Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 3
Is R’ Chaim saying then that we’re in control of the world’s resources and capacities just as G-d is? Well, yes, in a way 1. As he puts it, G-d created us to indeed control and affect millions upon millions of those resources and capacities, and to govern an infinite number of celestial worlds 2!
How so, though? Through our actions, speech, thoughts, and overall behavior; and for better or for worse 3.
For thanks to our good actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we’re said to maintain and empower any number of celestial and holy capacities and worlds, and even make them holier yet and more luminous 4. In fact, our sages termed us “builders” 5 given that we set whole supernal worlds in order much the way that builders arrange their projects and bolster them 6.
But it’s also true that as a result of our bad actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we correspondingly destroy many celestial and holy capacities and worlds 7, or we darken them or dim their light and holiness. We can even empower the forces of impurity, G-d forbid 8.
This, then, is the meaning of our having been created in “G-d’s image”: just as He controls and arranges all worlds each and every moment according to His will, He saw to it that we, too, have some degree of that control.
For G-d has granted us the ability to open and close 9 infinite numbers of resources and whole worlds by dint of the supernal sources of our actions, speech, and thoughts, and depending on how we utilize them each and every moment 10. As if we were actually in charge of them all, if one could say as much 11.
1 We’re now entering into R’ Chaim’s own original enunciation of what came to be a well-known Mussar idea termed Gadlut Ha’adam – Human Greatness – as taught by R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel of Slobodka and his students.
Yet, R’ Chaim prefaces his remarks about our abilities with the term כביכול – “if one can say as much”. The expression is usually used when one is depicting G-d in too human terms, but it’s rarely used in the context of man (though see Rashi to Megillah 21a ”K’viyachol”). Thus, what we’re about to hear about mankind’s abilities are true, but let’s not dare depict humans in too G-dly terms either (see note 10 below).
2 Understand that this phenomenon sets us apart from all other beings, including angels (see 1:10 below and see Zohar 1:5a for their jealousy about that). It enables us to be the model that everything else will follow (see 1:7 below), and it’s also the epitome of the often cited idea that our acts serve lofty purposes (see end of 1:9 below).
Now, while we’d have expected our physical actions to affect things as they do here on earth, who’d have expected our speech, thoughts and general demeanor to? R’ Chaim is thus underscoring the fact that those more subtle and often concealed qualities also have that effect.
See 1:6 below for a reiteration of how we affect things for better or for worse.
3 R’ Chaim is of course referring to all the mitzvah-related actions (see 1:12 below), speech (see 1:13 below), and thoughts (see 1:14 below). But we don’t always engage in mitzvot, so how can we control the universe to the degree he’s indicating that we do (and how could it function)? But see Hilchot De’ot 3:2 where Rambam explains how we can turn everything we do into a mitzvah (also see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 232:1). The fact that our “overall behavior” also affects things this way underscores the importance of our personality traits, which could be even more important than our physical, verbal, and mental actions (see Sha’arei Kedusha 1:2).
4 Isaiah 51:16 is cited here which reads, “And I placed My words into your mouth, and with the shadow of My hand I covered you, to plant the heavens and to found the earth”.
5 See Berachot 64a.
6 See R’ Chaim’s depiction of us as “builders” in the previous chapter, where he highlighted our limitations in that capacity versus G-d’s own omnipotence. This, too, will be referred to in note 10 below.
7 Isaiah 49:17 which speaks of “those who destroy you and those who lay you to waste will come from you” is cited.
8 See R’ Chaim’s note to 1:12 below on this as well as Eitz Hachaim, Sha’ar Haklipot 3.
9 … the doors that allow for the free movement of…
10 R’ Chaim is making an exceedingly important point here: that we ourselves don’t ultimately affect the workings of the universe and its resources, since we’re not G-d, but we do enable them to function more or less easily one way or another by virtue of the fact that we are the gatekeepers. Thus, the power we have is to open and close doors, which is tremendous, but it’s quite secondary to G-d’s own power, needless to say (see notes 1 and 6 above).
And some of us are better at this than others, of course (see 1:14, 19 below about these two ideas).
See Gra on Sifrah D’tsiuitah 16b.
11 R’ Chaim concludes this chapter by citing the statement in Eicha Rabbah 1:33 to the effect that we “strengthen G-d” when we fulfill His wishes and “diminish His strength” when we don’t, if one could say as much. Zohar 2:32b which reiterates the point is also cited.