This piece is based on a talk offered at the Hamakom meditation retreat in England, August 2023.
God, the soul You have given me is pure (traditionally recited upon awakening):
Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi.
We all possess the neshamah tehorah. The pure soul. The pure breath, the unconditioned source. The Divine image.
I invite you to feel it. Allow it to enter your awareness. Give yourself permission to know it in this moment — arising and passing, but always present. Always there for you to return to when you are lost and confused. The pure soul exists in everyone — no exceptions. Let us rest in this pure breath, this pure soul.
The Elohai Neshamah prayer reminds us that we each possess a perfect, pure and untainted core. We recite it in the morning when consciousness is restored to us after sleep. In one simple sentence, it invites us into a relationship with an aspect of ourselves that is not always apparent or respected. It declares an approach to ourselves and each other that is profound. And, of course, it entails practice and remembering.
This statement enshrines wisdom that is both Jewish and universal. It supports a certain social and political approach that sees all beings as fundamentally endowed with this spirit. It hearkens back to the beginning of Genesis when Adam, the first human, was created in the Divine image. It also undergirds some healing modalities in our own time.
I recently came across the work of Dr. Eben Alexander. He is a neurosurgeon who had a severe case of meningitis and went into a week-long coma. During that time, his brain was “dead.” But, surprisingly, he did recover, and he remembered having had a powerful mystical experience in which he experienced his unification with all life in the cosmos. Restored to full health, he went on a quest to understand the brain beyond the materialist assumptions he had been conditioned to believe.
Alexander writes in his most recent book, Living in a Mindful Universe (p. 227):
Based on the thousands of reported cases of those who have glimpsed more fully the workings of reality through NDEs [near death experiences] and other mystical experiences, the informational substrate underlying our universe appears to be made of profound unconditional love. Those who have been to that brink and peered beyond … are forever changed. They know they are one with the universe … .
A natural result of feeling the infinite love of the universe is to recognize that conscious awareness is the very same force at the core of all existence. … Indeed, the deepest lesson of my journey was realizing that that unconditional love was the very fabric of the spiritual realm from which the totality of reality emerges.
Alexander describes ascending through higher dimensions of space and time, from an idyllic paradise to the Core. He writes (p. 11):
I was aware of the entire higher-dimensional universe as indescribably complex and holding all of existence … just beyond that I encountered the power of infinite unconditional love, the very feeling of that ineffable love. I was awash in the source of all that is. That feeling is beyond description, yet so shockingly concrete and real that I’ve never lost the memory of it.
Richard Schwartz is a psychologist and creator of Internal Family Systems, a highly effective, evidence-based therapeutic model that speaks to the reality of the neshamah tehorah, the pure soul. I particularly love the title of his latest book, No Bad Parts. He offers an understanding of our psyches that is also a reflection of the cultures we inhabit. He writes (p. 3):
We need a new paradigm that convincingly shows that humanity is inherently good and thoroughly interconnected. With that understanding, we can finally move beyond being ego-, family-, and ethno- centric to species-, bio- and planet-centric.
Maybe the new paradigm is not that new. Maybe it is contained in that verse we say upon waking up in the morning: “Elohai neshamah shenatatah bi tehorah hi.”
Schwartz summarizes his approach:
Within each of us is a wise, compassionate essence of goodness that knows how to relate harmoniously. In addition, we’re not one messed-up mind, but an internal system of parts. Sure, these parts can sometimes be disruptive or harmful, but once they’re unburdened [this is his way of saying that these parts can be brought into consciousness through loving awareness, or mindfulness], they return to their essential goodness. And because this is true, each of us has a clear path in front of us to access our lives – inner and outer — from that essence [the neshamah tehorah]. In so doing we realize the basic truth of interconnectedness on all levels, and the natural result of the realization is compassion and courageous action.
Of course, all of this sounds easier than it is. We engage in contemplative practice to create the conditions to see more clearly and to hold the various parts that surface in as much tender care as we can muster — to envelop all those parts in the pure soul. Remember, you are the love. There are no bad parts! Isn’t that a relief? This is a spiritual path that has at its essence the desire to free ourselves from the impediments that prevent us from living aligned with the qualities of heart and mind that lead to happiness. We are here to reconnect to that pure soul.
We engage in contemplative practice to create the conditions to see more clearly and to hold the various parts that surface in as much tender care as we can muster — to envelop all those parts in the pure soul.
We have many Jewish teachings on the soul. I bow to Roland Brandman, who has amassed the most outstanding selection of Jewish sources on liberation and Jewish meditation in English in his magnum opus, Sapphire Mind.
From Reb Nachman of Bratslav (p. 166 in Brandman, Sapphire Mind)
Even within the concealment of a concealment [hastarah shebetokh hahastarah], for even there is HaShem … enclothed. For sure there is nothing that does not have Hashem’s life force within it, as it could not have existence at all without Hashem’s life force within it. … Even if one commits a transgression (God Forbid!), nevertheless, even there is found the life force of Hashem, albeit greatly hidden and constricted.
When we remember that we are given the pure soul, it is a reminder of Hashem’s presence in our being, our bones, our body. We say Elohai — my God. What does that mean? We each have a direct and personal relationship with the source of all. Indeed, that source is pure love. Each of us has the potential to know that directly. Yes, it is hidden, but, no, it is not absent.
A second text brought to us by Roland is from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (p. 167):
All conceptual entanglements among human beings and all the inner, mental conflicts suffered by each individual results solely from our cloudy concept of the divine. All thoughts, whether practical or theoretical, flow out of the boundless divine ocean and return there. Constantly clarify the mind, so that it is free of the dross of deceptive fantasies, groundless fears, bad habits and deficiencies! By cleaving on love and full awareness to the Source of life, the soul shines from the supernal lights, and all feelings, thoughts and actions are refined. As this fundamental awareness becomes clearer in the recesses of the soul, then excitement and cleaving to the divine is activated, conducting the entire course of life.
This is another magnificent statement of why we practice. We are not inventing or creating anything. We are simply cleaning the glass. This is a practice of purification. Just like the essence of the soul is pure, the core of universal energy is love. Our intention is to see more clearly.
We practice in confusing times. We are barraged with information and opinions oftentimes that have very little relation to reality or truth. We are susceptible. We are manipulated by many forces that seek control over our minds and purses. The act of coming on a retreat like this is counter-cultural and radical! It is offering one’s life to the light. We are in good company, however, with Reb Nachman and Rav Kook.
One more wise sage culled by Brandon: R. Bakhya Ibn Pakuda writes in his book, Duties of the Heart:
And this is like the case of a seer who entered the courtyard of one of his friends and perceived that there was a hidden treasure in it. He searched for it and found silver that had turned black from rust forming upon it. He took a little, scrubbed it with salt and vinegar, washed it and polished it until it had returned to its beautiful form, to its splendor and radiance. Afterwards, the landlord gave orders to do the same with the rest of the treasure. And my intention is to do the same with the hidden treasures of human hearts, namely, to reveal them and to expose the radiance of their excellent nature, in order that anyone who wishes to draw close to God and cling to God may do the same. (p. 176)
I love this teaching. I am thinking of being with my grandchildren. It is easy to see their beauty and goodness, and it is also easy to see how stubborn and sometimes mean they can be to each other and even to me. How do I hold their radiance up to them? How do I hold my own radiance up to myself when I feel hurt or angry? This is our practice, this is our vision. This is our dedication.
Let us return to a contemplation of neshamah — translated as “soul”, but also so closely related to neshimah, breath. We read in Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 10a:
What was King David pointing to when he uttered the five instances of “Let my soul bless YHVH” [in the book of Psalms]? He was pointing to the Holy and Blessed One and the soul. Just as the Holy and Blessed One fills the whole universe, so does the soul fill the entire body. Just as the Holy and Blessed One sees but is not visible, so does the soul see though it is not seen. Just as the Holy and Blessed One nourishes the whole world, so does the soul nourish the whole body. Just as the Holy and Blessed One is pure, so is the soul pure. Just as the Holy and Blessed One abides in the innermost chambers so does the soul abide in our innermost chambers. Let the soul, which is endowed with these five attributes, come and offer praise to the One Who is endowed with these five attributes.
How do I hold my own radiance up to myself when I feel hurt or angry?
I have been contemplating our basic verse — elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi — for a while. Of course, it has a variety of tunes and is in the morning service, but it came particularly alive for me when I was working with someone that I have seen for quite a few years in spiritual direction. She is a rabbi and has gone through several career shifts, ups and downs. We speak once a month, and usually, she shares with me her decisions and confusions, and we discuss her practice. She is also in therapy, and especially during the pandemic, she did many online courses in mindfulness and other spiritual practices.
On one occasion, she confronted me with a question that took me aback: “What are we really doing in spiritual direction?” I fell silent. I sat still for a while. As I sat, that line arose in my mind. I turned to her and said: “My intention in our meetings is to be with your soul.” She was touched and so was I. I quoted the verse, and we sat quietly together. We were on Zoom, and the feeling in my room changed as I believe it did in hers. Since that time, I have been bringing that verse into my practice — at least, when I think of it. I find it inspiring. Then I discovered this Talmud text that equates God and neshamah, ultimate reality and the reality of our own consciousness. Of course, the closeness of the words neshamah (soul) and neshimah (breath) helped deepen the connection to practice and to Torah as we recall God breathing into the first human to create a living being. Indeed, as we sit together, we can imagine, our pure soul being breathed into us, again and again. And we breathe out to join our breath with the Divine, with all life, with universal love.