In the portion Shmini, after giving the kosher food laws, explaining that some foods have the ability, spiritually, to either bring us down or to elevate us, the Creator then asks why this direction that “I, the Light of the Creator that elevated you out of Egypt” is giving them is important. There are many different words in the Torah relating to the going out of Egypt; however, the word used here specifically means “elevated.” So, why does the Torah in the portion Shmini specifically use the word that means “I elevated,” and what are we to receive from that secret on this Shabbat?
To understand this, the kabbalists begin by quoting a verse from Ecclesiastes, from King Solomon. It says, “…Who pays attention to the soul of man, whether it elevates upwards, and the animal soul, which goes down…” pointing out that there are two sets of existence in this world. He’s not literally referring to humans and animals, but rather, to each individual’s soul; there are times when the individual is elevated and the soul is allowed to soar, and then there are other times when the animal, or base soul, brings the individual down.
This is based on a concept that the Ari, Rav Isaac Luria, speaks about at length, which says that each of us has at least five levels of soul. The lowest level is called Nefesh HaBehamit, the animal soul. And the choices that we make each day as to whether or not we are going to be selfish or giving, whether we are going to go after our most base desires or after the desires of our soul, decide if we are going to be brought down or going to be elevated. They are choices King Solomon says we don’t pay enough attention to, because the choices that we make in life too often allow us to be drawn down to the Nefesh, the base part of ourselves.
The kabbalists say there’s a constant push/pull between the part of our soul that wants to elevate and the part of our soul that is trying to pull us down. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this battle is raging within us all the time, and the winner of this battle is based on our decisions. And Shabbat Shmini is about the battle between these two parts. On Shabbat Shmini, we can ask for the strength to win that battle; winning it, however, begins with the understanding that this battle even exists. Once we have this awareness, we know that any action we do or decision we make from the place of Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, from our most base place, gives strength to that part of us that is called the Nefesh HaBehamit and draws us down.
Therefore, next time we have the chance to make a decision, we can stop and ask ourselves what’s going to happen if we choose from the selfish place, because now we know it’s not simply that we might not be doing the spiritual thing or the right thing. It’s that if we choose to act from our animal soul, it is actually like we are putting a weight on ourselves that pulls us even further down, keeping the angelic part of us, the elevated part of us, from soaring. So, now, when we sense that we’re feeling down, we know the reason why: because our soul, through our own decisions, has given weight to the Nefesh HaBehamit. But we have the choice to allow our soul to soar. And on Shabbat Shmini, we can ask for the assistance to have the strength to always make decisions based on our elevated soul, on the part that allows us to soar.