The power of self-restraint
Rebbe Nachman writes (in Likutey Moharan, 25):
“That every person needs to rescue themselves from [their] imagination, and to raise up their seichel (minds)… and know: that in each and every world, and that at each and every [spiritual] level, these fantasies exist (i.e. the power of imagination). And these, these are the klipot (husks of evil) that precede the fruit, and that surround kedusha (holiness)… and we need to subdue them and break them, and to purify these places from the klipot.”
We need to know a very important rule: When Rebbe Nachman used to give over his Torah lessons and parables, he normally used to speak by way of hints, so we need to consider what he actually really means, because Rebbe Nachman is referring to very deep concepts.
When we start to learn a lesson in Likutey Moharan, we need to see what the central points of Rebbe Nachman’s concepts in that lesson are, are to fully understand them, and then only afterwards will we be able to understand the lesson.
In this lesson, the central points are the seichel and the imagination. So we need to have a short prelude before continuing, to really understand what these concepts are actually referring to.
Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama
It’s written in the holy books that a human being is made up of a spiritual-emotional reality, and a materialistic reality, and that there is a linkage between our physical body and our spiritual powers. For example: When someone receives a blow to their body, they feel pain. But if we hurt an inanimate object, it won’t feel pain and it won’t cry out.
The ability to feel is something spiritual. Thanks to the connection between his physical body and his more spiritual side, a person will feel pain as part of his spiritual dimension.
The spiritual dimension is made up of five different parts, namely the:
- Nefesh (animal soul),
- Ruach, (referring to the emotions),
- Neshama, (Divine soul),
- Chaya (living soul) and
- Yechida (unique soul).
These last two parts will only be revealed to a person in the distant future, unless he’s a very great Tzaddik who merits to have them revealed [now].
The essence of the Nefesh’s strength comes from desires and lusts. Whenever a person desires or lusts for something, that tells us that the light of the Nefesh is currently shining within him. A desire is not necessarily always something bad, because a person can also desire holy things, as it’s written (in Psalms):
“My souls yearns for You (i.e. Hashem) in the night”.
The essence of the Ruach’s strength is revealed within us by way of our heartfelt feelings. When we feel love, happiness or anger, and so on and so forth, this means that the light of the Ruach is now shining within us. And the essence of the Neshama’s strength is revealed via our thoughts.
These three aspects form our internal reality – the Nefesh creates our desires, the Ruach creates our feelings and emotions, and the Neshama creates our thoughts. When a person contemplates his inner life a little, sometimes he’ll notice that he’s craving something, he wants something; other times, that he’s feeling some sort of emotion; and that sometimes, he’s thinking. Most of our reality revolves around these three aspects.
Imagination and intellect
It’s written in our holy books that within each of these three aspects of Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama that there is spiritual work and birur, or clarification, to do. Simply put, the Nefesh contains good and bad, the Ruach contains good and bad, and also within the Deshama there is good and bad. Our work is to always try to exert ourselves to associate with the good aspects of our Nefesh, Ruach and Deshama and to repel the bad that’s in our Nefesh, Ruach and Neshama, and expel it.
By way of the Torah’s power, and by way of the advice that our true Tzaddikim teach us, every single one of us can kick out the bad that’s contained within these three aspects, and can associate with the good.
The ‘imagination’ is called the bad part of the Nefesh, Ruach and Neshama, and the seichel, or intellect is the good part. This good part is called the seichel because in order to reach it, we need the seichel, or brains, of the Torah and the Tzaddikim.
The animal soul and the Divine soul
Let’s contemplate what happens within the Nefesh (animal soul) of a person: There’s a battle going on in the Nefesh between the animal soul, that’s lusting after material things, and particularly the lust for food, drink and niouf (immoral intimacy), and the Divine soul that opposes this, and only desires holy things.
The Rebbe urges us to feel our desires from this good side, because the animal soul hides the light and the spiritual revelation of the Divine soul that’s inside of us. The Nefesh’s whole interest is centered on desires and lusts, and desire itself is a form of spiritual light, and a very high for at that.
When a person merits to get up for chatzot (the midnight lamentation) and to learn Torah, that’s when he merits to feel the Divine Nefesh – that strong, powerful feeling of being truly connected to Hashem. The question is, how do can we successfully switch over this strength, this huge light that’s called the ‘light of the Nefesh’, to the holy side, and repel the animal soul?
If we contemplate the matter, it seems that the world needs the animal soul in order to even exist, and the Torah lays commandments upon us that also depend upon the nefesh, like for example: the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat, or enjoying Shabbat. The essence of fulfilling the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat revolves around eating and drinking.
The first point to make about this process of birur, or clarification, between the animal soul and the Divine soul is that everything has to be done according to the Torah, and this is how we sanctify our material lusts and desires. When we eat on Shabbat in order to honor the Shabbat and serve Hashem, then Rebbe Nachman tells us that our eating is: “Entirely holy, entirely Divine.” And this is how we transfer our lusts over to the Divine Nefesh.
The power of self-restraint
In our generation, we know all too well how much power and authority the animal soul exerts, and how difficult it is to repel it, which is why we need to know the deeper points that will help us to fight against is and repel it. In the holy books, it’s written that there is a very deep concept called the ‘tikkun hayesod’, or ‘rectification of the foundation’.
To put this in simpler language, this is called the ‘power of self-restraint’, and this is the key to managing the relationship between the profane and the holy, and the animal soul and the Divine Nefesh.
The animal soul’s yetzer hara wants to break through all the fences, and wants a person to gulp his food down, and to eat a huge amount, and so on and so forth. Our work is to rule over our eating habits, and to not let our eating habits rule over us. The strength we have to restrain ourselves, and to hold ourselves back when our lusts are waxing stronger will determine who’s really in control – our intellect, or our desires.
We need to know that when we come into close contact with our animal soul, at that very moment, some very powerful forces are revealed within us, and this strength is what is going to rule over a person. So our job is to learn how to restrain ourselves. When that desire for something wakes up inside of us, like that well-known desire, sometimes it can attack us forcefully. This is when we need to have the power of self-restraint in our Nefesh, in order to overcome these lusts.
We need the strength to be able to say: “No, I’m not taking that. I’m abstaining from this. There’s a huge plate of food here, but I’m not going to eat!”
From experience, it’s so much easier to completely abstain from eating than to just eat a little and then hold back from eating the rest. Why is this so very hard? Because at the moment that we start to eat, our Nefesh wakes up, the strength of that lust wakes up, and now it’s really difficult to stop it in mid-flow.
A little is also good
At this stage it’s important to understand that it’s impossible to fight against these lusts head-on, because then the Nefesh will only increase the level of desire even more. So then, what can we do?
Rebbe Nachman reveals another big rule: “A little is also good.” Rebbe Nachman is not saying this to comfort us, but to teach us a very deep secret. Hashem created us with all of our desires and bad middot (negative character traits), that’s the reality. But if this is the case, then what does He want from us? That we should work hard and make an effort to escape from this bad, and this happens when each time, we get used to restraining ourselves a little more.
Each time, we should work on another stage, step by step, without trying to jump two levels at once. When someone tries to advance too fast, his yetzer hara breaks him. But when a person restrains himself a little, he then achieves a huge tikkun (rectification) in his Nefesh. Every time that he successfully controls himself, even just a little, his power of self-restraint grows.
Let’s take an example: Now, it’s lunchtime. So wait five minutes, but no more than that, and then see what you experience in those five minutes. A Jew has an enormous, awesome ability to restrain himself. We can restrain ourselves in the face of every lust contained in the whole world, but we’re just not used to doing that. We need to practice, we need to get used to doing this, so we can make our power of self-restraint a reality.
The goal: The Divine Nefesh
The more that we strengthen our self-restraint, the more the Divine Nefesh inside of us will start to reveal itself. Self-restraint is what chases away the animal soul, because it’s impossible for these two things to dwell inside of a person together. As one rises, the other one falls, and vice-versa.
When a person starts to uncover the Divine Nefesh inside of him, he suddenly starts to feel all this yearning and desire shining out of him to do God’s will. Suddenly, he starts rushing to put on tefillin, or to pray, or start travelling to Kivrei Tzaddikim (the graves of holy people). The animal soul masks and covers the Divine Nefesh. When the mask falls off, that’s when the Divine Nefesh is revealed.
We need a lot of emuna to believe that we have this Divine nefesh inside of us, because the yetzer hara comes to us and tells us:
“Tell me something, can’t you see that they’re telling you nonsense? What ‘Divine nefesh’ is hiding inside of you?! What’s telling you to say blessings, and to put a kippa on your head? Who can reach the level of being able to uncover their Divine Nefesh in our generation?”
This is the lie the yetzer hara tells, because the essence of a Jew’s spiritual work in the world is to light up and reveal the Divine neshama within himself. The true Tzaddikim, and especially Rebbe Nachman, remind us all the time via their Torah lessons and their advice not to despair of searching for our Divine Nefesh.
When we merit to find and reveal our Divine Neshama, that’s when we merit to have a true connection with Hashem.
May it be His will that we merit to do this.