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Need to Take a Breath at Work?

More and faster describes my usual work habit. I’ve operated this way for decades. Now, as the Vice President for Innovation and Impact at Reconstructing Judaism, I apply this ingrained approach to ensure focus on the hour-by-hour demands of my calendar. Meetings, grant applications, reports, time to design new and better engagement all rightfully demand my attention. I’m working for the Jewish future. “Keep working,” I tell myself. Yet, finally I’m realizing that by continuing to bow to my task list as master, I am making mistakes.

So I’ve recently taken to pausing five minutes a day.

I’ve been inspired to take this pause by a project we lead, Reset: Spiritual Practices for Activists, which is funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. To support the well-being of social-justice activists besieged by clear and present dangers, Reset provides them with a wide array of accessible online Jewish spiritual practices. Like Reset participants, I now daily (almost daily), turn from the tasks to breathe anew.

Reset: Resilience Practices for Jewish Social Justice Organizations

For each day of the workweek, I’ve ritualized a five-minute practice. My day begins with closing my door. I scan the artwork on my office wall, including a poster that reads, Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot besimchah tamid (“It is a big mitzvah to always be in a state of joy”). It affirms my decision to pause. I quiet.

On Mondays, I click a link to step into a world crafted by the spoken word meditation of Rabbi Alex Weissman. “This time,” he says, is not for “go, go, go,” but to “sit, sit, sit.” I arrive at Sinai, at the foot of the mountain, for three days, in five minutes, feeling the desert, with my people, experiencing, again, the thunder, the lightening. I am not alone. Breath.


Tuesday’s ritual includes a click for the voice of Koach Baruch Frazier, Au.D., a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, to hear him chant Ahava, rachamim, chesed, shalom. He sings, “I am love. I am compassion. I am kind. I am whole.” Over and over again, he reminds me I am more than someone who must complete the day’s tasks. I will strive this day, I say to myself, to be what the song says I am. Breath.

Wednesday’s click fills my office with Rabbi Vivie Mayer, who teaches at RRC, singing “Open my heart” (Petakh libi). I wonder how many repetitions does it take to open my heart with no judgment? No deadlines? My mind wonders. What’s possible? Briefly, I stop asking unanswerable questions. I try to really listen to her request from the Amidah to peel away the layers and “Open my heart to Your wisdom, so my soul will pursue Your ways.” Breath.

On Thursday — whoops, I rush past my opening-day ritual, not even remembering I’ve forgotten to close my office door and open my heart. I have given in to the tasks. Yet, I’m learning to judge less. After all, I’m not alone; I am love, compassion, kind and whole. I commit to practice again, tomorrow. Breath.

On Friday’s click, I begin again, accepting Rabbi Sheila Weinberg’s invitation to find a comfortable seat and notice myself settling in. As she directs, I listen. The rising and passing of all sound needs no reaction, she gently directs. All of me listens, even to the squirrels outside and the gurgling pipes within my office walls. Breath.

Daily, I’m learning that without making time for breath, the mistakes I’m making are not about spelling. My biggest mistake is forgetting that the word for breath in Hebrew is neshamah. And the word for soul is the same: neshamah. I may not be able to fulfill the great commandment to always be in a state of joy, but I do have the ability to take a breath so my work is not solely about tasks; it is infused with soul.

Do you need a breath, too? To be guided by soul, not solely tasks? Click here and practice. For just five minutes in a day, then practice again.


Cyd Weisman is vice president for Innovation and Impact at Reconstructing Judaism. Reconstructing Judaism is the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement.

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