The great sixteenth-century Kabbalist, the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534–1572) observed that G-d created the world in a perfect state of balance where every positive force was brought into being with a negative one to oppose it. For peace to exist, there must be the possibility of war; for there to be light in our lives, we must accept darkness as well. Therefore, G-d releases negative energy into the universe to provide a counterpoint to that which is good and holy. If G-d did not maintain this delicate balance, man would lose the opportunity to choose right over wrong, kindness over cruelty, life over death.
It is part of the human condition to dwell in the tension created by these competing forces. However, G-d gave mankind the capacity—and the obligation—to use this conflict for spiritual growth. Animals were not given the same ability or purpose and, therefore, do not experience internal struggle in the way that we do. This distinction is reflected in the process by which G-d brought the first animals and the first human being into existence.
The body and soul of every creature but man were created in one step, while those of Adam were created in two distinct stages. Adam was first brought into the world as an inanimate object, a simple lump of clay drawn from the earth. G-d then blew into his nostrils “the breath of life,” giving consciousness to his soul. From this, we see that man is composed of dust from the ground below and spirit from the World Above.
Arising from different sources, our bodies and souls have different needs, goals, and desires. These often conflict with one another. No doubt, this is one reason why we struggle in life as much as we do, pushed and pulled by these competing forces.
Rabbi Nachum Goldschmidt, adapting an old Chassidic tale to modern times, tells of a troubled man who, while walking in the forest, heard beautiful music playing in the distance. The melody was so enchanting that it lifted him, as if on wings, above his many problems. Suddenly, he felt enveloped by a deep sense of peace and well-being.
When he returned home, his worries descended upon him once again with even greater weight. He decided to search for the melody that had brought him such joy in the forest. Whistling and humming and tapping his recollection of the melody wherever he went, he finally came upon a musician who recalled having heard the tune on an old rock album, where it was oddly embedded in a medley of cacophonous pieces.
Although the troubled man hated the album, he purchased it just to listen to that one small piece of special music. He played the song over and over until its familiar notes began to lose their magic. Then, he started to listen to the rest of the album. The discordant pieces soon began to grow on him, and he found himself strangely drawn to the new music. Eventually, he forgot why he bought the album in the ﬁrst place.
This, says Rabbi Goldschmidt, is the story or our spiritual journey. We hear the music of our soul, and we want it playing in our lives all the time. However, we are continually diverted by the many competing melodies that the world offers, so that, in the end, we lose the soul’s Divine melody and forget that it even exists. It is no wonder, then, that a part of us is never content with the songs of this world and is always seeking something more.
This compelling drive to find an object or experience that is newer/bigger/better is, in reality, a search for Godly perfection in our everyday lives. But because we dwell in the material world, we often confuse our spiritual longing with physical desire and attempt to satisfy these needs in inappropriate ways.
Nevertheless, we are designed by G-d to elevate both the material and the spiritual. The body is a vehicle for the soul, without which the soul cannot navigate its way through our world—the World of Action—and raise the sparks of holiness trapped within it.
The Book of Proverbs says: “Much comes from the strength of an ox.” The ox may appear to be a simple beast of burden, but without it, the farmer cannot plow the ﬁeld as quickly or as well. Applying his own muscle power to a hoe, the farmer can cultivate a patch of land and plant enough vegetables for his family; but with the help of an ox, he can produce a harvest that will feed an entire village.
So, too, an ego-driven person cannot get very far by himself. However, when he harnesses his physical body and his will to G-d, he gains the power to fulfill his purpose in this world and reach great spiritual heights.
The sages in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) say, “We are born against our will, and against our will we die.” We are born against our will because the soul does not want to come into a physical body that can easily succumb to the enticements of the material world. However, once the soul realizes what it can accomplish in this world by overcoming these challenges, it does not want to return to its former home. An existence that is free of seduction may keep us far from sin, but it does not provide the opportunity for spiritual growth that comes with the struggle to resist temptation.
As we reflect upon the year past and look to embrace the coming one, perhaps we should take a moment to acknowledge those desires that have drawn us down less-than-holy paths and consider how we might redirect them. The yearnings that seem to move us in the wrong direction often contain within them the potential to lead us to higher ground and may, in fact, provide our greatest opportunity for expansion and elevation.
When we succeed in converting our impure urges into holy passions, transformation takes place on every level; and the spiritual harmony in the universe—and in each individual soul—is renewed and heightened.