There’s an iyyun, a meditation that I love, that I learned from Levi Kelman of Kol Hanheshama. I use from time to time in services, especially with kids. I ask everyone to close their eyes, take a deep breath in, hold it while thinking on the past week, and then as they release their breath, they let the week go. The idea is to breathe Shabbat in, and breathe all the stresses of the week out; to draw in and hold onto that which is most sacred and precious, and release that which is most spiritually toxic, as easily as we breathe.
Breathing and the idea of breath is a powerful symbol of our tradition. God breathes life into us. It is through the breath of God that the Sea is parted. My teacher Rabbi Larry Kushner interpreted that God’s real name, the Ineffable Name, is a true, real breath, and increasingly we find the Shema recited in Reform congregations as it is at Rabbi Kelman’s congregation in Israel, as every word requiring a breath of its own. Breathing, which should be easy and natural, becomes a manipulative in meditation techniques, in Judaism and other traditions.
Breathing should feel easy. This Shabbat, breathing doesn’t feel easy. I am, of course, speaking of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe” said as he was strangled by a police officer, a policeman who will now go free, despite video evidence that suggests there should at least be a trial. There is a palpable sense that the very right to breathe, to exist, is being undermined for a whole class, a whole race of people; that their breath is not worth our breath.
There is a struggle in this week’s Torah portion: a struggle between Jacob and…someone. Who that person is—God? An Angel? Esau? Jacob himself?—has provided much fodder for commentary, but I’m less interested in the who than in the why and the what. There is a struggle in our Torah this week, as Jacob wrestles with identity, with survival, with his blessing. He fights to a stalemate. He is wounded, permanently. He demands a blessing of his assailant—I will not let you go unless you bless me—and receives a change of name, and a change of status. His struggle changes everything, and never really goes away. There is no easy breath for Jacob, for Israel; only struggle. We are still struggling. I’m still struggling. I cannot shrug this off or let this go. I cannot, and I will not. It’s isn’t merely that we aren’t living in a post-racial America, or that we cannot hear each other’s narratives over the din of our own—though both statements are true. It’s that we’re pretending that the struggle doesn’t exist—even when the evidence is filmed and replayed over and over again. We are endlessly looking for things to be easy, for solutions to be simple, uncomplicated, without nuance. We want the answers to come easily, but they won’t.
We, of all people, should know and understand this. And it’s time for us—for each one of us—to stand up and banish any thought of ease. We need to turn outward, facing the struggle, face injustice rather than inward, away from it. We need to talk about race. We need to talk about discrimination in all its forms. We need to speak beyond mere platitudes. There is no struggle in platitudes. There is no challenge there, and therefore no blessing. There’s only empty breath. We need to wrestle deep within ourselves whether or not we are backing away from the struggle ourselves, for whatever reason, and explore why, or else every statement we make is an empty breath. Yes, when we struggle with injustice it feels like a stalemate. Yes, when we struggle we may be wounded. But through the struggle we encounter blessing, as Jacob did. Through the struggle we change ourselves for the better. Through our struggle we change everything, permanently.
We begin with breath, and we end with breath. We breathe in what is precious and holy, and breathe out what is spiritually toxic. But we cannot breathe out struggle. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, writing about Garner’s death, wrote: “At the core is the breath, instinctive, not given, not taken, it is not a privilege or a right, it is even independent of oneself.” So is the breath, and so is the struggle. The breath rises, and we rise to meet the struggle, to face it, and to receive the blessing that emerges from it. We are tempted to let go, but we dare not. We must not. We must never let it go.