17th Elul – the breath of life

Elul 17 25 August

In Hebrew, breath is synonymous with the life force, not just in a mechanistic way, but breath is more than our intake or expulsion of air, it is that which animates us, and signifies the soul.

At the beginning of the book of Genesis we read that “The Eternal God formed the human being  ha’adam) from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and the creature (ha’adam) became a living being.  Genesis 2:7

And In the book of Proverbs we read:

נֵ֣ר יְ֭הֹוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כׇּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃

The lifebreath of humanity is the light of the Eternal,  Revealing all their inmost parts.

There are five different words used for the soul – nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah (see Bereishit rabbah 14:9)  The Hebrew language is generally very sparing, relatively few verbal roots expand to mean a plethora of meaning. But here we have five different aspects to our unique human selves.

Rav Saadia Gaon explained the different words thus:

   “ .. When [the soul] is attached to the body, one can see it three abilities: – the power of choice – the power of desire – the power of anger Therefore it is called in our language by three names: nefesh, ruach and neshamah.

 …”nefesh”  has the power of desire,  we see for example the phrase “for the desire of your nefesh” (Devarim 12:20), “his nefesh was satisfied of desire” (Job 33:20).

  And  the “ru’ach”  contains the power of being annoyed and angry, when it says “do not become empty through your ru’ach by getting angry” (Kohelet 7:9), 

 And  the “neshamah” has the power of wisdom, as it says “the ‘Neshamah’ of Shakaai will understand them” (Job 32:8).

    Because of these different traits we might say that that one of them is in the heart and the other in the rest of the body. Rather, all three are in the soul (nefesh) alone. So it became necessary to add more words:  “chayah” and “yechidah”. It is called “chayah” because it lives on account of the Creator, and  “yechidah” because this is unique to humankind.

According to Rav Saadia Gaon, we each have one indivisible soul with different aspects.  We have desire, which draws us towards people and we have anger which drives us away. And finally, we have thought/ knowledge /Wisdom.

With every breath we take, we prioritise one of the aspects – moving towards others or driving them away, or trying to understand or simply waiting for the next breath. But at all times we are unique, and every breath we take is a gift from our creator.

The only real question we have is – how are we using our living breathing selves to make ourselves an our world a better place.

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