A Castle in the Air
(A continuation of my two Bilvavi posts [part 1, part 2]. The basic notion is the Maharal’s, that there are three aspects of the human soul, each living in a different universe: heaven, earth and the world between the person’s ears. And that each universe and therefore the corresponding aspect exists in order to enable three different relationships: between man and G-d, between him and other people, and between the person and themselves. All of which is modeled by the vessels in the Mishkan.
(Using the Vilna Gaon, I identified these aspects with the terms neshamah, nefesh and ru’ach (again, respectively), usually referred to by the acronym Nara”n (in ascending order of spirituality).)
Nara”n is perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts in Kabbalistic thought. For example, the Likuttei Amarim of the Tanya, an overview to Chassidic thought and the foundation of Chabad Chassidus, assumes knowledge of Nara”n with no explanation. Even though the concept is used repeatedly (e.g. ch. 2, 4, 14, etc..) it is never explained. Similarly, R. SR Hirsch (Collected Writings vol VIII) despite his strict rationalism, uses the idea without introducing it — and even though he explains ideas that are currently far more commonly known. It appears as though even as little as a century ago, Nara”n was a well-known concept, not needing elucidation even when writing to the masses.
R. Chaim Volozhiner explains Nara”n based on the breathing imagery used in Bereishis:
וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְ-הוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃
And Hashem G-d formed man of dirt from the ground and He breathed into his nostrils a living neshamah; and the man became a living nefesh.– 2:7
Rav Chaim writes:
Our Rabbisza”l already compared the three-fold living ru’ach of man to the making of a glass utensil to reviving the dead. They said, “It is a qal vachomer (a fortiori) argument from a glass utensil, which is made by the breath of flesh and blood… Flesh and blood, which is made by the breath of HaQadosh Baruch Hu, how much more so!”…
For the message must be similar to the metaphor. When we study the breath of the mouth of the worker into the glass container when he makes it, we find in it three concepts. The first idea is when the breath of air is still in his mouth, before it goes into the opening of the hollow tube, we can only call it then a “neshimah”. The second idea, when the breath enters the tube, and continues like a line, then it is called “ru’ach” (wind). The third, lowest, idea, is when the breath goes from the tube and into the glass, and inflates in it until it becomes a container to fit the will of the glass-blower, then his wind stops and is called “nefesh”, a term of rest and relaxation.
– Nefesh haChaim 1:15
The soul is likened to the breath of air that a glass blower uses to inflate hot glass. The Nefesh haChaim, following a far older metaphor, breaks down both processes into three parts. The first is the air, as it is still in the glassblower’s cheeks. This corresponds to the neshamah, the part of man which is most connected to Hashem. When the air leaves the glassblower’s mouth, it flows down a tube. The tube connects the glassblower and his work. In the same sense, the ru’ach dwells in the connection between the physical and the spiritual. This flow, a wind, is the ru’ach. From the tube, the air enters the glass, “dust of the ground”. This is the nefesh, giving shape and purpose to our physical selves.
This metaphor gives us another description of how the ru’ach, by being the decisor, also becomes a source of desires. Recall that I started this series with the notion that the ru’ach, man’s existence in the world of his own mind and in a relationship to himself, was a the person between the angel and the little devil propped on his shoulders. And yet now we’re saying it has desires too! The ru’ach is the connection between the nefesh and the neshamah, it exists because of the tension between being both Divine “breath” and clothed in earth. Yet, because it sits in this middle world, the ru’ach is also an entity in its own right.
The text from quoted earlier from the Vilna Ga’on is part of his discussion of the following gemara:
[The elders of the School of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania,] “Build us a house in the air of the world.” He pronounced a [Divine] Name, and [thereby] suspended himself between heaven and earth and said to them, “Send me bricks and cement from down there.”
They said, “Can anyone find the ability to lift them to there?”
[R. Yehushua] said, “Can anyone find the ability to build a house in the air?”
– Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg edition pg. 10b
The Gaon explains that the house in the air is clearly a reference to the ru’ach, suspended between heaven and earth. (After all, the word “ru’ach” also means “wind”.)
The ru’ach has the ability to decide, and thus the concept of Free Will. With will comes a desire to see that will implemented, to make the worlds outside ones head match the world as we imagine it could be. With will comes a hunger for power and control. Rather than being the means to get things done, they can take over and satisfying them can become an end in itself.
A person has control over an object when he possesses it. And money gives a person more opportunities to get more of his dreams accomplished. When, sadly, someone turns it into an end in itself, they can never be satisfied. The hunger is for a means, which can only be put to trying to get more. “He who has 100 zuz, wants 200.”
This is an aspect of the nefesh as a whole. It’s clear that the role of mitzvos between man and himself are not given the same central role in Jewish discourse as those between man and G-d and between man and other people. This is because they are not an end. The point is not self-contemplation. To be the perfect self is to be perfect in one’s relationsips, the same three relationships.
… including the relationship with oneself. This self-reference is a concept that comes up often when dealing with the concept of intelligence. And self-awareness, consciousness of one’s own thought, is the essence of the nefesh, of making Free Willed choices.
Power and control when turned into an ends is unproductive. “Can anyone find the ability to build a castle in the air?”