Translated by Rabbi Lazer Brody
Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai teaches us in the Zohar that the main purpose in the creation of the world is that we get to know Hashem. The prophet Isaiah alludes to this when he says that that everything is created to reveal Hashem’s honor. In other words, we have stimuli all around us that reveal Hashem’s honor and help us get to know him. A dazzling sunset, a majestic mountain range, or a butterfly’s wings are a few examples. All you have to do is to take a closer look at a bee’s eye or at a human heart to cry out in praise of Hashem. If you live way up north in Canada or in Alaska, your body might be cold, but it’s enough to look at the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights dancing in the heavens at night to warm your heart. How can anyone who’s ever seen the Northern Lights or a peacock’s tail not fall in love with Hashem? It just goes to show you how our course and crass bodies get in the way of our soul’s true enjoyment of the world.
Rebbe Nachman addresses the point of body and soul in Likutei Moharan I:37. He says that the body and soul are parallel and correspond to the opposing aspects of human and animal, spiritual and material, wisdom and ignorance, light and darkness, and life and death. In other words, body, animal, and material are synonymous and associated with darkness and death. They are finite and come to an end always. On the other hand, the real “human” is the soul, associated with light and spirituality – this is life that never ends. Da’at, or spiritual awareness, means choosing the light over the darkness and enabling the spiritual to prevail over the material.
The difference between man and animal is that man has a soul, a potential to attain unlimited spiritual heights. The animal remains nothing more than a slab of flesh with a basic instinct for survival. Animals like and dislike, insofar as they like someone or something that enhances their existence by giving them food and they like or dislike whatever causes them pain or threatens their existence. But an animal remains spiritually stationary – it cannot move up the spiritual ladder to get closer to Hashem. It remains physical.
A man who remains physical, staying stationary on the spiritual ladder, is not doing his intended task. This is the classic under-achiever, whose spiritual accomplishments are no more than an animal’s. But, an animal is created to fulfill its bodily needs in order to survive. Animals don’t indulge in bodily gratification that doesn’t have anything to do with survival. So in that respect, when a human indulges in satisfying bodily appetites, he’s on the level of an animal. Even worse, when those appetites have nothing to do with survival and wellbeing, and they’re even damaging to the body, then the indulging human is worse than an animal. Animals run away from fire and smoke. Humans take tobacco, burn it, and then inhale the smoke with all its tar and toxins into their lungs. No animal in creation would do such a thing.
So we see, just as there is human versus animal, there is spiritual as opposed to material. Our soul is our spiritual self, capable of attaining a level of spiritual refinement that no archangel can attain. And once again, our bodies are material. If we choose the path of bodily pleasures and pursuits, we’re lower than animals. But, if we make our bodies the vehicles that perform the wishes of the soul, then we’re above the angels. This in essence is our free choice: choosing the light of spiritual awareness over the darkness of ignorance and self-delusion, choosing soul over body, and choosing the spiritual over the material.
Don’t misunderstand – our bodies perform the mitzvas. If we work out for an hour in the gym to parade our muscles at the poolside, then we’re nothing more than animals. But if we do the same exact hour’s workout at the gym so that we’ll have the stamina to serve Hashem with more vigor, then our muscles becomes tools of spirituality. If you eat a juicy rib steak to get the vitamin B12 that your brain needs to learn Torah at its best, then you’re doing a mitzvah. But if we eat meat outside the context of a Shabbat meal just for the sake bodily gratification, then there’s no mitzvah involved.
Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai explains in the Zohar the inner meaning of Moses’s rod that turned into a snake. He says that if we partake of anything in this world for the gratification of bodily appetites, then that substance is like ingesting a snake. But, if we partake of the same substance with the orientation of fulfilling a mitzvah and serving Hashem, that substance becomes like a rod of Moses to strengthen our souls. This is what King Solomon meant in Ecclesiastes when he said, “Hashem created this as opposed to this” – everything in creation can be used for good or otherwise. The atom can illuminate the world or destroy the world. We can feed the body or feed the soul. We can use this world to attain spiritual awareness and perfect our souls or we can use this world to succumb to the cardiac, respiratory, disease, and digestive problems that we get from junk food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and chasing other bodily lusts.
Torah and bodily lust are mutually exclusive. Hashem gives the Torah to those who have the capability of controlling their bodies and making them subservient to the soul. If a person’s head is into bodily appetites, then his Torah learning – even if he has a very high IQ – will be superficial at best. The fact that a so-called student of Torah smokes cigarettes or eyeballs woman is a clear sign that he hasn’t internalized anything that he has learned.
Our sages tell us the story of Aristotle. We all know that Aristotle had a tremendous IQ. Yet, he was once found drunk as a skunk in an Athens gutter. Several of his pupils dressed in their lily-white aristocratic tunics found him lying in the mud and the filth. They bent down in disbelief and asked, “Is that you, Aristotle?”
The famous philosopher replied in a stupor, “In the study hall, I’m Aristotle. Out here, I’m just a drunk.”
We Jews don’t differentiate between inside the study hall and outside. That’s why we call ourselves Bnei Torah, the sons of Torah – we live by Torah 24 hours a day. Happy is he who can proudly say that he has tamed the animal within him, and put all its power to serving Hashem. An ox is fine, as long as it’s shouldering the yoke of Torah and mitzvoth.