YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE: An Essay by Rabbi Donna Berman

by | Feb 20, 2021

August 5, 2020

In Hebrew, there are three words–nefeshneshama and ruach—that, with slight nuances, all mean “soul” or “spirit.”  What’s interesting is that all three words also mean “breath.”

What is the connection between soul, spirit and breath?  In the creation story in the Hebrew Bible, God breathed life into the first human being.  In this first act of mouth to mouth (re)suscitation, an intimate transfer took place between God and humans—our breath and God’s breath intermingled.  It makes sense, then, that people came to think of the breath as something holy, as our very souls, the piece of God that dwells within us.   

This knowledge explains a lot including why people say “God bless you,” when someone sneezes.  If the soul is found in the breath, sneezing is a scary business.  During a sneeze, after all, the breath leaves the body.  We offer a blessing in response, to ensure that the breath, that life itself, will return and be restored.  It is interesting, too, that focus on the breath is the pathway to awareness in mindfulness practices, including meditation.  It makes sense that breathing is such an essential part of the birthing process, in the moments just before the arrival into the world of a new soul.  It is also the reason, I have come to believe, that another name for French kissing is “soul kissing.”  When our breaths mingle, our souls mingle, too, and isn’t that what love is? 

It’s always fascinating to learn facts like this.  Things start to fall into place.  Idiosyncratic expressions start to make sense. The puzzle pieces begin to fit together.  It’s a satisfying feeling. 

In this unsettling moment in history in which we find ourselves, the view of the breath as the locus of the soul may also offer some much-needed guidance–one might say, a breath of fresh air.  

For example, the fires raging in Australia’s rainforest, last fall, come into further relief viewed through the lens of this knowledge.  Referred to by some as “the lungs of the world,” the rainforest–and the creatures who normally thrive there–were ravaged by those fires. This was devastating not only because of the suffering and loss of magnificent life, the heart-breaking images, the heart-wrenching sounds, but because, as “the lungs of the world,” the rainforest, we now know, would not only be a source of the world’s oxygen, but a wondrous container holding the earth’s soul, our collective soul.  Its destruction was excruciating for the entire web of life.  It was not a distant story.  It was our story and that explains the grief so many of us, even those of us safe on the other side of the world, experienced as we watched those fires burn.  A part of us was dying, too.  

Then, came COVID-19.  This relentless virus, in one of its most virulent forms, mercilessly strikes at its victims’ lungs.  The opposite of God filling our lungs with air, the virus sucks the air out of us.  In this way, it is not just an attack on our bodies, but on our souls.  

And then the murder of George Floyd.  We watched as Derek Chauvin jammed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck.  We listened as Mr. Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe,” a cry that reverberated around the world and, yet, when there was still a chance of saving his life, went unheeded. Without knowing it, we probably held our own breath, as we witnessed this act of sheer brutality.

And George Floyd was not the only victim of police violence to utter those haunting words.  The NY Times reports that 70 of those murdered at the hand of the police frantically communicated that they couldn’t breathe before their souls permanently left their bodies as the result of the abuse they endured.  The truth is only people whose own souls had been stolen could perform such an act of malevolence.  The truth is only people/a nation/a world whose own soul has been stolen could allow it. 
It does seem like the whole world is gasping for air, trying desperately to reclaim our souls, souls that have been deadened, damaged by the onslaught of cruelty beyond words that has played itself out around the globe and in our own country in the past few years.  From seeing children being separated from their parents and imprisoned in cages where they endure the most inhumane conditions, to watching the wanton destruction of the earth and the willful disregard for the sanctity of all of creation, to hearing immigrants being vilified and abused, to witnessing the attacks on the rights of transgender people and the insults and attempts at humiliating anyone seen as “the opposition,” to seeing the souls of black and brown people assaulted in state-condoned violence, we have lost our own souls.  By most measures, we are languishing.

We cannot survive this way.  Without our souls, we are zombies, nothing more than the computers with which we have become obsessed, vacant beings capable merely of computation, repositories of information, not the deep wells of wisdom human beings are meant to be.  The soul is not only the seat of our divinity, it houses our moral compass and, therefore, is the seat of our very humanity.  Without it we are capable of tremendous destruction.  Able to breathe and nourish our souls, we are capable of tremendous kindness, empathy, compassion and creativity.  

In 1883, Emma Lazarus, a young Jewish woman, wrote the poem that would, eventually, be inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  It’s most famous line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” echoes through the generations and is a clarion call in our own.  Because aren’t we are all, immigrants and native born alike, at this point, yearning to breathe free? Free of the toxins of racism and hate and injustice and violence that fill the air?  Free of the coronavirus and the virus of lies.  Free of the privileging of political expediency and personal gain over what is right and fair that, no less than COVID-19, threatens our very lives?  

A protestor, Darrell Keaton, Sr., was recently quoted in the NY Times as saying, “We have just been racking our brains and screaming at the top of our lungs for so many years that we’re going to need other people to stand up alongside the black community to achieve anything.”

In Gaelic, the term anam cara means “soul friend.”  At this moment in history, we are being called to be soul friends to one another, protectors of the breath of life because, let’s face it, souls are a threat, a formidable foe, to those who are on the death march of greed.  Therefore, until our last breath, let us raise our voices.  Let us protest and be relentless in calling out what is unjust.  Let us make sure our representatives understand that we will not be silent in the face of the suffering of communities of color, of immigrants, of those for whom the American Dream is at best a chimera, at worst a nightmare.  Let us stand with each other and against anything that defames the sanctity of life.  Let us take to heart that first Divine soul kiss, that act of deepest love for all living things.  Let us care for each other with a love as deep, a love expansive enough to breathe new life into the very soul of our fractured world. If ever we needed the awakening and renewal wrought by the tenderness of a kiss, it is now.  

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