Savannah Kollel Insights

Vol. 8 # 40 JL 26-27, '96: Parshas Ye'eschanan

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein [email protected]

          On verse 26, chapter 3, Rebbenu Bechaya explains from the Kabbalah: "I will return in every generation because of you."

Notes on Life and Death

          In response to the query, "What is man?" Shaarei Kedusha concludes that man is essentially the soul, not the body. The body is merely the clothing of the soul. Just as you can remove your clothes and put on others, so too, the soul can divest itself of its garments -- the body. The body fits the soul perfectly, just like closely fitted garments. Appropriate to each limb of the body is a corresponding "limb of the soul." The limbs of the soul control the limbs of the body.

          Shaarei Kedusha presents a proof for this thesis. If the soul is removed from the body, the body cannot exist on its own. This shows that the soul truly controls the body.

          To the modern mind, this "proof" is bewildering. Put in context, though, it makes a great deal of sense.

          We hear about the concept of "brain death." This refers only to the demise of the "brain-stem." (This does not refer to being comatose -- which may only be a state of unconsciousness -- nor to the persistent vegetative state (PVC) in which case the patient is completely "alive.") It is more accurate to call it "brain-stem death," or the death of the "whole brain." The brain-stem is the lower part of the brain, which controls automatic, instinctual reactions. At the demise of the brain-stem, it is impossible to remain alive without the help of a breathing apparatus. The body is unable to breath on its own.

          Civil law in the U.S. and the medical establishment recognize "brain-stem death" as actual death. In Jewish Law, there is considerable discussion and debate as to whether "brain-stem death" is death or not. The debate concerns one who is forced to "live" by having oxygen pumped into the system. As long as there is oxygen flowing through the body, the heart will continue to beat. Many authorities consider that the breath and heart are the indications of "life." Even though it is kept up artificially, this "artificial life" might be considered life.

           Everyone agrees, however, that without a respirator, the "brain-stem dead" patient cannot survive more than a few minutes. He cannot breath.  Without oxygen, the heart will stop very shortly.

          In Hebrew, there are many different terms for "soul." The word used by the Shaarei Kedusha was "nefesh." This refers to the spirit of life, the life-giving force. The Torah refers to all life as "nefesh." What the Shaarei Kedusha was saying is universally recognized today: there is an organizing factor that regulates the life-force. Without the organizing factor, the body cannot live by itself. Fascinatingly, in moving creatures (even the most primitive), this organizing principle is associated with the brain! YOU CANNOT SURVIVE WITHOUT YOUR WHOLE BRAIN. There is something in the brain that makes the body subservient to it.

          Man, however, has the upper brain. He has the ability to think profound, abstract thoughts. He can choose his actions. To a large degree he can -- when conscious -- direct, willingly, the instinctual reactions dictated by the brain-stem. It goes without saying that other instincts, such as hunger or fear -- which do not come from the brain-stem -- he can control. You cannot survive without your brain; with your brain you can direct your life.

         In the daily prayers, we find G-d referred to as "the Soul of all life" and the "Life of the worlds." At death, the life force is released from the body and returns to its source, the Source of all life -- the Organizing Principle of the universe.

           (One of the new sciences -- drawing much attention -- is "Complexity." Complexity theory is concerned with the inexplicable ability of nature to organize itself. One of the chief focal points is the mystery of the human brain, that it readily organizes itself! Man is indeed the "small universe," his soul is in the image of the Creator.)

           The Gesher Hachayim explains the terms of death. (In English, people often say, "may he rest in peace." In Hebrew we say, "Alav Hashalom," which has a similar connotation.) The Talmud says, "Nach Nafshei," -- 'when his soul rested.' The soul rests, not the body. The body is in a constant state of change, but not the soul. Removed from the body, where it has been trapped, the soul can truly rest in peace. United with the Organizing Principle, the soul will find its repose.

           Einstein showed that matter and energy are of the same substance. He still had believed, as Aristotle, that the universe was static, unmoving, primordial. It is well known that the Russian mathematician Alexander Freidmann proved to Einstein that he was in error. It was 1965 before evidence was revealed that indicated the validity of the Big Bang theory.

           Today, for the first time, scientists are no longer faithful to the concept of the primordial universe. Instead, the idea that the organizing force created the entire matter of the universe in one infinitesimally small fraction of an instant -- is all prevalent. G-d created the world.

           The ancient Rabbis discuss the part of the body which first returns to life. It was called the "Luz" bone, and it is located at the back of the neck. Interestingly, the "brain-stem" is at the top of the spinal cord and the lower area of the brain!

           To us, the birth of a child is the indication of the revival of the dead. What is birth, but the return of the life-force to inanimate matter? Do you believe in the universe? Do you believe in birth? G-d "gives life, produces death... and returns the dead to life..." (Shemonah Esreh -- Silent Prayer)

(c) Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Genesis, '97