[A person saved from a life-threatening situation expresses his thanksgiving in the following words:]1 ...ברוך הגומל לחייבים טובות שגמלני טוב — “Blessed [are You...] Who bestows good things upon the culpable,2 Who has bestowed goodness upon me.” Now, why does the wording of this blessing differ from that of the blessing recited when a miracle occurs:3 ברוך [אתה...] שעשה לי נס... — “Blessed [are You...] Who performed a miracle for me...”? To match this, our blessing should surely have been worded, ברוך [אתה...] שעשה לי טוב — “Blessed [are You...] Who performed something good for me.”

[We can resolve this question by first clarifying a related concept.] As is well known, the descent of the soul into the body, however awesome, is a descent for the purpose of ascent.4 The [Divine] soul descends to this lowly plane, to be garbed within a body and an animal soul. This descent is particularly formidable in the time of exile, when numerous obstacles and hindrances hamper the study of the Torah and the observance of the mitzvos, as well as the bothersome worries and stresses of earning a livelihood.

Suppose, however, that a Jew overcomes his nature. With powerful determination, he sets aside time to engage in the study of the Torah and in “the service of the heart, i.e., prayer,”5 and to observe the mitzvos with pure faith and with an unquestioning acceptance of the yoke of heaven. Undaunted by any obstacle or hindrance, he stands firm in his conviction to study and to teach. In such a case, it is specifically this kind of divine service that elevates the soul to a higher level than its position before it descended into the body.

[The source for this determination is alluded to in the chassidic interpretation of] our Sages’ statement:6 משביעים אותו, תהי צדיק ואל תהי רשע — “[In heaven, before a Jew is born,] an oath is administered to him: ‘Be righteous, and do not be wicked.’” The term tzaddik implies innocence and the term rasha implies guilt. As is well known,7 administering this oath to the soul can also be understood as investing it (“sating” it) with power. [The root (שׁבע) of the verb משׁביעים (“an oath is administered”) is virtually identical with the root (שׂבע) of the verb משׂביעים (“one causes [him] to be sated”).] When the soul is about to descend to this physical plane to be enclothed within the body, it is invested with the requisite power to overcome the material orientation of the body and conquer the animal soul, and to contend with all the veils and obscurities that screen the light of the soul.8