Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 – Becoming Like What We Love

By Rabbi David

Shanah tovah!  It’s sweet and good to be with you again.

In our continuing High Holy Day journey of the soul, we’re lifting through tradition’s five spheres of soul.  On Erev Rosh Hashanah, we grounded in the action-soul we call nefesh in a world that urgently needs our action.  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we lifted into the flowing heart-soul of emotion we call ruach to harness the power of our feelings.

Today on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, we reach the soul sphere of neshamah, which is the word we most often translate as the English for “soul.”  We might hear others say, “That one is such a gutte neshamah” – such a “good soul.”  It’s the same word that our morning liturgy invokes for the soul of who we really are: אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (“My God!  The neshamah/soul You gave to me: pure is she!”).

Neshamah is our soul sphere of identity – how we know ourselves, our highest selves, along with the ideas and images that shape identity.  That’s why neshamah is the soul sphere of the mind, capital ‘M.’  Our mind-soul is today’s topic for exploration and purification.

“Mind” doesn’t mean cognition and thinking.  The mind-soul of neshamah is our storehouse of ideas and images that shape, and are shaped by, our actions and feelings.  That’s how the neshamah stores our inner sense of body-action-heart-mind that we call our identity.

And to begin understanding the neshamah‘s part in our journey of the soul, let’s talk about dogs.  Yes, dogs.

A 2013 article in The Atlantic reported that humans and their dogs tend to resemble each other.  Their resemblance runs from the physical to the behavioral.  One reputable scientific study after another confirms this truth across dog breeds, human cultures, genders and age groups.  So if you’ve ever walked down the street or in a park, and felt like you’re seeing canine Mini-Mes, it’s not just in your head.

Of course, it is also in your head.  And if you’ve never encountered the idea that humans and their dogs tend to resemble each other, you might never get it out of your head ever again.  You might go around looking at dogs and their humans for resemblance.  If this starts happening to you with increasing frequency and at inconvenient moments, I apologize.

But yes, it is partly in our head.  And one way to refine our journey into the neshamah is to ask why we and our dogs tend to resemble each other.  Science offers all kinds of theories.  There’s the law of attraction: like attracts like.  There’s the psychology of narcissism, by which we humans surround ourselves with images of ourselves in people, things and even pets we take into our lives.  There’s the biology of symbiosis, by which dogs evolve to get along with humans so well that we’ll love them like family.  There’s even a medical theory called “kiss contagion.”  Doctors have found – yes, folks actually studied this! – that humans tend to swap more saliva with their dogs than their romantic partners, and it’s this shared bacterial biome that shapes how humans and dogs become like each other.  If you have a dog, you know just what I mean.

What does any of this have to do with Rosh Hashanah, our journey of the soul, and the neshamah we call the mind-soul?

Humanity’s love affair with dogs is just one example of a universal spiritual truth: we tend to become like what we love.  Love is so powerful that it often re-shapes us in the image of what we love.  In turn, we can refine our neshamah mind-soul of identity by seeing clearly what we love and how.  In this way, our love is a mirror by which to see our own soul.

Consider what you love – both who and also what.  Consider how you are and what you do for who and what you love.  Consider how you change as a result, becoming a bit like the image of your beloved.

Our loves tend to be mixed bags.  Hopefully most of our loves are healthy and nourishing, arousing safety and comfort, satisfaction and pride.  Other loves are unhealthy, unsafe, controlling or exhausting.  By deeply asking how our love is, we can do a gut check on our neshamah.

All spiritual traditions know that love’s power to transform us can be healthy or unhealthy.  Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, taught it 900 years ago with a metaphor from the Book of Proverbs: כמים הפנים לפנים (“As water [reflects] face to face”) כן לב האדם לאדם (“so the heart [connects] person to person”).

Let’s imagine a still pond.  Imagine the water, and imagine a reflection of the sky in the water.  If the water is still, we see the reflection clearly – so clearly that water and sky can seem to merge.  The images of water and sky become like each other.  But if the water gets roiled, the sky will look distorted, taking on the roiled image of the water below.

So too with love and the neshamah.  When we love clearly, cleanly and without roiling, we and our beloved can ease some of our own crisp individuality in healthy ways.  Love then can transform us in the image of our love in those healthy ways.  That love brightens our neshamah.

If this imagery feels esoteric, let’s use more direct language, this time from Catholic tradition.  Claire of Assisi, spiritual partner of Francis of Assisi, lived in Italy during the 1200s, a century after Rabbeinu Tam.  Claire later was named a saint and her name inspired the name of the Cuban city of Santa Clara, where some of us will celebrate a Bat Mitzvah in a few weeks.  Like Rabbeinu Tam, Claire understood love to be so powerful that it can re-shape us in the image of our love.  She wrote these words that became part of today’s Haftarah poetry:

We become what we love: who we love shapes what we become.
If we love things, we become a thing.
If we love nothing, we become nothing.
Imitation is not to mimic but to become our image of our beloved,
an image disclosed through our own transformation.

We know intuitively the truth of these words.  If we love things, we become like things.  That’s the unbridled materialism, workaholic and social climbing that drive us to seek status.  We then mis-focus our lives, but even more, our lives take on the image of our mis-focus, like roiled pond waters, reflecting confusion and chaos.  Alternatively, if we love nothing, we become as nothing: our lives become dull and lifeless.

It’s easy to point fingers of spiritual diagnosis – and there are lots of directions to point in these days of materialism, status and things.  It’s more challenging to point inward.  We can use humor to ease the point: we can half-joke that we so love our dogs that we resemble them – and it’s true!  But joking aside, our neshamah journey into our love – and the images we become of our beloved – ask truth, depth and height.

Neshamah wouldn’t have it any other way.  The soul, always pure, knows that truth, depth and height are what we’re really about.  It’s who we really are naturally.  R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that just as sunflowers are heliotropic, naturally turning toward the sun across the sky, all of us and our neshamot are theotropic.  We naturally turn toward the love, meaning and power of transformation the soul associates with the One we call God.  And by that turning, that love, we can take on the image of our beloved (capital-‘B’ Beloved) we call God. In Claire’s words:

Our love becomes us: We take wing and fly,
becoming on that wind finally, finally,
God’s very own compassion in love for the world.

Now some in modern Judaism might object: How dare we claim that we can become like God!  Isn’t that chutzpah or, worse, idolatry?  It’s one thing to say that our journey of the soul can turn us toward God, that the neshamah links up with God.  It’s quite another to say that our journey of the soul is God, that our neshamah is God.

But that’s just what mystical tradition suggests.  Our journey of the soul is God.  Our neshamah is God.  Torah proclaims it outright: at Creation, we were designed b’tzelem Elohim (“in the divine image”).

But, the challenge continues, surely Torah’s words can’t mean what they say!  Torah also says that God has no image: Moses saw no image when he saw God at Sinai.  So how can we take on the image of God by loving a God that has no image?

If this feels like a neshamah brain teaser, it is: it’s our Talmudic forebears trying to refine their image of spiritual life amidst social change so jarring, so radical, that religion had to change.  We’re in much the same posture today, so Talmud’s reply to this puzzle can be instructive.

What Talmud’s rabbis imagined is that when we love God, we do indeed become like our image of God.   Our love can change us in the holy image of our Beloved – but not a physical image of God.  Rather, we follow after the image of God’s qualities (B.T. Sotah 14a).  This call to follow after God’s qualities is how tradition uplifts many core mitzvot – clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead and comforting the mourners.  We do these mitzvot and many others for two reasons.  One is in compassion and altruism for others.  The other is in love for God – such love for the image of God that is other people that we take on the qualities of a loving God who clothes, visits, buries and comforts.  As our love inspires us to holy action, we take on the image of the holy Beloved.

“Love for the image of God that is other people.”  “Love for the image of God that is another’s neshamah.”  That’s our journey of the soul.  As we learn to love other people in the image of God, we can take on the holy qualities of the capital-‘B’ Beloved we call God.  That is the essence of all true religion.  All the rest is commentary.

It’s a spiritually straightforward idea, so why all the commentary?  It’s because our neshamah gets smudged – like a dirty mirror, like roiled pond waters.  Our hurts and wounds project their images instead of the holy image of a God in whose image we all most truly are.  And because the neshamah is our storehouse, our hurts and wounds end up warping us.  Our love then can become unhealthy, controlling, addicted, distant or fearful – and that’s how we become in turn.

That is why this time of year calls us to look deeply into what we love and how we love – partly because loving is the essence of all true religion, and partly to help us refine our neshamah in our journey of the soul.  It’s in the neshamah – not just the ruach heart-soul of emotion but also the capital-‘M’ mind-soul of identity – that we become like what we love.  It’s in the neshamah that all our “stuff” – what we did or didn’t do, how we learned to carry our lives, how we learned to shrink and play it safe, how we learned to dare and grow – can shape our ways of loving.

We get one soul in this life, and this life is finite.  How will we use our one soul?  How will we live this one precious life?

Those are our neshamah questions.  As we first explored on Erev Rosh Hashanah at the nefesh level of action, all our ideas, words and feelings must flow into action.  Love is an action verb.  And our own inhibitions that hold back our love actions are smudges on our soul mirrors, waves from the roiling of our own inner waters.

That’s why it’s so important that we get real, that we take wise inner risks to get loving in real and healthy ways.  By this soul journey of truth and transformation for the sake of healthy love, by becoming in the best image of that most healthy love, we can clear our mirror of our own image.  We can calm the water.  No matter what we did or didn’t do, whatever vows we broke, even “a thousand times before,” “ours isn’t a caravan of despair,” says our Sufi master, Rumi.  No, our neshamah calls us into a love journey of hope, a soul journey of truth that acts in the world.  That’s how to transform with the holy qualities of our Beloved.

That is my prayer for all of us this Rosh Hashanah.  May each of us feel the Beloved that we call the Holy One of Blessing loving us into a clearing transformation of soul.  May each of us feel this love making it safe for us to stretch and change.  May each of us heed this call to come home to our neshamah, and respond in kind by loving anew in the world.

Come, come, whoever you are:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה,
נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

Come, come, whoever you are:
Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

Turn, turn, wherever you are:
Awaken, enlighten, renew your spirit.

שׁוֻב, שׁוֻב, הֵיכָן שֶׁאַתָּה,
מִתְּעוֹרֵר מִתְּעֲלֶה, חַדֵּשׁ אֶת נָפְשְׁךָ.

Turn, turn, wherever you are:
Ours isn’t a universe past repair.

שׁוֻב, שׁוֻב, הֵיכָן שֶׁאַתָּה:
עוֹד יָכוֹלִים לְתָּקֵן הָעוֹלָם.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows
a thousand times before –

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים
אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

And yet again, come again, come,
And yet again: come.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב, בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב: בּוֹא.

Subscribe To our Shul Newsletter

Subscribe To our Shul Newsletter

Sign up and learn about upcoming events, community news, and more.

Mazel Tov! You're signed up.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This