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Poetry of exile: Andrei Codrescu

Elohai Neshama

The beginning of my morning prayer practice is a tangible one. I withdraw my prayer shawl from its bag and wrap myself in its rich weave. I remove my tefillin from their plush velvet case, unwind and unbox each one, and twine their retzuot (straps) around my arm and head, blessing the act of connection they both symbolize and embody. And then I move inward, from focus on the body to focus on the spark of holiness that animates me, with the elohai neshama blessing: "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure..." I follow Sephardic custom in placing the blessing for the soul immediately after the blessing for the body; I like the way that ordering implicitly teaches that the two go together.

Jews, as Reb Goldie Milgram has observed, aren't weighed down by the baggage of original sin. "We pray," she writes, "with the awareness that any shmutz that gets onto our soul is of our own doing, that each day can be lived from the place of a refreshed pure white page in the Torah of our lives." Taken against the backdrop of mainstream American (read: Christian) theology, that's a pretty radical notion. The elohai neshama blessing asserts that I am not broken. I may stray from the path; I may blind myself to blessing; I may close my eyes to the All, Who permeates creation; but these are my mistakes, and I can fix them.

And every morning I remind myself of this truth by asserting that the soul granted to me is pure. Pure like the cleanest air you can imagine, air that electrifies the lungs, air through which you can see the immeasurable span of the Milky Way. Pure like a stream that's never known pollution. Pure like the chartreuse of new leaves, a color so intense it startles the eyes. Like an unadulterated flavor, my soul is solely itself -- and a reflection of the One, refracted through the prism of creation. My soul is essence of me, and the liturgy teaches me that its most fundamental quality is its purity. No matter how I miss the mark in my daily undertakings, every morning I begin again clean: thankful for my body and my breath, the part of me that's bounded and the part of me that sips from infinity, as pure as pure can be.

The Spanish kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla conceptualized Jewish worship as a ladder leading toward God. The opening blessings of the morning service are the first rungs we climb each day. I think there's something to be learned from the fact that we begin our ascent by blessing body and soul. The asher yatzar and elohai neshama blessings are how we plant our feet squarely, in order to begin a new day's reaching toward God.

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