The term נשמה שלי (my soul) is frequently thrown around in Israel as a term of endearment; even to people you might consider an acquaintance. This concept always struck me as bizarre, however, Israelis deem it normal to call those they barely know things like חיים שלי, my life, or מתה עלייך, literally dead about you, or the looser translation, crazy about you. Though I wouldn’t categorize myself as distant or unfriendly, the idea of using such exaggerated words to describe someone I’ve only briefly known was never my way.
The longer I live in Israel, however, the more I realize that those terms are what hold people together. They further a bond of closeness between total strangers and enhance the way I interact with others. Every time I call someone “אהובי”, my love, or “מותק”, sweetheart, I am building my acceptance of that person, as the objective of a term of endearment is to separate that person from others with a nickname that describes how you feel for them. Reacting that same way to others you speak with won’t take away the love for your close friends and family members, but will bring a sweet taste for those you may not even connect to as much.
Going deeper into the realm of terms of endearment and nicknames, there is also the fact that a title gives a certain connotation, if not added respect. “Doctor” indicates someone well-educated and in a noble profession, with a higher purpose (it’s no wonder Jewish mothers are always pushing for this one). “Teacher” connotes a caregiver, or someone who helps nurture the minds of young people. Even “Mrs.” allows those around the woman to know she belongs to a higher union. The titles we use help us understand who the person is and allow us to give due respect. A nickname describes the essence of someone’s personality and is usually given by a close friend, while a title is a universal indication of what a person’s status says about them.
Either a nickname or a title allows the giver to deeply connect with others by preparing him/her to receive the essence of whom he/she is speaking with. This then leads to the most important gift you can give the human ego: respect. We, as humans, feel a desire to give respect, and to receive it, as well. I would argue that this need is actually our soul longing for a connection. Connection and respect are long time partners; when we connect to someone, we respect them, and when we respect someone, we connect to them—soul to soul.
Recently, I remembered a phrase we used to recite every morning in elementary school. The principle would say with us every day, “Everything we think, say, and do is because we are created בצלם אלוקים…” Every day, in Torah Day School of Atlanta, that phrase was drilled into my head, and to this day, it is also ingrained in my heart. צלם אלוקים, or the image of G-d, is a powerful concept. We are all created from G-d with a piece of Him inside us. From here, we derive the principle of a G-dly soul versus the animal soul, and the idea discussed in Tanya that every person is in a constant battle with his animal soul on his way to being G-dly. Now, we can have a deeper understanding that if we are all created in G-d’s image, it means that the acquaintance you barely know is also “your soul”.
When we begin to see every human being as part of us and part of G-d, we can understand why our soul longs for that feeling of respect or connection. It’s only natural for us to want another person’s “approval” so to speak, because we are them and they are us in some deep form. Furthermore, by seeing another soul walking by instead of a physical human, it is easier to desire that connection. You are not speaking with a person, but with their soul, and therefore, when we use the title “נשמה שלי”, we really mean it. This, in turn, trains us to appreciate each human as their G-dly soul and more deeply bond with those we meet. We are them and they are us.