The portion of the Torah read this week begins with the law of the Jewish bondsman:

If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he will work [only] six years; in the seventh he will go free… (Ex. 32:2)

Why did G‑d decree that the Jewish bondsman should work no more and no less than six years? And why may the Jewish bondsman marry a Canaanite slave-girl? This is a heinous sin, [as it is written,] "he consorted with the daughter of an alien god."1 (Malachi 2:11) Furthermore, why is the law of the Jewish bondsman different from that of the Jewish handmaiden? For our Sages said (Kidushin 17b) that "a Jewish bondsman serves the [master's] son but not his daughter, [while a Jewish handmaiden serves neither the master's son nor his daughter]." A Canaanite slave, we find, serves everyone [in the master's household], as it is written, "And you shall pass them on to your children after you." (Lev. 25:46) The Canaanite slave is only obligated to perform those mitzvot that [Jewish] women are obligated in.

I.e., all passive (i.e., "negative") commandments and those active commandments not required to be done at specific times. Although the Canaanite slave is a non-Jew, his acquisition by a Jew is a semi-conversion of sorts, and he becomes thereby obligated in the performance of mitzvot to a certain degree. He serves G‑d like a Canaanite slave-girl...if it were up to him he'd rather be doing something else.

The mystical explanation of all this is as follows. Every person possesses [at least] a soul [nefesh] from the world of Asiya. Even if this soul is derived from a higher level of the world of Asiya, it is still no more than a nefesh. This soul is called "the nefesh of Atzilut," or "the Canaanite slave-girl."

The five levels of the soul, in ascending order, are nefesh (active soul), ruach (emotional "wind" or "spirit"), neshama("breath" of life), chaya ("living being"), and Yechida ("unique one"). In general, these five levels are associated with the five worlds of Asiya, Yetzira, Beriya, Atzilut, and the keter of Atzilut, respectively. In particular, however, each of the five levels exists in each of these worlds. Thus, one can possess, in addition to the basic level of nefesh of Asiya, a ruach of Asiya, etc. But since these are all aspects of Asiya, they are all considered, generally, on the level of nefesh.

These "souls" or "levels of soul" are levels of consciousness of G‑d and the relationship with G‑d that results from this consciousness. The world of Asiya ("action") is the world where action is paramount; everything is evaluated and conceived of in terms of action. A person whose G‑d-consciousness ("soul") is on this level relates to G‑d in a very behaviorally-oriented, perhaps even just perfunctory way. He has a nefesh, he is alive, but not much more than that. He is not emotionally and certainly not intellectually involved in his service of G‑d. He serves G‑d like a Canaanite slave-girl, perhaps not altogether against his will, but if it were up to him he'd rather be doing something else.

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Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Sefer HaLikutim; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard."

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.