May 28, 2024
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We all know that in addition to our physical body, we possess a soul—a neshama. But what is a neshama, and is there a concrete way to relate to it?

The ‘Breath’ of God

To begin to understand the neshama, we must look to the Torah’s account of the creation of man. “And God formed man from the dust of the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul” (Bereishit 2:7). After forming man out of the earth, God “breathed” into man a breath of life. Why does the Torah employ the imagery of breath to describe the creation of man?

The process of breathing requires exhaling air from deep within oneself. When the Torah states that God “breathed” into man, it is teaching us that God was taking something from within Himself, as it were, and imparting it to man.

The neshama is a Divine element that resides within mortal man. This Divine element was breathed into man at creation. In fact, the very word neshama (נשמה) comes from the Hebrew word for breath, neshima (נשימה). The Divine neshama grants man a spiritual, transcendent and even God-like quality, illuminating man with Divine light and infusing him with Divine energy.

Blinding Light, Limitless Potential

However, the Divine element granted to man is so spiritual, the Divine energy so powerful, the Divine light so bright, that it is unable to fully reside within man’s physical being. It is simply too overwhelming for a human body to contain. For this reason, much of it remains beyond him, or “above” him, unable to enter.

What this means is that man’s potential for spirituality is far greater than he senses. Like the deceptively small tip of an iceberg that barely protrudes above the ocean surface yet hides a huge mass of ice below, man’s divine neshama barely finds a foothold in man. The lion’s share of its Divine light remains deceptively beyond man’s reach, its power and illumination imperceptible to man himself.

The Flow of Divine Energy

But the Divine element in man is not stagnant. It is possible for a flow of Divine energy to occur between the part of man’s neshama that is outside of him and that which resides within him. For this reason, our Sages describe the neshama as containing three parts.

The first is closely linked with man’s physical self. It is the receptacle in man that can receive the Divine light and store it within man.

Second is the reservoir of Divine energy that is unable to enter man due to man’s inability to handle its intensity.

The final part of this system is the agent that links the first and second parts. It is the channel that connects the vessel within man that can house Divinity with the reservoir of Divinity that is concentrated outside of man. In other words, it is the “pipe” that allows for a flow between the two parts of man’s neshama.

The classic parable for this system is an oil candle. The flame defies physicality and hence represents the reservoir of Divine light that exists outside of man. The wick is a physical object and represents the human body. The wick has the potential to be illuminated by the flame, but can also be consumed due to the intensity of the fire. The oil is the agent that brings the flame to the wick in a fashion that it can reside within the wick—that is, illuminating the wick without consuming it. The candle parable depicts man’s neshama as a mechanism that allows for a flow of Divine light and energy into man. Together, the oil, wick and fire produce a lit candle, representing the successful flow of Divine light into man that illuminates his physical body with spirituality and Divinity. “Man’s neshama is the candle of God, נר ה’ נשמת אדם ” (Mishlei 20:27).

Man’s Mission

Man’s primary mission is to work on his “pipe” and increase the flow of Divine light and energy into him. Through the performance of mitzvot, the study of Torah and self-improvement, man increases his pipe’s capacity to transport Divine energy. Like upgrading an old and rusty electrical system, a life of Torah upgrades man’s spiritual system and facilitates an increased flow of spirituality and Divinity into man. Conversely, sin and negative character traits act like plaque in an artery and inhibit the flow of Divine light into man.

As man betters himself and increases the flow of Divine energy into himself, he is illuminated with increased Godliness and fulfills, in the most direct way, the dictate of the Torah to liken oneself to God. As we move forward from Chag Ha-Shavuot and rededicate ourselves to Torah and mitzvot, let us remember that each good deed performed, and each word of Torah studied, infuses us with increased spirituality and Divine light. As we increase the flow of Godliness into ourselves, we also elevate the world at large and fulfill our role of being a true “light unto the nations.”

By Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz

 Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Leibowitz, a Teaneck native, is a ra”m at Yeshivat Sha’alvim in Israel. His recently released book, “The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul,” is available in local bookstores and online.

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