Seeing is Believing: Tazria 5784

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

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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Home is Where the Heart Is: Shemini 5784

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

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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Pre-Passover Pausing in the Kitchen Practice

Pre-Passover Pausing in the Kitchen Practice

For those who observe the practice of kashering our kitchens for Passover, this process can induce a lot of excitement, but it can also engender a small or great deal of anxiety for many. Changing over the dishes; removing every scrap or loaf of chametz/ leavened goods from the fridge, the freezer, the pantry; from the floor (tiny crumbs count!); from the oven and the stove; from the seat cushions and at the backs of cabinets and drawers, and more–these physical tasks are not easy nor simple. There are a multitude of rules regarding the physical aspect of cleaning the kitchen for Passover.

There are also the mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of these intensive preparations of turning your kitchen space upside down each spring. How do you mentally and emotionally relate to this work of cleaning, clearing, re-organizing, releasing and throwing away, buying and bringing in kosher for Passover items related to food storage and preparation, and eating?

For me, and perhaps for you, the kitchen in general is a multi-use space in which many multivalent activities take place. Whether you live alone or with a partner, friends, family members, or pets, you might spend more time in the kitchen doing things rather than being quiet and simply resting and sitting still. And those things might be charged with emotions of excitement, anxiety, pleasure, fear, shame, grief, stress, and more.

You might feel obligation: sweep the floor; empty the dishrack or dishwasher; cut the vegetables; clean the drain; put the groceries away….You might feel happiness: the smells, tastes, colors and textures of food and drink you enjoy fill that space. You might feel nothing: rushing to get the thing prepared, eating on the run, throwing the dish towel on the counter and closing the door behind you as you hold the go-mug of coffee in one hand, your work bag and keys in the other. If you experience any food-related allergies or struggle with food and body image issues, addictions, or other emotional stresses centered around food and eating, being in the kitchen may cause mild or serious discomfort.

Whatever they are, there are likely many emotions and activities that we center in the kitchen space. Think of the recent Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address that took place from the speaker’s kitchen, in which she referenced its sacred centrality in the life of her family as a central gathering place for having serious discussions. In the midst of so many ways in which the Passover holiday is filled with emotions, and its preparations too, charged in so many loud and busy ways of doing, it can be hard to slow down, relax, and bring mindful attention and meaning to all of this emotional and physical work. One small act of liberation can be to find freedom from the habituated doing in this space, and practice being, kindly and differently, right there in the presence of the fridge, freezer and stove, as you prepare for Passover.

The following practice can help you slow down and create some space between yourself and the usual business and habituated ways of being in the kitchen in which you need to get or do something. You can prepare yourself to begin your chametz clearing and cleaning from a place of mental and emotional quiet and stillness akin to a Shabbat state of mind:

Before you begin your Passover cleaning, find a comfortable place to sit in your kitchen. After several breaths to feel the floor under your feet and the seat under your bottom, bring awareness to the sense of physical sight. If you are not able to see physically, bring awareness to the senses you recruit to locate yourself in this space.

Let your eyes (or your hearing or hands through touch) begin to just receive the space you are in, just as it is. Let your eyes rest on some object in the room. Just be with this mixer or frying pan. No need to do anything to it or with it. Let the cabinet just be in the present with you as “cabinet”. Just this. Let your eyes scan slowly, taking in and finding your attention focused on, dropping into, as it were, relating to the object in a passive or simply gazing kind of way. You don’t need to do anything to or with it.

Notice physically if you feel the urge to get up and throw something away, or put something back, or if you suddenly feel the impulse to eat the apple or banana or cookie you see on the counter. Try to just notice all the impulses to move and do in this room. Let yourself be a witness to this space as a quiet, still environment where you can just rest in being, right here, right in this kitchen.

Notice your emotions as they arise and pass. Can you be with the energy that a feeling might hold? Pay attention to the thoughts that come and go. You may have a thought: I need to put aluminum foil on those stove burners–aak!–I need to go back to the store to get more foil first. And that thought might immediately be followed by an emotion such as anxiety, or fear or worry, or impatience (forget this contemplation practice, I’ve got to DO stuff now!). Allow yourself to practice staying with the sensations, feelings and thoughts as they come and go, and bring awareness back to simply looking. Simply being with this moment, in this kitchen space.

You can practice bringing kind attention to these waves of internal stimulation, and just allowing yourself to rest quietly, in relative stillness, in this kitchen, with nothing that you need to clean, produce, fix, throw away, clear out, wipe down, tape up, or otherwise change. Just bring your awareness to the colors, shadows and light, the “thingness” of the things around you and of yourself in this space.

After seven to ten minutes of awareness practice in your kitchen, notice if you sense any shift in your being. When I practice this each year before beginning Passover cleaning, I usually note some greater ease, sometimes even peacefulness, and a rush of compassion for our humanity as Jews who undertake in our various ways this aspiration-for-liberation-inspired-kitchen-makeover each spring. See what you notice.

And if, after beginning or at any point during the intensive doing that you immerse in as you prepare your kitchen for Passover, you can notice if the heart rate is increasing and your mind is wandering or if your anxiety is rising; know you can pause. Take that seat again, and simply stop the doing. Return your eyes or hands or ears to awareness of yourself in this space that is inherently ok just as it is, and so are you.

Perhaps this kind of pausing practice is a taste of liberatory consciousness that you can bring to this moment, and every moment, taking a seat in whatever “kitchen” you find yourself in. Simply be in it, just as it is; letting your breathing, and sitting, and the space itself be enough without more potchkying (technical word meaning fussing or messing with something more than necessary, trying to improve it). And perhaps, into this kind of spacious awareness, you can taste awareness of the sacredness of this moment, this activity, this season, just as you are. So may it be!

Pesach and the Omer: An Opportunity for a Spiritual Reset

Pesach and the Omer: An Opportunity for a Spiritual Reset

Especially in this deeply fraught and challenging year, Pesach – and the seven week period leading to Shavuot – offers all a precious opportunity for a “spiritual reset.”

This part of the Jewish yearly cycle resonates powerfully with our mindfulness practice, which invites us to explore our inner life with curiosity, growing in awareness of our reactive, fear-based habits. Attending with curious, nonjudgmental attention to the truth of each moment (hitlamdut), we witness more clearly the energy of this “shadow” in our mind, emotions, and body.

And approaching this inner Mitzrayim (constriction) or frightened ego with compassion rather than harsh judgment, we experience greater spaciousness—greater freedom to shift that energy in a more wholesome or holy direction. We move with greater ease through the mouth of the Sea, into the midbar, the open wilderness. We are free.

In particular, Pesach invites us to cultivate greater awareness of the truthfulness in our thoughts and speech, to expand our freedom to direct the sacred gift of language to promoting Emet/Truth in the world.

The Hebrew word Pesach can be parsed into two distinct words—peh sach, or “speaking mouth.” According to a Hasidic understanding, Passover represents the liberation of speech. As slaves, the Israelites could only utter a raw, anguished cry (Exodus 2:23); in freedom, they could sing exultantly the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1-19).

In the swirling, powerful emotions of our times, even those of us who profess outrage at daily distortions of language and disregard for facts may discover ourselves “bending the truth” to suit our own preconceptions and biases. Mindfulness can help us catch ourselves more often when fear generates rationalizing thoughts or tendencies to fudge the truth. We may notice constrictions leading us to avoid “inconvenient” truths that challenge our preferred version of reality. Instead of harshly criticizing such inclinations, we can honor our fear, practice self-compassion, and notice options to promote truthfulness.

As a specific practice leading up to Pesach, consider the teaching of the prophet Zechariah, who urges us to “speak the truth with your neighbor; judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). Think of the “gates” as the place within us from which thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise to consciousness. Notice reactions arising, and the speech these reactions might generate. Pause and practice sh’tikah, silence. Consider these questions: Do I really need to say these words? Are they true? Are they just? Do they lead to shalom, to wholeness or wholesomeness?

As we approach Pesach, the liberation of speech, may we be freed from inner constrictions distorting our view of reality. May we pause before speaking, texting, writing or posting, and discern whether to remain silent or to express ourselves through words reflecting our highest and truest selves May Emet, the Divine quality of truth, flow freely through us, and fill the cracks of this fractured world.

Rising Above the Waves of Fear and Anger After October 7

Rising Above the Waves of Fear and Anger After October 7

Originally published on Times of Israel on March 27, 2024

These are fearful times that try our souls. Our nervous systems are overwhelmed by the ongoing trauma of October 7, the devastation of the Israel-Gaza war, surging antisemitism, political turmoil, and more. Threatened on so many fronts, our default inclination as human beings is to speak and act reactively, or remain frozen in silence.

Our fear-based reactivity may feel good in the short term. Anger may temporarily dull our pain, grief, and anxiety, and create a short-term sense of safety. But over time our habitual reactions inevitably are revealed as clumsy and unwise, often destructive of others and ourselves. In such heated times, we often behave as our own worst enemy – even while feeling powerless to stop and change course.

It’s hard to act wisely when we are pummeled by waves of strong emotion. We struggle to hit the pause button – to stop, collect ourselves, notice other options, and choose the wise course. The eye of the hurricane, a place of calm and clarity in the midst of turbulence–a place we all need so much right now–eludes us.

Where can we find that place of calm and clarity? Jewish tradition teaches us that that calm place begins in our own minds and hearts–that it is always available to us, if we can access it.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” wrote the Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. “In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Whenever we act or speak immediately in reaction to external stimuli, without that much-needed space, we act from habit, a form of enslavement. There is no freedom, no choice, and no growth.

Jewish tradition and practice provides an antidote to reactivity
Shabbat provides us with an experience of stillness and quiet that is always available to us. Shabbat allows us to be rather than act. The fog of our mind can clear; our emotions can be fully felt, honored, and allowed to move through us. We can see more clearly and discern more wisely.

But Shabbat doesn’t only happen every seven days. We can bring Shabbat consciousness into our lives all the time, in every moment. Regardless of our level of traditional observance, we each can “keep Shabbat” by expanding the space between stimulus and response, pausing to breathe and suspend judgment – even for a moment. Some might describe this very Jewish practice in contemporary terms as mindfulness practice.

Judaism has a spiritual practice ideal for times like these: tikkun middot, a Jewish practice for developing character traits and aligning actions with our values. Tikkun middot practice integrates basic principles of Jewish mindfulness or “Shabbat awareness” with close attention to essential soul/ethical traits like loving connection, setting wise boundaries, humility, courage, and gratitude. Based on Judaism’s core principle that every human being is created in the Divine image, we come “factory-equipped” with these soul/ethical qualities.

Tikkun middot practice helps us insert and expand the space between stimulus and response. From within that space, we can more easily access our sacred traits so that rather than reacting instinctively from fear, we can freely choose a wise, sacred response representing our authentic selves, more aligned with our sacred values.

An ongoing Jewish spiritual practice can help us keep our balance – and tikkun middot is the ideal practice for trying times such as these. It can help us avoid falling prey to our baser instincts. It can help us maintain connection to sacred values and be true to who we are even when we are under duress.

The Omer: A Time for Tikkun Middot
The seven-week period linking Passover and Shavuot is known in Jewish tradition as the Omer, a time devoted to spiritual growth and ethical maturation. On Passover, we leave the enslavements of reactive habits. Over seven weeks, we shed these manifestations of slavery, growing daily in our capacity to make free choices more aligned with our essential self. On Shavuot, we arrive at Mount Sinai prepared to act freely from the moral wisdom with which we are imbued.

This spring, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality will offer a wonderful opportunity for engaging in just this process of spiritual and ethical growth – Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot, a synchronous, online program in tikkun middot practice. Participants will join a supportive community of practice which helps them more consistently align their inner values with how they show up in the world.

Awareness in Action participants learn how to “practice Shabbat” in their daily lives by developing the capacity to hit the pause button before speaking or acting reactively and unwisely. Each week, they immerse in supported practice of a middah drawn from the theme of the respective week of the Omer: (1) Chesed, loving connection; (2) Gevurah, setting wise boundaries; (3) Anavah, balancing self and others; (4) Zerizut, acting promptly and persistently; (5) Hodayah, gratitude for life as it is; (6) Tzedek, seeking out and manifest what is fair, just, and right; and (7) Sh’mirat HaDibbur, wise communication. The program includes an additional post-Shavuot week of practice for fostering the middah of Emunah, faithfulness or steadfastness.

All materials are provided on a convenient online platform and supported by weekly live practice sessions I will host, and which will be led by guest faculty Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, and Rabbi Aaron Weininger.

As Jews have throughout our history, we need now to draw upon the wisdom of our tradition and practices to buoy us and help us steer wisely through the storms of our individual and collective lives, to bring us and future generations to a better time and place. The approaching Passover, fraught with emotion, affords us all a precious opportunity to free ourselves from the enslavement of reactivity, to remember and return to who we truly are, and to choose wise pathways aligned with the divinity within us.

Mitzvah Means Connection: Tzav 5784

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

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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