Stuart J. Dow

The Breath of Life on Yom Kippur

Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art/Shutterstock
Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art/Shutterstock

It was a few minutes past 5:00 AM – I had just over an hour until I’d wake my kids. I stumbled downstairs & began making myself a very necessary cup of coffee. I love to exercise before work, but my middle-aged body increasingly requires a caffeinated start. So, I added some steamed milk, sat at the kitchen table, and enjoyed the solitude of the early morning as I listened to the news. On this day, like the day before, and the day before that, the reporters spoke of pervasive conflicts – here and abroad; of reasonable disagreements that devolved into shouting matches of self-righteous closed-mindedness. Not to mention violence in many cases. I decided it wasn’t the way I wanted to start the day. I swiped the app shut and opted for Calm instead. I closed my eyes. The sound of recorded rainfall immediately enveloped me. “Inhale & take a slow, deep breath as you count to four. Hold it. Count to four. Now slowly exhale as you count to eight. Focus on nothing but your breath. If distracting thoughts enter your mind, let them go; treat them like clouds floating past you in the sky . . . Return to your breath.”

A few days before, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I had been sitting with my 95-year-old father in our TV room. That Friday evening, he had been released from the hospital – over the strenuous objection of the ER doctor. Melvin had wanted to be with family for the holiday.
“I’m cold. Can someone please bring me a blanket? My legs are cold too – is it possible to cover them with another blanket?” Wrapped from shoulder to toe, positioned upright in a stiff chair, he kept dozing off. “Dad, why don’t we help you to your bedroom?” “No, no – I’m good.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” He wanted to be with family for the holiday. My brother Leon, who had come in from Jerusalem, sat opposite him. He & I said very little, we both just watched – as our elderly father slept sitting . . . slowly breathing. . . in . . . and out . . . in . . . and out . . . breathing.
“The great shofar is sounded, A still small voice is heard.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, Who shall live and who shall die.”
There is no holier or harder day in the Jewish calendar than Yom Kippur. It’s a day when we can’t help but think about life – and death. The liturgy is replete with it. And yet, it’s not a dark day. The prospect of not being here is meant to prompt us to consider how we should be when we are. We’ll err, that’s inevitable. And we’ll hurt others in the process, including people we love. But do we acknowledge our mistakes? Do we apologize genuinely, and sincerely seek to make amends? Do we forgive others with an open heart, the way we’d desperately want for ourselves?
In the Haftorah we chant this holiday, the Prophet Isaiah couldn’t be more explicit when he castigates the Jewish people on behalf of God, asking “Is this the fast I desire?” The lesson is powerfully clear: Notwithstanding the beauty and meaning of our rituals, nothing matters more than our moral choices –– especially those that impact our fellow human beings.
News can be noise. So can much of what occupies our daily lives & concerns. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, is meant for us to quiet the outside interference. We look deeply into ourselves – our acts and omissions, our decisions, our priorities. We listen too. As we acknowledge our shortcomings – and our impermanence – we face a difficult challenge. But if we can heed our breath, and hear that “still small voice,” we have an opportunity to write a new, better chapter in our finite book of life.
About the Author
Stuart is Founding Head of The Emery/Weiner School in Houston -- one of the fastest growing and largest per capita schools of its kind in the country. Before entering education, Stuart practiced law at Susman Godfrey, a boutique litigation firm. Stuart graduated with honors from Yale College, where he won the Cogswell Award for Outstanding Leadership; he earned his J.D. from The University of Texas School of Law, where he garnered several speaking awards, and in 2014, Stuart received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. He's the proud father of three wonderful children (and a great dog), and loves salty & spicy foods.
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