Soul Movements

In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:

In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.

When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.

In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.

When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)

What I found amazing, when I first learned this sefer last summer, was how nicely this idea of expansion and contraction fits into Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Desser’s concept of giving and taking. Rav Dessler z”tl divided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)

When we choose to give to another we are expanding our soul and growing into being a bigger and better person. Conversely, by taking we become smaller people. I attempted to teach this to my older children (ages 10 and 7) by blowing up a balloon inside a box and showing them how as the balloon expanded it touched more of the box and as air was let out and it contracted the balloon became smaller. The question is, do you want your soul to expand or contract?

I have found this teaching has totally changed the way I look at my actions. Offering someone a ride somewhere is no longer just an act of chessed, it allows my soul to grow. Making the choice to do something that I want to, at the expense of others in my family (like going to a museum that only I would enjoy) I now see as an action that would be considered a contraction of my soul. When I think about things in these terms, the choice is pretty obvious which way I want my soul to move.

This way of looking at things has also trickled down to my kids. At my minyan’s kiddush this past Shabbos, my 7 yr old daughter proudly told me that she was going to pour some 7-UP for herself, but thenMrs. Cohen asked for it, so she gave the bottle to Mrs. Cohen before she took for herself. My daughter then proudly told me that her neshama expanded.

The sefer Getting to Know Yourself is available for purchase online and at most Jewish bookstores. It is also available for reading online here.

10 comments on “Soul Movements

  1. Thanks for the compliment, Neil. However, Mark’s comments in #3 must have been a good influence on me, since I see that my comment in #8 contains a significant paraphrase of his words.

  2. Saying the soul only moves in two directions is somewhat of an understatement. After all, a balloon expands from a flat state and grows in all directions at once, and when contracting, the inward motion is multi-directional, too.

    Expanding and contracting don’t have to be seen as a good-bad dichotomy. Too much expansion can strain or shatter a structure. Contraction is not always a negative form of collapse; at times, a tactical retreat is helpful, as long as it is for the purpose of strengthening to continue pursuit of a worthy goal.

    As BT’s, we can take on too many things at once; that’s a sign of excessive expansion. Returning to base, and adjusting emphasis and effort can make our overall teshuvah process more successful.

    It’s interesting that many scientific metaphors for Torah and Teshuvah processes are based on principles of physics. The work of Aryeh Kaplan, z”l, is another example.

  3. For smaller children, I might suggest perhaps using a different metaphor. A young child, told that his/her neshamah is expanding and contracting, could get the frightening idea that his/her soul is going to go “pop” like a broken balloon. One yeshiva used to tell the littlest students (quite effectively) that bricks were going on and off the Bais Hamikdash. An act of kindness or a mitzvah added another brick to rebuild the Bais Hamikdash, while misbehavior subtracted. For us adults, the concept of souls expanding and contracting is quite intriguing. I have a copy of Strive for Truth (the English translation) at home, so I’ll have it pull it out and read that passage, maybe over the upcoming Shabbos.

  4. Is a soul ever limited spacially, or is its “size” only a metaphor for some other property such as its sense of attachment to HaShem?

  5. Mark,
    I totally hear and appcreciate what you’re saying. I will be the first to admit that this post really does not do justice to the Torah taught by Rav Schwatz.

    The author connects contraction w/ “din”, which is an aspect of how the world works (which is why I like the exmaple of inhaling/exhaling).

  6. Neil, Rabbi Dessler’s piece on Giving and Taking is one of the foundation pieces of hashkafa and thanks for bringing it to the forefront of our minds.

    I also found Rabbi Schwartz’ concept of the soul’s expansion and contraction to be amazingly illuminating.

    However, I would make an adjustment to your correlation between giving/taking and expansion/contraction. Although it is true that giving leads to expansion and taking leads to contraction there is a major difference between taking and contraction.

    In Rabbi Dessler’s piece giving is good (unless it is giving to take) and taking is bad unless it is (taking to give). If taking is on one end of a line and giving is on another, we always need to move towards giving.

    Expansion and contraction are not on a good/bad axis but rather movements of the soul in the similar way to inhaling and exhaling. We wouldn’t say inhaling is inherently better than exhaling.

    I highly recommend everybody read (and reread) Rabbi Schwartz’ exposition of these concepts in Part Two of his work which can be read here.

  7. Mr. Cohen,
    The author of the sefer, R Itamar Schwartz does not bring down a source (as I recall). Maybe some else will be able to answer your question.

    I think, as I wrote, that it’s related to the teachings of R Dessler.

  8. Neil Harris said:

    “Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.”

    What is the exact original source of this concept?

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