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Venturing through the Flaming Sword

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“So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” Genesis 4: 24

Already the story of paradise encapsulates the humane desire to venture through the flaming sword and reach divine essence that is symbolized by the Tree of Life.

For Kabbalists, the Tree of Life is the symbol of the sefirot, God’s essential ten potentialities and the secrets of Creation. Only the initiated can gain access to this wisdom, which Kabbalists have been reluctant to disclose. On his deathbed, Isaac Luria, the great 16th century Safed Kabbalist, made his followers vow not to spread his Kabbalah and certainly not to allow this knowledge to leave the Holy Land.

A story from the Talmud (the vast corpus of interpretation of Jewish law) tells about four sages who entered the Pardes (orchard but also allusion to paradise):

One of them took a glimpse and died,
Another took a glimpse and went insane,
One took a glimpse and cut down the saplings,
Another ascended in peace and descended in peace.

The study and practice of the Kabbalah aim at gaining knowledge of God and reaching union with the Divine. The various forms of mystical union, trance, possession, and ascent or descent into unknown realms, are perceived as a threat to the unity of the psyche. The prospect of reaching divine knowledge underlies a claim to exclusive access to truth and domination, which historically led to political extremism in the form of destructive Messianism.

The film The Man Who Would Be King, from 1975, is based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling. Two English men travel into remote and unknown Kafiristan (today’s Afgahnistan), and are taken by the natives to be gods. But eventually their human flaws are exposed. The one is forced into his death; the other, after having been crucified, is released into a miserable existence…

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