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Take a Breath

Before God brings down the plagues on Egypt, Moses tells the people they will soon be freed from slavery and delivered to the promised land. The Torah relates: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6)

A story. One winter evening, during the darkest days of the Holocaust when Hugo Gryn and his father were imprisoned by the Nazis, Gryn’s father instructed him to come to a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in astonishment as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in several days’ miniscule margarine ration.

Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your margarine. You need those calories to survive. We could have even spread it on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead, you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and said, “My dear son, you and I have seen that it is possible to live a very, very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.”

I have often told this story. It is inspiring. It seems almost super-human. How can someone stave off hunger for the sake of lighting a candle? How can anyone be hopeful in the midst of such extraordinary cruelty and death?

The Israelites’ reaction seems the more understandable.

The Hebrew can be translated as follows: “They would not listen to Moses; their spirits were shortened (m’kotzer ruach) and their servitude hard.” What does it mean for our spirits to be shortened? How do we become so dispirited?

It all depends on how one feeds the soul and nourishes the spirit. For Hugo Gryn’s father it only required saving some margarine. For others it might require more. How do we instill hope in our hearts? How can we fortify our souls? Is it possible to lengthen our spirits?

The medieval commentator, Rashi, reads ruach not as spirit but more literally as breath and suggests: “If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.” Perhaps it is a simple as drawing long breaths.

One can perseverate over the difficulties in one’s life or the many catastrophes the world faces or one can breathe in the beauty of the world—however obscured it may sometimes appear and the gift of our lives—however challenging they may be, and say thank You, God. Blessed be God’s name.

“Blessed are You Adonai in whose hand is every living soul and the breath of all flesh.” the morning prayer suggests.

The long breath. Or the short breath. Many times that choice is within our grasp.