Self-restraint can feel tiring. You have the desire for something but say “no” to yourself. The desire pops up again, and you show exemplary self-mastery and abstain. Round and round you go, white-knuckling it, and you wonder if there is a way to transform the negative desire so that you are no longer battling with it.

Is Long-Lasting Change Possible?

You want long-lasting change, where your animal soul ceases to desire something that is not compatible with your G‑dly soul, but instead experiences pleasure from learning Torah or doing a mitzvah. You’re not content with impulse control or weakening the animal soul, but you would like to see transformation, where the negative of the animal soul itself transforms into a real passion and desire for holiness. Rather than thirsting for physical or forbidden pleasures, you want it to develop a desire and appreciation for spiritual pleasures.

To Quell a Desire or to Transform It

In Chassidic terminology, it is the difference between iskafia, which means “to quell” a negative desire, and ishapcha, which means “to transform” it into something positive. Prayer is the process of spiritually designed building blocks by which you can both quell and transform. Just like there is a section of prayer devoted to iskafia, the next section in prayer helps achieve ishapcha.

But first, fair warning: The section we are about to describe is but a few short words of the Shema prayer, but the accompanying meditation is quite a bit longer. In a world full of distractions, it might feel daunting to attempt to follow an entire train of thought for just a few words. And so as an author, I dare you to mentally shut off all “notifications” and challenge yourself to follow the entire train of thought on transforming the darkness into light.

The first sentence of the prayer reads as follows:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. This translates into “Hear, O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One.”

Why doesn’t the verse combine the two mentions of the word L‑rd to say, “Hear, O Israel, L‑rd our G‑d is one?” Why the repetition of the word “L‑rd,” which implies two separate statements: a) The L‑rd is our G‑d; and b) the L‑rd is One?

You guessed it! Because each of these statements are talking about entirely different levels of L‑rd—one referring to G‑d beyond the creation of the world and one referring to G‑d in connection to creating the world.

G‑d Is One

Let’s explain the second one first: Adonai Echad, “The L‑rd is One.”

It’s interesting that the prayer uses the word “one,” echad, to describe G‑d’s oneness because it can be misconstrued to imply that if G‑d is number one, then something else is number two, and He isn’t the only existence. The Shema prayer could have used a similar Hebrew word, yechid, which does not mean “one” but the “only one.”

Yet the word “one,” echad, is intentional. The word echad is written with the Hebrew letters alef, chet, dalet, which have numerical values of one, eight and four, respectively. The word echad teaches that notwithstanding the creation of the world, G‑d is still “one.” Even with the creation of seven heavens plus one earth (eight), even with the creation of the four winds or directions of the physical dimensions, G‑d is still one.

There is a deep awareness that G‑d isn’t only one G‑d, but that there’s nothing but G‑d. Saying the shema is a time to contemplate that our entire existence is due to G‑d, and therefore there is nothing but G‑d. Even after there’s an eight and a four, He is still one. Even after creating species, countries, the entire vast universe, G‑d is still one. Uni. Singular.

G‑d Is Ours

So that’s one level of G‑d that we can think about. Powerful. And yet, that is in contrast to the first part Adonai Eloheinu—“the L‑rd is our G‑d.” What do these words refer to? This refers to G‑d’s essence, which is way above and beyond any connection to a created universe.

Echad (“oneness”) does not apply to G‑d before the creation of the universe because there is nothing else: His essence is yechid, singular, for “there is nothing else.” This is a level of G‑d that is quite frankly ungraspable. How can a creation grasp his Creator? And yet, the L‑rd, His essence, is “our G‑d.”

Even angels cannot grasp this level of G‑d, and yet our souls, which are actually sourced in His essence, can. He is ours, and only we can say that He is! It’s like your soul has the capacity for a frequency range that even angels don’t have access to. This is not an intellectual understanding of G‑d but a familiarity with our essence, with our deepest self.

Think About This!

And so the meditation goes: Shema Yisrael—“Hear O Israel.” Think about this! Comprehend this! G‑d’s essence is revealed exclusively to the Jewish people, which is a direct reflection of G‑d’s immense love for His people. G‑d chose to give a literal piece of His essence to us. And this same soul, which is sourced in such a high level, descended to this physical world in stark divergence to its source of origin. It is suddenly roommates with an opposing energy—an energy that often prevents the soul from gazing at G‑d’s infinite light.

An Intense Thirst to Return to Our Source

This train of thought—of how great the soul is versus how great the descent is—arouses in the soul feelings of intense thirst and desire to return to its source, a desire to be one with G‑d-like before it inhabited a physical body with an animal soul.

It’s like the G‑dly soul starts thinking about its source, and the soul desperately wants to connect with His essence and is bursting with love, as the Shema prayer continues: ”You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart.” You feel the love, and you just want to experience “the L‑rd is our G‑d”—this special relationship with G‑d. You want the power of the animal soul not to get in the way of feeling how the L‑rd is our G‑d, our personal G‑d.

An Explosive Love for G‑d

Here’s the amazing thing: You’re setting a cycle of love in motion. You desire G‑d, He reveals a great love and that further reveals an even deeper love inside your heart that is simply explosive—a love that causes the soul to jump and dance with joy. This is not the love born through intellect but one born through revealing G‑d’s love to you in your heart. This love is so great, it is referred to as loving G‑d “with all your might.”

This love is so powerful, it is all inclusive. It has no limitations, and there is no place in the mind and heart that isn’t filled with love of G‑d. It is so potent that it takes the very nature of the animal soul and transforms it.

A Love So Strong It Transforms the Animal Soul

There you have it: You awaken such a great love that the darkness of the animal soul actually changes its nature and starts to desire holiness. The animal soul experiences such a spiritual “high” that physical pleasures don’t seem as tempting anymore. The more you focus on this meditation by Shema, the more your animal soul actually desires holiness.

The Animal Soul Begins to Desire Holiness

If you dared to read this far, that’s great! I will now take the dare a step further and dare you to meditate on this during the Shema prayer and watch your inner animal soul transform. Over time, you will find that instead of saying ”no” constantly to your animal soul for wanting something negative, you will slowly at times be able to say a resounding “yes!” to it for having a true desire for holiness.

Instead of investing energy denying the animal soul, you invest energy into transforming it so you can grant its desires in abundance. What a metamorphosis! What a game-changer to experience this transformation through love.

Soul Note: I transform my negative desires not through ammunition, but by deeply contemplating G‑d's love for me and my love for Him.

Source: The Maamar, Ki Tihiyena L’ish, in Likkutei Torah, as explained in Chassidut Mevueret, Chapter 5.