“Take a Soulfie – Yom Kippur Inspiration
by Rabbi Emerita Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 30, 2017 | 5778
Yom Kippur is usually referred to as “The Day of Atonement” and our liturgy and tradition certainly reflects that aspect of this very special day; but, I also like to interpret it as “the Day of At-One-ment.” Every year I have found it easy to express that term, but challenging to explain it. This year, through a series of serendipitous events, I think I have found a way to help us understand what At-One-ment means and how to work towards achieving it.
As many of you know, this summer I had an extraordinary experience in Israel. I traveled extensively for three weeks with a small group of Rabbinical students, Rabbis, and Board members of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, from which I received smicha/ordination in 2004, and at which Reb Jaimie is currently a student. The trip was ambitious, as we visited over two dozen historical sites, another dozen places where amazing acts of loving-kindness are happening, eight different locales in which to daven, and we studied with over fifteen scholars. All over the land, wherever we went, we took photographs.
I found it distracting to pose for these photographs, but I understood the importance of preserving the memories. What was more distracting were the number of “selfies” people took. Now these were ostensibly to remind us of the place and what it meant to us, but it kind of skewed the reality. When we were looking out across incredible vistas, it was the view that was important….not the person taking the photo. In a sense, I thought, Selfies are a kind of misrepresentation of reality. But why did I feel annoyed by the Selfie-taking? Maybe, I rationalized, it was actually my own inability to hold the camera in my dominant hand and keep it still enough to press the button. As many of you know, I have Parkinson’s Disease, and one of the symptoms of this neurological disorder are tremors, which, up until July 2nd of this year were so severe in my right hand, that I was unable to hold a piece of paper still, let alone take a selfie.
About a week and a half into the trip, we visited Rambam Hospital in Haifa, ostensibly to tour the underground parking facility that can transform and absorb the entire hospital in 70 hours, in case of an attack. As the physician was explaining this remarkable feature of Rambam, he casually mentioned that the hospital was also doing some cutting-edge work with Parkinson’s Disease, and I tentatively raised my hand and said, “I have Parkinson’s.” I can fill you in on the details personally, but skip ahead to July 2nd, and as an unexpected outcome of this trip, I underwent a Focused Ultrasound Sonication procedure at Rambam Hospital, a procedure that literally gave me a loch-n-kopf, a hole in the head, or more accurately, a hole in my brain, resulting in cessation of the tremors in my right leg and my right hand. The Parkinson’s Disease continues, but the tremors are almost totally resolved. Yes, nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there, but, also, in the process of undergoing the procedure…which is done without anesthesia….I experienced an incredibly peaceful sensation. The deeper they burned in my brain, the more it was dreamlike; I felt as if I was floating in air, arching my back, as if I was in a colorful Chagall painting. It was as if I was feeling at One with the universe.
Several weeks after I returned from Israel, I went to Los Angeles for a conference, which included a seminar with Rabbi Naomi Levy, a former teacher of mine at AJRCA, and current friend and colleague. She gave me a pre-publication copy of her newest book, Einstein and the Rabbi, and I soon understood how the events of the summer and the challenge of illuminating At-One-ment fit together. The “Selfies” that so annoyed me, the profound experience at Rambam that so amazed me, and the meaning of this most holy day…all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place.
Today, on Yom Kippur, during these Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, these ten days of Return, it is not “Selfies” that we need to learn to take, but, rather, I’d like to suggest, actually urge us to learn how to take “Soulfies.”
While perhaps not using the term “Soulfie,” our traditional liturgy actually alludes to it, where it says “v’innontem et naf’sheichem,” which most Machzorim translate to mean: “you shall afflict your souls.” But the Hebrew can also be translated to mean “you shall answer your souls.” And if we’re going to answer or reply to our souls, we must assume that, one, we actually have a soul or souls and, two, that our souls are actually asking something of us.
So let’s first tackle the question of whether we have a soul, or, more basically, what is this thing we call “soul”? Our liturgy is constantly alluding to our soul, using perhaps different terms, such as Nefesh, Ruach, and/or Neshamah. Our mystical tradition speaks of the soul as coming from G-d and eventually returning to G-d, something that is not of the world, certainly not corporeal. Rabbi Naomi Levy tells the midrash that the soul doesn’t really want to enter life below, but G-d tries to reassure her that the world she is to enter is more beautiful than heaven. While we might find that hard to believe, it is explained that in heaven, souls live in a state of pure potentiality, like a messenger with no way to fulfil its mission, but within a human body, the soul can actually live out its potential. Rabbi Levy explains that it’s like the difference between fantasizing about falling in love and actually doing so and building a life with someone.
Analyzing the soul further, our mystics spoke of three layers of souls that we acquire in our lifetime. Like knowledge becomes wisdom with age, so does the soul have the possibility of maturing through age, although some may say through merit.
Let me try to lay out the three levels of soul…
Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, says “Ner Adonai nishmat Adam,” G-d’s candle is the human soul. Sometimes you hear me refer to the Divine Spark within us…that’s it. And it is our responsibility to tend to it, to share it, and to spread it. I don’t know about you, but when I light the Shabbat or Yom Tov candles, even the Yahrtzeit candle, I tend to stare into the candle light. In doing so, we see that it actually has different colors. The blueish light at the bottom is akin to the level of soul that is with us when we are born, the “Nefesh”…the Life Force. The Nefesh remains aligned with our body and its needs…I believe all living things have a Nefesh of sorts. This Nefesh, Life Force, is the will to live, to grow, and to act. Just as we observe how grass can grow through a crack in the sidewalk, so too Nefesh perseveres.
The yellowish light of the candle, just above the blueish light if called “Ruach” and it is the Love Force, it is the seat of emotion, the door to intimacy. Ruach also means wind and spirit…and it is all that, as well.
But there’s a third level of light of the candle, one we cannot perceive…and, in terms of soul-speak, it is called “Neshama”, the Eternal Force…and, as Rabbi Levy reminded me, it is the window to experiencing heaven on earth. It is on that level that we can experience ‘’d’veikut”/clinging to the Divine.
Albert Einstein once wrote: “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself form this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.” Einstein was speaking about seeing beyond the optical delusion of separateness…he was alluding to At-One-ment.
The levels of our soul have the capability of taking us higher and higher. The Nefesh, the Life Force, tends to the body and its needs; the Ruach, the Love Force, gives us the ability to make friends, to love, to be intimate; it allows us to commiserate, to do g’millut chassadim, acts of loving-kindness, to become active in the community. And the Neshama, the Eternal Force is the level at which we can begin to take in the larger picture, this world, and even the world beyond.
The soul asks us questions to guide us; and the soul also gives us guidance through messages. So, how can we access the soul’s messages?
We need to be open to the messages; to cut through the heavy traffic of our brain and allow ourselves to receive the messages from our soul. In truth, every day…and how much more-so, on this day… we’re given the opportunity to look into our soul, something we’re recalcitrant to do. We’re bidden to take an honest accounting, truly a cheshbon ha–nefesh, a soul tally, of where we are and where we’re going. Where am I needed? Have I strayed from the path of my life? Have I stopped learning and growing and changing? Have I become self-satisfied? Have I settled for less than my divinely given potential? These are big questions! Heavy questions!! Heavy questions that require heavy lifting…and we’re all really tempted simply to look away.
On the other hand, our souls not only ask us questions, they speak to us. I must admit that I first realized this as a young adult, taking yoga. Being much more bendy 60 plus years ago, I realized that there was much more to my being than my corporeal body and my mind. As my body bent or stretched into positions that seemed more suitable for Olympians than a young Jewish woman, my body seemed to go on automatic, and I would feel a great sense of peace. It wasn’t a conscious awareness, but something much deeper…
And anyone who has attempted to meditate and has been instructed to “still the mind” knows how tough that is. Initially, we are asked to sit silently. Well, it may be silent on the outside, but inside thoughts flood our mind: “Are we done yet? I didn’t call back so-and-so. Oy, I’m going to sneeze; do I stifle it? What am I supposed to be feeling? How long have I been sitting here? G’valt, I’m lousy at meditating.”
Simply self-observation of this goofy inner-monologue brings you to an understanding that you have to have a consciousness simply to observe the crazy talk. That consciousness is still and grounded, as opposed to the hyperactive inner-talk. This is your soul, waiting patiently for the mind to calm down.
Sometimes it takes a mantra…a word or a phrase said or thought of repeatedly to get us into a meditative state. (Rabbi Levy like the word “husa” for two reasons: first of all it has a whooshy sound and secondly it can teach us something, as it is found in the liturgy, meaning the special kind of love that one has for something we’ve created…flaws and all. Repeating the word “husa” reminds her of the sound of waves softly crashing against the shore. I find saying the Sh’ma works for me, but, as the Kotzker Rebbe says (and it applies to meditating as to life in general): “Any way is a way, as long as you make it a way.”
The bottom line is that when we get good at meditating, we are able to experience a sense of beauty and blessing and, well, Oneness. It is that sense that banishes the ego’s critical voice and allows our soul to offer us respite, encouragement, hope.
But if we are taking selfies all the time, we just might be missing out on all the blessings waiting for us; and certain blessings can only be discovered by digging deep. Our challenge in life is to learn how to take the “Soulfie”, how to get to know our soul’s contour—its yearning and longings, its knowledge and wisdom.
What does it mean “to take a soulfie?” You can’t point a camera at yourself and take a snapshot of your soul? It’s, first of all, an awareness of your soul. Then it’s an active practice of greeting your soul, inviting it into your life. It takes practice…and, as Rabbi Levy reminded me, a bit of holy chutzpah, a bit of sacred madness perhaps. Now this isn’t so out in left field; many of us possess a bit of sacred madness … after all, we follow strange voices that no one can see: Fear, or worry, or judgment, or ambition, or procrastination. The list goes on and each one comes uninvited, takes up residence, and often ends up driving the decision making.
Living with soul awareness doesn’t mean that all pain will disappear; nor does it mean that all confusion will magically resolve. Sometimes we fail to meet our souls, because we naively assume that doing so could lead to a state of internal peace and ecstasy. But that’s not how it works. The soul doesn’t dwell in satisfaction or bliss; it deals with open eyes and, frankly, discomfort. It wants us to be just uncomfortable enough to strive to grow, to learn, and to seek to fix what’s broken in this fragmented yet beautiful world.
Living with soul awareness can keep you up at night. It can make you suddenly see the humanity in the eyes of strangers you were heretofore ignoring. Their problems become alive within you. Taking a soulfie can be painful, but I believe that it’s ultimately the life-struggle needed to lead to living the G-d-given life that was divinely planted within us.
On this Yom Kippur, Day of At-One-ment, on this final day of the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance, or more accurately Ten Days of Return, here are four questions for us to ponder. Actually, as I pose the question, do free association to yourself, and see what answers you come up with.
- What has my soul been trying to say to me, that I’ve been ignoring?
- What activities and experiences nourish my soul, yet I’ve not done enough of them?
- What does my soul want to mend that my ego is too stubborn or too fearful to mend?
- And, finally, for what does my soul yearn?
I wish I could tell you where to go to learn this skill, but we won’t find it at CSN or UNLV. While our Mussar class at P’nai Tikvah can help, as can reading the Chofetz Chayim, learning to take a soulfie is truly a DIY endeavor. You have to do it yourself; but learning to take soulfie yourself may very well transform your life.
May the fast of this Yom Kippur day be meaningful and may the soulfie you take reveal a life of purpose, of promise fulfilled, of gifts shared, of dreams realized…a life well-lived. Ken y’hi ratzon.
L’Shanah Tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu…may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
“Take a Soulfie”
 Based on a suggestion by Rabbi Naomi Levy, with excerpts by permission from Rabbi Levy from her book Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul. Flatiron Books, New York, 2017.