This is a special episode of our podcast. Normally, I write the scripts weeks or months in advance and we record them well ahead of time. But we’re creating this one in real time, in response to the heart-rending reality that has unfolded in recent days in Israel.
While I live in Skokie, Illinois, I have lived and spent years of my life in Israel. I have dozens of family members there, not to mention dear friends, teachers, and so many others I’m close to and care about. Half of the people I love seem to have been called up for army duty, and the other half seem to be running to bomb shelters. It’s heart-wrenching, and every hour seems to get worse and worse.
For me, as for so many others, processing the images and the news — of villages taken over by terrorists, hundreds of peaceful party-goers mowed down in the desert, dozens of innocent civilians taken captive and brutalized — it’s just overwhelming. It reinforces this unbelievable fact, that on October 7 more Jews were killed in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust.
And I’m going to lay it out here — I’m overwhelmed. I’m struggling. And I suspect I’m not alone, that you, listening, are also having a difficult time. So I’m asking myself, what now? What can I do with this tremendous upheaval? How can I face the world, through my sorrow, my tears, my overwhelming emotions? And as so many are experiencing so much acute suffering, what can I, a teacher of Jewish mindfulness practices, possibly offer to others, to you, that doesn’t feel like a joke in the face of reality?
The first thing is something we don’t talk about often — action. What can you do, to look outward, to help, to connect to others? For some of us, that might mean donating money. For others, reaching out to friends and family to offer support. For yet others, it means going to a vigil, or helping to create care packages. Anything to help connect us, to remind us that when one of us hurts, we all hurt, and we all help.
But there’s another part, and that’s looking inward, and helping ourselves. I’ve said it before on this show and I’ll say it again now: Meditation, prayer, song — these are not navel-gazing. Being quiet or contemplative — alone or, even better, in community — is about allowing ourselves to pause and connect with our whole selves: Our minds, our bodies, our emotions.
When that voice arises in my mind that asks, “How can you meditate at a time like this, when people – maybe even people you love – are fighting and suffering?” I come to understand that that’s a voice of guilt that’s speaking. And while it is part of me, it frankly isn’t very helpful.
My goal, now as ever, is to be able to show up for myself and others, and my practices help me do that. They help me recognize what’s going on inside and metabolize all the powerful emotions sloshing about. Without them, I’d be even more of a hot mess, even less functional, even less able to help.
When I’m governed by my emotions, I often become reactive, and I do things I wind up regretting later. While impulsive responses are attractive, wise responses are ultimately better. Pausing for a few moments to breathe, to bring a modicum of calm and clarity to the teary haze of the present — it’s so, so important for ourselves, our loved ones, all of us
So here’s a reprise of a practice I first taught last spring, which I offer in the hopes it might be helpful to you. It’s drawn from the priestly blessing that’s written in the Torah and that is still recited in synagogues and Jewish homes today. I listened to it in synagogue just this weekend, through streaming tears, as we heard more and more bad news.
To do this practice, I’d suggest you find a quiet place and give yourself at least five minutes.
If you can, begin by sitting in a dignified and upright position. Not rigid, but not slouched. Allow your body to arrive. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Allow your awareness to come to rest on your breath.
Now we’re going to do the blessing practice. There are three lines. Try actually saying them out loud. And you might try bringing your hands together over your heart.
Here’s the first line:
Yivarcheni Adonai V’yishmereini, May the Divine bless me and keep me safe.
Sit with this line for a moment. See if you can sense energy and support–from the chair you’re sitting in, from the firm ground that holds you up, from the people and beings supporting you right now. Sit in that sensation for a minute. Even in moments when things feel unsafe, we can experience ways in which safety and support are present.
Then, the second line:
Yaer Adonai panav elai v’yichuneni, May the Holy One’s countenance shine graciously upon me.
Can you find a sense of radiance that’s emerging — either from outside you or from within? Try imagining a small flame flickering in your heart, a holy spark within you, gradually illuminating your chest, your body, your face. What do you notice? What do you feel? There’s no right answer. Just notice it.
And then the third line:
Yisa Adonai panav elai v’yasem li shalom, May the face of the face of the Creator be turned toward me and grant me peace.
As that light within spreads, can you also sense a kind of warmth, an embrace — capable of holding all your conflicting emotions? Can you imagine it almost giving you a hug? Again, even in moments when, externally, we may not feel a sense of peace, perhaps there is an internal kind of peacefulness we can tap into — a wholeness that accepts and embraces us just as we are. This is shalom, peacefulness. Dwell in that for a moment.
You might try saying them again, and perhaps a third time. There’s no rush. Allow yourself to experience this sensation of blessing. Make a note of what it feels like–there’s no right way to feel, no way it’s supposed to be. Whatever is happening for you is your experience, and it’s just fine.
Now, we’re going to turn this practice outward. Bring to mind someone you want to offer this blessing to: a friend, a partner, a parent, a child, a loved one.
Yivarchecha Adonai V’yishmerecha, May the Divine bless you and keep you safe.
That sensation of safety and support you felt before? Channel that towards the person in your mind. May they be safe. May they be supported. May they be blessed.
Yaer Adonai panav elecha v’yichuneneka, May the Holy One’s countenance shine graciously upon you.
Recall the sensation of radiance you felt a moment ago. Now, direct that radiance toward the person you’re thinking of. Imagine casting warmth and light toward them.
Yisa Adonai panav elekha v’yasem lekha shalom, May the face of the Creator be turned toward you and grant you peace.
Finally, tap into that sensation of wholeness, peace — and extend that out towards this other person. Be a vessel for this Divine blessing.
Check in with yourself: How do you feel? Hopefully a little bit calmer, a little more centered, a little more connected. This isn’t a magic wand that takes away pain and suffering — it’s a practice that helps us meet pain and suffering with lovingkindness and compassion. I hope it’s helpful to you.
I want to close with a song. You might be familiar with it. It’s called kol haolam kulo. The text was written 200 years ago by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and this version became something of an anthem for Israeli soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The words as we have them are “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid.”
That’s a tall order, and actually it’s a slight modification of Rabbi Nachman’s original teaching, which was v’haikar lo l’hitpached klal — the essential thing is not to make ourselves afraid. I like that version a little better. Fear is real, and we shouldn’t try to hide or mask it.
We can’t honestly control whether we’re afraid or not. But we do have some control over how we respond to our fear — we can make ourselves more afraid, more isolated, more closed in; or we can try to respond to fear with love, with connection, with expansiveness.
Jewish mindfulness practices, including meditation, prayer, soulful singing, contemplative Torah study — they’re all tools to help us show up in those ways, to greet our fears with something larger than them.
I hope this practice and this song are helpful to you. Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.