This Rosh Hashanah, Let Us Renew Our Breath

With its assault on life’s breath, COVID bears elements of a spiritual, as well as physical, ailment. We have lost touch with our communities, our families and most essentially, our breath.
September 2, 2021

As we enter a new year, the third calendar year in the Jewish calendar of the pandemic, I am haunted by the spiritual implications of COVID’s impact on our lives. With its assault on life’s breath, COVID bears elements of a spiritual, as well as physical, ailment. We have lost touch with our communities, our families and most essentially, our breath. What meaning-making might we apprehend as we live through a time where we are either dying from lack of breath or required to wear masks that inhibit our own?  If there is any message through this macabre time, it lies in the very source of scarcity for its victims—a deeper return to breath, the breath of life that sustains us and returns us.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal. In pandemic times, Rosh Hashanah is a time to renew the most elemental act of our lives: our breathing.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal. In pandemic times, Rosh Hashanah is a time to renew the most elemental act of our lives: our breathing.

Let’s start with the science: What is the best way to breathe?

Journalist James Nestor spent two weeks with his nasal passages plugged up as the subject of a scientific study on nasal breathing. Having had his own epiphany at a breath workshop, Nestor set out to deepen his understanding of the nature of breath through an empirical as well as religious lens. His seminal book on the subject, aptly called “Breath,” published earlier this year, draws those seeking a renewed relationship with this unconscious, automatic reflex. His research takes him from Silicon Valley to the dental offices of Manhattan to the catacombs of Paris and beyond. He reminds us that “the average reader will take about 10,000 breaths to read to the end of the book … and maybe, by the law of averages, you will take 670 million breaths in your lifetime.”

What makes Nestor’s book unique as a study on breath and an important work on the subject is his thesis on nasal breathing. During a visit to an anthropology museum, he stands among thousands of human skulls and learns “that of the 5,400 different species of mammals on the planet, humans are now the only ones to routinely have misaligned jaws, overbites, underbites and snuggled teeth.” As Nestor plunges deeper into his research, even taping up his nasal passages for two weeks, his data continues to support his thesis: much of humanity’s physical deterioration—aches, pains and ailments—is rooted in one simple truth: we are breathing through our mouths, rather than our noses.

For Nestor, “To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.” This requires an opening of not only our airways and nasal passages, but also our minds, hearts and souls.

God’s Breath of Life

Nasal breathing was practiced widely throughout the ancient world. 

Judaism’s acknowledgement of nasal breathing began when the God “character” thought to create a human body and animate it with the breath of life. Gathering the dust of the earth, this first subtle act, is a pinhole into the world of universal spiritual truths, as the first breath of life in the Bible was a nasal breath when God created Adam in Genesis 2:7:

“The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

When we breathe we enhance our ability to apprehend that which contains every moment as a unique and sustained moment in time—that which is godly. Breathing animates our body with a godly presence that we call our soul.

The Yod/Hey/Vov/Hey of the Tetragrammaton of God’s Name is the name that cannot be spoken. It is a Jewish involuntary reflex to replace it with Adonai or Hashem. However, indeed, it cannot be spoken, for if we were to speak this unspeakable word, what would it sound like? Take a moment to form these sounds—just two syllables. Take a deep nasal breath and listen for the whisper: Yah. Through the mouth, exhale: Vah. Drink of the breath of life. Yah-Vah. God’s name.

Deep breathing has the capacity to create a body experiencing the transcendent. Deep breathing is a conduit into the word ‘kadosh’ as the word itself is untranslatable, suggestive of a hallowed space.

Just as a deep breath fills us with godliness, it enters our body as tiny molecules and influences nearly every internal organ, serving as a switch to every major system in our body, turning it on and off. Relaxing our body, we experience the genius of homeostasis, the perfection found in digestion, the wonderment of intimacy. Deep breathing has the capacity to create a body experiencing the transcendent. Deep breathing is a conduit into the word “kadosh” as the word itself is untranslatable, suggestive of a hallowed space.

We make ourselves holy through breath.

Shallow breathing is the staccato note of alarm, the switches go haywire, and the body responds like an alarm has sounded. Check in with ourselves after a sudden loud noise or the crying of a child after hearing a crash, and there is a gasp—air has been withheld, and the body kicks into action: The adrenals kick in, fight or flight reflex is triggered and we are capable of superhuman responses, with urban legends claiming the lifting of cars and the Book of Kings’ Samson taking down the pillars of the Temple at Dagon. Breath is what makes us superhuman. And in Judaism, Breath is godly.

High Holidays and Breath

High Holidays are spiritual Iron Man Marathons. Beginning with the 9th of Av—a day to recognize the wreckage of life around us—we enter into nine weeks of an intensely reflective process engaging us in abstention, self-reckoning, reflective letters of forgiveness, horn blowing, public prayer, music, shameless displays of self-abnegation, physical expressions of purgation, and one epic day of subsisting on nothing but breath. The Jewish High Holidays are an embodied experience, demanding that we align our hearts, minds, bodies and souls. 

From the start, we are commanded to piece together the sacred fragments of what we contribute to a broken world that only each of us can personally redeem. This year, I offer that each of us possesses the very ingredient that, in its essence, is the primary element of T’shuvah (return). This secret spiritual weapon enters us the moment we are born and sustains us until our final now. This secret weapon is breath. Breath is the vehicle that animates, resuscitates and redeems us through this time. It is the engine of prayer, the nourishment through a fast, the fuel for a shofar blast, the attachment of the human form to the divine.

Breath and its connection to spirit are easily understood in English, as “Respiration” and “Spirit” are derived from the same Latin root (spir) which means “breathe, have a longing for.” The longing of yichud (oneness) with God is physically captured in our liturgical imagery throughout Elul and the High Holidays. God itself becomes a “A King in the Field.” We are face-to-face with our Lover, our Judge, our Father, our Creator. With tremulous breath, we animate our Shofar as our alarm to awaken. Our voices rise to petition “Our Father, Our King” to deal kindly with us. 

But all of these prayers are truly, just reflexive, as the Breath of Life is the Spirit moving through us all of the time—it is upon us to apprehend its enduring presence with deep inhalations or block its entry. The letters “hey” and “chet” closely resemble one another but for one tiny aperture; “hey,” which appears twice in God’s name, is open for this oxygen flow, with a “yod”-like space in its form; the letter “chet,” meaning “sin or transgression,” is completely closed.

Our ancestors were etymological wordsmiths trying to capture the human experience through language. The Hebrew of the Bible is a literary love story, filled with onomatopoeic and alliterative allusions elevating the breath of life through human form. Professor David Golomb (z”l), a Harvard-educated professor of Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew, emphasized to his first-year rabbinical students: “What differentiates the God of the Israelites from all other Ancient Near-Eastern Gods is that our God wrote.” The written tradition naturally evolved into an oral one, as the word cannot be expressed without the Breath of Life. Even the rabbinic commandment to hear the Torah read aloud transforms into a spiritual imperative when we consider that we cannot truly hear the Torah without someone breathing each word before us through a meditative chant. One human, each breath, the song of God. From the sublime to the subhuman, the very breath of life that can chant the words of God creating ex nihilo also possesses the capacity to destroy in ways that are irreparable. The rabbinic stridency toward Lashon HaRa, or evil tongue, builds out an entire ethical system committing our breath toward words that nurture and redeem life, as language is, perhaps, breath’s easiest transgression. We are called through the reckoning of the many verbal transgressions in the Al Chet prayer to release weaponizing our breath toward the detriment of others, and to rebirth ourselves with pure breath once again.

Sh’mitah: Earth’s Exhale

As we stand before 5782, we also enter into a quiescent pause in our earth cycle, as this year is earth’s year to “exhale.” Sh’mitah (literally, “release”), is the commandment that we let the earth pause, and in doing so, reclaim our own pause. Rav Kook in Shabbat Ha’Aretz writes:

“What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Sh’mitah achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant … It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life … Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life.”

Sh’mitah is an ancient agrarian technology finding its way back into modern Jewish relevance. The transvaluation of sh’mitah in 5782 requires for each of us to consider what it means to be an extension of this rhythm of nature. We are called to consider our seasons, our cycles, where our pruning has caused harm and how our harvests can become more bountiful. Sh’mitah during pandemic times is an opportunity for us to rest from all of our earthly distractions and redirect our lives to what is essential, one breath at a time.

The Breath in Pandemic Times

As High Holidays demand that we live in community, how do we reconcile this rededication of breath in community through COVID restrictions? For those of us who have no choice but to experience services through Zoom, how do we engage an embodied reciprocity of song, community and responsibility if we are siloed out in our homes? 

Absent from our community’s live, beating hearts, song and tears, might this year, more than any other, demand that we Renew our Breath and the awareness that it invites us into? How does Renewing our Breath transform our sense of our place in a world of 7 billion others? How might Renewing our Breath during a COVID pandemic chasten a harsh judgement? How does an awareness of each breath deepen our understanding that we are all living on borrowed time? Breathing through a 25-hour Yom Kippur service and meeting the moment of the Unatanneh Tokef prayer, a prayer of how we will die, is the pinnacle practice of our spiritual marathon: feast on this breath today, and may it enter our every pore, lest it be among our last.

For those of us seeking renewal in 5782, repentance begins with the breath you are taking right now. What if God’s essence in the Torah is really the breath that sustains us from our first moment to our last? What if the entire linchpin of creation hinges on our ability to self-regulate our bodies in confluence with the cosmos? When I connect myself to breath, prayer comes alive. I find myself crying, and the shell of a corroded and hardened heart softens. Breath is our vehicle to repentance, our chariot to the God of our ancestors and our companion from birth to death. If there is any lesson in the world right now, it is to renew our breath, speedily in our time. To connect with every tree, steadfastly and silently standing witness as it grants the gift of oxygen, and to offer back our carbon dioxide as a partner in creation. It is to take a breath before using that power toward harm, to pause—and to convert the destructive force of language toward a song or a sigh that will cherish instead of castigate.

To renew our breath in 5782 is to connect what we know of science with what we know of ourselves. It is to understand that each and every inhalation is graced with the gift to become the person we are meant to become.

Our time spent this High Holidays must be an exercise of this awareness. At Open Temple, our services this year will be on the beach. We will feel the ru’ach (wind) on our cheeks as we reconnect with the ru’ach (breath) that animates our bodies. 

Each of us has a unique working of creation that only we can offer; our breath is our conduit to connect to that purpose every moment of our lives until we arrive upon the moment of God’s Holy Kiss.

Let us renew. Let us slow down. Let us breathe.

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