Amnesia is a frightening illness. Imagine forgetting who you are -- suddenly you have no family, no history, and no identity. It can happen to an individual and it can happen to a people. There have been times in our history when we seemed to forget who we were and where we came from. And all too often, we seem uncertain about where we are going.
In the opening chapters of Leviticus, we read the expression Nefesh ki techeta -- "when a person will sin." The Torah goes on to describe the various atonement offerings necessary to absolve one from their trespasses. The Kabbalistic classic, Zohar, renders this phrase both literally and spiritually. Nefesh is interpreted as not merely a person but a soul, and the verse is punctuated by a question mark. In other words, the Torah is askingNefesh ki techeta? Shall a soul sin? Can a Jewish soul, a yiddishe neshamah, a spark of divinity, really and truly stoop to commit a lowly sin? How is that possible?
Indeed, the only way it can happen is when we forget who we are, when we are no longer in touch with our true spiritual identity, when we start to suffer from spiritual amnesia.
Sadly, it does happen. In fact, it's not really that difficult. After all, we live in a secular society. The old ghetto walls are no longer there to insulate us. We are exposed to the big wide world with all its seemingly tantalizing diversions. Even if we do marry within the faith, we become culturally assimilated. Slowly but surely, then, even a nefesh, a Jewish soul, starts forgetting who she is and can fall into the web of sin.
Remember the "wise man" from Chelm and his problem? He worried that when he went to the public bathhouse where everyone is unclothed he wouldn't know who he was. Without his own personal set of clothing to distinguish him from others, he might suffer an identity crisis. So he devised a plan. He tied a red string around his big toe so that even in the bathhouse he would stand out from everyone else. Sadly, when he was in the shower, the water and soapsuds loosened the red string, and it slipped off his big toe. To make matters worse, the red string floated along to the next cubicle and twirled around the big toe of the fellow under the next shower.
Suddenly, our Chelmer genius discovered that his string was gone. He started panicking. This was a serious identity crisis. Then he saw that the fellow next door was sporting his red string. Whereupon, he ran over to him and shouted, "I know who you are, but who am I?"
Who are you? You are a Jew! You are a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a daughter of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. You are a member of the "kingdom of priests and holy nation." You were freed from Egypt and stood at Sinai. You have survived countless attempts on your life and your faith. You emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz only to live again. And you ask "Who am I?" This is a serious case of national amnesia.
So the holy Zohar reminds us that we are not only "a person who may sin." We are a soul, and shall a soul sin? A soul is by definition part and parcel of the Divine. And for the G-dly soul within us, distancing ourselves from our very source is absolutely unthinkable.
How else can we explain the phenomenon that after 70 years of Communist atheism, Jews in the Former Soviet Union are today fervently embracing the faith of their forefathers? Or that after decades of apathy, American Jews of all ages are desperately seeking spirituality? Or that the renaissance of Jewish life has become a reality around the globe? Yes, there are good people out there igniting sparks and fanning them into a fiery faith. But the sparks would not take if there was not a burning ember inside every Jewish soul, an ember that remains inextinguishable no matter what.
So if you ever have doubts about who you are, remember the Zohar. You are a soul. And a soul never dies.