Dear Rabbi Fried,
Our confirmation assignment in religious school is to write an essay on “Who Am I?” The idea is to find the Jewish view of what someone means when they say “I.” We’ve spoken to some teachers and rabbis and are still looking for more clarity. We’d appreciate your thoughts.
Jessica, Amber and Leigh
Dear Jessica, Amber and Leigh,
This is an excellent, thought-provoking assignment, something that every Jew should think about!
The answer to the question of “who am I” is a very Jewish one: It depends. What I mean is, it is a matter of perspective, if we’re discussing one’s life in this world or one’s eternal life.
Let’s start by defining what human life is. The Kabbalistic masters have broken down our basic existence to three parts: nefesh, ruach and neshamah, or life, spirit and soul.
Nefesh means life force. This life force, we share with the animals: our hearts beating, eating and digestion, etc. This basic physical existence is not our entire being. This is borne out by thousands of testimonies of near-death situations when the person reported afterward being above themselves, seeing themselves from a distance and being brought along a long, bright corridor.
We’ll skip to level three, neshamah, our soul, which G-d breathed into the nostrils of the first man (Genesis 2:8). This is our spark of G-dliness, our eternal existence. The root of this existence, unlike nefesh, is from the highest spiritual worlds, from the Al-mighty Himself. When I say “I” from the viewpoint of eternity, I mean the neshamah, because it will live forever, and its time in this world is a relatively small slice of the pie of time compared to forever.
The most important “I,” however, during our lives in this world, is our ruach, or spirit. Ruach is what fuses together nefesh and neshamah. Ruach, literally, means wind. Wind is caused by the tension between high- and low-pressure areas in the atmosphere. At times this causes gentle, pleasant breezes, and other times it can bring on tropical storms and tornadoes. In a way, we, in our lives, also have an internal high- and low-pressure tension, between the body and the soul. Each one exerts its own pull: one toward base physicality, lusts and desires, the other drawing us heavenward toward serving G-d and being more spiritual. That is why the connection between body and soul is called ruach, which is a spiritual wind.
The struggles in our lives — whether or not to do the right thing, to make the right choices — are in the arena of ruach. Sometimes this causes a gentle, pleasant breeze in our lives, and we are happy with our choices. At times, however, our lives are hit by a tropical storm, when the dichotomy between our spiritual side and our desires hits a high-pressure area. Adolescence, early college years, sometimes can find people in a state of rebellion, or confusion, or identity crisis, as they try to ride the waves and winds of ruach. No two people are alike, and no two times are the same in our lives, when it comes to the challenges and tests of ruach. It is not uncommon to find a person who rebelled against her spiritual side in her youth, and near the end of her life became very spiritual.
Our challenge in life is to allow our sechel, or intelligence, to hold the reins over our physical bodies. The Midrash compares this to a horse and a rider; who is in control, the horse or its rider? That is our challenge, the challenge of our ruach. Our ruach is our “I” in this world. The Torah provides the wisdom to allow the rider to control the horse so he can fully enjoy the pleasant and fragrant pastures without being led off the cliff.
Good luck on your project, and please feel free to be in touch with further questions!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,