A lot of people don’t like The Tower when it shows up in a tarot reading. And certainly the image doesn’t look pleasant. But I’d like to look at some Kabbalistic concepts to rethink the meaning of the card and how to interpret it in different situations.
When people think of The Tower, the first Biblical reference that comes to mind is the Tower of Babel. And since this story is about arrogance and pride laid low—the people in this Bronze Age myth want to reach heaven physically and become gods themselves—there is what appears to be an obvious connection. But what happens to the people at the end of the story of Babel is confusion, and that’s where the story and the meaning of the card diverge. Humanity is confounded by a multiplicity of languages, creating more separation in the world But The Tower card is about revelation, even if it is delivered in a way that is unwelcome.
Kabbalistically speaking, one could look at The Tower as the destruction of a Kelipa. Kelipot (plural) are the metaphorical shells that surround fallen sparks of holiness, keeping them separate from the Divine. From the psychological Hasidic point of view, a Kelipa can be any ego structure or belief system that we build (consciously or unconsciously) that serves to distance us from experiencing God in every moment. Of course, God always has other plans. Thus, the lightning strike in the shape of the path down from Keter to Malchut.
This is in keeping with the idea of revelation, even if it is disruptive or destructive at first. These shells hide divine light, and the work of a Kabbalist is to find these hidden sparks and raise them up. This is first and foremost inner work. And in the destruction of the tower in the card, we see the release of these sparks in the flaming yods that surround the tower. Of course, the sudden destruction of an ego structure is hardly pleasant to say the least. But it leaves one open in a new way, more vulnerable. Thus the naked human in the following card, The Star.
Recently in my studies I came across an aggadic midrash from Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinic text written sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. And I was struck by a phrase in the story that could be translated from the Aramaic in several different ways: דולקת בירה, “birah doleket,” has been translated variously as “a burning tower/fortress/palace” or “a palace aglow/filled with light.” And that is exactly at the heart of the issue in the Tower trump.
While the image in the card is indeed of a tower that’s burning, it was also filled with light—hidden light—that has been released from the hard shell of the tower. It is the light that is hidden in all Creation.
Below is a translation of the midrash from Genesis Rabbah 39:1, with the phrase shown in both ways:
“’And God said to Avram: Go forth from your land, etc.’…Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a person who was traveling from one place to another, and saw a “birah doleket”- he saw certain palace aglow/burning tower. The person wondered: Is it possible that this palace lacks an owner? The owner of the palace looked out and said: I am the owner. In the same way, Abraham our father wondered: Is it possible that this world lacks a ruler? God looked out at him and said: ‘I am the ruler of the world.”’
The meaning of the midrash changes radically depending on how you read those words. And I would suggest it also can also change your point of view of The Tower. Literally. Because most of us, when we see this card, we identify with one of the people in the card, falling from the tower, even though the scene in all the cards is from the outside as an observer. The Inner Journey Tarot, currently under development by Angelo Nasios and Jon Carraher, is designed to give the viewer of first person POV for each card, so when you look at the Tower card, you see it as though you are one of the people falling from the Tower. It’s a powerful and much scarier image.
But what if you were the person on the ground, seeing this happen? The image in the card is unambiguous. This is a tower on fire. But what if we shifted to think of it as a palace aglow? You might argue, but it IS a tower on fire!
Yes, and the burning bush was also on fire. And it was not consumed. It was alive with light. Moses had the consciousness to see creation as alive with light.
Commentators on this midrash on Abraham write about the two diverging translations. When it’s “on fire” Abraham is asking a question about God’s apparent absence in the world, allowing it to burn, metaphorically speaking. When the translation is “aglow” it’s a question about the source of the light that Abraham has the power to see. It’s why God chooses Abraham (please understand I write about this as story—I don’t believe in a God with a personality that chooses people)—he, like Moses, has the presence of mind to see the light under all Creation, even in places that may seem to be where one would be less likely to find light, in this case a structure that stands for power.
If you cultivate the ability to see that hidden light in all Creation, and within yourself, even in your darkest places, these is less likelihood you’ll need a Tower moment—it’s less likely you’ll need a revelation that feels like a destructive and terrifying blast to your ego. Because in doing the work of seeking the sparks of light, you will be slowly dismantling the structure yourself, stone by stone and brick by brick. Not unlike the Buddha, who said at the moment of enlightenment:
I, who have been seeking the builder of this house, failing to attain Enlightenment, which would enable me to find him, have wandered through innumerable births in samsara. To be born again and again is, indeed, dukkha!
Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house (for me) again. All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed. My mind has reached the unconditioned (i.e., Nibbana); the end of craving has been attained.
At the start of this essay I mentioned the obvious connection to the Tower of Babel and then let it go. Rachel Pollack, when creating the Tower card for the new Raziel deck she created with Robert Place, notes that connection but chooses another image with richer and deeper associations. In the Raziel Tarot, the image for the Tower card is not the Tower of Babel, but the Temple in Jerusalem at its moment of destruction in 70 CE.
This feels right to me, because what happened with this destruction was the birth of rabbinic Judaism—and worship moved from Temple, with its priestly cult and animal sacrifice to the home and synagogue, with a more egalitarian (by 1st century CE standards) path. While the destruction of the Temple, and Jerusalem itself, was tragic, the result was a freeing of spiritual creativity and the renewal of Judaism, now free to take in influences from the wider world.
May we all learn to seek the light in ways that free us from our shells with gentle revelations of joy.