Having started studying Sefer Yetzirah (SY), The Book of Creation, with a friend as part of the SYRC group has been fun but also challenging. The main challenge that I overcame recently was the realization that whilst I am happy and confident to interact with and meditate on the Hebrew Letters as channels of Divine flow – this is not the case for the Sefirot.
Since the Sefirot are first enumerated in chapter 1 of SY, and then not mentioned again in later chapters, this is something that I needed to rectify. How can I gain experiential knowledge of the Sefirot without referencing them in my meditation?
At the core of my block lay a fear of perceiving the Sefirot as having a separate existence from the Creator. That somehow by meditating on them I might come to experience a perceived division in the process of creation where no such separation existed. Much like Acher (Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah) in the story of the four Rabbis entering the Garden of Eden, see Pardes (Orchard) legend.
Anyway, Rabbi Steinsaltz's “The Thirteen Petalled Rose” provided some useful insight: (pp.34-35)
“...When one relates only to the Sefirot, one is not relating to anything real. For deeds or thoughts do no operate by themselves separate from the Infinite, He who is the very life of the worlds. All the systems of the ten Sefirot , even though they carry out the laws of nature and beyond nature, have nothing real in themselves. In relating to the Infinite Light Himself they are less than a nothingness clothed or covered by an appearance of something real; they are only names, designations, points of departure for establishing a relationship, having nothing substantial in themselves. So that prayer, repentance, the cry of man to God, even though they are dependent upon and cut across a limited, deterministic system, neither work upon nor even address that system...”
So that helped clarify my question: are the Sefirot tools created by God or reflecting something intrinsic in God's being. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz appears, according to my limited understanding, to favour the former. Sefirot are just tools, a means of manifesting creation and have no substance. Rabbi Steinsaltz then continues:
“...When man reaches certain heights, he learns more about God, the order and arrangement of thins, relationships between one action and another, and the power and significance of law. Nevertheless, in the last resort the relationship to the Divine is individual. It is a completely private affair, the relationship of the single man in all his uniqueness of self and personality, oblivious of the infinite distance between himself and God, precisely because God in His being infinitely distant, beyond any possible contact, is Himself the One who creates the ways, the means of contact, in which every though, every tremor of anticipation and desire on the part of man work their way until they reach the Holy One Himself, the Infinite, Blessed be He...”
In conclusion, the Sefirot are not God's essence. They're just means to establish a relationship. But this does not mean that God will forever remain infinitely remote from mankind. Rather as pointed out in this second quote God has provided each of us an inner path to reaching back to Himself. Which Rabbi Areyh Kaplan elaborates on further when he comments on the word Netivot, private paths, in SY1:1.
Even if I do not entirely grasp the ideas above, it's helped me get over my block and do some practical meditation on the Sefirot starting with the Mother letters (see SY) and staring at my hands in front of a candle.