Let Every Soul Praise Gd
Elohai neshama she’natata bi, t’hora hi
אלוהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה הי
When my daughter was a newborn, I only worked part-time at my congregation. This meant that I had every other Shabbat morning to myself, to daven as I pleased. Most mornings, we went to the Conservative shul where we have now belonged for 25 years, but some Shabbos mornings found my baby and I at the local Reconstructionist synagogue: I did not personally like the liturgical changes they made, but boy, could they sing.
And this first line of the prayer thanking Gd for our souls – well, that we would chant, over and over.
I first learned this prayer in Jerusalem, as a young rabbinical student. “The soul you have given me, O Gd, is a pure one. You created it; You formed it; You breathed it into me; You guard here within my body. And one day, You will take my soul away from me, only to restore it to me in future to come. As long as this soul/this breath is within me, I will give thanks to You, HaShem my Gd, Gd of my ancestors, Master of all creation, Sovereign of all souls/breath. Blessed are you HaShem, who restores the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body.
Now that’s a prayer! Traditionally said each morning, it reflects a gratitude for the “return” of the soul, of the ability to “breath,” as it were, each morning when we awaken, after our soul seems to have left us for the netherworlds of sleep and dreaming, of the frightening areas of our unconscious. It notes our soul will not always be with us; death could be just around the corner! But even then, Gd will be with us, holding our soul for us, as it were, until we need it again, in the world to come. And it reminds each morning of Judaism’s core belief that the soul is good – that we do not believe in original sin, that I we, are somehow wrong and unworthy of love. Rather, this prayer, right at the beginning of the morning service , proclaims the soul to be a force for righteousness in our very body, if we just listen to it. Gd made it, formed it, gave it to me: my soul, my self, my very being, these are all a blessing.
So why did the chanting bring me so much tension? The singing itself was a blessing; I could lose myself in the words and the music. But the meditative elements, the suggestions that we take a deep breath here, look inward there – these made my breathe quicken, not soften, my mind scurry, not slow down. Was I a failure? Was being meditative just stupid, or was it just me who couldn’t do it?
It reminded me of a similar prayer setting, also lovely and difficult for me, during my year in Jerusalem. On Friday nights, many of us would go to Kol HasNeshama, a Reform shul, for Kabbalat Shabbat. There was so much wonderful singing, and it helped me, as a rabbinical student learn the service. But the way they began once again sent my anxiety souring.
“נשימה ערוכה” “Take a deep breath. Now let it out, slowly. And again.” My chest would grow tight; my breath would start to pant. What’s wrong with me? I would wonder. Everyone else is relaxing, eyes closed, looking inward. And I am beginning to panic.
And, again, once we began to sing, I was better. I could concentrate on the song, even as the few words of the song became a mantra: ’כל הנשמה תהלל יה. הלליה׳ “Let every life breath praise HaShem. Halleluyah.”
Over the years, I have ignored this issue, as I left places, shuls and all, that tended to do breathwork. But then, some years after my stroke, I began to do yoga. And, believe me, for years, I worked at blocking out the instructions to observe my breath, to breathe deeply (because otherwise I would start to panic and pant), and to otherwise do pranayama, the yogic practice of conscious breathing.
I would have carried merrily along my way, praying the daily service and unable to meditate except while focusing on the words, and so on, except that I read a book: “The Body Keeps the Score,” by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. It was not just the chapter on yoga as healing from trauma that got to me; it was the whole darn book. I am unable to breathe deeply without my body telling me something – and I have been ignoring that message for more than 40 years. The panting, the panic, the twitching in my body while trying to lie still: these are not failures, I learn. These are signals, messages from a body still carrying pain that I don’t want to see, trauma that I am blocking myself from knowing, hurt that I don’t know how to express.
Van der Kolk suggests, in his wonderful, compassionate book, that one start slowly. And when I explained to my yoga teacher Donita that her suggestions of lying in savasana (corpse pose, the quiet, relaxing pose at the end of a yoga practice) and concentrating on my breathing made me panic, she also treated me with the greatest respect for me, my body, my fears. We will start sitting up, she said. And, at first, we won’t change the breath. We will just watch it. Is it shallow or deep? Where does it go?
I told her that it was a new idea for me (in my psyche, not in my intellectual brain) that there was a me who was separate, who can watch the breath. As I sat, my back feeling the wall behind me, my tush grounded on the bolster, I found myself less frightened when I could hear Donita’s words. I could follow her instructions, and my mind had something to do, besides panic. I could then feel the panic in my chest and arms: Look! It has shape, form, location. And perhaps I, too, here, am separate from my panic.
As I lay in savasana, I searched for a way to stay relaxed. Those who teach meditation often speak about the way our minds wander as “monkey mind,” and say we must just, over and over and over again,” bring the mind back to the meditative state. But my monkey mind makes me fearful, not just restless. And so, I began to chant, softly, in my head:
Elohai neshama she’natata bi, t’hora hi
אלוהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה הי
Breathe in: “Elohai neshama O Gd, the soul”
Hold gently: “she’natata bi that you have given me”
Breathe out: “t’hora hi. Is a pure one.”
My mind could not only concentrate, but the affirmation was crucial. I am not bad; I am not a failure. Something real is happening even if it is not yet clear what. But I can hear what my body is telling me, while also affirming its, and my, goodness: Gd has created me as “good, pure,” connected to Gd. I can use the words as a mantra; I can concentrate on the words to reassure me while my body expresses its fear. I honor both at the same time. Slowly, Donita, my teacher, and I progress. Slowly, my therapist and I peel back the layers of defenses to find layers of hurt and pain. And I keep breathing, in an out. It is something I can do.
Sometimes the mantra changes:
Breathe in: “Kol Haneshama All who breathe”
Breathe out: T’hallel Yah praise Gd.”
And pause: “Halleluyah.”
Or perhaps the translation might be: “Every breath praises Gd.” Which is what I remind myself. I am still broken, so broken my very breath is as yet unhealed. And yet I can praise Gd, simply by breathing. In and out. The miracle of it all.