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Jewish Journal

Day 2704 - What is a Soul?

by Salvador Litvak

July 25, 2012 | 1:20 pm

Courtesy Library of Congress

One week to go. After seven and a half years of reading Talmud, only seven days and seven pages remain until the Daf Yomi cycle renews. G-d willing, I will attend the massive celebration called Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey next week, along with nearly 100,000 other Jews. I can scarcely believe it.

Naturally, this event coincides with the absolute busiest, most intense, and most critical days of my career as we complete post-production on Saving Lincoln, and commence production on the Talmud documentary. Thank you, G-d, for having sufficient faith in me to hand me this plate. And as we near the end of the Talmud’s final tractate, Niddah, and the beginning of its first tractate, Berachos, we discover a wonderful connection between the two, and the perfect way to complete the circle.

Here is the Torah’s most basic commandment, repeated twice daily in the verses of the Shema: “And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” We say it so often, that unless we really think about it, the prayer ends up meaning, “You should love G-d a lot!” We can learn quite a bit, however, from taking a closer look at these words, in particular the middle phrase, “with all your soul.”

R’ Simlai expounded… Throughout one’s life on Earth, there are no days more blissful than those in the womb. (Niddah 30b)

I can get a handle on “With all your heart.” In the ancient world, the heart was thought to be the seat of intelligence as well as emotion. Thus, “with all your heart” means, at least in part, that one ought to love G-d by choosing good over evil, thus submitting to G-d’s will. Proof is in the Shema itself, where we are also admonished not to stray after our hearts and our eyes, in that order. I believe this means we must not use our intelligence to rationalize the pursuit of unpermitted pleasures. Rather we must use our seichel to creatively and consistently do good.

And they teach the unborn child the entire Torah… (Niddah 30b)

“With all your might” is understood to mean with all your wealth. In other words, dedicate all your resources to the pursuit of good (see Berachos 54a). An alternative interpretation from the same source: whatever the L-rd metes out to you, good or bad, thank Him.

Loving G-d with all one’s heart and might are thus relatively straightforward, at least in terms of understanding what is demanded of us. Performing these commandments is of course another matter, but the middle verse is mysterious even in its demand: what does it mean to love G-d “with all your soul?”

But as soon as the child emerges into the air of the world, an angel comes and strikes him on his mouth, causing him to forget the entire Torah. (Niddah 30b)

The most famous interpretation of “with all your soul” comes from Rabbi Akiva. This great teacher and tzadik interpreted this mysterious phrase to mean that you shall love G-d even if he takes your soul from you - in other words, even if that love costs you your life. Though he uttered it twice a day all his life, Akiva was troubled that he would never have the opportunity to fulfill this commandment.

Tragically, his opportunity came. As Rome pressed down upon Israel, the teaching of Torah was outlawed, and Akiva continued to teach. He was arrested and sentenced to a grisly death. As the torture proceeded, Akiva recited the Shema. His grieving students asked, “Our teacher, even to this extent?” Yes. And he died saying, “Hear O Israel, The L-rd Our G-d, The L-rd is One.” And the echo of a voice emanated from Heaven, proclaiming, “Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva” for you have already gained your place in the World to Come. (Berachos 61b)

Ever since, Jews have remembered Akiva and followed his example when the choice was idolatry or death. Fortunate are we who have never faced such a choice. But in the absence of such calamity, are we unable to love G-d with all our souls?

To fashion an answer, we must fathom what a soul is.

The child does not leave the womb before it is made to swear allegiance to G-d and His precepts. (Niddah 30b)

A soul is capable of apprehending the entire Torah while still in the womb. It is a spark of G-d, entrusted to an individual, and sent forth into this world to make a life.

While still in the presence of G-d, my soul can grasp the entire Torah at once, but as I separate, that wisdom becomes muddy and then forgotten. I venture into the world unarmed with the knowledge I most need - knowledge of my Creator’s will. Why?

At night, I dream. My soul returns to its Source, and I grasp huge ideas in an instant. Then I awake, and again I forget. Why?

And what is the content of the oath that is administered to the unborn child? He is told as follows: “Become a righteous person and not a wicked one…” (Niddah 30b)

If my soul remained connected to its Source, it would be nullified in G-d’s perfect Oneness. My soul could not choose…anything. It would simply be. Instead, G-d entrusts me with a spark of the Oneness and lets me live my own life. What is asked in return? That I employ it wisely, righteously, lovingly. As I would want my child to be employed.

Be aware that the Holy One, Blessed is He, is pure, and His heavenly servants are pure, and the soul that He placed within you is also pure. If during your sojourn on Earth you guard it in purity, fine and well. But if not, I shall take it back from you.” (Niddah 30b)

Open a Jewish prayer book. Upon awaking we are to say, “Thank you for restoring my soul to me. Your faithfulness is great.” What is G-d’s faithfulness? As my friend, Naftali Rubin reminded me, it is faith in us that we will perform what is expected of us.

We study Torah in order to learn the instructions of life - to know what is expected. Perhaps even more, we study Torah because through the very act of studying we connect with the Source of our souls.

A few pages later in the prayer book we read, “My God, the soul which you have placed within me is pure. You have created it, you have formed, you have breathed it into me, and you preserve it within me. Eventually, You will take it from me, and restore it to me in the World to Come. So long as the Soul is within me, I offer thanks to You, L-rd my G-d and G-d of my ancestors.”

Thank you, G-d, for entrusting me with this precious gift. May I merit to make good on Your faith in me.


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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s fiery trial as Commander-in-Chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

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