Redeeming Our Souls
The Rosh Hashana custom of Pidyon Hanefesh, the ransom of a soul, is rooted in a kabalistic worldview. As its name suggests, the custom parallels pidyon hashvuyim, the ransoming of captives. As Jews must ransom fellow Jews who have fallen into captivity, so we sometimes feel that we must ransom our souls, when we feel that they are held captive by misfortune.
According to this custom, when a Jew feels that obstacles are impeding his or her material or spiritual advancement, he or she should go to a tzadik (a righteous person) or a rabbi to ask them to perform the ceremony of pidyon hanefesh. This custom has grown out of the kabalistic and Hasidic faith in the special spiritual qualities of these men, who have been chosen to lead not because of their knowledge of Torah, Talmud or Jewish law, but because of their charismatic qualities.
These special people have been, the kabala believes, marked by God. So when we seek to be closer to God, it is to men like these that we must turn, because they can help us reach the Divine. With their mystical proximity to the Holy One, they can ransom our souls.
Hundreds of folk stories that recount the great deeds of the rabbis, who ransomed souls and helped the needy, are told and retold throughout the generations. Many of these stories are from our own times.
When called upon, these men take a payment from the seeking redemption, which is to be donated to tzedaka (charity) and they recite special kabalistic prayers, asking God to remove the obstacles in the person’s way, to heal the sick, to find a match for a marriage, or to bestow wealth.
The sum of payment for the ransom of a soul is always 160 shekels. This number has great significance. The Torah tells us that “a man is like the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). In gematria (a system in which a numerical value is assigned to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the word “tree” equals 160. The symbolism tells us that as a tree grows tall, so, too, can a human thrive after his or her soul has been redeemed.
Most liberal Jews are uncomfortable with customs like these. Belief in the supernatural and in the powers of mystics who are supposedly closer to God than we are makes us uneasy. We view our rabbis as teachers, perhaps even as spiritual leaders, but we do not see them as saints who possess any special abilities to communicate with the transcendent. We do not wish to think that some humans are able to influence God and change our fates.
Yet there are other ways to understand this custom and to enrich our own lives today. Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (Schmuel Scheersohn), writing in the 19th century, teaches that even though most people think of pidyon hanefesh as a very complex deed that most humans are incapable of and that can be performed only by the especially gifted – this is not so.
Any Jew can redeem a soul, Rabbi Shmuel writes. Each and every Jew can grant his or her fellow Jew everything that is needed.
How? Through praise. According to Rabbi Shmuel, on Rosh Hashana the angels listen expectantly, waiting to hear a Jew speak well of another, because the angels know that there is nothing that God desires more than to hear the praise of His children for each other.
Because we are all created in the image of God, there is something worthy of praise in each and every human being. And indeed, another gematria value for 160 is tzelem, which refers to the image of God. To ransom a soul is to see God’s image in the other and thus to understand its inherent worthiness.
To praise another, we do not need to lie, to be politically correct, or to flatter or be obsequious. If we truly seek to praise another person, we will find the qualities that are truly worthy of that praise. And so, when we truly, honestly, from the depth of our hearts, praise a friend, we are doing that which is most pleasant and desirable to the Holy One and we are fulfilling His will. And thus, we may be able to change our friend’s fate. And any deed that fulfills God’s will also bring a blessing to each of us.
Words have power. Words said aloud have even more power. With the help of kind words, we are able to create shields that will protect us from sorrow and hurt. With praise, we are helping to create a better world.
We do not need intermediaries. We ourselves have power to bless and be blessed. This Rosh Hashana, may we each help to ransom the souls of all families, friends, neighbors, and fellows, by bestowing true praise.