The Three Souls of Man
Chapter 8, Law 3
"Whenever the 'soul' is referenced in this discussion, it does not [refer
to] the soul which requires a body, but the 'form of the soul' (tsuras
ha'nefesh). This is the wisdom the person has acquired of the Creator,
according to his ability, as well as his understanding of abstracts matters
(lit., 'unconnected knowledge') and other matters. This is the 'form' we
described in the fourth chapter of the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah
(Laws 8-9). This is what is called the soul in our context.
"This life, [of the World to Come], since it has no death -- as death is
merely a phenomenon of the body and there will be no body there -- is called
the 'binding' of life (tsror ha'chaim -- since we will be eternally bound to
life). This is as it is stated, 'and my master's soul will be bound in the
binding of life with the L-rd, your G-d, and the souls of your enemies He
shall cast away' (I Samuel 25:29). This is the reward regarding which there
is no greater reward, and the good which is not followed by any further
good. And it is what all the prophets desired."
This week's law is far more esoteric than the Rambam usually reads, but is a
clear continuation of the Rambam's earlier discussion. As we have seen, this
chapter discusses the World to Come, which according to the Rambam is an
entirely spiritual experience. The righteous will be pure souls, basking in
the presence of their Creator, enjoying an understanding of "the truth of
the Holy One." We have no idea what that means, but we know it is the
highest pleasure possible -- a direct connection with G-d Himself. It is so
heavenly and blissful that in our current physical state we cannot possibly
comprehend what it will be like (and that inability certainly bodes well).
This week the Rambam adds that the soul we are speaking of is our inner
soul, the one which is unrelated to our bodies. It is not the life-force
which animates and controls our bodies -- the "soul" we share with the
animal kingdom. It is what we would consider our consciousness. It is the
sum total of all our thoughts and emotions, everything that constitutes who
we are -- save our thoughts and drives which concern our bodies and physical
wants. It is the true "us" -- not the part of our brains which has a
favorite flavor ice cream, controls our breathing, or guides our limbs when
we ride a bike, but who we *really* are within. And after our 120 years on
this earth, that is all that will be left of us.
Likewise, in his Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah (4:8-9, which the
Rambam referenced above), the Rambam states that this is the soul G-d had in
mind when He said to the angels, "Let us make man in our image and in our
likeness" (Genesis 1:26). This is the part of man which resembles G-d and
the spiritual beings. It is the eternal and indestructible part of him, not
composed of any physical elements, and capable of man's loftiest thoughts
Jewish thinkers discuss the components of the human soul at great length.
Their terminology is not always consistent, but they generally break up
man's soul into 3 (and sometimes 4-5) primary parts. Below I will summarize
the writings of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (18th-19th century Lithuanian
Talmudist and philosopher, considered the primary student of the Gaon of
Vilna), in his seminal work _Nefesh HaChaim_ ("the spirit of life").
In Gate I Ch. 15 R. Chaim uses the analogy of a glassblower fashioning a
utensil to illustrate the three segments of man's soul. The glassblower's
basic act is to take the breath within him, blow it through a tube, and
force the air into the glass receptacle he is forming. There are thus three
stages to the blower's breath: (a) when it is within him, (b) while it
travels through the blowing tube, and (c) after it enters the glass utensil.
When the breath is within the glassblower, it is referred to as his
"neshima" (breath). When it travels through the tube, it is "ruach" -- wind.
When it reaches its destination, it comes to rest, and relates to the word
"nefesh" -- soul, which also means to rest or remain stationary.
Likewise, a man's soul consists of three parts. The lowest part is the
breath which has come to rest in the person, known as his nefesh. It is
basically the life-force which man shares with the entire animal kingdom.
The human nefesh is understandably smarter and more capable, but it is a
force not qualitatively different from that of any of G-d's creations. It
controls the body's conscious and subconscious behavior and it responds to
the physical stimuli it receives from the body.
The next stage moving up is man's ruach, usually translated as spirit. It
corresponds to the "wind" which passes through the glassblower's tube. It is
the first part of man's soul which is unique to mankind. As the blowing
tube, it spans the universe, the infinite layers of reality spanning from
the physical realm to the highest heavens. Although it does not dwell within
the body, being that it dwells right above it, it influences our bodies,
sanctifying and connecting our nefesh within to the higher planes of
existence. It serves as a conduit, connecting man's earthiest parts to his
loftiest, bridging the gap between two realities which cannot possibly mix.
The loftiest part of man's soul is his neshama, literally the breath which
has not left G-d Himself (if that could be stated). Man's neshama resides in
the highest heavens; it emanates from a world higher than almost any other
part of creation. It is far too lofty and ethereal to have any direct
connection with the physical world. It is man's pure soul, unsullied by any
connection to physicality. Yet, since man's ruach connects it indirectly to
man's body, one who is particularly worthy will have "sparks" of it emanate
from above and influence him for the better. It is the part of us which
gives us our deepest understanding of G-d's Torah.
Beyond his analogy, the _Nefesh HaChaim_ (Ch. 14) does not discuss in detail
the differing roles of man's ruach and neshama. He does quote the following
general distinction made by the Kabbalists. Man has three levels of behavior
-- his action, his speech, and his thought. His nefesh (lowest) controls his
actions, and is based in his liver. His ruach controls his speech (as speech
consists of man's breath emitted as speech), and resides in his heart (to
the extent it is connected to his body). And man's neshama controls his
thoughts, and -- to the infinitesimal degree it connects to the body --
resides in his brain.
Given the above, several fascinating points become evident. On the one hand,
our souls are enormously sublime. A part of us does not belong in this world
at all -- and in fact, at best remotely interacts with it. It was very
difficult, so to speak, for G-d to create a being which possesses such
diverse parts. Human beings, housing such dichotomy, are a wonder in
themselves. As R. Chaim describes it, we are creatures which span from the
lowest depths to the highest heavens. And that goes a great way towards
explaining man's predilection for both fantastically lofty as well as
unspeakably vulgar behavior. We are great and terrible forces, rolled into
one. It all depends which part of ourselves we identify with.
But it is even more significant. Because of our enormous span, we can exist
on the earth below and our behavior affects the highest heavens -- because
that is just where a part of us dwells. The acts our bodies do on this earth
are not plain physical acts. They have enormous spiritual ramifications.
R. Chaim (Ch. 5) offers another apt illustration. He likens the human soul
to a rope. Imagine a person tugging on an enormously long rope. The effects
of the pressure he exerts will be felt all the way at the other end, no
matter how distant. Likewise, how we act on this earth reverberates upwards.
Perhaps the lowest part of us performed an action. Yet all of us is
affected. And you can be sure that what occurs in the highest heavens will
have tremendous repercussions throughout the entire universe.
On the second hand, however, as the Nefesh HaChaim explains, the parts of
man's soul are not really connected to each other. They exist on different
planes of reality. They interact very slightly but cannot truly mix. R.
Chaim (Ch. 5) likewise quotes a Kabbalistic source which refers to the body
as the "lock" of the soul. It holds down something which really cannot exist
in this world.
And unfortunately, this makes it all too easy for man to ignore his higher
self. We can view ourselves -- with some justification -- as merely homo
sapiens, which -- as R. Abraham Twerski is fond of pointing out -- means
smart apes. The only observable part of us -- if we do not look beyond this
world -- is our animal souls, and more primarily our animal bodies. To sense
anything higher, we must make a conscious effort.
But in truth, this is our mission in life. Perhaps on the most fundamental
level, man's purpose in this world is not simply to behave correctly and
obey G-d's will. It is that he recognize himself for whom he really is. Does
he basically see himself as an animal -- who achieves on the physical and at
most intellectual level? Or is he perceptive enough to see his soul, the
part of himself he cannot touch yet he knows resides just without him? It is
so easy to go through life seeing and reacting only to the immediate, to the
observable world before us. But G-d placed us here to sense what we all know
within -- that in reality we are something so much greater.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org