Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Man's Inner Battle

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

Throughout life man finds himself on a battlefield.  A war rages within man, as he struggles for his very own identity.  Because man’s consciousness identifies more readily with his material and physical side, the elements of man that he shares with the lower levels of creation exert a greater influence on man.  These forces – which drive him toward a lower, animal-like existence in place of an elevated, human existence – pull at man constantly and are tremendously hard to overcome.[1]

Man’s internal tension between his natural pull towards his animalistic side and his more noble desire to draw closer to his Godly essence is compared to a battlefield by the Zohar (Ki Tetzei 96a).  The verse in Devarim 21:10 reads, “When you go out in battle against your enemy… (כי תצא למלחמה על איביך).”  According to the Zohar, the battle described in the verse is not an actual war against physical enemies, but rather the personal internal war between body and soul that exists within a person.[2]

According to R. Mordechai Cohen, a student of the great kabbalist R. Yitzchak of Luria (The Ari z”l), this battle is far more challenging than a physical war.

“When you go out in battle against your enemy,” This [verse describes] the great battle between man’s inclinations that he wages constantly.  Once Alexander the Great returned from war after a three year campaign in which he led a fierce offensive until he finally was victorious.  Upon returning, the wise and learned Aristotle went out to greet him and said, “You have won the small war, now you must win the big war.”  [Alexander] asked him, “Is there possibly a war that is greater [than the one I just fought]?”  [Aristotle] responded, “Yes. The constant war with oneself.  For who is strong?  Only he who conquers his own inclination for evil.”  (Sifsei Kohen, Devarim 21:10)

The Malbim even suggests that the lifespan of mankind was shortened by God due to the intensity of this battle.  He thus explains the verse stated in the Torah after the flood, “And God said, ‘My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but meat - his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.’” (Bereshis 6:3),[3]

Then God saw that it was not good that man live a long life, for the neshama in man is constantly at war with the body - which strays after material passions.  It is not fitting that the spirit of man that I breathed into man should fight with man indefinitely, that is, throughout a long lifetime.  For with the passage of time, the body will be victorious over the spirit and pull man down to the animalistic passions and the “meat.”  [Through the victory of the body] man’s spirit becomes “meat”, and this is the intent of the verse “For he too is meat.” (Malbim, Bereshis 6:2)

Dominion of the Spirit                                

Through much hard work man is able to use his neshama to overcome the influence of his lower forces (his ruach and nefesh).  Eventually, the transcendent Godly elements in man are able to control and rule over the animalistic elements.[4] 

The Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah 34:10) states that this is the true difference between one who is righteous and one who is not,

The non-righteous – they are under the authority of their hearts. The righteous – their hearts are under their authority.

Man truly embodies his humanity only when his unbridled heart, the source of his passions, is ruled by his mind.  Man is truly man only when he has trained his spiritual forces to rule over his animalistic forces.  In such a case, his heart is under his dominion. 
One whose fails to rule over his lower forces, is ruled by his passions.  In such a case, his neshama is dominated, and not that which dominates.[5]

Similarly, the Rambam records the unfortunate results when man’s elevated intellect does not rule over his lower forces,

When man pursues his material desires and his material drive rules over his intellectual essence, when his intellect is enslaved to his material desires to the extent that he is like an animal, which only conceives thoughts of eating, drinking, and physical relations, then the divine potential will not be realized, and he will regress as if he is an uncouth beast, stalking through a sea of emptiness... (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna)

Ultimately, success and failure as a human being are a function of success and failure in the conflict between these forces within man.  To succeed man must overcome his natural inborn tendencies towards the animalistic elements within him, and yearn for a higher existence. 

The Chazon Ish suggests that this is the explanation of the famous statement of Chazal that success in religious growth is only achieved by one who “kills himself” over it.  Chazon Ish explains that this does not mean to literally kill oneself, God forbid.  Rather it is a charge to destroy the superficial non-elevated elements of man – the lower “self” that man more readily identifies - in order to live a higher, more spiritual, existence.[6]

When man’s pursuits are directed toward higher ideals, he empowers his elevated neshama, succeeds as a human being, and is elevated over all of creation.  When his pursuits are directed towards lower, material goals he empowers his lower forces, defaults on his humanity, and forfeits his elevated position in creation.

If man uses his Godly neshama to rule over his lower forces, a change occurs within him.  Through the dominion of the spiritual and the Godly, man’s lower forces are not only subjugated by the neshama, but they are actually uplifted by it.  The influence of the neshama has the ability to effect a change in the lower forces, and to slowly elevate and “purify” the entire material side of man.

In this vein, the Malbim compares man to the alchemist of old, who would attempt to change base metals into precious silver and gold.  So too, man is challenged to turn his inborn physical material self into a more elevated Godly being. 

It is clear to me that the Godly neshama that comes to man from above, about which it says “He blew into him the breath of life” is distinct from the body… However, the physical force in man, which is called ruach, is created with the body and man throughout his life undertakes the process of alchemy to change it into a transcendent spiritual entity… [This change process] is achieved though thoughts and actions, for through them [man] can separate from the lowly physicality and become a transcendent spiritual entity. (Malbim, Torah Ohr, Bamidbar 19:1)

[1] R. Tzadok ha-Kohen suggests (Pri Tzadik, Bahalosecha #1) that for this reason the Talmud uses the term “His soul rested (נח נפשיה)” to refer to death.  For death is the only time that one finally rests from the great battle within himself.  In this context Chazal warn a person (Berachos 29a), “Do not be fully confident in yourself until the day you day (אל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך).” 

[2] In fact, R. Simcha Bunim of Pashischa (Kol Mevaser vol. 1) suggests that this is not just a hint, but the actual intent of the verse.  Certainly for a Jewish soldier the verse addresses a physical battle.  But for non-combatants, the plain meaning of the verse is the inner struggle in man.   

[3] This explanation of the verse was stated earlier by the Radak in his Sefer Shorashim (אות ד, כרך דון). 

[4] Maharal in one locations states that man is called Adam (אדם) for it is a combination of the letter Alef (א), which can mean “above” or “beyond,” and the word dam (דם), which means blood.  Together the name states that man can transcend “his blood.”  Blood in this context is a reference to man’s lower forces.  Blood is associated with the heart, an organ directly related to blood circulation, and the headquarters of man’s ruach. Blood is also associated with the liver, as the Talmud teaches is an organ than is primarily made up of blood, and is the headquarters of man’s nefesh.

[5] R. Tzadok ha-Kohen explains that the unbridled passions of the heart (ruach) is a force shared by man and animal.  Hence we find many verses that indicate that sin is rooted in the heart.  R. Tzadok writes (Takanas ha-Shavaim #2): “The primary source of sin stems from the heart, as it says, “Do not stray after your heart” for it is the headquarters of the evil inclination, as it says (Bereshis 8:21) “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  Hence we say twice daily in the third paragraph of Shema, “Do not stray after your heart or your eyes.” 

[6] The Yismach Moshe (Beshalach 153a) uses this concept to explain the statement of Chazal, “The Righteous, when they die are called “living.”  He explains that a man only truly “lives” when he brings “death” to his superficial existence.    

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