The Heart of the Matter

By Gale Levin, New Haven, CT
Essays 2017 / Finalists

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

It is a basic tenet in Judaism that everything in the physical world is a reflection of the spiritual world. This makes sense since G-d looked to the Torah as a blueprint to create the world. (Midrash Beraishis Rabbah 1:1)

So, in order to understand the workings of our soul, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of our heart – for it is here that the soul resides.

This requires a bit of an anatomy and physiology lesson.

The heart, at its most basic level is simply a pump consisting of two sides separated by a wall.

Here is the miracle of life in six easy steps:

  1. A person breathes in oxygen (O2) which goes to the lungs.
  2. In the lungs, the airways interface with the blood supply.  Here, the oxygen goes into the blood.  At the same time, the blood releases a waste product from our body – carbon dioxide (CO2) – into the airways to be exhaled out of the body.
  3. The oxygenated blood travels from the lungs into the left side of the heart which pumps it to the entire body including the brain.
  4. At the same time that it delivers life-giving oxygen to the body, those very efficient blood cells take away the cellular waste product, carbon dioxide, that our body must get rid of.
  5. This deoxygenated blood with the waste product, carbon dioxide comes back from the body through our veins and is dumped into the right side of the heart.
  6. The right side of the heart pumps this blood to the lungs where we start the process all over again.

This amazing miracle is going on every second with every breath we take. But how is it a reflection of our spiritual selves?  Well, it seems that our heart provides the humble abode for our soul…or at least for some aspects of our soul.  Here, we will try to explore how the life-sustaining functions described above can be understood in the context of our soul as explained in Chassidus.

In Chapter nine of Tanya, we learn that “The abode of the animal soul …in every Jew is in the heart; in the left ventricle, as it is filled with blood, as it is written, ‘For the blood is the soul’ (Devarim 12:23).  Therefore all lusts and boasting and anger and similar passions are in the heart, and from the heart they spread throughout the entire body, rising also to the brain in the head, to think and meditate about them and to be cunning in them…”

It goes on to say that the divine soul resides in the brain and in the right side of the heart “where there is no blood”.

What does it mean when the Tanya describes the left ventricle as “filled with blood” and the right side as “where there is no blood”? Surely both sides of the heart are filled with blood.

The left side of the heart is much larger as it must pump to the entire body, while the right side is smaller as it only has to pump to the lungs.  So since it is larger it is more “filled with blood” than the right.  In addition, the left ventricle is where we find blood as we normally think of it – bright red and carrying oxygen.  Contrast this to the right ventricle where “there is no blood.”  Again, perhaps because it is the smaller side with less blood, but also because the blood there is not blood as we know it.  On the right side it is the almost blackish in color because it lacks oxygen.

Now, let’s take the same journey through the body we did earlier, but this time, seeing the spiritual counterpart it reflects.

  1. The left ventricle is where the animal soul resides.  As the animal soul is the source of all “lusts and boasting and anger”, when the blood is pumped to all our muscles and organs, the body can now act and attempt to fulfill these animal drives and passions. (“The eye sees, the heart wants, and the body does the sin”–Rashi Bamidbar 15:39 )  At the same time that the left ventricle pumps blood to our entire body, it also pumps it to the brain, where our intellect serves these passions by figuring ways to satisfy them.

In this scenario, the wants and desires of our heart rule.  The passion is the master which our brain and body obediently serve, doing its bidding as they try to fulfill the heart’s desires.

Fortunately, our divine soul also resides in the brain where it can exert its positive effect by contemplating and reflecting on the matter in a completely different way – in a holy way.

  1.  When the divine soul in the brain asserts its influence, this newly-influenced blood leaves the brain and enters the right side of the heart where the divine soul also resides.  Here, it takes the intellectual message of the divine soul in the brain transforming it in the heart to ignite “man’s fiery love towards G-d”. So, the brain influences the heart to have passion for what is G-dly.
  2. The right ventricle pumps the blood to the lungs to get rid of the waste. What would our spiritual waste be?  Negative, empty, or self-centered thoughts – basically, any thought whose purpose is to satisfy only what the animal soul wants.

In the lungs our blood also picks up oxygen.  Our spiritual oxygen is that which we get by being in an environment imbued with Torah, In such an environment, we breathe in healthy, positive ideas.  We “inhale” and internalize divine concepts

  1. The now spiritually-enriched, life-giving blood is delivered to the left ventricle from where it can spread throughout the body – but this time influencing the body in positive ways.

This is obviously an ongoing process as spiritual growth is a never-ending activity.  The idea of teshuva (repentance or return to our Spiritual Source) is not just for the one who transgresses, but is required of every human being.  For whatever we achieved yesterday will be as stale and harmful as stagnant blood if we don’t keep it moving forward.  In the infinite path of spiritual growth, there is no nirvana, no spiritual plateau where one can rest on his laurels.  There is only the constant drive for more. As it says in the song, The Impossible Dream, “To be true to this glorious quest…to reach the unreachable star”.

We must constantly keep the divine pump supplied with a fresh supply of spiritual oxygen. This must continuously be pulsed through our mind and body – or our spiritual life dies as surely as the human body dies when deprived of oxygen.

We learn in Tanya that there are three garments of the soul – thought, speech and action. These are called garments because just as a garment shows the general size and shape of the person who wears it, so too, our thought, speech, and action reveal the general “shape” of our soul to the outside world and even to the individual himself.  Our thought, speech, and action can simply be servants to our passions helping us satisfy only our most physical desires.  Or, we can employ the divine soul in our brain and heart to elevate our thoughts to a higher plane – and to feel passionate about it and act accordingly.

We can use our power of speech to speak negatively – tearing down people and ideas.  Or we can imbue our environment with healthy, positive words – literally creating a breath of fresh air for those around us.  For just as oxygen sustains life, so too, can a word of encouragement to the despondent, a word of love to the lonely, or a word of inspiration to one who has lost his connection to the Al-Mighty

When we ensure that our “air is pure” and our mind and heart are listening to the divine voice within, then surely our actions will reflect that.  So, now the eye sees (a need in another), the heart wants (to relieve the other’s suffering), and the body does (whatever is needed to help his fellow)

Every breath we inhale, every thought we think, and every beat of our heart should be our relentless reminder that we have a choice of how we direct our thought, speech, and actions.  While it may be a daunting task, it is the one we were put on earth to accomplish.