A speaker once started his seminar by holding up a $100 bill. “Who would like this $100 bill?” he asked.
Every hand in the room went up.
The speaker looked around, and then crumpled the bill in his hand.
“Who wants it now?” he asked.
Every hand in the room remained in the air.
“Well,” he replied, “What about now?” He dropped the bill on the ground and stomped on it with his shoe.
He picked up the now crumpled and dirty bill and showed it to the crowd.
“Who still wants it?”
Every hand was still up in the air.
“My friends, you have just experienced a very powerful lesson. No matter what I do to this money, no matter how crumpled or muddy it gets, it does not decrease in value. Many times in our lives, life has a way of crumpling us up and grinding us in the dirt. We make bad decisions or deal with poor circumstances, and we begin to feel worthless. We feel that Hashem has abandoned us; that He no longer values us. But no matter what has happened, and no matter what will happen, you will never lose your value. You were created b’tzelem Elokim, and nothing can change that.”
What Are We?
Arguably, the most important concept in life is the nature of the soul. Most people believe that they “have” a soul, some spiritual essence they possess within themselves. However, the deeper Jewish sources reveal a profound spiritual secret: You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. In other words, the soul is not an aspect of your self, or some spiritual component of your being; it is your very self. You are a soul, a consciousness, a spiritual being. When you say “I,” you are referring to your soul, your inner sense of self. You have a body, emotions, and an intellect – all different aspects and expressions of your soul. But you are a soul, a neshama, an infinitely expansive consciousness.
The Birth of Finitude
A soul is angelic, perfect, pure, and transcendent. Before entering this world, we exist as this perfect, pure being. (Even when we are the womb, we are in a near perfect, pure state of being – what Chazal refer to as our “fetal self.” See Niddah 30b.) However, the moment we enter the physical world, the infinite expansiveness of our soul is confined within our physical body. The body is the container of the soul, but it is also the soul’s vehicle and tool, allowing the soul to manifest its will in this world. This is our mission in life. We enter this world with an undeveloped vehicle – our limited body. The soul, our existential self, is already perfect, but we don’t yet have access to the fullness of our true self. As we journey through life, we tap into greater and greater aspects of our soul and, our self, and we must then manifest them into the world through our physical bodies. In doing so, we uplift our physical vessels, enabling them to tap into greater and greater aspects of our true self. This is the beautiful cycle of life, the endless expansion and expression of self into the physical world.
Our Inner Struggle
While this perspective is both powerful and fundamental, its implementation is elusive. (It is perhaps humanity’s most central struggle.) Many people believe that they are a body – a physical, finite being. Having forgotten our true selves, we are born with the illusory belief that we are only that which we can see. When we look in the mirror, we see only flesh and bone, and we believe that this is all that we are.
However, this is merely our starting point. The turning point in life is the moment we realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing. We are not physical beings attempting to have a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings trying to uplift our physical experience.
The Purpose of Eating
There is a paradoxical relationship between the body and the soul:
- Your soul, which is your “self,” is transcendent, infinite, and purely spiritual. You cannot see, smell, or touch the consciousness, the mind. You will never see someone else’s inner world.
- The body, however, is finite, limited, and physical. Your soul will never die, but your body will eventually age and wither.
If the soul and body are diametrically opposed, how do they manage to coexist? One would expect them to repel each other like two opposite sides of a magnet.
This is the powerful purpose of food. There needs to be something to keep your soul attached to your body, some kind of “glue.” Eating food generates the energy that keeps your neshama connected to your body. This is why the lack of eating has the opposite effect. What happens when you don’t eat? You become faint. What happens if you continue to fast? You will pass out. And if you still don’t eat, your soul will leave your body, and you will die. Eating maintains the connection between your soul and your body; it is what keeps you alive.
This is the depth behind the phrase: “U’mafli la’asos – Who performs wonders,” that we recite in Asher Yatzar (the blessing we recite after using the bathroom). What “wonder” are we referring to? Many commentators, such as the Beis Yosef, suggest that it is the wondrous paradox that our soul, infinitely transcendent, remains connected to our bodies, a physical, finite vessel. We mention this specifically after using the bathroom because we have just filtered out the unneeded parts of what we ate or drank, the very means of forging the connection between body and soul.
We can now understand the power of fasting, especially on the day of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we attempt to live as malachim, completely transcending the physical world. We therefore fast, allowing our soul to slightly disconnect from – and transcend – our body, enabling us to experience one day of living in an angelic state.
This principle sheds light on all the issurim of Yom Kippur as well. We don’t engage in the physical world because Yom Kippur is a day of transcending the physical aspects of human experience. (Physical relations, eating, washing the body, and wearing perfume all require one to engage in the physical.) There is, however, one halacha that still requires elucidation: Why do we remove our shoes on Yom Kippur?
The Spiritual Concept of Shoes
The Nefesh HaChaim explains the profound spiritual concept of shoes. The body uses the shoe as its means of traveling through the world. The lowest part of your body rests in your shoes, allowing you to walk (Nefesh HaChaim 1:5, note 6; see also Ruach Chaim, Avos 1:1). This relationship – between the body and shoe – is the same relationship between the soul and the body. You are an angelic soul, a neshama, but the lowest part of your angelic self resides within your physical body, serving as your container, your “shoe,” and this is what allows you to “walk” through the world, to interact with the physical, to actualize your potential. Naal, the Hebrew word for shoe, also means to “lock,” because shoes lock your feet in and allow you to walk around. So too, your body locks your angelic self in, allowing you to use your body to navigate this physical world.
The Nefesh HaChaim explains that the spiritual concept of removing our shoes represents the act of transcending our physical bodies. Taking your “foot” out of your “shoe” represents removing your angelic soul from your body. On Yom Kippur, we aim to transcend our physical bodies and embrace our angelic selves. We therefore remove our shoes, our “physical vessels.”
Moshe vs. Yehoshua
Both Moshe and Yehoshua were commanded to remove their shoes. Moshe was instructed to remove both shoes, whereas Yehoshua was commanded to remove only one. Based on the previous discussion, let us now try to understand this mysterious command.
Prophecy was an other-worldly experience. Hashem expanded the Navi’s consciousness, enabling him to connect to a higher dimension of existence – one that lies far beyond the limitations of time and space, far beyond the capacity of the normal human mind. In doing so, the Navi became capable of experiencing lofty ideas and intellectual truths that he would otherwise not have access to. These ideas and truths would then filter down through the Navi’s intellect and get translated by his imaginative faculties, resulting in his unique experience of those objective truths. Nevuah was an other-worldly and angelic experience of the spiritual world that a Navi experienced while still in this world.
This is why Moshe was commanded to remove both of his shoes before receiving nevuah at the burning bush. Before transcending into the spiritual, angelic realm, Moshe had to remove his shoes to loosen the connection between his soul and his body.
The Malbim explains the difference between Moshe and Yehoshua:
- Moshe was on a much higher level of nevuah, and as such, completely transcended his body. This was expressed by removing both of his shoes, reflecting total transcendence. The same is true when Kohanim duchen: When they are performing the avodah, they transcend their bodies and connect to a higher consciousness. This is because their job is to connect the finite to the infinite and to connect Klal Yisrael to Hashem.
- Yehoshua, however, was not on the same level as Moshe, and his nevuah was therefore on a lower level as well. Consequently, he only removed one shoe, representing his partial transcendence during his prophetic experience. He was halfway between the infinite and finite, bridging the gap between the two. The transition to Yehoshua’s leadership represents the transition from Moshe’s transcendent leadership to Yehoshua’s more immanent and this-worldly leadership. This is the transition from the midbar – the stage of constant miracles, to Eretz Yisrael – the stage of hishtadlus (effort), of finding the miraculous within the natural (see Netziv, Haamek Davar 20:8).
Our Mission in Life
The goal of life is not to transcend this world while living as angelic and perfect spiritual beings; the goal is to live a transcendent live within this physical world, transforming and uplifting our limited existence into something infinite and eternal. May we be inspired to fully experience our angelic inner selves, while also infusing it into our physical life, elevating our actions and intentions as we move this physical world toward its ultimate spiritual root.