Blog

Camping Trip: Acharei Mot 5784

In recent days I feel like I’ve been living in a world suffused with the word camp. The encampments on college campuses, which are themselves reflective of ideological and political camps, have occupied our collective attention. As the parent of one student in college and another about to graduate high school, I have been following events with concern. As a scholar of the history of Jews and universities, I have been following them with keen interest. As an American Jew, I have been following them with a not inconsiderable dose of anxiety and worry.

Yet, in what I’m choosing to believe is a not coincidental twist, the drama on so many campuses played out while my family and I were at a different kind of camp, namely the annual Passover experience at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. For ten days, from the day before the holiday to the morning after it concluded, we ate and talked, prayed and sang, celebrated and studied with a wonderful group of nearly 200 Jews young and old in the sunny, warm, and breathtakingly beautiful setting of the mountains north of Ventura. In the spirit of Passover, I felt like I was liberating myself from email, social media, and news feeds as I reconnected with family, friends, the Jewish people, the natural world, and the Creator. It was an incredible blessing. (Picture is of my two younger sons overlooking Lake Casitas.)

Still, many of the sessions that I and other faculty members taught inevitably focused on the questions of the day: In Israel and Gaza, of course, but also the college campuses which have become so central to American Jewish life, and the more familiar terrain of our communities and our own minds and hearts. In particular, a question that seemed to pervade the whole week was some version of, How can we stay sane in this world that is enduring so much suffering? And how can we be mindful in the face of this constant firehose of information–some of which is true, much of which is false, and the totality of which is overwhelming?

Those questions offered me an opportunity to talk about the Jewish mindfulness practices I use in my own life to try to help, which include meditation, intentional consumption of media, Tikkun Middot practice when it comes to social media posting, setting app limits, and meeting sensations of judgment with curiosity rather than conviction (“Be curious, not furious,” as one participant put it). Our practices are designed for moments like these. They can help us sustain the habits of the heart we need to live and participate wisely and mindfully as members of a diverse democracy.

Because this year is a leap year on the Jewish calendar, we encounter the somewhat unusual situation in which the Torah portion for this week that immediately follows Passover is Acharei Mot, which is about Yom Kippur. We have barely put away the matzah and our attention is turned toward the opposite end of the year and our people’s other most important holiday.

The Torah describes Yom Kippur as a “Shabbat Shabbaton,” a day of complete rest (Lev. 16:31). Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner observes that the aim of the restrictions of Yom Kippur is to help us cultivate a profound sense of yishuv hada’at, a settled and clear mind, which is the essence of Shabbat. When we can do so, he writes, the flow (shefa) of the Holy One can fill us completely, without any limitation. We can be fully present–and can be vessels for the Divine Presence.

Of course, Yom Kippur represents this dynamic at its peak–a day on which we can be particularly and especially suffused with the presence of the Holy One. Yet the kind of presence and awareness–the yishuv hada’at, the settled and clear mind at its core–is available to us every week on Shabbat, and in every moment in the form of “Shabbat Mind.” It is reflected and embodied in speech and action that is full and mindful, not empty and reactive.

These qualities, of mindful presence and expansiveness, are also related to the central theme of Passover, the exodus from Egypt–the place of narrowness and constriction. Which suggests that, though these holidays are on opposite ends of our calendar, they are profoundly connected. Political freedom is not complete without spiritual freedom, and spiritual freedom is not whole without political freedom. As we continue to witness and engage in discussion, debate, and activism centered on political camps and encampments, my humble observation is that such work, wherever we stand in relation to it, will only benefit from greater yishuv hada’at–the spiritual practices of mind and heart that weave together our larger camp that exists within, between, and among us.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
FREE

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Reconciliation and Freedom: Shabbat HaGadol 5784

“All revolutionaries are patricides, one way or another.” That’s a line from Yuri Slezkine’s classic of modern Jewish history, The Jewish Century. The book was published in 2006. A few years later, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, that line became a powerful lens as I reflected on the intergenerational conflict in American Jewish life in the late 1960s and early 70s.

My thesis was that a significant strain in American Judaism in those days involved conflict between generations of parents, grandparents, and children as they shaped their identities and relationships with Jewish life. Some of this was bound up with general patterns of rupture and reconstruction that have repeated in many immigrant communities–not just Jews–in the United States. “Old world” customs give way to new forms of life (‘patricide’ means killing one’s father), often accompanied by pain and strain. A younger generation looks upon its elders and breaks from their “outmoded” ways; the older generation looks upon its progeny and laments what they have become.

Obviously that’s a very rough heuristic. It works well for the movies (think of The Jazz Singer–both the Al Jolson and Neil Diamond versions) and it does reflect some truths in real life. But individual families and larger histories are, of course, more complex than that. As my doctoral adviser, Robert Orsi, put it in a memorable note on a draft of one chapter: “No one speaks for a generation, not even Dylan.” In the case of American Jewish life in the 60s and 70s, that was reflected in the move to recover and re-embrace attachment to and expression of Judaism: in the Havura movement, the ba’al teshuva phenomenon, the rise of Chabad, an embrace of Zionism in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, and a general reclamation of Jewish history and thicker Jewish identity among a younger generation that gained strength in those years.

This is already much more academic than most of my Friday reflections, and I don’t intend to rehash my doctoral work here. (If you’re really that motivated, you’re welcome to buy a copy. Here’s the link.) Usually I start these reflections with a personal story, not with a quote from an historian. So why all this today?

As I shared in my podcast this week, like many folks I’m freaking out a bit about the Seder this year. I’m worried about what feels like a moment of profound strain, even rupture–not exclusively a generational one (remember that line about Dylan), but along multiple lines that ultimately trace their way through our views on and relationships with Israel. I’m worried about how that’s going to be reflected at our Seder tables this year. There is so much pain, so much anger, so many profoundly conflicting views of morality, of what Torah asks and demands of us right now. I’m worried about our ability to stay together as a family, both in the immediate sense and, more collectively, as a Jewish people.

I have long been drawn to the last lines of the haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, this Shabbat that comes immediately before Passover: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of YHVH. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24). The image of parents and children turning towards each other–the word in Hebrew is heishiv, from the same root as teshuva, the returning we do during the High Holidays–has always struck a deep chord for me, as Passover is, more than anything, a time that my own heart turns towards my parents and my children.

I write about this line virtually every year. Yet quite honestly I usually dodge the challenge presented by that very last clause, the one about striking the whole land with utter destruction. Too hard, not relevant, I tell myself. In this year, however, that simply isn’t and cannot be the case. There is literal destruction in the land and, with it, enormous destruction that has occurred in our language, our relationships, our people, our families, our hearts. And it’s the fear of seeing that destruction reflected at the Seder table that is freaking me out.

And so (say it with me): This is why we practice. To acknowledge those very deep and potent fears, to let them have their space–and then to make mindful, wise, compassionate, and loving choices. That is the very freedom from Egypt–Mitzrayim, the place of constriction–that the Seder is about, the spiritual journey we undertake every day and in every moment. As the prophet says, we can and must turn toward one another. It is in that turning, that opening of our hearts that enables us to live together peacefully, that we manifest our freedom as images of the Divine. May it be so for us this year.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
FREE

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

A Conversation with Rabbi Shai Held

We are grateful to  Rabbi Shai Held for speaking with IJS President & CEO, Rabbi Josh Feigelson! Please enjoy the conversation recording below.

Rabbi Shai Held—philosopher, theologian, and Bible scholar—is President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute. He received the prestigious Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, and has been named multiple times by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America and by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of the fifty most prominent Jews in the world. Rabbi Held is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (2013) and The Heart of Torah (2017). His newest book is Judaism is About Love, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Seeing is Believing: Tazria 5784

One of my favorite parts of Shabbat is reading the New Yorker. It’s the only time during the week I can sit for an hour or two and just read, uninterrupted by demands of work or family. And as I told my eldest son recently, while college certainly helped with my own writing, it was in reading the New Yorker that I really learned how to write. So I find those Shabbat mornings when I’m sitting at the kitchen table, sipping my coffee, reading Adam Gopnik or Jill Lapore or David Remnick, to be both immensely pleasurable and, still, highly instructive.

There was an article in last week’s issue by Leslie Jamison about gaslighting, the psychological phenomenon in which one person (usually a parent or a spouse) profoundly undermines not only the reality of another, but, crucially, a person’s belief in what their own senses tell them is true. As Jamison notes, the term comes from a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband goes up to the attic every night to search for a set of lost jewels that belongs to his wife–in an attempt to steal them. As he does so, he turns on the gas light, which causes the other gas lights in the house to flicker. When Paula, the wife, asks him about it, he convinces her she didn’t see anything. That firm denial steadily causes Paula’s entire reality to wobble: If she can’t trust her own eyes, what can she trust?

Jamison’s piece explores how the term has exploded in usage over the last decade or so. (In 2022 it was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.) For many people, discovering the term is a revelation, as it enables them to recognize the ways that authority figures have manipulated, abused, or injured them. Yet Jamison also notes that the phenomenon is not necessarily such a rare thing, but might, in fact, be a more common part of all of our lives. As she talks to an expert, she realizes that every time she tells her young daughter that she is ‘just fine’ when she obviously is not, or when she blames her daughter for making them late getting out the door in the morning when, in fact, it’s her own fault for not getting them moving sooner, she might be committing her own, milder but still real, acts of gaslighting. To which the expert responds, “Yes! Within a two-block range of any elementary school, just before the bell rings, you can find countless parents gaslighting their children, off-loading their anxiety.”

One way to read Parashat Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) is as a reflection on epistemology, or how we apprehend reality. The bulk of the Torah portion is devoted to a kind of medical manual for the ancient priests, who were charged with looking at skin infections to determine what they were and what kind of treatment they required. Within chapter 13 alone, the word “see” (r-a-h in Hebrew) is present in almost every verse, nearly 40 times. The priest is charged with looking, investigating, forming a judgment, and ultimately pronouncing reality based on the color of the lesion, the presence or absence of hair, the spread, etc. And what the priest says becomes the shared truth of the patient and the community.

This is not a narrative portion of the Torah (in fact it’s about as Levitical as Leviticus gets), and we don’t hear anything about the experience of the patient, their loved ones, or the priest. But we can try to imagine what it might have been like to wake up one day and discover something off or strange in our body–on one level or another, I expect every human being has experienced that–and what happens next in our minds and hearts. “Huh, what is this? Is it something terrible, or is it benign? Should I go to the doctor right away, or maybe I can wait a week and see what happens?”

I certainly have had such moments, and I expect you have too. Within them, we can feel anxiety as not only our reality shifts, but our confidence in our apprehension of reality is also challenged: “Did I really see what I think I saw? Did I gaslight myself? Maybe I didn’t. Maybe it’s even worse? Maybe I should have known this thing was coming weeks ago. Maybe I’m a bad person!” Commence downward spiral.

This isn’t limited to bodily maladies; it applies to virtually everything in life–which I believe is part of the larger point of this Torah portion. The character of the priest here reminds me of no one so much as Adam, the image of God, in the opening chapter of Genesis (another chapter in which seeing is a motif): looking, investigating, forming judgments, giving names and labels. That process is one we do all the time; it’s foundational to how we interact with the world. And precisely because it’s so fundamental, gaslighting–and the larger destabilization of our reality that feels like a growing phenomenon in our political and media life–is particularly resonant.

In my view, Judaism properly understood is a mindfulness practice. The priest’s responsibility is, in fact, the charge and invitation to each and every one of us: to look, to investigate, and to make wise and mindful judgments. As the priest in Tazria reminds us, that process involves study and acquiring knowledge–and it involves giving ourselves the time and space to see clearly and honestly. So often today I find myself pressed to make a snap judgment. Yet through our practice we can access that other great gift of the opening chapter of Genesis, the expansiveness of Shabbat. Through that, we can create the time we need and deserve to examine reality more closely, perceive more clearly, and judge more wisely.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
FREE

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Home is Where the Heart Is: Shemini 5784

Nearly twenty years ago my family and I moved to Evanston, Illinois. I had just been ordained a month earlier, our son Micah had just been born two weeks prior, and we moved into an empty condo apartment two blocks from the Northwestern University Hillel, where I had taken a job as the campus rabbi. Natalie and I had rented apartments in New York up until then, and this was the first place we owned.

I remember that the confluence of all these changes made it feel different, like we had arrived at this new, officially more grown up stage of life. That was especially true on our first Shabbat. Up until then, we had always eaten on a small Ikea table and sat on folding chairs. But here was a big new walnut dining room table and eight chairs, one we had paid good money for and that would be with us for a long time (it still is). I remember feeling overwhelmed as I sat there and took it in. For the first time, I really felt like we were truly, deeply at home.

In our preparations for Passover (and, perhaps, our aversion to the less narrative-driven nature of Leviticus), we can miss the fact that Parashat Shemini marks the moment when the Divine and the Israelites are, for the first time, sitting at their dining room table together–truly, deeply at home. After weeks and weeks of reading about the construction of the Mishkan in the latter half of Exodus, and then more Torah portions devoted to instructions about the sacrifices at the beginning of Leviticus, the opening chapter of Shemini marks the moment when it all finally comes together. The Mishkan is set up, the priests are consecrated and purified, they perform the required offerings, Moses and Aaron bless the people, and finally the presence of God appears, “and all the people saw, and shouted joyously, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24) God is at home in the world.
But, of course, that moment is fleeting. In the very next verse it all goes terribly, horribly wrong. Aaron’s older sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire” and are killed by a fire that flares forth from the Ineffable. What was a moment of deep, profound presence and at-homeness becomes a moment of absence and death.

The midrash offers many explanations as to what Nadav and Avihu did that brought about this moment of profound rupture. Many of them imagine that, unlike their father and uncle, they became arrogant: they thought themselves too good for any of the available spouses among the people; or, perhaps, they looked forward to the day when Moses and Aaron would die and they would be the leaders of the people; or, maybe, they tried to directly perceive the Divine presence in a way that even Moses did not (Vayikra Rabba 20:10).

On a more intimate level, what all of these attempted explanations share, perhaps, is a fundamental discomfort with, or inability to inhabit, the reality of the present moment–an inability to be at home driven by a desire for, perhaps, even more at-homeness. Where Moses and Aaron were humble, Nadav and Avihu were arrogant. Where Moses and Aaron recognized the limitations inherent in human life–even in a human life that’s at a stage of advanced spiritual development–Nadav and Avihu were unable to do so. They couldn’t accept that being truly, deeply at home is not about having it all, but about living within the realities and limitations of human existence. That’s one reading, anyway.

I think it’s an important reading, one which reflects a profound tension at the heart of Torah: How do we experience being truly, deeply at home? From the Garden of Eden to the exile of the Children of Israel in Egypt to the fact that Moses dies, and the Torah ends, before the people make it into the promised land, the Torah conveys a deep ambivalence about the idea of being at home. Even as he imagines the people finally making it across the Jordan River, Moses reminds them not to get too comfortable and forget how they got there (Deut. 6:10-12). We are meant, it seems, to hold our at-homeness lightly.

Or, perhaps, to recognize that deep at-homeness–what I believe is our human spiritual capacity–lies as much in our ability to inhabit whatever moment and reality we are in fully and mindfully as it does in the particular places we might think of as home. That kind of balance, a holding or apprehending of reality that is neither too firm nor too weak but just right, is what we seek to cultivate through our practices. While our innate emotional drives seek to preserve home as we know it at all costs, our practices can help us create some reflective distance from those drives so that we can respond mindfully, wisely, and ethically–and so that the Divine can be made manifest, at home in the world.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
FREE

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
The Idol of the Fourth Wall: Ki Tissa 5784

The Idol of the Fourth Wall: Ki Tissa 5784

On Monday night, for the first time since before I had children (meaning at least 21 years ago), I went to the opera. Not just any opera, but the premiere of a new production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino at the Met--a production that lasts four hours and involves a...

read more
Cultivating Joy, Here and Now

Cultivating Joy, Here and Now

In this brief reflection Rabbi Sam Feinsmith invites us to consider how we might kindle an inner light during this dark time by remembering to pay attention and practice compassion for ourselves and others in small ways that can really add up.

read more
Clothing Inside and Out: Tetzaveh 5784

Clothing Inside and Out: Tetzaveh 5784

I was boarding an airplane recently when the man in front of me, who looked to be about 20 years my senior, turned and asked, "How long have you worn a kippah?" He was not wearing a kippah, so I was a little startled by this very direct question. But my mind picked up...

read more
Habits of the Heart: Terumah 5784

Habits of the Heart: Terumah 5784

The other night I pulled off our bookshelf a thick volume from my childhood, "The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents." I was into politics and government as a kid, and at some point (before the presidency of Bill Clinton, to judge by the men...

read more
Factory Reset: Mishpatim 5784

Factory Reset: Mishpatim 5784

As I'm regularly privileged to do, I spent part of this first week of February with 50 rabbis and cantors, some of the 530 alumni of our IJS clergy cohort programs, during our annual Hevraya retreat in Simi Valley, California. First and...

read more
Homeward Bound: Yitro 5784

Homeward Bound: Yitro 5784

In some of my recent morning meditation sits, I've noticed a feeling of sadness and grief arising. Yes, of course, there's plenty of cause for sadness and grief in the world and amongst the Jewish people. But this grieving was coming up from a...

read more
Aging Well (Beshallach 5784)

Aging Well (Beshallach 5784)

In a casual conversation the other day with my dear friend Marvin Israelow, our board chair at IJS and someone nearly 30 years my senior, I shared with him that one of the many blessings of my job is being in the presence of so many people who...

read more
Turn, and Be Turned: A Mercy Unique and Unpredictable

Turn, and Be Turned: A Mercy Unique and Unpredictable

When my son, who has autism, was young, I took him to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah so he could hear the shofar blasts. Listening to the shofar being blown was a physical, sacred focal point on this High Holy Day, and I wanted him to feel included in this...

read more
Getting Tefillined: Bo 5784

Getting Tefillined: Bo 5784

For the last decade or so, my family's winter vacation has been a time to get together with my wife's sister and her husband. She's a diplomat, so they're often stationed in interesting places (and have free housing to offer us). And when...

read more
Vaera 5784: Pressing Pause

Vaera 5784: Pressing Pause

When I first started at IJS just about four years ago, one of the good pieces of advice I received was to hire an executive coach. Robin Bernstein, who had served as our interim executive director before I started, stood out to me as a perfect...

read more
Crying It Out (Vayigash 5784)

Crying It Out (Vayigash 5784)

I finally watched "Barbie" this week. I was on the plane, heading home after an intensive four days of work, too exhausted to do much of anything else. So, the movies. If you haven't seen "Barbie" yet, here's my encouragement to do so. And if...

read more