Reflections on a b'nei mitzvah
What's in a name? Torah, meanings, translation.

Breathing, prayer, the planet

Earth-Wallpaper-planet-earth-9444615-1024-768I learned from a recent episode of Cosmos that the entire planet inhales and exhales over the course of a year. In this season of northern-hemisphere summer, our planet inhales carbon dioxide and the vegetation breathes out oxygen; at the other end of the year, it goes the other way. (Apparently most of the earth's vegetation is in the northern hemisphere, because of where the planetary land masses are, so the earth inhales during northern-hemisphere spring and summer, and exhales during southern-hemisphere spring and summer.)

The notion of the whole earth taking and releasing one slow breath over the course of a year really moved me. And it made me think of Jewish Renewal teachings about names of God, about prayer, and about breath.

Perhaps you know that there is a four-letter Name of God which in Jewish tradition we do not pronounce or, in some traditions, consider unpronounceable. The letters are yud heh vav heh; sometimes, for the pursposes of writing or speaking, we use the letters in a different order, הויה / Havayah. This Name appears to be related to the Hebrew root היה / heh yud heh, "to be," so it can be understood as a teaching about God as what Paul Tillich would call "the ground of being."

But my friend and teacher Reb Arthur (Rabbi Arthur Waskow) offers a different way of thinking about this name. He notes that if we stop trying to put vowels on these letters, and if we read the letter vav as a w (some scholars argue that in ancient Hebrew that letter was pronounced less like "v" and more like "w"), we get something that sounds like yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh -- in other words, breath itself. If God's holiest name is encoded in our very breathing, then every time we breathe, we are reciting a name of God!

Image005There's a teaching that this four-letter Name can be mapped onto the human body. We carry the Name with us everywhere we go: the yud as the head, heh as the torso and arms, vav as the column of the spine, heh as the legs reaching down. Each of us bears the imprint of that Name in our form.

There's also a breathing meditation which maps the four letters of the Name onto breathing. First, beginning with yud - that's the still point before the breath, the moment just before drawing air symbolized by this tiniest of Hebrew letters. Then on the letter heh comes the inbreath, inhalation, filling the lungs with breath. On the letter vav one pauses; this is the pause between inhaling and exhaling, the moment of fullness which hangs suspended in time. On the second letter heh one exhales; breathes out; gets ready to begin again.

That meditation is one way to make every breath an invocation of God.  But Reb Arthur's teaching is more radical than that: he argues that even without this intentionality, our breathing offers praise. He finds hints of this our siddur, our prayerbook. "Kol haneshama t'hallel Yah / All that breathes praises You" (from Psalm 150) -- "nishmat kol chai t'varech et shimcha / The breath of all life blesses Your name" (from Nishmat Kol Chai) -- the authors of these words left these clues for us in our liturgy. They understood that breathing itself is prayer.

In Biblical Hebrew, neshamah means both "breath" and "soul." Jewish tradition posits an intimate connection between breath and spiritual life. In the very beginning of our story as we've received it in Torah, God breathes the breath of life into the creature formed from earth, the adam made from adamah. Our sacred story tells us that our breath comes from, and connects us to, the Holy One of Blessing.

Breathing is, Reb Arthur notes, a deep connection between all life on earth. Not only do humans and animals breathe, but so do trees and plant life, in their own way. And there's a kind of collaboration between our human and animal breathing and the breathing of the greenery on our planet. We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. If all breath is praise, and we breathe in what the trees breathe out and vice versa, then we and the trees are interbreathing prayer all the time. (For more on this: Why YAH/YHWH.)

What I learned from Neil DeGrasse Tyson in that episode of Cosmos gives new resonance to Reb Arthur's teachings. It's not only the animals and plants who are breathing praise, but -- according to Tyson -- the whole planet is breathing. And if, as Jewish tradition teaches, each living breath offers praise to our ineffable Creator, then it's not such a stretch to imagine that the very Earth itself is offering long slow praise as it orbits the sun. Talk about harmony of the spheres!

And that in turn leads me to a teaching from my beloved teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi). Gaia (our planet) is alive, he says -- a vast organism in which each living being on earth is a cell, a tiny particle of the whole. As in any body, each cell is needed to be in communication with the others. Just as he's taught that each religion is an organ in the body of humanity (and needs, therefore, to be both distinct from and also in communication with the other organs in that body), he also teaches that each person, each soul, each living being on earth is a cell in the planetary body, a fragment of the planetary whole.

As each of us breathes in and out, we are reciting a divine Name. Every living being is a prayer wheel constantly turning. And all of us together -- humans, animals, plants, the very planet herself -- recite that Name on a scale more vast than I can imagine. Holy wow.