I had a pretty typical Sunday recently. My 10-year-old had a swim lesson, allergy shots, the required donut after the shots, and an art class — and a sudden playdate request from his best friend. My 17-year-old needed to be picked up from the coffee shop he works at – not to mention he suddenly remembered a scholarship application that was due tomorrow.
My wife was out of town on a girl’s weekend. My mom needed me to drop off pistachios I had picked up at Costco and that had been sitting in my trunk for two weeks. My mother-in-law wanted to Facetime with her grandchildren. My oldest, in Israel on a gap year program, was trying to figure out when he could talk with us. Oh, and someone plugged up the toilet real good, so I had to go to Home Depot to get some special tool because the plunger wasn’t doing the job. (And then I had to use said special tool, and… well, that’s enough about that.) And then, cherry on top, our dog decided she needed another walk, right this second – and it was negative a billion degrees here in the Chicago suburbs.
All of that was before lunchtime.
I was about to lose my own version of the stuff that was clogging the toilet.
I could sense my anger rising, my reservoir of patience near its low-water mark. I felt it physically – my breathing was becoming shallow. My muscles were tensing up. I was about to explode.
Maybe you’ve had a moment like this recently. Honestly, of course you have.
And maybe you became overwhelmed. I was. And I was about to lose control of my body, my mind, everything.
But then… I didn’t. Not because I’m a rabbi with some magical tricks. No, because something kicked in. Something I want to talk about with all of you, something simple, something, I think, we can all do. What is it? What did I do?
It started with awareness. I became aware of what was happening. And awareness — what the Hasidic tradition refers to as da’at — is the beginning of freedom. Once I became aware, I realized I had a choice. Did I want to blow up? Of course not.
But it doesn’t end there, with awareness. I had do something. But paradoxically, what I did…was stop. I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. And another. And another. I gave myself 15 seconds. That’s all. But that was enough. I felt my overwhelm dissipate. I felt calm return. I reminded myself of my kavana, my intention for my life: To live in a way that brings hesed into the world.
What is hesed? It’s hard to translate, but I like “loving connection.” And it’s what we’re exploring this week, the first week of the omer, the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot.
My intention is that my relationships — with my wife, my kids, my family, our pets, my colleagues, everybody — that in all these relationships, I lead with hesed — kindness, empathy, and a warm and loving presence. In this case, that meant taking myself out of my overwhelming emotions, breathing, and grabbing Phoebe, my sweet, gentle, dog’s leash, and taking her for a walk. It was all okay.
Obviously, I don’t live up to my intentions all the time. None of us do. But every day I work at it. I practice intentionally tapping into my hesed — sometimes through prayer, sometimes through meditation, sometimes through having a focus phrase or activity for my week. There are lots of ways to practice it. But the point is to practice. Because just like dribbling a basketball or playing a musical instrument, practice is what helps us show up the way we want to in real life.
So here’s where I’ll leave us today, with a practice you can try. If you can take two minutes right now, please do. And see if you can do this for a few days in a row. You might try to do it over your morning coffee or tea, or maybe as part of a midday break, or even in the car — so long as you’re not driving. Just intentionally set aside a time.
Are you ready? Okay. We’ll start by sitting upright. Not slouched, but also not rigid. Dignified.
Try to bring some softness to your eyes — we often carry a lot of tension in the corners of our eyes. You might allow them to close.
Now take a good, deep breath through your nose. Hold it for a moment. Feel the air really expanding your lungs, filling you up with oxygen. Then let it out through your mouth. Feel the tension exiting your body, your bloodstream, your nervous system.
Try that again.
And one more time.
You might already feel a big decrease in your anxiety, a drop in your blood pressure.
Now, on your next exhalation, you might try saying: May I feel Hesed.
See if you can open your heart, your emotions, to feeling the Hesed, the loving connection, you experience from someone who loves you unconditionally–a parent, a partner, a friend, a dog. Maybe bring that person or creature to mind.
May I feel Hesed.
And then: May I extend Hesed. May I extend Hesed. See if you can open your heart and emotions toward someone who needs your loving connection now–a parent, a partner, a friend, a dog. Bring that person or creature to mind.
Inhale: May I feel Hesed.
Exhale: May I extend Hesed.
When you’re ready, open your eyes and notice how you feel. Hopefully a little more connected, a little more loving, a little more patient, a little more resilient.
Try doing this practice this week. And, when you’re in a moment like my Sunday morning — when you’re feeling fried and overwhelmed and about to explode — see if you can bring yourself back to it. See if you can tap into your Hesed. See if it helps, and let us know how it goes.
Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.