By Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields
Executive Director, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism
On Rosh Hashanah, while introducing a prayer, my rabbi suggested that, perhaps, instead of asking people, “How are you?” reword what you ask, and say, “How is it by your soul?” Or “How is your soul today?” Ever since then, I have been contemplating the difference in the question, “How are you?” and “How is your soul today?” and the degree to which the answer to those two questions can be very different, and yet also very related, and interconnected. Think about how often people may ask you “How are you?” and how often you might ask the same question. Do we wait to really listen to the answers? Do we remember how the person truly responds? Do you answer differently depending on who is asking you? Do you listen differently depending on whom you are asking? I try to listen to everyone. I also know that, if I think honestly, when I ask the train conductor how he is, and when I ask my son how he is, I will listen and retain the information differently.
Now, think about if the train conductor asked me, or I asked the train conductor, “How is it with your soul today?” That question, to me, asks a very personal, and deeper, question. How often do people even think about their soul? People may only contemplate the concept of the soul, when related to death. But our soul always lives, and so we need to nurture our soul every day. Soul in Hebrew can be translated as our neshama נשמה, or nefesh נפש, or ruach רוח . I think the best word to use is neshama, which is very similar to the word for breath or breathing, nishema נשימה. When someone gives a deep sigh, just that sound, causes one to exhale, and give out a breath. When most people breathe, we do not hear them, but a sigh creates sound. Usually, if I hear someone sigh, it means they have something on their mind. Their soul may feel unsettled. When one sighs, one often has come to a conclusion, or needs to reach a decision. A sigh can be an unsettling feeling, or it can be that one finally feels settled. These breaths, these sighs, can influence how one’s soul is doing.
Truly think about it – how is your soul today? Do you feel a connection to God? To Nature? To other people? Do you feel there is a connection between your soul and God? Are you in conversation with God, and have a warm feeling, or do you feel like you want to argue with God? Does your health, which may be about the answer to “How are you?” related to how you are relating to God today? So, then, the answer to “How is your soul today?” is influenced by your physical well-being. When you appreciate your health, and it is good, do you answer, “How are you?” positively, and also think in positive terms to the question, “How is your soul today?”
In my personal experience, if I am in a good place in life – happy, content, all are well, my soul is usually well-nourished, as well. If there is some discontent taking place – whether internally or externally, physically or emotionally, if I am having some theological issues, and questioning things that perhaps I have no control over, and try to think that God is more in control of, I may not be as calm in my soul. And, when that happens, if I am worried, nervous, or do not feel settled in my soul, I turn to the words of a prayer recited before L’Cha Dodi on Friday night, called Ana B’Koach, a poem which portrays the 72 names of God, composed in the First Century CE by the great Kabbalist Rabbi Nehonia.
Ana bekoach, g’dulat yemincha, tatir tz’rura;
Kabel rinat amcha sagveinu, tahareinu nora;
Please, by the great power of your right hand, O set the captive free;
Revered God, accept your people’s prayer; strengthen us, cleanse us.
The word “God,” nor other normative names of God, do not appear in the prayer, perhaps providing us a way to connect and relate to God, beyond the name. Perhaps seeing that we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and so, whatever may be troubling our soul, God and our inner self, the God-like part of each of our beings, can help our soul heal and feel strong. Ana B’Koach, is like a mantra I sing to myself, or sometimes out loud. Here is a link to the melody I like to use: https://www.neohasid.org/audio/ana/AnaBeKhoachYakar.mp3. It calms me, provides comfort to my soul, and brings me into a state to be in conversation and relationship with God. What have you done for your soul today? How is your soul today?