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.