Elohai – my God
Neshama sh’natatah bee t’horah hee
The soul that You have given me is pure.
Atah barata, Atah yatzarta, Atah n’fachta bee
You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me;
V’Atah m’shamra be’kirbee
You keep my body and soul together.
V’Atah atid litlah mimeni
One day You will take my soul from me,
U’l’hachazira bee leh-atid lavo
to restore it to me in life eternal.
Kol zman sh’ha-neshama v’kirbi
So long as this soul is within me
Modeh ani lefanecha Adonai Elohai valohai avotai
I acknowledge You, ADONAI my God, my ancestors’ God,
Ribon kol ha-maasim
master of all creation,
Adon kol haneshamot
sovereign of all souls.
Barukh atah ADONAI,
Praised are you Adonai
Hamahchazir n’shamot lifgarim mateem
who restores the soul to the lifeless body.
I begin my davening seven days a week with that powerful prayer. Its message is awesome, and it is a most appropriate text to examine at this Yizkor hour.
The prayer, taken from the first tractate of the Talmud, Berachot, is not a part of the official morning service. It is to be recited as a part of our preparation for morning prayers. It is paired with another prayer, the Asher Yatzar, which is said first. The Asher Yatzar thanks God for the physical functions of our body. This prayer, Elohai Neshama, reminds us that there is much more to our being than our physical selves.
You will find the English text of the prayer on the inside back page of your Yizkor booklet.
The very first line is exceptionally significant: – “My God, the soul which you have given me is pure.”
Not all religions accept this idea. As a matter of fact, the dominant religion here in America believes the very opposite. According to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, every human being is born into this world in a state of sin because of the fall of Adam and Eve and their disobedience in the first days of creation. This prayer emphasizes our rejection of that belief. Adam and Eve paid for their sins, and we can be held accountable for ours. In contrast to this doctrine, Judaism teaches that every human being enters the world free of sin, with a soul that is pure and innocent and untainted. Our task in life, and perhaps it is a mission impossible, is to keep it that way.
The prayers we recited today in our Machzor tell us that no one entirely succeeds in avoiding sin. That is what Yom Kippur is all about: recognizing that we have not lived up to the high standard God has set for us. We say that immediately before the Ashamnu confessional, “We are not so arrogant nor so brazen as to say before You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, that we are Tzadikim, that we are so righteous, and that we haven’t sinned because, in truth, we all have sinned.
The point of this Elohai Neshama prayer is that the sins we have committed are because we have fallen short, not because we were born with a sinful nature.
This prayer is for recitation in the morning, but I cannot see any harm is reciting it right now, this late in the afternoon. I am going to do that, and as I do, as I speak to God, I want you to listen in. My morning prayers are normally a very intimate encounter; not in the synagogue, not with a minyan, just God and me in the dinning room. But this afternoon, I invite you to join us.
Elohai Neshama sh’n’tata bee t’horah hee – God, I recognize that the soul you gave me 65 years ago, the soul you return to me each morning, is pure. Please, help me today. Help me be strong enough to keep it that way. It is not always easy to do.
Atah barata – You, God, created my soul, my essence, that part of You that is within me.
Atah yatzarta – You, God, formed it.
Atah n’fachta bee – You, God, breathed it into me.
With Your very own holy breath, you breathed into. I am awestruck that you would do that for me. How can I ever be worthy of that gift?
Atah m’shamra b’kirbee – God, You keep my body and soul together. I know that life is precarious; that each and every day is a gift, and that at any moment that gift can be snatched from me. I see many people in the hospital, people who are terribly ill. And I have learned how suddenly a serious medical condition can appear in a person’s life. Dark clouds can gather in a flash. Thank You God, for my good health, but I am well aware that there is no warranty on these body parts you have graciously given me. As the years pass, my body reminds me that nothing in this physical world is going to last forever. But my soul God, that is the bonus gift you gave me, and it does come with a guarantee, not only for this lifetime, but for the next as well. My Neshama doesn’t get weaker over the years; if anything, it grows stronger. Dear God, please how thankful I am to You for that gift. Dear God, give me the strength and wisdom to express that gratitude by keeping my soul as unsullied as I can.
God, I know that one day –I hope it is not too soon – I will be asked to return that beautiful Neshama you gave me. That is the way of the world. Rabbi Akiba taught in Pirke Avot, “Hakol natun b’ayravon – all is given as a trust.” That is not a happy thought; but I know it is the way Your world works. So God, as I thank You for the gift of this soul, I acknowledge that where it currently resides, in this body, is not a permanent address. So, I had better get busy. “Ha-yom katzar – the day is short,” “U’val habayit dochayk – and the Master is pressing us.” When the day comes and You demand your gift returned, I had better have it in good condition.
“U’lhachazira bee lah-atid lavo. And to restore it to me in life eternal.”
God, Your promise of a life after this one makes sense to me. There really must be something more, a place where justice will be done – because I am afraid I don’t see much justice in this world. Reading the newspaper is a painful ordeal. How can there be so much suffering and evil in Your world? How can it be that people so sully the pure souls You gave them? The hope I cling to is Your promise of Atid La-vo, a future world in which Your will reigns. I don’t know if I will see that world as soon as I leave this one, or I will have to wait for a better day in a far off future. But that hope, Your promise of Atid Lavo is what sustains me even in the darkest moments.
For all of that God, I pray “Kol Z’man sh’haneshama b’kirbi, modeh ani lefanecha.” “So long as this soul is within me I thank You.”
Adonai Elohai vay-lohai avotai “
You are not only “Adonai Elohai – my God” but you are also, “Elohai avotai – the God of my ancestors.” That puts a heavy burden on my shoulders because those who came before me set a very high bar.
My ancestors were quite a formidable clan. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were all great people, no doubt. So were Moses and Miriam, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Rabbi Akiva and Yochanan ben Zakai. But to be honest, at this Yizkor hour, my thoughts turn to other heroes: to Nanny and Papa, both sets, and to Mom and Dad, to Lisa’s parents, and to all the beautiful souls I remember today. My grandparents came to this new world with barely the shirts on their backs, and not a word of English in their vocabulary, and with incredible heroic strength that I cannot begin to fathom, they made a life, raised wonderful children, and taught me values I will always cherish. May I someday be a worthy ancestor to those who remember me.
God, you indeed are the One of whom I can say, “Hamahchazir n’shamot lifgarim mateem – You are the One who restores the soul to the lifeless body.” You restore life to my dear ones whom I remember today. You give them life in a better world, and You give them life through me. Each morning You restore life to my exhausted body and You help me face the day. Knowing that You have breathed your Image into me, knowing that my Neshama is Your gift to me, gives me the strength I need.
Modeh ani lefanecha. I thank you God. Rabah emunatecha. Indeed, Your faithfulness keeps me going.
We turn now to the Yizkor prayers on page 290.