Clean air and the breath of creation

As part of my Jewish conversion process — and also out of my own curiosity — I recently read Arthur Green’s “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.” There’s a great deal of food for thought in these pages — including an entire chapter on “Kabbalah for an Environmental Age.” One passage in particular that struck me was:

The main Hebrew term for “soul” is neshamah, actually meaning “breath.” When the Torah depicts God blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7), Adam becomes a “living being,” a bearer of soul. Our soul comes into being in the moment when God breathes life into us. That moment, we come to understand, is every moment. God is constantly blowing the breath of life into us. We are being created anew, reborn, in each moment.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about air quality. It’s just the way my mind works sometimes.

When reading Green’s text, I started to consider each breath we take in as an individual renewed act of creation. Even Eastern meditative practices focus keenly on the breath, postulating that the space between breaths is where God lives.

But living in a world of dirty and unclean air necessarily cuts us off from the Universe or the Divine — or whatever word you choose to use — and this is a separation entirely of our own making. We have polluted our skies with smoke stacks, coal burning, aerosols, vehicle emissions, and even with our efforts to reduce this assault on our environment, we’re still causing more problems than we’re solving.

Concerns and controversies about global warming and climate change aside, the continued pollution of air and waters is one byproduct of modern living that I simply can’t get my mind around. More specifically, I don’t understand how we tolerate practices — both personal and industrial — that poison the very air we breathe and the oceans, rivers, lakes and rain on which all life depends.

It reminds me of a conversation I had about 15 or 20 years ago with a friend about the AIDS virus. My friend called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) an “immature” virus, because it kills its host, and ultimately itself (within the confines of that particular host). Looking at our continued pollution levels, I’m beginning to wonder if human beings aren’t an immature species — destroying the very environment we need in order to survive, and therefore destroying ourselves.

There are some immediate, personal remedies for this. A simple one is walking to the coffee shop (where I now sit) instead of driving, and stopping on my way back in the grove of trees that stand at the entrance to my community. These small actions won’t correct the massively higher levels of industrial pollution, but any reduction — any constructive change — is a step in the right direction.

For me, standing among old-growth trees — particularly towering evergreens — and breathing in crisp, clean air is a highly spiritual experience. There’s no major epiphany, no life-altering religious conversion like Saul on the road to Damascus. But spending some time in the midst of these natural air filters is a great reminder of what clean air can and should feel like in my lungs.

And perhaps with every inhalation of clean air, I am in the present moment renewing creation itself, one breath at a time.


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