Anatomy of the Soul – Chapter 1: The Root of the Soul

The soul is man’s spiritual bridge between his experience of the body and the physical world around him and his experience of God.

We learn this from one of the only extant writings of the Ba’al Shem Tov1 himself, where he writes of three levels of consciousness called worlds, souls, and Divinity:

…in every letter there are Worlds, Souls, and Divinity, and they ascend, and connect, and unify with each other; and afterwards the letters connect and unify to become a word; and [then] unify in true unification in Divinity. Include your soul with them in each and every state. And, all the worlds unify as one and ascend to produce an infinitely great joy and pleasure….2

Thus, the consciousness of souls is an intermediate state that links the consciousness of worlds with that of Divinity.

The level of worlds includes both man’s animal soul (נֶפֶשׁ הַבַּהֲמִית , nefesh habahamit) as well as his native, human intellect—called the intellectual soul (נֶפֶשׁ הַשִּׂכְלִית , nefesh hasichlit).3 The level of souls comprises man’s Divine soul (נפש האלקית , nefesh ha’elokit).4,5

The Intellectual Soul

In a seminal article6 on the nature of the intellectual soul, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explains its unique role in bridging the animal and Divine souls:

The Divine soul is mainly intellectual in nature. Even though it also contains emotions, its essence is intellectual…. The animal soul is mainly emotional. Though it also contains intellect, this intellect serves the emotions by understanding what is good for it [the animal soul] and how to attain what it wants, i.e., physical wealth, belongings, honor, prestige, and the like. It also serves to intellectually self-legitimize one’s conduct, not with arguments taken from Torah, but by arguments aimed at illustrating one’s self-merit, etc….

The essence of the animal soul is craving. Because it is from the lower parts of nogah,7 its potency is enclothed in coarseness and therefore all of its desires and will focus on bodily needs….

But, the Supernal intent is that the animal soul be refined and purified, meaning that the power of craving in it be used to serve God—through the learning of Torah, the performance of the commandments, and in prayer, the toil of the heart…. This refinement is achieved by the Divine soul.

[But, because] the Divine soul and the animal soul are opposites, an intermediate between the two is necessary and this intermediary is the intellectual soul. Though the intellectual soul is also from nogah, it is from the higher states of nogah, i.e., the intellect. And even though this intellect understands physical-natural concepts—e.g., knowing the breakdown of every material, all of its parts, their nature, etc., meaning that the knowledge focuses upon the somethingness of the object, not its nothingness—still, it is intellect and it is natural and thus connects the Divine soul with the animal soul.

With the help of the intellectual soul, the Divine soul clarifies and explains Divine concepts to the animal soul…. [By doing so] the intellectual soul severs the animal soul from the evil inclination. Because the intellectual soul is intellect, albeit natural intellect [focusing on nature and the somethingness in nature, as above], its proclivity is to be drawn higher to that which is above it [i.e., the Divine soul]. For this reason, the intellectual soul is a vessel ready to receive insight from the intellect and emotions of the Divine soul and these insights are that which the intellectual soul can then clarify and explain to the animal soul.

The Intellect and Free Will

It follows therefore, that man’s free will depends on his intellectual soul, because truly the only significant choice in life lies between following one’s Divine soul and following the cravings of one’s animal soul. This is indicated in the Torah in the verse that refers to free will: “…I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life, so that you and your children shall live.”8 As the Alter Rebbe9 writes:

As it says, ‘You shall choose life’…. For choice is found in the intellect [the intellectual soul] alone—the choice to selecting the good and despising the evil…. One must condition one’s intellect to habitually choose life.10

Return to the Source

The level of souls allows man to existentially leap from the confines of worlds to the infinity of Divinity. This is so, for the apparently finite powers inherent in the soul reflect, paradoxically, the essentially infinite attributes of the Divine. Ultimately, the power of the soul is to reveal to the consciousness of worlds their intrinsic connection to Divinity—that every aspect and entity of creation reflects its Creator—and how, in essence, all is One.

By doing so, the soul is able to essentially leap backwards and uncover the objective existence of the Creator before He created the universe. Let us explain this point.

One of the deepest teachings of Chasidut12 is that to bridge the gap between the Creator in and of Himself and creation, three quantum leaps are needed between four incommensurable ontological-psychological states.12 The first leap is from the Creator in and of Himself to His Infinititude (specifically to the sefirah of kingdom of His Infinititude). The second leap is from His Infinititude to His effluent nature, the life-force within creation. The third leap is from His effluent nature to the reality of created worlds.

The three dimensions of Divinity, souls, and worlds are actually superseded by the Divine in and of Itself (Divinity, especially in Hebrew, implies a revelation of the Divine, not the Divine in and of Itself). Thus, there are actually four dimensions in this model. With this in mind, we can parallel these four dimensions to the four incommensurable ontological states involved in the creative process:

Creator in and of Himself Divine in and of Itself
His Infinititude Divinity
His effluence Souls
Created worlds Worlds

The corollary of this parallelism is that our own ascent from worlds to souls to Divinity and finally to the Divine Itself, is a reflection of the process of creation in reverse order.

The Magid of Mezritch was known to state that the actions of the tzadikim—those unique souls able to leap higher and higher until they reach the Divine Itself—are greater than the act of creation, because in creation, God transformed nothingness into somethingness. But, by their pursuit of Divinity, the tzadikim transform somethingness back into nothingness.13

Contemplating the Divine

Job, in his suffering, said, “From my flesh, I envision God.”14 This verse15 is interpreted inChasidut to mean that the way to “envision God”16,17 is through the contemplation of one’s own flesh, where “flesh” here represents the fabric of one’s subjective experience.

The traditional approach of Kabbalah has been to interpret the term “flesh” in this verse as suggestive of a literal correspondence between the structure of man’s body and the configuration of Divine forces that sustain Creation.18 In contemplating such a correspondence, one must possess a mature and developed capacity for abstract thought if one is to avoid the risk of falling into dangerous substantiation of the Divine.

In his writings on prayer, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

For this reason the Ba’al Shem Tov declared that Kabbalah texts should not be studied. Because, one who does not know how to abstract the physical language finds himself growing coarser by studying these texts, specifically when poorly imagining Divinity as it is revealed through its particularized aspects. Even though the words of the Arizal are trustworthy and true….19

The Chasidic approach, aimed at avoiding such risk, has been to adopt the structure of the soul—its express functions and properties—as a more appropriate basis for reflecting upon the Divine. Unlike the soul, Kabbalah considers the physical body to be a fallen entity in need of rectification. The background for this identification is the breaking of the vessels—a particular stage of the creative process during which the light (or, energy) emanated by the Creator through Primordial Man shattered the vessels in which it was contained. The broken vessels became affixed to the physical matter in creation and serve as its internal life-force,20 but, because they are broken they must first be rectified in order that the body truly mirror the Divine.

Contrastingly, the soul did not follow the same path of descent into our reality and therefore was not affected like the body by the shattering of the vessels. The soul—i.e., the Divine soul—remains eternally bound to its Divine source and therefore mirrors Divinity in a pure and undistorted manner.21 The primary contribution of Chasidut to the Jewish mystical tradition lies in this emphasis upon the correspondence between man’s subjective experience and the nature of Divine reality. Whereas Kabbalah traditionally employs a highly technical terminology in constructing its anatomy, as it were, of the Divine, Chasidut humanizes the path to enlightenment by utilizing meaningful terms and analogies derived from the store of the soul.22

For this reason, the Chasidic interpretation of the term “flesh” in the above verse assumes it to be symbolic of not only one’s physical state but primarily of one’s spiritual condition. Such an assumption is supported by the verse:23 “And I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and will give them a heart of flesh.” Here, the newly sensitized spirit with which man is to be endowed in Messianic times is referred to as a “heart of flesh.” It comes to replace the “heart of stone” which presently dulls man to God’s presence in the world.24

Thus, by virtue of the innate features—both material and spiritual—that characterize his particular being, man can approach the Divine enigma underlying Creation. Having been created “in the image of God,”25 his own body and soul constitute a supreme analogue for understanding the Divinity upon which his very existence is modeled.

The soul, at its root, is conceived in Chasidic thought as an extension of God’s infinite and transcendent being. As an actual “portion of God from above,”26 the Divine soul of Israel attests to the existence of God by virtue of its very being.27 When enclothed within a physical body, it continues to assert its Divine origin through the infinite variety of ways by which it negotiates the encounter with its corporeal self as well as with outer reality.

Our purpose here is to explore the structure of the soul as manifest through its various properties and functions. The accompanying diagram, which illustrates the individual powers of the soul and the channels by which they achieve expression, is entitled Etz Hacha’im (עֵץ הַחַיִּים , “The Tree of Life”). This name echoes the Kabbalistic conception of man’s spirit as a multi-branched, yet unitary, source of eternal life, primordially rooted in the ground of God’s supernal being.28

Psyche and Soul

Our sages teach us29 that the soul is referred to in the Bible by five names, each of which reflects a different dimension of man’s Divine character.

By five names it [the soul] is called: nefesh(נֶפֶשׁ , psyche), ruach(רוּחַ , spirit), neshamah(נְשָׁמָה , soul), chayah(חַיָּה , living one), andyechidah(יְחִידָה , singular one).30

In Hebrew, the collective noun “soul,” is used to refer to all five levels. Throughout our current study of the soul, whenever we use the word soul, we are actually referring to thenefesh, or the psyche.31 Thus, in the anatomical diagram that we will be studying, the left-most column—“the root of the soul”—actually refers to the root of the psyche.

Because of the holographic (or, inter-inclusive) nature of the soul, all five levels of the collective soul are represented in it. In particular, the yechidah corresponds to pleasure,chayah corresponds to will, neshamah corresponds to the intellect, ru’ach corresponds to the character attributes, and nefesh corresponds to the garments, while the root of thenefesh is found already in the lowest of the character attributes, malchut.

Just as the holographic nature allows us to find all five levels in the nefesh, so it implies that in parallel to our diagram, four other diagrams are possible, each depicting the (similar) anatomy of the other four levels. In each of these diagrams, the left-most column would indicate the root of each of the four other levels of the soul. As our purpose for the moment is to gain the broadest possible understanding of the spiritual dynamic governing our inner lives, we will proceed to examine the anatomy of the soul in terms of the nefesh, or psyche.

1.    The Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760) was the founder of the Jewish renewal movement known as Chasidut. For more, see our upcoming multi-volume series The Light of Israel.

2Keter Shem Tov, 1. See also the introduction to The Hebrew Letters.

3 . The animal soul is discussed in the second half of the first chapter of Tanya. The intellectual soul is mentioned in the foreword to the second part of the Tanya and discussed in greater length in the writings of Reb Hillel of Paritsch.

4. The Divine Soul is discussed in length in the Tanya, beginning with chapter 2.

5. All human beings posses a Divine spark. However, only in the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has this spark been integrated into their psyche and manifests itself as a soul—the Divine soul. For the non-Jew, the Divine spark continuously hovers above the psyche. For more see Kabbalah and Meditation for the Nations, pp. 55ff.

6“Chaveev Adam” in Sefer Hama’amarim 5700, pp. 95ff.

7Nogah is the intermediate klipah, or state of being, that lies between the pure and the impure. See Tanya, chapters 6-8.

8. Deuteronomy 30:19.

9.   The Alter Rebbe (The Elder Rebbe), Shne’ur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) was the founder of the Chabad branch of Chasidut. His two most famous works are the Tanyaand his updated Shulchan Aruch.

10.    Lukutei Torah, Nitzavim 46b-c. For a deeper explanation of this point, seeMa’amarei Admor Ha’emtza’ee Devarim v. 3, pp. 831-5.

11.   Based on a passage in the Zohar’s introduction (I, 15a) that begins with the words “bereish hormanuta demalka.

12.  See also in length in our Hebrew volume, Sod Hashem Liyerei’av, pp. 188ff.

13Magid Devarav Leya’akov, 11.

14. Job 19:26.

15. There are differing opinions among the commentators as to the literal meaning of this verse. Some see it, as we have suggested, as an expression of the positive impact that suffering and travail can have upon one’s spiritual consciousness (see Rashi ad loc.). According to others, such as the Targum, Job’s intention here is to state the opposite: only when his flesh becomes healed, will he once more be able to “envision God”—implying, as Maimonides explicitly points out (Hilchot Deot 4:1), that a healthy body is a prerequisite to pursuing proper knowledge of God.
The apparent conflict between these two interpretations is resolved in Chasidut by suggesting that there exist two modes of enlightenment which derive from differing life-circumstances. The kind of insight which is only achievable by one of sound body is that which relates to God’s “immanence,” i.e. implicit presence within the rectified realm of material Creation. The “transcendent” aspect of His being, emanating from beyond the physical realm altogether, can only be intuited by one who manages to transcend the body through either ordeal and tribulation, as in the case of Job, or—more ideally—through the willing subjugation of his earthly nature to the discipline of Divine service prescribed by the Torah.
Another way that Chasidut approaches our verse from Job is by interpreting the words “from my flesh” as indicative of the need to focus upon one’s mortality in order to achieve the degree of humility or “lowliness” (שפלות ) that merits one the awareness of God’s essential exaltedness. True lowliness, which is initially cultivated through simple fear of God, allows one to see beyond the immediate demands of his earthly existence so as to attain a spiritual elevation that transforms this simple fear into a mature awe of Divine singularity.

16.  In this verse, the Hebrew word for “I shall envision” is אחזה . As opposed to its synonym, “I shall see” (אראה ), which denotes direct, physical vision, this word (אחזה ) implies prophetic, spiritual, and (usually) indirect vision viewed through the lens of a material or spiritual parable. In this case, the parable through which the vision is seen is the human flesh, whether in the sense of body or of soul. Significantly, this word’s grammatical root in Hebrew is חזה , which, as a noun, means “chest.” In Kabbalah, the chest is considered the seat of the spiritual eye of the heart (the heart of flesh, as will be explained).

17. The Hebrew word for “I shall envision” is אחזה and it appears only four times in the Bible. Two of those appearances are found in these verses from Job, which in read: “From my flesh, I envision God; whom I envision myself, my eyes having seen and no others’” (Job 19:26-27).
Contemplating the five words connecting and including these two appearances of the word אחזה
"אחזה א־לוה. אשר אני אחזה"
one immediately notices that all of them begin with the letter alef (א ), the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet whose form symbolizes the Divine image in which God created man. The numerical value of the five final letters ה ה ר י ה is 225, which means that their average value is 45, the gematria of “man“ (אדם ), stressing that man’s flesh is indeed the subject of contemplation that reveals the Divine.
Furthermore, the first, middle, and last words taken together read אחזה… אשר… אחזה , meaning, “I shall envision… that which… I shall envision.” We are immediately struck by the resemblance that this phrase bears with God’s declaration at the burning bush: אהי־ה אשר אהי־ה , meaning, “I shall be that which I shall be” (Exodus 3:14). As the way in which God identified Himself before the people He was about to redeem from Egypt, these three words have come to represent the Divine Name of redemption for all time (see Rashi ad loc.). The idea that they express is similar to that intimated by the corresponding phraseology in Job: that God’s existence is as self-verifying as one’s own.
As if to reinforce the identification between these two Scriptural expressions, we find that the two words אהי־ה (“I shall be”) and אחזה (“I shall envision”) exactly equal each other in gematria—both possessing the numerical value of 21.
One of the Kabbalistic secrets connected with the Name אהי־ה אשר אהי־ה derives from the multiplication of the first אהי־ה by the second: 21 times 21 is equal to 441, the numerical value of the word אמת (“truth”)—once again hinting at the intrinsic validation of God’s being. Similarly the words א־לוה (“God”) and אני (“myself”), which fill out the identified text-string of five words in Job and represent the merging poles of his vision, add up to אמת (441) when each letter is spelled out in full. The Name א־לוה itself is equal to 42, two times 21 (אחזה ) as well.

18. See the introduction to Tikunei Zohar: “Chesed is the right arm and gevurah is the left,” et al.

19Derech Mitzvotecha, Shoresh Mitzvat Hatefilah.

20.  This life-force is identical with the animal soul (and its intellectual aspect—the intellectual soul), which are tied intrinsically into the very essence of the physical body, sustaining it, not only as a living being, but tying its sub-atomic particles together into atoms, its atoms into molecules, its molecules into cells, and so on.

21. Even in a Jew (see note 5, above), at birth, the Divine soul is merely a spark enclothed within the animal soul. Therefore, the Divine soul remains in a state of separation from its Divine source until awakened, matured, and consciously connected to its source through the study of Torah. Unlike the Divine soul, the Torah is a ray (in contrast to a spark) of Divine light that is always connected consciously to its source in the Divine.

22. This added dimension of enlightenment, revealed through the teachings of Chasidut, led Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch to expand upon a Zoharic reference by stating that while the early mystical tradition indeed represents the “soul of the Torah,” Chasidut is “the soul of the soul of the Torah.”

23. Ezekiel 11:19.

24. Highlighted in this verse is the implicit association between the root בשר , (“flesh”) and the word בשורה (“future tiding,” specifically the tiding of redemption).

25. Genesis 9:1.

26. Paraphrased from the verse: “And what might be my portion from God above and my inheritance from the Lord on high?” (Job 31:2). See Tanya, chapter 2. The adjective “actual” (mamash, in Hebrew) was first added by the 17th [???] century Kabbalist, Rabbi Shabtai Sheftel, the author of Shefa Tal, in his volume titled “Nishmat Shabtai.”

27. The root of the soul is identified in Chasidut with emunah—absolute faith in God’s Being. Here, emunah is not meant to indicate, as elaborated later on, a capacity of the soul (see Reshimot #9 of the Lubavitcher Rebbe), but rather an axiomatic state of being that derives from the soul’s grounding in Divine essence.

28. The image of the Etz Hacha’im is primarily employed in Kabbalah as a symbol for the evolution(השתלשלות ) of created realms leading to our physical world. In both cases, the “tree” envisioned has roots in heaven and branches out, as it were, earthward—thus forming an inversion of its analogue in nature.

29. Breisheet Rabbah 14:11.

30. Each of these levels can actually be viewed as corresponding to a different property, or set of properties, appearing in our diagram. The superconscious powers of pleasure and will correspond respectively to those strata of one’s soul most sensitive to Divinity—yechidah (singular one) and chayah (living one). The conscious powers that comprise one’s intellect and primary emotions correspond to the intermediate levels of neshamah(soul) and ru’ach (spirit). Finally, the powers that govern behavior, beginning with themalchut of the innate character attributes and including all of the garments are linked to the dimension of one’s soul furthest removed from Divine awareness—the nefesh(psyche).

31. The two terms generally used to denote “soul” in the Hebrew vernacular are nefeshand neshamah. If one were to distinguish between them, one would say that the more common term—nefesh—describes the soul as enclothed within a body, while the more refined designation of neshamah describes the soul in terms of its pristine roots beyond the physical realm.

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