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.”
“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.