What is the Soul?


What is the Soul?


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The Soul of the Matter

By Mendel Weinberger

The word "soul" is used nowadays to describe many different things. There is soul food, soul music, soul searching, soul friends and soul mates. Different people may mean very different things when they use the word. In the Jewish tradition the meaning of the word "soul" is very specific and lies at the very core of Jewish identity.

But before we discuss what the soul is, we need to answer a more primary question. Why do we need a soul? We are born into physical bodies that from the very first moment are filled with desires. We desire food and protection from heat and cold. We need physical affection and emotional love. As we grow up our desires increase. We want to experience the pleasures of physical movement and coordination. We want to be entertained with stories and stimulated with knowledge. As we reach adulthood we desire wealth and honor. We strive for the satisfaction of a successful career. We are so busy fulfilling our body's desires that there seems little time for anything else. Even the desire for knowledge and love are considered byproducts of the physical brain and heart. So when do we have time for the desires of the soul?

The sages of Kaballah and Chassidut explain that there really are two kinds of souls in a human being. One is called the nefesh habehamit, the animal soul. It is the spiritual life force that animates the body. Without this soul our bodies would be lumps of flesh devoid of life like a corpse. The second kind of soul is called the nefesh ha-elokit, the divine soul. This soul is the channel through which the Creator gives us our spiritual connection to Him. Without it we would be nothing more than intelligent animals. It is this spiritual connection that inspires a person to strive for something higher than a successful material life.

Another way of understanding the soul is by dividing it into its five component parts. Nefesh animates the physical body, ruach animates the emotions, and neshama animates the mind. Chaya is the transcendent aspect of the soul that hovers around the body, for its light is too powerful to be contained in a physical body. It is this level of the soul that gives us an awareness that we are more than just a body and mind. The fifth and highest level of the soul is called yechida. It is literally a part of G-d's Being and as such completely beyond human awareness. But it is in the truest sense the most authentic identity of the Jew. It is this level of the soul that gives a Jew the courage and willingness to give his life for the sake of G-d's Torah.

In the broad expanse of history, a human life is relatively short. A person may live seventy or eighty years, perhaps longer. But everyone eventually dies. They may have acquired wealth and honor or lived in poverty and anonymity. They may have created art or built a business. They may have raised a family and left a legacy after them. But whether they succeeded or failed in life, when they die they leave it all behind.

The body is buried in the ground and the soul ascends to heaven. After a period purification the soul enters gan eden (heaven). This is a spiritual domain where a powerful spiritual light shines. The soul is meant to take pleasure in this light that radiates from G-d's Being. But in order to benefit from this light the soul must be wearing garments. Just as a person needs to wear clothing to protect himself from being burned by the sun's powerful rays, so too, one needs spiritual garments to protect himself from the powerful rays of the Infinite Light.

Where do these garments come from? You cannot buy them in a store and you cannot get someone else to make them for you. These garments are created by your good deeds. By good deeds I mean the miztvot enumerated in the Torah. Every time you give charity to a poor person, help a friend in need, eat matzah on Passover, shake a lulav and esrog, or study Torah you are creating spiritual garments for your soul to wear in gan eden. The more garments you create, the greater will be your pleasure and understanding of Godliness. And it is understood that the opposite is also true. The fewer garments you create for yourself, the less benefit and understanding you will experience in the next world.

The soul is the part of us that both animates the physical body and transcends it. Our good deeds enable the soul to bask in the glow of the infinite light in gan eden without getting "burned". But don't think that we only live for our reward in the next world. The mitzvoth that we do in this life bring additional "light" into this dark world right now. And this is the goal of all of our spiritual striving: to make this world a fitting abode for G-d and to bring the revelation of G-d's Light into this physical world.


from the January 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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