What is the Soul?
By Avi Lazerson
What is a "soul"? We all know that a person exists in two states: alive and dead. By alive, we mean that he walks, talks, functions, and grows; dead means that the person does not respond to any stimulant, can not grow and the body deteriorates. We explain the difference by saying that a living person has his soul inside of him and regarding a dead person, we say that his soul departed.
It is elementary in all cultures and religions that there is a "soul". Although the soul can not be comprehended in a positive sense, we can not see it in any manner of speaking, yet we can apprehend it in only in its negative sense, when it no longer resides in the body.
The soul, we say, is the aspect of the body which gives or causes the organism to grow and have vitality. Without the soul, the body deteriorates and becomes putrid; it is the soul that injects life into the body. More so, it is the soul that is the life of the body, the life force of the body, the charging agent that gives animation and growth to the body.
Going one step further the soul is more than just the life of the person, the body is the vessel in which this true form of life can manifest itself. The real life is the soul; it resides temporarily in the body the body is merely an abode for the soul.
The soul has this power because it is connected to the source of all life and all power G-d. Since only G-d has true life, a life that knows no end, no death, no limits, a dimension of eternity and infinity, the soul which is an "extension" of G-d has a part of this dimension it too possesses the ability to transcend gross material life.
The body which is created from the crass material aspects of this world is subject to decay and demise but the soul which is a pure extension of G-d transcends the physical limitations of creation.
There are limitations on the soul. In relation to the body, the soul is considered as a "piece of the divine" since it continues its existence even after the demise of the body. However in relationship to G-d Himself, the soul is a created thing and no matter how divine it may appear to us, in relation to G-d it is a limited and created being.
Therefore the soul can experience certain things which are peculiar to the body. The body can suffer and experience pleasure; it can be born and die and under certain circumstances, so can the soul.
The soul comes into the body for a purpose. Each soul has a task to perform in this world and therefore is put into a body in that it may activate the body to perform these deeds. Yet in each body there is a force which opposes the desires of the soul. This force is called by several names; the evil inclination, the animal soul, or the natural soul. (We shall use the term 'evil inclination' for purposes of simplicity).
The body has its own desires and wishes to enjoy the pleasures of this world. It has no sense of the divine or spiritual realms. It relates only to the physical of the world and that which is in it. It is looking for its particular pleasures, whether it is in food, drink or even the 'higher' pleasures of life, music, literature or thought. The evil inclination wants the body only to pursue these worldly pleasures to fulfill its singular purpose. Yet it is seen clearly that indulgence in pleasure does not bring lasting pleasure but rather increased desires to indulge more and worse, pain from not being able to indulge more. The evil inclination seduces the person into believing that physical pleasures are the purpose for the person's existence and justification for its daily efforts.
The more that a person listens to this evil inclination, the less he can have an awareness of the divine side to his being. The evil inclination can be so strong that he will deny the existence of spirituality or even worse trick the man into believing that he can be spiritual and indulge in the gross materialism at the same time.
The soul, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It relates to the divine and desires to do as G-d wills, yet it is captive in a body which at times appears hostile. It is incumbent on the person to subdue his evil inclination and give his G-dly soul a chance to accomplish that for which the body was created the pursuit of the will on G-d on earth.
The days and years of the body are numbered after many years the body must die. If the soul succeeds in its mission in this world, meaning doing the will of G-d according to the Torah, then when the soul leaves the body, it will go to its reward. Conversely, if the soul was not able to convince the body to do good, it must be purified in order to return to its place from which it emanated. The process of receiving a reward we call going to heaven; the painful process of purification we call hell.
Whereas there exist righteous people as well as evil people, most are somewhere in the middle most people have some mitzvoth and some sins. Therefore so that the soul may be rewarded for its mitzvoth it must first go through the purification process that will enable it to accept the reward.
The reward is not something that we can comprehend in this world, since the mitzvoth are really a divine command which is enclothed in a physical act; the reward is not a physical reward but a spiritual one. The pleasure of this reward is so great that it can not be understood by our physical minds since the pleasure is from the dimension of the spiritual however, know that it is very intense.
We must remember our purpose in being in this world, a world of spiritual darkness void of any desire for the divine. It is only here that our soul can unite with our dense and physical body and use it to bring both the body and the world to its ultimate perfection by uniting in a divine act called a mitzvah. At this point in time, the ultimate purpose of creation is being achieved and a union of the spiritual and physical is achieved. This is the purpose of the soul.
from the January 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine