Physical-Spiritual Unity

25 Mar
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by Rabbi Arieh Kaplan

The greatest satisfaction is accomplishing in a world where God is hidden.

There are two basic concepts in human existence. First, man must earn the good that God has prepared. Secondly, he must receive this good.

There is, however, a basic difference between the environment needed for these two concepts. While earning the reward, we must have the maximum possible challenge. This in turn gives us the greatest possible satisfaction in accomplishment. Such an environment must therefore be one where neither God Himself, nor the divine nature of our good deeds, is obvious. It must be a world where God is hidden, and where good is only accomplished with the greatest difficulty.

The place where man receives good, on the other hand, must be the exact opposite. In order for man to enjoy the maximum possible satisfaction from the good that he has done, the true nature of his deeds must be as obvious as possible. The existence of God must also be as apparent as possible in such a world. It must be a place where man realized the goodness of his deeds and their relationship to God.

In this world God is hidden. In the next world, God is totally apparent.

It is for this reason that God created two levels of existence. First there is this world — Olam Hazeh — a place of accomplishment and maximum challenge. Secondly, there is the World to Come — Olam Haba— the world of ultimate reward, where both God’s existence and the nature of one’s deeds are totally apparent.

Both this world and the world to Come exist on a physical plane. This is obvious in the case of the physical world. However, according to most authorities, the Future World will also be physical. This is the reason for our belief in the resurrection of the dead. It is a foundation of our faith that God will ultimately bring the dead back to life, or at least provide the souls of the dead with bodies like their previous ones. It will be in these resurrected bodies that man will partake of his ultimate reward in the world to Come.


But why is a physical world necessary at all? Since both God and His ultimate good are spiritual, what need is there for a physical body?

Before we can answer this question, we must first ask another question. What is the difference between the material and the spiritual?

We speak of the material and the spiritual as two different concepts. We know that the spiritual is not material. But precisely what is the difference?

The answer should be obvious. The main difference between the material and spiritual involves space. Physical space only exists in the physical world. In the spiritual, there is no space as we know it.

As discussed earlier, the concept of distance and closeness also exist in the spiritual world. They do not refer to physical distance, since this does not exist in the spiritual realm. As we have mentioned earlier, however, closeness in a spiritual sense involves resemblance. Two things that resemble each other are said to be spiritually close. Two things that differ, on the other hand, are far apart in a spiritual sense.

This has very important implications. In the spiritual world it is utterly impossible to bring two opposites together. Because they are opposite, they are by definition, poles apart.

Thus, for example, God and man are worlds apart — “as the heavens are higher than the earth.” On a purely spiritual plane, it would be totally impossible for the two ever to be brought together.

Two opposites can be brought together by being bound to physical objects.

It was for this reason that God created the concept of space. Spiritual things can be bound to the material, just as for example the soul is bound to the body.

Two opposites can then be brought together by being bound to physical objects. In the physical world, space exists, and two opposites can literally be pushed together. Furthermore, two spiritual opposites can even be bound to the same material object.

Thus, for example, man has both an urge for good and an urge for evil, the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Hara. In a purely spiritual sense, these are poles apart. Without a physical world, they could never be brought together in a single entity.


The archetype of the spiritual being is the angel. Since an angel has no body, it can never contain both good and evil in its being. Our sages therefore teach us that angels have no Yetzer Hara. It is only in a physical being that both good and evil can exist together. Although they are at opposite poles spiritually, they can come together in the physical man.

One reason why God created man in a physical world was therefore to allow him to have full freedom of choice, with both good and evil as part of his makeup. Without a physical world, these two concepts could never exist in the same being.

The fact that good and evil can exist I the same physical space also allows good to overcome evil in this world. Here again this is only possible in a physical world. In a purely spiritual arena, good could never come close enough to evil to have any influence over it. In the physical world, however good and evil can exist together, and good can therefore overcome evil. Our sages thus teach us that one of the main reasons why man was placed in the physical world was to overcome the forces of evil. The Zohar expresses it by stating that we are here “to turn darkness into light.”


The entire concept of the nonphysical is very difficult to comprehend, and may be clarified by a remarkable teaching of our sages. The Midrash (Genesis Raba 50:2) tells us, “One angel cannot have two missions. Neither can two angels share the same mission.”

This teaching brings our entire discussion into focus. The angel is the archetype of the nonphysical being. When we speak of an angel, we are speaking of an entity that exists purely on a spiritual plane. Angels can be differentiated only by their mission, that is, by their involvement and attachment to some physical thing.

Two angels therefore cannot share the same mission. It is only their different missions that make the two angels different entities. They cannot be separated by space like physical objects. Therefore, if they both had the same mission, there would be nothing to differentiate them, and they would be one.

Similarly, one angel cannot have two missions. On a purely spiritual plane, two different concepts cannot exist in a single entity. If an angel had two missions, then it would be two angels.

On a purely spiritual plane, two different concepts cannot exist in a single entity.

We can also understand this in terms of the human mind. In a sense, the mind is a pure spiritual entity, bound to man’s physical brain. Many thoughts and memories may be bound together by man’s physical brain, but the mind can only focus on one of them at a time. In simple terms, a person can only think of one thing at a time. A thought is a spiritual entity, and as such, can only contain a single concept. Since both a thought and an angel are basic spiritual entities, this is very closely related to the fact that an angel can only have a single mission.

For a similar reason, angels have no way of knowing anything that does not pertain to their particular mission. An angel may be created initially with a vast storehouse of knowledge, but it has no way of increasing it, at least, not beyond its own sphere of activity. Thus, for example, we find one angel asking another a question: “And one [angel] said to the Man dressed in linen… ‘How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?'” (Daniel 12:6) One angel had to ask the other, because he himself could not know something outside of his own domain.


In the physical world, we can learn things through our five senses. We can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Our knowledge of things comes from our physical proximity to them. In the spiritual world, however, this does not exist. The only way that one can learn about a thing is to come into spiritual proximity with it. An angel cannot do this outside of his own realm.

Man therefore has an advantage over an angel. The very fact that he exists in this lower world enables him to reach up ever so higher.

There are concepts of good decreed by God, and as His decrees, they are intimately bound to Him. When a man physically involves himself with these good concepts, he literally binds himself to God. He thus achieves a closeness that no angel could ever hope to reach.

This is a major difference between a man and an angel. An angel is assigned to one spiritual station, and has no way to rise any higher. Thus, when the prophet speaks of angels, he says, “Around Him, the seraphim stood” (Isaiah 6:2). Angels are described as standing and stationary.

But when God speaks to man, He tells him, “If you walk in My ways… then I will give you a place to move among those who stand here” (Zechariah 3:7). God was showing the prophet a vision of stationary angels, and telling him that he would be able to move among them. Man can move from level to level, but angels are bound to their particular plane.


There are many different levels in the spiritual world. The Talmud thus speaks of angels called Chayot, and says:

The distance between heaven and earth is 500 years.
The width of each heaven is 500 years.
This is true of each of the seven heavens.
The feet of the Chayot are as great as them all.
The ankles of the Chayot are as great as everything below them.
The shins of the Chayot are equally great.
The thighs of the Chayot are equally great.
The hips of the Chayot are equally great.
The body of the Chayot is equally great.
The neck of the Chayot is equally great.
The head of the Chayot is equally great.
The horns of the Chayot are equally great.
The legs of the Throne of Glory are as great as everything below them.
The throne itself is equally great.

Here we see the many levels of the spiritual world, and the Kabbalists speak of many other levels. In a purely spiritual sense, there is no way for these to come together. The only thing that in any way unifies them is their relationship to the physical world.

In order to reach the highest levels of holiness, man must therefore become part of the physical world. When he obeys God’s commandments, he attaches himself to the same physical objects as the One who commanded them. In obeying the commandments, man therefore attaches himself to God to the greatest possible degree. He is thus able to scale the highest spiritual levels.

This is the symbolism of the ladder in Jacob’s dream. The Torah tells us that Jacob saw, “A ladder standing on earth, whose top reached the heavens” (Genesis 28:12). It is only through earthly deeds that we climb to the loftiest heights. The different levels of the spiritual world — the rungs of the “ladder” — can only be bound together when they are “standing on the earth.”

It is only through earthly deeds that we climb to the loftiest heights.

The Zohar therefore gives an interesting example explaining why the soul must descend to the physical world: “A king once had a son. He sent him to a faraway village to grow and thereby learn the way of the king’s palace. The same is true of the soul. It is sent far away to this world to learn the way of the King’s palace.”

In the light of our discussion this example becomes very clear. For it is only in this physical world that we can achieve any true closeness and perception of God.

In obeying the commandments, man brings God’s light down to this world. The Midrash thus tells us that the reason that God created the physical world is because “He wanted to have a dwelling place below.” It is through the physical that God’s light becomes connected with lower levels of creation.


Just as there are different levels in the spiritual world, so are there different levels in the human soul. These levels extend to the highest spiritual domains. It is only through the body, however that these different levels are united. Without the body, each would remain separated in its own level.

The main concept here is that spiritual unity is mainly a result of the physical. The Zohar expresses this concept, saying, “One who wishes to understand the concept of the holy unity should look at the flame rising from a coal or from a burning lamp. The flame is only unified when it is attached to a physical object.”

A flame also contains numerous levels. As in the case of the human soul, these parts can only be united when they are attached to a physical entity.

When a person dies, the different levels of the soul therefore separate. Death not only involves the separation of body and soul, but also the separation of the various parts of the soul. When they are not bound together by the body, each level acts as a separate entity.

Death not only separates the body and soul, but also separates various parts of the soul.

This is one reason why the World to Come will bring body and soul back together. A soul alone has no connection to its higher parts, and moreover, has no way of elevating itself. As such, it is no better than an angel. Between death and the resurrection, it remains in the “World of Souls” in what is primarily a static state. It is only when it is reunited with the body that it can once again elevate itself.

Of course, there is no challenge in the Future World, and therefore this elevation is more tenuous than in this physical world. It therefore depends to a very large extent on the individual’s previous preparation.

The Talmud therefore teaches us that the righteous have no rest, neither in this world nor in the next. They are constantly rising from one level to the next, as it is written, “They go from strength to strength, every one appearing before God…” (Psalms 84:8)


Although all this may seem very deep and complex, it is all really something very simple. It is merely a simple expression of God’s love for us. It is for this reason that He gave us the Torah and it’s commandments. These too are an expression of His love. Our sages thus teach us that “God wanted to do good to Israel, and therefore gave them Torah and commandments in abundance.”

When we realize this, we also know that our ultimate goal in life is to fulfill God’s purpose. We must study God’s Torah, and then follow its teachings. Only then can we find meaning in life.

This entire concept is expressed most beautifully in the prayer “Ahavat Olam,” part of the evening service:

With an infinite world of love,
You loved Your people Israel;
You taught us Your Torah, your mitzvot,
Your code, Your way.
Therefore, O Lord our God,
When we lie down and wake up
We will think of Your teachings,
Find happiness in Your Torah’s words.
For they are our life and length of days.
We will follow them day and night,
And Your love will never be taken from us.

Reprinted with permission, from “If You Were God” (NCSY-OU)

As taken from,

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Posted by on March 25, 2019 in Uncategorized


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