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Our Task of Self-Knowledge
“Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish people are one.” Just like the Torah is “more vast than the sea and wider than the earth”, so is a Jew’s soul endless, because it is part of Hashem and His Torah.
Rabbi Avraham ben David explains to us what our task on this world (to come to “know G-d”) requires self-knowledge of our own soul. He wrote, “You must know that everything which Hashem created on His world is all inside man, for it is written, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.” All of this was so that we should see the hidden wisdom in what is revealed, for it is written, “And from my flesh I shall see G-d.”
What we learn from his words is that a person was created in a heavenly image, and that in order to know the ‘heavenly’, a person has to know what’s first down here, below. (In other words, one must know the essence of the human self). That is why “From my flesh I shall see G-d” – when I truly recognize myself, I will be able to recognize my Creator from there.
There are many places in which our great teachers spoke about the human persona, but these teachings are usually not all gathered into any one place; their words are spread out and scattered all over our many sefarim that described this wisdom. There are mainly two holy sefarim that spoke about our soul: Tikkunei HaZohar, and Sefer Yetzirah.
Tikkunei HaZohar explains the soul, but there is no order to the information there. Sefer Yetzirah, however, explains the soul in a very organized fashion. Thus, the main sefer which we use to study our soul is Sefer Yetzirah; it describes both our physical and spiritual makeup and shows us how to integrate them.
Knowing about our soul is one of the most complicating matters there is, and it is like an endless ocean. Although every part of the Torah is endless, the study of our soul is a classic example of an endless study. Anyone who doesn’t think so doesn’t really know about the soul.
However, “it is not upon you to complete the task, nor are you exempt from it.” It is our mission to clarify what our soul is, more and more; “They go from strength to strength.” We must learn about our soul more and more until we come to recognize the Creator, which is when we realize with utter clarity that there is nothing else besides for Him, just as when He revealed Himself to us at Sinai.
The Ladder That Reaches The Heavens
There are three things we need to recognize: our body, our soul, and our Creator.
All of Creation is like “a ladder which is placed on the earth, with its head reaching the heavens.” There are rungs in our ladder which precede the rungs on top of them. Recognizing our body is a step toward recognizing our soul (of course, this is only when a person learns about his body in a way that helps him learn about his soul), and recognizing the soul is the step toward recognizing the Creator. Learning about our soul is thus the tool to receive the light of the Creator.
We will give a parable that will help us understand the lesson. Chazal state that learning Torah is great, for it leads one to good deeds. If a person wants his learning to bear results, he must plumb the sugya to its depths with all its many details. After this he must connect all the details, and it is then that his learning is “great”; through this he will come to good deeds.
But if someone is learning only in order to come to act upon it, he doesn’t learn it well enough, and he definitely will not arrive at the good deeds.
This applies to us in that if a person only strives to recognize the Creator, but he doesn’t work on knowing himself – body and soul – he will definitely lack recognition about the Creator. This is because the person is attempting to get to the goal without going through the necessary prerequisites. To try to know the Creator without knowing the soul is like receiving a great light with nothing to contain it and hold onto it. It is like a soul without a body, and it doesn’t last.
A person should not either think that self-recognition is secondary to knowledge about the Creator. Although recognizing the Creator is the goal, it is no less important to understand ourselves. Knowing ourselves is a discussion in and of itself, which we must know.
Thus, the way to truly recognize the Creator is through recognizing yourself.
To Live In “A World of Clarity”
Another reason that we must know our soul is because it is necessary if we want to work on ourselves and fix our middos (character traits).
Many people want to work on themselves and improve their middos, but in order to really improve, a person has to understand how the soul works. We need to know how to use our soul’s abilities – when to use them and when not to use them, and how much. If a person doesn’t understand his soul, he will not be able to work with his soul and fix his middos.
In addition to this, everything we do involves many parts of our soul. The details to this are endless. Everything we do must be coming from the right place in our soul, and later we will explain how we can work on this. Thus, if a person doesn’t know himself well, most of what he is doing is off-base, and he will be making many mistakes in his life that he doesn’t realize.
So, a person has to know himself well for two reasons: in order to be able fix his soul and his middos, and in order not to act erroneously.
To give an even sharper and exact definition, a person must know himself well in order to be able to live in “a world of clarity.” This is like what one of the Sages said, “You see a clear world.”
To give an example, there can be a person who learns a sugya and is able to learn all its details, and he knows as well how to think logistically and even know what the Halachic conclusion is; but if he doesn’t work hard at clarifying the entire sugya, his learning is like “Toras Bavel” – Bavel, from the world bilbul (confusion). He will be very confused, and his learning lacks order to it. Such learning cannot be considered a “world of clarity.”
But another kind of person learns a sugya and tries to work hard at it and understand it as best as he can, with the goal of giving it order and really trying to comprehend it. He learns each sugya in this way, clarifying all the information, refining it so well until it becomes like fine flour that has been sifted and grinded.
The same goes for clarifying one’s soul. A person has to work hard his whole life at learning about his own soul, so that he can leave all his confusion and instead live in a clear world.
However, we do live in a very confusing world. The Hebrew word for “world” is olam, which has the same root of the word he’elam, confusion. The real meaning of life is very hidden from us; this world we live in is confusion amidst confusion. Because of this, we can never really understand our soul with absolute clarity (on this world we live in). In spite of this fact, a person’s life should still be directed toward this goal, which is to live in a world of clarity as much as he possibly can.
We need to always clarify who we are, more and more, throughout our life. This is the right kind of life to live – leaving our confusion, and entering into clarity, as much as we can.
It is simple to anyone with a head, though, that it is impossible to arrive at the “word of clarity” just from various, scattered facts that we know of about the soul. If a person knows a little here and a little there about himself, we cannot say this is totally useless to do, but he is still very far from a world of clarity. If a person just amasses various details about his soul and he doesn’t have the general rules about the soul, he’s missing the main part. In order to know about the soul, a person needs a lot of knowledge – and in this, there are rules, details, roots, and their branches.
The truth is that even this is not enough. A person might have all the knowledge he needs to have about the soul, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he has connected all of it together. He might still have a very scattered soul even if he knows so much; he is still not clear about his soul. His whole life will still be very mixed up and confused.
By contrast, if someone lives in an inner world, and he is always seeking to clarify his soul in a way that he connects all his knowledge, all he sees is clarity. The difference between such a person and the above kind of person is miles apart.
It is clear, then, that the more a person knows himself, the clearer his world will become, and he will act in a more guided way. His soul and his middos will be more fixed, and above all, his recognition of the Creator will be even clearer.
Future Clarity Is Based On This World’s Clarity
In the future, all tzaddikim (righteous ones) will point to Hashem with their finger, saying, “Behold, this is our G-d that we hoped for His salvation; this is our G-d that we hoped for, we will rejoice and be gladdened in His salvation.” A person can only point to Hashem if he is clear about this fact.
In the future, it will be totally clear who Hashem is, and all tzaddikim will be able to point to Hashem and say, “This is our G-d that we hoped for.” If anyone is to be at this level, he must acquire this recognition first in this world, before he gets to the next world.
Our whole aspiration in life should be to live a clearer kind of life, as much as possible. We don’t mean to acquire many random facts, but to gain a clear world – in a way that we can point to Hashem and say, “This is our G-d.”
1) The Knowledge About the Soul.
In order to clarify our soul, there are several factors involved.
If a person encounters any certain subject, the first thing he must do is learn the information relevant to the subject. Everyone knows that any sugya of Gemara has in it much information, both in its general rules and in its details. The way to learn any sugya is only through intense in-depth study (iyun), each at his level. There is almost no one who honestly believes that you can get by understanding a sugya with just reading it and not trying to think into it.
Trying to clarify what our soul is just as exacting. In order to know about our soul, we first have to learn its field. There is a lot of information to know – there are general rules, and there are details. The study of the human soul consists of many factors. The more we enter this field of study, the more we will see how vast it is.
If a person wants to become a shochet (kosher butcher), he needs to learn the laws of shechitah (kosher slaughter). If a person wants to put up an Eruv, he needs to learn the laws of the eruv. If a person wants to be involved with his soul, he needs to learn about what the soul is, just like any sugya of Gemara.
Thus, the first part of clarifying the soul is to learn about the structure of the soul.
2) Combining The Information.
The second part we need in clarifying the soul is to be able to combine all the information together.
Knowledge about our inner world is called “Maaseh Markavah,” by our Sages. This is because the inner world of the soul is very complicating, and it is difficult to put it all together. Besides for this, the knowledge about the soul isn’t just random information. It is about how people are. Knowing how to combine all this information must come along with our pursuit to learn about the actual knowledge about the soul.
If a person only has a superficial outlook, life seems simple and does not look complicating. But nothing in Creation is simple. The brilliant leader and sage, the Chazon Ish, said that he doesn’t know of anything that is simple. When Hashem created the universe, He “looked into the Torah and created the world.” Just as the Torah is vast and complicating, so is the world complicating.
The more we enter the knowledge about our soul, the more complicating we see it is. We will notice how each fact connects to another, and that even the two facts together also involve other factors. It’s endless.
The innermost point of a person’s soul, our very essence, is actually not complicating once we reach it. Our innermost point of the soul is called “Yechidah”, which means “individual”, because it is in an “individual” class of its own. But the other parts of our soul are very complicating and consist of many factors.
If so, besides for the necessity to learn about the soul, we also need to know how to combine all this information. This takes great wisdom and art.
3) The Power of Recognition
The third part of clarifying our soul is by using the power of “hakarah” (recognition) in the soul.
Most people, even those involved in learning Torah with diligence, only make use of their power of seichel (intellect). Learning the Torah is indeed based upon the power of intellect.
But there is a different ability we have that is called hakarah – the power to “recognize.” The sefer Chovos HaLevovos uses this term many times. This is a power in the soul to recognize matters – it is not necessarily involving the intellect.
We find this power sometimes in the superficial use, such as the ability of a father to recognize who his first-born child is, which is called “yakir.” We also find that one can recognize his lost object.
But there is a more inner kind of recognition a person has, and this is when a person recognizes a matter from within himself. It resembles what Tamar told Yehudah, “Recognize, now, your Creator.” Recognizing the Creator can only come from an ability to recognize deep matters. This is called the power of hakarah in the soul.
The power of hakarah is not so well-known to most people. There are those who know about it, but only intellectually. Usually, people only know of something using one of their five senses – seeing, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Since this is so, the take of most people on reality is not exact (to put it mildly), because we can see how most people in the world mistakenly run after their senses. But there is an ability in our soul, hakarah, which can see reality as it is. This is not a sensual way of understanding something.
The power of hakarah is not the same thing as our feelings, nor is it the same thing as the power to become inspired (“hisorerus”). Our feelings are separate from our power of hakarah. Feelings include love, hatred, happiness, or sadness. There is another ability in our soul, hisorerus, which is to become inspired, such as by being awakened by the shofar blast.
Feelings and inspiration are two different abilities in our soul. Usually, our feelings are quieter, while our power to be inspired is a louder ability. Sometimes our feelings work regardless of how we inspired we are, and sometimes we become inspired regardless of how much feelings we experience. Sometimes they are both presently active at once.
We can use these two abilities – feelings, and inspiration – to reach our innermost point of the soul, which is hakarah. This is because “doing actions causes our heart to be pulled after what we do”, leading us to the goal. The power of hakarah is essentially the inside layer of our feelings and inspiration. Yet, our inner work here is not based on either feelings or inspiration alone. It is based on a power of recognition that comes directly from the soul itself; it is the ability to recognize heart matters.
To our chagrin, most people live a superficial kind of life. Even those who have a desire to live a more inner kind of life are trying to do so with a superficial outlook. They don’t have the inner tools to get there. This is because usually, people do not recognize what the inner world is, and they do not understand that you can’t use their superficial understanding of the physical world if you want to understand the inner world.
We can compare this to someone who just converted to Judaism, who hasn’t yet learned the laws of keeping kosher. He doesn’t know anything about the concepts of meat and milk or of damaged animals that are forbidden to eat. He thinks he can keep using the same kitchen he is used to.
Knowing the inner world is really the power of hakarah. The power of hakarah is not revealed to someone who lives a superficial kind of life, nor is it revealed to someone who only lives in his feelings and inspiration. The world of hakarah is found in the innermost depths of a person’s heart, and it is revealed only to someone who lives it.
If someone doesn’t understand this fundamental, he tries to enter the inner world using his superficial abilities. This is like shaatnez – a forbidden mixture. You can’t mix the inner world with the outer world.
The more a person enters his inner mission, the more he refines his inner tools. This inner tool is hakarah.
Thus, our job here is to realize that we have a power of hakarah, and to live in a way that our whole life will be based on the ability to recognize heart matters.
4) Connecting The Knowledge To Our Heart
Until now we have said three parts we need to recognize our soul: the knowledge about the structure of the soul, the ability to combine and connect all this information, and the ability to recognize realities.
There is a fourth part we need, and that is to combine all our knowledge in our mind with what we recognize from our soul.
Before, we explained that the knowledge about the soul is vast, and that we must also connect all the information. This is still using our intellect to connect all the information. Now we are speaking of a different ability to combine information, and this is the ability to combine two different components of our soul: our mind together with our power of inner recognition.
To illustrate this concept, when a query is sent to a Rov, the Rov has to check out all the details: What is this issue made up of? Sometimes the issue involves only one section of Shulchan Aruch, but sometimes the issue involves all four sections of Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim, Yoreh Deah, Even HaEzer, and Choshen Mishpat.
Sometimes a person has to only make use of his intellect, and sometimes he must only use his heart recognition. But in order to enter our inner mission, we must combine both of these abilities. We need to see our mind’s knowledge from our soul’s recognition; if we know about something in our mind, we should be able to recognize it through our soul as well.
Of course, we must mention that we are referring to knowledge that is true, not imaginary thoughts, which are from a world of falsehood. (There is a lot of information which does not come from the Torah, but from the hearts and fantasies of people who are not connected to Torah…) After this, we must internalize this information in our heart, and clarify to ourselves if our hearts are in line with our mind. We must make sure that this knowledge is coming from the Torah and not from other sources, which have no basis.
This is our mission of internalization. We need to get our mind’s knowledge into our heart – as it is written, “My heart has seen much wisdom.”
This ability is also known as da’as d’kedushah (holy knowledge), and the Baal Shem Tov calls it da’as hamechaberes (knowledge that connects). Moshe Rabbeinu personified da’as; he brought the Torah into the souls of the Jewish people. Da’as connects the intellect with the heart.
When a person only uses his intellect, he involves himself with knowledge that is above his level. If what he knows isn’t connected to his heart, then he has no “I”, and he isn’t living his self. His life will be full of contradictions between what he knows in his mind with what he knows in his heart, and he will not have clarity in his life.
But if someone does connect the intellect with the heart, all the parts of his soul become connected and complete each other. Such a person has the world of clarity, and he actually lives through his true self.
Such a person will be opened up to all wisdom, and he will be able to truly connect to the Torah. If someone doesn’t make the connection between his intellect and heart, he has no real understanding of what it says in the Torah. This is because the Torah is called “wisdom of the heart”, and it is also written, “My heart has seen much wisdom.”
“Say to wisdom, You are my sister.” If you are clear in the matter as if it is your sister (who is prohibited) to you, you may say it, and if not, do not say it.” When a person connects his mind’s knowledge to his heart, he connects to his root, and the Torah he learns will come from this same root – the root of his soul.
Therefore, a person has to work very hard at this and connect the level of his heart to be on the level of his mind’s knowledge, if he is to live in a clear, inner world.
5) Recognizing Layer Within Layer.
Another part we need in this is the ability to recognize “layers” in the soul, and the ability to cross over from one layer to another layer in the soul.
Layer in Hebrew is known as “rovad”; we find this in the Torah, in the word “marvadim”, which is referring to the garments of the Kohen Gadol. We also find that it says “The fourth rovad of the Courtyard”, and “rovadim of stone.”
All of Creation is a layer upon layer. The soul of a person is also layer within layer.
Before we explained that there are feelings and inspiration in the soul, which are two distinct abilities. Now we can understand that they are two different layers in the soul; in these layers, there is layer within layer, and anyone can relate to this.
Sometimes our feelings and our inspiration is strong, and sometimes it is weak. This is not simply because our feelings or inspiration become weakened, but because our soul is only revealed superficially. When we have only revealed the outer, superficial layers of our soul, then our feelings or inspiration can grow weak. The more inner layers of our soul we uncover, the stronger our feelings and inspiration become.
When a person merits to live with the ability of hakarah, first of all, he reveals a whole new layer in the soul – the layer of hakarah\recognition. Besides for this, the very fact that he has entered this world of recognition opens up his heart and soul more. There are rooms in the heart, “chadrei halev”.
When a person knows about the layers of his soul through this power of recognition, he reveals an entire world that has in it layer within layer, room within room. Each layer in the soul contains a different kind of recognition. The more inward one enters these layers, the more of an inner recognition the person develops, and he reveals a totally new world.
There are also layers within our feelings and our inspiration. But there is a fundamental difference between one who just lives with feeling and inspiration alone, to one who lives with the deeper power, inner recognition. A person who only knows of feelings or inspiration only sees soul layers as “layers”, and he doesn’t see how they are all unified. He sees a layer in the soul, but he doesn’t see what it has to do with a different layer in the soul.
But someone who lives with inner recognition sees all the layers in the soul as unified. His world of inner recognition is all one reality; it’s all one piece. The more of an inner recognition he acquires, the more he unifies the layers. Instead of seeing contradictions in his soul, he sees how they all connect and complete each other.
Not only that, but he will even be able to see how the layers of feelings and inspiration connect. For example, if a person only lives with his feelings, then he thinks that he loves many things, and he doesn’t see how all the things he loves connects. When he has a strong love for something, he doesn’t identify it as the same love as his normal ability to love; he just thinks that it’s perhaps a different kind of love than anything else he loves. But if someone has the ability of inner recognition, he sees that he only has one power to love, and that this same ability to love just has many layers to it.
When a person dies, he leaves this physical world and goes to the World To Come. In this world as well we can leave the world and enter into a different world! This is when we leave one room in our soul and enter more inward to a deeper room in our soul.
For one to cross from one room of his heart to another room, he has to have revealed his ability to recognize the “layers” of the soul. The more inward one enters into the layers of the soul, the more of a recognition one has from his soul for these matters.
Our task is thus to reveal these layers, using our power of inner recognition. We must realize that each layer has a different recognition than the one before it, and we need to be able to leave one layer and enter into another layer. We then have to let that recognition carry over into our actual life.
We must always strive to enter even more inward, until we finally reach the innermost point – the essence of our soul itself, which is really connected to the Creator.
We have explained what we need to do in order to work on clarifying what our soul is, but there is something that greatly holds us back from doing so: the very fact that we are living on this physical world.
Ever since the sin of Adam, this world has never been a place to be at peace. Yaakov Avinu wanted to be at peace, but this hope was shattered right away with the sale of his beloved son Yosef. When we received the Torah at Har Sinai, we touched the level of Adam before the sin, and we saw the “world of clarity” described before. But then our lofty level once again fell after the sin with the Golden Calf.
As the generations pass, we are further away from our state of perfection, and life only becomes crazier. “Each day is more cursed than the day before it, for it is written, “In the morning, people will say, “When will it be night already?”, and at night, people will say, “When will it be day already?”
Our generation is especially bogged down and confused, and we are all like people drowning in a storm at sea. If a person is immersed in this physical world, he is disoriented from what he sees and hears in his life. Someone who desires to be close to Hashem makes some time every day to make a self-accounting, and this is good and praiseworthy.
But, we must understand something very well. The inner world and the physical world we live in cannot coexist. The inner world is pure and clear; it is a world of clear recognition. But the world which we are found in is a mixture of good and evil, and most of it is evil.
Even our hearts on this world are mixed up. Any second of connection to this world makes a mark that isn’t so easily forgotten. Anyone who thinks about it will find that there at least 2,000 bad marks that get left on a person each day just from being connected to this world.
When a person is very busy in worldly matters, he has no inner peace. When he tries to make a self-accounting, he hits a metal wall and finds that he can’t enter the inner world of the soul. He is so bogged down and confused. Even when he tries to succeed in freeing himself from this, the marks are still left on him, and this doesn’t let him concentrate on working with his soul.
“And Yaakov left Beer Sheva, and he went towards Charan.” When a person is still on this outside world and never enters inward, he is found in the “charon” – anger – of this world. It’s not possible to live in the physical world and try to enter inward. Even if someone does attain some peace of mind, the soul is still confined to the physical world, for someone who mainly considers his life to be in the physical. Such a person will not able to understand his soul, because his whole viewpoint is a physical viewpoint that is superficial.
In order to enter our inner mission here, a person has to disconnect from the physical world. The more we disconnect, the more we can enter the inner world.
Thus, there must be some disconnection from physicality if we are to have any hope of entering inward to our soul. Yes, we still need to be involved in this physical world, but only in what is absolutely necessary for us to take care of, and not more than that.
The main part of our disconnection here has to be an inner one; meaning, we should feel like we are just guests on this world that are merely passing through. We must enter deep into our soul, and close the door to all winds of impurity that blow on us from all directions. We need to get used to living a life of clarity.
Only if a person disconnects from this physical world can he receive the inner tools he will need to work with. He will then be able to reveal a new “I” which he never knew of until now, and he will live in an inner world that is full of clarity.
Anyone who thinks about these words will be able to appreciate the words of Reb Yisrael Salanter, who said that it’s harder to break one bad middah than to finish all of Shas. People look for all kinds of practical advice to be able to fix themselves. Baruch Hashem, people are searching for advice. But in order to even reach even one middah with our soul, we need a lot of tools and introductions to get there. It is surely much harder to fix a bad middah. This doesn’t only apply to trying to fix our middos, but it applies to all aspects of serving the Creator.
If a person isn’t aware of this, he might try many years to enter the inner work of serving the Creator, yet he won’t know why he isn’t succeeding.
It is definitely possible for one to be directed toward the right path with the help of Hashem, when one acts very earnestly and is dedicated to acting for the sake of Heaven. But besides for this path (which is only possible for rare individuals), the way to enter the “inner world” is normally very obscure. That is why it is called the “inner” world – it is internal, and it is found only in the innermost depths of a person’s soul.
To quickly review the fundamentals we will need: knowledge about the soul, combining the facts together, the power of inner recognition, fusing our intellect with our heart, recognizing layers of the soul, disconnecting from the physical world and being able to enter an inner, clear world; these are the basics and roots which are absolutely necessary for our inner work here.
Obviously, it is impossible to describe all that we have to do in just these few short lines. In the coming chapters, these concepts will hopefully gain greater clarity, with the help of Hashem.
May the Creator to merit us to reflect upon these matters and continue further.
Translated from the original Hebrew shiur:
דע את יחודיך 01
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