Clarity through compassion


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson explores the ability to have compassion for others, regardless of how they might make us feel. By opening ourselves up to multiple perspectives, we can extend compassion even to those who drive us the craziest.

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It may surprise you to learn that, when I was a college student, I did some stupid things. One of my less than mindful moves involved locking myself out of my dorm room and climbing through a window onto an icy ledge six stories above the ground — all while clad in a towel. Ahh… youth.

My oldest son is in college and last year he also did something less than mindful. Not anything illegal or that harmed anyone else. But, as we might say in the mindfulness world, not so skillful. And it was the kind of mistake that required some bailing out.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

When I saw clearly what had happened, I was at home with my son, but my wife Natalie was away on a work trip. She couldn’t talk on the phone, so we wound up frantically WhatsApping back and forth about what to do. There were a bunch of decisions to make. It was incredibly stressful.

We figured out how we were going to handle the situation and I told our son. And then, in a fit of honesty, I said to him, “Jonah, I have to tell you: I’m pissed.”

He looked at me. “I’m pissed at you — for getting us in this situation. I’m pissed at Mama — for not being here. And most of all, I’m pissed at myself — for feeling pissed.”

A moment passed, and then Jonah said, “Abba, you know what I think you need to do right now? I think you need to go meditate.” My eyes threw icy daggers at him…and then we both burst out laughing.

I’ve thought about that interaction a lot since then. Why did we laugh in the midst of such a serious situation?

One reason, I think, is that it was a moment of seeing clearly. There was the clarity that came with seeing something — his behavior — that we hadn’t known about, and that he probably hadn’t fully appreciated either. He came clean, and that felt good for all of us.

Also, I was clear and honest with Jonah about my feelings, and he got it. But he was also clear and honest in holding up a mirror to me:

“Dude, you’re a rabbi who hosts a podcast on Jewish mindfulness. You literally spend your days teaching people practices to do when they’re hot and bothered. So, physician — heal thyself.”

We both saw something clearly in that moment, and sometimes seeing clearly allows us to also see the absurdity of the reality we’re in — and then, sometimes, all we can do is laugh.

The dramatic central story of the Torah portion of Toldot is about two twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, vying for their father Isaac’s blessing. You might remember this story. Isaac, who prefers his son Esau, is old and blind.

At the encouragement of his mother Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, Esau’s twin Jacob tricks his father by dressing up like his brother in order to steal the blessing. Isaac uses his other senses–smell, touch, hearing–to try to figure out which of his children is in front of him.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” he says. Finally, he asks the son before him, “Who are you?” and Jacob replies — lying — saying “I am Esau, your firstborn.”

Despite his misgivings, Isaac gives Jacob the blessing. When Esau learns what happened, he is heartbroken and angry, leading to a deep rift between the brothers that lasts for decades. And Jacob’s relationship with Isaac is, likewise, seemingly permanently damaged.

This is one of those stories that makes me really appreciate the Torah — and the Bible as a whole, for that matter. Because it doesn’t present our Jewish ancestors in a strictly favorable light.

The whole family dynamic is pretty messed up. Rebecca, Jacob and Esau’s mother, shouldn’t be encouraging one of her sons to steal from the other. Isaac and Rebecca both should figure out a way to love their children equally.

But then again, Isaac and Rebecca are themselves children of their own traumatic pasts, as were their parents, and on and on.

All of that invites us, I think, to both look honestly at what’s going on in this story–and to do so with compassion for the characters.

That doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior. But it means evaluating that bad behavior within a context of lovingkindness and understanding. It’s what I think my wife and I did in the case of our own son — and what he did in lovingly pointing out my own flaws as I expressed my anger.

So here’s a meditation practice you might try this week. If you can do it now, that’s great. If you can’t, save it for a time when you’ve got a quiet place and a chance to close your eyes for a few minutes.

Begin by sitting upright. Take a good, deep breath. And another. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Allow your mind to settle and your body to arrive. If it’s comfortable for you, bring your awareness to your breath.

Now, the invitation is to bring to mind a challenging relationship. I’m not going to be too specific, because this is so personal to each of us.

Maybe you’re thinking of someone who annoys you, who you find it difficult to be around. Maybe someone you both love and, also struggle with.

Notice what arises as you bring this person to mind — what sensations in the body, what feelings in your heart. See if you can put a name on those sensations: judgmentalism, frustration, anger. 

What is it about them or their behavior that arouses that sensation or feeling? Can you identify it? 

Now, what happens if you bring a dose of hesed, lovingkindess, or rachamim, compassion, into your awareness? Do you feel a bit of softness coming where there was hardness before?

Maybe allow yourself to ask, “I wonder why they behave the way they do? And, I wonder what’s going on with me, that this thing about the other person arouses such a negative reaction within me?” See if you notice some clarity arising.

Suddenly, you’re bringing a compassionate lens to a challenging situation. You’re allowing yourself to clear away some of the clouds of resentment. You’re bringing the sunshine of lovingkindness to your consciousness. How is that working for you?

As always, there’s no right answer here. Just note how it feels in your body, your heart, your mind. Note any shift in how you think of that other person. And how you think of yourself.

Take a few more deep breaths. And when you’re ready, open your eyes — and see if you’re perceiving the world a little more clearly, a little more softly. And the next time you’re interacting with the person you thought about, see if you can put in this lens of compassion — and see how that affects how you show up and how you interact. Drop me a line and let me know — my email is

Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.

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