The Body and the Self

June 24, 2009

11 min read


Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

And the time drew nearer that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph and said to him, "If now I have found grace in your sight, put, I beg you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me: Bury me not, I beg you, in Egypt. I will lie with my fathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying place." And he (Joseph) said, "I will do as you have said." And he (Jacob) said, "Swear to me." And he swore to him. (Genesis 47:29-31)

The commentators explain that Jacob made this request to Joseph because he was the only one among his children who had the power necessary to carry it out. He foresaw that the Egyptians would resist allowing him to be buried elsewhere, and it would need the offices of a very powerful person like Joseph to ensure compliance with Jacob's desire to be buried in Israel in the Cave of the Machpelah.

Jacob wanted to provide Joseph with a powerful argument with which to confront Pharaoh.

This is also the reason Jacob made Joseph take an oath to comply with his wish. It is not that he didn't trust him. He wanted to provide Joseph with a powerful argument with which to confront Pharaoh. He could sincerely tell Pharaoh that he was bound by his sacred oath to carry out Jacob's final request. In the face of the oath Pharaoh could not withhold permission. Indeed we find that Pharaoh specifically refers to the oath:

And Pharaoh said, "Go up and bury your father as he made you swear to do." (Genesis 50:6)


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At the end of this Torah portion, we find Joseph making a similar request:

Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die, but God will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land, to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." Then Joseph adjured the children of Israel saying, "When God will indeed remember you, then you must bring my bones up out of here." (Genesis 50:24-25)

Tradition teaches us that all the sons of Jacob made this request to the Jewish people, and in fact, when the Jewish people left Egypt, they took all the bones and reburied them in Israel. But the mission of transporting Joseph's bones was so especially important, that this duty fell to Moses himself.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had firmly adjured the children of Israel saying, "God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you." (Exodus 13:19)

How can the modern mind relate to attaching so much importance to what happens to a person's body or skeleton after he dies? What difference does it make where one's bones are buried or even if they are buried at all? Every so often one reads in the newspapers about "religious fanatics" that are obstructing the work of serious archeologists exploring ancient burial sites on the grounds of sanctity. Is this truly just empty fanaticism?


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To understand the idea behind the importance of the disposal of bodies we have to familiarize ourselves with the Torah concept of kavod or "respect."

Rabbi Zracha Halevi, one of the greatest medieval commentators on the Talmud says the following in his introduction:

The living human soul is referred to many times in the Holy Scriptures as kavod ... [because] it is through the soul that the Creator imbued man with His own splendor, and it is this soul that is the essence of man, always striving toward its own origin...

To understand this notion of equating the soul with kavod, we must get a better sense of how man shows respect for God on earth and how he earns his reward for doing so.

Jewish tradition teaches that man was placed on earth and given free will so that he can earn his reward. Generally speaking, rewards are related to productivity. People are rewarded for producing something beneficial that the world requires. Thus policemen provide security, bus drivers supply transportation, doctors heal the sick, lawyers arrange matters in a way that will avoid disputes and so on. Their rewards are commensurate with importance assigned to the benefit of their work.

If so, man must be in a position to supply God with something that is very necessary and beneficial to God. In return for the service man performs, God offers the reward of eternal life. Such a great reward must involve the production of some great benefit. What is this benefit?

The answer is kavod. Man produces recognition of God. Recognition is respect. Respect requires appreciation and notice.


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If someone threatens me with a gun to my head, I will honor his wishes with great diligence, but there is no kavod in such compliance. It is not that I feel any respect for him, I am simply terrified of his gun.

But if I follow what the wise man tells me to do, it is out of a feeling of respect. He has no power over me at all. I recognize the value of his advice and choose to follow it because I wish to, not because I am forced. The strength of this wish is the measure of my respect.

The strength of my wish to follow wisdom is the measure of my respect.

God gave us free will. This free will is necessarily accompanied by a feeling of independence. If we were forced to recognize our dependence on God's good will by the realities of the world around us -- like we are forced to recognize our dependence on sunlight or rainfall -- our compliance to His dictates would not be a symbol of our respect -- we'd be responding to the gun to our heads.

Only because it takes intelligence and choice to recognize our connection with God and our dependence on Him, does our compliance to the dictates of His Torah become an indication of our respect for Him. In short, our observance of God's Torah of our own free will is the source of the kavod God has in the world.

The product of our Divine service -- that only we can produce for we are the only creatures in the universe who have free will -- is kavod. Without us this resource simply does not exist. Not even an omnipotent God could create it without the aid of a creature who has free will.


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We can only appreciate the value of kavod in the scheme of things if we bear in mind that the purpose of God's interaction with human beings is the establishment of a relationship that is warm and personal to say the least. The ultimate aim of all our Divine service is to be able to bond with G-d for eternity, the very definition of olam haba, "the world to come."

The establishment of this type of relationship is quite complex for the truth is that God really is holding a gun to our heads! We really are dependant on Divine energy for every breath that we draw and every step that we take. This makes the development of any relationship with God extremely difficult. You cannot relate to the person who is holding a gun to your head except with abject terror. G-d is thus forced to conceal the weapon he is holding to our heads, and wait patiently while we figure out with our own intelligence and through our free will that we are really His full dependents.

When we come to this realization of our dependency on God on our own, it hits us together with the knowledge that God concealed the true state of affairs because He really does not want to use His weapons and is interested in establishing relationships. What would otherwise be terror becomes transformed into kavod, which makes kavod a very valuable resource indeed.


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If we examine the human side of this concept of kavod, it is easy to realize that it is precisely because of the concept of kavod that we do not relate to Jacob's concern over the disposal of his remains. Respect and recognition are directly related to uniqueness, and there is nothing unique about our bodies except for surface appearance. Our need to eat is the same as everyone else's, our desire to procreate is identical to that of every other human being's and so forth.

Our attitude toward our bodies it is permeated by terror, because we cannot live without our bodies.

Our attitude to our bodies does not fall under the heading of respect. Our great concern for their integrity and welfare can more appropriately to be characterized as terror, because we cannot live without our bodies. This is why we stand guard over our bodies with great diligence. This concern is once again akin to the terror of the person with the gun to your head and not kavod. As our bodies are pretty much standard issue except in regard to their surface appearance, which totally disappears through the decomposition caused by death, we cannot relate to the idea of being concerned about them after they are no longer necessary for life.

If we believe that something remains of us after we die, it is because, in our opinion, whatever remains has the property of uniqueness.

But what if our bodies were also an expression of our uniqueness? What if they were imbued with the same uniqueness as our minds and personalities? If we believed that, then we would extend our idea of survival after death to embrace our bodies as well.

But can our bodies truly be an adjunct of our characters?

The answer is yes, as we are about to see from this exchange between Jacob and Joseph.


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Then Israel saw Joseph's sons and he said, "Who are these?" And Joseph said to his father, "They are my sons whom God has given me here." He said, "Bring them to me please, and I will bless them." (Genesis 48:8-9).

The commentators are disturbed by this conversation. Jacob had lived in Egypt for seventeen years by this time. He had seen Joseph's children many times. Indeed, he had just finished assigning them equal status with Reuben and Shimon. How can we understand his question, "Who are these?"

Rashi explains in the name of the Midrash that when Jacob came to bless Ephraim and Menashe, he felt the Divine Presence depart from him because he saw that descendants of Joseph's sons would be responsible for corrupting the Jewish people. Jacob's query to Joseph is to be understood as: "Where did these evil buds originate? When I look inside myself, I find no such flaw, so they must originate in you, Joseph. How could this have come about?"

Joseph answers:

Joseph said to his father, "These are my sons whom God (Elohim) has given me in this place." (Genesis 48:9)

God's name Elohim, with which He created the world, is a composite of mi eleh -- which in Hebrew literally means "Who are these?" When there is a synthesis between the two elements of the holy name Elohim the blessing of God falls on those who forge the synthesis. When these two elements of the holy name are separated, the blessings of Elohim are absent.

Because God chose to conceal His presence in the universe for the reasons explained above, the connection between heaven and earth can only be formed in the mind of a person. The universe as it first appears to the human eye, is composed entirely of things. Even living beings are things. Physical life is a function of purely physical and chemical processes after all. The soul, or mind or character sit among these things which define physical existence.

The dichotomy of soul and body is symbolized by the separation of these two words, "who" and "these."

This dichotomy of soul and body is symbolized by the separation of these two words, mi, "who," and eleh, "these."

According to the common perception described above, these two concepts are entirely separate. "Who" represents the mind, the personality, the character, the unique and immortal part of man, whereas "these" represent the body, the impersonal machine whose job is to feed, to serve as a tool for action, to procreate. Respect, or kavod, attaches to the "who," and not to "these."

But this is an incomplete vision. Elohim cannot attach to a being in which these two ideas are separate. Elohim, can only attach where there is a synthesis between these two ideas. The kavod that is the product of human observance of the Torah's commandments is the synthesis of these two ideas.

The object of all the commandments is to direct all the activities of the body to become expressions of God's kavod unique to each individual. All of us are placed in unique circumstances and given unique abilities, so that the synthesis we create between mi and eleh, representing our own vision of Elohim, is unique to ourselves.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto explains in his work "Derech Hashem," that the Torah description of the human being as a marriage between a body and a soul is a description that stands for all eternity. The world of souls came into being only as a result of Adam's sin. Because Adam fell and death had to be introduced into the world, the soul has to have a place to sit out and await the resurrection. But the world to come only happens for those who can be reunited with their bodies.

The body of the next world will be significantly different than the one we wear in this one world.

The body of the next world will be significantly different than the one we wear in this one world. As long as we are alive here, even if we create no synthesis between mi and eleh, the body and the soul, we can still survive, because this world is not a world of kavod. But the next world is a world of pure kavod. There, only bodies that have character and personalities and therefore deserve kavod can be resurrected.


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Let us attempt to bring this down to earth by expanding the story of Joseph's bones referred to earlier.

Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work -- no man of the household staff being there in the house -- that she caught hold of him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand, and he fled, and went outside. (Genesis, 39:11-12)

... the sea parted its waters in the merit of Joseph's bones, as it is written, The sea saw and ran (Psalms 114). What did the sea see? It saw the bones of Joseph, just as he fled, the sea fled. (Genesis Raba 87:8 among many other places)

The commentators explain:

When Joseph entered the house to do his work he was ready to surrender to the lure of Potiphar's wife. His resistance to the temptation she represented was washed away by a tidal wave of desire. She had really caught hold of him by his garment as a person's true garment is his body. When mi and eleh are separate and the soul sits in the physical machine like some foreign element, the body could truly be described as a garment. Joseph left her holding this garment and tore himself away.

He said to himself, "This tidal wave of desire that I cannot resist does not come from within myself. It originates in my garment. If I give in to it, I am associating myself forever with the impersonal, the standard and the not unique. I have to tear myself away from this garment. I have to run away as hard as I can from the notion that it represents me in any way." So he fled outside.

This flight outside had the effect of forcing the body into conforming to the dictates of the soul. The tidal wave of desire, totally impersonal and indifferent to the moral appearance of any situation, becomes sensitive to the nuances of character.

Thus when the sea saw the bones of Joseph, it parted. Just as the tidal wave of the body parts before the soul and synthesizes with it to form the name Elohim, so does the tidal wave of the sea.

How does this happen?

When the disparate elements of the holy name Elohim are fused into one, the physical world becomes imbued with the kavod of God. The tidal wave of physicality from which Joseph tore himself, when it was ready to drown his soul, is now itself forced to retreat before Joseph's bones, for his bones have become a repository of God's kavod.

The body in which mi and eleh have been successfully fused is a body that will live forever. It deserves to be cherished in the same manner as the soul. But this fusion is one that each of us has to create on our own.

Joseph told Jacob, "Elohim gave me these children Ephraim and Menashe here in Egypt. In them the two elements of mi and eleh of body and soul are perfectly fused. But the eleh element contained in them comes from Egyptian soil. In a descendant who does not fuse the two elements of his being properly, the tidal wave of physicality will become unleashed with the full force of a Potiphar's wife."

What has the potential for the greatest revelation of kavod can be turned into its very opposite and become the source of idolatry, the very antithesis of God's kavod.

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