Va-etchannan: Attachment to Life

August 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 6 Comments

There’s a lot of theology in this week’s Torah potion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”).  Besides relating God to fire (see my blog last year, Va-etchannan: Fire and Idols), Moses gives the “Shema“, the core statement that God is “one”; and the “Ve-ahavta“, telling us to love God in everything we do.  There is also the Torah’s first reference to God as Elohim Chayyim, the God of Life or the Living God.

For who, of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the God of Life speaking from the midst of the fire, as we did, has stayed alive?  (Deuteronomy 5:23)

chayyim = life; a vivid life; meaningful life

As in English, the Hebrew word for “life” has more than one meaning.  Sometimes chayyim is the opposite of physical death; when one of God’s plagues kills people, those who remain have life.  Sometimes it’s the opposite of mechanical existence; chayyim is life that is vividly experienced (as in the English “She’s full of life!”).  And sometimes it’s the opposite of meaningless existence; chayyim is life with purpose (as in the English “Get a life!”).

These three meanings of chayyim correspond to the first three levels of of soul. (Traditional Jewish kabbalah, including the Zohar, defines five levels of soul, the first three being personal to an individual, the last two merging with the divine, universal soul.)  Nefesh is the soul that animates the body with physical life, including the ability to breathe and move.  Ruach is experienced as  significant feelings or tides of emotion that motivate action.  Neshamah is the soul that receives inspiration, entertains ideas, grasps notions such as good versus bad, and makes whatever choices we can make through free will.

I think the phrase “God of Life” not only implies that God is like a human full of life, but also means that God is the source of all three kinds of life represented by these three kinds of personal soul.  At the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit, God creates the inanimate universe, and then all living things.  God makes the human, the adam, a “nefesh chayyah“, an animated animal, a living body.

Then God places the human nefesh in the garden of Eden and exposes it to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  When the human (now divided into male and female) taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they feel shame and fear of God; they have acquired ruach.  They also gain an intuitive knowledge of good and bad and what it means to choose; each now has a neshamah.

The God that arranges for humankind to have these three levels of soul, these three kinds of “life”, also arranges their eventual death.  But it’s the nature of the world (outside the mythic garden of Eden) for  life and death, good and bad, to come in pairs.  You can’t have one without the other.

After so much attention in the last book of the Torah, Bedmidbar, to God as the dealer of death, this week’s Torah portion focuses on the God of Life— and our own ability to choose life by clinging to God.

But you who are sticking to Yah your God, all of you have life today.  (Deuteronomy 4:4)

deveikim = sticking to, clinging to, being attached to

How do we attach ourselves to God?

On the simple animal level of action, the level of nefesh, Moses keeps telling the Israelites to stick to God by following God’s rules and avoiding idol worship.  Jewish writing ever since has also urged people to be “observant”, to follow all the rules, whether they are about not killing your neighbor or not lighting a fire on the sabbath.

Much of later Jewish writing urges the cultivation of deveikut, the practice of inner attachment to God.  This includes redirecting one’s ruach to feeling awe and/or love of God at every moment—something that only the greatest Jewish saints or tzaddikim are said to have achieved.

A line in this week’s Torah portion also refers to both actions and emotions, to both moving and being moved:

And Hashem commanded us to carry out all these decrees, feeling awe of God, our God, for our own good, all the days—to keep us alive as we are this day.  (Deuteronomy 6:24)

Both following the rules and feeling awe are necessary to keep us  “alive”, to maintain both mechanical life and a vivid experience of life.

But to be fully human, we also need a life of meaning and purpose, the life expressed by our neshama.  People who stick to God’s decrees by following the letter of the law rather than its spirit may feel righteous, but they often act without enough respect for other human beings.  This makes their lives thin and their loves limited.

People cling to their god with emotion may feel as though their lives are rich with meaning, but sometimes, drowning in their own feelings they, too, act without enough respect for other human beings.  This makes their lives ungrounded and their loves unreliable.

For our own good, and for the good of our whole world, I believe we need a third way of being attached to God, the way of the neshamah.  We need to rethink our automatic actions, transcend our feelings, and cultivate awareness of other human beings and of the whole world.  We need to reach inside for our deepest ethics, and make free choices from that deep knowledge of good and bad.  Only then will we have a life of meaning and purpose, attached to the god that is Oneness.

Here’s to life!  Lechayyim!  May we all savor a life of action, a life of feeling, and a life of meaning.


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  1. Heya! I understand this is kind of off-topic however I needed to ask.
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    I am brand new to operating a blog however I do write in my diary daily.
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    • If you just want to write a blog, with no website attached, WordPress works pretty well. I had fun picking out my theme and modifying it with a new photo and colors. (Creating the rest of the pages on my website,, was a major effort, however.)
      The next step in blogging is to write and post regularly. Since almost all of my posts are about the Torah portion of the week, it gives me a natural schedule. I post once a week, sometime between Monday and Wednesday. Since my blog is rather scholarly, I do research and translate Hebrew whenever I have time on Thursday through Sunday. I write it when I have time on Monday and Tuesday, but I save it as a draft and print it out for my “first reader” friend to critique. Then I revise whatever seemed unclear to him, and hit “publish”.
      A less scholarly blog would not take as much time to prepare. But this is what I love doing, and I hope to get a couple of books out of it someday!
      Tying my blog to the weekly Torah portion really motivates me to do it every week. I think some kind of regular weekly format would help anyone to get those blog posts out.
      Oh, and another good thing to do is to e-mail or facebook all your friends and contacts after you’ve got your blog rolling and written a couple of posts. Some of them will want to subscribe.
      Best of luck!

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      I have received a couple of comments that WordPress considered spam that looked more like comments from abroad in very broken English.
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