The Talmud: The Soul of the World
What is God?
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Although somewhat unknown to outsiders, there are many sections of the Talmud that reveal rather deep insights into some aspect of the social, ethical, or spiritual realm. There are amazing rabbinic stories that just have to mean something incredible, even to the most skeptical. There are phenomenally profound truths about the nature of man and the spiritual battles we all face. There are some pretty deep intellectual arguments that can challenge the mind of the most ingenious of geniuses. And there are also some pretty simple words of wisdom that can brighten anybody’s day.
One little section that could fit into a few of those possibilities is found the first tractate of the Talmud. It’s called Brachot (blessings), and, not surprisingly, it deals with blessings. But in between all the blessing are some insights about God. One of these is found on page 10a (each page in the standard printings has two sides, an ‘a’ side and a ‘b’ side). It deals with an interpretation of a famous phrase from the Psalms, ‘Let my soul bless Hashem’. This phrase comes up five times between Psalms 103 and 104. The question the Talmud addresses is why the phrase is stated these five times. The answer is revolutionary:
‘David said they correspond to the Holy One blessed be He and to the neshama (soul). Just as the Holy One fills the world, so the neshama fills the entire body; just as the Holy One sees and isn’t seen, so the neshama sees and isn’t seen; just as the Holy One feeds the entire world, so the neshama feeds the whole body; just as the Holy One is pure, so the neshama is pure; just as the Holy One dwells in the inner chambers, so the neshama dwells in the inner chambers. Let the one which has these five attributes come and praise the One which has these five attributes’.
At the very least, it is an interesting comparison. God is compared to the soul. Was something missing from the earlier images that a new one had to be created? There was. As wonderful as all the images may have been, none of them hit home in a way that the average person could really relate to. They either described God in God’s own terms – incredibly great, awesome, powerful, etc., or they described God in human terms – shepherd, man of war, dressed in white, etc. None of them were able to bridge the enormous and ever-growing gap between man and God in a way that allowed God to remain God and man to understand God on human terms.
The soul was the bridge. The soul was always a bit of a mystery. It still is a bit of a mystery. As mysterious as the rest of life may have been, with inexplicable natural phenomena and heavenly bodies that revealed a divine realm, the biggest mystery lie right smack in the middle of the human being. What really was the soul? Was it the force that kept us alive? Animals this force also, so how could it be so unique? Was it the thing that lived on after death? Was it the intelligence or the emotions? Was it the desire to do good or the source of free will? None of these mysterious faculties could possibly be explained, so they were all relegated to the soul.
This statement from the Talmud takes these two nebulous things – the neshama and God, each equally evident and perhaps equally vague – and uses them to explain each other. Let’s look at the five grounds of comparison.
1. God fills the world – the neshama fills the body
1. God sees and is not seen – the neshama sees and is not seen
2. God feeds the world – the neshama feeds the body
3. God is pure – the neshama is pure
4. God dwells in the inner chambers – the neshama dwells in the inner chambers
God fills the world. This is something that we have seen before, but it is stated here without any allusions or fancy names. God is everywhere. This was a step in the intellectual understanding of the nature of God. God could not be localized, even to some place in the heavens of heavens. God was/is everywhere. God fills the world, all the spaces in between the cracks of the physical. God fills the mind and the imagination. God fills this world and the next. The neshama is not everywhere, but it is does fill the body. It fills the cracks and crevices of the bones, floats in the blood, and drifts in an out with the air. It fills the mind with thoughts and desires; it fills the imagination with images; it takes the person out of the mundane world of food and dirt into the ethereal realms of God and the angels. This statement tells us as much about God as it does the neshama. God, in regards to the world, is like the soul in regards to the body. Both fill their respective containers.
God sees and is not seen. This intuitively obvious but totally unnatural statement expresses the essence of the difference between God and the creation. God sees all and is seen by none. Even an angel cannot make such a claim. They are not quite unseen, as we have already seen. God can be aware and be fully perceptive of all creation, while even the greatest of the creations cannot ever fully perceive God. Only the neshama shares this remarkable attribute, though in a limited way. It sees – it is the awareness of the person. But nobody, even the person who possesses this soul, can ever see it. We just know that it is there. The neshama is every bit as real as we are. That is obvious to anyone who acknowledges their own conscience, their own self awareness.
God feeds the world. As we shall see in the coming section, the idea that God sustains the universe was absolutely fundamental by this point in Judaism. The world could not exist without God keeping it going. God provided the energy of existence - both the physical elements and the spiritual sustenance. This translates into a parallel ability in the neshama. What is it that keeps us alive? What keeps the mind churning out thoughts? The body needs food but that food has to be transmuted into something that enables it to give sustenance to the body. The neshama/nefesh combination does the transmuting. It takes whatever it needs from the physical world and alters it to provide live-giving sustenance to the body.
God is pure. There are no taints in God. There are no flaws, no impure motives, no slip-ups. Despite all the multiple images of God and the unfathomable ways in which God is manifested in our lives, God’s essence is really simple and unchanging. This observation was not the least bit obvious to one who cannot see past the physical workings of the world and the glaring ungodliness of life. The neshama matches this template on a personal level. Despite the complexities of the body and the ups and downs of the emotions, the neshama lurks behind it all pure and simple. It rides out the emotional storms and straightens out the most crooked desires with a simple insight of truth. It is above all that turmoil.
God dwells in the inner chambers. This sounds like a restatement of God being unseen. But the ‘inner chambers’ are not just the attribute of being invisible – they are those highest and most secret aspects of existence that God is most revealed in. Only in the inner sanctums of reality is God truly unveiled. These are the lofty realms of the spiritual dimension, those arenas that remain untainted by the restrictions of the physical world. They are hard to find, but they do exist. It is there that one can truly find God. The neshama is no different on its own scale. It also dwells in the highest and most secret regions of the personality. Sometimes it cannot be detected at all amidst the hustle and bustle of the physical needs and the emotional desires. Some people may go their entire lives without ever being fully cognizant of their neshama. This is the greatest tragedy of life’s many tragedies. The neshama is our little piece of God that lies within us. It is our ticket to divinity.
Perceiving the Image
‘Let the one which has these five attributes come and praise The One which has these five attributes’. How do we perceive God? How do we perceive the neshama? Bounce the one off the other. Sometimes the soul is more evident than God. But surprisingly, sometimes we can perceive God more easily than we can perceive our true self. God is the Neshama of the world. God is its mind and its sustenance. God fills it with being, with simplicity. That the universe has a soul may come as no major surprise to us, even at those times when we cannot perceive our own soul. The world is not us. It does not share our petty problems and concerns. It is not bothered by what we wear or who wins the game. It goes on whether we do or not. It has its own life force that enables it to exist and keeps it going. The Soul of the world can be the image through which a person can become aware of his or her own soul. If the universe has a Soul, maybe I do too. Maybe I can look beyond my immediate problems and my limited vision and poke into those inner chambers and see who I really am.
It works the other way around just as well. Sometimes we really cannot detect God no matter how hard we try. Life seems unfair or unguided. Everything seems to be running on auto-pilot with or without God. It is just too difficult to detect any glimmer of a spiritual presence in the world, so it probably isn’t there to begin with. These are common spiritual hang-ups. They happen to everyone. But there is way around them. It may help to take one’s focus off the impossibly huge universe and just look at one’s own self. There may not seem to be any need for God to manage nature, but there sure is a need for my conscience to run my life. If that runs on auto-pilot, I’m nowhere. The neshama is the conscience. It is the god of the human personality. It fills the body and directs the mind. It sustains the life force within. It lies at the very core of the mind and the emotions yet it dwells above the turmoil and the storms. It is so obvious that it is there that it needs no proof. It may help reveal that God does the same for the rest of the world.
The one should praise the Other. We all possess a neshama. If we want to become aware of God we need look no further than our own souls. The attributes of the soul are the attributes of God. One reveals the other. God is the Neshama. God is the Neshama of the world. God is the Conscience of the world. God makes it be and keeps it going. God is its vision even as God remains as invisible as the conscience is to the body. God dwells in its loftiest heights, remaining pure of the world’s evils while filling it with essence. The soul exalts the Soul. The Soul reveals the soul.
It is interesting that as human progress takes us towards an increasingly godless world, we are simultaneously denying the existing of our own spiritual self – the soul. The two seem to go hand in hand. If we have one, we have the other. If we lack one we lack the other. Are they both real or both illusions?
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Date: 10/30/17 at 00:27:13
thank you for such a succinct explanation, truly inspiring.