Jeremiah 34:8–22, 33:25–26
In his commentary on Parashat Mishpatim, Rashi describes our souls being drawn upward to God as the day fades into night. In some elevated celestial place, our souls pour themselves out before God, reflecting on the eventful day that has passed and the choices we have made:
“God says: How much do you owe Me? See for yourself — your soul ascends to Me every night and gives an accounting of its actions — you are beholden to Me! And yet, I return it to you every morning.”
It is a mini Yom Kippur of sorts. It is as if God says, “You have erred today, and therefore you owe me — you must rightfully restore the balance.” Yet God is compassionate and relents, giving us another chance, sending us back down from the celestial heights to start a new day. This seems to happen faithfully every night: Our soul darts up to heaven and then is gratefully restored to us when we awake to a new day.
How does Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, associate this spiritual idea with the considerable civil, moral and religious law that fills this week’s Torah portion? He identifies significant meaning in the doubling of a word in the following verse: “If you take in pledge, yes, pledge, the cloak of your neighbor, before the sun comes down, return it to him, for it is his only clothing”(Exodus 25:22).
Here is a case where perhaps on a warm day, the poor borrower has left his sole outer protective garment as collateral with the lender. If he doesn’t get his cloak back, he will have no covering to protect himself at night. Regardless of what the borrower owes the lender, the Torah demands that the cloak be returned before sundown.
From the striking repetition of the word “pledge,” Rashi derives that the pledge, or collateral, almost bounces between borrower and lender, depending on the cycle of the transaction, the status of the borrower and the time of day. The pledge comes and the pledge goes. And he associates this biblical law with our relationship with God.
Our soul is the only soul we have. No matter how much we may owe God, each morning God returns our soul to us to begin a new day.
Rashi’s comment reminds me of Modeh Ani, the first prayer we say upon rising in the morning: I give thanks before you, eternal and living ruler for You have graciously returned my soul within me. This prayer heightens our awareness that indeed, some people go to sleep and don’t wake up. The Hebrew words “modeh ani” mean “I give thanks.” When we awake, it is as if we have received another “pledge,” another opportunity to start over, to strive again to be a better person. Each morning we have been granted life anew.
At the end of the day, our souls may be weary. But Modeh Ani reminds us that our souls are returned to us not in the state in which we went to sleep, but rather in a better state — spiritually recharged for a new day.
Neshama, the Hebrew word for “soul,” has the same root as the Hebrew word “to breathe.” When we receive our spiritually recharged souls back in the morning, we are able to exhale out into the world. We share our soul through our breath. Without our breath, our soul departs our body — it is the essence of life.
What breath are we going to share with the world today? Can we give thanks for our soul being restored to us and for our breath being recharged for a new day?
And in our relationships with each other, do we remember to return the cloak before sundown, regardless of what others owe us? Do we recognize the needs of the person standing before us and have compassion for him or her, just as God had compassion on us by granting us life?
When we put our heads down on the pillow tonight, may we be blessed with another return of our pledge and a refreshed soul to face a new day.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at email@example.com.