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Language of the Soul

Language of the Soul


Communicating with children is a challenge under the best of circumstances. And when we attempt to speak about the things that are the most important—the inner feelings and character traits of our children—the task seems almost overwhelming. How do we talk to our kids about things like love and kindness, faith and courage, honesty and trust? Though these are the things we most want to communicate to them, they are the most difficult to speak about.

The task becomes even more difficult because these virtues and character traits are not consistent. They tend to be fluid and abstract. They don’t behave the same in every situation. Unrestrained kindness, while generous and flowing, is not always wise. Loyalty, while an exquisite quality, can lead our children astray when applied blindly.

But how to understand these subtleties clearly enough to begin to talk about them with our children? How, for example, to distinguish between the horror of violence and the necessity of war, the purity of honesty and the cruelty contained in speaking unnecessary truths, productive assertiveness and hostile aggressiveness?

To do so wisely requires an understanding of these qualities. And a language, a vocabulary for expressing their subtleties.

But where to find this language? How to explain these nuances?

There is a source that reveals itself to us specifically at this time of year. It is a language contained in the Counting of the Omer, a mitzvah we perform in the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot.

After the children of Israel left Egypt, forty-nine days passed before they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Tradition teaches that each of these days was necessary for the children of Israel to refine themselves and be worthy of this gift. On each day, they examined and corrected another of their inner traits and qualities. There were forty-nine in all.

These forty-nine traits were comprised of seven basic attributes. Each of the seven contained all of the other seven, thus comprising forty-nine.

The Kabbalists tell us that the soul of man includes these seven basic attributes:

  • Love/Kindness (Chessed)
  • Vigor/Discipline (Gevurah)
  • Beauty/Harmony/Compassion (Tiferet)
  • Victory/Endurance/Determination (Netzach)
  • Humility/Devotion (Hod)
  • Foundation/Bonding/Connection (Yesod)
  • Majesty/Dignity (Malchut)

As we fulfill the mitzvah of counting the days and weeks from Passover to Shavuot, each of the seven weeks is devoted to a different attribute—one week for Kindness, another week for Discipline, another for Compassion, etc. On each of the seven days of the week we refine another of the seven aspects of the week’s attribute. For example, on the week devoted to kindness, we will devote one day to refining that aspect of kindness that requires discipline, and another day to refining that aspect of kindness that requires compassion, and so forth. During the week when we are refining beauty, we spend one day refining that aspect of beauty that requires dignity, and another day on that aspect of beauty that requires humility, until we have refined all seven aspects of beauty.

Ultimately, all character traits derive from combinations of these seven basic ones. Each quality continually interacts with the others, and in so doing has the capacity to modify its expression and effect. To be whole, a character trait must incorporate all seven; a lack or overabundance of even one of the seven renders it corrupt and, in some cases, damaging. Discipline, for example, can easily become cruelty with but a slight exaggeration.

Knowing this, we can use these attributes to begin to distinguish and explain the characters and behaviors of our children and ourselves. These attributes, which we count and refine in our forty-nine-day journey, can be used as the foundation of a new language, a Language of the Soul.

This language will provide a vocabulary that allows us to name and identify, and then speak with our children, about qualities that are non-tangible—that cannot be touched nor seen—but can be expressed in action.

If we learn to talk about these inner qualities with our children in clear, specific, and concrete ways, we have the possibility of penetrating their hearts and minds and opening their own ability to communicate with us from a deeper part of themselves.

Using the seven attributes as a guide, we can speak to our children not only about what something is, but how it is that way. We cannot only define kindness, we can also describe what it looks like in action. Does it always look the same? Can the same act be kind in one situation and cruel in another? Can an act appear cruel and yet still be kind? How and why?

The expression of any of these seven attributes requires modification depending on circumstances, and results in a variety of ways in which a particular quality might be expressed differently to meet a specific situation.

If being helpful is good, then why is helping someone steal not good? If being courageous is important, then why is doing something dangerous wrong? If being loyal is meritorious, then why not go along with the crowd even when I think they are doing something harmful? If tolerance results in a more peaceful world, then why must I sometimes stand against what someone does, or make a distinction between right and wrong?

As you explore each of these seven qualities and understand how they affect each other, you begin to see that the lack or addition of any of them dramatically shifts the meaning or expression of the others.

Though the essence of “love” is giving, would a child be loving if he gave a book of matches to a young seven-year-old friend, or if she gave away—without asking—a toy that belongs to her brother or sister, or if he or she told a lie in order to prevent a friend from getting into trouble?

If you spend time reflecting on each of these seven—kindness, discipline, compassion, endurance, humility, connection and dignity—and how they interact with each other, you can use them like a checklist to see which, if any, of these qualities is missing or in overabundance in any given situation. This will allow you to more easily talk about them with your children.

Let’s look at assertiveness as an example. Many of us wish to encourage this trait in our children. It is an inner quality necessary for accomplishment and for independence (going against the crowd). Yet we know that assertiveness borders on aggressiveness, and can easily become a quality that is misused or overused, resulting in some potentially nasty character traits. But how to explain this distinction to our children? Let’s try to apply our seven-attribute checklist.

For example, what would assertiveness look like if it lacked the attribute of love or discipline? How often have you met someone who proclaims to be assertive, yet reeks of hostility? Can your child be both assertive and compassionate (understanding and considerate of the needs of others) at the same time?

On the one hand, being assertive can help your child to be independent and not follow the crowd. It may prevent him or her from being bullied. But without instilling humility and compassion in your child, how can you be assured that he or she will not become the next bully on the block? Without humility, even though your child’s assertiveness may bring him success, might it also result in arrogance and pridefulness?

How effective will your child’s assertiveness be if it lacks endurance? Why do some very assertive people—passionately dedicated to their very worthwhile goal—still lack the ability to accomplish much? Could it be that with all their strength and enthusiasm, they lack endurance and discipline?

And how often have we met assertive, disciplined, committed people who lack openness to new ideas or the flexibility to respond to changing situations? Could it be that they lack a sense of connectedness to a large and ever-changing world? Do they fail to see that their actions affect this world in ways larger than themselves, and that the world to which they are connected is constantly affecting them and their goals? Or, lacking this quality, do they tend towards a self-centered approach to life that may move them towards their individual goals at the expense of others, and without a positive effect on the world around them?

And finally, upon acquiring assertiveness, your child should have a sense of dignity—a sense of self-respect and of being worthy of the respect of others. When you think about it, would this not be achieved unless your child was able to be assertive in a loving, disciplined and compassionate manner, exercising endurance and humility, and realizing the consequences of his or her actions to both themselves and others? Don’t we all know assertive people who lack one of these qualities and consequently don’t garner our respect? Doesn’t your child have a schoolmate who seems to always get what he or she wants, yet is neither liked nor respected by the other children? Could you identify one or more of the seven attributes that this child is lacking? Can you see how a lack in any one of the basic seven attributes can quickly turn a positive quality into a negative one? Can you explain this to your child?

After reading the above paragraph, can you now imagine a discussion with your child in which you try to explain to him or her the difference between assertive and aggressive behavior using the seven attributes as your vocabulary?

If the above description has helped you understand assertiveness better, or has given you some insight into yourself or someone you know, then you have begun to see the Language of the Soul in action. If you wish to continue this exploration, there are many sources where you can find assistance in developing your understanding of these seven attributes. Here are a few of them. And, with G‑d’s help, I’ll be writing more about this in future articles.


A Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer by Simon Jacobson

Ten Keys for Understanding Human Nature by Mattis Kantor

Mystical Concepts in Chassidism by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet

The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of the work of Rabbi Simon Jacobson to this article.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website
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Anonymous Nicaragua June 2, 2016

discipling children Thank you for writing this so clearly and thoroughly! I cannot wait to start using counting the Omer to train up my children. I'm very late, I know, but better late than never! Reply

Anonymous May 25, 2016

Excellent and well said! Thanks for posting! Reply

Norman Garcia April 5, 2015

thanks, it's a beautiful teaching Reply

Tell it like it is baby May 23, 2014

This is what it is in Judaism Kindness and compassion says it all. Without those two traits you are nothing. I don't care how much money you have and how smart you are. Or how beautiful. If you cannot be kind and full of chesed, you are still a baby. Reply

zeynep May 21, 2014

Jay Litvin makes it clear to us that we are all children. This to me is an almost overwhelmingly beatiful article. Tiferet at its best.

It reveals a profoundly yet ever so gently penetrating understanding of the workings of the human emotional psyche. Binah at its best.

I am also familiar with Rabbi Simon Jacobson's work on the subject, and can very well sense his voice in this article as well. And thus came out this amazing piece of writing, which to me is a most elegant and thorough application of the theoretical kabbalistic concepts to the practical human drama. Da'at at its very best.

Thank you and may you rest in peace, dear Jay Litvin. Reply

Anonymous May 1, 2014

Language of the Soul Is it correct to say that the diagram depicts the anatomy of the individual human soul? I was confused for a while, thinking whether or not it also depicted how the world operates from a Divine perspective.
The second question I had was Why the location of Malchut seems isolated from the other attributes/functions ?
Is there a deeper reason why it has to be separated from the others? Reply

Miriam Landa via May 1, 2014

thank YOu Rabbi Jay Litvin- As this month is already 10 years that Rabbi Litvin gave his soul back to our creator, I want to acknowledge the gift he bought to klal Israel. May his family see only nachas, may Hashem reward you for spreading Torah and Mitzvot - 10 years later we still need you. Reply

Anonymous winnipeg, canada October 5, 2009

souls Can you please enlighten me on souls by answering the following questions ? Is the nefesh the Animal soul ? Is it present at birth. Do the ruach and neshama/G-dly soul enter into and clothed by the Nefesh ? How does the chaya and yechida fit in ? How does the extra Shabbat soul fit in ? Are all of these separate souls , or are they levels or components of one soul ? Are there more souls ? How does gilgul and ibur work with these souls ? Reply

Rachel LA, CA May 18, 2009

jewish psychology I've always known that all the answers can be found in Judaism, and this outline of a person's psyche just shows me that it can explain how we work as well. Reply

Rick Myrick Hillsboro, Oregon/ USA May 8, 2009

Language of the soul, 7 attributes. I am grateful for this information and desire deeper exploration. While the revelation of the 7 attributes of Love, vigor, beauty, victory, humility, foundation and Majesty are fantastic: what are the 7 characteristics of Each for every day of the 49 days of the omer? Reply

Batyah Mikael Cape town, South Africa May 30, 2008

language of the soul I am so grateful and blessed for having read this article. I was just questioning within myself how to deal with and why some individuals we live with and encounter are so difficult. Anyway I have gained much insight from this ariticle.
Thank you so much, will definitely be studying more from the resources you recommend.Abundant blessings to you. Reply

armen juhl kailua, hi October 29, 2007

thank you i am not jewish but i have found much wisdom in what you have written down here. it has helped me as a person and i now have great things to think about tonight and along my journey as well. thank you and god bless. Reply

Celia Leal da Costa São Paulo, Brazil May 29, 2005

Language of the Soul I am deeply grateful to for this article. It is not only inspiring, but also deeply meaningful to every parent and grandparen.! The seven attributes need to be remebered everyday of our lives, in order to fulfill the mitzvot of accomplishing our mission, according to God's will.

My second grandson was born last May 13, and I will rely deeply on your articles, especially those by Jay, for my interaction with my two grandsons. I will also transmit to my kids all the immeasurable treasures I read here.

God bless you! Shalom!

D. Saunders Graham, WA May 5, 2005

Language of the Soul Thank you for posting this article. Litvin's words expressed beautifully detailed examples of soul qualities with such simple clarity. I particularly liked how he used the example of assertiveness; and then, by asking questions associated with the other soul qualities, he revealed the many facets (faces) of assertiveness. Let's trust that practicing awareness of ourselves and others as he's described can make us more fluent with the "language of the soul". Reply

the mind Macao May 3, 2005

Counting of Omer makes the hard man humble You know, in China we celebrate festivals and gifts are sent to each other, but never like this seeking of worthiness of life, from Passover to Shavort. There's no festival in China that invite deep thoughts of life. Karl Marxs said Jewish people are early martured people. RIGHT!!

I must ponder stronger and deeper, why such most important human heritage is never adepted by the Christians who came and claimed to have bought to us the news of gospels. For in reality, these who came to our land did not understand the significance of Judaism, not even superficially, this the root of Christianity- Judaism. They are soo poor, as message converters, some them seek to benefit their own end, using Christianity and some at the same time uprooting Judaism and persecute Jews for political convenience, as we can see since medieval Europe. A cause for Jewish assimilation to main stream Chinese Tao by LaoTse, when Taoism is seen as two open arms to embrace a world of differnce into the ONENESS. Reply

Amit Kapel October 17, 2004

children and children Shalom,
In my opinion to talke about children you must remember those days that you are children. I agree with all those things that you said, but I believed that you must have to say certain things more. Those are related with the relation that you had between you and your father... Reply

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