name) and then adjusted the chords to suit my ear. Then, I transposed the chord sequence ten times using various standard techniques that gave me the pitch material for each movement. After creating the chord progressions, I spent many hours in traditional prayer and meditation in an attempt to access the inner, hidden nature of each sefirah and attempt to manifest the mystical into sound. How well I succeeded will obviously depend upon each listener’s assessment.
The following are some notes on the concepts of sefirot as well as some background on the mysticism. These notes are based upon my study of the work of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the websites of Chabad.com and Aish.com as well as the seminal works on the subject by Dr. Gershon Scholem (z’lv), R. Aryeh Kaplan (z’lv) and Dr. Moshe Idel. I am deeply and gratefully indebted to all of these tremendous scholars.
A sefirah (pl. sefirot) is a channel of Divine energy and is one of the basic terms and concepts of Kabbalah. The word has many possible meanings. A few of the more common explanations are as follows:
• Some commentators explain that the word comes from sapir, a diamond: without a color of its own, it reflects and refracts light or shines with an internal glow.
• Others say that it relates to sipur, a narrative, as in “the heavens tell the glory of G-d (Psalms 19:2).
• Some relate the sefirah to s’far, a boundary, for they lie on the border between the infinite and the finite.
• Others still explain the word as being related to mispar, number, for the sefirot are defined by their number (ten).
The configuration of the sefirot is graphically depicted in Kabbalistic texts by a vertical array along three parallel axes, usually something like the following:
This configuration is variously referred to in the literature as a sulam ("ladder"), an etz ("tree"), or a tzelem Elokim ("image of G-d"). According to this last designation, the configuration of the sefirot suggests the form of the human body, which, as recorded in the Torah, was fashioned "in the image of God." Hence each sefirah is associated with the particular limb or organ that corresponds to its position in the anatomical sefirotic structure. More importantly, tzelem Elokim implies that each of the sefirot (except #10 – Malchut) are also characteristics of human beings which should be aspired to.
The sefirot are divided into three triplets of three. The first triplet of right, left, middle, is the triplet of the mind: chochmah; binah, da'at (from which we get “ChaBaD”). The second triplet is of the inner emotional powers of the heart: chesed, gevurah, tiferet. The third and final triplet is of action: netzach, hod, yesod. The final point is malchut, the ultimate result and the product of all of the other sefirot.
Keter, (“Crown”) is the first of the ten sefirot and corresponds to the superconscious realm of experience. Thus, the image of a "crown," which suggests an aura surrounding one's consciousness.
Chochmah (“Wisdom”) marks the beginning of revelation. It is like a bolt of realization that contains a complete and complex structure, compressed into a single point. Just as a fertilized egg contains the entire life of the unborn, chochmah contains the beginning, middle and end of an idea, revealed all at once. From chochmah flows all fundamental concepts. Chochmah corresponds in the tzelem Elokim ("image of G-d") to the brain and is associated in the soul with intuitive insight although as such, it is a hidden awareness and an inner thought. The "wisdom" of chochmah also implies the ability to look deeply at some aspect of reality and abstract its essence till one succeeds in uncovering its underlying truth. Chochmah is the primary force in the creative process.
Binah, (“Understanding”), is the sefirah of active, organized and complex thought. Binah receives a basic concept from chochmah and grows and develops the seed of that idea. In binah, the primitive concept received through chochmah is expanded through an organized, conscious process so that it becomes realizable. A different aspect of "understanding" in binah implies the ability to examine the degree of truth or falsehood inherent in a particular idea. Still another aspect identified with binah is the ability to explain and elucidate concepts both to oneself and others. The word binah derives from the root bein, which means "between." The power of binah is to distinguish and differentiate between ideas. The part of the tzelem Elokim associated with binah is the heart, which in Biblical language is the seat of understanding.
Da'at (“Knowledge”) is the third and last “conscious” power of intellect in Creation. Generally, da'at is only enumerated among the sefirot when keter is not. This is due to the fact that da'at represents the reflection of (the inner dimension of) keter itself within the realm of consciousness. Da'at is associated in the soul with the powers of memory and concentration and "sensitivity”. In my Kabbalah Suite, I chose to depict keter instead of da’at for artistic, conceptual and mystical reasons.
Chesed (“Loving-kindness”) is the sefirah of flowing energy, giving and the desire to bestow upon others. Its inner being, its concealed nature if you will, is love, which is the source of altruism, the desire to give – not to be rewarded, but out of an inner longing. More generally, the sefirah of Chesed expresses expansion, outward movement from within, broadening and growth. Thus, this sefirah is also by basic centrifugal movement, from the inside out. In the human body, the right arm represents it. It is also associated in the soul with the desire to embrace all of Creation and bestow goodness upon it.
Gevurah (“Might”) is the sefirah that creates limitations and is associated with the power to restrain one's innate urge to bestow goodness upon others, when the recipient of that good is judged to be liable to misuse that goodness. It is an ingathering force since might is based upon the concentration of power. Gevurah is also referred to in Kabbalah as midat hadin ("the attribute of judgment"). Chesed and gevurah act together to create an inner balance in the soul's approach to the outside world. While the "right arm" of chesed operates to draw others near, the "left arm" of gevurah reserves the option of repelling those “judged” as undeserving. Ultimately, the might of gevurah becomes the power and forcefulness to implement one's innate desire of chesed. Only by the power of gevurah is chesed able to penetrate the coarse, opposing surface of reality.
Tiferet (“Beauty” or “Harmony”) is the sefirah of harmonious blending, and is associated in the soul with the power to reconcile the conflicting inclinations of chesed and gevurah into compassion, thus accounting for its designation in Kabbalah as midat harachamim ("the attribute of mercy"). In other words, one could say that tiferet is the act of giving to those who deserve it. It is represented in the human body as the torso, which is the essence of the human structure.
The triad formed by chesed, gevurah and tiferet is an archetype of sefirotic expression: expansion, contraction and integration. These three sefirot create the vast array of human emotions. In contrast, the next three sefirot relate to the interface between the inner being and the outside world.
Netzach (“Victory”) and Hod (“Glory” or “Splendor”) are often described as one unit since there is such a strong bond and similarity between them and they function as two aspects of the same thing. Their shared characteristic is the resolute will to contain within themselves the inner traits of feeling and awareness, to foster them and to actualize them despite all barriers and obstacles. They express a basic, forceful faithfulness and both the belief and the will to hold on tenaciously. Yet, they also express the will to break through barriers. These two sefirot are represented by the two legs of the human body, reflecting their inner nature of working together as a single unit.
• Netzach is associated in the soul with the power to overcome those obstacles, which stand in the way of realizing one's chesed aspiration to bestow goodness upon Creation. Insofar as the word netzach denotes both "victory" and "eternity," it can be said that the ultimate victory of netzach is that over death itself, the final impediment to the pursuit of chesed.
• Hod (“Splendor”) is associated in the soul with the power to continually advance, with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment, toward the realization of one's life goals. The acknowledgment of a supreme purpose in life, and the total submission of self which that inspires, serve to endow the source of one's inspiration with an aura of splendor and majesty. Hence the word hod connotes both "acknowledgment" and "splendor," in the sense of an aura-like reverberation of light. CK
Yesod (“Foundation”) is associated with the power to make contact, to connect and communicate with “reality”. This sefirah’s name comes from the verse “The righteous man is an eternal foundation” (Proverbs 10:25). Therefore, this sefirah is also called tzadik (“righteous”). Corresponding to the procreative organ of man, yesod is the “foundation” of generations to come, the power to procreate being the manifestation of infinity within the finite context of a human’s earthly existence. The structure of the final sefirah, malchut and all that comes through malchut derives from yesod. It is the sefirah of connection and unimpeded current, possessing the will and ability to transfer. This giving is from the desire to bestow generously and thus connects all of the previous sefirot with malchut below it. CK
Malchut (“Sovereignty” or “Kingship”) is the final sefirah. It serves as a transforming station between the “giving” sefirot and the “receiving” universes below them. Malchut has only one quality: the power of governance. Malchut is the vessel that receives the energy from all the sefirot above it and is the means through which they all express themselves. Thus, it can be seen allegorically as “speech” or “communication” and the part of the human body that it is associated with is the mouth. When malchut is revealed in the world, it is called Shechinah, a feminine term which usually refers to G-d’s palpable presence on earth. Malchut’s existence is dependent upon the preceding nine sefirot and is the articulation and manifestation of them all. For me, the most stunning aspect of this final sefirah is that its existence is impossible without human kind. How can One govern without subjects? Clearly, G-d needs us in order to fulfill His will. Although this is the one emanation that we as humans cannot possess, without us, malchut is not possible.
Having completed this work, I would be remiss not to express my deepest thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Lee Ray, who assumed the large responsibility of mixing and mastering the music into its final form. His artistic nature and unfailingly accurate ear and instincts made many aesthetic decisions much easier. I hope that this Kabbalah Suite is only the first of many new works that I will compose upon the notions of Jewish mysticism and that above all, the works will allow all people of good conscience to enter into the rarefied worlds of this deep, inner knowledge.
Dr. Yochanan Sebastian Winston
א׳ בְּטֵבֵת תשע״ב
Aleph Tevet, 5772
December 27, 2011
San Diego CA (USA)