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Hebrew is Magic: Take a Deep Breath

Dear friends,

As many of you know, I moved to Israel to enlist in the IDF when I was a whopping 24 years old. That means I was older than my comrades, my commanders, and my officers!

Plenty of people, including my parents and then-girlfriend Dorit, tried to talk me out of it.

I had my own doubts, too:

Was my Hebrew strong enough?

Were my glutes strong enough?

And, of course, there was the biggest question of all: Was I willing to die?

Some context: This was the late ‘90s, when just about all combat soldiers would eventually do a tour in Lebanon as part of Israel’s war of attrition with Hezbollah. Did I know for sure that I wanted to be part of that?

No, I did not. But what I did know was that if I didn’t join up, I’d regret it forever (however long “forever” might be).

You see, I realized that serving in the IDF wasn’t just another item on my bucket list. It was a sense of fulfillment I needed to claim in order to feel like life had a bigger purpose.

It was, in other words, something I aspired to.


The Hebrew word for “to aspire” is lish’of (לשאוף)

And while I may not have realized this then, I now know that Hebrew sees us during the challenges we face –  and helps us see our way through them. Here’s how:

It turns out that lish’of is a homonym that also means “to inhale.”

Hebrew is handing us a package deal: Aspiring to the best version of who we are necessarily means overcoming difficulty and self-doubt.

In this sense, lish’of is more than just a word, it’s an instruction manual. Hebrew knows that short, shallow breaths are the diagnostic for stressful situations. Lish’of literally spells out how to cope with the anxiety we feel when embarking on a new challenge: deep inhales. This small act equips our brains with enough oxygen to tackle what’s ahead.

Science backs this up. But, once again, Hebrew knew it first.

And I have a feeling that with lish’of, Hebrew is telling us something else, too: In the same way that breathing is involuntary, so too is our need to aspire and reach for more. The day we stop growing is the day we stop living.

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

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