By Leibel Estrin
Jewish philosophy looks at creation in terms of four categories. From the bottom up, the four categories are domem “inanimate,” tzomeach “growing,” chai “living” (i.e., animal life), and m’daber “one who speaks.” Each level is incomparably higher than the one below it.
For example, earth and stones are inanimate. They do not appear to react to external forces such as heat or cold. They do not have the power of movement. In essence, their G-dly life force is totally hidden. Plants represent a higher level. Plants grow and have a limited amount of movement. Sunflowers, for example, will follow toward the sun. Animals are on a still higher level. They can certainly react to outside influences. They even have some power of expression and communication.
The highest level is man. As the “speaking one,” man obviously has a number of capabilities. One of the most important is the ability to transcend, to go beyond one’s self. The Bible alludes to this in the story of creation. When the Bible describes the creation of Adam, the first human, it uses the Hebrew word vayeetzer, “formed.” In Hebrew, this word contains the letter yud, twice. When the Bible describes the creation of animals, vayeetzer is spelled with only one yud. According to our sages, this teaches us that both man and animals have a vitalizing soul, Nefesh HaBahamis. It consists of both intellectual and emotional qualities. In an animal, the emotional qualities control the intellect. It is called the Yetzer Hara, man’s “selfish inclination.”
In addition to the vitalizing animal soul, man also has a Nefesh HaSichlis, a soul capable of conceiving something beyond itself. It is the soul symbolized by the extra yud in vayeetzer. In man, the intellect can control one’s emotions. For this reason, this soul is equated with the Yetzer Tov, man’s “selfless inclination.” This soul enables man to transcend his animal being by looking for something more than its immediate needs. For example, it is what leads man to moral, virtuous and ethical living.
Jews have another spiritual aspect, as well. It is called a Nefesh Elokis, a G-dly soul. Like a flame that soars upward, the Nefesh Elokis yearns to merge with its Creator. Yet it cannot without ceasing to exist as an apparently independent entity.
To resolve this conundrum, G-d, in His kindness, G-d gave Torah and mitzvos. Learning the Torah enables us to unite with His wisdom. Our sages compare the Torah to spiritual nourishment for the soul. The soul becomes more sensitive and perceptive to G-dliness. Souls also require garments to enable them to experience G-dliness without being overwhelmed by it. Mitzvos serve as these “garments.” When a person performs a mitzvah, he or she fulfills the Will of G-d. Since G-d is one with His Will, mitzvos enable man to access the highest aspects of G-dliness without becoming nullified the way a ray of light is nullified within the orb of the sun.
Gentiles do not have a Nefesh Elokis, they do; however, have the ability to unite with the Will of G-d. They achieve that unity by following the Seven Universal Laws that G-d gave to Noah, and which were relayed by Moshe on Mount Sinai.
At first glance, it seems Jews and non-Jews are “different.” That is true, but different does not mean better. A non-Jew has one way of serving G-d. A Jew has another. It is by way of analogy, similar to two ladders. One ladder has seven steps. The other has 613. While the ladders are different, each ladder enables “the individual climber” to connect to G-d.
Still, it appears that the Jewish people have been “chosen” to perform a particular mission. What does it mean to be chosen? To answer that question, let’s turn to a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, M.M. Shneerson:
.. It is true that the soul of the Gentile and the soul of the Jew differ in their nature, this being connected with one of the basic principles of the Torah – the fact that the Jews are a people chosen from among the nations of the world. This chosen-ness originates in the fact that when G-d was about to give the Torah at Mt. Sinai, He first offered it to all the other nations of the world, who refused to accept it. The Jewish people did accept it. Needless to add, this is in no way inconsistent with the statement of our Sages, to the effect that righteous Gentiles have a special status and, according to the Rambam, also have a share in the World-to-Come.
Judging by your letter, it is surely unnecessary for me to emphasize to you what has already been indicated above, namely, that our belief in the chosen-ness of the Jewish people is not a matter of chauvinism or fanaticism, but rather the deep-felt realization that this uniqueness carries with it great responsibilities and special obligations. This is why, for example, Jews have to fulfill “Taryag (613) mitzvos,” whereas Gentiles are not obligated to observe kashrus and various other restrictions….
Jew or non-Jew, each person has a job to do; one that only he can perform. Every job involves rising above his animal nature and selfish desires.
According to Kabbalah and Chassidus, man’s unique ability to transcend is reflected in the fact that we walk erect. An animal walks on all four legs to indicate that its intellect and emotion are on the same level, and indeed, its intellect is controlled by its instinct and emotions. Walking on two legs, by contrast, enables man to look up and beyond his immediate environment and use his intellect a) to access the G-dliness that surrounds him b) to control one’s vitalizing and instinctive/animalistic natures, and to use them to serve G-d the way a farmer uses an ox to plow a field.
An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”
Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here.
 (For a further explanation of the Nefesh Elokis, as well as how the powers of the soul reflect the dynamics of G-dliness, see Appendix II.)
The Seven Universal Laws of Mankind, known popularly as the Noahide Laws are the foundation of just society:
1. Recognition of G-d, Prohibition of Idolatry
2. Recognition of the sanctity of life, Prohibition of Murder
3. Recognition of the value of society, Prohibition against Theft
4. Recognition of Divine Providence, Prohibition against Blasphemy
5. Recognition of the family unit, Prohibition against Immorality
6. Recognition of creatures, Prohibition against Eating the Limb or Flesh of a Living Animal7. 7. Recognition of the role of law, the Commandment to Promote Justice