Elohai Nishama: God’s grace

13 01 2009

I usually think of “grace” as a very Christian theological concept. My knowledge of Christian theology is somewhat shaky, acquired mainly through Jewish history classes in day school, one Bible class in college, and browsing Wikipedia when something particularly interested me. I tend to associate grace with Christian notions of original sin and the merits of thoughts over action. As I understand it, grace is something that Christians believe that God bestows to an undeserving, sinful people.

This doesn’t jive with my theology on many levels, and, yet, I think that there is a Jewish equivalent as expressed in the “Elohai Nishama” prayer. For me (and maybe for Christians), grace are the blessings that God bestowed upon me by creating me and by sustaining me for no other reason than that I am a human being and that is what God does for people. Grace is something to be grateful for even when the world seems bleak and empty. Grace is when things turn out okay, even though there is no reason for them to. Grace is the sort of unconditional love that God has for humanity, the pinacle among his creations. Jews don’t talk about God and love, but maybe it’s time to start.

And now, onto “Elohai Nishama.”

elohaineshamaThis is a powerful prayer. According to the Talmud (Tractate Brachot 60b), this–not Modeh Ani–is the first thing that you are supposed to say upon awaking.

“אֱלֹהַי! נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא” / “My God! The soul which you bestowed in me is pure.”

What does it mean to declare that one was created with a “נְשָׁמָה טְהוֹרָה,” a pure soul?

I often worry, beset with depression as I am, that my soul is somehow defective. Perhaps, I sometimes think, it arrived this way from the factory, and I am just doomed to walk around with this blackened soul forever. I find this prayer reassuring: No, God created me with a perfect soul, just as He created every other human being with a perfect soul. It is not defective and I am not defective. It came to me pure and it retains this essential purity despite whatever life may throw my way. I am, deep down, at my core, okay in some essential way, just because I was created with this pure soul.

וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי” / “And you preserve it within me.”

This prayer also tells me that God not only created my soul in a pure state, but that God also protects and maintains its purity. God has control. God is in the driver’s seat

Making that statement is both comforting and freeing. This is part of my idea of grace. It is a blessing to be able to let go of this idea that I can control things in my life. For every thing that I can control, it seems that there are ten things that are beyond my control. Whether those things are fairly benign (the weather), more potentially hazardous (the actions of people around me), or the most terrifyingly sometimes-out-of-my-control (my own conscious and subconscious and unconscious emotional reactions to events around me), there are many of them.

” וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּנִּי” / “You will eventually take it from me.”

You, God, not I, will decide when it’s time to give up. You will take my soul from me. Like everyone else, I will someday lose my soul, but it will be on your watch, not on mine. I can control my body to some extent, but only God controls my soul.

כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְּקִרְבִּי מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי. רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת” / “So long as my soul is within me, I give thanks to you, Adonai, my God, and God of my ancestors, Lord of all creatures, master of all souls.”

I can be thankful, at the very least, that I have these ideas and that I repeat them, sometimes with more conviction and other times with less, every morning: I was created with a pure soul. God protects the purity, the essential wholeness of my soul, and God alone decides when it is time to give up.


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11 responses

15 01 2009
Marci

I just wanted to say how glad I am that you’re writing this blog. I’ve been struggling with depression and faith as well, and its comforting to know I’m not alone in my struggle and that there is a way to reconcile faith with these feelings of hopelessness.

16 01 2009
Tamar

I am very much enjoying your blog. I also understand that this particular meditation of elokai neshama also can be described in kabbalistic terms, regarding four worlds in which the soul travels as it is being formed. I can’t remember all the specifics, it would be wonderful if you could expand on this. I originally learned of the kabbalistic meaning from a Chassidic rabbi.

26 01 2009
Psalm 51: An alternative to Elohai Nishama «

[…] בְּקִרְבִּי” “and You preserve it within me,” rather than being comforting and reassuring, chafes against my lived reality. If God protects my soul within me, why do I feel like my soul is […]

29 01 2009
Gratitude «

[…] of comments, does anyone have an answer for commenter Tamar about Elohai Nishama and kabbalah? Something about “four worlds in which the soul travels as it is being formed”? I know […]

30 01 2009
Pinchas Zohav

One can look at the Rabbinic Judaic tradition as describing one of the most reincarnation-al spiritual approaches, ever.
Rabbis have taught (I have forgotten where) that we are considered 90% dead as we sleep, and therefore we are reincarnated as we awake each and every day.
That for me is the spiritual source of the Modeh Ani prayer in which we express our gratitude “that You have faithfully returned my soul to me.”

If we look at the four worlds pattern underlying Jewish prayer practice (Body – Heart – Mind- Soul) the Modeh Ani prayer reflects our earliest in-body consciousness of being returned to our physical bodies.

Parenthetically, it is only after “getting it” that we are re-incarnated – that the more cognitive recognition of Elohai Nishama becomes possible.

A powerful and uplifting meditation utilizes part of the Modeh Ani Lefanecha prayer( I am thankful before You):
Sitting cross legged, (or on a chair for those of us that do not bend so well):
Chant “Modeh ani Lefanecha” towards the LEFT – breathing out as you descend, then breathing in (deeeply) as you come upright,
Chant “Modeh ani Lefanecha” to the RIGHT – breathing out as you descend, then breathing in (deeeply) as you come upright,
Chant “Modeh ani lefanecha” to the FRONT – breathing out as you descend, then breathe in (deeply) chanting “Lefan-eh-eh- cha as you come upright and visualizing a connection between the roots of the earth beneath you (as your body descends), then passing through you (as you rise), and then reaching up to the Source of all Being through your “third eye spot” (as you come fully upright lifting your spinal posture as far up as you can).
Repeat.

There is a nice musical theme ( I believe from part of a R. Shefa Gold Modeh Ani song that can go with it – or you can use any descending notes that start high and reach their lowest at “Cha”

Repeat – this is very physically invigorating breathing meditation.

Let us know if this is helpful.

30 01 2009
The Editor

Thanks, Pinchas! That is very interesting and helpful.

11 05 2010
MicigUpy8

Awesome web page, where did you get the theme?

10 10 2012
cornel field

i would like to thank you for this prayer, to me it is so wonderful to have a living God that ( i ) we can take all of our troubles to and he will in one way or another give us a solution.Blessed is the God fo Israel. Cornel…

14 10 2012
Tikvah

Five matters in our world are one-sixtieth [of their greater selves]. They are fire, honey, Shabbat, sleep and a dream.

Fire is one-sixtieth of Gehenna
Honey is one-sixtieth of manna
Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World-to-Come
Sleep is one-sixtieth of death
And a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy.

Berachos 57b

30 11 2012
Linda

I stumbled upon this in a search for a good definition of the Hebrew word Elohai and it’s beautiful. As a Christian who has done a great deal of theological reading (within my own faith), I think you have realized an aspect of grace it takes many of us years to fully appreciate – if ever. I think the obsession with sin (particularly among my more fundamentalist brethren) blinds us to what precedes that story in Genesis – that God created humans out of love and for love. We’re created in His image which gives infinite value to our souls and our very existence and every beautiful thing in our world is a gift of grace.

12 01 2015
bebpfidz@gmail.com

Nice Blog, thanks for sharing this kind of information.

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