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Nurturing the Human Soul - From Cradle to Grave

The pasuk in Bereshit 2:7 relates the process by which Hashem created Man: “V’yitzer Hashem Elokim et ha’adam afar mi ha’adama, v’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim, va’yehi ha’adam l’nefesh chaya – Then G-d formed Man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and so Man became a living creature.”

What’s striking is that by referring to Man as “nefesh chaya,” the pasuk is suggesting that there is nothing different about Man than the creatures that preceded him, which are also referred to repeatedly as “nefesh chaya;” see Bereshit 1:20, 1:21, 1:24, 1:30. Rashi was clearly bothered by the use of “nefesh chaya” to refer to both Man and all of the other creatures, and addresses the issue. Whereas Rashi tersely interprets “nefesh chaya” in earlier pesukim as “a life force, ” (1:20, 1:21, 1:24), in the context of the creation of Man, Rashi elaborates that while all the other creatures are also referred to as “nefesh chaya,” Man has a stronger “life force” by virtue of the “dey’ah” and “dibur” (reasoning and speech) instilled in him by Hashem.

The distinction of Man as a “thinking” and “speaking” creature is echoed by the Targum Onkelos, which translates “nefesh chaya” in earlier pesukim as “nafsha chaita” (a living spirit), whereas “nefesh chaya” in connection with the creation of Man is translated as “ruach memalelah” – a speaking spirit.

What’s interesting about Onkelos’ translation in connection with Man is his use of an entirely differently word – “ruach” – as opposed to “nefesh” in connection with the other creatures. The word “ruach” does not appear in the pasuk itelf. However, there is a reference to “nishmat chayim” – i.e., neshama.

So we now have three different words referring to the “soul” of Man – nefesh, neshama and ruach. How do these each differ, and what does each contribute in distinguishing Man from all of the other creatures?

In Gemara Brachos (10a), reference is made to five different “worlds” inhabited by David Hamelech: his mother’s womb, his emergence from the womb at birth, the period when his mother nursed him, his experiencing the downfall of the wicked, and day of his death. Based on the Zohar, the Pnei Yehoshua explains that the five “worlds” of David Hamelech correspond to the five dimensions of Man’s soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah.

Pnei Yehoshua explains that the “nefesh” element is invested in the fetus while it is in the womb, and it thereby becomes a “living being.” (albeit see Sanhedrin 91b which posits at earlier time, i.e., just prior to conception). Apparently, at this stage, the living fetus is analogous to the embryos of other creatures, which also possess a “nefesh.”

However, at birth, Pnei Yehoshua continues, Hashem implants the “ruach” into the human newborn, which as per Rashi and Onkelos, provides the newborn with the foundation for reasoning and speech. Amazingly, though billions upon billions of births have been witnessed through the ages, no one has yet observed how a human soul is implanted in a newborn. Nor – despite our technological prowess - can we duplicate the phenomenon. As the gemara in Ta’anit (2a) explains, “childbirth” is one of the three keys that Hashem retains in His own hands and will not entrust to any messenger. Indeed, one of man’s greatest advances in this sphere, in vitro fertilization, still requires the replicating embryo to be implanted in a uterus in order to develop into a newborn child. It is only through the medium of a mother’s womb that the “nefesh” can be instilled, and only through childbirth that the newborn can be invested with the faculties of reasoning and speech.  As the gemara in Brachos (10a) invites us to contemplate: “Come and observe that unlike the nature of Hashem is the nature of man. For man shapes a form on a wall, but is not able to cast into it a ‘ruach,’ ‘neshama,’ innards and intestines, whereas Hashem ‘shapes one form within another form’ [i.e., a child within its mother], and casts into it a ‘ruach,’ ‘neshama,’ innards and intestines.”

Nor can man duplicate the mystery of human speech and reasoning in any other creature even after birth. Demonstrating this truth is a fascinating experiment, dubbed Project Nim, conducted by Herbert Terrace, a leading researcher from Columbia University, to determine whether a newborn chimpanzee could be taught to think and communicate intelligently like a human if raised in the same environment as a normal newborn child. To this end, a newborn chimpanzee named “Nim” was inserted into the home of a regular American family with seven children living in New York, and treated like one of the kids. He was dressed in regular baby clothes, fed human food, allowed to play with the other children, and taught how to communicate using sign language. However, despite extraordinary progress in his communication and social skills, Nim ultimately reverted to numerous chimpanzee behaviors, including biting when he was angry and other destructive habits. Eventually, Nim had to be removed from his human home. Ultimately, after years of study, Terrace ultimately concluded that his experiment was a failure, and sided with earlier critics who all along had argued that animals could not be taught to think and communicate intelligently like humans.

As per the Pnei Yehoshua, this outcome was a foregone conclusion from the outset of the experiment. The reason is simple: man is invested with “ruach” at birth which makes him a speaking, thinking spirit; animal “souls” are not endowed with this element and thus remain simply “nefesh chayah” – a “life force.” (although clearly, certain creatures are endowed with substantially greater "intelligence" than others; nevertheless this "intelligence" cannot be equated with human reasoning).

But man’s soul is not limited to “nefesh” and “ruach.” According to Pnei Yehoshua, the next level in the development of the human soul is “neshama,” which becomes invested in a newborn during nursing. How are we to understand this concept? For example, while nursing is now strongly recommended, not every child nurses, and yet this does not appear to affect children’s intellectual and spiritual development. Moreover, even after nursing ends, the intellectual and spiritual development of a child continues.

I’d like to suggest that the “nursing” stage (referred to in the gemara as the third “world” inhabited by David Hamelech, and associated by Pnei Yehohua with the “neshama”) is really a metaphor for all the nurturing involved in raising a child until he or she reaches the age of maturity (12 for girls, 13 for boys). Stated differently, following childbirth, development of the soul is no longer in Hashem’s hands alone, and instead primary responsibility for further developing the newborn’s “soul” – described as instilling a “neshama” - passes to the parents.

Support for this notion can be found in the proof-text cited in the gemara as evidence of David Hamelech’s “third world”: “barchi nafshi et Hashem, v’al tiskachi kol gemulav – Bless my soul, bless Hashem, And forget not all of His nurturing.” While the gemara subsequently connects the word “gemulav” with “nursing,” the root of the word “gemulav” is gimmel, m'em, lamed - "gamal" - which means to nurture. So the proof-text actually alludes to a more general notion of nurturing.

An elaborate discussion of the concept of nurturing a child’s soul can be found in Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s essay entitled “On the Role of Education in the First Years of Child’s Life” (The Collected Writings of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Volume 7, at 121). In the essay, Rav Hirsch observes that every infant is born “pure” (citing the gemara in Berachot 60b that no evil ever comes from the hands of the Creator), and it is our job as parents to teach our children what Rav Hirsch calls “the art of being good.” This art, Rav Hirsch explains, at its highest level of mastery in an individual, represents the ability to constantly exercise control over all of one’s impulses and desires lest they cause one to cross the defined boundaries of purity and righteousness. Stated differently, the art of being good is “the ability to perform one’s duty happily even if it is unpleasant, and just as gladly to renounce what seems sweet and pleasant but is forbidden."

Rav Hirsch contends that the process of developing discipline and self-control should start with infancy and continue throughout childhood if parents wish to ensure that when a child reaches the age of maturity they can confidently trust him or her to make the right choices. The details of Rav Hirsch’s proposed educational methods are beyond the scope of this dvar torah, but the key point is that Rav Hirsch sees a process of transition by which Hashem entrusts the “pure” soul He has created – endowed with the gift of moral self-determination - to the parents to provide a strong moral foundation that will ensure each child ultimately learns to exercise his or her free will appropriately by the time he or she reaches maturity. It is this process that represents the nurturing of the “neshama." It behooves every parent to contemplate the awesomeness of this responsibility.

And once a child reaches the age of maturity? At that point, he or she is morally on their own, and has a lifetime in front of them during which to master the art of being good through repeated choices that either reinforce positive traits or negative ones. And should an individual ultimately succeed in fully mastering their impulses – a “tzaddik” - then Pnei Yehoshua explains that such an individual will have earned the next level of the soul called “chaya” – alluded to in the verse “u’reshaim ode ay’nam – Let the sinners cease;” i.e., a stage when the “yetzer hara” no longer has any influence over a person.

Of course, it is rare for an individual to ever reach such a level. However, if we believe in the existence of the soul – and how can anyone not believe this after witnessing the birth and development of a child from what is nothing more than two cells – then it would appear that exerting every effort to achieve the highest possible level we can is something worth striving for in both ourselves and in our children.


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