Artwork by Nishima Kaplan. Used here with permission of the artist.

The Soul You Have Given Me (And The Spirits, Too)…

I grew up and live now in New Orleans. When people think of religion in New Orleans, they might think of the large Catholic community, or Christianity in general and big gothic-style churches; or maybe of voodoo, or even of the psychics and tarot card readers waiting in the French Quarter. One thing is certain — religion and spirituality is in the air. As a spiritual Jewish woman, working as education director at my synagogue, religion and spirituality focused conversations feel like home to me, and recently I had yet another reminder of how teaching, learning, religion and spirituality are all interconnected.

One of the Jewish daily morning prayers includes the line: “Elohai neshama shenatata be t’horah he. Ata b’ratah, ata y’tzartah, ata n’fachtah be,” meaning: “My God, the soul You have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, and You breathed it into me.” Jewish people do not believe in the Christian concept of original sin; we believe that every soul is born pure, and this prayer is a daily reminder of that belief.

Last week a young man in the process of converting to Judaism asked me a great question: “If Jews believe that every soul is born pure, do Jews also believe that it is possible to keep a soul totally pure?”

I gave him the “easy” answer which is that we are born with pure souls, and then given free will – and then also a guidebook filled with commandments, because we are not naturally capable of remaining pure. We need guidance to know how to behave, and how to repent when we transgress. We then moved on to other subjects, but ever since then, his question has been still in the back of my mind as I kept feeling like something was missing from my answer.

I discussed this question with a couple of my rabbi friends and yes, I absolutely had left something out! Something that has to do with spirits — not those floating around in a voodoo story, but those inside ourselves.

We are born with a pure soul, AND given free will, AND given the Torah as a guidebook—and on top of that, we have within each of us Yetzer haTov (good inclination) as well as Yetzer haRa (evil inclination). And the thing is, though we think of them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – we need both inclinations, both sides of our own spirit. We need them both, along with free will, in order to have the human experience!

Through my discussions I learned more about the Yetzer haRa. Advancing the human condition could not happen without our drive to compete and excel, stemming from Yetzer haRa. This inclination drives us to be better, faster, stronger and to build, compete, and conquer, and… yes, to sin. We learn so many more lessons from failure than success and we build our lives stronger by our failures.

Our Yetzer haTov reigns in much of our inclination to sin, and encourages us to do the right thing most of the time. Our Yetzer haTov propels us to repair and repent for our sins when we fail. It is the side of our spirit we should want to dominate us—but it needs its wild twin, Yetzer haRa, to teach us about being human.

My initial answer to that young man was fine, it was simply not complete. As always, my students push me to continue learning and thinking and imagining how to understand Jewish concepts more fully, for my students’ sake as well as my own. From down here in New Orleans to wherever you’re living and learning, may we be reminded daily that there is always more to learn.

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