January 6, 2005
Learning to Breathe
Parshat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
For the last several years I have had a relationship with a man in prison, and I have seen how his soul has become anguished and diminished by sitting in that cell.
I met William after he was released from prison the first time, and I helped him get back on his feet. Now I write him words of comfort from the Psalms, from the Torah and from meditations that I have found to enhance an ailing spirit.
However, I have never been in prison and can barely imagine what it must be like. The Ba'al Shem Tov teaches that the soul can be compared to a piece of coal. If even the smallest spark remains, it can be fanned into a large flame; but if the spark is extinguished, the coal's life is over. In attempting to keep William hopeful, I have learned a great deal about the human will and the effect of enslavement on the soul. In that, William's story relates to this week's parsha.
After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses is sent to redeem the people. "And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they couldn't hear Moses because of an impoverished spirit and difficult work" (Exodus 6:9). I have long been fascinated by this existential verse in the midst of the redemption drama. Rarely do we as readers get an insight into the inner life of an individual character in the Bible, let alone into the psyche of the nation as a whole. Rashi teaches that kotzer ruach, the "impoverished spirit," refers to "anyone who is troubled; they have short wind and breathing, and are not able to take a deep breath." Rashi creates this drash by relating the word for short (kotzer) and troubled/despair (maitzar). In addition, maitzar is the same root as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim. When we are enslaved, our breath, our neshimah, is shallow and our soul, our neshamah, is unable to expand to its full potential.
Judaism offers us an exodus from our mental slavery, but many of us are too stuck in our ways to hear the call. We are begging for ways to make our lives more meaningful, richer in spirit, holier in essence. Yet, when I suggest Shabbat, prayer, tikkun olam, a life of mitzvot, the most common answer I hear is, "Sounds great rabbi, but I can't. It is too different or too difficult. I don't want to make changes that will make my life unfamiliar."
This is our contemporary slavery -- our Egypt is familiarity and complacency, and they are hard shackles to break. However, if we do not break them, our souls perish from lack of air and shortness of breath.
William's incarceration is perhaps easier to understand than the spiritual enslavement I believe keeps the souls of many supposedly free people locked away. So many of us are living, without really knowing it, in our own Egypt. And the scariest part is that we do it voluntarily. Unlike my friend, William, whose imprisonment is an easily recognizable consequence of his actions, many of us have unwittingly allowed our souls to be shortened and our breath squelched in our pursuit of "happiness." We are all slaves to something -- time, work, bad habits, money, greed, insecurity, whatever. But our souls cannot survive without being nourished; and when they are not, it becomes almost impossible for us to realize that freedom, spiritual freedom, is attainable. The Israelites couldn't hear Moses because their souls were buried and their breath, the source of life, had been shortened; likewise, we cannot hear the cry of our spirits because we are too busy and too afraid to truly listen to our own hearts.
In his comment on this verse, the Sfat Emet spells it out for us: hearing requires being empty of everything. How difficult this was for the enslaved Israelites, and how difficult for us; our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world's vanities, prevents our hearts from being empty and free to hear God's word. This is why we mention the Exodus in the blessing after the Shema -- we must remind ourselves daily to strive for freedom in order to hear, and to strive to hear in order to be free.
Every morning when I open my eyes, I say the words, "Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hee" -- "My God, the soul which you placed in me is pure." This short meditation is what helps me to keep from drowning in my own slave mentality. I sent this message to William in my last letter; I reminded him that the Israelites, in their slavery, forgot to breathe and lost touch with their eternal, spiritual freedom. I prayed that he would keep breathing and expanding his soul so that when his physical freedom came, he could be ready to make the most of it. And that is my prayer for all of us, as a community, a nation and a universe. When redemption calls, may we have sufficient breath to answer.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. His first book, "Seeking Holiness," has just been published and is available at www.pjtc.net. He is a certified Jewish meditation instructor and a member of the Southern California Rabbinical Council of Americans for Peace Now.