To Seek Justice, First Just Breathe

George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Freddie Gray in Baltimore did too. In New York, it was Eric Garner. Dozens of people over the past decade have died due to “asphyxia/restraint,” police holds that blocked their airways until their bodies simply could not endure. Many more have perished but were never able to say “I can’t breathe” before they died. The suffocation of human beings, disproportionately, but not exclusively, Black men, horrified the world and led to Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murder last April. Few of us can imagine a worse fate than to be denied access to the elemental function of breathing.

Jewish tradition invites us to pay closer attention to breathing, to not take it for granted. An introductory prayer to the Shabbat morning service proclaims: “All breathing life adores Your Name…. These limbs which You formed for us, this soul-force which You breathed into us, this tongue which You set in our mouth, must laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing Your holiness and sovereignty!”

The liturgy draws inspiration from the second chapter of Genesis in which God creates humanity through breath. “God formed man from the dust of the earth. [God] blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew for “life breath” is nishmat chayim, from which the word neshama (soul) is derived. Our souls are not fixed but animated by God’s breath flowing into us. Humanity’s first act was not to speak but to breathe, specifically to inhale. Just as a baby’s first act is to find its breath before beginning to cry.

During my sabbatical these past months, I have had ample opportunity to focus on breathing and have been amazed to discover how often I take it for granted. For example, when I was preparing for my open water Scuba certification on Maui, my instructor told us we would be hearing whale song during our dives. Two-thirds of all North Pacific humpback whales migrate to the Hawaiian Islands for breeding during the winter months. Sound travels much better through water than air. At 20–30-foot depths, I looked forward to a magical serenade. But as I donned my gear and submerged, I didn’t hear whales. I didn’t hear anything but noisy bubbles I emitted through my regulator.

Meditative practices like Yoga, too, demand that practitioners focus on their breath. One learns to exhale all that clutters the mind and clogs the soul through slow, rhythmic breathing. But before we exhale, we must have air in our lungs. Before we can speak, we must breathe.  

How do we make meaningful change in this world filled with so much noise, so many cries of desperation? Understandably, we often focus on speech. We write, protest, and advocate. Speech, too, is a central Jewish value. God speaks the world into existence: “Let there be light. And there was light” (Gen 1:3). The morning liturgy also includes the hymn: “Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into being.” The Bible links harmful speech to the persistence of injustice: “A malicious witness scoffs at justice, And the speech of the wicked conceals mischief” (Proverbs 19:28).

But Jewish tradition also cautions against too much speech and not enough listening. Sefer Yetzirah, an early mystical text, points out that the human head has seven openings equivalent to the seven days of creation: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth. The implication is that we should utilize our senses, especially listening, twice as often as we speak.

When we speak it’s hard to listen, and without listening our speech is rarely productive. But before there was listening or speech, there was breath. When we’re attentive to our breath, we observe the world in ways previously unavailable to us. Scuba diving that first day, it took me a while to figure out why I didn’t notice the humpback whales. I was so focused on getting air into my lungs, I could only hear the result – the bubbles. I wasn’t paying attention to my inhalations, so I wasn’t listening. When I allowed myself into the quiet, suddenly there they were! The next two days were a symphony of whale song.

ISO Wholeness

Not long ago, my family and I were staying at a hotel in Southern California. I went to retrieve my rental car from the underground parking lot. As I approached the vehicle, I noticed a custodial employee methodically wiping down the exterior of a trash can. I found myself staring at the man for a long minute wondering what motivated him to pay such attention to detail. At first, I discovered myself dismissing the behavior as absurd – why would anyone bother to clean a garbage can? In a garage? Maybe his boss was overly fastidious? Or petty? Maybe the expectations for trash can cleanliness are different in California than in Maryland? But as I watched him, my thinking softened. Maybe he simply took pride in his work? Maybe he walked away from that trash can with a sense of fulfillment, knowing that before clocking out, when he scanned that garage with his gaze, every corner looked unsullied and tidy? 

So often we evaluate behavior, of ourselves and others, based on whether it’s good or bad. Jewish tradition certainly offers moral judgments; our God is a God of justice. But this is not the only lens through which to view the world. Often, a better question to ask ourselves isn’t whether some human act is right or wrong but whether it adds value, whether it moves someone toward a life of greater fulfillment.  

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a seminal voice in the modern Mussar movement. Morinis: “…Luzzatto tells us that as humans we are all placed between wholeness and deficiency with the power to earn wholeness. Man must earn this wholeness, however, through his own free will.” It seems to me that religions too often talk about how we move on a spectrum between evil and goodness, wrong and right. This is useful in addressing ethical questions but falls short when addressing quality of life.  

Another paradigm is that of brokenness and repair. This paradigm also has its merits, but its shortcomings are two-fold. First, the repair of something broken brings it back to a previously functional state but does nothing to advance it. Repair is about reinstatement not improvement. But there’s a more insidious problem with the brokenness/repair model. Things can be broken and fixed. They don’t notice they are broken. They’re things.  

People who feel broken (or, frequently, who are made to feel broken) struggle to mend because feeling broken is constitutionally debilitating when, as Luzzatto taught, our souls crave wholeness. The same is true for communities and societies. When people talk about Baltimore as “broken,” it does little to make Baltimoreans feels good about our prospects for improvement.  

I once wrote a piece (cross-published in Jmore) about the tikkun olam paradigm, popular in Jewish justice circles but which I feel is problematic. “The tikkun olam paradigm,” I wrote, “means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit (Genesis),though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.” 

This is why Rabbi Luzzatto’s paradigm of deficiency and wholeness is useful. Maybe the California custodian who meticulously wiped down that trash can isn’t an “entropy janitor” but on a quest for sheleimut, wholeness and fulfillment. Maybe more of us would thrive if we could see ourselves on a path forward and upward instead of feeling broken or breaking and in constant need of repair. Baltimore has endemic problems to be sure, but ours is not a “problematic” city. If only more would look at our city with at least the same sense of pride as I witnessed one day in a California garage.

A version of this post will appear in the February issue of Jmore.