There's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.
In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."
Every morning we pray אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."
My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.
What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.
When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.
After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.
I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.
This moment is incomparably precious.
Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.