Who Are We: The Chumash
Who are We?
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We've looked at the first two questions of this project from the perspective of the Chumash. There wasn't much to choose from with the 'meaning of life' question. With the 'God' question there was a treasure trove of answers, almost too many to know what to do with. With this third question, the choice of material is somewhere in between the limits of the first two questions. We have selected twelve different topics to focus on, so finding material for each of them will not be an easy task. Nevertheless, since these topics cover a good deal of what could be expected of an exploration of the human mind, personality, and soul, to say nothing of spirituality in general, it should come as no surprise that there is what to choose from in the Chumash.
While the Chumash is loaded with Biblical narratives (Genesis), early Israelite history (Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), and massive lists of laws and rituals (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), in addition to tribal genealogies and prophetic warnings, there is still plenty of room for matters of the soul. However, almost all of our sources will come from Genesis. Genesis, with its dozens of stories, both the historical and the metaphorical, does get right into our issues. While it may require digging deep into a single verse to extract whatever lie buried within, those verses are found all over Genesis – in their emotional highs and lows, their spiritual struggles, and their interactions with God.
This is not to suggest that Genesis is a kind of handbook of the soul and the spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is what it appears to be – the collective stories that form the prehistory of the Israelites, who themselves were the forerunners of the Jews. It is the history of men and women struggling to find their uneasy place between the real physical world of rocks and sheep and the not-so-real world of angels and God. This was precisely where people were placed in the Bible.
Our first three subjects of exploration, those that deal with the fundamentals of human existence, shall all be found in these early stages of the Bible. The first – the difference between the human species and the human individual – will be found in the verses that deal with the creation of human beings. One of the famous nuances of this particular aspect of creation is that human beings appear to be created not once, but twice. The two creation stories are not two separate documents merged into one, but two distinct creations – one of the species, and the other of the individual. The profound difference between these two and their dual presence in us, is a fundamental aspect of the human persona.
The difference between males and females and the relationship between them that arises from this difference comes out of a few verses in the 'second creation' story. These are the famous verses that describe the creation of the woman out of the very being of the man. Including within the verses are contained the idea of human 'aloneness' without a companion, and the solution to this problem through finding a mate. The amazingly brief but profound passage includes a very human reaction to this discovery and the earliest Biblical description of the male/female sexual union.
The inevitability of death is one of the most common themes in all of literature, from the earliest myths to the most recent novels. It has taken its inevitable place in all expressions of culture, from art to motion pictures to music. The obvious place in the Bible to look for something along these lines is the 'curse' that was dealt to Adam by God for his eating the 'Forbidden Fruit'. Among other things, he was cursed with death. It is in these scant verses that we find what may be the most poignant expression of this inevitable fate. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But along with that rather dreary outcome, we are left tantalized with another possibility – that of the 'Tree of Life'. Is this an alternative to death or is it a way to ease its sting?
When it comes to the three aspects of the soul (neshama, nefesh, ruach), we move a little further afield. The Bible in general and the Chumash in particular make no attempt to define what they mean. The words simply come up in various places scattered throughout the text. The Bible student is left completely clueless as to how these words in their various contexts are to be understood. It is not the least bit clear that any of them have anything to do with what we call the soul. This is something that frequently escapes the notice of most people who read the text in translation, since the words are usually translated according to their more modern interpretation. Even those who can read the original Hebrew may not be aware of this, being as they also automatically translate the terms according to how they have been understood for the past 2000 or so years but ignore that they might have meant something else in the Bible itself.
The neshama suffers the most from this gap in understanding. The word itself only comes up three times in the entire Chumash. As we shall see, all of them have something to do with the breath. Our focus will be a verse that is central to the 'second creation' of human beings in which God breaths a 'neshama of life' into the man and he becomes a living being. This verse will come up again and again in our exploration, both in the Biblical sections and the later sections. It is not a particularly complex verse, but it carries extremely deep implications for the Biblical and Jewish understanding of the soul and its relationship to God.
The nefesh, on the other hand, comes up all over the place in both the Chumash and the rest of the Tanakh. It is extremely difficult to define being as it appears to mean different things in different places. The problem with understanding the Biblical notion of the nefesh is not due to its scarcity in the text, as was the case with the neshama. It is due to its commonality. It is among the most common words in the Bible, in one form or another. We shall explore it in three different contexts in the Chumash, two from Genesis and one that is comes up in many places in the other books. It will be extremely difficult to pin down.
The third term, ruach, also comes up fairly frequently and also seems to mean different things in different places. Among it's several contexts in the Chumash, it is difficult to find any that match the modern notion of the soul. Consequently, the favored translation is not soul, but 'spirit' – an equally vague term that acquired tremendous importance as Judaism developed through the millennia. Like the nefesh, the difficulty with ruach is in finding common ground between the various contexts that the word is used. We shall explore verses dealing with God's ruach floating above the primordial waters, ruach inspiring prophecy some individuals, and jealousy in others.
The third category of subjects deals with three of what late rabbinic Judaism called the 'powers of the soul'. There are six of these, the first three comprised of the triad of the yetzer hara, yetzer tov, and free will. These three are distinct from the second group of three in that they are much more difficult to pin down from a scientific standpoint but much more prominent from a Jewish standpoint. For instance, the first of the triad, the yetzer hara, is one of the most talked about subjects of rabbinic lore. While the exact term cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, what is probably a forerunner of the term is found in verses appearing at the prelude and the conclusion of the Flood. It is clear from the text that this was an innate spiritual force in the human mind that could wreak havoc if not controlled in some way.
It's counterpart, the yetzer tov, is much more elusive, both in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. In fact, it is near impossible to find any hint of it in the Chumash. But it is such an important part of the human spirit that we have to find it somewhere. Our source for this mysterious power is a bizarre story associated with the patriarch Jacob. It may be a prophetic dream but it is equally possible that it is his personal encounter with his own yetzer tov/conscience.
Free will is the third of this group. While it also is an assumed power throughout most of the text, it comes out in absolutely brilliant clarity towards the end of the Chumash in a brief exhortation of Moshe to the Israelites. This is such a clear demonstration of the existence of this very experiential but nevertheless mysterious power of the soul that it is difficult to see how great debate could arise over the millennia over its reality. But such was indeed the case, and the strange fate of free will in the theology and philosophy of Judaism begins right at the end of its most foundational book.
The final three subjects comprise another triad. They are more connected to the brain than the first triad, which seems to be linked closer to the soul. They are classic 'brain' activities, and those who cannot stomach any notion of the soul have little problem accepting the reality of the these three, however unclear we may be as to how they really work. The first of this triad, the intellect, is about as 'brainy' as things can get. It is the thoughts in there must pure state, unencumbered by such baggage as the emotions and the imagination. Finding a source in the Chumash for the intellect is surprisingly difficult. Ours comes from the most prominent of the Jacob's twelve sons, Joseph, who was unique in the Chumash in being described as 'wise'.
Emotions are frequently looked upon as the unruly siblings of the intellect. While the intellect is controlled and focused, the emotions are freewheeling bursts that arise spontaneously and run amok through the mind. They can be calming and they can be terrifying, pleasant or painful. Perhaps life would be more predictable if we didn't have them at all. But what would life be without emotions. It would be as fulfilling as an automatic computer update, as passionate as a blood test. We resent them and we adore them. We frequently cannot live with them but we can never live without them. Our source for these spicy powers will also come from Genesis. We will look into an incident in the life of the matriarch Sarah, the wife of Abraham, to give us a glimpse into the Biblical view of emotions.
The final subject is probably the most difficult to pin down in any manner. The imagination is just so hard to define that most people never bother trying. They simply accept it as something that is 'in there', that does its thing whenever it does, and that's that. Of course we use it all the time, but even the term 'use' is a bit of a stretch. It almost seems to use us, taking us places that we don't necessarily want to go and leaving us stranded in some inaccessible dream or unreachable desire. But it has always played a central role in the Biblical experience of prophecy and all subsequent purely spiritual experiences. For our source we will examine three different prophetic experiences – that of patriarch Abraham, that of lawgiver Moshe, and that of the impossible-to-place visionary, Balaam. It won't be easy to put the pieces together, but at least it gets us started on the most mysterious power of the mind.
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