“I Can’t Breathe” — IMO Eric Garner



1. the air inhaled and exhaled in respiration.
2. respiration, especially as necessary to life.
3. life; vitality.
4. the ability to breathe easily and normally.
5. time to breathe; pause or respite.
6. a single inhalation or respiration.
7. the brief time required for a single respiration; a moment or instant.


Most of us take breathing for granted most of the time. It enters us and departs as a matter of course, no thought or effort required.

Those of us who have ever practiced mindfulness meditation know what it means to consciously watch the breath in and out, in and out, to keep that as a purposeful focus, letting go of other intrusive thoughts. As a secondary gain of this spiritual practice, we may attain a heightened awareness of the miracle of breath.

There are, of course, those for whom breathing is compromised due to illness or disease, who are regularly attuned to the miracle and vicissitudes of breath. My client Linda Moss, of blessed memory, fell into this category. Her fear and panic about whether she could take in enough air and whether she could catch her breath taught me to stand in awe for each unencumbered breath I am privileged to take. Her courage despite her suffering remains an inspiration — how she lived in that fear, yet continued to take as many breaths as she could for as long as she could.

We worked a lot with the Hebrew understandings of the interconnection between breath/n’shima and soul/n’shama, how God breathed life into the first man (adam), how breathing is therefore symbolic of the God-breath, the vital stuff of life, in all of us. Breath is a manifestation of grace in action, the greatest gift.

If we understand breath to be synonymous with life, the police officer’s callous non-responsiveness to Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” is already a first step toward homicide, long before the coroner ruled it one.

“I can’t breathe” is a terrifying thought. “I can’t breathe” is an even more terrifying feeling.

Undoubtedly, an injustice was perpetrated by the police officer. A further injustice was perpetrated by the grand jury that refused to indict him. So I marched tonight with a few hundred Jews, candles, and signs, to protest, under the auspices of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Black Lives Matter!”, and shouted the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and sang “Oseh Shalom/May the One who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace for us…” Those who were willing to be arrested sat down in the middle of Broadway at the corner of 96th Street, shutting down traffic moving southbound on Broadway. Twenty-five of our fellow protestors, some of them my friends and colleagues were, indeed, arrested and driven in two police vans downtown to Police Plaza.

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, "The breath of the human being is the lamp of God," followed by "I can't breathe."

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, “The breath of the human being is the lamp of God,” followed by “I can’t breathe.”

Sit-in on Broadway

Sit-in on Broadway

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) - Deuteronomy 16:20

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) – Deuteronomy 16:20

I was shocked and outraged by the failure of the grand jury in Missouri to indict Ferguson police  officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown just two weeks ago. But New York is MY city, and my shock and outrage is somehow even greater now, because the pain is closer and deeper. As a result,  the injustice seems even less comprehensible to me than that perpetrated in Ferguson.

This is a paradox — if something is already unfathomable, how can it ever be even more unfathomable? and yet, it is. It just is, like the Zen koan that my UU colleague Reverend Meredith Garmon shared with me this morning:

Once I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. Then I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now I am at rest, for once again I see mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers.

The difference is, I laughed at that paradox. It tickled me.

I am not laughing now. Injustice piles on injustice. I will never be at rest.


(see Truah’s statement about Eric Garner’s death by going to http://www.truah.org/who-we-are-general/634-justice-for-eric-garner-a-statement-from-t-ruah.html. You can also see more pictures of tonight’s march and rally by going to the JFREJ Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/jfrejnyc.)


7 thoughts on ““I Can’t Breathe” — IMO Eric Garner

  1. Thanks, Pam. We march and demonstrate now, but must maintain the energy after the crowds disperse and the news media turns its attention away from issues of racial injustice. Each white person in this country must do the internal work of examining our own white privilege and help other white people to understand theirs. Until there is a shift in attitudes, these incidents, these senseless, needless killings, will continue.


  2. Thank you for this post, R’ Pam. Thank you for marching – as I have sat in my quiet home in this quiet town with my sleeping child, my thoughts have been with the protestors, and even more with the grieving families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and so many more. May the Source of Peace bring them comfort along with all who mourn.

  3. Pingback: Prayer After Eric Garner, by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat | Kol ALEPH

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