The Soul and Us

Our soul 1 is within us at all times, but our conscious attitude toward it varies, depending on who we are as well as the times in which we live. [When] we are busy with our routine of work, studies, or domestic life, we are not always aware that the soul exists. The fact that we are alive, that we are able to think and feel, are all obviously expressions of the soul to some extent. However, even tangible, phenomena such as our breathing and our heartbeat are not always part of our conscious awareness; all the more so is this the case with regard to the soul, which is largely intangible and toward which we have a complex and equivocal attitude, and which is furthermore at the margins of our consciousness unless remarkable events bring it to the fore.

…In the modern era in which we live, an enormous amount of events impinge on us on a constant basis. Innovations are constantly being generated, not only machines and modes of transportation, but also information and insights…Consequently, while our external reality grows more extensive, more fast-paced, and far more aggressive, our internal reality constantly shrinks.

Indeed, the constant stresses coming at us from every direction are mostly spiritual ones…In the past, when the events in people’s lives were far more limited, they might have longed for great emotional experiences, but today, they mostly long for inner peace, for an inner life that is less stressed…They want to silence their emotions so that they are at most background noise, and if possible, a kind of soft music.

But the nefesh itself never rests. It is constantly creating and responding both to actions and to inaction. Additionally, the nefesh always follows its own course, even when it is not manifested consciously in our thoughts or emotions. Even when one is unaware of what is occurring in his or her soul, the soul tries to make its wishes known and to respond, on its own level, to one’s actions and experiences.

…At times the soul within him tries to divert him in other directions or to respond to what is happening in his life by saying: “No, no!” or, “Yes, this is what you should be doing.” Often the visible reality conceals these utterances of the soul, but they are never completely silenced.

Perfectly clear and fully formed epiphanies of the soul are a vanishingly rare event, but they occur fairly frequently, in many people, in a variety of partial forms…it may present itself in the form of a question: “Are the things that occupy me really worth the effort I am investing in them?”

These thoughts – which our Sages refer to as hirhurei teshuva, fleeting thoughts of repentance – are experienced on a daily basis, and they may cause one to change his way of life, whether professionally or personally.

The same unconscious messages of the soul can sometimes even cause a person to have fears that have no visible cause, but they shake him to the core and even lead to despondence and depression.

Frequently, depression…is not the result of a miserable existence but merely part of a relatively peaceful mode of existence in which the soul is trying to say something but doesn’t always convey it clearly or concisely.

In order that “a person’s soul will teach him,” 2 [an] individual must have an open, conscious dialogue with his soul. When such a dialogue is absent, he is left with fragments that do not provide solutions but merely raise questions.

The fact that one has a soul that is opaque to him should come as no surprise, since the same situation can exist even with regard to completely material matters. With the exception of medical professionals, most individuals, whether educated or ignorant, do not know the exact location of their heart or its dimensions…They know of its existence only because they were told about it, and they understand very little about its functions.

If this is the case regarding tangible, physical things, it is certainly true regarding intangible entities whose very existence, and even more so their functions, are intangible. We often become aware of the soul’s existence in the same way we become aware of the existence of the body’s inner organs: when we suffer illness or experience pain in one of them.

Often the existence of the soul or the messages it relays reach the person not as an epiphany but as a disturbance. One’s inner reality is exposed when normal, natural consciousness is disrupted or deviates from its path, perhaps for no obvious reason. A new planet can be discovered as the result of a deviation in the orbit of another known, familiar planet, when our observation of the known planet enables us to determine with some accuracy the location and nature of the new planet.

Therefore, the unusual, and the incomprehensible within, may lead us to search more carefully for something that exists but is concealed. Every fluctuation in our lives calls upon us to search for its source, sometimes enabling us to discover that what had been bothering us were not emotional problems but various aspirations that were transplanted within us from elsewhere. This can be likened to one who thought he had a heart attack while in reality it was merely an inflammation of the stomach.

Only after the noises from the past or present are set aside can one reach a point where he will be able to withstand the ultimate test, the test of truth…The Sages say that there are various levels of revelation, including elevated levels, such as what is referred to as “the revelation of Elijah.” But the highest form of revelation is when a person’s own soul reveals itself to him.

1. The tradition of Jewish mysticism divides the human spiritual realm into several ascending levels. Nefesh is the lowest of these levels, something akin to a basic life force shared by humans and sentient animals alike. The word “soul,” which is a translation of the Hebrew term neshama, is exclusively human.
2. This saying is attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism.

This essay is adapted from “The Soul and Us”, a chapter of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s forthcoming book, The Soul, available Spring 2017.

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