School sestina
The lull of Heshvan

Morning blessings for body and soul

At the end of our first liturgy class yesterday, we spent a short while looking at two blessings from the first part of the morning liturgy, the matched set of אשר יצר / asher yatzar ("Who formed the human body with wisdom...") and אלהי נשמה / elohai neshama ("My God, the soul that you have placed within me...") One blessing for the body, one for the soul: a matched set. (As the classical saying goes, tefilah bli kavanah, zeh kmo guf bli neshamah: "prayer without mindful intention is like a body without a soul.")

I've blogged about each of these blessings a little bit before, though it's been a couple of years since I last wrote about either. (Here: Sanctifying the body and Elohai neshama, both posts from 2005.) My classmates offered some beautiful insights about each of these prayers.

For instance, the blessing for the body uses the word חלולים / chalulim, "ducts" or "tubes" or "openings." (In context: "Who formed humans with wisdom and created a system of ducts and conduits within them.") A chalal is a flute, so this blessing evokes the ways in which our bodies are like flutes through which the ruach ha-kodesh ("holy spirit," more or less) flows. (I'm reminded of that Rumi poem I blogged just before last Yom Kippur, specifically the lines comparing us with instruments.)

Or, on the blessing for the soul: in speaking about the purity of the soul God breathed into each of us, this blessing does something gorgeous with onomatopoeia. Its string of feminine-ending words, each with an aspirated heh at the end, obligates us to focus on our own breath in order to articulate our words about God's breath, and in so doing to be mindful of the ways in which both we and God breathe holiness into the world. (That insight is courtesy of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.)

After class, I opened my borrowed copy of Birkhot HaShachar, the "Morning Blessings" volume in Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman's My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series. (Awesome and invaluable, by the way. I aspire to own all 10 volumes someday. For now, I rely on a local library.) A few of the commentaries arrayed around these classic prayers really struck me -- like this little excerpt from Kushner and Polen's Chasidism-rooted commentary on asher yatzar:

In addition to the obvious, and healthy, acknowledgment of the mystery of the physical body's organic processes, Jewish spiritual tradition also finds in this benediction the theme of our interaction with the outside world. In other words, it's more than merely organs that are open and closed; it's also a matter of what's inside and outside. We are encouraged to contemplate not only the body's internal rhythms, but how what is inside the body gets outside and vice versa. How do we enter into life-sustaining intercourse with the outside world while still maintaining a physiological boundary?

Meditating on my body's miraculous openings and closings, its boundaries and its permeability, becomes an opportunity to think about interior and exterior on personal, spiritual, and communal levels.

Or this, from Frankel's woman-oriented commentary on elohai neshamah:

Much has been written recently about our "inner child," the primal root of our psyche from which our later selves emerge, our intrinsic nature, our uncorrupted essence. In Judaism, this inner child is called our n'shamah, usually translated as "soul" but literally meaning "breath." This n'shamah is the image of God within us, incorruptible, deriving its life force from the divine breath. Here in this prayer, we acknowledge our status as debtors. One day God will reclaim our borrowed soul and then return it to us in some other form. The only we can repay our debt in this life is to offer thanks.

I'd never thought to connect the neshamah with the notion of the "inner child"...though I like the idea that this blessing serves to remind us that deep down we are holy and fundamentally whole, a quiet counter to the deeply un-Jewish notion of original sin.

In the Reform and Reconstructionist liturgies to which I am most accustomed, these two prayers come back-to-back, one right after the next. Body and then soul, like yin and yang pressed together. But in the traditional liturgy, something comes between them: the blessing for Torah study, with its little handful of texts for ritualized learning. Reb Sami asked us, at the close of class, to consider why that might be. Why separate the embodiment blessing and the blessing for the soul with the blessing for Torah?

Maybe the rabbis wanted to show us that Torah -- the revealed wisdom of the teachings we hold dear -- can be a link between body and soul. Body and soul each matter, but neither is sufficient alone. Torah helps us maintain mindfulness about our bodies, our souls, and the interconnections between them. Blessing our physical bodies is a good start to the day, important and necessary, since without them we wouldn't be here at all. Blessing our souls is likewise an important way to begin each morning; they are our animation, what makes us more than merely flesh. Torah, understood in its broadest sense, reminds us that each one is incomplete without the other; that both body and soul find their highest fulfillment when we live in a way that is aligned with what is wise and true.

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