Rav Mordechai Druk zt”l of Yerushalayim used to tell the story of an eighty-year-old man who was overheard reciting Krias Shema before retiring for the night. He said the parshiyos of Shema followed by the other chapters of the bedtime recital in the normal manner. Then he got up to Hamalach Hago’el, and that’s when it got interesting.
When he got to the end of Hamalach, they heard him saying, “…veyidgu larov b’kerev ha’aretz – ah brocha oif dein keppaleh.”
“Why did you say that?” they asked him.
The man shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s how my mother always said it with me.”
When Rav Druk would say this, everyone always laughed at this point. After all, picture an eighty-year-old fellow saying Shema the way we say it with our little two-, three-, and four-year-old children! Yes, after Hamalach, we may conclude by wishing our little boy or girl “ah brocha oif dein keppaleh,” a brocha on your sweet little head. We surely would never expect that sweet little child to still recite it that way at eighty years of age!
“We’re laughing,” Rav Druk would say, “because this fellow is still reciting Shema in the same manner as he did as a little child. Are we any different, though?” he would challenge us. “True, we don’t add ‘ah brocha oif dein keppaleh’ anymore. But has our understanding of Shema changed much since we recited is as children? Do we know all the peirush hamilim, the meaning of all the words we recite? Have we learned any of the many explanations or the fascinating insights about the words and chapters of Krias Shema? Or are we little different than that old man, saying Shema with hardly any more understanding or appreciation of what we are saying than we had when we were two, three or four years old?”
Neshomah Shenosata Bi
That was classic Rav Druk, challenging us through the humorous and funny anecdotes he would have us laughing about.
The lesson, however, is one I thought about after seeing an amazing insight brought in the sefer Peleh Yoetz (Parshas Ha’azinu) regarding the brocha of Elokai Neshomah, which we recite each morning. Elokai Neshomah is such a special brocha that it is one of the first ones taught to us as children. We must ask ourselves, though, have we come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the brocha than we had back then? When was the last time we actually thought about what we were saying?
Rav Mordechai Dov Twersky, better known as Rav Mottele of Hornosteipel, asks a question in his sefer Peleh Yoetz. (This sefer should not be confused with the classic mussar sefer of the same name by Rav Eliezer Papo. This Peleh Yoetz was written by Rav Mottele, who was a son-in-law of the Divrei Chaim and a grandson of Rav Yaakov Yisroel Twersky, the Cherkasser. Rav Chaim Peretz Kanievsky, the Steipler’s father, was a chossid of the Cherkasser. When Rav Chaim Peretz’s first wife was niftar, he remarried upon the advice of Rav Mottele. When the couple was then blessed with a son, Rav Chaim Peretz named him Yaakov Yisroel after his rebbe, Rav Mottele’s grandfather, and it was that boy who grew up to be the Steipler.)
How do we daven, asks Rav Mottele, if we think for just a moment about what is going on? Here we are, speaking to Hashem, whose greatness is beyond anything we can even imagine, and we, after all, are nothing but lowly beings with desires, cravings and all sorts of less-than-complimentary impulses. We know – even if no one else does – of the things we’ve done and the thoughts and feelings we’ve entertained.
How can we then muster the audacity to daven, to speak to and address Hakadosh Boruch Hu, Who is the essence of everything good and pure?
The answer, explains Rav Mottele, lies in the brocha of Elokai Neshomah, as explained by the Arizal. We say every morning, “Elokai, neshomah shenosata bee tehorah hee – The soul that You placed within me is pure.” Every person is aware of their own shortcomings, however, so how can we honestly say – each and every morning – that our neshomah is still pure?
“Ha’emes, the truth,” says the Arizal, is that our neshamos are a “cheilek Eloka mima’al mamish… Our neshamos come from Hashem Himself, v’ein shum pegam nogei’a lo, and nothing whatsoever can affect its purity. True, our bodies are lowly earthly beings. Each and every one of us has a neshomah, however, which Hashem gives us when we are born, and which is most definitely not of this world. Since its Source is Hashem Himself, its purity is untouchable.
Even if we sin, even if we so embrace our physicality that we feel as if we’ve completely extinguished any spiritual essence we once had, all that we’ve done, explains the Arizal, is that we’ve blocked the light of our neshamos. The light itself is still there, as pure and as brilliant as it ever was. We have not – and we cannot – touch that light, even to dim it in the slightest. We can block it, we may not feel or be in touch with our neshamos, but every Yid has a neshomah placed within by Hashem Himself, whose purity is untouchable.
Thus, says Rav Mottele, “al derech zeh yuchal kol adam lehispalel.” Every person, no matter whom, can daven to Hashem once they realize that it’s their neshomah that is addressing Hashem, and our neshamos are “tehorah hee,” they are pure and good and wonderful regardless of where our physical beings happen to be at this time.
No wonder we begin our tefillos with this brocha! It’s the understanding of “tehorah hee” that allows us to go on with the rest of davening. It is that declaration that enables us to address Hashem throughout the rest of the day, whenever we feel the need or desire to turn to Him. No one is too low, too far gone, to turn to Hashem, because no matter where we are or what we’ve done, we still have a pure and unsullied neshomah within us.
Half G-d, Half Dirt
I once heard from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky about a certain boy who managed – bit by bit and after traveling a difficult road – to turn his life around. He once confided to Rabbi Orlofsky what it was that gave him the initial push, and then the continued strength, to pick himself up from the very bottom where he found himself, without hope, without optimism and with hardly even caring, and begin bringing meaning into his life every day.
In a speech describing how Hashem created man, Rabbi Orlofsky had told how Hashem had taken a lump of earth, fashioned a man out of it, and then breathed a soul into him, thus giving him life. Each one of us, Rabbi Orlofsky had gone on to explain, are thus half dirt and half G-d. Our physical being is nothing more than earth. We’re just mud. Our soul, however, is nothing less that the breath of G-d Himself!
Sometime later, the boy found himself thinking about what he’d heard. He definitely didn’t think that he was in touch with his spiritual side. “So is that all I am, then?” he asked himself. “Am I just dirt? After all, what makes me anything more than dirt?”
A part of him rebelled, though. “I’m not dirt! Come on. I am a person. There has to be more to me than just dirt!”
“But if I’m not just dirt,” his thoughts ran on, “then how am I more than dirt?”
He realized that he needed to at least pay some attention to the other part of himself, his soul. Thus began his slow climb up the ladder of a meaning-infused life.
We all begin our day with Elokai Neshomah. Tomorrow morning, try to stop for just one moment when you say the words “tehorah hee.” It’s talking about you! It’s talking about your neshomah, no matter who you are.
Sometimes we feel like, “Hey, I’m just not this ruchnius-focused person. I’m not a rebbetzin type, or the kind of person who uses a spare minute to whisper a tefillah, who says a brocha out loud, or who does those extra-nice things. I’m just a regular guy. Of course, I try not to do anything wrong, but more than that? That’s just not me.”
Then remember that “neshomah shenosata bee, tehorah hee.” Our neshomah is no less special than the neshomah of the “rebbetzin-type” or the “kollel avreich-type.” Could it be that our neshomah would like it if we just happened to say this brocha a tiny drop slower? Could it be that our neshomah – the one we each have, no matter who we are – would be okay with us doing that little bit of extra something to add meaning to our day?
It just might be!