According to the renowned author and speaker, Rabbi Harold Kushner, the Neshama or soul is that spark of divine essence, which separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. The soul, referred to in Hebrew using the words Neshama or Nefesh, enables our actions to be motivated by human responses such as compassion, love, passion, honor, hatred or respect, rather than by instinct or training. Our Neshama, therefore, is the mechanism that truly enables us to have free will.
Thus, in preparation for the High Holiday season we are mandated to undertake the audit of our soul, know as Heshbon ha Nefesh – to examine and evaluate our past performance in light of our plans and aspirations for the coming New Year.
If we think of the Neshama as God’s divine Ambassador that is posted with in each one of us, it is not surprising that our liturgy is full of references to our Nefesh or Neshama.
The liturgical concern for our soul is not limited to any specific season. Each day, we include in our preliminary prayers, even before the start of the public service, the passionate prayer dating back to Talmudic Times (Berachot60b), Elohai Neshama – ” My God the soul that you implanted with in me…” The text reflects the notion that at night time our soul returns to heaven when we sleep – perhaps for maintenance, only to be restored, God willing, in the morning when we awaken. Here is a stirring setting called Elokai Neshama by one of the greatest and best know Hazzanim of all times; Moshe Koussevitzky. Taken form an album entitled; Moshe Koussevitzky Earliest Recordings; a compilation of material originally recorded in Europe, this record was copyright 1967 by the Collectors Guild. The recording is part of a magnificent collection of Jewish Music Located at Florida Atlantic University, the Judaica Sound Archives.
Hallel is a collection of six Psalms (113-118), which are recited just prior to the Torah reading on festivals and other joyous occasions such as Rosh Hodesh – the new moon and Yom Ha Atzmaut – Israel Independence Day. On the intermediate days of Pesach and on Rosh Hodesh, only a partial form of Hallel that omits verses 1-11 of Psalm 115, as well as those identically numbered verses from Psalm 116 and the opening verses of psalm 117 is used. Despite some anachronistic references to events and styles of language, tradition attributes the authorship of the Psalms to King David. History records the use of Hallel in the context of the Passover Sacrifice and during the Seder at the time of the Second Temple. Rabbi Reuven Hammer in his brilliant commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom called Or Hadash looks at the presentation of themes expressed by the order of the psalms of Hallel as a “cantata:’
“To recapitulate briefly, the libretto of this ancient “Israel in Egypt” cantata is as follows:
(1) Praise God throughout the world for God’s mighty arts.
(2) When God took us from Egypt all nature rejoiced.
(3) We have turned to God in our distress and God answered us.
(4) Let us express our thanksgiving to God for rescuing us.
(5) Nations of the world, join us in praising God!
(6) We shall give thanks to the Almighty for rescuing us from our enemies in a great ceremony at the Temple”
Naturally, the purpose of Hallel is to offer songs of praise so many wonderful musical settings exist for the Hallel. For example, Hazzan Moshe Taube, a great artist and master of Cantorial art offers this heartrending setting of Psalm 116:1-11; Ahavti Ki Yismah… I Love knowing that God listens to the voice of my supplications…” The theme of this Psalm is Gods capacity to be with us in times of great peril or despair. Our Psalmist declares, “Ki Chilatzta Nafshi mi Mavet – You have delivered my soul from death.” The recording is also found the Judaica Sound Archives
Selichot, is a poignant collection of prayers of repentance and supplication that is recited for a week preceding Rosh Hashanah in the Ashkenazi community and for an entire month by the Sephardim. In most Ashkenazi synagogues, the beginning of the period of Selichot is marked by a special late night service held on the Saturday evening preceding Rosh Hashanah. Although many of these prayers originate from earlier times, the first collection of Selichot can be found in the Siddur of the great Ninth Century sage, Rav Amram. Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld in his comprehensive, annotated compendium of Selichot prayers notes that some of these moving supplications date as far back as the seventh century of the Common Era. One of the first Selichot, found in most compilations concludes with the phrase “Ha Neshama Lach V’Ha Guf Polach – the soul is Yours and the body is the product of Your labor…” Comprised of a compilation of biblical verses from books such as Psalms and Job, this passage forms part of a Selichot poem know as L’Chu N’Rannah. As an introduction to the sprit of the High Holidays, this ode works extremely well and as such is the subject of many magnificent musical compositions. The notion that it is our responsibility to maintain and guard from harm the body our Creator fashioned for us in order to house a soul that is in essence, part of God, is presented clearly by the author of this prayer. Here is a setting of L’Chu N’Rannah by the great Hazzan Leib Glanz, taken from his appropriately entitled CD collection, The Man Who Spoke To God.
Perhaps the cornerstone of the High Holiday service is the brilliant Piyut (liturgical poem), Un’tane Tokef. One of the most poignant and moving prayers of the Holidays, Un’taneh Tokef is attributed to the 10th Century Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Rabbi Amnon, after refusing the Archbishop’s invitation to convert, was brutally mutilated. Amnon’s last wish was to be brought to the synagogue where, with his last breath, he uttered this stirring composition and then expired. Three days later, according to the legend, Rabbi Amnon, in a dream, dictated this Piyut to the poet, Meshullam ben Kallonymus who wrote down the Un’taneh Tokef prayer. Un’tane Tokef places God on a continuum between the Celestial, Omniscient Judge who weighs our bad deeds against our good deeds and records His verdict in the Divine book of life and the compassionate Sheppard who lovingly watches over His flock. As a true Sheppard, God “counts and considers Nefesh Kol Chai – every living soul.” In its concluding portion, this outstanding elegy points to the frailty of human life and the reassurance that God will always accept us if we turn to Him, even up to the very last second. Hazzan Louis Danto, the internationaly renowned Bel Canto tenor from Toronto Canada recorded a stirring setting by the great composer and arranger of synagogue music, Leo Low of the second section of Un’tane Tekef known as “U’Vashofar Gadol – and the Great Shofar.’ Low’s composition was performed together with Hazzan Danto’s Beth Emeth Synagogue choir while on tour in Florida in 1998. This selection can be found on a Two CD set of Danto’s live recordings entitled, A Life of Music. I must say this has great significance to me as I am an alumnus of the Beth Emeth Choir and a huge fan of Hazzan Danto who I always will consider to be my Hazzan.
The Musaph service for Rosh Hashanah as I mentioned in a previous post (follow the link to see it in its entirety), is unique among all services of the year in that the Amidah contains three extra Brachot. Each of these Brachot is comprised of a selection of verses drawn from all parts of the Hebrew Bible, which are woven together in a fabric of poetic prayer. As always, the Brachot are concluded with a Chatima, or “Seal”, a section of prayer that summarizes the themes of the particular blessing. Because of the poignancy and enduring significance of the three added Brachot of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, they have been the subjects of many musical treatments throughout the ages. Our talented composers and Hazzanim endeavor to express the deep meaning of these prayers through music. The sounding of the Shofar is used to delineate each of these prayer sections.
M’loch Al Kol Ha’olom is the opening phrase of the paragraph that introduces the Chatima of the Malchiyot, the first special Bracha of Rosh Hashanah Musaph. In this fascinating prayer, the author refers to humanity as “kol Asher Nishama B’apo… – all who draw breath.” In this context, the author employs the Hebrew word “Nishama” for “breath”, this is the word we have been translating as “soul.” Reminiscent of the biblical account of the creation of our very first ancestors, when God “breathes” a soul into a lump of clay so that it becomes a human being, this usage reminds us that our Neshama is the Breath of God that flows through us. Hazzan Moshe Ganchoff, the great Hazzan, inspired composer artist and master teacher of Cantorial art, recorded this outstanding setting of M’loch Al Kol Ha’olom, in his release, The Music Of Zeidel Rovner.
From the moment we awaken in the morning we are cognizant of the wonderful Neshama that is our gift from God. The more we are mindful of our Neshama; the more we take time to nurture and care for our Neshama; the more we can feel the presence of God in all aspects of our lives. When we despair, when we feel angry or alone or abandoned or frustrated; in moments of great elation or deep sorrow, we learn from the authors of our prayers to take the opportunity to feel the spark of divine essence flowing through our beings in the form of the Neshama that God plants within us. We gather as a community during the High Holiday season to wholeheartedly seek God. As we spend time in prayer, contemplation and supplication, our liturgy guides us through the process of taking stock of our Neshama, of finding a path that will help it to lead us to fulfillment, redemption and growth and finally to re-energizing our Neshama as we enter the new year.
Best wishes to all for a year of blessing, peace and fulfillment; Shannah Tovah!