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“Do you know who I am?” Bamidbar 5784

Peter Salovey, who is stepping down this month as president of my alma mater, Yale University, was my freshman psychology teacher thirty years ago. The course was popular. Hundreds of students took it. 

Salovey was always quick with a joke. Before the final, I remember him telling us the story of a huge lecture hall full of students writing their exams, much like the one we were about to take. As time is winding down, a handful of students are finishing up. “Ten minutes left,” the professor calls out. A few finish and hand in their exam books. “Five minutes.” More finish. “One minute.” At this point, a single student is the last one writing–and he’s still going at a feverish pace. 

“Time’s up, pencils down,” the professor calls. The student is still writing. 

The professor shrugs, picks up the pile of exam books, and starts heading to the door. As she passes the student she says, “Last chance.” Still writing. The professor walks to the door of the lecture hall and the student races up to her. “Sorry,” she says, “you missed your chance.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks.

“What do you mean, do you know who I am?” the professor responds. “You went beyond time.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks again, more stridently.

“Look kid, I don’t care who your parents are or how important you think you are–the same rules apply to everyone.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks one more time.

“No,” she says.

At that, the student lifts up the pile of exam books in the professor’s arms, stuffs his in the middle of it, and races out of the room before she can figure out which exam book was his.

Professor Salovey told this story to ease some tension in the room before our final exam, but of course it reflects a deeper truth: We can often find ourselves in big, bureaucratic systems that render us nameless and faceless. And while those systems can sometimes provide advantages, they can also come at a cost. The advantages can include economies of scale, providing many more people access to valuable knowledge and experiences at an affordable rate. The disadvantages can include a lack of intimacy, a thinning of communal bonds, and ultimately both the capacity for and willingness to engage in abuse of the system.

The Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this week, marks an inflection point in the Torah. It is a book of generational transition, as the generation of the exodus dies out and the next generations come of age. And, with its multiple countings of the Israelites, the feeling tone of the more intimate stories of Genesis and at least early Exodus finally and fully gives way to a much larger, more corporate sense of a nation ready to assume the responsibilities of self-governance in the promised land.

Instructing Moses to take a census, the Holy One uses a fascinating phrase: Moses is not to count the people simply according to their number, but instead b’mispar shemot, the “number of their names” (Num. 1:2). The 16th century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno observes that this unusual formulation suggests “the names of the individuals reflected their specific individuality, in recognition of their individual virtues.” This census simultaneously took cognizance of both the numerical scope of the people and each person’s uniqueness–an unusual kind of counting.

There would seem to be a connection between this kind of counting and the counting we do in mindfulness practice: Not simply logging minutes of practice, but aiming to be aware and attentive in each moment as it arises, present to the uniqueness of this particular time, place, and experience. That kind of practice can help us see our lives and those of other beings more fully. It can help us to humanize other people, avoid instrumentalizing them or relating to them as numbers without names–but instead to live with the awareness that every person has a name and a story. As so many forces in our world push us toward namelessness, facelessness, and dehumanization, this is a teaching we need to learn and practice again and again.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
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Walking the Talk (Bechukotai 5784)

On my podcast this week, I shared a bit about my recent struggle to walk our dog, Phoebe, in the midst of all the cicadas that now line the sidewalks of our neighborhood. (Folks, the cicada invasion is real, and it’s here, at least in Illinois.) While it’s okay for her to eat a number of them, too many could cause her to have stomach issues.

We’ve tried a muzzle (she hated it and got it off). We’ve tried the cone of shame (she outsmarted it). So where we’re at now is that I just have to hold the leash pretty tight when we’re walking, and I kind of yank her every time we approach a cicada. It seems to be working alright, but it makes for an unpleasant walk for her and a tired arm for me. But so far, so good: No major digestive issues to speak of, just a dog who is very eager to go in the backyard as much as possible (where there are many more cicadas).

I’m finding that, in its own way, the whole episode reflects a lot about the relationship my family and I have with Torah and Jewish mindfulness. First and foremost, we take the health of this creature of ours seriously. “V’chai bahem–v’lo yamutu,” as the Talmud comments on Leviticus 18:5: The Torah is meant to be lived by and not died by. (The interpretation is offered as a proof that we violate almost every prohibition in the Torah to save a human life.) So we approach the question of what to do about Phoebe and the cicadas with the value that her life matters. (The cicadas’ lives matter too, but… priorities. And common sense.)

Further, we’ve approached this question in a way that also asks about what is doable and practical. Can we completely shield Phoebe from the cicadas, just leaving her inside? No, that would harm other parts of her health and wellbeing–and ours! Could we create or buy some kind of robotic device that would walk ahead of us and vacuum up the sidewalk in advance? (Note to the Roomba people: This idea has potential. You heard it here first.) Again: impractical, cost prohibitive. As my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes, God’s covenants with the world and the Jewish people are intended to operate on a human scale and pace–in ways that are achievable. So we’re looking for solutions that have some chance of implementation.

The basic motivating impulse here is to find a solution, to literally walk our talk. We espouse and hold dear some extraordinary values–honoring and sanctifying life, enabling the divine presence to be made manifest in the world in every action, every step. So, like our tradition, we take the ethical and practical questions seriously. That, in a nutshell, is halakha–often translated as “Jewish law,” but perhaps more fully and even literally rendered as “the way Jews walk in the world” (halakha which comes from the same root as the verb lalekhet, to walk).

A couple weeks ago I read a poem in The New Yorker by Ocean Vuong called “Theology.” It contained this line:

I thought gravity was a law, which meant it could be broken.
But it’s more like a language. Once you’re in it
you never get out.

Vuong’s words have been ringing in my ears since because I think they capture this challenge of understanding halakha so well: While at one point in my life I related to it as law–imposed by some external force, operating under the threat of punishment–as I’ve gotten older it has become much more like a language, operating in a more fluid zone of culture, explicitly and implicitly negotiated meanings, intertextualities and connections. It still has to make sense–languages have to make sense–but as language, halakha has a great deal more expressiveness and suppleness than when it’s understood only as law.

Concluding the halakha-rich book of Leviticus, Parashat Bechukotai begins with the words “If you walk in my ways.” Commenting a little later on the verse, “I will walk in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev. 26:12), Rashi picks up on the linguistic connection to the primordial image of the Divine walking in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) and interprets: “I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of you, and you will not be frightened of Me.”

That’s the goal and the promise of our halakha: If we can act in the world in ways that are mindful, aligned with the covenantal values of the Torah, compassionate, present, loving, and attentive, then we reveal the Divine presence that is here walking with us. We discover that this world can indeed–even now–be a redeemed Eden. That’s what it’s really all about, even and perhaps especially when the obstacles to sensing that possibility are greatest.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
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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.

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Guest House (Behar 5784)

The last couple of weeks have been one of those moments when I pinch myself and ask, “Really, I get paid to do this?!” Because over the last two weeks, I have spent a total of eight days on IJS retreats–first for our Sustainers Circle and, this week, for our staff, both of which are extraordinary groups of people. My days have been filled with reflection, thoughtful conversation, study, and a lot of laughter–all things that I dreamed 25 years ago would describe the work I would do as a rabbi. It’s an extraordinary blessing and privilege.

We held both of these retreats at Trinity Retreat Center, a beautiful place on the Housatonic River in northwest Connecticut. IJS has a long history with Trinity–it’s among the retreat centers we regularly go to. The staff is extraordinarily welcoming. They eagerly accommodate our requests about kashrut and Shabbat. On a retreat last October for our Kol Dodi program, the Episcopal priest at the center, Rev. Dr. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, welcomed our group and spoke movingly about how important it was for him to welcome us because of the pain he knew our people were in after the massacre of October 7. There were tears.

During our staff retreat this week, my colleague Rabbi Myriam Klotz led a session on sacred listening, an area we’re really developing at IJS. The essence of sacred listening is practicing a form of mindfulness that’s relational: sitting with another person with presence and intention, giving them your full attention, being aware of what arises within you as you listen and making the mindful choice to continue listening non-judgmentally. In the session Myriam led, we each sat with a partner for three minutes and listened to them speak. At the end of those three minutes, we summarized–without editorializing–what they said. For the listener, it’s hard work to listen in that way without forming judgments or thinking about what to say. For the speaker, it’s usually a gift to feel heard and acknowledged. (Important side note: I’ll actually be teaching an online course on sacred listening with Myriam and Rebecca Schisler beginning June 23. You can register here.)

The speaking prompt in this exercise was Ayeka, Where are you?, in a spiritual sense. When it was my turn, what I found arising for me were questions about at-homeness. I noticed the feeling I experienced of being at Trinity: an exceptionally welcome guest–but also not at home in quite the same way I do on retreats at Jewish retreat centers. I perceived sensations having to do with translating our language and practices–acts which I find both exciting and also, in some cases, a little tiring. I observed how subtle these sensations could be: not categorical statements, but little movements in my mind, heart, and body. And I found those sensations pinging deeper registers of at-homeness and guestness in my life, most significantly in relation to Israel and America, the tonic and dominant chords of this key in my life.

“When you enter the land,” God tells the Israelites at the beginning of parashat Behar, “the land shall observe a Shabbat to YHVH.” From there the Torah elaborates the practice of the Sabbatical year, the paradigmatic case of a mitzvah that is observed only in the land of Israel. While the agricultural and economic practices associated with the Sabbatical year have deep spiritual meaning, and have even been adopted voluntarily by some Diaspora Jewish farmers in recent years, in halakhic or Jewish legal terms, they do not apply outside the Holy Land.

It’s one of the phenomenal features of Jewish life: We have significant practices that, for the centuries and millennia of our Diaspora experience, a majority of Jews experienced only in their imaginations, not their bodies. And it’s one of the amazing features of the Jewish people’s mass return to the land of Israel in recent centuries: the widespread reclamation and renewal of these ancient practices, not only in our imaginations, but in our bodies and on the earth.

Teaching in the eastern Europe of the 18th century, the Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted this opening line of Behar as referring not (only) to the Land of Israel, but to the body: “‘The land shall keep a Sabbath to YHVH:’ This means to bring rest and relaxation to the land, which is the body, and to rejoice over physical pleasures. Through this, the soul can rejoice spiritually. This is ‘a Sabbath to YHVH,’ for you need both these aspects on the Shabbat.” (Toldot Yaakov Yosef Behar) As happens frequently in Hasidut, the Besh”t here excavates the spiritual dimensions of the mitzvah alongside its physical ones. The Shabbat of the land becomes not only a legal or physical requirement for the land, but an invitation to a spiritual consciousness we can cultivate all the time.

Which brings us back to the question of at-homeness and guestness. Our spirituality is our capacity to experience being deeply, profoundly at home in the world. That is tied up with large, tectonic questions of place and culture: the ability not to have to translate; the sense that we are really in our place and with our people. But/and, that at-homeness takes place on a very intimate level at the same time, in the space of our minds, hearts, and bodies. Shabbat and the Sabbatical Year–our built-in Jewish retreats–are our regular invitations to sense that we and the Holy One are not guests in the world, but are, together, deeply and profoundly at home with one another.

Josh’s Friday Reflections
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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.

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A Conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous

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

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the senior and founding rabbi of IKAR, a Jewish community that launched in 2004 to reinvigorate Jewish practice and inspire people of faith to reclaim a soulful, justice-driven voice. Her 2016 TED talk, “Reclaiming Religion,” has been viewed by more than 1.5 million people. In 2013, Brous blessed President Obama and Vice President Biden at the Inaugural National Prayer Service, and in 2021 returned to bless President Biden and Vice President Harris, and then led the White House Passover Seder with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. She was named #1 on the Newsweek/The Daily Beast list of most influential Rabbis in America, and has been recognized by The Forward and Jerusalem Post as one of the fifty most influential Jews. Brous is in the inaugural cohort of Auburn Seminary‘s Senior Fellows program, sits on the faculty of REBOOT, and serves on the International Council of the New Israel Fund and national steering committee for the Poor People’s Campaign.

Her new book, The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Heal Our Hearts and Mend Our Broken World, is out now from Penguin Random House. A graduate of Columbia University, she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

Moments of Presence (Emor 5784)

I want to tell you about my amazing Shabbat last week.

It came on the third day of a five-day retreat we held for about 25 members of our IJS Sustainers Circle, a group composed of former board members, alumni of our Kivvun program, and major donors. The retreat was full of meditation sessions, rich and musical prayer tefilah (prayer), mindful movement, mindful eating, and a lot of love.

But Shabbos took it to a whole different level.

And there was one moment that stood out in particular. It came as we were starting Shabbat dinner on Friday night. My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Miriam Margles, reminded us all that this time is traditionally one of bracha, blessing. In my own home, as in many others, it’s a moment when parents offer blessings to their children. So Miriam invited us into this opportunity for blessing, but–this was an IJS retreat, so, of course–to do it perhaps a little differently than we usually do. We were to turn to a neighbor and look into their face. Each of us would share, honestly and from the heart, the blessing we needed just then. Our partner would listen attentively and then offer that blessing to us.

My partner was another member of the retreat faculty, the wonderful Rabbi Jonathan Kligler. And in this moment, I was able to look at Jonathan, be held by the embrace of his face, and share with him very openly the bracha I felt like I needed in that moment. Jonathan took my hand and offered exactly that blessing. And then I did the same for him. I know we weren’t the only pair in which tears were shed. It was a deeply moving experience.

It is always a profound thing to be seen and heard deeply like this. Being fully present with someone else, offering and receiving blessing–it felt as if, for that moment, we were like the two keruvim, the two cherubs that faced one another atop the holy ark. The Divine presence was revealed within us and between us. And that was happening all around the room.

But what also enabled that moment to be so meaningful was its ritual element: It took place at Shabbos dinner. It drew power from our mutual submission to and upholding of the rhythms of Jewish time. While in theory this showing up for one another, this “presencing,” could have taken place anywhere and anytime, in practice our ritual made it both more accessible and richer than it would have been otherwise.

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24) details the holiday calendar: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of YHVH, that you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Lev. 23:2). Beginning with Shabbat, the parasha goes on to enumerate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the counting of the Omer, and the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Opening his commentary on this passage, the 13th century Spanish commentator Ramban (Nachmanides) observes that, while much of Leviticus is directed specifically to the priests, this passage is meant to be shared with the entire people. Why? “The priests have no greater duties with regard to the festivals than the Israelites, therefore the Holy One did not admonish Aaron and his sons in this section, but the children of Israel, a term which includes all of them together.” All of us, Ramban suggests, regardless of background or station, have a share in these times; all of us can access them; all of us uphold them. These are not special rites of professional ritualists; they are the inheritance and responsibility of the entire Jewish people.

There’s no rocket science in that, of course, just a rearticulation of a basic truth. The challenge–for me, anyway, and perhaps for you too–is that they can become ritualized and, in the process, lose some of what the ritual is supposed to help us do. Our moadim, our sacred times, are invitations to deeper awareness, a richer encounter with the Divine within ourselves and one another. Every week on Shabbat, and then throughout the other special moments of our holiday calendar, we can step into an opportunity for blessing, pause and rest through which we recognize the presence of the Shechina within, between, and among us. What an incredible gift, what an astonishing inheritance.

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.

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