Directing our inner flame


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson draws parallels between road rage and Hanukkah, exploring the dual nature of our “inner flame” and mindful choices.

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I want to talk about aggressive driving for a minute. I know, an unusual place to begin, but stay with me.

Years ago I lived in New York, and I owned a car. Now, if you’ve ever driven in New York City, you know that it’s basically a contact sport.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The term bumper-to-bumper traffic was kind of created to describe it. And that population density — people on top of people, cars on top of cars — can lead to some aggressive moments.

I remember once being cut off abruptly by someone who crossed in front of me exiting the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan.

A friend of mine who was in the car introduced me to the term “assholing,” to describe the behavior. (Yes, this is a family show and I’m a rabbi, but that term is just too perfect not to mention.)

Even though I live in Chicago now, it’s not like driving has gotten any better. There’s still a lot of assholing out there. There’s a lot of aggressive driving. And people get angry with each other: “Come on, buddy, go!” Or, “use your friggin blinker next time!”

And I have to admit, I’m not only a victim. I’ve been a perpetrator too. Road rage is a real thing, and in the worst cases it can result in confrontations, fights, and worse.

Most often, though, road rage doesn’t lead to direct confrontation. Instead, it just leads us to stew in our own anger.

When I’ve found myself yelling at another driver, as soon as I have a minute to think, or to breathe, I often then find myself wondering, “Who am I really yelling at? And what is this getting me, other than feeling angry?”

As my friend and colleague Rabbi Marc Margolius likes to say, “What an opportunity for mindfulness practice!”

Why am I talking about road rage? Well, I actually think Hannukah is a lot about road rage. (Yes, we did a Hannukah episode last week. Guess what: It’s an eight-day holiday, so we’re gonna do two!) What do I mean? 

Last week we talked about the major symbol and ritual of Hannukah, the light of the menorah. But another important part of the Hannukah story lies in its historical roots, namely the military campaign by the Maccabees that overthrew the Selucid rulers who governed the land of Israel.

Program note: You can get more of this history at Jewish History Nerds, one of our sister podcasts produced by Unpacked. We’ll put the episode link in the description.

The campaign was bloody. It wasn’t just a war against the foreign rulers; it also really, ultimately, a civil war: targeting Jews who liked the cosmopolitan culture those foreign rulers had introduced.

A lot of people were killed. To put it even more bluntly, a lot of Jews were killed — by other Jews. After the Maccabees were successful, they installed themselves as rulers of the Jews — and let’s just say, they weren’t great.

And their incompetence ultimately led to the Jewish people’s loss of self-determination in the holy land for 2,000 years. 

All of that is, perhaps, a reason why the rabbis of the Talmud really didn’t talk about that side of Hannukah very much.

Nearly every other holiday gets a lot of treatment from those rabbis — Shabbat, Passover, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. But Hannukah is nearly absent from the 2,711 pages of the Talmud. And I think that’s because they were worried about celebrating the rage of the Maccabees and their descendants. 

Now the thing is that the flame that drove the Maccabees to be such fierce fighters is the same flame that can light up our minds. The flame lies within us. It lies within me. And we can either let it burn and burn until it’s a raging fire — or we can learn to control it and kindle it.

We can use it for a source of great heat, or we can tend it so that it’s a source of illumination. We can allow it to overtake us on the highway so that we yell at the asshole who just cut us off, or we can use it to respond to other drivers in a wiser, more generous way. 

Given that there’s a war going on, a war I’d bet everyone listening feels emotionally connected to, I also feel a need to clarify that I’m not arguing for pacifism here. Even soldiers — perhaps especially soldiers — need to be mindful about how they’re directing their inner flame, just like the rest of us.

Even though I have a regular meditation practice, I get agitated on a regular basis — whether it’s while I’m driving or when the dog eats something she shouldn’t or something just doesn’t go according to plan.

My guess is you do too. That’s totally normal. We all experience things that bother us or even provoke our outrage.

But as the great psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl taught, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” To me, that space is the space of the candle flame, the space of Hannukah.

The truth is that all the practices we talk about on this show are in service of holding that space open in our minds and hearts, so that we might choose mindful, wise responses over mindless, reactive ones.

And having a regular practice definitely helps. But in the moment itself, here’s a very simple practice I find can help: Just breathe. 

Take a good deep breath. In. And out.

Again: In. And out.

Again: In. And out.

The medical science tells us that even with just three good breaths, our bodies begin to calm down from their heightened state of anxiety. If you can do it for a couple minutes, even better. And if you can be aware of your breathing — ”I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out” — that helps even more.

And while you’re doing that breathing, you might visualize a flame in your heart. See if you can keep that flame going — not extinguishing it — but guiding it so that it doesn’t become a raging bonfire.

Let it be light that lets you glow with wisdom, with generosity, with compassion. Let it be a light that helps you choose a peaceful path — whether that’s a path in life, or just the path off the exit on the highway.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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