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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.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:2

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 2

1.

But, just how are we like G-d? To know that, though, we’d first have to realize that we’re actually told that we were created “in the image of E-l-o-h-i-m1. R’ Chaim underscores the fact that that’s the name of G-d that speaks to His being in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities 2.

And how much is G-d in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities? Completely. For, when we humans build something out of wood, for example, R’ Chaim points out, we don’t start off by actually creating wood: we simply take whatever available pieces of wood we need and set them in place. And when we’re finished, we leave, and the edifice we built stands on its’ own.

But when G-d (as E-l-o-h-i-m) “built” the universe He created it out of sheer nothingness by means of His limitless ability 3. And each and every moment literally He willfully imbues the world and its contents with “being and new light” 4. In fact, were G-d to withhold that for an instant, everything would then simply return to sheer nothingness 5. That’s why The Men of the Great Assembly worded the prayers to read “He renews the act of creation daily” 6, which means to say that G-d does that literally, moment by moment 7.

2.

Thus G-d is said to be in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities as signified by the term E-l-o-h-i-m 8 in that each and every resource and capacity is under His control, He provides them all with their capacity and power each and every moment, and He alone is capable of changing them and setting them in order as He sees fit 9.

And we’re somewhat like that, too, as we’ll see.

 

Footnotes:

1                We’ve translated the term as “the image of G-d” of course, since E-l-o-h-i-m is one of G-d’s names, but that translation is still and all somewhat misleading as we’ll see.

                  Now, we find that particular names depict specific characteristics. Someone named Shmuel, for example, may be called “Shmulie” by family, “Shmulke” by friends, “Samuel” (its English equivalent) by co-workers, “Sam” by others, etc. And this same man will likely act and be perceived by others according to the name in question. The same could be said about G-d, if you will. He too is represented by different names, seven of which are sacred (see Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:2) and scores of which are more like “appellations” (see Chizkuni to Exodus 14:22), and each represents a trait.

R’ Chaim’s point is that particular names of G-d depict specific Divine characteristics and that we’d need to know which characteristic is being expressed here by the use of the name E-l-o-h-i-m.

2                R’ Chaim refers to the citation of that in Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 5:1.

3                This depiction explains the following detail: E-l-o-h-i-m is the name for G-d that’s used in the recounting of creation (rather than the usual name Y-h-v-h).  So we’d have expected R’ Chaim’s point to be that our having been created “in the image of E-l-o-h-i-m” implies that we’re creative beings. Instead R’ Chaim points out just how unlike G-d we are on that level. For while humans certainly affect change, we still and all arrive in the middle of things then leave. We’re thus a vital element in the universe, but only an element nonetheless. Indeed, R’ Chaim is underscoring the idea that we humans are not creative so much as re-creative.

And he cites Zohar 2, 96a in a note below which differentiates between the names E-l-o-h-i-m and Y-h-v-h, and he addresses the subject in 3:9 below.

As for G-d creating the universe out of sheer nothingness, see 1:13, 3:2 below, as well as Ramban and Gra’s Aderet Eliyahu to Genesis 1:1, and Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 194.

4                “New light” means to say, additional degrees of animation.

See note to 1:13, 3:11 below and R’ Chaim’s remarks in Ruach Chaim 4:22, as well as Ramban to Genesis 1:4, Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael Ch. 1, and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1,

5                See Shabbat 88a and Ramban to Genesis 2:17.

A point to be made is that since everything can thus come undone and become sheer nothingness if G-d so willed it, and yet He hasn’t brought that about, G-d clearly intends for the universe to go on and isn’t utterly displeased with it, as some might think.

6                This is found in Yotzer Ohr before Kriat Sh’ma.

7                R’ Chaim also offers the fact that G-d is said to “be making” them now rather than to have made “the great luminaries” (Psalms 136:7) in the distant past.

He then offers a note here, his first in a long series of them throughout the book. We’ll offer the gist of this one and others like it that help us understand the point at hand, but few others.

The note raises the question as to why none of this moment-by-moment activity is discernible to us. And it offers that it’s because all of that goes on below the surface of things, in each thing’s spiritual “elements” and “fathers” (i.e., its non-material roots and antecedents) (R’ Chaim cites Zohar 1:23b as illustration of that fact. See 3:10 below for this same citation. Also see R’ Yitzchak’s note to 1:1 and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:1-2, 5 on this idea), which are themselves rooted in the four letters of G-d’s name Y-h-v-h (see 3:11 below), and which all join together to produce each and every thing moment by moment as is also spelled out by the concept of the different “parts” of time (see Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 6:2 and Pardes Rimonim 2:1).

Also see R’ Chaim’s note to 1:13 below.

8                … specifically, which is a plural term, thus alluding to G-d as E-l-o-h-i-m being in control of infinite numbers of things…

9                R’ Chaim’s next note at this instance makes the point that the term E-l-o-h-i-m is sometimes used in other contexts in the Torah, as when it refers to idols and national overlords (see Psalms 96:5, Micha 4:5, Zohar 3:8a, 208a), and judges (see Exodus 22:9 and Rambam about that in Moreh Nevuchim 2:6). But given  that none of these have inherent so much as G-d-given abilities (see R’ Chaim’s Ma’amarim 3 and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1-4), they’re clearly un-G-dly.

(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 1:1

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 1

1.

Amazingly enough, we’re said to have been created “in the image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27, 9:6). But what exactly does that mean? It surely speaks to a core-central part of our being that we’d have to comprehend if we’re ever to understand ourselves. So the greater part of this first Gate goes about explaining it while the idea reiterates through the entire work either overtly or subtly.

In point of fact, most of the mystical teachings of the Zohar focus on this seemingly other-worldly phenomenon 1. But we won’t be exploring the Zohar’s understanding of that here so much as the more implicit meaning of our having been created in His image as the earlier Literalists understood it 2.

2.

Now, the idea of our having been created in G-d’s “image” certainly isn’t to be taken literally, as G-d hasn’t an “image” per se 3. What it implies is that we have something in common with Him 4 — something vitally important as we’ll see.

Let’s explain the analogy between our beings and G-d’s image this way. It’s written for example that “I was like a bird of the wilderness; I was like an owl of the wasteland” (Psalms 102:7). That’s certainly not to say that the person who’s speaking here has wings or a beak, or that he’d literally become a bird; but rather, as the Literalists explained it 5, that he’s somewhat bird-like in that he might, for example, wander about the desert in solitude the way certain birds do or the like, but nothing more than that 6. So our having been created in G-d’s “image” implies that we’re somewhat like G-d. We’ll soon see what it means 7.

Footnotes:

1                See Eitz Chaim 1:2 for this point.

The Zohar (Parshat Ki Taitzai 279b, Tikkunei Zohar 19, 42a) uses the term Adam Kadmon (“Primordial Man”) when discussing this, thus referring to a more abstract notion of humankind. But R’ Chaim’s point is that he’ll be speaking about us specifically (though the term Adam Kadmon will be cited in 3:8).

Ari refers to Adam Kadmon very often in Otzrot Chaim, Sha’ar HaIggulim, and in Drush Adam Kadmon. He uses the expression Tzelem Elokim (“The Image of G-d”) in Otzrot Chaim, too. R’ Chaim’s son R’ Yitzchak (who wrote the Introduction above) added a lengthy and comprehensive treatment of the idea of Tzelem as explained in the Kabbalistic literature here which we won’t be addressing.

2               The so-called “Literalists” included Rambam (in this instance most especially and specifically, as we’ll see in note 6 below), Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and others. They were termed literalists because they strove to explain what the Torah was actually expressing. And so, for example, Rambam cited our ability to think as what likens us to G-d, while Ibn Ezra attributed it to the fact that we have an immortal and exalted soul.

3                After all, isn’t it written, “To whom can you compare G-d, and what likeness can you arrange for Him?” (Isaiah 40:18)?

4                That is, there’s a remote resemblance between G-d and us.

5                See Sha’ar HaHakdamot 5d for a discussion of the Literalists in this context.

6                This explanation of the extent of the metaphor is derived from the very first chapter of Moreh Nevuchim. Also see Ramban’s comments to Genesis 1:27.

7              Also see Ruach Chaim 2:1 and 2:2,5 below for a different discussion of this, as well as Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 80 and Kinat Hashem Tz’vaot 2.

(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.

Introduction

I

R’ Chaim of Volozhin never wrote an introduction to Nephesh Hachaim but his son R’ Yitzchak did so in his place, and we’ll be encapsulating it here, in this first part 1. R’ Yitzchak’s first point is that ordinarily an author would write an introduction himself that would humbly and modestly offer why the work was written and what its objectives were. But since his father didn’t write one, R’ Yitzchak set out to offer an introduction that would, ironically, almost boldly do all it could to cite his father’s greatness 2. We’ll encapsulate that introduction in this first part and go on from there to highlight the makeup of Nephesh Hachaim itself.

R’ Yitzchak says that he’d hardly know where to begin to express his father’s greatness, and that he himself was unworthy of the task. But R’ Chaim’s reputation is already well known, he then says, and he goes on to depict something of the great man’s personality and accomplishments. For one thing, aside from being a great, prodigious, and righteous scholar, he is also known for having established the great Yeshiva of Volozhin – the first actual yeshiva as we know it — and for having had many hundreds of students 3.

But even when he was young he was known to have been an amazingly diligent student who’d study day and night. At first he was a disciple of the well known author of Sha’agat Aryeh – R’ Aryeh Leib Gunzberg (c. 1695 – 1785), whose legal decisions were oftentimes accepted by Chassidim and Mitnagdim alike.

Then he became the principal disciple of the great and world-renown Gaon of Vilna, R’ Eliezer (1720 – 1797). The Gaon was not only a scholar of great depth and accomplishment but also an ascetic, kabbalist, philologist, and arguably the greatest Jewish scholar of the post-Talmudic era, and the one man who could lead the charge against the nascent Chassidic movement that seemed to threaten Jewish life at the time 4. R’ Chaim not only absorbed his teacher’s wisdom, he also served him humbly, and shivered in awe even many years later when he related things that his teacher had said.

So humble was R’ Chaim that he had no compunctions about drawing close to the poor and unlettered, he’d lecture about things that would not only speak to scholars but to those same simple individuals, and he’d somehow purposefully and unpretentiously address both in the course of his public teachings. He cared little about his physical settings or accoutrements, or his honor (never taking offense about anything untoward said about him), so humble was he. And he never took solace in all of the good and holy things he’d done, but always expected more of himself and questioned his own motivations.

Most tellingly, R’ Yitzchak, his son, remembers his father constantly asking him if he were doing enough to help others with their troubles, “since people weren’t created for their own situations in life (alone) but to help others as much as they can”.

The Introduction ends in a rather poignant way. R’ Yitzchak reports that on his death-bed R’ Chaim handed R’ Yitzchak his handwritten copy of Nephesh Hachaim and directed him to do two things after R’ Chaim would pass: to publish Nephesh Hachaim as soon as possible, and to see to the well-being of the by-then successful and world-famous Volozhin Yeshiva; and he then died.

Believing that his father would have understood just how much work was required to keep up the yeshiva, R’ Yitzchak focused on doing that, and thus didn’t have time to publish Nephesh Hachaim until some time had passed. But R’ Yitzchak took the tragic and haunting facts that his newest baby passed away about a week after his birth and that his “precious, beautiful, charming, and beloved” eight year old son Simcha Naftali Hertz also died within that period as signs from Heaven that he shouldn’t have delayed publishing Nephesh Hachaim in fact. So he set out to do that.

Thus ends the gist of the Introduction to Nephesh Hachaim.

II

A lot of theories have been enunciated about R’ Chaim’s intentions when he wrote Nephesh Hachaim. Was it perhaps meant to be a diatribe against the Chassidic movement, in line with the thoughts and actions of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon – or perhaps an acquiescence to the movement’s strength and numbers by that point? Was it a revelation of just how much the two schools of thought converge — or how they differ? Was it meant to be the embodiment of non-Chassidic Kabbalistic standards – or a statement to the affect that while there are differences, they aren’t fatal and that the schools are closer than thought despite the marked differences? Many argue one way or the other.

In any event we’re presented here with a glorious text of Mussar, Kabbalah, and Jewish Thought that serves as the most fundamental statement of “Lithuanian”, “Yeshivish”, non-Chassidic attitudes and perspectives. And it has allowed for great Yeshivish thinkers like R’ Shlomo Elyashiv, the author of the magisterial Leshem Shevo Vachlama; for the many Mussar masters, from R’ Yisrael Salanter onwards to contribute to Jewish Thought; and for the very many students of their thoughts to grow in the service of G-d in ways that would not have been possible without Nephesh Hachaim.

The book is comprised of four “Gates” and a section entitled “Chapters” that lies between the third and fourth gate. The first gate discusses just what our having been created “in G-d’s image” means; our ability to affect heaven and earth; the potency of our words and thoughts; our souls and their connections to G-d; the nature of repentance, and more.

The second gate discusses Jewish prayer and the import of the wording; the consequences of sin; what’s involved in “whole-hearted prayer”; intentions in prayer, and more.

The third gate is the most esoteric and complex, and it’s actually skipped by many because of that as well as because of the knotty implications that can be drawn from it. We’ll be especially careful in our wording and explanations there. It discusses the idea of G-d being the “site” upon which the universe stands; the danger in discussing this along with the need to discuss it in our day and age; G-d’s perspective of things versus our own; the nature of G-d’s having apparently withdrawn His being in order to allow for the creation of mortal beings, and the pros and cons of discussing this; G-d’s absolute rule, and more.

The “chapters” section discusses the dangers of egocentrism; purity of heart and altruistic service to G-d; the idea of attaching oneself onto G-d’s presence; practical mitzvah-observance and prayer; fearing G-d’s exaltedness versus fearing retribution, and more.

And the fourth gate encapsulates what had been said before and expands upon ideas like the importance of Torah-study and studying it altruistically; the fear of G-d; attaching oneself onto G-d’s presence and onto His Torah; the significance of original Torah insights; the personal and universal impacts of studying Torah; the fact that G-d’s presence dwells in this world when people study Torah, and more.

May G-d grants us the wherewithal to draw from the wisdom within Nephesh Hachaim and to thus serve Him wholeheartedly.


Footnotes:

1 R’ Yitzchak included a number of rather erudite scholarly footnotes to this Introduction which we’ve omitted since they would have taken us far afield and wouldn’t have served our purposes here. He provided notes throughout the book, too, which we also won’t be offering.

2 Though it’s not generally known, in fact most introductions are the very last thing written in a book. For it’s the venue through which the author presents the gist of the ideas that he’d come to realize after having written the book and dwelled on the points he made. R’ Chaim consequently didn’t write an introduction because he was still editing and adding on to the book right before his passing.

3 Before the establishment of the Volozhiner Yeshiva gifted young men would study with their local rabbi or perhaps from a more accomplished and learned rabbi of another town or city until he himself earned ordination and went on to be such a rabbi and teacher. But R’ Chaim perceived that that system could no longer thrive — or compete with the Western university system that was beginning to attract intelligent and inquisitive young Jewish men.

So the Volozhiner Yeshiva (and the entire yeshiva system) was created so as to be the hub of Jewish intellectual life. It was lively, intense, and thrilling, and there were always people studying there and parrying with each other in a search for truth.

4 Though it’s hard to imagine now, at the time the Chassidic movement seemed to be a threat to traditional Jewish life with its new practices and areas of concentration.