We have long understood that people contain an essential dualism, referred to sometimes as “heart and mind,” or “mind and matter,” or “body and soul.” Most famously, Adam is created from two opposing ingredients: dust from the earth, and living soul blown in through his nostrils. Though I only really am sure of the Torah perspective, I think the dualism of “body and soul” may be an almost-universal understanding, spanning religions and cultures the world over (if I am incorrect, please enlighten me!).
An introductory identifier of any faith or culture is whether or not it seeks to combine body and soul, or to separate them. Separation of body and soul is well known. Think of the person who engages in meaningless sex, insisting that it does not taint their soul in any way. Acting out our animal desires “in the moment” is how we corrupt our future ability to have deep and meaningful relationships. Or the flip side: consider the Eastern Mystic, the guru on the mountain who swears off physical things and seeks to live solely in the spiritual realm. For both of these, the body and the soul are best kept far apart from each other.
The opposite case, combining the body and soul, can be done right – or very wrong. If we let the desires of the body govern our spiritualism, then we descend into animalistic behavior, dragging us into the gutter. Popular culture is full of this – just google any of the songs that fixates on genitalia. The ancient world had it, too – the deity Peor is all about celebrating raw physical functions such as expelling fecal waste.
On the other hand, if our souls, the desire for spiritualism, sets the agenda, then we can infuse our bodies with that spiritual element, and elevate our physical selves. The text of the Torah keeps dwelling on the theme that we should seek to use our divinely-gifted breath to elevate our bodies and the world around us. Hence, the prayer of Avraham’s servant is favored because he “speaks to his heart” – investing his spirit into his body.
Similarly, we are commanded to take key words of the Torah: “You are to tie them as a sign on your arm and they are to be totafos [tefillin] between your eyes.” Our arms are proxies for our bodies, the physical agent of our will. And “between your eyes” is, of course, where we are ensouled, where the nose (through which G-d blew our souls) connects to the skull.
This connection predates the actual commandment! The servant of Avraham commits Rebekah, when he finds her, by promptly giving her bracelets for her arms, and a ring which he places “on” (perhaps over) her nose – just as we wear tefilin! (Indian women wear jewelry high on their forehead in this manner.) Perhaps this is the inspiration for the idea of tefilin themselves! We bind ourselves in a relationship to G-d just as Rebekah becomes bound, promised, to marry Isaac. We even say the following verses from Hosea (2:21) when we finish binding the tefilin on our hands:
I will betroth you to Me forever.
And I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy.
I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know G-d.
Binding our bodies and our souls – and committing them to other people (and to G-d) is how we build and complete meaningful relationships.
[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @blessedblacksmith work]