Netzach, Hod, and Yesod
In our look at the sefirot so far, we have spoken primarily of forces that act within the individual, be that individual a human being like you or me, or the Divine Godhead itself. Hochmah, Binah, and Daat's reflection of Keter are aspects within the mind. Hesed, gevurah, and Tiferet are forces within the heart. And Keter itself points upward to our true unity with the One. 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 Cordovero and in Hasidic thought, is not the only one. You'll easily find others which contradict it. Remember, there is no central authority patrolling the dogma of Kabbalah. It's a bit like Tibetan Buddhism, with multiple lineages, and respect among them, so long as the conduct and intention of teachers is known to be upright.
Netzach means "eternity;" it is the aspect of revelation which stretches horizontally for all time, and the attribute of endurance within the Divine — in the sense both of "God's mercy endures forever" and the more common usage of 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 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 (borrowing from Thomas Edison) understand hod as inspiration, and netzach as 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 site linearly, 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?
In the Kabbalistic schema, netzach and hod balance into yesod. If tiferet is the heart center, bringing together the various emotional energies to the core of inner balance, yesod is the sexual organ, bringing together the various productive energies to the place of generativity. Recall that all sefirot have anatomical correspondences: hesed, gevurah and tiferet are right arm, left arm and heart-center; netzach, hod, and yesod are right leg, left leg, and sex organ.
In some charts of the sefirot, yesod is simply the phallus, and in many Kabbalistic texts, it does function in this way. But the situation is actually more complicated. Sexually, yesod is the conduit between male and female energy, and as such includes both male and female genitalia. Think of it in terms of generation and procreation. Yesod is where the energies come together — the Kabbalists did not have an idea of "genetic material" as we do, though it maps on quite well — and are united into manifestation, which is malchut — the last sefirah which we'll get to next. For a man, this can be understood as bringing together all the energies and projecting them out into the world. For a woman, it might be understood as bringing together all the energies so that their manifestation can be birthed.
Hopefully, it is clear that this sexual imagery is both metaphorical and actual. We use generative language in our common speech all the time: "the idea is gestating," for example. And certainly, that applies to yesod as well. Yet microcosm reflects macrocosm; our experience of union reflects the structure of the universe.
Incidentally, this is true regardless of how we experience sexuality. Though the Kabbalistic system is obviously heteronormative, it also includes a variety of gender permutations: between two female sefirot, between a male figure who is gendered female and a Divine energy that is gendered male, and so on. In other places, I have gone into these aspects of the Kabbalah in greater detail. Still, for some, it may not be useful to see that which is produced as "female" and that which produces as "male," or, reflecting back on hesed and gevurah, to see that which expands as "male" and that which receives as "female." Some may see this sort of language as reinforcing hierarchies and stereotypes, and it would be unwise to try to shade or apologize for this aspect of the Kabbalah by pretending it is other than what it is. But it would be a shame to lose the experiential aspect of theosophical Kabbalah: the eroticization of experience itself, the deep knowing of all reality to be the Divine lovemaking.
Inspiration, determination, and action: the two condition the third, sustain it, and allow what was once merely a thought to manifest into actualization. Now let's finish our tour of the sefirot with malchut, the Divine feminine as manifested in the world.