In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, we read how a year had passed since the Israelites had left Egypt, and God was now reminding the nation to commemorate Pesach. However, some people were spiritually impure at Pesach time because they had handled a corpse and were unable to take part in the Paschal offering. They approached Moses and asked “why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7) Moses was not sure how to answer them, so he took the case up to God, after which God told Moses about Pesach Sheni, the “second Passover” that could be done a month later in Iyar for those who had missed Passover in Nisan.
This episode is one of five times in the Torah when Moses was “stumped” by a question and had to consult God. The first was in Leviticus 24:11-12 with the case of the man who had blasphemed (nokev) God’s Name. The Pesach Sheni question posed above was the second. The third was the case of the mekoshesh etzim, the “wood-gatherer” on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32), followed by the Midianite episode when Zimri and Kozbi were involved in a public display of indecency (Numbers 25). The last was with the five daughters of Tzelofchad who wondered about their inheritance (Numbers 27).
These five questions (mekoshesh, nokev, tzelofchad, pesach sheni, kozbi) correspond to the five special Hebrew letters that have a distinct symbol when they appear at the end of a word: The “open” mem (מ) becomes a “closed” mem sofit (ם) while the “bent” nun (נ) becomes a “straight” nun sofit (ן), just as the “bent” tzadi (צ) becomes a “straight” tzadi sofit (ץ). The “coiled” pei (פ) and khaf (כ) unravel into the straight pei sofit (ף) and khaf sofit (ך). Together, these five unique letters are referred to by the acronym מנצפ״ך, “mantzepach”, and carry a tremendous amount of meaning. What is the origin and purpose of these special letters? Continue reading →
On the night of March 1st, 1953, when Jews around the world had just finished celebrating Purim, attendants of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin found him laying semi-conscious on the floor of his bedroom. He was sick and hemorrhaging blood for the next several days until finally dying on the 5th of March. His death was announced to the public the following day. While most Jews around the world were probably jubilant at the news, little could they know of the incredible events—both political and spiritual—which were transpiring in the fateful days before.
A couple of months earlier, on the 9th of January, state-owned mouthpiece Pravda published a propaganda article about a “Doctor’s Plot” to secretly poison top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Six of the named doctors were Jewish, and the others were supposedly Jewish-Zionist sympathizers, working together with American spies to destroy the Soviet Union. The article said:
The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence, the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called “Joint”. The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…
Not surprisingly, a huge wave of anti-Semitism spread across the Soviet Union. Stalin used this as a pretext to order the construction of four new concentration camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia, arguing that he will gather Soviet Jews there, “for their own protection”, to save them from angry Russian mobs.* Stalin’s real intent was to finish what Hitler had started. Records suggest that the deportations were set to begin on March 6th, 1953—ironically, the same day his death was announced. After his death, Stalin’s successors quickly absolved the doctors of any wrongdoing and buried the Doctors’ Plot for good. Stalin’s impending holocaust was scrapped. Millions of Jews across the Soviet Union (my family included), were saved—a Purim miracle. But there is much, much more to the story.
My grandfathers, David Palvanov (1915-1985), left, and Anton Amnon Mirzayev (1923-1981, whose 40th yahrzeit is this Sunday, the 9th of Adar), Red Army veterans of World War II, who served with distinction in both the European and Pacific Theatres.
The Rebbe’s Farbrengen
Back in New York City, on March 1st, 1953, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was starting a motzei-Purim farbrengen. In his discourse, the Rebbe recounted how when the czar was deposed in 1917, the Rebbe Rashab (Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920) urged his followers to go vote. After voting, one simple Hasid saw some Russians shouting hoora! and joined in as well, thinking they meant hu-ra (הוא רע), “he is evil!”—happy that the evil, anti-Semitic czars that had caused the Jews so much anguish were finally gone. Bizarrely, the Rebbe (the seventh one, that is) started to shout hu-ra, too, and repeated the same story three separate times, each concluding with more hu-ra’s. No one in the room understood what was going on. They assumed the Rebbe had done a spiritual rectification of some sort.
A farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1950s
Nothing more was said of the Rebbe’s strange actions until March 6th, when Stalin’s death was announced. Turns out, at the same time that the Rebbe was making his hu-ra’s—while recounting the fall of an old anti-Semitic Russian dictator—the contemporary anti-Semitic Russian dictator, Stalin, had collapsed in his room and was writhing in pain. It was only then that the Hasidim that were with the Rebbe on the night of March 1st began to piece together what had happened. Did the Rebbe put an end to Stalin? Well, not directly; the Rebbe was no assassin! (Not even a spiritual one.) So, what was really going on that night of March 1st?
Stalin’s Purim Feast
While Jews around the world were enjoying their Purim feast, Stalin was getting together for a feast of his own back in Russia. As recounted in Stalin’s Last Crime (written by Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and Yale professor Jonathan Brent), in his last dinner Stalin was accompanied by secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev (his soon-to-be successor) and Nikolai Bulganin. Later that night, Stalin had mysteriously collapsed in his room. Yet, no doctor was called in to treat him until the following day. Some believe that Stalin’s friends had gotten him drunk, and then Lavrentiy Beria slipped Stalin a poison. High-ranking Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986, of “Molotov cocktail” fame) would recall in his memoirs that Beria boasted about how he managed to terminate Stalin: “I did him in! I saved all of you!” Others state that Stalin was not much of a drinker, and was unlikely to let himself get drunk. It is more likely that his treatment was purposely delayed until it was too late. Whatever the case, the evidence is very strong that Stalin’s own inner circle killed him. Why?
For Stalin, the Doctor’s Plot was only the start of something much bigger. As we saw from the Pravda article above, Stalin had tied the doctors to American agents in Moscow. His plans were to accuse the US of plotting to nuke Moscow, and he supposedly had proof from a spy captured and interrogated in 1951. Stalin was gearing up to spark World War III (and possibly drawing up plans for an attack on American soil). His inner circle knew that he had absolutely lost it. And Stalin knew that they did not support him anymore, so he planned another purge of the Communist Party to eliminate dissenters. This was confirmed in the 1956 “Secret Speech” given by Khrushchev, who said:
It is not excluded that had Stalin remained at the helm for another several months, Comrades Molotov and Mikoyan would probably have not delivered any speeches at this congress. Stalin evidently had plans to finish off the old members of the political bureau. He often stated that political bureau members should be replaced by new ones… We can assume that this was also a design for the future annihilation of the old political bureau members and in this way a cover for all shameful acts of Stalin, acts which we are now considering.
This is why Beria had boasted that he had saved his comrades. Khrushchev and the others were in on it. They got rid of Stalin just in time to avoid another Jewish holocaust, to save their own skin, and to prevent World War III. What they did was incredibly risky, and no doubt needed help from Above. The Rebbe must have sensed something going on in the Heavens, and perhaps really did play some spiritual role in the plan’s success.
Indeed, it was a great miracle that the plan succeeded. That it happened on Purim specifically is certainly no coincidence.** After all, Purim is all about how the Jews avoided a holocaust in the nick of time: “…on the very day when the enemies of the Jews sought to dominate them, v’nahafokh hu”—everything was turned upside down and the Jews were saved instead. On the very day Stalin planned to start deporting Jews, his death was announced instead.
And Purim is about the defeat of Amalek which, like Communism, is that atheistic force in the universe seeking to undermine Godliness at every opportunity. The Communists tried so hard to expunge religion that they even attempted to change their calendar to a five-day week so that there could be no commemoration of the Sabbath! Thankfully, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, right at the moment when the Messianic Age was set to begin according to ancient prophecy (as explained here). However, Communism is not quite dead, and the forces of Amalek continue to rear their ugly heads around the world today. And so, we continue to read Parashat Zachor each year before Purim, as we will this Shabbat, to remind ourselves that there is yet work to be done until we can celebrate Amalek’s final defeat. May we merit to see it soon.
*According to Stalin’s Last Crime (pg. 294-295), the concentration camps were ordered to house foreign criminals captured in World War II, particularly Germans and Austrians. However, there were no more than 5000 such prisoners in the USSR, so why the need for so many large camps? Besides, the war had ended long ago—why the sudden need for new camps? The real reason was surely tied to the Doctor’s Plot and/or a new impending war.
**In Stalin’s Last Crime, Naumov and Brent point out that one of the hidden heroes in the story was Sophia Karpai. She was one of the Jewish doctors that was accused, then arrested, tortured, and kept in a refrigerated cell. Despite this, Karpai refused to “confess” and maintenance the innocence of the Jews. By this point, most of the other doctors had already “confessed” under extreme torture. Karpai held out on her own, which frustrated Stalin and the authorities. They couldn’t have even one doctor claim innocence, for that would ruin the entire conspiracy. Naumov and Brent write that “It satisfies the imagination to think that the fate of the Jews of Russia might have depended on this latter day, unknown Esther.” (Pg. 307)
This week, outside of Israel, we read the parasha of Acharei Mot. (In Israel, since Pesach is seven days and finished last Friday, Acharei Mot was read on Shabbat and this week the following parasha, Kedoshim, is read. For the next few months, the weekly parasha read in the Diaspora will be different than that read in Israel.) In Acharei Mot, we are commanded:
And any man of the House of Israel or of the foreigner that lives among them, who eats any blood, I will set My countenance upon the soul who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people. For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you [to be placed] upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul. (Leviticus 17:10-11)
Many recipes call for the use of “kosher salt”. Chefs like it because the larger grains allow them to season their meals more precisely. Jews use koshering salt to remove the tiniest drops of blood that may have remained after draining.
The Jewish people are absolutely forbidden from consuming any kind of blood, whether in a juicy steak or even the tiniest drop inside an egg. It is quite ironic that one of the most disgusting anti-Semitic accusations thrown upon the Jews is that Jews, God forbid, consume the blood of children. (It is all the more ironic that this “blood libel” originates among Catholics who, when taking communion, believe they are drinking the blood of Jesus—who was a Jew!) In reality, Jews obsess over ensuring that we consume no blood whatsoever, and one of the requirements of kosher meat is that all of the blood has been completely removed.
The Torah explains that we should not consume blood because nefesh habasar b’dam hi, the “soul of the flesh is in the blood”. If we eat meat, it is in order to obtain the nutrients in the flesh, not to absorb the spirit of the animal. The animal’s soul is, as the Torah commands, to be placed “upon the altar”. The Kabbalists explain that by doing so, the soul of the animal is allowed to return to the spiritual worlds from which it originates.
In precisely balanced language, the verses cited above state that a Jew who consumes any blood within which is soul, nefesh, will be “cut off” from his nation, and God will personally set His wrath upon that Jewish soul, nefesh. The same word is used to refer to the soul of the Jew and that of the animal. People sometimes forget that animals, too, have souls, and it is forbidden to harm animals in any way.
Having said that, there is of course a great difference between the soul of an animal and the soul of a human. In fact, we find in the Tanakh that five different words are used to refer to the soul. Our Sages explain that a person actually has five souls, or more accurately, five parts or levels to their soul. (The Ba’al HaTurim, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher [1269-1343], states that the five prayer services of Yom Kippur, and the five times that the Kohen Gadol would immerse in the mikveh that day, is in order to purify all five souls; see his commentary on this week’s parasha, Leviticus 16:14.) These five souls are in ascending order, and correspond to the spiritual universes of Creation and to the divine Sefirot. Each soul is itself made up of even smaller, intertwining parts. Understanding the soul and its dynamics is a central part of Jewish mysticism, and what follows is a brief overview of that spiritual map.
The First Three Souls
The first and lowest of the souls is the nefesh. As we have already seen, this soul is associated with the blood, and is the “life force” of a living organism. Above that is the soul called ruach, literally “wind” or “spirit”. We find this term right at the beginning of the Torah (Genesis 1:2) in referring to the Spirit of God (Ruach Elohim) and in many other places to refer to the souls of great people, such as Joshua (Numbers 27:18). Above that is the neshamah, literally “breath”, which we are first introduced to during the creation of Adam, where God breathes a nishmat chayim, “soul of life” into the first civilized man (Genesis 2:7).
These first three souls—nefesh, ruach, and neshamah; often abbreviated as naran—are spoken of widely across Jewish holy texts, from the Tanakh through the Talmud and the Zohar. For example, the Talmud (Niddah 31a) states how there are three partners in the creation of a person: the father is the primary source of five “white” things (bones, nerves, nails, brain, eyeball), the mother is the primary source of five “red” things (blood, skin, flesh, hair, iris), and God gives ten things, including the ruach and neshamah. (The nefesh presumably goes together with the blood from the mother.)
The Zohar (I, 205b-206a) elaborates that the neshamah is greater than the ruach, which is greater than the nefesh, and that a person only accesses higher levels of their soul if they are worthy. Sinners do not have access to their neshamas at all. They are just living nefesh, like animals. Based on this, the Zohar has a unique perspective on Genesis 7:22-23:
All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life [nishmat ruach], whatsoever was in the dry land, died. And He blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the sky; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah alone was left, and they that were with him in the ark.
The Zohar sees these two verses as distinct. First, all those people who did merit a ruach and neshamah (meaning they weren’t completely sinful and didn’t deserve to perish in the Flood) died of natural causes. Only after this did God “blot out” all that remained, including animals and people who were so sinful they were essentially like animals, bearing only a nefesh.
With these three souls in mind, many aspects of life can be better understood. For example, when one is asleep only the nefesh remains in the body (to keep it alive), while the higher souls may migrate. This is why a sleeping body is unconscious and likened to a corpse, and why sometimes dreams can be prophetic, as the higher souls may be accessing information from the Heavens, or through interaction with other souls.
Another intriguing example is from Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) who relates the three souls to three major purposes of sexual intercourse. The first and simplest is for procreation, something that even animals do, and naturally corresponds to nefesh. The second is for good health, corresponding to ruach. The third is for love and intimacy, fusing the souls of husband and wife, corresponding to the neshamah.
In addition to naran, the Zohar sometimes speaks of additional, even higher souls, such as “nefesh of Atzilut” and “neshamah of Aba and Ima” (see II, 94b). To make sense of these, we must turn to the Arizal.
Earning Your Higher Souls
In multiple places, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) and the one who recorded the bulk of his teachings, describes the anatomy of the soul (see, for example, the first passages of Sha’ar HaGilgulim or Derush Igulim v’Yosher 3 in Etz Chaim). At birth, a baby only contains a full nefesh. As the Torah states, the nefesh is in the blood, and the Arizal adds that since the liver filters blood and is full of it, it is the organ most associated with nefesh. By the age of bar or bat mizvah, a person now has the ability to fully access their ruach. The organ of ruach is the heart (also stated in the Zohar, III, 29b, Raya Mehemna), associated with one’s drives, and both inclinations, the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. Only at age 20 does the neshamah become fully available (in most cases). The neshamah is housed in the brain, and is associated with the mind.
Today, we know how scientifically precise those statements are. For example, at any given time the liver (the body’s largest internal organ) contains about 10% of the body’s blood volume, and filters about a quarter of all blood each minute. As well, we know today that the majority of the brain’s development ends around age 20 (though minor changes continue for at least another decade, if not longer). It therefore isn’t surprising that teenagers are so good at making bad decisions. We can also understand why being a teenager is so difficult emotionally, as this is when the ruach is in full force in the heart, and one struggles with their desires and inclinations.
Reinforcing what was said in the Zohar, the Arizal taught that one does not automatically have full access to these souls, but must work on themselves and merit to attain them. Unfortunately, a great many people spend their entire lives stuck in nefesh, living very materialistic and animalistic lives, never overcoming their desires and inclinations (ruach), or achieving any kind of mental greatness (neshamah). The potential is there, though never realized.
For those who do grow ever-higher, they may be able to access even loftier soul levels: the chayah and yechidah. In the Torah, we see many places where the soul is referred to as chayah, including right at the start where God breathes a soul into Adam and makes him l’nefesh chayah (Genesis 2:7). The chayah is sometimes described as an aura. It is not housed within the body, but glows outward, and plays an important role in the interactions between people. (Conversely, some early sources speak of the chayah as being within the body, and serving as its life force. See, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 14:9.)
Above it is the highest level of soul, the yechidah, “singular one”, which connects a person directly with God. It is like a divine umbilical cord, and one who realizes it and senses it may certainly draw through it information from Above. The yechidah, too, has Scriptural basis, for example in Psalms 22:21 and 35:17 where David asks God to save his nefesh and yechidah from danger.
Souls Intertwined With Universes
In Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital cites the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) as the source for the concept of five souls, as well as the five olamot, spiritual universes. (The mystical Sefer HaBahir adds that this is the secret of the letter hei, which has a numerical value of five.) There in the Talmud, the Sages point out how David’s Barchi Nafshi, Psalms 103-104, uses the phrase Barchi nafshi et Hashem, “May my soul bless God” five times. These, the Sages state, correspond to the five olamot, “worlds” or “universes” that David inhabited. Though the Talmud goes on to present a more physical explanation of what these worlds are, it is possible to read deeper between the lines, and the Kabbalists find allusions to five cosmic, spiritual universes, which are: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut, and Adam Kadmon. While explaining these worlds in depth is a topic for another time, we can state that the five souls correspond to these five universes.
In fact, the Arizal teaches that one can identify the soul elevation of another by studying the colour of their aura: black is the colour of Asiyah, the lowest, physical realm which we visibly inhabit. The higher world of Yetzirah, the domain of angels and spirits, is red. Even higher is Beriah, literally “Creation”, where the very spiritual foundations of Creation exist. It is white. Above this is Atzilut, “divine emanation”, which is pure, brilliant light. These worlds, and souls, correspond to the letters of God’s Name. The final hei is Asiyah/Nefesh, the vav is Yetzirah/Ruach, the first hei is Beriah/Neshamah, the yud is Atzilut/Chayah, and the “crown” atop the yud is Adam Kadmon/Yechidah.
How the letters of God’s Ineffable Name relate to the five levels of soul, the five “universes”, and the Ten Sefirot. (Zeir Anpin refers to the middle six Sefirot from Chessed to Yesod.)
All of these also correspond to the major branches of Torah study. Learning Tanakh is in Asiyah, while Mishnah is in Yetzirah. Talmud is in Beriah, while Kabbalah is in Atzilut. When one learns these texts, they are putting on a spiritual “garment” for that soul level, rectifying it and elevating it further, and this garment will remain with them in the World to Come (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). This is the deeper meaning of Psalm 19:8, which states that God’s Torah is temimah, meshivat nefesh, is “pure and restores the soul”.
Adam Kadmon is left out of the above (and in general is made distinct from the other four universes) because that level is where one has mastered all of the Torah branches, has refined their soul to the highest degree, and is a perfectly righteous person. This level may be equated to the super-lofty soul of Nefesh d’Atzilut which we previously mentioned from the Zohar. Such a rare person is referred to as a malakh, an “angel”, and this was the case with people like Eliyahu, Yehudah, Hezekiah, and Enoch (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39).
How the souls and universes relate to the “Tree of Life” which depicts the 32 Paths of Creation – the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Hebrew letters.
Emptying The Universe’s Soul
In case it wasn’t complicated enough just yet, the Arizal taught that each of the five souls is itself composed of five souls. So, within the nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah (abbreviated as naran chai) there is an inner nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah! That makes 25 smaller parts to the soul. Furthermore, each of these parts is composed of 613 sparks corresponding to the 613 mitzvot. Each of those sparks is further composed of 600,000 even smaller sparks. Multiplying them all together, we get 9.195 billion sparks.
In the same place where he writes this (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 11), Rabbi Vital explains that all of these sparks were contained within Adam. We may assume that it probably isn’t the case that each person has 9 billion or more sparks, but that Adam’s original soul divided up into so many sparks. Since it is said that in the same way all people are physical descendants of Adam, they are also his spiritual descendants, we might conclude that the world should expect to have a population of up to 9.195 billion people. Interestingly, demographers are currently predicting that Earth’s population will actually top out around 9 billion, and will then start to decline. This prediction is quite amazing in light of one famous Talmudic teaching:
In Yevamot 62a, the Sages state that Mashiach will not come until all souls are born. They describe a Heavenly repository of souls called guf, literally “body”. Only when guf is empty can Mashiach arrive. The guf may be mystically referring to that first “body” of Adam which contained all souls within it. Once all of those sparks are born, all souls from the beginning of time will be alive simultaneously so that everyone can witness the tremendous Final Redemption. It appears we are inching ever closer to that moment.