Before I go to sleep on most nights, I walk over to the beds of each of my children to kiss them good night. Before doing so, I watch them sleeping peacefully for a few moments. It reminds me what an invaluable gift each one is and how thankful I am for them. It’s not always easy to remember that during the day, especially when it gets hectic and tense. So, when my day is over and they are asleep, it’s a perfect time for that reminder. In addition, studies show that if people feel grateful before going to sleep, they have better sleep quality.
[I should add that, these days, the three aliens – also called adolescents – living in our home are often up later than I am. But I wake up in the mornings well before they do. While I don’t have that level of appreciation for them when they are speaking too loudly on the phone and I’m trying to go to sleep, I could appreciate them in the quiet moments of the early morning.]
The other night, as I watched my children sleeping peacefully, it struck me that breathing symbolizes the essence of life. Our souls, which emanate from a pure, celestial world, are fused with our animalistic bodies, formed from materials of this world. The role of mankind is to bridge these two diverse worlds, by infusing spirituality into our mundane activities.
As we breathe, our bodies move outwards and inwards, a symbol of our goal to live within ourselves by constantly growing and personally striving, and yet beyond ourselves, for the good and benefit of others.
Rabbi David Lapin recently noted that something seems to be desperately wrong with the way we are breathing. The coronavirus primarily attacks the respiratory system and has infected millions of people throughout the world. Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth definitely doesn’t make breathing any easier. In addition, the emotive image that triggered fury in hundreds of cities across the world is that of an arrested man’s last words: “I can’t breathe, sir.”
What could be wrong with the way we are breathing? What could the message be that Hashem is trying to send us about our attitude towards breathing, and our usage of breath?
Rabbi Lapin explained that breathing is much more than a mechanistic activity of respiration. The word for breathing in Hebrew is n’shimah, related to the word neshamah, which means soul. Through our breathing we connect to our souls, and thereby to G-d Himself. It is also our vehicle for speech, our ability to articulate complex ideas – words of beauty and inspiration, or words of vulgarity and destruction.
“Have we lost mastery of our breath? Have we lost connection with our own souls through our breath? Have we lost connection with one another through our breath? We don’t speak touchingly or lovingly to one another; we just text. More importantly, we don’t listen to the breath of one another or to their words, or the silence between their words. Breathing isn’t just a mechanism. ‘Va’yipach b’apav nishmas chayim’ – Hashem breathed into Adam’s nostrils a breath of life. Breathing is our power of humanity, the power of our divinity.”
Perhaps there is no time of year to reflect upon the process of breathing more than Elul and Rosh HaShanah. In the Rosh HaShanah davening, we pray for the time when “everyone who has a soul in his nostrils will proclaim ‘Hashem, the G-d of Yisrael, is King and His Kingship dominates everything.’”
This time period is symbolized by the shofar, sounded through the medium of breath. The disease, which ravaged and shut down society during the last few months, primarily attacks our ability to perform the mitzvah of shofar.
The shofar is the cry of the soul within. It’s a reminder of our mission to simultaneously live within and beyond ourselves, like our very breath – in and out.
This is a time when we can gain mastery over our speech and over our breathing and listening. It is the piercing call of the shofar, the poignant message of the pandemic, and the symbolic message of the essence of life.
 - “Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognition”, November 2008, Alex Wood, et al.