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Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom
Body and Soul
“See, I have put before you today blessing and curse. Blessing, if you will listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d which I command you today. And curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d and you stray from the path which I command you today, to follow after other gods that you did not know” (Devarim 11:26-28). These verses teach us about the principle of man’s G-d-given freedom of choice, or Free Will (behirah hofshit). Why does the Torah specifically say “I (Anochi) have put before you blessing and curse,” emphasizing that it is Hashem Himself Who gives us this choice? It could have simply said, “You have before you blessing and curse.” To answer this question, we must understand something about the workings of Free Will. Man constantly has the option of choosing between good and evil, right and wrong. If he chooses good, he will be rewarded in this world and in the World to Come. If he willfully chooses evil, G-d forbid, he will suffer in both worlds. Hashem created man as a combination of body and soul. The body was created from “the dust of the earth” (Bereshit 2:7). Its interests are strongly material, and it craves comfort and pleasure. In contrast, the soul is Helek Eloka Mimaal – a G-dly entity which descends from the Higher Worlds. Because the soul’s one desire
is to cleave to the Creator (devekut),1 it naturally seeks out the spiritual means to this goal – Torah and mitzvot. In order that the choice between material desires and spiritual striving be equally balanced, Hashem gave man both an evil inclination and a good inclination. Throughout our lives, we are pulled in opposite directions by these two forces. What is the deciding factor in man’s ongoing battle between good and evil? Rabbi Hayyim Vital writes that man’s true essence is his soul, while the body is only an external garment (levush) covering the soul (Shaare Kedushah, Part 1, Shaar Alef). However, our Sages teach that when reward and punishment are dispensed after death, and then again in the World to Come, the body and soul are united into one complete entity.2 The Roman Emperor Antoninus once suggested to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (also known as Rebbe) that the body and soul can exempt themselves from Divine punishment by the simple expedient of shifting the blame to one another. When called to task for its sins, the body can say, “Any sins I may have done are strictly the soul’s fault. Since the day it left me, I can’t do a thing. I’m just a helpless lump in a grave.” The soul can also deny responsibility, pointing out that without the body, it is pure disembodied spirituality, incapable of sin. Rebbe answered with a parable. A mortal king had a lovely orchard filled with beautiful trees. The orchard’s very magnificence presented him with a problem. He needed guards, but whom could he trust to resist the luscious fruits? Rather than protect the orchard, they would strip it bare. He found the perfect answer: he hired two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. The lame man would never be able to climb the trees to pick the fruits, and the blind man could not even see the fruit at all. His confidence was misplaced. The lame guard immediately suggested to his blind fellow that they sample some fruit. The blind man had only to hoist the lame man up on his back, and he would take care of everything. Their handicaps had placed them above suspicion, the lame guard said, and no one would ever be the wiser. When the king discovered the havoc wreaked on his splendid orchard despite his precautions, he was furious. The guards protested their innocence, pointing out that they were obviously unable to steal fruit. The king was shrewd enough to understand what had happened, and he had the lame man placed on the blind
See Parashah Insights on Va’et’hanan. During the time the soul is in Gan Eden or gehinom it is separate from the body. 2
man’s back. “That’s how you did it,” he said, “and that’s how you’ll be punished.” They had sinned together as one, so he punished them together as one. The body and the soul are partners. True, one cannot function without the other, but together they are equally responsible for their shared activities. Therefore, it is only just for Hashem to reunite them and judge them as the single unit they were, because that is how they carried out their deeds (Sanhedrin 91a). This is true of punishment and reward alike. Immediately after burial, the soul reenters the body, and demons administer the beating known as hibbut hakever (Shaar Hagilgulim, Chapter 22). In the World to Come, after the Resurrection of the Dead, the soul will once again be clothed in the same body. The soul will refine the body so that together, they can bask in the glow of the Divine Presence, enjoying their joint reward for all eternity (Derech Hashem, Part 1, Chapter 3). Rabbi Hayyim Vital explains that the soul is man’s essence and his dominant element. It has the power to choose whether to follow the good inclination or the evil inclination. The soul, which is spiritual, naturally tends more to the good inclination, while the body, which is physical, is strongly drawn to the evil inclination. This, he writes, is the ongoing battle between the man’s physical body and spiritual soul; each is pulled in a different direction. As much as the soul craves mitzvot, it is unable to fulfill them in the physical world, as the soul is entirely spiritual. It can only act through the body – but the body is much more inclined to physical pleasure than to spiritual pursuits like mitzvot. The soul, then, must work hard to subdue the evil inclination so that the body will do mitzvot. After death, the body and soul are only punished when they are reunited as they were in this world (Shaare Kedushah Part 3, Shaar Bet). As we see, body and soul, both powerful combatants, are engaged in a constant tug-of-war. The battle is waged in the arena of the brain and the heart. The brain is the source of man’s intellect, and the heart is the source of his emotion. If we understand G-d’s Will intellectually, and our heart is moved emotionally to obey that Will, then brain and heart together have made the decision to choose good. Neither intellect nor emotion on their own is enough. Our intellect may have a solid logical understanding of right and wrong. But if our emotions refuse to jostle us out of comfortably familiar habits, intellectual knowledge will not be transformed into positive action.
The choice between good and bad is not really equally balanced, both because man is very much in the power of his lifelong companion, the evil inclination, and
also because by nature, he is powerfully drawn to physicality and materialism. To counteract this, man is granted special Divine assistance in overcoming his evil inclination. If he is motivated by even the most minimal desire to do good, he will be aided in his efforts to resist the blandishments of the evil inclination and choose good. This principle is discussed in many of our Sages’ teachings. “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, man’s evil inclination overpowers him every day and wants to kill him, as it says (Tehillim 37:32-33), ‘The wicked one watches for the righteous man and wants to kill him.’ And if not for the Holy One, blessed be He, Who helps him, he would not be able to overcome it, as it says, ‘Hashem will not abandon him to his hand, and let him be condemned when he is judged’ (Sukkah 52b). The concept of Hashem’s constant assistance in our battle against the evil inclination is highlighted by King David’s words in Tehillim (62:13): “Yours is kindness, Hashem, for You reward man in accordance with his deeds.” Hesed is lovingkindness, a purely altruistic act of generosity on the part of the giver. Why is rewarding man “in accordance with his deeds” defined as hesed? Isn’t that his basic wage, and not an extra bonus? The reward granted for mitzvot is in fact hesed, because it is given to us in full, despite the fact that most of the credit is really due to our senior Partner. On our own, we are incapable of fending off the evil inclination. It is only because Hashem helps us withstand its wiles that we are able to fulfill any mitzvot at all. And yet, when the time for payment comes, Hashem does not take His Own role into account. He treats us with bountiful hesed, and rewards us “in accordance with our deeds,” as if they were truly ours alone. The Sages also tell us that “One who seeks to defile himself, an opening is made for him. One who comes to purify himself is granted assistance” (Shabbat 104a), and that “The Holy One, blessed be He, says to Israel, My children, open for Me an opening of repentance as small as the head of a needle, and I will open for you an opening large enough for wagons to enter” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3). As we see, an initial good impulse – “an opening like a needle’s head” – reaps disproportionate dividends. What exactly must this “opening” be in order to qualify for such lavish Divine assistance? Our great masters of ethical teachings (baale hamussar) explain that an opening the size of a needle’s head may be tiny, but it exists forever, like a hole bored in steel. So too our service of G-d: even if it starts small, it should be backed by ironclad determination. From our Sages’ words, it also appears that just a mere
thought – the simple wish to purify ourselves, even if not yet accompanied by deed – suffices to grant us immediate Divine assistance. The evil inclination constantly scatters trials and temptations in our path, and is eager to see us stumble. But the Al-mighty Himself wants us to triumph over these trials, and will help us if only we try to do good. With Him behind us, how can we say that we are helpless in the face of the onslaught? If we make that first minute, pinsized opening, He will help us through. It would be foolish to say that He sets us up to fail. We may compare this to a father who buys his child a treat for Shabbat. If the child misbehaves, his father will punish him by withholding the treat. The child, in his anger, says that the father just bought the treat for himself anyway. This is nonsense; the father doesn’t need his son’s sweets. The only reason he bought them to begin with was for the pleasure of giving them to his son. This is what the Torah tells us: “See, I have put before you today blessing and curse.” Hashem created man in this world because He desires to reward him with absolute good, and gave him Free Will as the means of earning that reward. Obviously, since He wants us to choose what is right, He gives us the ability to contend with life’s trials and make the right choices. What is more, He even helps us along, leading us to choose correctly and making us worthy of His reward; that is all He wants. This is why the Torah specifically says, “I have put before you today blessing and curse.” Since it is Hashem Himself Who tries us, it is surely His ultimate intention that we succeed. He is the “father” who buys sweets for his son strictly because he wants the child to have them. He created the concept of reward for us, purely because He wants to give and He wants us to receive. It is an unfortunate fact that man’s physical body is attracted to evil and to worldly desires. Our Sages advise us how to deal with this tendency (Berachot 5a): “Rabbi Levi bar Hama said, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, a person should always encourage his good inclination to go forth and do battle with his evil inclination, as it says, ‘go out to battle with the evil inclination, and do not sin’” (Tehillim 4:5). In other words, it is up to us to take the initiative in making war against our evil inclination. If we do so, we will prevail. We find this concept in the verse, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem your G-d will give your enemy into your hand and you capture him” (Devarim 21:10). When we “go out to war,” taking the offensive in the battle with the evil inclination, surely the worst of all enemies, we will merit Hashem’s help, and He will give him over into our hand (Likute Torah by the Arizal, Parashat Ki Tetze, Devarim 21:14 and the Ohr HaHayyim’s Commentary on 21:10).
Hashem is the Source of all good, and He created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon man. Because He is goodness in its essence, He wants the reward that He gives us to be complete, perfect good. In order for our enjoyment of His vast bounty to be absolute, we must work for it, rather than receiving it as an incidental, unearned handout. Bottom line, any handout is accompanied by an uneasy sense of shame, which limits our capacity to receive. Hard-won accomplishments, on the other hand, are a source of pride and satisfaction, which enable us to receive in full. In order to grant us the utmost pleasure from our reward, Hashem has structured the means for us to earn it. Through Torah and mitzvot, we perfect ourselves spiritually so that we can cleave to Him. When we attain our maximum capacity for spiritual perfection, Hashem can then reward us richly for our efforts, realizing His desire to give to us in full. If we do not reach this level of perfection, it is as if there is a lack in His giving, so to speak (Derech Hashem, Part 1, Chapter 2). Hashem wants every soul to be able to receive this maximum good. If a given soul does not complete its rectification in one lifetime, it is sent to this world time and time again, until it finally attains full perfection, and Hashem can grant it completely perfect reward. The Arizal teaches that even in the World to Come, the righteous continue to ascend spiritually, going from level to level and reaching greater heights of devekut in increasingly higher worlds. It is His Will that all the souls of Israel should reach the loftiest possible level of spiritual perfection, for this is the greatest good He can bestow. Ultimately, all souls will reach the highest level of devekut (see Shaar HaGilgulim, Introduction 22, and Etz Hayyim, Shaar 22, Chapter 2). How can this be? In this world, everyone serves Hashem at his own individual level – some work hard all their lives to reach a very high standard of service of Hashem, while others do next to nothing. How can it be that they all eventually end up at equal levels in the World to Come? Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin answers this question. He cites our Sages’ description of the intense devekut of the righteous in the World to Come: “In the future, Hashem will make a dance for the righteous, and He sits among them in Gan Eden (Paradise). Each one of them will point with his finger, as is written, (Yeshayahu 25:9), ‘And he will say on that day, here is our G-d to whom we hoped and He saved us. This is Hashem to Whom we hoped, we will rejoice and be happy with His salvation’” (Taanit 31b). In the World to Come, the tzaddikim will dance in a great circle with Hashem at its center. Each tzaddik will literally point to Hashem in
the center, saying, “This, the One at Whom we are pointing, He is the G-d in Whom we trusted, and now we rejoice in His salvation.” Reb Tzadok writes that the radius of a circle, the distance from its center to any given point on the circumference, is equal everywhere on the circle. In terms of quantity – their distance from Hashem – all the dancers in the circle are indeed equal. But the quality of their view, the clarity of their appreciation of the Revelation of the Al-mighty, will differ greatly. This qualitative difference in perception of the Divine Presence is dependent on the individual soul’s particular spiritual level. That level is acquired in this world, but it lasts for eternity. Eventually all Jewish souls will attain the same proximity to the Al-mighty, but the nature of their connection will depend on their efforts during their lifetime. The level at which they perceived Hashem in this world will define the level of their perception in the World to Come (Mahshevot Harutz, Ot Zayin).
Good over Bad
It is important for us to understand that man was created with a greater affinity to holiness than to impurity, and is more closely connected to good than to evil. It is unthinkable that the spiritual, Divine soul, which descends to our world from beneath the Heavenly Throne, could fall to the lowest depths of sin. The Ramhal discusses the profound topic of the existence of good and evil in our world, decreed by Hashem in His great wisdom. It is man’s task to reject evil at every turn, until it is obliterated both from himself and from Creation in general. He writes that good has its root in Hashem’s Own perfection. Evil is a later creation, brought into being solely to serve as a constant challenge to man in his struggle to perfect himself. As such, good is eternal, while evil will be annulled when its purpose has been fulfilled (Derech Hashem, Part 3, Chapter 2). We may feel that the forces of good and evil in man are equally strong, and that if there is one dominant force, it must surely be evil, not good. This is not so. The perception of man as fundamentally evil is a non-Jewish concept. The Torah viewpoint is that man is fundamentally good. It may seem that he is more inclined to evil, but that is only because of the body’s powerful tie to the evil inclination. However, the body is really only man’s secondary element. His soul, his true essence, desires good. To achieve good, the soul must work to influence the body’s behavior by subduing its intimate associate, the evil inclination. This principle is apparent in Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s discussion of the difference between mitzvot and sins. He writes that it is the nature of mitzvot to run
away from man; the slightest delay in their fulfillment may cause them to be lost forever. Sins, on the other hand, pursue man and constantly place themselves firmly in his way, so that his only solution is to flee from them. The evil inclination has a stronger hold on physical man than the good inclination. Hashem made this so in order to preserve the balance, because man’s soul is by nature inclined to good (Ruah Hayyim 4:2). As we see, good really is the stronger power; the evil inclination was only given an extra edge to even things out.
The Source of Repentance
Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin discusses the apparent contradiction between the verses “Bring us back to You, Hashem, and we will return” (Echah 5:21) and “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). Where and how does repentance begin? Who provides the initial impetus – does it come from us, or from the Almighty? The first tentative thought of repentance is a gift from Hashem. After that, it is up to us to translate it into an opening at least the size of a needle’s head, and then expand it into a sincere desire to repent. When that happens, Hashem will help us, and open wide the gates of repentance (Derashah L’Selihot, 5572). We find this concept in the Rambam’s ruling concerning a husband who is obligated by halachah to divorce his wife, but refuses to comply. He writes that the bet din administers lashes until the husband finally says that yes, he wants to grant the divorce. Even if it appears that this divorce was obtained under coercion and as such, should be invalid, the Rambam writes that this is not so. He explains that “coercion” means forcing an individual to do something he does not really want to do. Inducing him, even forcefully, to overcome his evil inclination is not coercion. In the final analysis, he is a Jew who deep down in his heart, wishes only to do the right thing. Once the evil inclination has been subdued by a few good flicks of the lash, he really does want to give the divorce with all his heart (Hilchot Gerushin 2:20). Deep in our hearts, we too all want to do what is right. If we can remove the deterrents planted by the evil inclination, the inherent inner light of our Jewish soul will shine through and guide us to choose good. The Baal Shem Tov explains that this inner voice, urging us on to do good, is in fact the “Heavenly Voice which emanates every day from Mount Horev,” decrying the insult to Torah by those who neglect its study and transgress its commandments (see Avot 6:2). Our Sages tell us that the wicked are always consumed with regret (see Nedarim 9b). We may understand this to mean that since Hashem wishes to bestow
His bounty on them as well, he gives them the inner urge to repent. However, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity, they remain locked into their wickedness. Hashem tells us, “See, I have put before you today blessing and curse. The blessing, if you will listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d which I command you today.” If we choose life, latching on to that initial impulse to choose good, we will merit Divine assistance. Hashem Himself (Anochi) will help us achieve true repentance, perfect Divine service, and complete rectification for our sins. We will merit the manifold blessings of this world and the Next, where Hashem fulfills His sacred Will and grants us absolute, unlimited good. This is why the Torah says “Anochi” – I am the One Who gives you the choice. It is Hashem’s wish to give His beloved children reward; this was His purpose in Creation. Since He is the Giver and He desires nothing more than to give, we are guaranteed the ability to choose good.
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