The Ruach – Spiritual Energy
Who are We?
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Everybody who knows anything about Judaism knows that the word ‘ruach’ means ‘spirit’. But ask those same people what ‘spirit’ is and you probably won’t get any real answers. It really isn’t very clear what spirit actually is, just as it isn’t clear what ‘spirituality’ is. Many people think they know what these terms mean, but when pressed to define them usually just rehash the original words in the definition.
To delve into the Biblical understanding of this word, we have to divest ourselves of any preconceived notions of what ruach may be. Those notions may have come from post-Biblical periods of Jewish thought and may have no relationship to the Biblical understanding. It’s back to basics if we really want to understand the Biblical origins and conception of this important term. That means, of course, back to the Chumash.
The first place that we shall examine is the second verse in the Torah, ‘And the earth was chaotic and desolate, and the ruach of God hovered over the surface of the waters.’ The word ruach is frequently associated with God. God’s spirit rests regularly on one person or another throughout the Bible.
Our second source is from the book of Numbers. The fifth chapter consists of a rather lengthy description of the laws concerning the Sotah – the wife suspected of infidelity. Including in the long chapter is the expression describing when the suspicion first arises in the mind of the husband: ‘and a ruach of jealousy passes upon him’ (14, 30). This expression in and of itself is rather innocuous. But its use of the term ruach to express the nature of the jealousy may clue us in on the meaning of the term.
The third source is also in the book of Numbers. At one point, God instructs Moshe to gather 70 elders of the community into the central communal tent. Hashem then states (v. 17): ‘I will descend and speak with you there and I shall extract (withhold, emanate) from the ruach that is upon you and place it upon them and they shall bear the burden on this people with you and you will not have to bear it alone’.
As in the case of the term ‘nefesh’, we have distinct usages of the term ‘ruach’ that seem to have nothing to do with each other. The first is an aspect of God hovering over the newly created waters. The second is much more mundane instance of a fit of jealousy overcoming a married man. The third is a rather vague suggestion of a certain spiritual power or energy that Moshe possessed exclusively, being redistributed among 70 elders so that they too can experience that power. What could an aspect of God, an emotional attitude, and a spiritual power, have in common? The single word, ruach, is used in all three cases.
For starters, let’s try the classic definition of ‘spirit’. The four key phrases read as follows:
The spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters
And a spirit of jealousy passes upon him
I shall extract from the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them.
Aside from the basic problem of what a spirit actually is, we have a few secondary problems. What does it mean for God to have a spirit? Second, we have to wonder why the word ‘spirit’, whatever it may actually be, is used to describe the attitude of jealousy. Is jealousy really an emotion that comes from a spirit? Third is that situation with Moshe and the elders. How does God go about extracting (withholding, emanating) the spirit that is on Moshe and place it upon the elders? Is a spirit really something that can be extracted from one person and placed upon another?
What is the common element of all three cases: some aspect of God hovering over the waters, a passing fit of jealousy, and a power that leads to prophecy being transferred from one person to others? In all three cases, the ruach causes something to happen. With God it was the beginning of the process of transforming the state of the earth from ‘chaotic and desolate’ to ‘Let there be light’. With the jealous husband it initiated the process in which his wife would have to undergo the ordeals of a suspected adulteress. With Moshe and the elders it transferred the power of prophecy from one person to many people.
The ruach ‘hovered'. The ruach ‘passed’. The ruach was ‘extracted’ or ‘withheld’ or ‘emanated’. What is ‘ruach’ that all these things can happen through it? One of the most common uses of the Hebrew word ‘ruach’ is ‘wind’, as in movement of air. This should strike a familiar bell with us. Neshama and nefesh also had something to do with movement of air – neshama was the breath that was inhaled, nefesh was that breath resting within the living being that inhaled it. Maybe ruach has a parallel connotation. Perhaps it refers to a more ethereal ‘air’ that is all around us, but instead of being inhaled or resting inside us, it ‘moves’ to activate something in the world. In the case of God it ‘hovered’ over the waters while it initiated the organizing of the chaos of creation. In the case of the jealous husband it ‘passed’ upon him until he was moved to accuse his wife of cheating on him. In the case of Moshe, it was extracted, etc. so that it could be transferred to the elders and influence them to experience prophecy.
So what is this mysterious ‘ruach’? Physical wind is incompatible with two of the cases we are examining. But it has to be a ‘movement’ of some kind that resembles the invisible but nevertheless palpable movement of the wind. What could that be? Perhaps the most all-encompassing approach is to define ‘ruach’ as simply a type of ‘energy’ that causes things to happen. The ‘thing’ that hovered, passed, emanated, or seduced was this energy. Ruach in this sense is a non-physical energy that the affects change in the physical, emotional, or spiritual domains. It is a ‘stirring’ in one of those dimensions, just as the wind ‘stirs’ things around in the visible world.
Perhaps by using the vague word ‘ruach’, the Torah is implying that the source for such an emotion could be either inside or outside. It is a ruach – a current of non-physical energy of uncertain origin. Sometimes that ruach is internal to the person, influencing the person in a manner that may be beyond their control and energizing them to some action. It could take the form of enthusiasm, jealousy, indigence, or one of dozens of other emotional states that frequently seem to come upon us without our doing anything to provoke them. That energy exists within us, though it only awakens when aroused by some internal stimulation.
But there are times when the energy seems to come from ‘outside’ the person. It hits us like a bolt out of the blue and moves us in a direction that is entirely unexpected. It may blind us to some obvious danger or alert us to some unexpected danger. It may be a strange intuition that somehow strikes us in a certain situation. It may be an energetic motivation that gets us to act when we haven’t the internal desire to do so. It could also be a lethargy that afflicts us when we know we should get going. It could also take the form of a truth or a falsehood that enters the mind unawares and inserts its persuasive message.
Where do these things come from? What are they really? The ruach is spiritual energy that influences minds and stirs things up in the world. It may be a form of spiritual power that works independent of the direct influence of God. It is ‘out there’ but it is also ‘in there’, injecting its subtle or powerful influence into the world and changing our lives.
Gazing in the Mirror
We have all experienced emotional or mental states that we really cannot explain. A thought comes out of thin air; a fit of frustration hits us from left field; a sexual urge overwhelms all other passions and concerns. Poets have immortalized these experiences in words. Movies have captured them in action. Books revolve around them and soap operas drip with them. Our lives may not be saturated with them but they certainly occur with either thrilling or disturbing frequency. What are they? Where do they come from?
The picture from the Bible of an inner or outer energy called ‘ruach’ may be just as valid an explanation as anything science can come up with. Maybe there is an energy source that is independent of the personal mind that feeds and pulls the mind with its external influence. Maybe part of that energy source comes directly from God. Maybe part of it comes from some ‘free’ energy that simply exists out in the spiritual dimension just as air and wind exist in the physical dimension. Is it really all that primitive and superstitious to entertain such notions? How do we really know that we have a complete picture of reality when we limit it to what a machine can detect or an equation can quantify?
The notion of the ‘ruach’ speaks to us from the distant past and the very real present and challenges the purely physical understanding of our intensely spiritual lives. We live with ruach experiences every hour of our lives. We may not be consciously aware of them, but neither are we consciously aware of the neurons in the brain. Then again, we may be very palpably aware of these experiences. They direct us along unexpected pathways. They interfere with our complacency. They inspire us to greatness or to madness. They awaken us to other possibilities. They fill us with passion or apathy, with rage and with reverence, with brilliant insights and blatant delusions. Are these thoughts and these emotions simply a function of the brain or are they bursts of spiritual energy from a hidden dimension that envelops our world and influences our minds? This is a question of religion vs. science, of spirituality vs. materialism. We, with our complex and erratic minds, are the primary stage of that question.
To believe in spirits influencing the mind in the 21st century is to believe in primitive superstition. But such a belief is endemic to most forms of religion and spirituality. How does one live in both worlds?
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