Practice makes perfect


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson reflects on the value of practice, inspired by cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s perspective on the purpose of practice in mastering one’s craft.

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An Instagram reel caught my attention the other day. It was from an interview with the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He was explaining why he practices. You know what? Let’s just listen to him say it.

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2008. (Photo: Andy Mettler/Wikipedia Commons)

If you’ve ever listened to Yo-Yo Ma, this will come as no surprise. This is one of the greatest players to ever pick up an instrument. It’s clear from the first moment you listen to him that his mind, heart, body, and spirit are working on another level.

His technical mastery is a given — the guy could play anything he hears perfectly. But that technique serves a larger purpose: It helps him to express feelings and ideas, to create experiences through the music. It allows him to communicate with us, the listeners.

As a result, rather than feeling “nothing,” we feel a whole lot of wonderful things when we listen to Yo-Yo Ma.

What really struck me about this observation was the word practice. Like many other people, when I was a kid the idea of practicing my instrument — or going to baseball practice or basketball practice or play practice — seemed like a chore.

It was literally an item on my to-do list — right there with emptying the trash, mowing the lawn, or putting away my laundry.

But what Yo-Yo Ma is saying here transforms practice into a different thing: Yes, still an item on the to-do list, but with a much greater purpose — to enable us to function at our best so that we can open up the mental — and I would add emotional and spiritual–real estate to transcend the mechanics and do something more creative and expressive. 

Great artists, great athletes, great crafts people — frankly, people who are great at anything — get this on some level. Like Yo-Yo Ma, they practice so they can be fully present — in mind, body, and spirit — when they’re doing what they’re great at. 

Now, you don’t have to be Yo-Yo Ma or Taylor Swift or Serena Williams to relate to this. If you breathe (and I really hope you do), if you can move about in the world, if you have a body and you’ve been on the planet for more than ten minutes you can tap into what Yo-Yo Ma is talking about here: You’ve already practiced a whole lot of things in your life, things that you’ve mastered so you no longer have to think about them.

You’re a master at breathing. You might be a master at walking, or typing, or driving. (And, if you’ve ever experienced a disability, you might also appreciate the tremendous work involved in the basic mechanics of living.) 

What would it mean to approach these regular tasks the way Yo-Yo Ma approaches practicing the cello? I think it might mean not doing them mindlessly, but also not getting bogged down in the minutia of the mechanics of them either.

If we are blessed to have things in life in which we are so well-practiced that we no longer have to think about them, then a Yo-Yo Ma-inspired mindfulness practice opens up the possibility for us of asking: How might we be fully present — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — when we’re doing them? 

In the Torah portion of Vayakhel, Moses instructs the Israelites on how to build the Mishkan, the dwelling place for the divine. And one of the terms that comes up in his description is a wonderful phrase in Hebrew called melekhet machshevet, which we might translate as purposeful, intentional, mindful labor.

Every item of the mishkan is supposed to be created with this kind of intentionality, from the Ark of the Covenant to the hoops on the curtains surrounding the structure.

And the people who create these items are, the Torah says, supposed to be skilled makers — people who have mastered their craft, who have put in their 10,000 hours, who have such expertise that they don’t have to think about the mechanics but can, as they’re creating, open up the mental and spiritual real estate to be fully present with the holy purpose of their work. Basically, the Mishkan is supposed to be built by a bunch of Yo-Yo Mas.

But here’s where it gets really cool: The Mishkan is also supposed to be built by all of us. All of us are Yo-Yo Mas. Because Jewish tradition understands that the work of building the Mishkan, of making a home for the Divine in the world, is the work of life.

All of our creative labor during the week — all the work we cease doing on Shabbat — all of that work can, and in the Torah’s view should, be melekhet machshevet — purposeful, intentional, mindful.

Now that’s easier said than done, of course. But this week I want to offer you the invitation to really try to live out this intention. What might it look like for the work you do — whether that’s your professional work or the work of maintaining your home or taking care of loved ones or friends or making the world a better place — what would it look like for you to be genuinely, fully present for one part of that work every day?

Just pause for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine what that might feel like: a feeling of connection, purpose, intention, flow.

How can you do that? I think the most important thing is making space to activate your awareness–to wake up if what you’re doing has become mindless. You might try setting an alarm for yourself once an hour as a reminder to check in for a minute, take a breath, close your eyes, and be a little more present in whatever work you’re doing.

As you begin whatever work you’re doing, you might say a modified version of a blessing that’s part of Jewish liturgy: Blessed are you, Divine source of blessing, who has invited me into this moment in which I can engage in sacred labor. (And you could even shorten that into simply closing your eyes, taking a breath, and saying, “Thank you.”) Or you might make a little greater effort this week to make Shabbat into a genuine cessation from work — turn off the email, put away the phone, disconnect so you can create that spiritual real estate to reflect on what’s deepest, highest, and most important. 

It could be any of these, it could be all of them, it could be others. But the invitation stands: find a way this week to live out this idea of melekhet machshevet, tapping into those things you’ve mastered so that you can connect with your sacred purpose.

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

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