Kol Haneshamah: Every Breath (Kol Nidrei 5784, September 24, 2023)
Kol Haneshamah: Every Breath
Kol Nidrei 5784
September 24, 2023
Rabbi David S. Widzer
Over the summer, Karen and I went to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra debut “Rent in Concert,” a symphonic rendering of the Broadway show. (Did anyone else get a chance to see it?) It was pretty tremendous. They had a whole host of Broadway and DC theatre stars singing the roles, backed by the magnificent orchestra. When Rent was first on Broadway, we were living in New York and saw it multiple times. It is one of a few shows whose lyrics and lines I can pretty much recite in their entirety. If you know the show, you know that one of the signature pieces from Rent is called “Seasons of Love.” It begins:
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year? 
That’s a pretty good question on this Kol Nidrei night, as we reflect on the year that has passed and anticipate the year that will be. I imagine most of us know where we were a year ago. Many of you were right here! That makes it pretty easy for us to measure from there to here, from then to now, since we know where and when this past year began and where and when the year concludes. But while there’s a standard way to measure, a basic metric to use, I want to introduce to you another way of measuring for this year to come, as I think it will give us insight and guidance for the year ahead.
The standard way to measure a year, of course, is time: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months, all adding up to a year. I have a cousin who is an astrophysicist professor at Rutgers University who would be happy to discuss more abstract concepts of time and space and the universe, but I have a more homiletic purpose in mind. We usually ask, how do we use our units of time? What do we do with the time we have? How do we use it to measure our year?
This emphasis on time was exemplified on a TV show that Karen and I binge-watched this summer, a series called “The Bear.” (Have any of you seen it?) It is about a chef named Carmine working through the issues of transforming his family’s sandwich shop into a fine-dining restaurant. (There’s more to it than that, but that’s sufficient for this sermon. If you’re a fan of Carmy or Cousin Richie or Sydney, we can talk later.) As Carmy sets up his kitchen and trains his staff, he posts a sign reminding them that “Every Second Counts.” It’s a motif that runs through the second season, reminding the characters, and us, of the preciousness of time. 
For some, this emphasis on time stems from a belief that each human being is only allotted a certain number of minutes in their life. We see this in Greek mythology where the Fates spin threads representing the length of each person’s time on earth. Our Unetaneh Tokef prayer tomorrow morning pictures God “setting the bounds of every creature’s life.” That means that, like Carmy’s sign says, every second counts. We must make the most of them, maximizing their use. And we must take care to use them well, to not waste them.
This can be a healthy way to live, to make deliberate use of our time as we choose, whatever it is that we choose. We can be mindful of the moments we have and intentional in how we use them. There is a way to be fully engaged in each action, fully present and embodied in our words and deeds, that truly makes each second count.
But I worry that the meticulous concern to make every second count can also lead us to a certain level of overwrought overplanning. It may end up rendering our lives a constant buzz of unsatisfying activity. It is too easy to feel the need always to be on the go, always to be using our time efficiently. It is too easy to feel we always need to be somewhere else, to worry that, if we are doing work, we ought to be spending more time with our family, or if we are taking time to relax, instead, we ought to be spending it doing work. Sociologist Dalton Conley refers to this as the “Elsewhere” phenomenon. That’s the feeling that, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we should be somewhere else doing something else instead. It is the quest for hyper-efficient use of our time, a feeling that there are always more meaningful ways of using our minutes. And this takes the “every second counts” philosophy to its extreme end, which is both wearying and unhealthy.
So unless we can find a way to NOT get drawn into the dark side of “every minute counts,” maybe, paradoxically, time is not the right way to measure our year. So what else can we use?
The lyrics of “Seasons of Love” propose alternate means of how we might measure, measure a year. It suggests “in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.” I have to laugh at the notion of alternative units of measurement. One of my children once came home from school with a math worksheet about alternative units of measurements. But rather than exercises about centimeters or square feet, the worksheet was a set of pictorial problems about … whales. As in, “how many whales long is this boat?” I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful that particular unit of measurement would be in the real world. Whales don’t seem to be very practical for measuring countertops or copy paper or football fields. (Besides, whales are for Yom Kippur and the story of Jonah, not Kol Nidrei.)
Nevertheless, to measure our lives in general, and this next year in particular, I’d like to propose an alternative unit of measurement that is more convenient than whales or cups of coffee. It is something that we always have with us. You have it with you right now. Sit up straight, feet towards the floor. Put a hand on your chest, about halfway down. What do you feel? Breathing. Your breath. Take a breath in. Your diaphragm contracts, making space in your chest for your lungs to expand. They fill with air. Incoming oxygen exchanges with outgoing carbon dioxide. Your diaphragm relaxes and expands, your lungs deflate, air comes out.  Feel your breathing. Find your breath. What if we think about measuring our lives, not in minutes or seconds, but in breaths?
Why should we do this? How does focusing on breath help us assess how we live? We don’t usually stop to think about our breath. Thankfully, it usually just happens. But we need to recognize that breathing is important and that breath is transformative. Fundamentally, it is a gift to us that we often take for granted. Taking note of our breathing, letting it change us, and truly appreciating that it “just happens,” can center us, and remind us of what matters. And being more aware of, and more grateful for, our breaths can impact how we live our lives and what we do with our year ahead.
Breathing is important, obviously. It is essential to, well, living. When I was a kid, in the summer, we used to have contests at the swimming pool – how far could you swim underwater? Could you make it to the other side of the pool underwater, holding your breath? To the other side, and back? I was pretty good at that. But I’ll ask you to try this instead. Take a breath in. Then exhale, let it out, and try NOT to take another breath in. … Not so easy, is it. It’s an inverse to “how long can you hold your breath?” How long can you not breathe? Not so long, before our autonomous nervous system kicks in and forces us to breathe. We need breath.
The first instance of this is the first breath a baby takes. At birth, a baby’s lungs are still filled with fluid. The first breath is tremendous and tumultuous. The pressure dynamic changes. The fluid is forced out of the lungs, the air comes in. The blood circulation reroutes to include the lungs for the critical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The body alters its physiology and operations and, God willing, the baby takes another breath, and then another, and then regular breathing begins. 
That’s the beginning of a baby’s life. And humanity’s as well, according to the story of Creation. After forming a human being from the dust of the earth, we read in the Book of Genesis, chapter 2, Vayipach b’eipav nishmat chayim, “God blew into its nostrils the breath of life,” vayehi ha’adam l’nefesh chayah, “and the person became a living being.”  Science tells us that a first breath is transformative, physically speaking. The Torah tells us that that First Breath, spiritually speaking, is transformative, too. And it still can be today. It is breathing that brings us life. Breathing is life. The Hebrew word n’sheemah means “breath.” The related word n’shahmah, can mean “thing that breathes,” but it also means “person” or even “soul.” Colloquially in Hebrew or Yiddish, your neshamah is your soul.
But here’s the other thing about breath. It isn’t ours. I was discussing this sermon a few weeks ago with Cantor Will and she pointed out something important. Take a breath and hold it for as long as you can. … Eventually, you have to exhale. That is to say, you have to give your breath back. Breath isn’t ours. Note the words we use – we TAKE a breath. And we also have to give it back. From whence does it come? To where does it go? Or, from whom and to whom? To the universe? To God?
For our ancient sages, breath clearly belonged to God. They crafted a prayer for our morning liturgy that says, Elohai, n’shamah shenatatah bi, t’horah hi, “My God, the n’shamah, the soul, that you have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, and You breathed it into me.” (Do you hear the echo there of Genesis, chapter 2?) And each morning, when we first wake up, the traditional prayer to say is Modeh ani l’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, “I thank you, living and eternal Ruler,” shehechezarta bi nishmati, “who has returned to me my nishmah, my breath, my soul.”
Maybe that’s your theology, that our breaths, that our lives, come from God. Maybe that’s not. That’s ok. Maybe it’s just the way the universe works, breathing through us. Maybe it’s just the way our bodies work, the autonomic nervous system doing its thing. Of course, to me, God or the universe or the wonders of the autonomic nervous system, that’s all different ways of describing the same thing.
Regardless, our breath is a gift to us. Cantor Will, in our conversation, reminded me that, when receiving a gift, you are supposed say “thank you.” Someone gives you a present, a scarf, a mug, a nice pen, and you use it. You feel grateful. And you think of the person who gave it to you. And you say to them, “Thank you so much for the gift. I use it all the time.” 
Shouldn’t that be true, then, of our breaths? Each one of them is a gift to us. We use them all the time. And that should inculcate a sense of gratitude. We should be thankful to God (or the universe or whatever) for the use of this breath, and the next one, and the next one. And if we are awash with that sense of gratitude, it will reflect in what we say and what we do, with every breath in and out. Grateful for each breath, we will use them to better ourselves and better our world. And then we can measure our year by how well we use the breath that is gifted to us, the breath that gives us life.
We can use our breaths on the intake to help ourselves. What is it we say or do when we get upset or need to calm down? “Take a deep breath.” This works, physically, because it quiets the part of our system that is geared for “fight or flight.” Our mind slows down and our heart rate slows down as we take in more oxygen. We breathe and we help ourselves find a calmer way to be. We can use our breath to help us focus, think more clearly, or even meditate. I did a two-year program with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where the meditation training had us use our breath as a focal point, because it was always with us and could always be found. If breath is our essence, focusing on it when we breathe in requires us to dig a little deeper, to set or reset our intentions to match what is important to us. When we inhale, we can gratefully use the gift of breath in relationship to ourselves.
When we exhale, we are compelled to measure what we are putting out into the world around us (aside from the carbon dioxide). With each breath out, we must consider what is coming out of our mouths. Will we use our breaths to argue, to cajole, to belittle, to yell? Will we use them to uplift, to encourage, to praise, to appreciate? Will we “blow hot air” and be a “windbag”? Will we be a “breath of fresh air”? What will come of the vows that we make, the very focus of our Kol Nidrei prayer tonight? Our exhaled breaths can impact how we connect and relate to others in the world. The words we say to one another, the songs we sing to one another, the actions we take and the energy we expend with and for one another – are they bettering the world around us? Imagine what our lives would look like, what would the world look like, if we were mindful with each and every exhaled breath how we treated one another.
Our Psalmists knew about using our breaths well. The Psalms are poems of praise to God. We’ll sing Psalm 150, the final psalm, in our liturgy tomorrow morning. It imagines a wide variety of instruments used in proclaiming “Halleluyah:” harps and flutes, drums and strings, cymbals and shofars. Halleluyah actually is a Hebrew term. Hallelu – “let us praise;” Ya – a name for God. Halleluyah literally means, “let us praise God.” But most of the time we just translate halleluyah as … “halleluyah.”
The final verse of Psalm 150, the final verse in the entire Book of Psalms, says, Kol han’shamah t’haleil Yah! It means “Let everything that breathes praise God!” But I learned from Cantor Ellen Dreskin (one of our scholars in residence this year), that we can read kol han’shamah not as “everything that breathes,” but as “every breath,” as in, “with each and every breath, we can praise God!” That is how we can measure our year. Each breath we take, each use of the gift we receive, can be, should be, ought to be, done in praise of God and God’s creation. When we breath in and take care of ourselves, we are caring for a creature made by God. Praise God! Halleluyah! And when we breath out and are mindful how that can help our relationships with others and help better our world, we are also caring for creatures made by God. Halleluyah!
How we spend our time, our minutes, our seasons of the year, are, of course, important. Every second can count, especially when we are mindful of how they are used. But this year, let us worry less about how we spend our time than how we use our breath.
On this Kol Nidrei night, we contemplate how we will act in the year ahead in order to be signed and sealed for goodness, from this Yom Kippur till the next. Let us pledge that every breath, in and out, be in service to God. Let that be how we measure, measure our year.
G’mar Chatimah tovah, may you be signed and sealed for a good new year.
 See Dalton Conley, Elsehwere, USA (Pantheon Books, 2009).
 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/lungs/breathing-benefits.
 Genesis 2:7.
 I’m so thankful to Cantor Rosalie Will for this understanding of the role of breath and our use of it. She uses this in her teaching, weaving together spiritual insight and deep connection to our role in the world, helping us understand the importance of using each breath in praise of God.
 https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/stress/why-deep-breathing-makes-you-feel-so-chill; https://www.dignityhealth.org/articles/deep-breathing-techniques-can-relieve-your-stress.