Nurture or Nature?

Are we born with a Nephesh, Ruach, and a Neshama or do we earn them? At one point (1, p. 206a) the Zohar indicates rather broadly that while the Nephesh is “ruled over” by the Ruach which is “on a higher level than the Nephesh and maintains it appropriately”, the Neshama which is the highest level “rules over the other two”. It then states, though, that all three elements are only “incorporated in people who merit them by their Divine service”.

As it explains, when a person is born, he’s granted a Nephesh “which is a … means by which he can be rectified”. Once he comes to “purify that level, he’s then rectified (further) by being crowned with a Ruach which is a holy level that descends upon the Nephesh so as to crown the person who merits it”. Once he’s “elevated by means of a Nephesh and Ruach” and he then further elevates himself serving G-d appropriately, a Neshama “then descends upon him … so that he might be crowned with a high and holy level.” So it seems that we nurture the higher elements of our being. (Also see Zohar 2, p. 94b and 3, p. 70b; as well as Shabbat 104a and Yoma 39a.)

But the Zohar seems to say otherwise elsewhere (unless it’s only talking about a person who has indeed earned all three levels). We’re taught (Zohar 2, p. 141b) that Nephesh, Ruach, and Neshama are intertwined and interdependent, and that “each exhibits its strength in (one of) 3 places (after death). The Nephesh remains in the grave (with the body) until the body decomposes in the soil … The Ruach enters the earthly Garden of Eden (as opposed to the Heavenly one) and it assumes the shape the body had on earth and likewise dons the (celestial) garment it’s to wear there … The Neshama immediately ascends to the place (in Heaven) its derived from … So when a person is in need (of help) when he’s in distress and he goes to (his parents’ gravesite to ask them to intercede for him in Heaven), the Nephesh (of one or both of his parents) is incited and it goes to … incite the Ruach, which goes to incite that person’s parents (at their gravesite), who then go to incite the Neshama, and God then shows mercy on His world”. (For more on visiting gravesites see Ta’anit 16a and 23a; Baba Metzia 85b; and Zohar 3, p. 70b and 71b.)

At a couple of other places (1, p. 79a; and Zohar Chadash, Breishit 10c and 15d) the Zohar makes the point that the Neshama works with the Nephesh to rectify the body once one reaches bar (or bat) mitzvah age, which seems to say that the two (along with the Ruach) are always together. (Though see Ketem Paz to Zohar 2, p. 94b where he indicates that one only gets a Neshama after age 40, which is why the early masters never taught their disciples mysticism until that age.)

Nonetheless, see Zohar 1, p. 218b where it’s pointed out that even wrongdoers have a Neshama.

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