Okay, let’s take a breath. Catch our breath. It’s the most personal of activities, it happens anyway. Day and night, ceaselessly, breathing, in and out. Until it stops. Until we stop. It’s the most universal of activities – breathing – it connects us with each other, with all human beings, human life, animal life, plant life. It’s breath-taking, when you think about it, this most personal, most universal of processes.
It’s there too at the foundation of our tradition, in one of Judaism’s most poetic and essential Biblical verses – as humanity is created from the dust of the ground, the divine spirit is portrayed as entering into us through our nostrils as God inspires us – blows into us – the nishmat hayyim, the breath of life, the spirit of aliveness. (Genesis 2:7). The creation of humanity is God’s inspiration – in all the ways that word can be understood.
So our breath, our breathing, day in, day out – and right now – is a trace of divine activity, a sign of God’s ongoing being and presence.
So maybe when I say ‘let’s take a breath’, ‘let’s catch our breath’, that’s the wrong way round – because it’s the breath that takes us, that animates us, that keeps us alive, we don’t create the breath, the breath creates us, we float along on the waves of our breathing like a little boat bobbing on a vast sea. (Mixed metaphor, but forgive me for that).
When the rabbis of old reflected on this verse, delving into its meaning, weaving stories round its imagery, one of the things they focused on was the imagery of the dust of the ground from which humanity was formed; and they asked, in that slightly pedantic but scrupulous way that was their wont, ‘If God created us from dust of the earth, what part of the world’s dust did he use? Where did he collect it from?’. And there was inevitably a debate, a conversation about this, and there were those – the nationalists, the ethno-racial particularists – who took the view that of course God used the dust from the land of Israel, specifically the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Temple and the Holy of Holies would be built.
But Rabbi Meir disagreed (this is in the second century): ‘No’, he said, ‘God took the dust from every part of the earth that would one day be inhabited by humanity. That’s what was used.’ This is to teach us – though he chose not to spell this out, or at least the Talmud doesn’t record it, but let us work it out – this is to teach us that all of humanity, every region and race and culture and religion, every human being, male and female, share in God’s inspiration, God’s breathing life into each one of us. The essential equality of human beings in this version – Meir’s universalistic reading of the text – is what informs Judaism’s opposition to racism, it’s at the foundation of A.J.Heschel’s prophet-like words we heard earlier. [extracted from his remarkable 1963 speech]
I have obviously been thinking a lot – as I’m sure you have too – over these last few weeks about “I can’t breath” and the power of the feelings, world-wide, unleashed in reaction to the breath of life being squeezed out of one man by another.
I’m not sure if I have anything very original to say about this, but maybe what makes that phrase so resonant is that it does touch a universal chord in so many of us; because the very issue of breathing (and being deprived of breath) has both a literal and a metaphorical hold on us and our lives. Particularly at the moment. That beyond the specific theme of murder, and the ugliness and evils of racism, the universal pandemic of Covid 19 has been a virus that attacks our breathing. We are all walking around feeling – to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on our circumstances and personalities and psychologies – but walking around fearing that “I can’t breath” could become our own experience. And for black and Asian communities (BAME communities) these themes of racism and the virus of course intersect, in that certain ethnic groups, for multiple reasons, social and economic and political, have been more vulnerable to the virus than other demographics, and are dying in greater numbers.
But also we know that “I can’t breath” resonates in increasingly larger concentric circles in societies world wide. Whether it is in relation to the environment and the deadly toxicity in the air we breath, shortening lives, contributing to other illnesses, damaging the brains of children as they grow, attacking the natural world that we depend on; or whether it is in terms of those social and economic conditions around the world that breed inequality, that stunt lives, that choke potential, that strangle the hope out of individuals and communities, “I can’t breath” is the deep underlying unspoken cry of the heart wherever oppression and victimisation and inequality are present.
Unspoken until it is spoken. Unspoken until people watch one man, in Minneapolis, having the breath of life choked out of him by another man. Unspoken until that man, in his dying breath speaks the words that ignite a recognition in so many others that in his last words he is, unbeknownst to himself, speaking for so many, in so many other situations. He speaks to humanity, he speaks for humanity.
Nishmat kol chai tvarech et shimcha, Adonai Elohaynu – “The breath of all life blesses your Being…”
Our liturgy acknowledges, every day, that breathing is a blessing, it is a gift, it doesn’t belong to us, it passes through us, this breath of life, it makes us humble, it’s what we use to acknowledge our dependence. We can use our breath to bless or to curse, to create or to destroy, to inspire or to deaden. Let’s enjoy this gift, while we can. We won’t have it forever.