Someone approached me to suggest an appropriate verse to imprint on a protective face mask he was interested in marketing. My instinctive response was a passage in the Midrash that reflects on a verse we say every day, authored by King David himself — his signature verse to his remarkable Book of Tehillim — and which is prominently featured in the Malchiyos blessings on Rosh Hashana.
On the verse, כל הנשמה — Let all souls, תהלל י-ה — praise G-d, Rebbi Levi states in the name of Rebbi Chanina: על כל נשימה ונשימה, for every breath that you take, one must praise the Creator.
This past year was ‘breathtaking’ in many ways. Certainly, in the raising of our consciousness of the preciousness of each breath, an involuntary reflex we take for granted. It took a microscopic virus and the many patients it struck, who desperately struggled for air, to remind us of this vital life force.
Our breath was also ‘taken away’ as we marveled over the many individuals who valiantly lead the way in assisting, guiding, or inspiring the masses to tackle this challenge with aplomb and grace.
And we still gasp in fear over this danger that still threatens us, that has taken an extraordinary toll in general, among our people, and to many who were beloved to us.
We appeal on Rosh Hashana: ויאמר כל אשר נשמה באפו ד' אלקי ישראל מלך ומלכותו בכל משלה — And let it proclaim — everything — that has life’s breath in its nostrils, Hashem the G-d of Israel is King, and His Kingship over everything rules.
We stress the nostrils for it was through those portals that G-d ‘blew in his nostrils the soul of life’.
The one thousand and eighty chalakim that comprise a halachic hour, correspond to the average number of breaths we each take per hour, reminding us of the constant infusion of G-d’s ‘breath’, as it were, that sustains us. It is the ventilator we must be connected to every moment of life to survive and thrive. (בני יששכר)
Rav Hirsch points out that the word we use to describe that entry point, אף/nose, additionally means ‘also’, the opening of the body through which men greedily take in the stream of life necessary for the maintenance of life, i.e. the nose, and also in a broad sense, in general, the striving, wishing , longing...
One can fill one’s lungs, thrusting the chest, a basic postural message used across the animal kingdom, ‘standing tall’, oblivious to the divine force that enthuses life, presenting oneself independent and all powerful, or one can live with an awareness that every second of our life is filled with the opportunity to enlighten a dark world through the power of our noble choices that reflect the image of G-d we each represent.
Each breath we inhale must have a responsive exhalation that expresses in word and deed, praise for the Creator.
One of the victims of Covid-19 was a remarkable young man, Saadya Ehrenpreis a”h. He had Down Syndrome yet inspired everyone he encountered with his beautiful neshama, bringing love for G-d and humanity wherever he went. His mother, Ahuva, a talented writer, chronicled his marvelous journey through life. She shared her thoughts when Saadya had been stricken and on a ventilator, in a letter written to him. I believe her loving description of her dear son, gives us a model of what we should all aspire to on Rosh Hashana. (Mishpacha Magazine March 24, 2020)
You can’t hear me right now because you are sedated. I can’t come in to see you because you are isolated. I hope you are comfortable and having sweet dreams. The tube that I hope and pray you can’t feel is there to help you breathe more easily. The decision to take you to the hospital was done by people who love you and want to make sure that you are safe.
I spoke to you and saw you last night and you assured me, “I’m fine, Mom.” You didn’t look too great on our video FaceTime call but having a high fever would do that! So, Saadya, I am doing what I do naturally, which is to turn to words and express my feelings and frustrations and fears and thoughts and prayers.
Saadya, you are the most positive person who ever walked the face of this earth. You never get angry at other people and certainly never toward the Ribono Shel Olam. You see sunshine where others see the clouds, you smell the roses where others feel the thorns, you abhor hostility and anger and any kind of tension between people, even if it is not directed at you!
Your texts on the family WhatsApp exude love and happiness and optimism for life to be full of joy and love and unity. You are simchah personified and when you IYH wake up and can breathe easily on your own, you will never question, “Why did this happen to me?” You will just assure me, “I’m fine and you look beautiful today, Mom” –— no matter my actual appearance...
There are people who see every moment as a gift to cherish and utilize positively. There are those, though, who inhale, inflating their egos and lungs — squandering the opportunities of a beautiful life that is there for the asking — and exhaling negativity.
Oddly, we gasp both in face of danger and when viewing magnificent beauty. Both experiences share a stark confrontation with ‘life’, the first a sudden fear of losing it, the second an exquisite encounter with the divine that thrills us with the preciousness of every moment of life.
The Baal Tokea, yet prior to blowing the Shofar, first takes a deep breath through his nostrils — reconnecting to that first infusion of life 5,781 years ago, that continues unabated, 1,080 times every hour — readying himself to exhale a powerful expression of praise, to our King, in gratitude for the gift of an inspired life.
The nose is additionally endowed with a sense of smell. The Zohar intimates the blessings conferred upon Yaakov took place on Rosh Hashana. The Seforno explains that Yitzchock prefaced his blessing with a piece of advice to his son. “See, the fragrance, my son, is like the fragrance of the field which G-d had blessed”— Yitzchok was instructing Yaakov; understand that in addition to G-d providing us food that sustains us, in His graciousness He instills a beautiful and pleasurable scent that enhances its enjoyment. This awareness of G-d’s love for us, is the precondition to receiving his benevolence.
If one is conscious of His kindness and His constant desire to relate to us, then He will heap ever greater pleasures upon us. Thus, Yitzchok directs Yaakov, ראה / See; contemplate and understand this.
King David exults: אודה ד' מאד בפי... — I will thank G-d exceedingly, with my mouth (תהלים קט ל)
תהא שנת פי אודה — May this be a year that we thank G-d exceedingly with our mouths
בברכת כתיבה וחתימה טובה,
צבי יהודה טייכמאן