The Nature of the Soul
In order to understand why God gave these seven specific commandments—the Laws ofBnei Noach—to all of humanity, we must first briefly explain how the human soul functions.
The human soul has both a Divine and a physical, or animal aspect. In Hebrew these are referred to as the Divine soul (nefesh Elokit) and the animal soul (nefesh behamit) as defined in the Tanya,1 by the Chassidic Master, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
All human beings possess a Divine spark. The difference between one human and another lies in the extent to which the spark has entered and plays an active role in his or her psyche. (We use the term “psyche” to refer to both the conscious and the unconscious planes of the soul).
When the spark fully enters the psyche2 it is known as a Divine soul. And so we speak of Jews as possessing a Divine soul. With regard to a non-Jew, the Divine spark hovers above the psyche (not entering it even on the unconscious plane). A righteous gentile (that is, a non-Jew who fulfills the seven Laws of Bnei Noach) is one who senses the presence of the Divine spark and is inspired by it to walk along the path of God fitting for all people as outlined in the Torah.3 On the other hand, a non-Jew who has not yet become a righteous gentile is unaware of the Divine spark hovering above.
To use the language of Chassidut, the Divine spark (or soul) of a Jew is considered an inner light (or pnimi), meaning that it is directly experienced and makes for part of his or her psychological makeup. The righteous gentile’s non-Jew’s spark of Divinity is described as a “closely surrounding light” (or makif karov), meaning that it is psychologically experienced only indirectly. The Divine spark of non-Jews who are not considered righteous gentiles is akin to a “distantly surrounding light” (or makif rachok), meaning, that it plays no conscious role in that person’s experience as a human being.
Even in this third case, due to the refinement of character that results from life’s trials and tribulations, and due to the Divinely ordained meetings between non-Jews and Jews, which introduce the beauty of the Torah to the non-Jew, the “distant” spark may grow “closer” and the “close” spark may even desire to convert to Judaism. It is because of this latent potential innate in every non-Jew that we speak of all non-Jews as possessing a Divine spark. Indeed all of God’s creations are continuously brought into being by means of a Divine spark, but, only a human being, even if born a non-Jew, is able to convert in his present lifetime and become a Jew.
These three levels of influence that the Divine spark can have on us as human beings are alluded to in the beginning of the Torah:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.4
In Kabbalah, “the heavens” symbolize the soul and “the earth” symbolizes the body. The Torah continues:
And the earth was chaotic and void, and darkness was on the face of the abyss, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
The initial state of the earth (the body together with its animal soul) described by the three adjectives “chaotic,” “void,” and “dark” (which in Kabbalah are identified with the three impure “shells”), corresponds to the initial state of the earthbound non-Jew whose Divine spark is still distant from his psyche. “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” refers to state of the righteous gentile whose Divine spark is sensed as hovering above him, close to his psyche. The sages teach us that “the spirit of God” refers here to the spirit of the Messiah who will be sent by God to redeem mankind.5 Thus we may conclude that the coming of the Messiah depends upon raising the spiritual level of the non-Jewish world from “darkness” to “spirit,” encouraging non-Jews to become righteous gentiles.
The next verse in the Torah reads:
And God said: “Let there be light,” and there was light.
This verse describes the reality of the Jewish soul. “Let there be light” refers to the Divine spark as it permeates the unconscious plane of the Jewish psyche. “And there was light” portrays the Divine spark when it permeates the conscious plane of the Jew’s psyche.6
Abraham was the first man to integrate the Divine spark as an essential and non-differential part of his psyche (both on the unconscious and the conscious planes). From his inner light he was able to shine light to all around him. In the words of the prophet: “Abraham began to shine light.”7 This made Abraham into the first Jew.
The level to which the Divine spark is present in the psyche has a strong influence on the nature of a person’s animal soul. First, let us note that the animal soul is itself divided into two distinct facets, an intellectual facet (nefesh sichlit, in Hebrew) and an emotional/behavioral facet. The animal soul of a Jew, due to the inner presence of the Divine soul, is relatively more refined than that of the non-Jew. Its intellectual side possesses a unique Jewish character, or way of thought and reasoning. It is able to grasp abstract and subtle concepts. For this reason Jews are innovative in many secular fields. The passions of its emotional side are directed to things that are permissible according to the law of the Torah.
The physical soul of a righteous gentile resembles that of the Jew in some ways. Consequently, the motivations of the righteous gentile are considered a mixture of good (altruistic) and bad (selfish).8 However, the state of consciousness of the non-Jew that is not yet righteous, i.e., that is not yet bound to God through the universal aspects of the Torah, conceals and blocks the manifestation of truly good (altruistic) motivations and these cannot be actualized in his physical soul.
When the Divine soul of the Jew is revealed, he or she feels an unconditional love toward all of God’s creations, realizing that a spark of God is present in all (with the caveat noted above with regard to the difference between human beings and all other creatures). He or she will love the good in all and reject whatever evil hides, perverts, and corrupts that intrinsic good.
1. Chapters 1 and 2.
2. The spark itself can be likened to a geometrical point, which is dimensionless. After entering the psyche, as the individual develops in his or her commitment to the service of the Divine, the point will expand first to into a line (a one-dimensional figure) and then to an area (a two-dimensional figure). In other words, it becomes more and more real.
3. When a non-Jew becomes so inspired by the spark of Divinity spiritually hovering above that he or she wishes to identify with it in full then that is the true motivation for becoming a convert to Judaism.
4. Genesis 1:1.
5. Yalkut Shimoni Bereisheet, 4. According to most Jewish descriptions of the coming of Messiah, particularly the description of Maimonides, the Messiah will be a living Jew, descended from the house of David. He will become king of Israel, rebuild the Temple, and bring all the Jews back to the Holy Land. He will inspire the entire world to believe in the One God, and usher in an era of all human beings living together in peace and brotherhood.
6. These two stages of integration of the Divine spark are alluded to by the sages in the two sayings: “Israel are cherished for they have been called the sons of the Almighty,” and “Israel are cherished for they were the recipients of the precious vessel [the Torah]” (Avot 3:14).
7. Midrash Shemot Rabah 15:26.
8. See Tanya, end of chapter 1.