Feeling powerless in chaos


The world around us feels like it’s turned upside down. It’s overwhelming and scary. What do we do? How can we cope? This week, Rabbi Josh Feigelson helps us try to work through the overwhelm and stay present.

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This is the second episode we’re releasing since the events of October 7, 2023. The situation continues to be fluid and, between the time I’m writing this and the time you’re listening to it, no doubt the situation will have changed more. 

This past Friday afternoon, as Shabbat was about to begin, I realized how sad I felt. I honestly couldn’t remember entering a Shabbos with this level of grief — even when I was sitting shiva for my own father.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The images and stories of lives destroyed — young people, old people, children, families — just kept coming. Friends and family on social media posted pictures of people they knew who had been murdered and kidnapped. Images of Israelis lining the streets for funerals — so many funerals.

My own nieces and nephews fighting in combat units, seeing and experiencing unspeakable traumas. The children and innocents of Gaza, who are seeing and experiencing their own unspeakable traumas. So much grief. So much sadness. It just ripped my heart apart.

On top of all that sadness is this jumble of feelings about my own power and powerlessness. I want to do something. I’m a citizen and a voter in the United States. I have access to information. I have a voice on social media. I can post stuff. I can call my elected officials. 

And yet: come on. What can I possibly do? I’m not a military or political leader. I don’t know a fraction of the larger reality. Like everyone else, I crave some kind of certainty. But whatever reports I get in the media are fragmentary, incomplete, or potentially even false — just like everyone else.

And on top of all of that: I’m 7,000 miles away, I’m not a citizen of Israel — just a Jew who cares deeply about other Jews wherever they are, including in Israel. What, exactly, am I supposed to do about all this?

Perhaps you’re feeling some of the same things. If so, the first thing I want to say to you — and to myself — is this: Be gentle with yourself. No one has the right answer here. This is a situation without easy answers. So relieve yourself of the responsibility to have them. You’re doing your best.

The second thing I’ll say is this: Within all this complexity, see where you can find simplicity. That can start with turning off the fire hose. I recently went into the settings on my phone and put a limit of 30 minutes per day for news and social media apps, and it has made a huge difference in my mental health. I’d encourage you to try something similar. 

Third, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Eat, sleep, exercise, brush your teeth, take your meds. Do the basics to keep your body and physical environment orderly in the midst of chaos. Making your bed in the morning is a wonderfully simple practice that soldiers know is essential. The rest of us can learn from that too.

Perhaps it’s no accident that this week’s Torah reading is the story of Noah and the flood. The world feels like it’s being tossed about in a tempest. Yet one of the lessons that Jewish tradition learns from that story is that, alongside the physical refuge of the ark, there’s a spiritual refuge too.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, a Hasidic master from the 19th century, taught that, just like Noah’s Ark, for us, Shabbat can offer a shelter in the storm of life, a chance to be held by the wings of the Divine presence.

I don’t think he was only talking about Shabbat, though. I think the point is more like something we might call Shabbat Mind. Just like on Shabbat, at any moment, really, we can pause. We can step away, even just for a moment, from what feels like the relentless torrent of the world’s demands. We can breathe — and be aware of our breathing. We can reconnect with the Hesed, the loving connection, that constantly pulsates and calls to us — if we allow ourselves to listen to it.

So: Here’s a very simple meditation practice you can try — now, and anytime you find yourself in the storm. As usual, it begins with sitting or putting yourself in a position that allows air to flow. 

Take a few good, deep breaths. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. With each breath, try to bring a little more calm and relaxation to your body. 

Make a kavana, an intention, to be present with your breath. You might try to make a mental note as you inhale: I’m breathing in. And as you exhale: I’m breathing out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Try to stay present with each breath. You have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do right now. Just be here.

Eventually, your mind will probably wander — everyone’s does. And when you notice that, it’s the most wonderful moment. You know why? Because now you’re really in the ark. The thing no one can take away from you is your awareness — in Hebrew, your da’at. And your da’at, your awareness, just spoke to you and said, “Hey, I wanted to focus on my breath, but my attention wandered.” It’s an amazing gift, and it’s always there.

So now, because of that da’at, that center of the ark, you can, with love and compassion for yourself, gently bring your attention back to the breath. 

In. Out.

In. Out.

Mind wanders? No problem. Just gently bring it back.

In. Out.

In. Out.

You are alive. You are inhaling the gift of this breath. And you exhale it back as a gift to the world. This is the cycle of Hesed, of loving connection. It is always here, always available. It’s the essence of Shabbat mind. It’s your ark in the storm.

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You can do this practice as long as you like — for 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 20 minutes or longer. 

When you’re ready, open your eyes. Look around. See if you feel a little calmer, a little more centered than you did before. This practice is not going to solve all the problems in the world — not at all. But, hopefully, it can help you find some shelter in the midst of what feels like all this chaos. I hope it does.

Before we end, I want to do one more thing, which is offer you some other resources too. This show is produced by Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media, which has a ton of valuable content on Israel, Israeli and Jewish history, and more — including a critical podcast you need to check out, called Unpacking Israeli History. Find it all at JewishUnpacked.com.

The other producer of this show is the organization I lead, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. We also have a lot of tools for you, one of which is our companion podcast to this one, called Jewish Meditation for Everyone. Please feel invited to check it out. 

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

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