The Lower Soul, the Higher Soul and the Spirit
What is the soul? There are many theories. Some see the soul as simply a biological phenomenon. When man dies, so does his soul. Others say no. That the soul is, in essence biological, but that it can become eternal. The classic philosophers said that if someone achieves ‘intellect’ his soul will change from being mortal to eternal. Others say no. That the soul is, in essence, a spark of divinity, a sort of deity within man. What is the truth?
Let us consider what Judaism teaches us, particularly its esoteric tradition, the Kabbalah. The Kabbalist sages speak of three planes of the human soul: the ‘lower soul’, the ‘spirit’ and the ‘higher soul’ (Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama). These can be seen as parallel to three time frames, past, present and future. The lower soul is our psychophysio-biological entity that we are all born with. Everyone has a lower soul which is the part of us which says “I.” This plane is united with the body. If someone were to push in the line for the bus and I say “Don’t touch me,” Who is ‘me’? He only touched my body. But there is a feeling that my soul and body are bound together. They are in harmony, and this we receive at birth. So we can say that the lower soul represents the past.
In contrast, there is what we are in the ideal sense, or the divine sense. What God expects me to be, what I already am in the higher world. This is called the higher soul and this what I will eventually become. So, just as the lower soul belongs to the past, the higher soul belongs to the future. And where we are, in the present, is constantly in tension between them. This is the spirit. The spirit measures the gap between the higher and lower souls. If I purify myself, if live up to my potential, then my higher soul shines into my lower soul. If I am, God forbid, corrupt, unclean, not pure enough, then the spirit blocks the path between the higher and lower souls.
If so, our job is to realize the potential, to allow the higher soul to transmit to the lower soul its natural, healthy, divine feelings. So which part of me desires to pray? Not the lower soul. The lower soul wants to stay cozy in bed under the blanket. But the higher soul wants to pray to God. If I properly incorporate this desire into my life then the higher soul will pass to the lower soul its yearning for prayer and I’ll jump out of bed, eager to speak to my Creator.
To Justify my Existence
The eternity of the soul. We walk around in this world, travel in it, live in it, are happy and sad, learn, eat, have kids, and eventually we leave this world. What happens to us? The religions, Judaism included, believe that life does not end there, life continues. The body is only a temporary container but we really continue on our path after death. It’s possible that occasionally we may return to the body. There is a belief in Judaism – not an essential one – but it is there, in reincarnation. That someone can pass through this world more than once. And we certainly anticipate the eventual revival of the dead.
We must understand, though, from where is this certainty in the eternity of the soul and its belonging to the world to come. The answer is simple: because the soul began its journey before entering this world. This requires having a recollection. Sometimes a person will remember his childhood, sometimes even his infancy. Sometimes, one might even remember that once he didn’t exist. To remember when we did not exist points to the fact that the source of our identity is not from this world. We originate in higher worlds and therefore this world is but a passageway. We pass through this world and later return to the world to come.
This is what our sages meant when they said in the “Ethics of the Fathers”: “Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you will eventually stand in judgment.” What is meant by the expression “from where you came?” In Hebrew, the world ‘Me’ayin’ can be read to mean ‘from where’ but can also be read to mean ‘from the infinite.’ Man is like a drop of infinity. Like a wave in the ocean, it appears for a moment and then returns to its place.
“To where you are going.” If you know that you came from the infinite, then you know you will return to it. So why did we come here? To “stand in judgement” – to justify our existence by earning it. Before I came into this world I did, indeed, exist. But without justification for it, for I had not yet done anything to justify my existence. My actions in this world are what provide justification, value, to my existence. Then I will be able to stand unabashedly before God my Creator. And so for moral reasons my soul must be eternal. Only then can it justify its existence both in this world and the next.
In Order to Receive a Reward?
Why do we work? For ourselves? or for the ideal? There are two types of people, egoists, and idealists. Egoism can be materialist and can also be spiritual. For example, I may fulfill the commandments of the Torah because I want to improve my fate in the afterlife. This is a type of spiritual egoism. And there is idealism where someone does not act for himself but in order to further the recognition of God’s name in the world.
The question is, which is preferable? Our sages said in the “Ethics of the Fathers”: “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master not in order to receive a reward.” This means that our great sages and teachers instruct us that man must act for the sake of heaven and not for his own sake.
The next question is, is this really possible? Can we really forget ourselves? If I forget myself then I am insulting my “I” – and who created me? God created me. And so you might say that I must take care of myself in order not to bring insult to God’s creation.
How is this done practically? I’ll tell you a short story about one of the Chasidic masters, Rabbi Zoussia of Anipoli. It is told of Rabbi Zoussia that once a woman came to him and asked him to pray for her to have a son. And so, Rabbi Zoussia began to pray and then heard a heavenly voice say to him “Don’t pray! I don’t want her to have a son.” Rabbi Zoussia continued praying and then he heard a heavenly voice say to him, “Zoussia, if you continue praying, she will have a son, but you will not have a place in the world to come, in the Garden of Eden.” Rabbi Zoussia said, “Great. Finally I’ll be able to serve God purely for heaven’s sake, and not in order to receive compensation.” Meaning he was tempted to become a ‘religious philosopher.’ And then he hears another heavenly voice, “Zoussia, if you continue praying she will have a son, but you will have your world to come anyway.” Then he continued praying because he understood that to not want the afterlife is a sort of heresy, a sin.
God wants to give you something, so take it. Not because you love yourself, but because you love He who wants to give you life. So you can be an idealist egoist. That is, to accept the gift that God gives us because this is His will. Not out of a crude desire to have benefit. This is the great teaching of Judaism, that reconciles between the demands of the “I,” and those of the ideal.
Where is the World to Come?
Life in the world to come. What does this mean? The religions have been deeply concerned with the issue of man’s fate after death. Surprisingly, anyone who reads the Tanach from beginning to end can see that life after death is only hinted at, whereas the focus of interest is on this life. Even to the point that some wanted to claim that the Judaism of the ancient Hebrews, the Israelites, did not include belief in eternal life; a claim which is certainly not verified if we are to carefully and critically read the passages in the Torah that do speak about it.
But the real question is, what should be the focal point of life? Are we merely aspiring to the success of the soul in the afterlife only, or do we desire the success of the soul explicitly in this life? It is of note that Judaism does not speak of the world of souls or of the Garden of Eden as the ideal world, nor does it speak of this world, with its many problems, as the ideal. Rather, we speak of the ‘world to come.’ The meaning of the ‘world to come’ is the period of the revival of the dead during which there is a reconciliation, a unification between two worlds, the absolute spiritual world, and the real, material world. These two worlds are moving toward convergence, and therefore the common expression in Judaism is not the ‘other world,’ or the ‘afterworld,’ but the ‘world to come,’ (Olam Haba).
This is the same world as the current world, the future condition, the coming state of this world. We aspire to this world, only perfected; to this world, only without death. This world, only without sickness, jealousy or competition. This is the ideal world. Our sages purposely avoided giving precise definitions for what happens to people after death: reincarnation, purgatory, hell, Garden of Eden, etc. because they want to keep us open minded; So that we won’t deliberate too much on what happens afterward, but instead know that this world is one of optimism, that the world was worth creating and that life is worth living. This is expressed in the Torah by the great and fundamental call that is full of hope, “Choose life.”