Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.
Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.
I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:
… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.
In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.
But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…
First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.
The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).
The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.
But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.
Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.
But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.
The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.
In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:
This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.
Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.
Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.
Section 3: Tzimtzum
As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.
I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.
Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )
Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.
In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.
But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”
It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).
According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:
Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…
Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62) explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.
However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:
First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.
Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.
But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.
In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan – for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.
This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah
Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)
And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.
So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.
I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.
Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”. Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.
With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.
By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining Torah study and the cognitive acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.
To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.
And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.