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The Soul #2 - What Do Souls Look Like?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Understanding the five levels of soul and how they relate to man and creation.

The human soul is a complex entity divided into several major parts. We shall devote this second article on the soul to the study of its composition and the way we interrelate with its various parts.

To comprehend the structure of the soul, we need to begin by describing how reality itself is structured.

We live in a created universe. This means that God created the universe out of nothing. When God initiated the creation process, there was no space or time, no matter or energy [other than God's own, needless to say]. He could not fashion the universe out of pre-existing materials.

The universe is made of pure Divine energy.

It follows that the universe is actually made of pure Divine energy, the only 'substance' that was available for God to use. This is an important point to establish and one whose implications are far from obvious at first glance.

Inertia in a created universe

When I look at a tree standing in my front yard and someone asks me, "Do you expect that tree to be there tomorrow?" I will respond in the affirmative. The tree has substance and therefore has inertia. Unless someone applies a lot of force, the tree will remain where it is indefinitely simply because it is there now.

Upon further reflection, this perception turns out to be an illusion. In a created universe, the tree has no substantial reality and is actually made of pure Divine Energy. The tree I see in my yard is only there because God wills it into existence. It follows that He must continually keep willing the tree to exist in order for it to remain there. Inertia is a property of things, but there is no inertia of will.

Why is the recognition of this facet of reality an important stepping-stone to reaching a proper understanding of the soul? Let us ask a few more questions to clarify the problem. If everything in the world is really Divine Energy doesn't this mean that we are all God? What is more, as everything is made of the same substance, how is it that things are so varied and complex? Finally, as Divine energy is clearly spiritual, how can a part of reality be physical?

The answer is provided by Kabalistic sources. Differences in levels of reality are attributable to two factors: curtains that obscure the Divine origins of being and distance from the ultimate source. Because the soul is a part of reality, it is affected by these factors along with the rest of creation.

The level of Azilut

As we begin moving away from the Source, the first level of reality that is accessible to us is called Azilut by Kabbalists. The word means "emanation" in English. This first level of accessible reality is termed an emanation to emphasize the idea that it is impossible to provide any positive description of God's essence even in Kabbalistic terms. Even the level of Azilut, the very highest level of reality about which Kabbala can give us some idea, is merely an emanation in terms of God as He is to Himself.

To the artist, the painting is already a separate reality.

In Azilut, the creation has not yet separated from God, but God has already organized the Divine energy that He intends to invest in creation within His own being, as it were. We can understand this phase of reality by picturing a great painter inspired by a new idea for a masterpiece. As far as the rest of the world is concerned the painting in the artist's mind does not yet exist. No one can see it or access it. It is part of the artist's own inner reality.

But to the artist himself the painting is already a separate reality. He sees it in his mind's eye clearly and already relates to it as something separate from himself, a vision that he will pour out his artistic talent and energy to actualize. God organizes the masterpiece of creation in His own being in preparation of launching the enterprise of actualizing it.

Man is present at the highest level

This energy of creation is organized in two packets in Azilut; there is the Divine energy that will be poured into the creation of man, and there is the energy that will shape the remainder of the universe. There is another essential stepping stone to comprehending the soul in the statement just made. What makes us think that man already makes his appearance as a separate entity at this earliest part of creation? Doesn't the Torah describe man as being the very last creature to appear in God's pantheon?

Appearances can be deceiving. The Torah teaches that the purpose of the entire universe is to provide a living-working space for man. It is inconceivable to set aside the Divine energy for the creation of anything before all the energy required to create man is fully organized. Until there is a working conception of what humanity will look like, it is impossible to plan to provide for man's needs.

Man's late appearance is due to the fact that he is inserted into the world that was fashioned around his needs only when everything is laid out and ready. But it is clear that man already existed in conception when the world was fashioned, otherwise there was no way to know what was needed in creation.

On this level of Azilut man is known as Knesset Yisroel, literally the Congregation of Israel. He exists in God's mind just as a congregation would, a composite individual who contains in his being the spiritual potential of all humanity through the end of time rolled into a single package.

This man of Azilut already has 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual connectors. He is the ultimate distillation of humanity and he therefore has the spiritual equivalent of human shape and form.

The Level of Briah

In the next step of the unfolding creation, the Divine energy separates out of/from God by means of the descent of the first obscuring curtain. The world on the other side of this curtain is known as the world of Briah -- "creation" in English. In spiritual matters Hebrew is very precise; Briah signifies the creation of something out of nothing [known in the language of theology as creation ex nihilo]. The separation of Briah is described in Genesis as coming about through the medium of speech: God said, 'Let there be...' ten times in the actualization of the world of Briah.

Briah signifies the creation of something out of nothing.

To bring this idea down to earth let us compare/contrast the way we communicate with our own hand and the way we would communicate with the hand of a robot under our absolute control.

When we raise our own hand, there is no need for speech. Scientifically we know that a signal is being sent by the brain to the muscles to accomplish the desired action, and there actually is a form of communication involved, but there is no need for anything we would characterize as speech. Things are very different when it comes to raising the robot's hand. The robot is forced to do whatever we command by definition, but he is unable to comply before he is told. I must use speech or some equivalent form of communication to get my robot to raise his hand.

Man and the world of Briah

The separation of Divine energy from its origins is described as speech. The curtain that brings about this first level of separation is known as Briah. In the world of Briah man is called a Neshama, Soul. He has already crystallized out of the composite man of Knesset Yisroel into individual form, indeed, he is even male and female, but on this level of Briah, man is male and female as a single entity; his male and female parts have not coalesced into separately identifiable elements. So God created (Vayivrah-from the word barah) Man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1,27)

From the level of Briah and outward man exists as an individual. As this level is just across the curtain from Azilut, the human being of Briah is aware of himself/herself as just having separated from Knesset Yisroel, from the collective human being whose energy of being was still a part of God. Man as Neshama is totally conscious of his Divine origins and cannot imagine himself either as existing without God, nor as existing separately from his male/female element. At this level man has no evil inclination or aspect and he has no freedom of choice.

Yezirah and its human inhabitant

As the Divine energy continues to flow outward from the source, a second curtain descends. Reality on the outer side of this second curtain is known as the world of Yezirah, "creative thought" in English, and man exists in this world as a Ruach, a pure spirit. It is at this level of Yezirah that he is separated into separate sexes and he makes contact with the world of his body, although the body itself does not exist in Yezirah and is located on the other side of the next curtain, where the outward flow of divine energy takes on material shape. And YHVH God, formed (Vayizer-from the word Yezirah) the man of dust from the ground, and he blew into his nostrils the soul (Nishmat-from the word Neshama) of life, and man became a living being. (Genesis 2,7) In the succeeding verses the separation of Eve from Adam is described.

The world of Yezirah is the world of thought. All human beings have the capacity to think. Thought introduces a novel aspect of reality because thinking is already a matter of choice. Shakespeare had the capacity to think and create his wonderful plays through his thoughts. Presumably he could have written more of them had he chosen to do so. He could also have chosen not to write any at all. Thoughts are a part of nature but are not part of the world of cause and effect. There is always a choice whether to think or not. There is a further choice whether to communicate one's thoughts. We shall examine this in greater detail when we get down to the next level of reality, but we can already state that free choice begins in Yezirah.

Assiyah-our own world and our familiar selves

As the divine energy continues its flow outward from the source a final curtain descends. The world on the other side of this curtain is known as the world of Assiyah, meaning "completed action"; the world which we are actually conscious of inhabiting. In this world man is a Nefesh, a life force or energizing spirit, and he also has a body.

There can be no direct union between body and spirit.

It is here that things begin to get rather more complex. The Nefesh that is an appendage of the Ruach is as spiritual as the rest of the human soul from which it stems. It is the outermost part of man's Neshama after all. Man's body on the other hand is purely material and non-spiritual. There can be no direct union between body and spirit. Entities that are diametric opposites are unable to stick to each other on a permanent bases. The union of body and pure spirit is analogous to a union between fire and water.

The shotgun marriage between two opposites

To solve this problem, man was given a second Nefesh as well to mediate between his body and the Nefesh that is the outer aspect of his Neshama. This second Nefesh is called the Nefesh Habahamith or the animate nefesh; it is what we know as the life force.

It is this animate Nefesh that is described in the Torah as being attached to the blood. Any man of the House of Israel and of the proselyte who dwells among them who will consume any blood-I shall concentrate My attention upon the soul (Nefesh) consuming the blood, and I will cut it off from its people. For the soul (Nefesh) of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the Altar to provide atonement for your souls(Nefashot-Nefesh in the plural) for it is the blood that atones for the soul (Nefesh) (Vayikra 17, 10-11)

The part of the Nefesh that is attached to the Ruach is called the Nefesh Elokhit (The Divine or Godly Nefesh). This Nefesh Elokhit is wrapped into the Nefesh Habehamith which is the life force that powers the body. It is through the mediation of the envelope of the Nefesh habehamith that the Nefesh Elokhit attaches itself to the body.

Man is in a state of ceaseless existential conflict.

This means that man is in a state of ceaseless existential conflict in the world of Assiyah. There are two Nefashot inhabiting his body in this world and they are both intelligent. The Nefesh Habehamith is still somewhat spiritual otherwise it could never mediate between the body and the Nefesh Elokhit. At the same time, as the Nefesh Habehamith is directly attached to the physical world of the body and is the life force that energizes that body, it is drawn to do a superior job and provide the body with the ultimate sensations of physical pleasure which bequeath the body with its sense of being alive. The Nefesh Elokhit which is enveloped in this Nefesh Habahamith but is purely spiritual and connected to the Ruach in Yezirah, and through the Ruach to the Neshama and above is always attempting to pull the entire organism of man away from the body towards the Neshama.

This describes, at least to some degree, what our souls look like, and explains the mechanism of their attachment to our bodies. Drawing an analogy from the world of physics the information in this essay could be described as soul mechanics. The more fascinating aspect of the soul concerns dynamics just as the dynamics of physics is the more fascinating part of physical reality. Mechanics describes structure. Dynamics is a study of the forces and possibilities generated by the structure. In the next few essays, we will go into the implications of these mechanics and attempt to explain how we function dynamically as souls.

See: The Soul - Part 1 The Soul - Who Needs it?


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