Nighttime in a rugged river valley. Eight cups stand upright before us, and behind them, a solitary figure in a red robe walks away, his back turned to them. The sojourner’s walking stick will come in handy, for his path is uphill, and it will get steeper the farther he goes. In the night sky, the moon looks glumly upon him.
This is the card of pleasures abandoned, of willful rejection of comfort and joy, and the Dark Night of the Soul through which we all must travel, at some point in our lives, before we can know true spiritual transformation. This is Hod, primal intellect, in Briah, Divine love, in the realm of the collective consciousness of man. At this station, man and God are at apparent cross-purposes (signified here by the two “stacks” of cups—five representing man on the left, three for the Holy Trinity on the right), with God wishing to pour out His love as always and man, slowly become more cognizant of his own free agency, stubbornly asserting the will to “go his own way.” God allows this whenever man wishes, but God sees our rebelliousness not as a sin to be punished but as an opportunity to enlighten us by using our own agency to steer us in His direction. One way this occurs is via the spiritual vision-quest.
Consider our seeker here. While he is leaving the cups behind, he is heading for higher ground. The cups have served their purpose for him; he has drunk from them and now needs to spend a season in the wilderness, living the life of a penitent. Dissatisfied with the material world, he thinks himself alone in his walk, but in reality he is being guided every step of the way, and when he emerges from the darkness, he will discover that he has forged an even deeper connection to the Divine than he had realized. History and myth are filled with stories of seekers who “turned their back” on civilization to spend time alone in the wilderness, and who returned to the world as enlightened masters. The protagonists of our three major religions each spent time in the wilderness, before emerging as “new men” to teach lessons of rebirth and renewal.
Consider again the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was forgiven immediately after repenting despite squandering his inheritance on sinful living. In a way, our seeker in the Eight of Cups is squandering his inheritance, too, by abandoning the material gifts he has been given—but do we have any doubt that he will be forgiven upon his return? Such is God’s relationship to us! The Zohar teaches that God favors the penitent over those who have never sinned—for the sinner has used the free will God so generously gave him, while the sinless man has not. Now whose fortune has been squandered?
Meanings of the card can include: Abandonment of pleasure, material comforts renounced, a season in the wilderness, the Dark Night of the Soul, repentance and forgiveness, the “darkness before the dawn”; but also dissipation, aimlessness, failure to see “the forest for the trees,” spiritual blindness, the hardened heart. We are given free will for a reason—that we might come to know the Father in our own way, even if it should mean “abandoning” Him for a season—for He is infinitely patient, and will always greet us with open arms whenever we decide to return to the fold. Likewise, we should always be forgiving and welcoming of others, even if they have wronged us in the past. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is something of which we should always be mindful.