Breathing, the natural rhythm of expanding and condensing, occurs not just within the air sacs of the lungs but throughout the body, each cell gently expanding and condensing as it receives oxygen and nourishment and releases what is no longer needed. The ubiquitous process of breathing, of receiving oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, defines life itself.
Neshamah, one of the Hebrew words for breath, also means soul. The sages of the Talmud suggest that upon awakening in the morning, a person should say, Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah. “My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure.” Berakhot 60b
These simple yet potent words, now included in our traditional morning blessings, draw us back to the very dawn of our mythic creation. In Genesis 2:7 we read that God formed the human of dust from the earth and breathed into its nostrils the soul-breath of life.
Each morning, as I draw my first conscious of breaths of the day, I am transported back to that state of purity and wonder that our tradition ascribes to the first human, breathed into aliveness by the Infinite. Legend teaches that in the Garden of Eden, before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the first human could see from one end of the universe to the other. Enjoying the gift of breath, I too glimpse the vastness, the wholeness of the world. I am ensouled anew.
Elohai – my God. This prayer-word teaches me that the great cosmic mystery that breathes life into me is also very personal. The unique breath-channel that I am can draw in the very manifestation of the Unnameable that knows me intimately.
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.
Tehorah hi – it is pure. The mystics speak of five levels of soul, neshamah being the level that corresponds to the mind and heart, the wise, universal intellect. Reminding myself that each soul-breath I inhale from Source is tehorah, pure, becomes a touchstone for my day. Whatever challenges greet me, whatever missteps I take, I can return again and again to the gift of pure breath, soul, that remains unsullied, unshaken by the vicissitudes of the moment—refreshed, awakened, fully alive.
Rabbi Diane Elliot is a spiritual leader and somatic therapist who inspires her students to embody and deepen their Jewish spiritual lives through awareness and movement practices, chant and expressive arts, and nuanced interpretations of Jewish sacred text. She leads retreats, teaches nationally, and works with individuals in spiritual direction. Her recently published “This Is the Day, Poems,” inspired by the practice of counting the Omer, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her work at www.whollypresent.org.