I, like many of you I’m sure, tuned in this past Wednesday to watch the inauguration of now President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. An inauguration is an historic occasion any year, as our country progresses ever more toward becoming that “more perfect Union,” but this year it felt particularly significant.
The reasons for its particular significance are, of course, manifold: we now have a woman—a Black woman and Asian American woman, I might add—in the second highest office in the land; the inauguration occurred as our country continues to battle a microscopic virus that has taken over 400,000 lives; and the exact location of this event—US Capitol— had only two weeks ago been swarmed by a riotous mob attempting an insurrection.
Yes, it was an historic occasion. Indeed, any one of these would be enough to mark this particular inauguration as one of the most significant in our nation’s history! But there was yet another reason, one that stems from a combination of all the others, that marked yesterday as distinct.
The calls for unity and reconciliation, for equal representation and justice, for peace and participation, reminded us (as if we needed reminding) that the citizens of these United States of America are divided—politically, socially, economically. True, there have always been disagreements, and there have been moments in the past that tested the resolve of “We the People.” We are at another such pinnacle in American history. The nation stands yet again at a tipping point.
So, as I watched the inauguration Wednesday, I couldn’t help but feeling like the nation was standing still for a moment, catching our breath. What will we do next? Where do we go now? The youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman described this moment profoundly: “And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us.”
When Joe Biden gave his inaugural address that afternoon, discussing how he envisions our nation might move forward, I was struck by one word that he used repeatedly:
Biden remarked that as President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—a document that legally (but not in reality) brought an end to the enslavement of human lives—he stated, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
My whole soul is in it.
Biden continued, “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this.”
And a question arose in my mind as I heard this promise from President Biden:
Is my “whole soul” in it?
In Hebrew, the word often translated as “soul” is nephesh. While the semantic and interpretational range of nephesh is quite broad (too much so for this blog post!), it relates closely to the verb naphash, meaning “to breathe.” One’s nephesh, in other words, is closely related to one’s breath—it is one’s life force, one’s very essence. It is what makes a person a living person. So, a better translation than “soul” for this wonderfully complex Hebrew word might be “self” or “being.”
Genesis 2:7 describes the creation of the human in this way: “The Lord God formed the earth creature from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the earth creature became a living being [or, ‘soul,’ nephesh]” (Genesis 2:7, my translation).
From this passage, we observe an important notion with regards to what makes a person a person—we are God-breathed. God breathes life into us, mere creatures of dust, and we become a living nephesh. Our life, our very being, is a gift from God, breathed into us at creation.
That God-breathed gift of life—of soulness—is then gifted back to God in love, love for God and love for one another. We are called to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul [nephesh], and with all of your might” (Deut 6:5).
On Wednesday, President Biden urged Americans to put their “whole soul” into the work of unity, of reconciliation and justice, of lament and healing.
For people of faith, this is the work of the Kingdom of God—seeking justice and righteousness, spreading Good News and God’s love, offering comfort and healing.
Putting our “whole soul” into this Kingdom work means recognizing that our God-breathed-ness is the center of our being, and letting that God-breath be reflected in our actions.
It’s a gift as much as it is a responsibility. With God’s help, may we be up to the task, and may we strive to put our “whole souls” into caring for one another, moving together towards God’s dreams of justice and wholeness. We need that now.
So, take a deep breath, and put your “whole soul” into the work of God’s kingdom.
 The oft-discussed (and oft-debated) concept of an immortal soul is not embedded within this Hebrew term. In fact, the notion of an immortal soul that is distinct from one’s corporeal state is a Greek concept developed and adopted later in Christian thinking.
 Animals, too, are called “living beings,” using the same Hebrew term, nephesh (see, e.g., Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30; 2:7, 19).
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