A review of some of this week’s key daf yomi concepts
Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at RealClearDaf.com
Who am I: my body or my soul?
This issue was explored on 91a in a fascinating conversation between Rebbi (R’ Yehudah HaNassi) and Antoninus (often understood to be Marcus Aurelius Antoninus). Of the many theological questions that these two discussed, Antoninus once asked Rebbi how one could be possibly held accountable for misdeeds committed in this life.
“Who exactly,” Antoninus inquired, “will be held responsible? For if the physical body is taken to task, it can shift the blame to the soul. ‘For see here,’ the body can argue, ‘from the day the soul departed from me I have been lying in the ground, silent as a stone!’ The soul can likewise exempt itself by pointing out that from the day it left the body, it has been innocently flying about like a bird!”
“I will answer your question with a parable,” Rebbi replies. “Imagine a king who had a beautiful orchard containing very premium figs. He hired two fellows to guard his orchard: one lame and the other blind. The lame guard, desiring the figs, rode atop the blind guard to take the figs which they both ate. The king discovered that his precious figs had been stolen under the guards’ watch and accused them of the theft. When they each tried to claim innocence pointing to their respective disabilities, the king mounted the lame one on the blind one – just as they had done to steal – and judged them together. So it will be by the judgment of the afterlife: God will take the soul and re-insert it into the body, and judge them together.”
The first lesson from this dialogue is a chilling one: from Rebbi’s description it appears that punishment in the next world is not some esoteric experience that is hard to relate to. Rather, it will be felt as we physically experience pain in this world.
But let’s now consider Antoninus’s actual question. He asks that since neither soul nor body is capable of sinning by itself, there shouldn’t be punishment at all. But seemingly there is a much more basic question that needs to first be established: Who am I, my body or my soul? The axiomatic answer to this question is: I am my soul. As Antoninus himself observed: After a person’s allotted lifetime, the body goes to the ground, silent as a stone, and only the soul continues to exist, “flying like a bird.” The physical body which housed the soul may cease to function and begin to decompose, but the real me – that spark of consciousness, feelings, and animation – that carries on forever.
Given that the real me is my soul, how could I possibly blame any of the poor choices that I made on the body I directed to carry out those bad choices? Why then did Rebbi even consider Antoninus’s question?
But perhaps this fundamental issue of identity – am I my soul or my body – is more complicated than we thought. That is, if we choose to lead lives in which our physical bodies reign supreme, then our true selves, our souls, become attached to the body, wrapping them up with our identities. That is why Antoninus took it for granted that our bodies are a fundamental part of ourselves. And Rebbi responds to this question that indeed, if a person lived a life in which his physical body was considered on par with his soul, then justice will dictate that the whole person – body and soul – be judged together.
But if on the other hand a person lived his life always with the realization that his true self is his soul, then the question is moot: only the soul will be judged. Moreover the gemara in Brachos (8a) describes the possibility of death by a “Divine kiss” which is as easy as “removing a hair from some milk.” That is, if a person remains focused throughout life (as the forefathers were), that he is his soul, then the process of extracting the soul from the body will be essentially painless. Death for a person who truly understands who he really is will feel like removing a coat, and more importantly, his life will be full of important deeds that strengthen the soul and its bond to the Creator.