breathing and the א of revelation

a Zoom-enabled meditation circle

Dur­ing this time of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic “shel­ter­ing at home” Cen­tral Syn­a­gogue in Man­hat­tan has been main­tain­ing a Zoom-medi­at­ed dai­ly med­i­ta­tion prac­tice.

A dai­ly call-in med­i­ta­tion prac­tice and a lit­tle Torah to help relieve stress and cen­ter the mind.

The prac­tice began on March 23 and has con­tin­ued every week­day (except for hol­i­days). Each ses­sion begins with a brief d’var Torah and uses a “mantra” asso­ci­at­ed with the d’var Torah’s thought. An archive of the record­ed ses­sions appears on Cen­tral’s Web site.

Because this was not an essay, but a ver­bal guid­ed med­i­ta­tion, here’s a link to the record­ing at Sound­Cloud.

As she was due for a well-deserved vaca­tion, R. Buch­dahl invit­ed a few mem­bers of the cir­cle to sub­sti­tute for her. My ses­sion occurred Thurs­day, May 21, 2020 on the 42nd day of the count­ing of the Omer. My remarks fol­low. The text is expand­ed to include linked ideas and images (that could­n’t be expressed through the Zoom call).

As peo­ple arrived on the call, a tiny frag­ment of Mor­ton Feld­man’s String Quar­tet 2 played in the back­ground. (I know that is extreme­ly unfair to Feld­man.)

Good morning בוקר טוב.

I, Mark Hurvitz, am hon­ored and hum­bled to be our guide this morn­ing. Please find a com­fort­able seat­ed or reclin­ing posi­tion as we begin our explo­ration.

We focus a good deal on our breath in this expand­ing cir­cle. I invite you to join me as we trav­el through texts, times and ter­ri­to­ries. Today I want to exam­ine our breath using four Hebrew let­ters as expressed in three clas­sic texts.

The let­ters are very soft, near­ly silent con­so­nants. Their sounds are: “ ’ ”, “ h’ ”, “ wuh ”, and “ yuh ”. The let­ters names are: י ו ה א  .

These are our breath­ing build­ing blocks.

While it’s the first let­ter of the Hebrew alpha­bet, we’ll save the א for last.

Feel free to close your eyes.

the first text

Con­sid­er the She­ma. Most of us are famil­iar with the She­ma. I’ll offer my own trans­la­tion to work from:

Pay atten­tion Israel, “[ Yuh H’ Wuh H’ ]” is our God, “[ Yuh H’ Wuh H’ ]” is One.

You’ll note that I breathed the four-let­ter name we use for God. I did so, in order for us to exam­ine that word/name a bit more close­ly. As you could hear, Its four let­ters are bare­ly con­so­nants; they are more like breath­ing sounds.

I was taught long ago (and pro­duced a sim­ple one-page PDF illus­trat­ing) that we can:

Visu­al­ize the ini­tial yod י. It is tiny, a speck, as though it rep­re­sents our bod­ies, our lungs, at the moment of com­plete exha­la­tion.

Then, the first heh ה opens and can rep­re­sent our bod­ies and lungs dur­ing an inhala­tion.

This is fol­lowed by a vav ו. It looks like a length­ened, expand­ed yod י and can rep­re­sent our bod­ies at the moment they are filled with breath.

And then, again, a heh ה rep­re­sents an exhala­tion.

This process repeats and con­tin­ues.

All liv­ing things breathe.

the second text

The very last line of the book of Psalms: Psalm 150:6:

כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּ־יָהּ

…trans­lates par­tial­ly as:

Every נְּשָׁמָה prais­es God; Hal­lelu­jah!


Every spir­it prais­es God; All praise God!

We know that the word spir­it נְּשָׁמָה has the same root as the word for breath נְשִׁימָה. You can hear the sim­i­lar­i­ty.

And, so, with the appro­pri­ate aware­ness we can reread the Psalm as say­ing:

Every breath­ing thing con­tin­u­ous­ly speaks (“med­i­tates on/praises”) God’s name. Praise God!

expanding our awareness

Each of our cells lives, breathes, dies and is replaced by new­ly gen­er­at­ed cells.

Our cells each come to their end. I am finite; we are finite. At some time I and each of us will stop breath­ing. Indeed, as my friend Alan reminds me one of the pri­ma­ry “terror[s] [dur­ing this time] of COVID-19 is that it robs us of our breath­ing”. We each come to our end, yet Breath itself con­tin­ues. We know that an Infin­i­ty of Breath exists and that we can bare­ly grasp an aware­ness of it and cer­tain­ly not its entire­ty (because we are only finite).

Now, join with me as we trav­el from the tini­est to the largest.

Remem­ber the phrase: “The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts”?

We each con­sist of atoms (which are them­selves com­bi­na­tions of elec­trons, neu­trons, pro­tons). All these com­bine into var­i­ous mol­e­cules, and those in turn join togeth­er and cre­ate cells. Some of those cells form my big toe and oth­er organs that ulti­mate­ly add up to me, or you. We are all “mat­ter”. And, nonethe­less, we “mat­ter”. And, one of the ways in which we “mat­ter” is that you and I are each greater than the sum of our atoms, our parts.

Earth, our bios­phere, our liv­ing globe is also built up out of all these same atoms, mol­e­cules, cells, and organs… and us. We could say the Earth itself is greater than the sum of it parts as well, it has a cer­tain “Earth­ness”.

You and I, each of us, are con­scious. We are even con­scious of our selves. So, we could say that “self-con­scious­ness” is an aspect of Earth­ness.

The Blue Mar­ble by the crew of Apol­lo 17 (1972)

I imag­ine you can feel where this is lead­ing.

If you’ve closed your eyes, please open them for a moment, take in the morn­ing light, whether it is dim or bright. Cup your hands and grasp a bit of the light that sur­rounds you in the room.

How does what is in your hands (the light that you can’t see or feel now that it is “cap­tured”) dif­fer from the chair, sofa, wher­ev­er we find our­selves? While we are “mat­ter”, what we’ve attempt­ed to cap­ture is “ener­gy”. We think of each of these (mat­ter and ener­gy) as being fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent, but we all know about that bright Jew­ish boy who fig­ured out that it is “All One” and can be expressed in the equa­tion E=mc2.

Dr. Bronner soap label
Orig­i­nal 1972 Dr. Bron­ner soap label
pho­to by Sean Flan­na­gan used with per­mis­sion

return to our first text, for a moment, the shema

Pay atten­tion Israel, This Living/Breathing is our God, and this Living/Breathing is All One.

So, we are part of one pul­sat­ing — breath­ing, self-con­scious — cos­mos.

Feel free to close your eyes again.

One of the most impor­tant Jew­ish hol­i­days (at least accord­ing to us rab­bis) is Shavuot. It tells us that we — “finite, breath­ing, ener­gized mat­ter” — are part of the Infi­nite; an Infi­nite that com­mu­ni­cates with us. I imag­ine that some in this med­i­ta­tion cir­cle have dif­fi­cul­ty with that con­cept. As we con­tin­ue our count up to Shavuot, let’s explore the idea a bit and move on to our third text.

the third text

Because we, the finite have (self-)consciousness and the whole con­sists of at least the sum of its parts, the Infi­nite must have (self-)consciousness. The “Infi­nite” which is the “that which is greater than the sum of its parts” (that is all of us and our chairs, sofas, the rooms in which we find our­selves, our friends and fam­i­ly… every­thing we expe­ri­ence)… this “Infi­nite” is aware of us: “the finite”.

Come along with me.

This Infi­nite com­mu­ni­cates with us: the finite. (Now, that may be a leap of log­ic, but, the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate is built into the finite, and, there­fore part of the Infi­nite. When part of our body expe­ri­ences pleas­ant­ness or dis­com­fort does it not com­mu­ni­cate that plea­sure or pain to us?)

The “fact” that the Infi­nite com­mu­ni­cates with the finite, indi­cates that the Infinite “cares” about the finite. (That’s one step of log­ic beyond the pre­ced­ing state­ment, but, once again, “car­ing” is built into the finite, and, there­fore part of the Infi­nite. And, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a core aspect of car­ing. The “act” of com­mu­ni­cat­ing is an “act” of car­ing.)

In reli­gious lan­guage, we call this com­mu­ni­ca­tion “rev­e­la­tion” and we cel­e­brate its real­i­ty in the upcom­ing hol­i­day of Shavuot.

What gets “com­mu­ni­cat­ed”? Tra­di­tion­al­ly we are told that Torah is revealed on Shavuot, but how much of Torah? This was dis­cussed in detail by the ear­ly rab­bis who kept nar­row­ing down from all of Torah… to the Ten Com­mand­ments… and fur­ther. How much needs to be com­mu­ni­cat­ed or revealed. Actu­al­ly, accord­ing to R. Men­achem Mendel of Rymanov very lit­tle is nec­es­sary; only the aleph א, the first let­ter of the first word of the first of the Ten Com­mand­ments, which says “אָנֹכִי” (as in “I am”) and is essen­tial­ly the same as the breath that Moses expe­ri­enced at the burn­ing bush. The “I‑Am”; because once God makes the divine pres­ence is known, once that aleph א is “heard” (expe­ri­enced), all else fol­lows as the day fol­lows the night.

counting the omer

We are ready to count the Omer:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֺתָיו וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹֽמֶר׃

Blessed are You, Sov­er­eign of all space and time, who directs us to Count the Omer.

Today is the 42nd day of count­ing the Omer which is 6 weeks of the Omer

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ.

Thank you God for the Gift of this Day

our mantra(s) for this morning

For our mantra this morn­ing, we might feel our­selves as part of the breath­ing cos­mos… I sug­gest two pos­si­bil­i­ties:


Breathe God’s name: as you breathe in and out begin your emp­ty lungs with the yod י; inhale on the heh ה; till you reach the vav ו; then exhale on the heh ה and con­tin­ue…



Breathe in “praise” with  הַלְלוּ then breathe it out again: הַלְלוּ.


fol­low­ing the qui­et time of med­i­ta­tion I sang Bonia Shur’s Kol Han’shamah, except much soft­er and slow­er, and only twice through.


A wide vari­ety of Hebrew let­ter but­tons were pro­duced some­time dur­ing the 1940s through the 1950s. Since no doc­u­men­ta­tion exists for them, it’s impos­si­ble to know what their pur­pose was (or exact­ly when they were made). Dat­ing is based on their size, style, and oth­er details. It appears that these may have been pro­duced as awards for reli­gious school, either atten­dance or achieve­ment.

lapel button ה
lapel but­ton ה
Date:1940s — 1950s
Pin Form:straight
Print Method:cel­lu­loid
lapel but­ton ו
Date:1940s — 1950s
Pin Form:straight
Print Method:cel­lu­loid
lapel but­ton י
Date:1940s — 1950s
Pin Form:straight
Print Method:cel­lu­loid

This but­ton, on the oth­er hand, is one of a set of 22, rep­re­sent­ing each of the 22 let­ters of the Hebrew alpha­bet. They were sold by the Union of Ortho­dox Con­gre­ga­tions (now known as the Ortho­dox Union… after its Kashrut sym­bol, the OU (it seems that HTML does not sup­port this abbre­vi­a­tion as a char­ac­ter)) to raise mon­ey for the writ­ing of a Torah scroll dur­ing the ear­ly 1980s. When you bought a let­ter you received a but­ton. You could buy as many let­ters as you want­ed. I just bought each of the but­tons. I don’t remem­ber how much I paid.

lapel but­ton א
Date:ear­ly 1980s
Pin Form:straight clasp
Print Method:cel­lu­loid

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lying around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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