It's in Your Essence 

By: Chloe Baker  |  May 26, 2024

By Chloe Baker, Features Editor 

At the core of our being lies our neshama (soul); I can picture it now, a little flame that exists in the center of our chest, right by our heart. As I sat in a classroom last year on one of the first days in seminary, my rabbi said to my class, “Take out a piece of paper, I want you to draw your soul.” At the time, I was baffled. How do I draw something that I’ve never seen, and will never see, with my own eyes? I was slightly concerned by my rabbi’s creative demand, but I sat at the desk, took out some colored pencils and a piece of lined paper and began to ponder what I would draw. After staring at a clock and trying to plan my escape from this weird activity, I gave in and started to draw. The final product was a yellow and orange circle and in it contained a Magen David, a drawing of my family in stick figures, a tree and a pink heart to symbolize love – all things that I hold dear to me. Being Jewish, my incredible family, love, and nature.

Though this artistic activity felt a little strange and left me embarrassed of my artistic abilities, it prompted profound questions about the nature of the neshama – what it truly is and its significance in our lives. More broadly, it left me wondering: what does it really mean to be a Jew and to have such a special entity inside of me? My understanding deepened through each special moment I experienced later that year, such as singing “Am Israel Chai” at the gates of Auschwitz, admiring the beauty of Jerusalem as I completed a 10K, celebrating Yom Haatzmaut in Israel, and even through interacting with everyday people. Each of these moments, along with many hours I spent learning the Sefer Tanya, amplified for me the power of the Jewish neshama, and our connection to Hashem. 

The Sefer Tanya is based on the verse “Ki karov eilecha hadvar meod, beficha uvilvacha lasoto,” meaning “For this matter is very near to you, it is in your mouth and heart to fulfill it.” The Alter Rebbe (the first Rebbe of Chabad and the author of the Sefer Tanya) teaches that this phrase means fulfilling mitzvos with our heart is straightforward and close to us, because it stems from our inherent connection to Hashem. This connection to Hashem is something that every Jew possesses. Our neshama, described as “a part of G-d above,” which resides inside us, serves as the conduit for this connection. 

This power of the Jewish neshama has been shown to me continuously over the past couple of months, but was amplified recently when I heard a story from a rabbi in my seminary about a “secular” IDF soldier who was killed while serving in combat in Gaza. His family came from a secular kibbutz and wanted nothing to do with religion. When he died, his family got a call from a rabbi inquiring if there was anything he could do to help arrange for a halachic burial. The family told the rabbi no. They didn’t want anything to do with religion, and hung up the phone. Hours later, the rabbi got a call back from the family. It was minutes before the burial was supposed to take place and they decided that they wanted it to be halachic. The rabbi undoubtedly agreed to help them out, but he asked what changed their minds, as just hours earlier they had given him a firm no, stating that they didn’t want his help. The parents told the rabbi that their son’s friend came home with his bag, and in it they found a pair of tefillin and a book of Tehillim, and that giving their son a halachic burial was the last thing they could do to honor him. 

To me, this story mirrored the teachings of the Tanya – that every Jew, regardless of observance level, possesses an inherent connection to Hashem. 

In Chapter 18 of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe delves deeper into the profound bond between a Jew and Hashem. This connection transcends mere rationality and instinctively drives us to prioritize our relationship with God above all else, even our physical existence. The chapter elucidates how the Jewish soul is infused with a deep love for Hashem, inherited from our patriarchs and ingrained in our essence. The Alter Rebbe explains that the light of Hashem is present in the soul of “whatever sort of Jew” one may be, and that all Jews, even ones who have “no knowledge of G-d’s greatness” inherently believe in G-d, since “faith is beyond understanding and comprehension.” 

No matter where we are, or how far we seem to be or feel from our Judaism and our connection to Hashem, the yearning to be closer to Him is inherently in us and will be with us through it all. Just as the Alter Rebbe says, even the most seemingly secular Jews possess an innate connection to G-d.

As a type seven Enneagram, I’m reluctant to limit myself by putting labels on who I am or sticking myself into any types of boxes. Thus, I have a hard time defining what “type” of Jew I am. Yet, lately I’ve been pondering the question: what does it truly mean to be “religious.” A lot of the time, it’s easy to lose sight of the “whys” behind the things we do and believe. It’s also extremely easy to see someone from the outside who is different from us and to dismiss or judge them based upon our perception of them. The story of the soldier reminded me of the pure sanctity embedded within every Jewish soul. This sanctity exists simply because we are Jews. True religious identity isn’t defined solely by external practices like how long your skirt is or how learnid you are. It’s defined by the innate yearning of your neshama to be close to Hashem. We as onlookers into others’ lives don’t have the right to place people into the categories of “secular” or “religious.” We are all Jews, and that is enough. 

When I think back to my experience drawing my soul last year, I now realize that my thought of not being able to draw something I can and never will see with my own eyes is completely false. Although I will never be able to see what I picture now as the little light of fire burning in the chest of every Yid, what I can see is all of the mesirat nefesh (selfless effort) that all the holy Jews in Am Israel have done over the past seven months. Whether it’s the “secular soldiers” who have put their lives on the line to defend the Jewish state and nation, the students on college campuses who maybe didn’t have the strongest Jewish identity before the war broke out but are now fighting with modern-day Nazis, or all the people who wear their Magen Davids proudly even in the most Antisemitic spaces. I have seen the pure neshamos of these individuals shining through the way they behave, the acts they do, and their effort to save the Jewish people. We are all born with the desire to be close to our Creator, and we are all equal in His eyes, no matter how “religious” we may be.