Life under pressure


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson explores the concept of pressure and discusses the fine line between healthy pressure and oppression.

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Sometime during the pandemic, like so many others, we got an Instant Pot. (For the uninitiated: This is a fancy name for a pressure cooker.) The principle of the device is that, by trapping the steam inside the pot, the food cooks more quickly. Want to make chili and don’t have hours? Use the pressure cooker! Want meatballs or soups or rice — you can cut your time in half. 

Instant Pot DUO pressure cooker (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

There’s a certain irony in the pressure cooker, though, and it’s this: who most benefits from a pressure cooker? People who are under pressure already and who thus need the extra time!

It sometimes feels like we live our lives under constant time pressure: There’s a time to wake up, a time to get to school or work, a time to go to an exercise class, a time for synagogue services, a time for a zoom meeting (so many zoom meetings!), a time for a doctor’s appointment, a time for a concert, a time for a flight… You get the picture. We have so many times to keep, so many appointments and schedules. There is so much pressure to keep up–pressure, pressure, pressure. So what’s our answer? Use more pressure so we can reduce the time it takes to cook. Brilliant–in an evil genius kind of way.

In modern Hebrew, the word for pressure is lachatz. In the Torah, lachatz first appears early in the story of the Exodus, when God tells Moses at the burning bush, “I have seen the lachatz with which the Egyptians oppress the Israelites.” Lachatz here is usually, and appropriately, translated as oppression.

Now I don’t want to dis pressure completely. Pressure is an important thing! If it weren’t for air pressure pushing down on us, our bodies would break apart. If it weren’t for water pressure, we couldn’t turn on our taps or faucets. If we didn’t have the pressure of a deadline or a test or a performance, we might not get ourselves to finish the project or really master the material or be as prepared as possible. And of course, that pressure in the pressure cooker really is a great thing. Pressure is kind of essential for human life. 

But clearly, pressure can also become overwhelming. Too much air pressure would crush our bodies. Too much water pressure would flood our homes. Too much pressure at work or school and we can crumble. When that happens, pressure tips over into oppression, just like what happened in Egypt. The two words are linked — you can even hear it: they both have the word press right there in the middle: pressure, oppression. When we’re pressured too much, we can really experience that oppression.

So the question seems to be, what do we do with pressure? How do we apply it? How do we respond to it? How do we keep it healthy, balanced — not too low and not too high?

The Torah portion of Mishpatim includes many laws, one of which deals directly with this question of pressure and oppression: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The Torah actually reminds us of the experience in Egypt, the place of narrowness and constriction, in connection with 36 different practices. But in this one, it specifically talks about the aspect of pressure and oppression: Because our ancestors — and we — experienced oppression, we have a special insight and responsibility not to inflict too much pressure on others. The great medieval commentator Rashi even says about this commandment: “You know how hard it is to be oppressed–to be over-pressured.” So it seems we have a superpower in this area — and, to quote Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. 

I might also add: With great power comes great opportunity. Because our tradition is so sensitive to the experience of being a stranger, we have some special insights into the experience of pressure–when it can be healthy and life-giving, and when it crosses the line into becoming dangerous and oppressive.

Like any ability, superpowers require practice to develop and maintain (just think how long it took Spider-Man to figure out the whole shooting webs and swinging thing). So here is a simple meditation practice I hope can help cultivate this power of awareness about pressure. It’s a breathing exercise, and it’s best done when you have a few minutes in a quiet place.

Assume a meditation posture — dignified, allowing air to flow. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Let yourself arrive in the moment. Let your body relax. Feel yourself supported and grounded. Bring some softness to any place there might be tension. 

Now, if it’s comfortable for you, let your awareness center in your breath. You might choose to notice the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe. Take a few inhalations that are a little deeper than normal, and let yourself lengthen the exhalation, relaxing a little more with each breath.

As you do this, try to notice how pressure works, without any judgment about it. You might feel a little pressure as you inhale–the pressure of the air pushing into your body. When you reach the top of the inhalation, you might notice pressure building in your lungs, as your body fills with CO2 and wants to get it out. Notice how it feels at the beginning of that exhalation — some relief perhaps. And then notice the bottom of the exhale — maybe some more pressure building as your body starts to need new oxygen. What happens if you linger there for just a little longer? How does that pressure feel?

And now that you’ve spent some time at the extremes, allow the breath to find its natural rhythm, and bring some attention to the experience of just breathing. Where is there pressure? Can there be pressure that isn’t too loose and that also isn’t too tight — that isn’t oppressive — but is really just balanced? See if you can sense that. And if you can, allow yourself to enjoy it. This is a beautiful place of harmony, a little dose of Shabbat right here, right now.

You can continue this practice as long as you like. When you’re ready, I’ll invite you to open your eyes if they’ve been closed, and just check in with yourself: How do you feel? I hope a little bit more centered, a bit more in the sweet spot of healthy pressure. Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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