Songs are often more than music, but also the embodiment of ideas and ideals. We can all think of such works. Some inspire us, while others simply tell the story of a certain time or people. The most powerful songs do both. In this light, let’s look at a verse from a popular Jewish song from a generation ago and at the educational idea it contains. Feel free to sing along.
“But dear malach’l no, I don’t want to go, there is so much pain and evil, upon the earth below. Let me stay here up in heaven, where it’s safe and I’ll be pure, please don’t make me go away, can’t you see I’m so afraid.”
The basic message of these lyrics, taken from the Journeys song “Neshomele,” is an important one. Life is full of experiences that desensitize us to spiritual pursuits and that make living a purposeful life challenging. On the other hand, life presents a tremendous opportunity to accomplish, grow, and live purposely. Being aware of this tension is essential, and our job is to be sensitive to both aspects of spirituality.
However, with apologies to Abie Rotenberg, I think the lyrics of this song (when taken literally), contain a potentially risky depiction of the Jewish soul. To be clear, my goal here is not to criticize a beloved song or songwriter. As I mentioned earlier, the message of the song is paramount (and also based on statements from Chazal). However, for many of us, the imagery used by the song is identifiable as part of our education and by extension, part of our consciousness (whether we know this song or not). The place of the “Neshomele Parable” in chinuch is what I’d like to discuss.
Educators and public speakers commonly present the Jewish soul as a gift that comes with instructions: Keep pure, wash with teshuva and mikva water, and return to God when finished. We are expected to keep our souls as pure as possible by avoiding exposure to anything that isn’t holy. Any experience involving “impure” elements damages our souls, and therefore represents an attack on our responsibility to God.
I believe that this representation creates unrealistic expectations and ignores other aspects of human personality. If one is so concerned with the purity of my soul, what happens when it gets dirty? What if it gets filthy? The amount of guilt and despair that a person might experience is scary. How can you live with yourself if constantly carrying around your failure to protect your soul? One cannot unsee what has been seen nor unexperience what has already been experienced. Makes it easy to give up trying.
Additionally, when viewing the soul through such a lens, actions and experiences become binary; either something is good for your soul or it isn’t. Thinking this way is not healthy. Sometimes you need a movie to wind down or to hang out with “old friends” because you miss them. Yes, these experiences might make you feel spiritually desensitized, but they also might make you happy. General mental health should be an important value to everyone, a value that is challenged if you view every moment as carrying the weight of the world.
Yes, we are all fortunate to have souls; they steer us to want to be good God-fearing people. Some experiences will dull this desire, and some will enhance it. However, protecting our sense of the divine cannot be the overwhelming concern when making decisions. Ultimately, our actions define us, and our actions are products of factors of which the “cleanliness of our souls” is but one. Let’s give a break to ourselves, to our family members, and to those who look to us for guidance. We all may actually turn out to be holier for it.
Yair Daar teaches Gemarah and Tenach at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. Comments can be left at chinuchadventures.blogspot.com
By Yair Daar