The Deeper Problem

By Dr. Gerard Schroeder

The Nefesh and the Neshamah

Humans have two souls, the nefesh and the neshamah. Animals have only the nefesh. All life and all the universe have the wisdom of the creator. Let’s elaborate.

Genesis chapter one: In the Hebrew text of Genesis, the act of creation occurs only three times: Genesis 1:1, the creation of our magnificent universe; Genesis 1:21, the creation of the animals; Genesis 1:27, the creation of “the Adam.” Creation (bara in Hebrew) in biblical terms is an act by which God brings some thing or some force into the universe. Only God can create.  All other acts in Genesis are acts of making or forming things from already existing matter.  According to all ancient commentary, the only creation that was physical was the opening sentence of the Bible, bringing our universe into being. The remaining two creations (Gen 1:21 and Gen. 1:27) were not physical. They were spiritual: the first, the nefesh, the soul of animal life, and the second, the neshamah, the soul of humankind. The neshamah is what makes a human different from an animal.

The nefesh programs all animals, including the animal aspect of humans, for three primary drives: survival, comfort, and progeny. It is the fully egotistical, selfish part of my personality. The nefesh tells me that the world is there for me to take from and to use, even though it may hurt my neighbor.

The neshamah is the human part of life, the aspect that realizes all life, in fact all existence is a web, interrelated, mutually dependent. It is the part of my personality that says, okay, I built this company, I made clever use of my brains, I succeeded in whatever field my success be, now I should share the rewards of success with the society that provided the social order and culture that  allowed me to use my potential. The nefesh of course says don’t be a fool. Keep, don’t share, and don’t worry about the others. Within every human this battle occurs. It is as old a humanity and the Bible.  In the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, 6:4, Moses, and then later Jesus in Mark 12:29, tell that the central statement of the entire Bible is: “hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.” There are two meanings to this statement that is central to all western religion. One, that there is only one God for all of us. The deeper meaning is that this Oneness pervades all existence and makes all existence interwoven, each part influencing the other. The neshamah knows this and pleads: give and help others. The nefesh wants no part of it. The world is all for me, it insists, urging me to ignore the goodness of the neshamah.

When the two are in sync, great goals are reached. The nefesh and the neshamah working together build hospitals, universities, sponsor great research projects. The nefesh in the beginning made us have the drive to accumulate the wealth that the neshama then tells us to share.  It is such a clever combination that only God could have conceived of it.