The Soul Is Pure
The “preliminary prayers” recited at synagogue each morning are rarely encountered; even if you arrive 15 minutes after the published starting time for a service that might last more than three hours, you will miss those first important words. This fills me with real sorrow, for within this section of Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays (4–13) are remarkable, beautiful affirmations and reflections. In previous weeks, we looked at Adon Olam, focusing especially on the way the poet entrusts body and soul to God each night. So, in the morning, it is natural to give thanks for one more day of life, and to reflect on who we are as human beings, composed of body and soul.
The prayer Elohai Neshamah (4) affirms that the soul (neshamah) is breathed into us by God, and that it is pure. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for breath is neshiymah, so close to the word for soul that the two are intimately connected. The soul is the very breath of life, and as we are aware of our breath, perhaps we approach a point of connection. Careful pronunciation of the Hebrew (using the mappik dot [∙] at the end of a succession of words) demands equally careful and emphasized breathing. The prayer accepts that, one day, the soul will be taken from the body, affirming that our spiritual life does not end when the body dies—and that the soul as a focal point of our identity will live in eternity.
The early morning may not be the best time for analytic philosophical reflection, but I suggest that it is the best time to affirm deep beliefs and dreams. It is not enough to study theology and philosophy, from Descartes and Maimonides onward, to arrive at an understanding of the relationship between body and soul. We must act, celebrate, and breathe based upon our understanding. The siddur invites and “inspires” (note that the word inspire literally means to breathe in) us to do just that.
The end of the prayer is a blessing that praises God, “who restores the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body.” This is well understood in relationship to the last line of Adon Olam; we have given ourselves to God through the night (sleep is as one-sixtieth of death), and we find joy in the morning as we feel ourselves renewed, spiritual beings. Our bodies may be infirm, disabled, or challenged in other ways, but our divine likeness is not beheld in the optics of a mirror, rather it is in the neshamah, the breath of life.