Take a deep breath.
Catch your breath.
Don’t hold your breath.
Save your breath.
It seems that when we are overwhelmed, doing ab crunches, or panicking from the throngs of life’s most tenuous moments, we need to remind ourselves to breathe. Granted we wouldn’t suffocate, we would start breathing on our own, but why would we evolve (or be intelligently designed) to need this “life hack” to work optimally in those moments of stress? What is it about taking a breath that allows us to reset and why wouldn’t it be automatic?
I had this random thought while contemplating the oh-so-holy day of Rosh Hashanah. Many of us believe Rosh Hashanah is a commemoration for the creation of the world, but that’s actually not true. We’re celebrating the day that God created man, particularly the moment when God breathed the soul into Adam. Breathed… interesting. More specifically, the word for soul the Torah uses is neshama which literally means breath. Also interesting. And thirdly, the most essential mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, an instrument that needs quite a bit of breath to operate. So clearly, breath has a significance to our New Year. But what is that significance that we’re supposed to come away with?
That the High Holidays are a day to take a breath? Maybe, but I would think we need to do that more than once a year… probably closer to once a week. Which Shabbos already functions as. So what is the quality of breath that is unique to Rosh Hashanah and how does it help us connect to the day?
The Sounds of Shofar
The ceremony of the shofar is a sequence of sounds. There is first the Tekiah, a long broken sound. Then there is either the Shevarim, the Teruah, or a Shevarim-Teruah, broken up sounds. And finally the sequence ends with another Tekiah. Unbroken, broken, unbroken. The pattern has been compared to the history of creation which started in harmony (Garden of Eden), then fell into chaos (all of human history), and ultimately will return to harmony (the promise of the World to Come.) But a problem comes when we accept the chaos as our harmony, when we become complacent with the way things are. So the Shevarim/Teruah functions to wake us up with a discordant alarm.
It’s no coincidence that ambulance sirens and security alarms blare with the sounds they do. They are meant to shatter our focus and draw attention. From that startling, we go into stress mode. After a moment we identify the origin of the sound, most likely realizing the alarm doesn’t pertain to us. We take a breath. Reset. Then go back to our routine.
The shattering sounds of the shofar are not a car alarm from two streets over. It is meant for each and every one of us, as if our safety deposit box were being raided, our oven was on fire, and our EKG was flatlining all at once. The sound of the shofar is meant to disrupt the business-as-usual perspective we have with our lives, reminding us another year has gone by. What have we done with that year? What could be a more important alarm? But unlike those other alarms which induce panic, the sound of the shofar demands a calming breath. God is close to you because you are close to Him, so there’s only one thing you need to do to get a favorable judgment.
You’re Being Judged Today
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read Bereishis (Genesis) Chapter 21. Within that reading, Hagar and Ishmael are thrown out of Abraham’s house and left to fend for themselves. Things don’t go so well and the two end up lost in the desert. Ultimately, they run out of water and Hagar prepares to die. Then the Torah says,
“Elohim heard the voice of the lad. An angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not fear. Elohim has heard the voice of the lad in the place where he is.”… Elohim opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. (Bereishis 21:17-19)
God saves the two of them from death via a miracle. But there are two things to note. The first is a comment that Rashi makes on the line, “In the place where he is.” He mentions a Midrash that tells of the angels arguing with God, asking how God could save Ishmael when he is wicked and his children will become violent enemies of the Jews. To that God responds, Right now, at this moment, is he wicked or righteous? It is according to his present deeds that I judge him.
The second thing to note is the name of God that is used. When the Torah uses the name י-ה-ו-ה, which we would pronounce Adonai, it is a name we believe as being merciful. You really deserve a full punishment, but because God loves you and understands what you’re going through, He gives you a break. But that’s not the name the Torah uses in this passage. Here it uses Elohim, which we associate with judgment and the laws of nature. If you jump off a cliff, it doesn’t matter how good a person you are, gravity is going to do its thing. So you would think in this moment of salvation we would see י-ה-ו-ה. What the Torah is telling us is that when we are righteous, a tzaddik, it is part of the design of nature to save you.
On Rosh Hashanah, when we stand in judgement before God, we are being judged as we are at that moment. Not what we were, not what we have the potential to be, not for the mistakes we’re going to make. But who we are at that moment.
The Breath of Rebirth
Arguably the most important breath of our life is the very first one. After 9 months of being sustained by the umbilical cord, the newborn has its first breath, a cry of life. Which doesn’t sound all that dissimilar to a shofar blast. The Rabbis even say that when God blew the neshama into Adam, it made the sound of the shofar. Clearly the shofar is connected to these first breaths of life.
We know that the Jewish concept of time isn’t that it is a straight line or a circle, but a spiral. It has direction, but is filled with opportunities throughout the year to take advantage of. The birth of Adam is the event we can tap into on Rosh Hashanah which means we have the opportunity to be reborn unlike any other time in the year. In fact, it is said that when God creates our existence, He does so in the unit of a year. He makes history one year at a time. Rosh Hashanah is when Hashem does that. Everything that happens over the next year is decided on Rosh Hashanah, who will live, who will die, how much money you will make, etc. But that creation is a partnership.
Your part in that partnership is from your judgment. Who you are at the moment of your judgement. It’s brought down in Chassidis – In the place where a person’s thoughts are, that’s where he is. Meaning that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what you’ve missed out on, it is where ever you sincerely are at that moment — what you want out of life, what you intend to change — that’s what you’re being judged according to.
Granted you can’t be a self deluded narcissist who thinks they are a tzaddik when in actuality they are quite wicked. It means you have to pull yourself out of your life, wake up, and see that you’ve got changes to make. But if you envision a true and connected life for yourself, that’s what God judges you on for the next year. In order to make that reconciliation of life, that cheshbon hanefesh, you’d better believe you’ll need to take a breath.
A Year of Shattering
If there was ever a year to shatter our status quo, you’d better believe it was 5780. I doubt there is one person on this planet that’s not been jarred from their routine. Then on top of that, the way Coronavirus most likely killed someone was through the obstruction of breath. And it wasn’t long before we learned that surfaces weren’t so much the problem as it was our breath that transmitted the virus and thus we needed the filter of the face mask.
Regardless of your political leanings or your perspective on the protests/riots, the cry of the Black Lives Matter movement became the final words of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” Similarly, those protesting mask wearing rallied behind the same phrase.
2020 started with the wildfires of Australia and currently California is suffering the same plague with the worst air quality on the planet.
There is a message being sent to us. There is a shattering of our status quo and it is clearly connected to our breath. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler said in his book Strive for Truth (Rosh Hashanah 1949),
“For Teruah (the broken sound of the shofar) is the secret of teshuvah. It is a secret hidden from everybody, except the valiant few who are on that level to realize that established patterns must sometimes be broken if a truer life is to emerge… Israel knows how to placate its Creator with the Teruah, so that He moves from the throne of judgement to the throne of mercy and changes judgment to mercy for His people. When Israel shows its readiness to accept the shattering impact of the Teruah on their life style to make vital sacrifices for God and His Torah, the accuser (aka the Satan) is silenced…. “Where there is judgment here below, there is no judgment Above.'”
In short, when we make the necessary realizations ourselves, that functions as us making a judgment on our lives, rendering the judgment of God unnecessary.
When we realize that Creation will end in a Tekiah, a Tekiah Gedola in fact, it allows us to trust in God that it is all going to work out for good. That trust serves to take us out of our worked up state of anxiety. So take a breath. Reset from the fight or flight tension that would come from the anticipation of sitting in mortal judgment. Then decide what it is you would do if God promised you only one more year. Finally, listen deeply to the call of the shofar as it ushers you to reconnect with the most holy, salient, and essential part of your neshama. A connection that can only be reached through the deepest of breaths.