The Keys to Life
A Spiritual Quest - Rabbi Zamir Cohen
Who does it mean to be a spiritual person? Do I have to abstain completely from all the pleasures of this world in order to be considered spiritual? How can I bridge the physical with the spiritual, the body with the soul? Embark on a journey of self-discovery with Rabbi Zamir Cohen
Many individuals these days, especially young people, are searching for spirituality. They tend to submit themselves to baseless ideologies and blindly follow the various “gurus,” cult leaders, and narcissistic “spiritual” mentors who err in their ways and promote foolish dogmas that end up misleading the masses. Others may practice bizarre superstitions or mystical rituals as a means of tapping into the supernatural realms. All of these practices give people a false sense of connection to spirituality.
The main questions that the seeker generally asks himself are: What is a spiritual person? Who is considered to be a spiritual person? Do I have to abstain completely from all the pleasures of this world in order to be considered spiritual, as some would argue, or can I live a decent, normal life in conjunction with a life of genuine spirituality? How can I bridge the physical with the spiritual, the body with the soul? Don’t they contradict each other?
In the face of these dilemmas, the pure-hearted truth seeker stands perplexed. He’s aware of his soul’s desperate thirst for true spirituality, but he questions the existence of a solid path that will ultimately lead him to that lofty aspiration. And if such a path does in fact exist, then how can it be found? After all, the world is filled with all kinds of false promises offering the secret to spiritual happiness, yet the multitude of people who experience disappointments from these notions is overwhelmingly high. And as we all know, the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment.
Therefore, there is no human being—even if he professes to be the most spiritual person—who can arrive at the truth if he relies on his own human wisdom. After all, the human mind is susceptible to errors, and since we live in a physical world and have a spiritual soul that resides inside a physical body, any imbalance that occurs between the physical and the spiritual will create opposition for its counterpart. As many people in the world know, anyone who sacrifices his body in an extreme way in order to intensify his soul, like the fakirs of India, will cause his body to rebel against this objective. He will eventually reach the opposite extreme, as his body will want to compensate for the great void that was created during his extreme abstinence. This is true even if the person has the façade of a “guru” who abstains from earthly matters. If he persists with his extreme physical sacrifice, without giving in to his body’s needs at all, he will eventually cause the body to atrophy and his spirit to sink into a deep depression.
On the other hand, a person who exhausts his physical urges by intensely pursuing earthly indulgences will lose the ability to enjoy the things he once derived pleasure from. He’ll be forced to increase the dosage of his pleasures in order to feel stimulated. He’ll repeat this pattern again and again until he becomes perpetually ravenous, and will sooner or later begin experiencing feelings of self-degradation and constant inner shame. Ultimately, a person will feel sickened by the pleasures of the world and be disgusted—even with himself.
However, a person who has an awareness of G-d knows quite well that it is beyond human capacity to truly understand the proper balance between the needs of the body and the needs of the soul the way G-d does, as He is the Creator of man. Only G-d knows how to balance the two entities in a way that is most precise and equally fulfilling to both. Since G-d wants only the best for His creations, there is no doubt that His directives are perfectly suitable for both their physical and spiritual needs. If we compare the instructions that G-d gave us to those that come with a newly purchased product, we’ll see they are quite similar, as they both serve to benefit the end-user.
A consumer may not always understand why certain instructions must be followed in order to use a certain product, especially when he knows that there are similar products with different sets of instructions. However, a person relies on the manufacturer who knows his product very well and knows which directions must be followed in order to achieve optimal results.
Therefore, a person who carefully studies the commandments contained in the Creator’s “instruction manual” will discover a perfectly magnificent balance between the body and soul, supplying each one with its particular needs. This balance creates a wonderful harmony between the two seemingly conflicting forces that together make up a human being.
This careful study that exposes the wisdom of Divine balance for the sake of a quality spiritual life increases seven-fold in the modern era mainly because of the impressive scientific breakthroughs in all areas of research. Recent discoveries have illuminated many Torah directives from various angles. Aside from their all-encompassing virtues and their hidden codes, the commandments of the Torah are now taking on a whole new wondrous meaning. Experience shows that these new revelations of the mitzvot, together with a small taste of the vast knowledge hidden in the mystics, offer modern man the will and desire to connect to this wonderfully balanced spiritual system, intended for his benefit—for the sake of his happiness and the health of his body and mind.
If a person humbles himself before his Creator and understands that all the vast knowledge that he possesses pales in comparison to the deep wisdom contained within the Great Manufacturer’s system of instructions, he’ll certainly relate to every instruction seriously. He’ll embrace even the one that seems completely “trivial” along with all the details it contains—as there is no doubt that every detail is critical for the system’s integrity.
This is besides the basic understanding that if the Creator of the universe has commanded me to do something, I will certainly carry out His command without trying to understand the reasons for His orders.
We will therefore embark on a journey of self-discovery and explore the needs of both our body and soul—the two components that all of us are made up of. Together we will examine, according to the Creator’s instructions, what it is that fulfills each of them and balances the two entities in the most optimal way.
The Torah teaches that just like the body needs nourishment in order to grow and thrive, so too, the soul needs its spiritual fuel in order to develop and have a reason to exist in the physical world. It is that spiritual hunger that drives people to search for something that will offer them fulfillment.
Even though a person may find it easy to define the physical needs that he is lacking, such as food and water, when it comes to the spiritual void of his soul, he may misinterpret its meaning and mistakenly conclude that a certain physical need will certainly provide him with the desired fulfillment.
He will then make every attempt in achieving his physical desires by buying a new car, a larger house, or satisfying a physical urge. As long as his desires go unrealized, he’ll remain convinced that his material deficiencies are the reason for his internal hunger, and that he must increase his efforts in attaining them. What he doesn’t realize is that his inner self is feeling empty because of its spiritual void. That’s why the feeling of emptiness keeps returning in a forceful way every time he makes an effort to pursue his physical desires.
This can be likened to a baby who senses that an empty bottle was placed in his mouth. He’s momentarily silenced by the bottle, until he begins to cry even louder once he realizes that the bottle is devoid of the sustenance he needs. This is true for us as well; a person will eventually feel worse because he is not feeding his soul the nourishment it needs. He then sets a new goal for himself, achieves it, and again searches for something new to satisfy him. He may forever find himself chasing his tail! Yet he fails to understand that “the soul will never be satisfied” by physical pleasures. The soul is spiritual and as such needs the appropriate spiritual sustenance that will lead it to its ultimate contentment.
So what exactly is that “spiritual sustenance” that’s supposed to nourish the soul of man, aka, “the crown jewel of creation”?
Jewish mysticism teaches that this fulfillment is achieved through sufficient activity within the following systems, if implemented together:
· Cultivation and refinement of character traits
· The study of G-d’s Torah
· The withdrawal of spiritual substance from the physical world according to the instructions of the Creator
The cultivation and refinement of one’s character involves correcting negative traits such as anger, jealousy, arrogance, vengeance, and the like until the positive behavior patterns of the person become second nature. He then becomes more easygoing, humble, respectful of others, someone who does not anger easily, pursue honor, or hate. He is someone who is happy with his lot and truly glad to see his friends succeed—a kindhearted and forgiving individual.
A person’s true character dwells within his soul. By refining his character through consistent spiritual work and transforming himself from a selfish individual with negative traits, to a person who is good-natured with virtuous traits, his soul begins to sense fulfillment, as it has now been elevated and positioned upon a path toward completion. The soul’s sense of gratification stems from both the attainment of its purpose, and from the peaceful and pleasant life that it merits to have in this world—a life in which sincere giving and thankfulness is prevalent, without tensions, disputes, resentments, or grudges.
However, since the body is configured according to the exact structure of the soul (refer to the words of Maharchu in this matter in the box toward the end of the chapter), the demands of the body therefore mirror the demands of the soul. The only difference is that the needs of the soul belong to the spiritual realm.
By observing the physical body we can gain insight into the spiritual needs of the soul. For example, the water we drink cleanses and revitalizes our body as it flows through every corner of the viscera. Without it, the body becomes dehydrated and loses its sustainability. The food we consume acts as a vital element for the body, supplying energy that allows it to function. By the same token, the soul requires “water” that cleanses, purifies, and revitalizes, as well as other forms of spiritual nutriments that have the ability to affect the soul in the same way that physical nourishment affects the body. And just as we must avoid the consumption of toxic and damaging foods, and feed the body foods that are good and healthful, so too with the soul.
Therefore, the 613 commandments in the Torah, are divided into positive commandments—relating to the “food” that regenerates and nourishes the soul, and the negative commandments that warn us against the actions that are toxic to the soul and must be avoided. Some positive commandments serve as key elements for the soul (as well as for the spiritual and physical worlds), while others supply vital energy and abundance to the soul (as well as to the rest of the worlds).
Just like water is critical to the preservation of the physical body, the words of the Torah are critical to the spiritual sustenance of the soul. As we know, the Torah is likened to water and light. One must take an allegorical lesson from these elements: Just as water flows to every cavity in the body and rejuvenates it, so does the Torah. When a person studies Torah, there’s a spiritual current that flows to all parts of the soul, illuminating and purifying it from the stains of its sins, and recharging it with a new energy. This occurs because the words of the Torah contain a lofty spiritual enlightenment that flows into the various parts of the soul of the person studying it, as explained in Kabbalistic writings and in this book in the chapter called “A Light for the Soul.”
By implementing the Torah’s instructions, which correspond to the number of organs and sinews in the human body, as explained in the Zohar, the nourishment of the soul is attained. After all, the human body is only an encasing for the soul that resides inside it. When a particular mitzvah is physically implemented through an organ or sinew, whose spiritual root is controlled by that mitzvah, it nourishes the spiritual aspect of that organ; it strengthens and enriches it with the vital elements that it needs.
The combination of spiritual food and water down here on earth ensures our fulfillment and happiness in this world and in the World to Come.
The Secret to Balancing the Physical and the Spiritual
Both character development and the study of Torah—the two pathways that lead to spiritual fulfillment—have separate chapters dedicated to them in this book. In the following pages we will observe the third pathway: the Torah directive on living an ideal life, balancing our physical and spiritual needs without compromising either one of them. Through this perfect balance, the Torah makes it possible for both sides to reach their ultimate pleasure.
It is important for every person to understand this special balance, especially if he is just starting out on his spiritual journey. The main obstacle that stands before a person who wishes to elevate his life and strengthen himself in the service of G-d though the mitzvot is: “It’s too difficult for me to give up my earthly pleasures for the sake of the next world. I’m too accustomed to them.” What he doesn’t realize is that he’s only exchanging one form of pleasure for another form of pleasure, one that’s loftier and more authentic—and thus more enjoyable in this world.
In the following paragraphs we will touch upon some of the reasons for the mitzvot, and we’ll try to catch a small glimpse of their depth. We’ll examine each mitzvah’s spiritual aspect according to both the simple and mystical understanding of it, along with the purpose that it offers for the attainment of a healthy, meaningful, and quality life in this world. This fascinating observation can lead us toward a new, compelling outlook on the ancient Jewish teachings, as King David said, “Contemplate and see that Hashem is good.”
The Torah, the world, and man are all aligned with each other on four levels. They are connected to one another and stem from one another (and they all originate from the four-lettered Name of the one Creator). The significance of these concepts is astonishing. The body is the vessel that activates all the spiritual systems in the world! If we conduct ourselves properly in the physical world, according to the instructions of the Torah, whose words are composed in the order of the letters by which we are formed, we are correcting our spiritual essence for eternal life as well as the parts of creation that parallel our universe. And if, G-d forbid, we conduct ourselves the opposite way, we are virtually destroying all the worlds. This great principle explains why certain mitzvot are performed by utilizing the physical matter in the world and keep us from seeing immediate results (like tefillin). However, they operate on the inner aspect of our psyche and on all the parallel dimensions of creation.
Notes and Sources
 Kohelet 6:7.
 Taanit 7a.Why are the words of the Torah compared to water? It says in Yeshayahu 55:1, “Everyone who is thirsty go to the water.” This is also the spiritual root of the light that exists in the physical world, as it says in Taanit 7b, “There is no light but Torah,” and as it says in Mishlei 6:23, “For a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light.”
 Zohar, Parshat Vayishlach 170b [original text in Aramaic], “A person has 248 organs, which are equated to the 248 commandments in the Torah that were given in order to observe, and the 248 angels that adorn the Divine Presence whose names are the names of their Master. A person also has 365 sinews, which equate to the 365 commandments that are forbidden, and to the 365 days of the year.”
 Tehillim 34:9.
Adapted from "The Keys to Life" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen