D'var Torah, Yom kippur 5780/wed 9th oct 2019

What do we know about our souls?

by Cantor Tamara Wolfson

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked the question:

“What does a person expect to attain when entering a synagogue? In the pursuit of learning one goes to a library; for aesthetic enrichment one goes to the art museum; for pure music to the concert hall. What then is the purpose of going to the synagogue? Many are the facilities which help us to acquire the important worldly virtues, skills and techniques. But where should one learn about the insights of the spirit?”

What does synagogue teach us about the spirit, and how can our tradition help us better understand our souls? This morning, I want to offer some ways that our sacred texts can guide us through this day of soul-searching by looking at how Judaism answers this very basic question: what do we know about our souls? Our Yom Kippur liturgy frequently encourages us to examine our hearts and souls as we repent and ask forgiveness for our sins, but we don’t often take the time to think about our souls — what they are, what they aren’t, and what our spirituality means to us.

  1. Elohai neshama she’natata bi tehorah hi

God, the soul you have given me is pure. 

We sing this text every Shabbat morning, reaffirming that each night our souls return to God’s care, and they are returned to us in a pure state when we wake up. So one of the first lessons we learn from our liturgy is an important commentary as we beat our chests and repent for our sins today: our tradition teaches us that while we have the capacity for sin, we are created inherently pure. And through the process of teshuva, returning, we can return both to a heightened sense of intimacy with God and/or spirituality, and also to a state of spiritual purity.

  1. In Genesis Chapter 2 verse 7, we learn that:

Va’yitzeir Adonai Elohim et ha’adam afar min ha’adamah

Va’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim va’yehi ha’adam l’nefesh chayah

The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

The medieval French Biblical scholar Rashi’s commentary on this passage tells us a bit more about the story of creation as well as the creation of our souls. He explained that God “made [man] of both earthly and heavenly matter: the body of the earthly, and the soul of the heavenly. For on the first day were created heaven and earth, and on the second, God created the firmament for the heavenly beings. On the third God said, “Let the dry land appear” — for the earthly beings, on the fourth God created the lights for the heavenly beings. On the fifth God said, “Let the waters swarm…” — for the earthly beings. Consequently on the sixth day, there had to be created a being composed of both, of heavenly and of earthly matter, for otherwise there would have been envy (lack of harmony) among the works of Creation, in that there would have been devoted to one class of them one day more of Creation than to the others” (Genesis Rabbah 12:8). 

Rashi also points out that the phrase used in this passage, nefesh chaya (living soul), is also used to describe the souls of cattle and beasts — but he clarifies that the human soul is the most highly developed of all of them because “humanity was granted understanding and speech”. We were also granted the gift of our bodies, which the Rabbis believed were “not the prison of the soul, but, on the contrary, its medium of development and improvement” — so that body and soul work as a team. We use our bodies to improve our souls whenever we encounter moments we consider spiritual — when something is “good for our souls”, we can feel it.

  1. Proverbs chapter 20 verse 27 reads:

Ner Adonai nishmat Adam

Chofes kol chadrei va’ten

The lamp of God is the soul of man

Searching all the inward places.

When I was a young girl and my Hebrew school teacher asked me to visualize my soul, I’d always imagine a bright, shimmering, golden light beaming forth from the center of my stomach and straight upwards to where I thought God might be. It turns out that according to the Rabbis, my imagery wasn’t far off. In Talmud Masechet Shabbat 30b, we learn that the word ner can mean both light and soul. And in the passage above from proverbs, our souls are described as ner Adonai — the light or lamp of God. 

As we confess our sins each Yom Kippur, we recite: “God, You know the mysteries of the universe and the dark secrets of every living being. You search the inmost chambers of our minds, and probe the deep recesses of our hearts. Nothing is concealed from Your sight” (SLC 198). These images of darkness, secrets and concealment being shattered by the bright light of our souls is a striking image to frame our confessions on this Yom Kippur. The act of public, communal confession throws open each of our closets and coaxes out what’s hidden in the furthest, darkest corners — so that we can have a truly clean slate as we enter a new Jewish year.

  1. V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha

B’chol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha uv’chol m’odecha

And you shall love the Lord your God

With all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

What does it mean to love God with all your soul? The medieval French Rabbi Rashi says that truly loving God with all your soul means loving God with the full knowledge that God will one day take your soul. 

The commentator Or Ha’Chaim says that if it’s difficult to love God b’chol levavcha (with all your heart) if you are not in good health, then the next step is to love God b’chol nafshecha (with all your soul). And the French Tosafist Rashbam says that since the Torah covered all other bases with b’chol levavcha, then loving God with all your soul means that even when you are put to the test and your life is on the line, you must choose loving God over your very survival. While each of these examples may seem extreme, they illustrate that when we love with our whole soul, we significantly raise the stakes.

Finally, there are five ways that the word “soul” is described in Hebrew. In the Kabbalistic tradition, these five names are actually five separate elements of the soul which correspond to the five worlds of Kabbalah:

Nefesh, related to natural instinct.

Ruach, related to emotion and morality.

Neshamah, related to intellect and the awareness of God.

Chayah, considered a part of God.

Yechidah. essentially oneness with God.

According to Kabbalah, the soul infuses all levels of our lives and spirituality: from the most basic, physical/visceral instincts to an ultimate sense of union with God. 

Going through these five elements again:

Nefesh, related to natural instinct.

Ruach, related to emotion and morality.

Neshamah, related to intellect and the awareness of God.

Chayah, considered a part of God.

Yechidah. essentially oneness with God. 

Can you find a sense of soul or spirituality even in washing dishes or folding clothes? What about walking the dog or grading an exam? And what about stopping to talk to a neighbor on the way to work, or giving a smile and some spare change to a homeless person near your tube station?

We don’t need to experience nirvana to feel our souls at work. We can’t see them, but we can search for the small ways they remind us of their presence. They connect us with a sense of something higher than ourselves, a purpose greater than we realize, and the endless potential to purify our hearts and souls anew. In Talmud Masechet Berachot 10a, we learn: “Just as the Holy One of Blessing fills the world, so does the soul fill the body. Just as the Holy One of Blessing sees but cannot be seen, so does the soul see but cannot be seen… Just as the Holy One of Blessing is pure, so is the soul pure”. 

As we spend these next hours searching our souls and asking for forgiveness, it’s easy to feel despondent about all of the “shouldn’t-haves” and “what-if’s” of 5779. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as victims of our lives and circumstances. But I hope that we can take a fresh perspective into the year 5780: that by better understanding our souls and examining our spirituality, we can unearth a sense of empowerment in the face of inevitable failure, free will in the midst of the status quo, and the constant potential for change when things feel stagnant. And may we go into the year 5780 with pure hearts and souls, ready to partner with God in the ongoing project of repairing the world and repairing ourselves.

Lev tahor bara li Elohim,

V’ruach nachon chadesh b’kirbi.

Create in me a pure heart, oh God,

And renew a willing soul within me.