Levels of Sprit
Our purpose in life is elevate ourselves in devotion to G-d. That idea, which is no doubt familiar to
you, implies that there are different—higher and lower ways—of being human.
In Jewish tradition, they have been identified and discussed at great length.
Three basic terms are used, and to grasp the spiritual dimension and purpose of
life as it has been discussed, we must be familiar with them. Those terms are nefesh,
ruach and neshama.
Each person has a nefesh, a ruach and a neshama.
These are different levels of what we call, in English, the soul. The lowest
level is the nefesh. Both the nefesh and the ruach derive
from the neshama. The neshama is the aspect of the soul which is
more directly related to the spiritual dimension. The nefesh and ruach
are aspects of the soul that relate to the body. In this respect, we can
relate to the nefesh and the ruach as one entity and the neshama
as a different entity, even though, in truth, they are not different
entities at all, but only different manifestations of the same entity which we
call the neshama, when we use the term to refer to the soul as a whole.
The Nefesh Hachaim compares the entrance of the neshama
to the breath of a glassblower. The glassblower forces his breath through a
pipe, at the end of which is a glob of liquid glass. As his breath fills the
glass, it expands it and fills it. The Nefesh Hachaim explains that when
the breath is in the mouth of the glassblower it corresponds to the neshama.
As it goes through the tube it becomes the ruach, and when it enters the
glass it becomes the nefesh.
The neshama that G-d created is, so to speak, part of
G-d. What that means exactly I can’t describe to you because I, myself, don’t
know. But we can understand that it means that the neshama is as close to
G-d as possible. The Zohar says that a person who exhales, exhales from
himself. The neshama is so close and so similar to G-d that it is as
though it were a part of G-d Himself. That doesn’t mean that we can divide G-d
into parts. The Zohar certainly did not mean to say that. It is telling
us that in it’s pristine state, the neshama is deeply connected to G-d.
When the breath of the glassblower leaves his mouth and
enters the pipe, we call it ruach. The ruach is the bridge which
connects the spiritual neshama and the life force which we call nefesh.
The life force is something that even animals have. It maintains all the
biological functions of life: Propogation, ingestion, digestion, mobility and
all the other life functions. It also gives the body the ability to experience
pain and sensation: To see, to think and to feel. All of the animal sensations,
instincts, and reflexes are related to the nefesh. Where do the nefesh
and the body meet? In the blood. The nefesh attaches itself to the
physical body through the blood just as a flame attaches itself to a candle at
the black tip of the wick. That’s why we are not allowed to eat blood. The neshama,
in contrast to the nefesh, hovers above the body (except in the case of
rare individuals like Adam and Moshe Rabbeinu). The ruach connects the nefesh
to the neshama, which connects it to the spiritual world and to the
Some hold that the nefesh is basically the physical
appetites of the person, that the emotions represent the ruach while the
mind represents the neshama, though not the higher levels of the neshama.
A person whose life is circumscribed by his physical sensations and desires (nefesh)
is centered around himself. His experience is entirely related to his appetites
and satisfacions: “I’m hungry; I’m full; I’m sleepy; I’m feeling good,”
etc. Emotions (ruach) add a new dimension because they represent an
interaction with something outside oneself. A person can have petty or even
nasty emotions which remain essentially self-centered, or exalted emotions which
lift a person beyond all self-concern. Intellectual awareness (neshama)
goes one step further because it can be totally separated from personal needs.
It can, even on more prosaic levels, lift a person entirely out of any sense of
self-involvement and engage him in creative and purposeful activity which
completely transcends the idiosyncrasies of his individual personality.
Each one of these three dimensions—nefesh, ruach and
neshama—are essential. For there is no life without nefesh, no
spirit without neshama, and no connection between the two without ruach.
Our goal is not to abandon the nefesh for the neshama, but to draw
the light of the neshama through the tube of the glassblower so that our
conduct and feelings take a form that is pleasing to the “Glassblower” whose
breath is the animating force of our lives.
Every metaphor has its limits and here, the metaphor can be
misleading unless we keep in mind that G-d gave us the ability and the
responsibility to actively participate in the creative process we have compared
to glassblowing. A human being is not a glob of molten glass. He has a creative
power which makes him a partner in his own creation. This mysterious power must
be remembered as we contemplate the levels of human life, for although we can
list them and define them, we cannot understand them unless we keep in mind that
they are animated in one sense by G-d and in another sense by a G-d given power
of our own: “Everything is in the hands of G-d except yiras Shamayim.”
A person only really discovers the dimensions of his soul when he takes on the
real purpose of his life: the exercise of his creative power to sanctify his
life with the knowledge and the love of G-d.