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Mitzvah Means Connection: Tzav 5784

The other day I listened to a talk by one of my favorite teachers of mindfulness, Gil Fronsdal, about the war in Israel and Gaza. I listen to Gil’s meditations and short talks several times a week. I’m drawn to the clarity, simplicity, and depth of his teaching. I find that practicing with him early in the morning, or while I’m walking the dog, is helpful.

Like his previous talk on the war last fall, in this talk I was impressed and gratified to hear Gil acknowledge and embrace the humanity of everyone who has suffered, is suffering, and continues to suffer because of it: Israelis, Palestinians, and all of us who care about and are connected to them. There were, predictably, some things I might have phrased differently, or some places I found myself disagreeing. But on the whole, I found it good and helpful.

Towards the end of the talk, Gil said something that has stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase: A lot of people approach me with demands–to sign this or that, to condemn this group or that group, to “stand with” these people and “stand against” those. And Gil said (quoting now): “I don’t operate that way.” He didn’t say this with an edge, but just matter of fact. Instead, he said, he responds to requests, invitations. Demands just won’t work.

I’ve been lingering on that line for a couple of weeks. On one level, it reflects a commonplace among meditation teachers (imagine me speaking in meditation teacher voice now): “And now, if it’s comfortable for you, the invitation is to… gently close your eyes” or “allow your awareness to settle on the breath” or whatever the next part of the practice is.

This is actually such a common expression that we joke about it sometimes at work. It’s foundational to mindfulness practice, the notion that we are all free to enter and leave the practice as we like. We are here not because anyone is forcing us, but because we have decided to be here and do this in this moment–and we can decide in the next moment not to. We have free will, and no one can take that away from us. Thus we shouldn’t presuppose that we or anyone else is bound to do anything. And so, no demands–only invitations and requests.

This is one of the places where Judaism as a mindfulness practice can get complicated. Why? Because at the heart of a life of Torah is the concept and experience of mitzvot, traditionally translated as commandments. Biblical and Rabbinic teaching is suffused with the idea that the Divine commands or demands of us to obey these rules–and will reward us for doing so and punish us for acting otherwise.

This approach works for some people, but it doesn’t work for others. For me, this orientation was particularly useful as a young person, as my fear of being judged–by others, by what I understood God to be, by my own conscience–helped push me into study and behaviors that created a groove in my heart and mind: Shabbat, kashrut, praying, hours and hours learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and our people’s extraordinary textual tradition. I felt good about how I was spending my time because I felt I was living in alignment with what I understood that God commanded me to do.

But at a certain point, that stopped working so well for me. I found something missing in my inner life, as though I were performing a set of roles rather than genuinely living in a way that integrated my outer actions with inner sensations. And that led me, over many years, to studying Hasidut, experimenting with new forms of prayer, and eventually to IJS’s Clergy Leadership Program (applications are open for our next cohort–please share with rabbis and cantors you love!) and into the practice I engage in, teach, and help develop today.

I bring all this up because the name of this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, invites us to reflect on this question of the meaning of mitzvah (tzav is a verb form of the noun, mitzvah). Rashi, citing the midrash, observes that tzav connotes zerizut, alacrity, as if God is saying, “Perform this commandment right away–bring energy to it, don’t dilly dally.” That fits well within a framework of externalized motivation: Get this done quickly so that you can earn the reward (and avoid the punishment). A mitzvah, in this context, continues to be (or at least seems to be) a behavior that a Higher Power commands us to do, backed up by overwhelming force.

But there are other ways to understand mitzvah. The Hasidic masters, drawing on the Zohar, routinely play up the aspect of mitzvah as connection, e.g. mitzvot are the means by which “The Ineffable [expresses] desire that we connect, embrace the Divine, through holiness” (Sefat Emet Bo 1874–there are many more examples). This framework does not necessitate jettisoning the notion of mitzvah as duty or obligation. But, for me anyway, it has the effect of wrapping that heavy notion of commandedness in a softer envelope of love (or, perhaps, the harsher approach is the package, and the love is the soft center; or, really truly, neither is inside or outside–they’re both deeply intertwined). As I’ve continued on my own spiritual and religious journey, that has been profoundly important and helpful.

This approach can get tricky for me, though, if it leads me to experience mitzvot as entirely voluntary. I’m not willing to say that everything is an invitation, because I believe that I, and we, have moral, ethical, and spiritual duties and responsibilities. I can’t, with a straight face, understand Torah, halakha, and Judaism as simply a response to a series of invitations; it is also a response to a set of demands.

Yet I think Gil Fronsdal is right: Demands are not always, or perhaps even often, effective. Why? Because so many of us experience our lives as a set of choices we make, grounded in freedom of thought and action. So the notion that God or a politician or an activist on social media demands of me that I espouse this position or take that action–can be experienced as a categorical error: Who gives you the right to tell me what to think or do? It would be far more effective to engage in a good faith conversation and enable both of us to speak, listen, and make up our minds.

This is an experience I think a lot of folks have run into vis a vis mitzvot and Judaism. Yet if we can ground simultaneously in an understanding of mitzvah as both commandment and connection (imagine popularizing the phrase, “Mitzvah means connection!”), I think we can open up a rich and deep relationship with Torah, Jewish life, and the Holy Blessed One. That is what I’m trying to do in my own life, and it’s what we try to do at IJS all the time. If you’re not already on that journey, I hope you’ll consider joining us (no, actually–I’m demanding that you join us; just kidding.)

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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Purim 5784: Quit Rage

When my son Toby was seven or eight years old, we watched the Revenge of the Sith, the third of the Star Wars “prequel” movies—the one that tells the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader (spoiler alert, I guess—but, really?). In the climactic scene, as Anakin is about to battle his master Obi-Wan Kenobi, his eyes are yellow with rage. He has been overtaken by anger. He shouts at Obi-Wan, “I hate you!” At this, Toby turned to me and said—in the way that only a sweet 8-year old who goes to a school with a strong social-emotional curriculum can—”Ooh, hate is such a strong word!”

It may sound trite to say, but I think it’s actually remarkable that, in my 47 years, I have been blessed not to experience hateful rage very much. The vast, vast majority of my experiences have been characterized by emotions and states that are peaceful, nonviolent, and even loving. But perhaps because of that, I can vividly remember the moments when rage has been present—both the rage of others that I’ve witnessed and rage that has arisen in me and caused me to lose control. In the former case, they are generally moments that have caused pain in me even through the mere fact of observing them; in the latter, they are, uniformly, the moments in my life I most regret.

We think of Purim as a happy holiday, filled with costumes and yummy things to eat. But the truth is, at the beating heart of this holiday is a story of rage, hatred, fear, generally poor emotional regulation, and the consequences those strong negative emotions can have when channeled into violent, state-sanctioned power.

The word heima, rage, forms a throughline of the Purim story. It appears six times in Esther: When the king becomes angry that Vashti won’t come (1:12) and when that rage finally subsides (2:1); when Haman sees that Mordechai won’t bow to him (3:5 and again at 5:9); when Esther reveals Haman is out to destroy her and her people (7:7) and when his rage subsides after Haman is hanged (7:10). In each of these cases, a powerful man experiences something that upsets him—something that seems to undermine his sense of control and self-worth, perhaps—and he is unable to control his anger. There is something childlike and petulant about these incidents, something reminiscent of that young Anakin Skywalker who can’t manage the strong sensations of pride, feeling wronged and unloved (and, in Anakin’s case, probably abandoned as well).

And like Anakin Skywalker, in each case in Esther, the powerful man, whether Achashverosh or Haman, flies off the handle into a literally murderous rage and then codifies that rage into state-sanctioned violence: killing the queen (and then, grotesquely, effectively kidnapping and imprisoning the young women of the empire until he found the one who most pleased him—all under cover of law); ordering a massive, state-authorized pogrom on the Jews and constructing a state-authorized gallows for Mordechai; killing Haman by the lawful order of the king. In case my point isn’t already clear: this is not a children’s story.

Instead, I think it is at least in part a story that comes to help us reflect on questions about rage and power (and gender: see Rabbi Jericho Vincent’s incredible new rendering of the Megillah for more). Such questions are, of course, always present, whether we are aware of them or not, whether we like to acknowledge them or not. One of our key developmental tasks in childhood and adolescence is learning how to modulate the strong negative feelings we can experience that might impel us toward anger, rage, and violence, and instead make calmer, wiser, more peaceful choices. And the Megillah is even astute enough to layer in the ways in which the experience or threat of violence can itself have traumatic impacts on a collective group, which can then lead to their own imagined or enacted revenge fantasies (this is the story of chapter 8).

Jewish mindfulness practice is all about disrupting this escalator of reactivity and instead increasing the space between stimulus and response. It is about cultivating da’at, attentive awareness, as evidenced in the pivotal line Mordechai writes to Esther: mi yodeah im la’et kazot higaat lamalchut, who knows—who has da’at, is mindfully aware—but perhaps it was precisely for this moment that you attained the throne!

Esther, of course, is the character who has the most to fear—”if I perish, I perish.” Through what I take to be a practice of mindfulness—what is she doing for those three days of fasting and praying if not creating more space between stimulus and response?—she overcomes that fear to make an enormously courageous, history-altering choice. Unlike her husband the king, she does not seek to dull her pain through drinking, partying, and carousing. Unlike Haman, she is not so conceited that she can only think of herself. As her name implies, she is, perhaps, concealed even from herself, but she ultimately emerges as an exemplar of mindful self-awareness that grounds her courageous speech and action.

This Purim, when so many of us are living with fear and trauma; when our media ecosystem thrives on prompting our most reactive behaviors; when too many are acting in ways that seem anything but mindful, wise, or courageous—may we renew our commitment to our spiritual practice for the sake of reducing suffering, healing pain, and fostering peace.

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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That’s What Friends Are For: Pekudei 5784

One of the main reasons Natalie and I moved to Skokie eleven years ago was so that our children would have other kids to play with on Shabbat afternoon. We had previously lived in Evanston, which had a wonderful but very small shomer Shabbat community. There were basically the same few kids, and no one else at our children’s grade levels. When Toby came along, we realized we wanted a different experience and moved three miles west.

At this point, Toby is old enough that most Shabbat mornings he finds me at shul to tell me that he’s hanging out with his friends and classmates all afternoon and he’ll be back in time for havdallah. Which is exactly what we wanted. Like his older brothers, he has a group of friends his age who can spend time and play with one another. Normal, healthy developmental stuff–and a good validation of our decision back in the day.

Yet as you no doubt know, friendships and childhoods that look like this are becoming rarer. Teens are spending less time hanging out with their friends–a trend facilitated by social media and accelerated by the pandemic. The same is happening with adults, as the Surgeon General discussed in a recent report on the epidemic of disconnection and loneliness affecting the country–an epidemic that has profound consequences for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

We’re wrapping up the Torah portions that recount the building of the Mishkan. One of the sometimes overlooked features of this story is the role of friendship, specifically that between Bezalel and Ohaliav, the two master builders. Now, you may actually be scratching your head: “Betzalel–him I’ve heard of. Who is the Ohaliav character?” He was Bezalel’s chief helper–or, as my own friend and rabbi, Ari Hart, pointed out recently, his buddy. These were two friends–really, two of the only friends (not blood relations) that we see in the Torah. They shared in the work together, inspired one another, dreamed, thought, created, and labored with each other. They were friends.

It makes sense to me that the Torah would choose to highlight two friends at the center of the creation of the Mishkan, as the word for friend, chaver, is related to a word the Torah itself uses to describe putting together the Mishkan, l’chaber. Like the Mishkan or the clothing of the high priest, a healthy friendship reflects the interconnection between distinct individual parts within a larger whole. Each part is unique and important, and each also contributes to the total project, the greater communion of the friendship.

Rava, one of the great rabbis of the Talmud, quoted a folk saying: O havruta o mituta. Literally translated, the phrase means, “friendship or death.” I think a perhaps more accurate rendering might be, “Friendship is the essence of life.” Why? Perhaps because, unlike familial ties or contractual responsibilities, a friendship is a relationship characterized by freedom. We choose our friends. And because of that, a friendship is its own, particularly special, kind of love–freely chosen, much like the freely-given offerings that provided the raw materials for the Mishkan.

Jewish spiritual practice can often be thought of as something we do on our own–meditating or journaling or praying. And yes, much of our work is internal, taking place in zones to which only we have access and that cannot really be shared with others. But/And: so much of our spiritual labor can only, frankly should, be done in the company of friends–spiritual friends, friends with whom we can practice, friends to whom we can open our hearts, friends who are, in the truest sense of the word, a havruta. May we all merit to develop, maintain, and grow such friendships.

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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Enough is Enough: Vayakhel 5784

I travel frequently for work. My checklist of things to do before I leave home includes not only packing undershirts and a toothbrush, but also emptying the compost bin that sits next to our sink. I seem to be the member of my family who can stand the smell the easiest. So before I get in the taxi to the airport, I dump the compost into the larger bin outside.

I therefore think about the compost with some regularity. On the one hand, I feel good about it: We’re diverting waste from the landfill; we get soil back in the spring; we’re contributing to a larger movement. On the other hand, there’s a little perversion that creeps in when I clean out the fridge: “Ooh, that lettuce I bought last week that didn’t get eaten–awesome, it can go in the compost!” But, of course, it would have been better to either eat the lettuce or not buy it in the first place.

The existence of the compost bin can thus provide a subconscious crutch for overconsumption. While it mitigates some problems, it doesn’t address the basic questions of desire and sufficiency operating in my mind and heart when I’m at the grocery store or standing in front of the fridge thinking about what I want to eat. Those questions are still mine to work through.

These issues are on my mind this week because at the heart of Parashat Vayakhel is a story about sufficiency and saying, “Enough.” Making good on the Holy One’s invitation for everyone whose heart is moved to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan, Moses invites the Israelites to do just that. But not only do they bring–they keep on bringing, to the point that the craftsmen come to Moses to tell him they’re being overwhelmed.
“Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp:
‘Not a single man or woman should make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!’ So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” (Ex. 36:6-7)

In his Mei Hashiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner interprets this passage spiritually: “In truth, one does not know the root of their heart—if they are truly giving. The test of this is, if one is asked one time to donate for a new mitzvah, then they can give abundantly, but after they have grown accustomed to this mitzvah they then close their hand from giving. From this it is understood that they are not giving from their roots, for if it came out of their roots they would not refrain from giving.” In the case of the Mishkan, the rebbe says, the Israelites kept giving again and again, manifesting that they were truly giving from the roots of their hearts. Hence these verses should be read as praising them.

Now, this would be a good place for me to make a fundraising pitch. (Sure: If your heart is moved, please do donate to IJS!) But/And: I think the larger point is one about the spiritual practice of discerning and knowing our hearts–in our giving, our consuming, our making, our selling. The Torah invites us to consider that, just as there is an economy that exists between the grocery store and the compost bin (or the trash can), there is likewise an economy within our hearts–impulses, either genuine or manufactured through advertising, of need, desire, and craving; stirrings of generosity, openness, and sufficiency.

In an age characterized by consumerism, impulse purchasing, and life-threatening levels of waste, mindfulness practices are more important than ever. They enable us to walk through the grocery store–or Amazon–with stronger, wiser hearts that are less susceptible to the manipulation of desire. And in an age characterized by isolation, division, and epidemic levels of loneliness, our practices likewise help us to cultivate connection, compassion, and resilience. These are two sides of the same coin, two parts of the economy of the heart that, with practice and dedication, can become the economy of the world too.

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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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 huge cast and elaborate sets. And, because it was opening night, there were a lot of people decked out in their finery. It was a scene.

Yet what made this night so memorable was the singing–and especially that of the soprano, Lise Davidsen, who was making her Met debut in an Italian opera. This was a big deal, as Davidsen, a Norwegian-born star in the opera world, is known for her work in German pieces (Wagner, Strauss). But Italian opera is a different animal, and there was a lot of anticipation about how she would do.

Suffice it to say, she brought down the house–both with her aria before the first intermission and then, most memorably, with her rendition of Pace, pace, mio Dio in the final act. And that was when the moment I’ll never forget unfolded. You see, unlike in virtually any other Western performance art form, opera not only invites the audience to applaud mid-performance, after every solo (jazz does this), but, because it’s a theatrical performance, there’s a pause in the action when that happens (something that doesn’t happen in jazz). While most of the time the applause runs its course and the show goes on, occasionally something magical can happen.

That’s what happened on Monday: Davidsen’s performance was so immediately appreciated and beloved that the audience clapped and clapped, hooped and hollered, yelled “brava!” and “bravissima!” for what seemed like an eternity. Even the conductor and the orchestra started applauding. And Davidsen, trying to remain in character, simply couldn’t ignore it–she ultimately had to break character and acknowledge the reality of the moment with a smile and a hand to the heart. Only then could the performance go on.

It was that breaking character–breaking through the “fourth wall” of the performance–that made the moment indelible in my memory, and probably in that of the several thousand other members of the audience, because it is such a rare thing to witness. Performers and audience alike are so committed to maintaining that imaginary wall; it is a fundamental part of the experience of theater and music, ceremony and ritual. We invest spaces like theaters and symphony halls–and synagogues–with an artifice that allows another world to come into being. When we break that wall, the experience can be jarring, just as it can also be magical.

The story of the Golden Calf is a counterpoint to the story of the construction of the Mishkan that it interrupts. And while its most fundamental lesson, of course, is to be ever mindful of the possibility of idolatry, some of our tradition’s most insightful, even radical, interpretations see significance not only in the people’s construction of the calf, but of Moses’s smashing of the tablets of the law in response. As Rashi, quoting the Talmud, famously says in his very final comment on the Torah at the end of Deuteronomy: “The Holy Blessed One agreed with Moses’s action, as it says, asher shibarta (Ex. 34:1), which implies that God said, ‘Yishar koach,’ Good work breaking the tablets.”

I wonder if we might think of these two breakings–the breaking of the tablets and breaking character/breaking the fourth wall–as partaking of or expressing a related impulse. In the case of Lise Davidsen, the moment demanded that she break the fourth wall in order to acknowledge her own humanity and that of the audience, which wanted to express their love and appreciation for her singing. In the case of Moses as interpreted by the Talmud, the Holy One recognizes that the moment called not for standing on ceremony, but instead for the expression of emotion–disappointment, anger, rage–of Moses’s gesture; or, perhaps, on an even deeper level, the moment called for a lesson that nothing, not even words of Torah written by the finger of God, should become an idol, immune to the realities of the world, and thus the tablets had to be broken.

How do we discern what the moment calls for? That’s one of the reasons we practice. Through our mindfulness, we hopefully become aware of the overt and subtle ways idolatry operates in our hearts and minds: in the things we cling to, in our inability to live with uncertainty, in our stubborn desire to maintain an impermeable, unbreakable fourth wall between the lives we live and the stories we tell ourselves about them.

We don’t seek to break the fourth wall all the time, of course, or even most of the time. In both opera and in Torah, those moments of breaking are meaningful only because they are rare. But I would suggest that one of the reasons we practice is so that we might  know when those moments have arrived–and that we might have the courage to break those idols when they do.

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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