Psalm 51: An alternative to Elohai Nishama

26 01 2009

God’s protection and control, as stated in the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, rankles at times. It seems entirely untrue. On some mornings, the declaration of “וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ 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 battered, bruised, and blackened? If this is God’s idea of preserving the purity of my soul, that’s not a very promising indication of God’s abilities! And what kind of “אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת,” “master of all souls,” is this? This is part of a much broader question of God’s omnipotence and intervention in our lives, but on some mornings, praising God for protecting and sustaining me simply feels empty and false. What do I do? I say the words anyway, even though they leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I try to focus more carefully on what feels true to me at the moment.

Psalm 51 is helpful for presenting a different option for thinking about the purity or impurity of our hearts and our souls, and what sort of protection we can expect or not expect from God.

The Psalmist, speaking in the voice of King David, who has just been reprimanded by the prophet Nathan for killing Uriah in order to marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, does not feel that his heart is pure. Many of his feelings about himself seem more familiar to me than the declaration of the אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה prayer.

Verse 12 reads:

יב לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים;  וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן, חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי. 12 Create a pure heart for me, O God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

This verse was a popular song when I was teenager. I remember noticing that people around me, and thus I, usually sang “לֵב טָהוֹר, בָּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים” instead of “לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים.” It’s not a big difference–just one vowel–but the meaning in difference is significant. What people were singing was “God created a pure heart for me,” in the mode of the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, rather than what the verse says, which is “Create a pure heart for me.” The actual verse is a request of God. Our hearts may or may not have been created pure once-upon-a-time. (It seems that our spirits were once steadfast, since we are asking God to renew them, not to create them that way for the first time.) Our hearts are certainly not pure now, and we want them to be. God did not succeed at protecting them or us. That is the naked truth of this psalm. Our hearts become impure; battered; blackened. We ask God to help us purify them, or, in even stronger terms, to create new hearts and souls for us.

As I sometimes do, David feels that he arrived defective from the factory (Psalms 51:7), although perhaps in stronger terms than I would use.

ז הֵן-בְּעָווֹן חוֹלָלְתִּי;  וּבְחֵטְא, יֶחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּי. 7 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Note that I do not mean to imply through this analysis of Psalm 51 that I think that sin and depression are equivalent. It only seems useful to adopt the language that David uses to describe how awful he feels after having sinned, to describe how awful I feel when I am depressed. It is somehow reassuring to find my emotions reflected in ancient Psalms, even if the events that serve as catalysts for those emotions are very different.

In the next verse, he prays for wisdom, which I have certainly done:

ח …וּבְסָתֻם, חָכְמָה תוֹדִיעֵנִי. 8 …make me to know wisdom in mine inmost heart.

Other things he says in this chapter of Psalms also resonate. David feels blackened, and in need of purification. He wishes to be full of joy and gladness. He feels crushed and beaten down and hopes he won’t feel this way forever. Unlike the “אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה” prayer, David does not seem to feel that God protects his soul, that God is “אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת,” master of all souls. He recognizes that bad things happen in the course of our lives; things that require fixing, purification, and constant renewal. What we are created with is not always enough. We need periodic infusions, washes, purges, and help from God throughout our lives. Our souls do not remain pure or static.

ט תְּחַטְּאֵנִי בְאֵזוֹב וְאֶטְהָר; תְּכַבְּסֵנִי, וּמִשֶּׁלֶג אַלְבִּין. 9 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
י תַּשְׁמִיעֵנִי, שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה; תָּגֵלְנָה, עֲצָמוֹת דִּכִּיתָ. 10 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast crushed may rejoice.
יב לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא-לִי אֱלֹהִים; וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן, חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי. 12 Create me a clean heart, O God; and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

The word that David uses to say “You have crushed” is “דִּכִּיתָ.” Interestingly, the root of this word is the same as the Hebrew word for clinical depression, which is “דִּכָּאוֹן.” (This word also appears later in this chapter, in verse 19, in reference to David’s crushed and contrite heart, sickened by recognition of his sin.)

I love the following verses. How much do I wish I felt like I was in God’s presence! How often do I feel cast away from God! How badly do I yearn for a willing spirit to uphold me and a restoration of joy!

יג אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ; וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ, אַל-תִּקַּח מִמֶּנִּי. 13 Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy holy spirit from me.
יד הָשִׁיבָה לִּי, שְׂשׂוֹן יִשְׁעֶךָ; וְרוּחַ נְדִיבָה תִסְמְכֵנִי. 14 Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and let a willing spirit uphold me.

If we skip a few verses about bloodguilt, which are, thankfully, irrelevant to my current state of mind, we arrive at a verse that is directly connected to prayer. It is recited right before we begin the Amidah, and asks for God’s to help us pray.

יז אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח; וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

This verse is a humble recognition that we cannot go it alone. We need God to open our lips, and perhaps our hearts, before we can declare His praise. We may yearn for a God who is in the driver’s seat, who protects our souls and keeps them pure, but in the end, Psalm 51 often presents a more realistic view for me of the imperfect state of my heart and soul, coupled with a yearning for a God who will help me fix it all.


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.