Embracing the full spectrum


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson delves into the heart of Rosh Hashanah and the resonant notes of the shofar, unveiling the rich tapestry of emotions that define our human experience.

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Last year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I asked my 10-year-old, Toby, if he wanted to go to downtown Chicago the next morning to see the Thanksgiving Day parade. “I’m not so into parades,” he replied. “At the last parade, people got shot.”

Toby was referring to the 2022 July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, about 10 miles from our home in Skokie. His answer didn’t surprise me, but it broke my heart nonetheless. What kind of world are we living in when a boy is afraid of being shot at a parade?

And, simultaneously, Thanksgiving was a day filled with gratitude: For the abundance we are so blessed to enjoy; for the ability to gather with family and friends (something Covid taught us not to take for granted); for the blessings of being alive. While Toby didn’t want to go to the parade on Wednesday night, on Thursday morning he woke up excited to help me bake an apple crisp. That’s an amazing gift. 

I held the heaviness of Toby’s comment about the parade alongside the lightness of our delicious joint cooking enterprise on Thanksgiving morning. And the truth is, that’s not unusual. Life invites us — maybe even demands of us — to hold contradictory emotions: sadness and joy, anger and compassion. It’s hard to go through our days, even our hours or minutes, without holding conflicting impulses. 

This reality of human life — simultaneously holding a multitude of emotions — is central to the core ritual of Rosh Hashanah: internalizing the sound of the shofar. We begin with a long, unbroken sound, the tekiah. The sound is whole, complete, strong. We might even hear in it a kind of celebration. It lifts us up.

But then we immediately play a broken sound: A shevarim or a teruah, or both of them together. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that these broken sounds are meant to evoke the sound of crying. And not just any crying, but some of the most tragic crying imaginable. There is nothing celebratory here, only brokenness and sadness.

But we don’t end there. No, we bring back the tekiah. We surround the brokenness with wholeness. And we break up the wholeness with the brokenness. Joy and sadness, hope and despair, indignation and compassion — we hold them all at the same time.

When I was in my 20s, I attended the wedding of one of my very close friends. He had been studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem for several years, and just a few days before the wedding, there was a bombing at the Hebrew University cafeteria. Two of my friend’s fellow students were killed. My friend’s wedding took place between their funerals, and some of the guests attended all three events.

What I remember most from the wedding was the emotion: How hard we danced, how much we laughed, how much we cried. We honestly didn’t know whether the tears we were shedding were tears of joy or tears of sorrow. Of course, there’s no reason to think they had to be one or the other. They were both. 

I hope and pray never to experience that kind of profound pain again. Yet I have also lived enough to know that there will be really hard, painful moments. There will be sadness. There will be grief. And there will be joy, too. There will be wholeness alongside the brokenness. There will be tekiah moments and there will be shevarim-teruah moments. If life imitates art, then the shofar ritual is simply holding up a mirror to the truth of our lives.

We started this journey seven weeks ago with the Ninth of Av — a day of sadness and brokenness. Since then, we’ve been building up to this day, Rosh Hashanah. And now that we’re here, it turns out that the point is not simply to replace the sadness with happiness. No, the invitation of the shofar on  Rosh Hashanah is more honest and, I think, more fully human: To acknowledge the sadness and the happiness, the brokenness and the wholeness.

Our Jewish mindfulness practice this week, then, is to listen to the shofar — to really listen. To do that, here’s a short meditation practice. If you’ll be in a place where you can hear a live shofar blast — a synagogue or someplace else — you might do this for a few minutes leading up to it. And if not, it’s still a good practice to do.

Begin by sitting upright. Take a good deep breath. Allow your eyes to soften and, if it’s good for you, close them gently.

Breathe through three cycles of long, deep inhalation and even longer, deeper exhalation. With each breath, allow your body to arrive a little more fully. Allow your mind to calm down.

Now, prepare for the tekiah. See if you can bring to your mind-heart a sensation of wholeness — perhaps something from the past year for which you’re grateful, a relationship that brings you joy, work that makes you feel fulfilled. Or something else. Notice the sensations you experience here. This is a tekiah sensation. Wholeness. Fullness. Being at home.

Now prepare for the shevarim-teruah. If you can, allow your mind-heart to go toward something more difficult. If you’re concerned that it’s going to be too painful or too much for you to do right now, that’s totally okay. Go where you feel you can go with a sense of safety and support.

If you can, allow yourself to experience the sensations that come with contemplating something painful, something broken, something you might wish were whole. Allow yourself to feel these sensations. That’s the invitation of the shevarim-teruah — to notice the brokenness, to feel, for a moment, not at home.

Now, see if you can allow yourself to let go of those negative sensations. Allow them to pass. And prepare for the second tekiah. Go back towards wholeness — gratitude, joy, fulfillment. Again, notice the sensations here. And perhaps notice now what it’s like to experience this more at-home feeling on the other side of the tekiah. Is it different than the first time? See what you notice.

You can do this practice once, several or many times. Check it out for yourself: Does it help you experience the shofar blasts more deeply? Does it help you hold the whole and the broken?

Rosh Hashanah is a moment, an invitation, to hold all of it — not to repress, but to see clearly all the pieces of our lives, the whole and the broken, and joy and the sadness, the hope and the despair.

The shofar calls us to give each impulse its space. It reminds us that we can hold it all. And that, with awareness and mindful attention, we can make choices and take actions that bring about more wholeness, more compassion, more kindness and interconnection now and in the year to come.

Before we end, let’s do another cycle of three breaths. And now, if your eyes were closed, I invite you to open them.

Blessings for the journey, and shana tova — a sweet and fulfilling new year. I hope you’ll join us next time. And let me know how this practice impacted you. Drop me a line at Josh@jewishunpacked.com.

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