Lately, I find myself thinking about breath.
We breathe–and punctuate those breaths–in order to make the distinct sounds of the shofar when we blow it on Rosh HaShanah. As Rosh HaShanah marks the first day of God’s Creation of the World, I also think about the Divine breath that “hovered over the water,” before the Divine speech brought light into the world. Breath also played a crucial role in the creation of the human, which according to tradition took place on the first day of Tishrei. That day, God blew the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, and in doing so, transformed Adam from a lump of clay into a living being.
Our ability to breathe is essential to our ability to live. From a halakhic point of view, the ability to breathe may mark the exact line between life and death. And yet until recently, I think it is fair to say that most of us took the ability to breathe for granted.
Not anymore, however. We are now entering our second Rosh HaShanah since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals with COVID-19 often experience shortness of breath and severe difficulty while breathing, sometimes fatally so. The rest of us wear masks to prevent transmission of the virus, at times belaboring our breathing and making us highly conscious of our breath, of the air we breathe in and the air we breathe out. Our collected breath isn’t just at risk due to COVID-19. Fires, air pollution, and other harbingers of the climate crisis endanger our society’s ability as a whole to breathe healthy air. And we remain haunted by the tragic, repeated words uttered by George Floyd as his life was being choked out of him: “I can’t breathe.”
So starting this Rosh HaShanah, I ask that we all take a moment to simply focus on our breathing. Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in. When a spouse, or parent, or sibling, says something that pushes your buttons, pause. Now hold your breath; don’t respond right away. Understand where it is coming from. Gain some distance. Breathe out. Air out how you are feeling, but do so in a way that gives space, that gives life, that allows the other to breathe as well.
Breathe in, and appreciate the life and the soul that God has given you. Breathe out, and consider how you can give both breath and life to others–those who gasp for air, who gasp for health, and for access to life-giving healthcare.
Breathe in, and experience the air entering our body, the air that surrounds us, and that fills our lungs and feeds our bodies. Breathe out, and consider what we will do to preserve that precious, precarious air, to protect our climate so that it continues to sustain and give life.
May this coming year be one filled with the breath of life. Let us remember to breathe in, to fill ourselves with those things which give us life, and to breathe out, to bring that life and spirit into the world at large, and to those closest to us.
Rabbi Dov Linzer