Strengthening your roots


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson recounts the mindfulness practice of managing powerful emotions. Through the theme of “netzach,” he shares how he tapped into his inner strength to fulfill his dreams and offers listeners a tool for greater awareness, calm, and connection to Jewish life.

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I come from a musical family. My siblings and I all learned to play musical instruments as kids. I played tuba, and in college, I majored in music. But mostly I identified as a conductor, and I was the conductor of a student orchestra in college. (I know – very nerdy flex.)

When I was four years old, I got my first baton — from my brother’s middle school orchestra teacher. He saw me waving my arms to the 1812 Overture on the stereo and he gave me one of his old batons. My dream was born. I wanted to be the next Leonard Bernstein — probably the most well-known conductor of all time.

My big moment finally came one summer during high school at Interlochen Music Camp. In a tradition that goes back a long time, every concert at Interlochen ends not with applause but with the “Interlochen Theme,” a special melody.

Tubas in a high school band (Photo: Hillel Steinberg via Flickr/Creative Commons/ CC BY-ND 2.0)

Here’s what it sounds like. A student always conducts the Theme, and it’s a big honor to be chosen. My chance came that summer. 

As I walked up to the podium, my excitement was overwhelming: A huge orchestra was in front of me. I knew exactly what to do. This was the moment I had been waiting for my whole life.

But then a thought arose and it froze me in my tracks: What if I raise my hands and my baton — and they don’t play?!

It had never occurred to me before, but in that moment it was terrifyingly obvious: I had absolutely no control. I was entirely dependent on the goodwill and trust of the hundred other teenagers with instruments arrayed in front of me.

It didn’t take long for my mind to work itself out: come on, Josh. Yes, you don’t exactly have control, but why would my friends, people I know and trust, want to embarrass me (or themselves, for that matter)? Not to mention that you’ve played in many bands and orchestras, and have you ever seen the group just refuse to play when the conductor led them? Of course not.

As I was trying to rationalize myself out of this anxious state, I remembered a concept my mother coined, which she called being an “inverse paranoid”: Think the world is out to do you good. (That kind of sums up my mother.) I took a breath, the thought passed, I went to the podium, I raised my arms and lowered them, and together we made the Interlochen Theme come to life.

As I was trying to rationalize myself out of this anxious state, I remembered a concept my mother coined, which she called being an “inverse paranoid”: Think the world is out to do you good.

This is a story I tell a lot. In fact, I wrote my college application essay about it. I tell it not just because it’s so memorable, but also because its fundamental lessons about trust and relationships are ones I relearn time and time again.

With the benefit of age and whatever little bit of wisdom I’ve developed, I can see now that at the heart of the story is a mindfulness practice of managing some really powerful emotions in the moment: anticipation, joy, and hope on the one hand; fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of rejection on the other. For a split second on the way to fulfilling my childhood dream, I stood between these two emotional poles.

One of the things that allowed me to manage that moment was our theme for this week, the fourth week of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot. That theme is Netzach. Netzach is about a deep strength — the kind of strength we associate with things that have deep roots, long histories, and thick relationships.

Netzach is about a deep strength — the kind of strength we associate with things that have deep roots, long histories, and thick relationships.

When I think of Netzach, I think of a mighty, noble tree — an oak, a redwood, a sequoia — in a forest of other trees. When a strong wind arises, the trees are able to hold their place because their giant, ancient roots extend deep down into the ground.

The weather comes and goes, but those trees just keep growing, planted firmly, seemingly everlasting. That’s Netzach: the roots that hold us up, that ground us, that form our support system.

In my case, the thought that entered my mind was a patch of rough weather. It could have knocked me off course. And it did, for a moment. But then I tapped into my Netzach.

I realized: a) I’m strong; I’m totally prepared for this; and, b) perhaps even more important, we’re strong and we’re prepared; everything and everyone here—and even people who aren’t here, like my mother and her inverse paranoia.

All of that is part of my root system—and I’m part of theirs. We’re all connected through bonds of trust. And we’re really strong together. For a minute, I had forgotten that—but then I remembered my Netzach, and was able to lead the orchestra.

It’s been decades since that summer in high school, but these kinds of moments still happen to me all the time — and I imagine they may happen to you too. Worry and doubt enter our minds. Fear and distrust begin to take root. We feel isolated and alone.

And just like 16-year old Josh at music camp, we start internal monologues with the words, “What if I can’t…” or “What if they don’t.” When those moments come, we can access our Netzach.

How? Here’s a simple practice you might try. As so often, it begins with breathing. Give yourself a few minutes and a quiet space. Now, if you can, take a few good, deep breaths. Bring some relaxation to your body.

Then, when you’re ready, bring to mind the image of someone who supports you and loves you unconditionally. A friend, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a teacher—someone who plays in your orchestra. Just bring that person to mind.

Try to visualize them. And try to see if you can feel that love and support they have for you, that Netzach. You might even put your hand over your heart. Imagine them giving you a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. “I believe in you.” You’re tapping into your Netzach.

In the classic version of this practice, you might do this with increasing numbers of people — add a new person to the circle of support, and another, and another. If you have time, try that out and see how it works.

But as important, make sure you then do the second half of the practice, which is to now send that love and support back to the person in your mind. Maybe even say it out loud: “I believe in you.” (And hey, to you listening, I really do believe in you!)

Just as you’re taking in love and support and trust, you’re also extending it out — and you’re strengthening those bonds of Netzach that can hold us all up together.

You might notice that this practice is similar to the one we did during our first episode, on Hesed, loving connection, which is related to Netzach. But instead of focusing only on that sense of love, this week we’re aiming to channel that a little more into those deep roots of strength.

Like all our practices, this is one you have to make a little time for. And, the more you do it, the more you can work this into your daily, or weekly schedule, the more it can actually impact you. Try it out and see how it works for you. And let us know how it goes.

Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.

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