“He redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that came upon me because of the many who were with me.” (Psalms 55:19)

People who work in customer service or any profession that involves a lot of interaction with the public are trained to stay polite and unflappable in the face of belligerence and provocation. The term for this in social psychology is “emotional labor,” the work we do to manage our emotions when interacting with other people.1 People who work in health care, in particular, need to train themselves to express compassion for people who are suffering and in pain.

In the course of our workday, there can be times when we are not feeling particularly calm or compassionate, and the emotional labor becomes more difficult. There are two ways to handle this: One is called “surface acting,” when you put a smile on your face or say the right words but don’t feel them inside; the other is “deep acting,” when you actually invoke compassion within yourself for that person’s suffering.2

Which one do you think is more difficult? You might think that digging deep inside yourself to feel compassion for a stranger is more demanding. But research shows that it’s the reverse. It turns out that as human beings, we’re not very good at faking emotions. It becomes stressful and anxiety-producing when we’re forced to do it for long periods of time.

In Chassidic terminology, there’s a term that sounds almost synonymous: avodah shebalev, or labor of the heart. This refers mostly to our service of G‑d through prayer, but actually, this labor takes place throughout the day in many different settings. It’s the work we do to integrate the physical side and spiritual side of our personality. Just as in our work life, we can do “superficial labor”—basically, training ourselves to say the right thing and do the right thing even when our heart isn’t in it. It’s certainly better than nothing, and it’s better than flying off the handle or indulging our whims all day. But putting on a show and suppressing our true emotions is stressful and not sustainable in the long term. What’s healthier is to do the “deep labor,” to really invoke in ourselves a feeling and passion for what we’re doing.

Who’s Fighting the Battle?

It’s important to emphasize that our daily battle is not between the body and soul. Taking care of our body is a mitzvah and sacred obligation. Our body is given to us as a gift from G‑d, and it’s up to us to treat it with care to keep it functioning optimally. The desire of the body is to live and to be healthy and well. Your body doesn’t want to stuff its face with ice-cream, lie in bed all day or fly into rages. It doesn’t want drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. It wants clean living, and when it doesn’t get what it needs, it lets us know with uncomfortable physical symptoms and sensations.

So if our body doesn’t want any of those things, then who does?

Enter the animal soul.

The animal soul is the seat of our drives, desires and passions. It’s an entire personality unto itself, sort of an alt-personality to the G‑dly soul. Under normal circumstances, these two personalities are battling inside of us constantly. They’re like two armies battling for control over a city. When one goes up, the other goes down.3 But having a constant conflict inside of us is exhausting and draining; it saps us of energy that we could devote to more constructive things.

Chassidus teaches us that while the battle may be unavoidable, there’s a way to fight this battle peacefully.

How so? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

This concept is elaborated on in a series of Chassidic discourses titled Padah B’Shalom, from the verse in Psalms, “He redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that came upon me.”4 This verse refers to the ongoing battle between the animal soul and the G‑dly soul, which plays out over many different fronts over the course of our day and the course of our life.

What does it mean to be “redeemed in peace”" from a battle? Being “redeemed” implies that the enemy is still around but he’s no longer your enemy; he is no longer fighting you, and, in fact, has become your friend.5

The word for battle used in the verse is krav, which refers to a brawl or wrestle. The word krav is related to kiruv, meaning closeness, as in the Israeli term for martial arts, krav maga. The very term is an oxymoron. On the one hand, when you’re at war with someone you’re as far apart from each other as you can get. You can fight a battle from a distance, carpet-bombing them or throwing arrows at them. But the height of the battle is when you are physically entangled in hand-to-hand combat.

The Nature of the Animal Soul

Since the animal soul and the G‑dly soul occupy the same body, they’re always in a closely fought battle with each other. There are some general principles to keep in mind regarding the nature of the animal soul:

  1. The animal soul is SELFISH. Self-centeredness is the single most important organizing principle for the animal soul. Its primary consideration is “What’s in it for me?” Now, the animal soul can be made to understand that prosocial behavior is good for society as a whole. I’ll be nice to you so that you’ll be nice to me. But it’s very transactional. It has no sense of being altruistic and doing good for its own sake. The animal soul can never really be talked out of its basic self-centeredness, and this narcissism will tend to pop up again and again at the most inconvenient times.
  2. The animal soul is INTELLIGENT. This is an important point to keep in mind. It’s not stupid. It’s not irrational. It can be very clever and deliberate in pursuing its desires. And because of its intelligence, we can easily become tripped up and confused. Our animal soul is great at rationalizing and coming up with truly brilliant reasoning to explain why what it wants is correct and ideal.
  3. The animal soul is ENERGETIC. Now, maybe you think laziness comes from the animal soul. Each of us has an animal soul that’s unique with a different blend of personality traits. But as a general rule, while the animal soul can be lazy to do things it’s not interested in, it has tremendous drive when pursuing something it wants. Part of our battle is to learn how to channel this passion and drive into good things.

Is the animal soul evil? Not necessarily. We are all tempted by different things and drawn towards different things, but most of us don’t consciously desire to be evil or destructive. The animal soul is just extremely self-centered and acts only in its self interest. And unchecked, extreme self-interest can lead to terrible evil.

What Does the G‑dly Soul Want?

Now what about the G‑dly soul? What does it want?

The G‑dly soul is a part of G‑d.6 That’s about it. Its chief desire is to be close to G‑d. Whatever brings you closer to G‑d, it wants, and whatever takes you further away from G‑d, it doesn’t want. Your G‑dly soul and my G‑dly soul and everyone’s G‑dly soul are all one. We all want the same thing, and we all want things to be good for one another. On the level of the G‑dly soul, there is no conflict. We all get along and support each other perfectly.7

Since the G‑dly soul only desires closeness to G‑d, it isn’t exactly thrilled about living in this world. It’s extremely reluctant to tear itself away from the Divine resplendence of the higher spiritual worlds to take up residence in a physical world in a physical body. In fact, living in a physical body is a very painful experience for the soul. It’s cut off from everything it knows, loves and craves. It’s in exile, so to speak.

But the G‑dly soul knowingly and willingly makes this journey because this ultimately is what G‑d wants. G‑d wants a home in this world. G‑d wants us to take the place that’s furthest from Him—the most distant, with the least awareness, and make it G‑dly.

The G‑dly Soul Gets a Partner

So, the G‑dly soul gets its assignment, and is sent down to earth and designated a partner. Basically, the G‑dly soul is told, Hello, meet your animal soul who will be your assistant in this mission. But it will be up to you to figure out how to get your animal soul to work with you.

And the G‑dly soul needs the animal soul. The G‑dly soul is absolutely dependent on the animal soul because without it, none of the processes we need to keep life going in the physical world can be carried out.

A soul on its way down from heaven to earth met a soul on its return journey, from earth back to heaven.

“How is it down there on earth?” he yelled out.

“It’s wonderful down there! You can get strings for tzitzis for only two kopecks!”

“Two kopecks for tzitzis strings? Such a priceless mitzvah for such a cheap price? I can’t wait!”

“Aaaaah,” said the seasoned soul to the novice. “Wait till you see what you have to do to earn those two kopecks!”

The G‑dly soul is excited to get down into the world where it can perform physical mitzvos like tying tzitzit strings on the edges of its garments. But the G‑dly soul knows nothing about shearing or spinning or weaving wool to make those strings. It has no idea how to go about earning two kopecks to pay for tzitzit strings. It’s completely dependent on the animal soul to navigate this world. The animal soul is like the personal assistant or chauffeur of the G‑dly soul.

But the animal soul is not a perfect employee. It’s quirky. It has its own desires and agenda. Sometimes it shows up for work, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it understands its mission, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is what the G‑dly soul has to deal with, day in, day out. It has a critical mission to fulfill that can only be done with the help of its assistant, the animal soul, who can be quite obstreperous and unreliable. And the G‑dly soul cannot fire or get rid of its animal soul. (Quite a frustration and a headache for the G‑dly soul!) But if the animal soul and G‑dly soul are locked in battle all day, nothing gets done and a lot of energy gets wasted. That’s why Chassidus puts so much emphasis on teaching us how to fight this battle peacefully.

The Heart of the Battle

So, let’s get into the heart of the battle.

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, a big part of our service of G‑d was offering up sacrifices on the altar. After the Temple was destroyed, prayer took the place of animal sacrifices. We are offering up the animal inside of us.8 Our emotional labor, our service of the heart, is to channel the drives and passions of the animal soul to G‑d, to work with it and get it to work with us. Like a farmer harnessing an ox to plow his field, the G‑dly soul can accomplish more through working with the animal soul than it could ever achieve on its own.9

The main battlefield in the struggle between the animal and G‑dly soul is during prayer. Does the G‑dly soul want to pray? Does it ever! The G‑dly soul loves to pray. It would like nothing more than to spend all day praying and being close to G‑d. Does the animal soul want to pray? Decidedly not! It gets bored and distracted. It doesn’t see the point. So the challenge for the G‑dly soul is to get the animal soul interested—to get it to reflect on G‑dliness in terms it can understand. The G‑dly soul tells the animal soul that we need to pray to G‑d for health, food and shelter. This is how the G‑dly soul engages with the animal soul, to explain to it on its own terms how it is dependent on G‑d.

Another option for the G‑dly soul is to short-circuit the animal soul altogether and meditate on G‑dliness so intensely that the animal soul gets blotted out entirely. This approach has its uses, but it’s not completely satisfactory because the animal soul tends to pop right back up again after prayer. It’s a temporary measure at best.10 You can pray with a lot of intensity and passion, and then a minute later, you’re thinking about lunch. It’s not that your prayer was not sincere. It’s just that in fighting the battle, you weren’t completely victorious.11 You are a work in progress.

After prayer is when the real work of perfecting and refining the world begins. The G‑dly soul wants the inspiration of prayer to last all day. The animal soul wants to get back to its business of eating, drinking, work, and daily affairs. During prayer, the G‑dly soul is in the driver’s seat, but during the rest of the day, the animal soul is in the driver’s seat with the G‑dly soul desperately trying to steer the animal soul in the right direction, trying to make sure that all the body’s functions are carried out for the sake of Heaven. And so the battle goes on, day by day, with all its ups and downs.

The G‑dly Soul’s Secret Weapon

Generally speaking, within any given person the animal soul and G‑dly soul are well matched in temperament, intelligence, energy level, etc.12 With such a balance of power, control of the body tends to fluctuate between the animal and G‑dly souls. The G‑dly soul has thoughts and feelings; the animal soul has thoughts and feelings. The G‑dly soul has passions and desires; the animal soul has passions and desires. Sometimes, we feel excited and passionate about G‑d; other times we feel passionate about baseball or the stock market or chocolate-chip cookies.

But the G‑dy soul has a secret weapon. There is one power the G‑dly soul possesses that has no counterpart in the animal soul. This is called the Yechidah, the essence of the soul, which never comes down into the body but remains connected to G‑d, its source.

Under normal conditions, the Yechidah does not make an appearance. The real work of engaging with the animal soul is relegated to the lower soul powers: Nefesh, Ruach and Neshamah. Only under conditions of dire emergency does the Yechidah kick in. When the G‑dly soul is at an ebb, when it senses that it’s about to lose the battle to the animal soul, G‑d forbid, the Yechidah roars to life. It’s our Jewish survival instinct, the part of us that, come what may, cannot and will not be separated from G‑d.13 When our Yechidah is activated, then it’s checkmate for the animal soul. Its desires and passions fall by the wayside, and the person’s entire focus is solely on spiritual survival.

A Gradual Transformation

But a knockout punch of the animal soul by the G‑dly soul isn’t really the goal. The ideal is to remake the animal soul in the image of the Divine soul. Over time, through intense and persistent emotional labor, whether through Torah, prayer or good deeds, the animal soul gradually becomes transformed. It no longer has the same tastes and desires that it had before. It’s like a child outgrowing his taste for candy or games as he matures. A more mature animal soul has desires that are naturally more in sync with the G‑dly soul. Most of the day, it may seem like the animal soul is in charge. We’re not doing anything that looks manifestly G‑dly. Our challenge and goal is to make our everyday activities more G‑dly, and let the Divine soul shine through in everything we do. That’s the true peaceful resolution of the battle—when the animal soul and Divine soul function together as a unit.

We experience this truce between the animal soul and the G‑dly soul once every week on Shabbat, when we take a temporary break from our workday toil to spend the day immersed in prayer and spirituality. At the same time, the animal soul gets to savor the day of rest as well, as it’s a mitzvah to enjoy extra delicacies on Shabbat. The weekly day of rest is a foretaste of the World to Come, when this harmony between the animal soul and the G‑dly soul will reach full fruition and become permanent.