Breath of Life/ Prayer

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


For millennia, the Jewish convention has been to non-pronounce "YHWH" by saying instead "Adonai, Lord." This fits with naming God as "Melekh ha'olam, King or Ruler of the universe."

But what if we broke the rule and "pronounced" that Name with no vowels -- so it is not "Yahweh" or "Jehovah"?

I have invited hundreds of people to experiment this way, and for almost everyone what happens is a breath, or the sound of wind. Spiritus in Latin is breath and wind. In Hebrew, "Ruach" = breath = wind= spirit. "Spirituality" is what celebrates the Interbreathing that connects all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.)

So we might begin our blessings, "Baruch attah [or Brucha aht] Yahhhhh elohenu ruach ha'olam" -- Blessed are You, our God, the Breathing Spirit of the world."

For me, the YHWH as 'Breath of Life' is not just a neat understanding of the 4-letter Name, but a profound metaphor/ theology of/for God. God as the Breath of Life, in- and out- breath, that which unites all life, that which is Beyond us and Within us.

Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication. Using words is one of the crucial aspects of being human (not absolutely unique to us, but by far best-developed among us).
So for me, what we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is that we are breathing our selves into the Breath of Life. We are shaping one major aspect of what makes us human, and part of the Breath of Life, into a CONSCIOUS weaving of our breaths into the breath of life.

So also when we consciously do lashon tov (speaking good).

What makes prayer distinctive, different from lashon tov or limmud (learning) Torah? (By "Torah" I mean all words that aim toward wisdom; "torah" [from the Hebrew vocabulary of archery, as is the word "chet"] = aiming the arrow. The process, not the archer or the bull's eye.)
What makes prayer distinctive is that we are not only using our breaths to join the Breath, but in the very same breath are using our breaths to praise the Breath.

So prayer is certainly aimed partly at our own breathing selves, as part of the Breath of Life. AND it is also aimed at all that breathes; it is part of the "Nishmat kol chai" that the Siddur invokes, "Nishmat kol chai tivarech et-shimcha; The Breath of all life praises your name" [because that Name, YHWH, IS the breath of all life) Nishmat chayyim was the breath YHWH blew into the adamah as it lost the unconscious breath of --ah and needed a conscious breath, to make it possible for adam to live.

AND even beyond that, aimed at what unites each separate breath into a unity of breathing, a con-spiracy of life. The PROCESS by which what we breathe out the trees breath in, what the trees breathe out we breathe in.

Prayer IS this at the physical (Asiyah) level, because it requires breathing; and it also affirms this in a cognitive (Briyyah) way, since its CONTENT is about the holiness of the Breath of Life; and at least communal prayer embodies this at the relational level (Yetzirah).

And there is a mode of prayer in which one opens one's self to BEING prayed by the whole Breath of Life, within, among, and beyond -- and that's the Atzilut level/ aspect of prayer. (Ideally, that is what the Amidah is supposed to be.)

With blessings of deep breathing, & restful time to catch your breath --

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center

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