Category Archives: Mussar

Nephesh Hachaim 1:4

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 4

1.

Now, no one should ever say, Who am I to think that I could do anything of consequence with my meaningless actions 1? In fact, R’ Chaim asserts, each one of us has it within him or her to bring about the sorts of profound things we’d cited above with our actions 2.

As he puts it, “not a single one of our actions, words or thoughts … is ever lost!” 3. Every action that each one of us takes is “great, far-reaching, and momentous” 4 and affects the very heavens and the supernal lights 5.

In fact, were we astute enough to understand what actually happens in the heavens as a consequence of our deeds we’d tremble, R’ Chaim asserts. For we’d come to realize just how much damage could come about by even our most minor misdeeds 6!

R’ Chaim then makes a very astounding, incredibly distressing statement.

In fact, he says, what we’d be doing with our sins would be even worse than what Nebuchadnezzar and Titus did when they (seemingly!) destroyed the first and second Beit Hamikdash!

2.

In point of fact, Nebuchadnezzar and Titus could have no effect on the sup-ernal realm7, because they weren’t linked to it and couldn’t influence it 8. But we, on the other hand, who are so quite intimately linked with the supernal realm, can affect things in the heavens and the supernal Beit Hamikdash 9.

And so while Nebuchadnezzar and Titus could “only” destroy the phys-ical Beit Hamikdash, we could destroy the corresponding supernal Beit Hamikdash with our sins 9.

It should also make us tremble to realize that not only do we have it within us to do that, but it’s also true that we ourselves incorporate all worlds and their resources and capacities 10 which themselves comprise the supernal Beit Hamikdash!

For, just as our heart incorporates everything vital to our being and sits in the center of our body and thus corresponds to the Kodesh Kedoshim 11 in the Beit Hamikdash which sat in the center of Jerusalem 12, our heart also corresponds to the even shetiyah 13, which incorporates within it all of the sources of holiness 14.

So when we dwell 15 on adultery, for example, we set a virtual harlot 16 in the supernal Kodesh Kedoshim, G-d forbid! And we thus empower the forces of impurity and the “other side” there and actually do more harm that way than Titus did when he set an actual harlot in the physical Kodesh Kedoshim! And the same goes for any sin: with each one we commit we allow “strange fire” 17 to enter our hearts, as when we become angry or express any other untoward desire 18, G-d protect us 19.

For by virtue of the soul that has been implanted within us, we are the very soul of, the driving force behind, and are in command of innumerable supernal and earthly worlds 20.

Footnotes: 

1                See Mesillat Yesharim Ch’s 2 and 3 for the dangers of this attitude.

2                This democratic assertion that everyone’s actions count in this way contrasts with R’ Chaim’s statement in his second footnote to this chapter that it’s tzaddikim that affect such things! But see R’ Chaim’s remark in his Rosh Hashanah Drasha to the effect that no two people are alike, in that some can bring about great changes thanks to their spiritual standing while others can barely bring about any such changes at all (citing Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 126). As such his point here seems to be that we each do indeed affect changes, but tzaddikim can do even more.

3                I.e., is ever in vain.

4                After all, as R’ Chaim points out in his first footnote here, aren’t we told that we ourselves instigate what happens above, citing Pirkei Avot 2:1? But in point of fact, the Mishna there says that if you’re ever to avoid sinning you’d need to מה למעלה ממך דע – literally, to “Know what’s above you” (i.e., “an eye that sees and an ear that hears”; and that “all your actions are recorded in a book”) and to thus be mindful of what you do.

But R’ Chaim legitimately but quite non-literally translates מה למעלה ממך דע as saying, “Know that all that happens above is from you” in order to make his point. (See Ruach Chaim on that Mishna, too). Interestingly enough, though, the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples understood the Mishna the same way as R’ Chaim did (see for example Kedushat LeviParshat Metzorah). Is this then an instance of R’ Chaim acknowledging the legitimacy of Chassidic thought? Perhaps so, given that R’ Chaim seemed sympathetic toward the movement: for one thing, he didn’t sign the ban against Chassidism that his teacher, the Gra, initiated. And R’ Chaim was known to have all of the major works of Chassidic Thought in his library.

(The reading of the Mishna itself, though, might actually derive from Zohar 2:117b).

5                The “supernal lights” spoken of here (צחצחות האורות העליונות) will be cited in 1:6, 12 (R’ Chaim’s footnote in 1:13) and 4:21 below.

6                It goes without saying that if our misdeeds cause such great harm, then our laudable deeds do great good, of course.

7                Where all of this counts, as we’ll see.

8                R’ Chaim nonetheless cites a statement in 3:12 below from Eitz Chaim that speaks to the powers that Nebuchadnezzar had in fact on the upper realms with his use of certain impure powers. Apparently then while Titus and he had some degree of power up above, they didn’t have the nearly ultimate power that we do.

9                See Da’at Tevunot 160.

9                R’ Chaim asserts that their act was as superfluous as grinding flour (which, by definition, is already ground), citing Eicha Rabba 1:41. That’s a striking statement, saying in effect that everything Titus and Nebuchadnezzar did was redundant for all intents and purposes since we’d already done the hard part with our sins!

10              R’ Chaim points out that this will be explained later on in 1:6 and 2:5.

11              I.e., The Holy of Holies.

12              See Zohar 2:157 and Kuzari 4:24.

13              The “Foundation Stone”, which is the point from which the rest of the world was formed (Zohar 1:131 and Yomah 54b). Also see Zohar 1: 71b and 2:222 for it resting in the center of the world.

14              R’ Chaim also cites Zohar 3:161a here to further prove his point.

R’ Chaim touches upon the centrality and potency of the Beit Hamikdash, its correspondence to our own beings, and he calls upon each one of us to make ourselves into a human Beit Hamikdash in his second footnote here — along with the dire warning that the earthly Beit Hamikdash will do us no good (i.e., it will no longer help to purify us and expiate our sins) if we violate the one within us!

 15             In our heart.

16              R’ Chaim terms a harlot “the image of jealousy”, in reference to Ezekiel 8:3, 5. See Rashi there as well as Zohar 2:3b and Avodah Zara 55a.

17              I.e., foreign and unwanted potencies; see Leviticus 10:1.

18              Notice that R’ Chaim is terming anger a ta’ava here: a lustful desire – one that’s perhaps on par with the sorts of immoral desires that would have set a harlot in the supernal Beit Hamikdash!

19              R’ Chaim cites Isaiah 64:10 and Ezekiel 43:7-9.

20              R’ Chaim cites and explains the import of Genesis 2:7 to make this point.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org

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Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes torah.org entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:3

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 3

1.

Is R’ Chaim saying then that we’re in control of the world’s resources and capacities just as G-d is? Well, yes, in a way 1.  As he puts it, G-d created us to indeed control and affect millions upon millions of those resources and capacities, and to govern an infinite number of celestial worlds 2!

How so, though? Through our actions, speech, thoughts, and overall behavior; and for better or for worse 3.

For thanks to our good actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we’re said to maintain and empower any number of celestial and holy capacities and worlds, and even make them holier yet and more luminous 4. In fact, our sages termed us “builders” 5 given that we set whole supernal worlds in order much the way that builders arrange their projects and bolster them 6.

But it’s also true that as a result of our bad actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we correspondingly destroy many celestial and holy capacities and worlds 7, or we darken them or dim their light and holiness. We can even empower the forces of impurity, G-d forbid 8.

2. 

This, then, is the meaning of our having been created in “G-d’s image”: just as He controls and arranges all worlds each and every moment according to His will, He saw to it that we, too, have some degree of that control.

For G-d has granted us the ability to open and close 9 infinite numbers of resources and whole worlds by dint of the supernal sources of our actions, speech, and thoughts, and depending on how we utilize them each and every moment 10. As if we were actually in charge of them all, if one could say as much 11.

Footnotes:

1           We’re now entering into R’ Chaim’s own original enunciation of what came to be a well-known Mussar idea termed Gadlut Ha’adam – Human Greatness – as taught by R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel of Slobodka and his students.

Yet, R’ Chaim prefaces his remarks about our abilities with the term כביכול – “if one can say as much”. The expression is usually used when one is depicting G-d in too human terms, but it’s rarely used in the context of man (though see Rashi to Megillah 21 a ”K’viyachol”). Thus, what we’re about to hear about mankind’s abilities are true, but let’s not dare depict humans in too G-dly terms either (see note 10 below).

2             Understand that this phenomenon sets us apart from all other beings, including angels (see 1:10 below and see Zohar 1:5a for their jealousy about that). It enables us to be the model that everything else will follow (see 1:7 below), and it’s also the epitome of the often cited idea that our acts serve lofty purposes (see end of 1:9 below).

Now, while we’d have expected our physical actions to affect things as they do here on earth, who’d have expected our speech, thoughts and general demeanor to? R’ Chaim is thus underscoring the fact that those more subtle and often concealed qualities also have that effect. 

See 1:6 below for a reiteration of how we affect things for better or for worse.

3                R’ Chaim is of course referring to all the mitzvah-related actions (see 1:12 below), speech (see 1:13 below), and thoughts (see 1:14 below). But we don’t always engage in mitzvot, so how can we control the universe to the degree he’s indicating that we do (and how could it function)? But see Hilchot De’ot 3:2 where Rambam explains how we can turn everything we do into a mitzvah (also see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim  232:1). The fact that our “overall behavior” also affects things this way underscores the importance of our personality traits, which could be even more important than our physical, verbal, and mental actions (see Sha’arei Kedusha 1:2).

4                Isaiah 51:16 is cited here which reads, “And I placed My words into your mouth, and with the shadow of My hand I covered you, to plant the heavens and to found the earth”.

5                     See Berachot 64a.

6                    See R’ Chaim’s depiction of us as “builders” in the previous chapter, where he highlighted our limitations in that capacity versus G-d’s own omnipotence. This, too, will be referred to in note 10 below.

7                     Isaiah 49:17 which speaks of “those who destroy you and those who lay you to waste will come from you” is cited.

8                See R’ Chaim’s note to 1:12 below on this as well as Eitz Hachaim, Sha’ar Haklipot 3.

9                … the doors that allow for the free movement of…

10              R’ Chaim is making an exceedingly important point here: that we ourselves don’t ultimately affect the workings of the universe and its resources, since we’re not G-d, but we do enable them to function more or less easily one way or another by virtue of the fact that we are the gatekeepers. Thus, the power we have is to open and close doors, which is tremendous, but it’s quite secondary to G-d’s own power, needless to say (see notes 1 and 6 above).

And some of us are better at this than others, of course (see 1:14, 19 below about these two ideas).

See Gra on Sifrah D’tsiuitah 16b.

11              R’ Chaim concludes this chapter by citing the statement in Eicha Rabbah 1:33 to the effect that we “strengthen G-d” when we fulfill His wishes and “diminish His strength” when we don’t, if one could say as much. Zohar 2:32b which reiterates the point is also cited.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org

———————————————————-

Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes torah.org entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.