Last Shabbat, when the news spread that Joe Biden had won, I breathed a sigh of relief. Along with my family and millions in the U.S. and the world over I felt that a massive burden had been lifted from our shoulders and that we could, therefore, breathe freely again.
Then it struck me that this idea of being able to breathe again was a potent metaphor for the trifecta of maladies that has afflicted us most recently. I am referring, of course, to the coronavirus that attacks and damages the lungs affecting our capacity to breathe, to climate catastrophes that have caused forests to be set alight and burn yielding suffocating smoke that impedes our breathing and finally to George Floyd whose cry “I can’t breathe” echoed the cries of numerous other brutalized African Americans as their breath was choked off by racist law enforcement officers.
Breath, the Bible teaches, is the gift of God who breathed life into created humanity. It is a divine “substance” with which we engage in a continuous rhythmic cycle that brings into us the life force, the source of our vitality. It is a cycle that is best described in spiritual terms as internalization. In fact, conscious breathing is at the heart of all meditative practice. This is the process by which we journey inward to discover our essence.
In the Hebrew language that essence is called neshama, or soul. And breathing is termed neshima. Breath and soul share a common root. And breath is precisely what we share with our fellow humans and nature itself. It is the “stuff” that binds us together as God’s creations.
So, perhaps, last Shabbat as so many of us sensed that we could breathe again, energized by the extra soulfulness of the special Shabbat neshama, we were embarking on the road to reclaiming our collective soul, the spirit of freedom, dignity and mutual respect upon which America was founded. I further hope that our renewed spirit will inspire the nation to recover its commitment to a principled inclusivity, to concern for the environment and to the common good in pursuit of a reinvigorated democracy. Let us commence this rebuilding together.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is Director Emeritus, UCLA Hillel and Senior Faculty, Shalom Hartman Institute, NA.