Breathe: Yom Kippur 2021 Drash

By Alan Kosansky

A child blowing a shofar

On Yom Kippur, we read from the Machzor, “what we do this day can change our lives.” What we do from this moment until the shofar blows tomorrow night can change our lives.
This year, as last year, we are a Congregation. But we cannot congregate. The air we share may kill one of the dear friends amongst us. The simple and divine act of breathing has become a risk to our survival. It has created previously unimaginable obstacles to how we connect, how we congregate, and how we share each other’s lives. Our challenge in the coming year is how do we stay healthy and safe AND connected. How do we protect our lives and how do we imbue them with meaning through our connection to others? I believe we can answer this question if we take a few moments, both now and each day, to focus on our breath…both as the source of fears in these times of Covid, and even more so as the essence of our spiritual and physical connection to one another.
So let me share with you 5 thoughts on breath.

One, our breath connects us physically and spiritually to one another. Both in the moment, and across the centuries of time. A few years ago, in a Rosh Hashanah drash, Alex encouraged us to continue a centuries-long dialog amongst the generations of Jews that connects us to those who came before us and those who will follow us. This dialog has a physical component to it as well: Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains that in every breath we take, every inhale and word spoken, we breath in a portion of the exact same air that our ancestors breathed, and exhale atoms that our descendants will breathe for generations to come. Every single breath we take, connects us physically to our entire history, and our entire future. If we take a moment to notice this amazing scientific fact, then it connects us spiritually as well.

Two, we use our breath to inspire with word, song and sound. The shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur is simply the sound of our breath, consolidated, stretched and transformed into sound, so that we can hear in our soul the miracle of our breathing. Story-telling is another powerful form for this dialog.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov
Saw misfortune threatening the Jews
It was his custom
To go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.
There he would light a fire,
Say a special prayer,
And the miracle would be accomplished,
the misfortune averted.
Later when his disciple,
The celebrated Magid of Mezritch,
Has occasion, for the same reason,
To intercede with heaven,
He would go to the same place in the forest
And say: “Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire,
But I am still able to say the prayer.”
And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later,
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov,
Would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire,
I do not know the prayer,
But I know the place
And this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn
Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands,
He spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire
And I do not know the prayer;
I cannot even find the place in the forest.
All I can do is to tell the story,
And this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.

Three, Kol ha’olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.
The whole world
Is just a narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all

I still remember vividly the first night of Aviva, my eldest daughter’s, life. We arrived home after a long day of Pam birthing Aviva. We lay Aviva down in a basinet next to our bed and Pam promptly fell asleep from the exhaustion of the birthing experience. I lay in the still of the night, listening to each and every breath of my new daughter, she still being less than 24 hours old. I was scared. I was scared that if I was not awake to confirm each breath, how could I be sure that she would still be breathing in the morning when we awoke. It was the most significant act of faith I have ever taken to allow myself to fall asleep, and trust that Aviva would continue to breathe through the night.

In these times of Covid, living cautiously but not in fear, sometimes takes an act of faith.

[Pause]

Our first breaths are at birth, our last breaths at death. In 2012 my dad had a stroke and then 3 days later a massive stroke that left him alive only because of the ventilator that enabled him to breathe. My sister and brother and I made the hard decision to remove him from the ventilator. The doctors informed us that he would then only breathe for 20 minutes or so. My first inclination was that I did not need to be present in the room for my Dad’s dying breath. However, on further reflection I remembered the ethos of my family and my Jewish community: life is about showing up, about being present for both the big and the small moments in each other’s lives. So my sister and brother and I sat with my father as each breath became thinner and more labored, and finally the last breath passed through his lips.

A Fourth reflection on breath: while we meditate on the miracle of breath, we would do well to also remember the too many in our country who have said “I cannot breathe” as their last living word before their death. For many in our country, this has been the story of the past two years as much as Covid. Hearing the personal stories of black parents coaching their teenage children how to be extra cautious during routine traffic stops has been eye-opening, if not heart-breaking. The parallelism between this story and the covid story is striking: there is a very thin line between that which sustains and protects us and that which threatens us.
If we are to transform our own lives, we can only succeed by doing our part to transform the society in which we live. Everyone’s breath is equally miraculous, every breath matters.
Lastly, five: you may consider starting each day with the following mediation from the morning blessings: Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi. “My God, the soul, the breath, the neshamah that you have placed within me is pure”

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes: “Our minds might insist that we go directly to the Infinite when we think of God, but the heart doesn’t want the Infinite; it wants a You it can confide in and take comfort in.” Amidst the jagged and often wrenching complexities of daily life, what a balm it can be to feel the Presence as close as my breath.

[Pause]

A hasidic tale tells of the disciple who asked his rabbi the meaning of community one evening when they were all sitting around a fireplace. The rabbi sat in silence while the fire died down to a pile of glowing coals. Then he got up and took one coal out from the pile and set it apart on the stone hearth. Its fire and warmth soon died out.

[Pause]

This day of Yom Kippur is a small replica of our life. We hunger for that which we deny ourselves. We think there is a well-planned script for what we are to do, but as the day passes, we realize we are improvising and working on intuition. The final closing of the gates at the end of Neilah seems very far away, yet it will be upon us and gone in what will seem like no more than a breath.

This past 18 months of a covid-19 world is yet another reminder that there is a very thin line between that which sustains us and that which threatens us.

May the next 24 hours, and the year ahead, be the beginning of a journey for you. A journey on which, in each breath, you experience more awe than fear, more connection than separation, and may you burn brightly and warmly with those near to you.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

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