Bilvavi, part I

בלבבי משכן אבנה להדר כבודו,
ובמשכן מזבח אקים לקרני הודו,
ולנר תמיד אקח לי את אש העקידה,
ולקרבן אקריב לו את נפשי היחידה.

In my heart I will build a mishkan to the magnificence of His honor,
In this mishkan I will establish an altar to the pride of His glory,
For an eternal lamp I will take for myself the fire of the Aqeidah,
And for an offering I will bring Him my unique soul.

- R’ Yitzchak Hutnerzt”l

The Torah is so sparse in the discussion of so many things. The narratives leave out all details of the scene and the people’s motivations that aren’t critical to the message. Mitzvos are reduced to their bare form, requiring derashos and other techniques to extract the details.

But not the building of the mishkan, the “dwelling place” where Hashem’s presence was felt during the period of the Exodus until the completion of Shelomo’s Temple. Here the entire construction is described in detail. Not just once, but twice — the giving over of the mitzvah and the people’s actually doing it are listed separately. Thirteen chapters. The creation of the universe fits in two, the revelation at Sinai in three! And how long did the mishkan last? The mitzvah of lulav and esrog is fit into a single verse! What’s the overwhelming significance of the mishkan that justifies such volume?


The second mishnah of Pirqei Avos reads:

Shimon HaTzaddik was from the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, “On three things the world stands: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on supporting loving-kindness.”

As we saw in an earlier post, the Maharal (Derekh haChaim ad loc.) gives broad significance to this mishnah. The three pillars upon which the world stands as being are three classes of relationship that a person is capable of: with Hashem (avodah – service [of G-d]), with other people (gemilus chassadim - supporting others through kindnesses) and with oneself (Torah). In Mussar, these are described as the three categories of mitzvos, bein adam laMaqom, bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam lenafsho, respectively.

Each relationship is enabled by a different world in which a person lives. As the Maharal writes:

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah“…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him – by serving Him…. With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

He continues to explain that that if existence is based on three principles, then any act which takes an ax to one of these pillars should not be committed even under pain of death, existence itself would have a lower priority. This is why there are three sins that are yeihareig ve’al ya’avor — one must let oneself get killed rather than violate. Idol worship is obviously the antonym of avodah. Murder is the ultimate denial of chessed. And the Maharal explains the link between Torah and sexual immorality as follows:

The glory of the Torah is that it is separated from the physical entirely. There is nothing that can separate man from the physical but the Torah of thought. The opposite is sexual immorality, which follows the physical [chomer] until one is thought of like an animal or donkey [chamor], it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical.


The Seifer haYetzirah describes three aspects of the soul. We find in later Qabbalah sources that in all there are five levels of soul; those are penimiyos, internal to the self, and two more are chitzoniyos. The three penimiyos are nefesh, ruach and neshamah (Nara”n); the two chitzoniyos are chayah and yechidah (Cha”i).

The division of labor within Nara”n is a subject of dispute. The Ramchal places all of thought and emotion in the nefesh, and the ruach is the first step toward being a spiritual being. The Vilna Gaon in his “Peirush al Kama Aggados” (most easily found as the appendix to “The Juggler and the King” by Rabbi Aharon Feldman) disagrees. It is his model we’ll be using as nomenclature in this blog. The Gaon writes:

“There are three watches each night. In the first, the donkey brays. During the second, the dogs bark “hav, hav“. At the third, the infant nurses from his mother’s breast, and a woman converses with her husband.” (Bava Metzi’a 83b)

The commentators explain that this [text] is about three souls of a person: Nara”n. Nefesh has in it the lust for things of the body, which is why these things are called [by the expression] “a wide nefesh“. The ruach contains honor and jealousy, as it says “a tall ruach”, “an overpowering ruach”. Apparently, ruach is the jealousy that dries one out, as it says (Mishlei 14), “The dryness of bones is jealousy, and all honor and its traits are suspended by the vanities of the world.”
The first watch is the beginning of childhood. Man is drawn to desire because of childhood and freedom. As it is said, “Things done in his youth are much vanity in his old age.” As Rashi wrote about sexual desire, and so it is for all desires. This is the braying donkey [chamor] it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical [chomer]“.
In the middle: Man goes and chases honor and wealth, like dogs that bark “hav hav” [which in Aramaic means: "Give me, give me"].
In the third watch, when he sees that his demise approaches, he returns in teshuvah, and that is when the neshamah sparks up. That is when the baby nurses from his mother’s breasts, as it says (Mishlei 5) “Her breasts will nurse you at any time that you love her.” And a woman talks with her husband as it says (Hoshea 2), “And I will return to my first husband”, for he returns to Hashem. Because Torah brings one to action, as it says in the prayer Hashiveinu [in the Amidah], “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close to Your worship.”

Combining the Gra’s terminology with the Maharal, we could put it as follows:

Each aspect of the soul exists to enable a relationship. They are also our presence in a world that also exists to allow the relationship to happen.

The nefesh, our animal drives, is our presence in the physical world. Through it we have the ability to encounter other people and work together for our common welfare. It also provides us with the opportunity to extend generosity by supplying each other our physical needs. As the aphorism goes, “יענעמס גשמיות איז בא מיר רוחניות — another’s physical needs/wants are for me, spiritual.” (See here for a post on the subject.)

The neshamah, is our presence in heaven, and seat of our higher calling. It enables us to encounter G-d.

Living in tension between them is the world between our ears, our mind. Free will, self, ego.

This returns us to the observation I made about man’s three-fold nature in that earlier posting:

It is important to note how all consider the basic human condition to come in threes, even if they don’t agree what the three are. The same is true of Freud’s Id-Ego-Super Ego, Adler’s Child-Adult-Parent, etc… Why?

When the alarm goes off, a person is conflicted. We can group his calls into two. One side realizes he has important things to accomplish that day, he has to get to shul, not be too late to his job, etc… The other just wants to hit the snooze button and get more sleep. Or, in choosing whether or not to sin, the yeitzer hatov says one thing, the yeitzer hara is recommending another. A movie or television show has a person making a decision, and they have a little image of him dressed as an angel on one shoulder, and another dressed as a devil on the other.

But you notice in those pictures, there are always three images of the person — the two angels, and the person himself. When I hear opposing callings from each yeitzer, or my body wants one thing and my sense of duty says another, there is always an “I” doing the hearing who has to decide between them. In the courtroom of my mind, there is a lawyer arguing each side, and a judge.

Decision making inherently conjures up three entities. And being a person is all about freedom of will.

In each world, we can run amok in trying to master it. We could become hedonists, idolators or power-hungry egotists. That is the perversion of taking the means and turning it into the ends. We can therefore use this model to view the conflict between the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara, the good and evil inclinations in two different ways:

When waking up in the morning, the conflict is between the nefesh‘s desire for physical comfort, and the neshamah’s desire to do something meaningful with one’s day.  The conscious will, a function of the ru’ach, must decide between them. In this example, the nefesh is playing the role of yeitzer hara, and the neshamah that of the yeitzer hatov.

Alternatively, we can view the conflict as one between ga’avah, the need to expand the self and take over, playing in the field of nefesh; and the anavah, knowing one’s place in the scheme of things, to answer (anah), and connect to others, in the field of the neshamah. Trying to take over a domain vs. trying to establish relationship may be the more primary criterion than physical vs. spiritual. Idolatry is spirituality as well, after all.

On the other hand, R’ Soloveitchik’s Adam I, the pinacle of creation who is charged to “fill the world and subdue it” isn’t inherently evil, nor is Adam II, who seeks redemption through building communities, relationships, inherently good.

The error falls in when we confuse means and ends. Whether it’s placing the domain as the goal of the relationship or the physical as that of the spiritual.

(To be continued in part II, including how this relates to the mishkan.)


APPENDIX:

There is an interesting parallelism between this model and the “Three Viennese Schools of Psychology”.

They too recognized the three-fold nature of man implied by having conflicting desires and a third party that is the “I” who chooses between them. However, Freud did not recognize spirituality. Rather than a neshamah, he has the superego enforcing rules, which derive by parental and societal pressure. To Freud, the power of decision between the desires necessary to thrive in the physical world and the need for a redeeming relationship within that world. Thus, the superego records the taboos of society, and a person pays to fit in by repressing desire. Nefesh.

Adler saw man’s basic conflict as being the ru’ach‘s need for self-worth. Decision making becomes entirely a ru’ach vs nefesh issue — am I an animal, or a “self” worthy of respect?

Frankl recognized that man has a drive for meaning no less primary than his drives for sex, food, or comfort. A truer tension between nefesh and neshamah.