Learning to Breathe


 

For the last several years I have had a relationship with a man in prison, and I have seen how his soul has become anguished and diminished by sitting in that cell.

I met William after he was released from prison the first time, and I helped him get back on his feet. Now I write him words of comfort from the Psalms, from the Torah and from meditations that I have found to enhance an ailing spirit.

However, I have never been in prison and can barely imagine what it must be like. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the soul can be compared to a piece of coal. If even the smallest spark remains, it can be fanned into a large flame; but if the spark is extinguished, the coal’s life is over. In attempting to keep William hopeful, I have learned a great deal about the human will and the effect of enslavement on the soul. In that, William’s story relates to this week’s parsha.

After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses is sent to redeem the people. “And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they couldn’t hear Moses because of an impoverished spirit and difficult work” (Exodus 6:9). I have long been fascinated by this existential verse in the midst of the redemption drama. Rarely do we as readers get an insight into the inner life of an individual character in the Bible, let alone into the psyche of the nation as a whole. Rashi teaches that kotzer ruach, the “impoverished spirit,” refers to “anyone who is troubled; they have short wind and breathing, and are not able to take a deep breath.” Rashi creates this drash by relating the word for short (kotzer) and troubled/despair (maitzar). In addition, maitzar is the same root as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim. When we are enslaved, our breath, our neshimah, is shallow and our soul, our neshamah, is unable to expand to its full potential.

Judaism offers us an exodus from our mental slavery, but many of us are too stuck in our ways to hear the call. We are begging for ways to make our lives more meaningful, richer in spirit, holier in essence. Yet, when I suggest Shabbat, prayer, tikkun olam, a life of mitzvot, the most common answer I hear is, “Sounds great rabbi, but I can’t. It is too different or too difficult. I don’t want to make changes that will make my life unfamiliar.”

This is our contemporary slavery — our Egypt is familiarity and complacency, and they are hard shackles to break. However, if we do not break them, our souls perish from lack of air and shortness of breath.

William’s incarceration is perhaps easier to understand than the spiritual enslavement I believe keeps the souls of many supposedly free people locked away. So many of us are living, without really knowing it, in our own Egypt. And the scariest part is that we do it voluntarily. Unlike my friend, William, whose imprisonment is an easily recognizable consequence of his actions, many of us have unwittingly allowed our souls to be shortened and our breath squelched in our pursuit of “happiness.” We are all slaves to something — time, work, bad habits, money, greed, insecurity, whatever. But our souls cannot survive without being nourished; and when they are not, it becomes almost impossible for us to realize that freedom, spiritual freedom, is attainable. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because their souls were buried and their breath, the source of life, had been shortened; likewise, we cannot hear the cry of our spirits because we are too busy and too afraid to truly listen to our own hearts.

In his comment on this verse, the Sfat Emet spells it out for us: hearing requires being empty of everything. How difficult this was for the enslaved Israelites, and how difficult for us; our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world’s vanities, prevents our hearts from being empty and free to hear God’s word. This is why we mention the Exodus in the blessing after the Shema — we must remind ourselves daily to strive for freedom in order to hear, and to strive to hear in order to be free.

Every morning when I open my eyes, I say the words, “Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hee” — “My God, the soul which you placed in me is pure.” This short meditation is what helps me to keep from drowning in my own slave mentality. I sent this message to William in my last letter; I reminded him that the Israelites, in their slavery, forgot to breathe and lost touch with their eternal, spiritual freedom. I prayed that he would keep breathing and expanding his soul so that when his physical freedom came, he could be ready to make the most of it. And that is my prayer for all of us, as a community, a nation and a universe. When redemption calls, may we have sufficient breath to answer.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. His first book, “Seeking Holiness,” has just been published and is available at www.pjtc.net. He is a certified Jewish meditation instructor and a member of the Southern California Rabbinical Council of Americans for Peace Now.

 

Elder Rage: What I Know Now


For 11 years. I begged my obstinate elderly father to allow a caregiver to help him with my ailing mother, but he adamantly insisted on taking care of her himself. Every caregiver I hired to help him said, “Jacqueline, I just can’t work with your father — his temper is impossible to handle. I don’t think you’ll be able to get him to accept help until he’s on his knees himself.”

My father had always been 90 percent wonderful, but that raging temper was a doozy. He had never turned his temper on me before, but I’d never gone against his wishes either. When my mother nearly died from my father’s inability to care for her, I had to step in and risk his wrath to save her life — having no idea that in the process it would nearly cost me my own.

Jekyll & Hyde

I spent months nursing my mother back to “health,” while my father, who was nice to me one minute, would get mad about some trivial thing and throw me out of the house the next. I was stunned to see him get so upset over the most ridiculous things, even running the washing machine could cause a tizzy, and there was no way to reason with him. It was so heart wrenching to have my once-adoring father turn against me.

I took my father to his doctor and was astonished that he could act completely normal when he needed to. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor looked at me like I was the crazy one. Much later I found out that my father had told her not to listen to anything I said, because all I wanted was his money. (Boy do I wish he had some.)

My father had never laid a hand on me my whole life, but one day he choked me for adding HBO to his cable package, even though he had eagerly consented to it just a few days before. Terrified and devastated, I frantically called the police who took him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. I was stunned when they quickly released him, saying they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Similar incidents occurred four times.

I couldn’t leave him alone with my mother, because she’d surely die from his inability to care for her. I couldn’t get the doctors to believe me, because he was always so normal in front of them. I couldn’t get medication to calm him, and even when I did, he refused to take it and flushed it down the toilet. I couldn’t get him to accept a caregiver, and even when I did, no one would put up with him for very long. I couldn’t place my mother in a nursing home — he’d just take her out. I couldn’t put him in a home — he didn’t qualify. They both refused any mention of assisted living and, legally, I couldn’t force them. I became trapped at my parents’ home for nearly a year trying to solve the endless crisis — crying rivers daily, and infuriated with an unsympathetic medical system that wasn’t helping me appropriately.

What’s Wrong?

You don’t need a doctorate to know something is wrong, but you do need a doctor who can diagnose and treat it properly. Finally, I stumbled upon a compassionate geriatric dementia specialist who performed a battery of blood, neurological and memory tests, along with PET scans. He ruled out the numerous reversible dementias, and then you should have seen my face drop when he diagnosed stage-one Alzheimer’s in both of my parents — something that all of their other doctors missed entirely.

What I’d been coping with was the beginning of dementia, which is intermittent and appears to come and go. My father was still socially adjusted to never show his “Hyde” side to anyone outside the family. Even with the beginning of dementia, it was amazing that he could still be extremely manipulative and crafty.

Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia, and there’s no stopping the progression nor is there yet a cure. However, if identified early, there are medications that can slow the progression and keep a person in stage one longer and delay full-time care.

In addition to slowing the dementia process, the doctor also prescribed anti-depressants, which made a huge difference in my parents’ moods. My father also received anti-aggression medication, which smoothed out his damaged impulse control. Once their brain chemistries were properly balanced, I was better able to implement behavioral techniques to manage the changing behaviors. Then, I was finally able to get my father to accept a caregiver, and with the use of adult day health care for them, and a support group for me, everything finally started to fall into place.

One out of every 10 persons by the age of 65 gets Alzheimer’s, and nearly one out of every two by age 85. Had I been shown the “10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s,” I would have realized a year earlier what was happening. If this rings true for you about someone you love, I urge you to reach out for help sooner than later.


Ten Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

1. Recent memory loss that affects job skills

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

3. Problems with language

4. Disorientation of time and place

5. Poor or decreased judgment

6. Problems with abstract thinking

7. Misplacing things

8. Changes in mood or behavior

9. Changes in personality

10. Loss of initiative

Jacqueline Marcell is an author, radio host, national speaker and advocate
for eldercare awareness and reform. She wrote “Elder Rage, or Take My Father…
Please! How to Survive Caring For Aging Parents” (Impressive Press, 2001). Visit

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