Thing Again: Getting in touch with our souls

The sounds of the shofar, produced by vigorous exhalation, recall that first Divine breath.

Shofar with sticker 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shofar with sticker 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rosh Hashana is not, as many think, the day of the creation of the universe. Rather, it is the day of Man’s creation – the Sixth Day. The Torah describes the creation of Man as a literal act of Divine inspiration: “And [God] blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and Man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
The sounds of the shofar, produced by vigorous exhalation, recall that first Divine breath. Thus the central mitzva of Rosh Hashana – the blowing of the shofar – reminds us that our essence is the soul breathed into Adam and every subsequent human being by God, and that we are spiritual beings.
That original breath is not thereafter cut off from its Divine source. Rather, we remain continually connected to God through our souls, just as the glassblower remains connected to the air he has exhaled, in Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin’s classic metaphor.
Onkeles’s Aramaic translation of “a living being,” in the above-quoted verse describing Adam’s creation, is “ruah memalila” – a speaking being. Speech is the uniquely human capacity to bring thoughts – which have no physical existence – into the physical world. That ability to join the physical and spiritual through speech is miraculous. Not by accident is the Hebrew root for something wondrous, peleh, the same as that of the word the Torah employs for taking a vow, yafli, an act of speech.
Upon arising in the morning and going to the bathroom, a Jew recites a blessing enumerating the complex functioning and delicate balance of the human body. That blessing concludes, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously [mafli la’asot].” Immediately afterward, we recite a blessing thanking God for the gift of our souls: “My God, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it.
You fashioned it. You breathed it into me. You safeguard it within me, and eventually You will take it from me, and restore it to me in the Time to Come.”
Thus the words “mafli la’asot,” which connote both the power of speech and something wondrous, serve as the bridge between our bodies and our souls. Remembrance of that first breath of life, then, is remembrance of the miracle of Man’s combination of the physical and spiritual.
THE VISION of man as a spiritual being is under assault today. Juxtaposed with it is the view of Man as nothing but a more sophisticated animal – different only in the multiplicity of his pleasures and the greater intelligence he can employ to satisfy those pleasures.
Sometimes the latter view is expressed explicitly, as in the work of Princeton University “ethicist” Peter Singer, who finds nothing objectionable about bestiality and writes that the “life of a newborn [baby] is of less value than the life of a pig, or dog, or chimpanzee.”
But more often the view is expressed implicitly. Human beings are distinguished by their capacity for shame.
That shame results from awareness of the contrast between our physicality and our status as a spiritual beings: Only after Chava and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit and declined from an almost pure spiritual level did they become aware of their nakedness and become embarrassed on its account. But where all awareness of the spiritual side of one’s nature has been lost, so, too, has all capacity for embarrassment. The equation of celebrity and shamelessness, and the ever-diminishing sense of a private realm that is not on view to the world, are but two the most flagrant contemporary manifestations.
The battle between these two competing visions of Man goes back to the very beginning of human history. The Snake’s opening statement to Chava can be read not as a question (as it is usually translated) but as a statement: “Even if Elokim said don’t eat of any tree of the garden, [so what]? His message was: Be like the animals, who are acting in accord with His will when they follow their instincts.
Why should you not similarly act upon your desire for the fruit?” As Rabbi David Fohrman points out in The Beast that Crouches at the Door, the temptation of Chava follows a seeming digression in the Torah text: Adam’s naming of all the creatures and his inability to find among them a partner for himself. That account should have preceded the creation of Chava, not followed it. But its placement just prior to Chava’s temptation hints at the Snake’s motivation: He wanted to contest Adam’s removal of himself from the animal kingdom, and claim Chava for himself.
Eventually the Snake’s argument prevailed, and the distinction between human beings and animals was lost. The generation of the Flood adopted the ideology of Man as a more intelligent animal, and began mating with animals.
Only after the Flood did God grant Man permission to eat animal flesh, in order to stress the absolute chasm between human beings and animals.
A DAY of judgment makes sense only if one views Man as a being who possesses an element of the Divine, and who, unlike the animals, possesses free will that empowers him to shape and give meaning to his life by the choices he makes.
For if we were truly determined by our desires and driven by our instincts, which we are incapable of resisting, there would be no basis for judgment.
The goal of Rosh Hashana is to recognize God as the Source of Life, of meaning and purpose. And that requires heightening our awareness of the Divine soul He breathed into us, and by virtue of which we remain joined to Him. That is what we mean when we offer thanks for the “eternal life that You planted in us” – i.e., that exists within us now. Only the awareness that we are bound to the Source of Life, that we have the power to choose to strengthen that connection or to cut it off, offers the possibility of a life of coherence and purpose.
Where that awareness is absent, life becomes nothing but a series of disconnected moments, a string of opportunities to tickle the nerve endings in one way or another. Each moment passes and dies – the opportunity was either taken or passed up, but in either case it is now gone. Life becomes a series of small deaths leading up to the final one.
RABBI NOACH WEINBERG, the founder of Aish Hatorah (about whom I am currently writing a biography) used to tell a remarkable story about how one Jew became aware of his soul.
Avraham Cordish, zt”l, was a PhD.
student at the University of Michigan, when he was shot in the back by a mugger and left a quadriplegic. When he realized that he would never walk or move freely again, he asked himself a question: What was the purpose of all my running about until now? Then it occurred to him that had he not been shot, he would never have asked himself that question, or if he had thought about it at all, he would never have pursued the answer to the finish. He was too busy running after various short-term goals. (He had been an all-American soccer player at Johns Hopkins University and a star lacrosse player, as well an outstanding student.) The next question he asked himself reveals the depth of his soul: What is worse – to be unable to run or even walk, or not to know the purpose of one’s life? He concluded that the latter would be a far worse fate.
And then he realized that had he not been shot, that would have been his fate.
When he viewed it that way, he had to be grateful for the tragedy that had radically changed his life and every prior plan.
After two years of grueling and painful rehabilitation, Cordish succeeded in immigrating to Israel, where he married and lived for 34 years in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood and served as a source of inspiration for all who knew him.
May we all merit to get in touch our soul beings this Rosh Hashana and to connect to the eternal life planted within us. ■
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.