“If a person does not shed tears during the Days of Awe, it is a sign that his soul is not complete.” – Rabbi Isaac Luria
In my last piece, I described what I saw when my grandmother’s soul left her body. Your reaction, dear readers, caught me by surprise. Stories poured in, describing similar experiences.
Perhaps most moving was my brother’s account. David is an interventional cardiologist who routinely saves lives. He was also present in the room when our beloved Ita passed away.
David did not see what I saw, but he felt it. He said it was probably the most intense moment of his life, and he was amazed that Ita’s frail, little body could release so much energy, filling every inch of the room with her sweet, familiar presence.
Though we’re very close, David and I had never shared our recollections of that moment 17 years ago. He also told me he’s attended the deaths of 50 to 100 individuals through his work, and he has felt an unmistakable, positive presence every time, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.
He said the intensity was often greater when loved ones of the departed were in the room, and by far the strongest presence he’s ever felt was Ita’s, when he himself was a loved one.
Love and soul are clearly connected.
Here is the other experience I promised to share – the one which led to this pair of articles.
Three weeks ago, I awoke before 4:00am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I started churning a troubling issue in my life, looking for a solution.
Such searches rarely yield answers, and are far more likely to aggravate my sleeplessness. That night’s inner monologue, however, went like this:
“I’m not going to figure out the answer by lying awake when I should be sleeping.”
“Better I should learn some Torah. I’ll forget my stress, and even if I don’t get back to sleep, it’ll be time well spent. But I don’t want to get up, and I can’t turn on the light. I’ll just study a verse I know by heart.”
“B’reisheet bara Elohim et hashemayim v’et haaretz… In the beginning of G-d’s creation of the heavens and the earth…”
“In the beginning. Could that B’ prefix be translated as at the beginning?”
It matters because G-d exists outside of time. G-d can look at any moment of the creation the same way I can look at any scene in a script. Past, present, and future are all contemporaneous for G-d.
“The beginning is thus a division between the uniform infinity of G-d alone, and a different world in which G-d is concealed among other stuff.”
And from G-d’s point of view, that division is always happening.
I turn this over for a long time, finally deciding I have to look up that preposition in Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew.
I can spend all day in that book – it soothes me. In this case, however, the result is troubling. The B’ prefix can only mean in, on, with, or for. Not at.
I feel like I haven’t learned anything. And imagining that eternal moment of G-d’s self-division hasn’t touched me the way it should.
“It’s daylight. The kids will be up soon. I’ll just daven (pray).”
I pick up my tallit (prayer shawl) and recite the kabbalistic meditation based on Psalm 104:
My soul, bless Adonai (G-d). You are overwhelmingly great. Beauty and splendor are Your garb, light is your garment, You spread out the heavens as a curtain.
I say this every morning. Today it catches me.
“Curtain? That’s exactly what I was just thinking about. A division within G-d that allows our world to exist.”
My soul, bless Adonai.
“What does that mean? Does my soul obey this order? Does it hear this order? What is my soul? Well, my soul is not in my mind. My brain will die one day, my soul won’t. I know that because I saw Ita’s soul.”
“Hello? My soul? Are you there?”
“The kids will be up soon. Better just finish davening.”
I recite blessings and put on my tefillin. I recently heard a talk by Rabbi Shimon Kraft, who likened the leather straps of tefillin to the reins of a horse. The horse is the body; the soul is the rider.
“My soul, take the reins, please.”
I feel the arm strap below my elbow. I feel the upper tefillin resting on my forehead. No one is tugging on them.
“How do I give my soul the reins of my mind and body? How do I become a unified horse and rider?”
Nothing. The kids are stirring.
“Keep moving so I can finish before they burst in.”
I reach the Shema, our most basic prayer. The first prayer we learn as children, the last words we utter in life, if we’re able.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Listen, Israel, G-d, Our G-d, G-d is One.
It suddenly hits me.
“G-d’s unity is never broken. It can only be hidden. We become aware of it by saying Adonai Echad!”
Saying G-d’s name unites the alienated parts of G-d’s Self with the Infinite.
Something stirs within me. I continue the Shema in a whisper.
Blessed be the Name of His Glorious Majesty forever and everywhere.
I feel something discernible now. A lightness. A light within. A connection.
And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart.
In ancient times, the heart was understood to be the seat of both thoughts and emotions. Heart is our word for body and mind.
And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your soul.
“My Soul is a piece of G-d, seemingly divided from the Infinite, but still connected. It’s a channel! A channel to G-d!”
I love G-d with all my soul by opening that channel, and submitting the desires of my heart to it. That’s what it means to really listen.
And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your resources.
“i.e. the unified rider! The synergy that happens when heart and soul work together. I offer my heart to G-d’s service, then listen for the feedback. This is that sense of right and wrong we all have that’s deeper than thoughts or feelings. It’s primal. It’s from the Source.”
And at that moment I feel it. Unmistakable. My soul is not a thing. It’s a channel, flowing to and from my Creator.
And the most recognizable aspect of that flow is love.
It is a moment I wish would never end.
“How do I stay here?”
“Make my will G-d’s Will.”
“What is G-d’s Will?”
“Torah. It’s all in the Torah.”
And then I hear a new voice:
“Daddy, can I have juice instead of milk in my lunchbox?”
The precious moment passed, and was replaced by a different kind of precious moment.
Rosh Hashahah begins tonight. As we enter the Days of Awe, we imagine ourselves approaching the Heavenly Throne, and we tremble lest our deeds are found wanting.
Rabbi Isaac Luria says we must bring ourselves to tears during this period.
I used to think he meant we should cry tears of shame for our misdeeds.
Now I believe he also means tears of joy, because we’re opening that channel to our Source.
G-d’s justice is real, but G-d’s love is the dominant trait in that channel.
And you shall love the L-rd your G-d.
Those words are not just a command. They are an opportunity to feel your soul.
Sal shares a daily bit of Jewish wisdom at Facebook.com/AccidentalTalmudist.
Image: Ita, David and Sal, 1973
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.