Winner of the 2017 Nautilus Award in the Religion/Spirituality of Western Thought category
A bestselling author and rabbi’s profoundly affecting exploration of the meaning and purpose of the soul, inspired by the famous correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving rabbi.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness...” —Albert Einstein
When Rabbi Naomi Levy came across this poignant letter by Einstein it shook her to her core. His words perfectly captured what she has come to believe about the human condition: That we are intimately connected, and that we are blind to this truth. Levy wondered what had elicited such spiritual wisdom from a man of science? Thus began a three-year search into the mystery of Einstein’s letter, and into the mystery of the human soul. What emerges is an inspiring, deeply affecting book for people of all faiths filled with universal truths that will help us reclaim our own souls and glimpse the unity that has been evading us. We all long to see more expansively, to live up to our gifts, to understand why we are here. Levy leads us on a breathtaking journey full of wisdom, empathy and humor, challenging us to wake up and heed the voice calling from within—a voice beckoning us to become who we were born be.
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About the Author
Naomi Levy is the author of the national bestseller To Begin Again, as well as the books Talking to God and Hope Will Find You. She is the founder and leader of NASHUVA, a Jewish spiritual outreach movement based in Los Angeles, California. Named one of the 50 top rabbis in America by Newsweek, Levy was in the first class of women to enter the Conservative rabbinical seminary. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today show, and on NPR. She lives in Venice, California with her family.
Read an Excerpt
Meeting the Soul
WAS YOUR FATHER A RABBI?
When I tell people that I wanted to be a rabbi from the time I was four years old they always ask me that same question. No, my father made women's clothing, but he was my rabbi. When I was a child my father would read me tales of biblical heroes and prophets, these were my bedtime stories. He taught me how to pray, to love the melodies of prayer, and how to sing in harmony with him as we'd walk hand in hand down the street. While my friends stayed home on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons in their pajamas, my father would take me to synagogue, and I would sit beside him and play with the strands of his prayer shawl.
When I announced in kindergarten that I wanted to be a rabbi everyone laughed. Some people scolded me: "Don't you know girls can't be rabbis!" But my father was rooting for me. "Nomi," he said, using my nickname, "keep dreaming and you're the one who will be laughing one day. Not from 'I told you so.' You'll be laughing from pure joy on the day you become a rabbi." So I held on to my dream even though it seemed like a fantasy.
My father kept teaching me and I kept learning. When it was time for my bat mitzvah, our family belonged to a synagogue that wouldn't allow girls to chant from the Torah or lead any part of the service on a Sabbath morning. Instead, girls were permitted only to offer a reading from the Book of Prophets on Friday evening. My father taught me how to chant from the Prophets. When I had mastered the reading, my father began teaching me how to lead a Friday evening Sabbath service, all the melodies and prayers. I soaked it all up with great eagerness and ease. The two of us sang together, creating beautiful harmonies to God. Then my dad went before the board of the synagogue to present our case. He was fighting for justice and he argued with passion and courage. In the end the board relented somewhat: they said I could lead certain Psalms, but I wasn't allowed to utter prayers or blessings to God. I loved this compromise. My bat mitzvah became a beautiful homemade service. It was just me and my dad on the pulpit. I chanted the Psalms, and whenever we came to a blessing he would offer up the blessing. It seemed so perfect to me to be leading a service together with him in that way.
Was the rabbinate my soul's calling? I never thought much about the soul one way or another as I was growing up. Yes, there were expressions like "touched my soul" that I understood to mean that the soul was a metaphor for a very deep place inside us. A place of emotional truth. I knew that music was a very soulful experience for me. I knew that love was soul territory too.
My parents were soulmates. Of that I was certain. They were inseparable, always in each other's arms. There was something rare about the way they interacted. Each morning as my father left for work they would grab each other with passion, as if it was a difficult parting, and each evening when my father returned home they would stand there just holding each other at the front door like lovers reuniting after a long separation. Did they somehow sense that their time together was limited?
Just two years after my bat mitzvah, when I was fifteen, my parents were walking down the street one night. A man approached them with a gun, demanded money, then shot my father.
My father died and my whole world came crashing down.
Suddenly that word "soul" kept coming up over and over again. People kept saying things to me about my father's soul. At his funeral the rabbi offered a prayer about his soul finding peace beneath God's sheltering wing. Was God a bird? All I knew was that my father was gone. I missed him so much. I felt so cut off from him. I wanted more than anything to talk to him, to sing with him, to pray with him, to sit beside him in synagogue. I wanted to study with him. Silence. There was nothing. I was alone. My father would never teach me again.
So many things died the day my father died. My mother died, at least the strong, vibrant woman who had raised me up to that day. Now she seemed so small and weak to me. The Sabbath died and all the holidays too. How do you sit at a holiday table when the person who always led those gatherings is missing? My friends died. They were still with me, of course, but how could they understand me? They were talking about acne and sweet sixteens and I was sleepwalking in a dark mist beside them but not with them. I died. The fifteen-year-old girl giggling and whispering with her friends about crushes on boys and our favorite rock stars. I was numb. Prayer died too. All those powerful discussions my dad and I had about God and faith and prayer seemed hollow now. What good was God? I stopped longing to be a rabbi.
Four years passed. I was in college, and one day I was minding my own business just walking along a path on campus and I felt my father. I felt his presence. It was unmistakable and very strong. It's hard to describe exactly what I felt. It was a deep knowing, like when you're sleeping and you suddenly have a strong sense that someone is standing over you, watching you. At first it was a bit frightening to sense my father's presence, but then it felt comforting. He was with me, walking with me.
I thought the feeling would pass, but I was wrong. My father wouldn't leave me alone, I couldn't shake him. I sensed him all the time.
I started to worry that maybe I was losing my grip on reality. One day after class I decided to tell my literature professor, Dr. Berk, about this problem I was having. He was my mentor and I needed to confide in someone. It was gray and cold outside. We sat down for coffee and I gathered up the courage to tell him about my father's visitations. I said, "I think I might be losing my mind." I wondered if I needed to be medicated.
Dr. Berk smiled and said, "Why would you think that? It's a gift!"
A gift? It felt like a burden. But that rainy afternoon Dr. Berk talked to me about Hamlet and Wuthering Heights and Irish folk tales and Gabriel García Márquez. We talked about sensing the pulsating rhythm in all things, the heartbeat of creation, about being attuned to mystery, about embracing life's magic instead of needing to control it all the time. He said, "Naomi, you come from a tradition of the great prophets, of Abraham and Moses and Deborah and Samuel — they were all touched by a Presence." I flashed on the Bible stories my father had read to me as a child. Dr. Berk reminded me that the word "psychology" does not mean the study of the mind or the heart — it is the study of the soul. He told me with confident assurance, "Trust me, you're not losing your mind. You're meeting your soul ... and your father's soul too."
I walked back to my dorm that day together with my father. Instead of worrying about his presence I welcomed him. And I told myself, So, mental illness is when you feel cut off and alone, and mental health is when you start sensing spirits you can't see.
I had been mistaken when my father died and I felt so cut off from him. My grief had clouded my ability to hear and feel. Now I was walking with him and I was learning new lessons from the things he taught me long ago.
What if the soul isn't just a metaphor for a deep place inside us? What if the soul is a spiritual entity, a holy guide, an eternal messenger of God dwelling within us? What if the soul can see what our eyes can't perceive? What if the soul has longings and needs and wisdom to offer us about our higher calling and true love, and the very purpose of our lives? What if the soul lives on when we die? What if the souls of departed loved ones are closer to us than we ever imagined?
I began to study the soul — its place within us and its journey when it departs from us. I began to pray for the ability to know my soul, I began to meditate and to listen for the voice of my soul. Slowly, the longings of a four-year-old girl came alive with a passion I had never known before. My soul was calling me, it had always been calling me, to be a rabbi.
In my senior year of college the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York voted to admit women into its rabbinical school. When I heard the news I was overwhelmed with emotion, I was laughing and crying at the same time. I was in the first class of women to enter the seminary. It felt like coming home, like completing a circle. And on the day the dean of my seminary called me up to the pulpit and proudly spread a prayer shawl over my shoulders to bless me and ordain me as a rabbi, I knew my father was laughing too, laughing from pure joy.
Not long after my ordination I began delving into biblical texts, rabbinic interpretations, and mystical teachings about the soul. I started to see that the soul is not only the link to the afterlife, it is also the key to this life, here and now.
I learned that we live in what the Jewish mystics call the World of Separation, a place where we see only partial truths, where life seems disjointed and disconnected. I learned Jewish teachings about the Narrow Mind and the Expansive Mind. It's all intuitive wisdom, really. We tend to dwell in our smallness. We are petty and jealous. Our anger blinds us, our past hurts blind us, our lusts and desires and ambitions blind us. But there is an Expansive Mind available to us — that is the vision your soul has to offer you. It is our ability to see the unity, to see with eyes of compassion, to witness the beauty we so often ignore and the blessings that we've already been given. As we enter the state of Expansive Mind, the obstacles that have been keeping us frozen in place melt away. We see our way through them, over them, and beyond them. And then we are given eyes to behold the World of Unity, where all dualities melt away.
In my many years as a rabbi people have come to me with their life questions: What should I do with my life? Is this the right person for me? How do I breathe excitement back into my marriage? How do I find my true calling? I realized pretty early on in my rabbinate that most life questions are actually soul questions. We have a gnawing sense that the life we are living is not the life we are meant to be living. We know there is more to do, more expected from us, more to give and more to feel. And we are right!
We experience these longings because at some point we became separated from our own souls, from a voice within us that is here to guide us toward the very purpose of our existence. People will often describe their problems in terms of soul: "I feel like a lost soul." "I feel like there's a hole in my soul." The truth is, our souls are not lost at all, we have simply lost touch with them. If we can learn to reconnect with our souls, we will know the answers to the questions that have been plaguing us.
If the soul is so wise, then why do we stop listening to our souls? Because that's the challenge of being human. We have the power to choose what we want to listen to. The body has its desires, and the ego has its ambitions, and the world around us calls out to us with its distractions, temptations, and promises. The soul can't force you to listen, but it never gives up trying and it never loses hope in you. All through your life your soul tugs at you. That's where that empty feeling comes from. The hole you sense is the distance between where you are and where your soul knows you can be.
What can you say about your soul? Maybe you see the soul in secular terms, as a metaphor for a place of truth deep inside you. Perhaps religious answers come to mind — the soul is holy, divine, eternal. But what do you know of your soul? Can you describe what your soul needs? What it has to offer? Did you once feel deeply connected to your soul? When did you lose that connection? The tragedy of life is that your soul is so close, yet remains a stranger.
It's so easy to get lost and confused. Who among us hasn't felt that way? It's so easy for our senses to get dulled — sometimes by a hurt that causes us to shut down, but more often by our routines. We fall into predictable patterns, we get through our days without reaching and stretching and listening. And then you wake up one day and you realize you have drifted far afield from your own essence. You lost yourself while trying to please others. Your work no longer resonates with you. Your relationships feel superficial. With all your obligations and pressures you've stopped doing the things you love. We wander in exile hoping for a way to return to our essence.
Here is the good news: we are not doomed to remain cut off. There is a way back to our true selves. It hinges on our willingness to meet our souls, to access and to hear the voice of our souls. The soul is our own personal in-house consultant in matters of love and wisdom and guidance and strength. We have become experts at ignoring the soul, our challenge now is to learn to listen and to be receptive to its teachings.
Bring soul to the very places where you feel cut off and adrift, and watch how your life will open up before you. Bring soul to your relationships and you will learn the meaning of intimacy. Bring soul to your work and you will learn the meaning of calling. Bring soul into your house and you will come to understand what home is. Bring soul into your learning and you will acquire wisdom. Bring soul into your heart and you will experience the relief of vulnerability and a depth of love you never knew was inside of you. A love that will lead you to acts of kindness and selflessness. Bring soul to your fears and you will learn courage. Bring soul to your conscience and you will burn with a passion to help people you've never even met. Bring soul to your dreams and you will learn the joy of perseverance. Yes: the sheer joy of sticking with something.
Your soul wants to teach you about your strength. It wants you to believe in your abilities and your gifts. It wants you to lift up your head with pride and claim your birthright: the life that is yours to experience. Your soul wants you to follow it through times of darkness, through the fog and confusion. Your soul will lead you to heights and to loves and to kindness.
Your soul misses you. God misses you. Your soul never stops waiting for you. Yes, it is rooting for you and praying for you. So stop running and hiding and distracting yourself. Free yourself. Break away from the routines that keep your eyes closed and your head down. Welcome your soul back into your life. Take its hand. Let it lead you on a journey toward your true path.
Inviting soul into your life takes practice. It also takes a bit of madness. A sacred madness. A willingness to welcome and to follow a spiritual entity you cannot prove exists. On the other hand, we've spent so many years following other voices that no one can see — the voice of fear or worry or judgment or ambition. So welcome in the sacred madness.
Living with soul does not mean that all pain will disappear. It doesn't mean that all confusion will magically vanish. Sometimes we fail to meet our souls because we naively assume that meeting our souls will lead us to a state of internal peace or ecstasy. The truth is, the soul doesn't deal in satisfaction or in bliss. It deals in open eyes and discomfort. The soul wants you to be uncomfortable enough to strive for more, to grow and to learn and to see what needs fixing in this beautiful and broken world. Living with soul can keep you up at night. You suddenly start seeing the humanity in the eyes of strangers you were ignoring. Their problems come alive inside you. Living with soul can be painful. But it is the only way I know to live the life God has planted inside us.
I became a rabbi so that I could help people hear their souls and connect with the souls of others — the living and the departed. I've seen people experience remarkable changes when they set out to access their souls. Lifeless marriages regain romance, boring days take on new color, a lifelong sense of isolation is lifted, negative internal voices begin to soften, indecision gives way to clarity. Fear doesn't necessarily vanish, but it becomes less of a barrier. A new sense of belonging emerges — of connection to our inner truth and of union with others. People begin to uncover deeper purpose and meaning and long to turn work into calling. Love becomes less threatening, it enters and it flows more freely. Faith and hope seem less like aspirations and more like old friends. Death becomes less frightening and less final. We begin to sense that we are part of something, that we are connected to all of creation. People often tell me that getting to know their souls is like a homecoming to something new. And that sensing the presence of a departed loved one is a precious gift, as Dr. Berk taught me long ago.
Tonight, as I write these words, is my father's yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. He has been gone for thirty-seven years, and he has never left me. On behalf of my father, I'd like to offer you a blessing from a lesson he taught me many years ago:
May you follow the call of your soul, and may you come to laugh with pure joy on the day your deepest yearning becomes a reality. Amen.
Excerpted from "Einstein and the Rabbi"
Copyright © 2017 Naomi Levy.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
SEARCHING FOR THE SOUL
1. Meeting the Soul
2. Einstein and the Rabbi: Reviving Souls
3. Finding the Me Within me: Locating Your Inner Essence
4. Taking a Soulfie
5. Encountering the Three Levels of the Soul
TAPPING INTO THE LIFE FORCE: THE KEY TO VISION AND ACTION
Raising the Volume of the Soul’s Voice: Feeding and Awakening the Soul
6. Giving the Soul What It Wants
7. Meditating is Medicine for the Soul
8. Letting Music Lift Your Soul
9. Eating to Satisfy Your Soul
10. Praying and Learning as Keys to Understanding
11. Restoring the Soul in Nature
12. Welcoming the Sabbath: Reviving Your Soul with a Day of Rest
Accessing the Soul’s Expansive Vision
13. Stepping Back to Gain a Wider Perspective
14. Moving Beyond Our Narrow Thoughts
15. Seeing Through the “Truths” We Tell Ourselves
16. Glimpsing the Tapestry: Detecting Hidden Connections
Discovering the Power to Act
17. Breaking Free of the Old, Familiar Patters
18. Pregnant Forever: Finding the Courage to Complete What You’ve Begun
LISTENING TO THE LOVE FORCE: THE KEY TO INTIMACY AND UNCOVERING YOUR CALLING
Learning to Love Deeply
19. Turning a Heart of Stone into a Heart of Flesh
20. Experiencing the Healing of Forgiveness
21. Praying for Holy Fear: Learning to Think Before You Act
22. Recognizing the Saving Power of True Friends
23. Finding a Soulmate
24. Entering Marriage with Five Holy Qualities
25. Discovering the Secret to a Lasting Marriage
26. Parenting with Soul
Uncovering Your Holy Calling
27. Heeding the Call of the Soul
28. Knowing You Are the Right Man for the Job
29. Feeling the Soul’s Tug
30. Turning Your Weakness into Your Strength
31. Bringing Your Soul to Work
32. Defeating the Soul’s Adversary
33. Know Who You Are: Recognizing Your True Divine Power
WELCOMING THE ETERNAL FORCE: THE KEY TO YOUR HIGHER KNOWING
Experiencing Unity and a Taste of Eternity
34. Bridging Distances and Returning Home
35. Perceiving the Forty-Two Journeys of Your Soul
36. Recognizing How Setbacks Can Lift You Higher
37. Seeing Your World to Come
Gaining a Higher Understanding of Time and Eternity
38. Treasuring Blessings That Can Never Die
39. Living on Soul Time
40. Experiencing the Oneness
41. Giving Pleasure to the Soul
42. Beholding Threads of Connection
COMING FULL CIRCLE: THE LETTER
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful book for people who are grieving. Work is involved, one has to follow the author in her search to find important details, including the events leading Einstein to write his letter to the Rabbi, or the relevant teachings in the Jewish religion. The author is brilliant yet shares her personal experiences in a way that is entirely relatable.
Rabbi Levy's book is without doubt a classic. It deals with love and loss in her life and in the lives of the people to whom she ministers. Rabbi Levy's beloved father was murdered when she was fifteen and that loss is with her for her entire life. She transforms that loss into working with others who have experienced similar losses in their lives. A most poignant chapter, chapter 20, "Experiencing the Healing of Forgiveness" about a woman who had struck and killed an 83 year old well loved father and husband. Rabbi Levy speaks eloquently about the soul and how the essence of life is the soul's connection to other souls, living or not. Her feeling her father's presence at her wedding is eloquent and moving. You do not have to be religious or a believer to be deeply moved by this book. It is one that I did not want to end. It is worth purchasing and reading carefully.