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Who’s in Control?

Have you ever stood in front of an doctor who confessed shamefacedly, “I tried to put through that prescription but the computer doesn't allow it”? Or have you stood in long lines in the bank, only to learn that you cannot withdraw money because “the computers are down”?

Today’s machines can do many things, but in some ways they're like the robot that turned on its master. This is not to suggest that there is a sinister silicon plot against us. Rather, we, as human beings, cannot resist the temptation to exploit the tremendous power of computers, even though they operate at such high speeds that we cannot provide adequate oversight and supervision.

And we continue to build and program computers, even though it is becoming increasingly clear that they control us, not the other way around. We can no longer pretend that our relationship with the computer is as a master giving directions and instruction. The goal now is merely to “stay in the loop,” to monitor the computer from a distance. Many computer experts grapple with the problem of how to retain human control over increasingly sophisticated programs. But perhaps the question is not how to stay in control, but how to regain it.

In the spiritual world it works the same way. Control over the body is invested in one of two souls that dwell inside of us, the “animal soul” or the “G-dly soul.” The animal soul corresponds to the ego, to the hedonistic tendencies we all have, to seek pleasure and self-gratification at every opportunity. The G-dly soul is our higher instinct, one that identifies G-d as the source of all good, that aims to serve a goal higher than ourselves and our own needs.

For various reasons, particularly in our generation, many of us have ceded control to the animal soul. We allow it to take the power, and then we try to figure out how to take back control. These efforts are behind the journeys towards “self-discovery” so popular today.

But who am I, really? The animal, or the man? Who is really in charge? Why am I torn between my biological needs and my spiritual ones? How do we take back control over our lives?

Chassidic teachings explore these questions, teaching us how to prevail in the ongoing battle between the animal soul and the G-dly soul. The ultimate goal, though, is not to defeat the animal soul but to harness its powers to assist the G-dly soul. This is the state that will reign during the ultimate Redemption, when there will no longer be a conflict between two souls. Rather there will be a state of perfect harmony, where the soul will derive pleasure from the physical body and the body itself will radiate G-dliness.


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