Take a bow


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson guides listeners through a group meditation exercise, aiming to cultivate interconnectedness and shared presence reminiscent of the sacred space of the Mishkan.

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If you’re a newer listener to the show, you may not know that, in a previous life, I was an orchestra conductor. While I don’t wave a baton on a podium anymore, I still love going to concerts and listening to music.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the really special moments in a concert — one you can only get when you go to a live performance — comes after the music is done when everyone takes their bows.

As the audience claps, the conductor invites the orchestra to stand. Then the conductor turns to face the audience and takes a bow.

Then he or she usually — if they’re a mensch, or if they just know what’s good for them — gestures with their hand to the whole orchestra, as if to say, “No, no — it wasn’t me, it was all them, really” (which, let’s be honest, it was; they did all the real work).

The conductor then walks off stage, the orchestra sits, and, presuming the audience is still clapping (which they should be), the conductor comes back on stage. This time, the conductor will usually single out individual players who had solos, and then sections of the orchestra to stand.

The audience will hoot and holler for players or sections. Everyone gets some individualized attention and appreciation. Then a group bows again, and then, curtain. 

If you’ve ever been to a play or an opera, you’ve seen this kind of thing too — group bows, individual bows, group bows again. I think sometimes about why we do this, go through this performative process of gesturing and appreciating.

I’m not really cynical about it, even though it is performative. I actually think it’s kind of beautiful. I think a reason we do this is because it reflects a basic part of what it takes to put on a performance — and also something deeper about our culture.

Like so many other things in life — really, like all of life — a concert or a play is never just the work of one individual; it’s a collective effort. As the old saying goes, there’s no I in team. But at the same time, that collective isn’t some blob — it’s made up of individuals.

Any coach or manager — or orchestra conductor — will tell you that their work is really about how to help that group of individuals perform as a team, weaving together the individuals in a way that allows their uniqueness to shine while working as a whole.

The last Torah portion in the book of Exodus, Pekudei, highlights this theme. For weeks now we’ve been hearing about how the Israelites built the Mishkan, the portable home for the Divine. The Torah has told us all about every single detail — both how it was supposed to be made and then how it was made.

When we’re finally like, okay, we’re done, right, time to get back to wild thrilling stories about brothers betraying brothers, or the Israelites’ miraculous escapades?

Instead, we get a summary of all the boring things we were already told: all the materials used in making the Mishkan, and then a final statement about how the Israelites put every individual item together. Seriously, it’s enough already.

Yet at the very end of this story, the Torah tells us that Moses looked at everything the Israelites had made, all the work they had done, and he blessed them. That last line, it actually always makes me stop for a second, every time I read it. And I take a step back.

It actually reminds me of something. Chapter after chapter of creation, and then Moses seeing that, and then blessing the people, does it sound at all familiar to you? To me, Moses is mirroring what God did at the very beginning of the book of Genesis.

God created everything, then stepped back, looked at all the things in creation, saw they were good, and blessed the seventh day, Shabbat. In Genesis, God made the world in every detail, and then God blessed it.

Here, at the end of Exodus, it’s the Israelites who make God’s home in the world, in every detail–and Moses blesses them. Final chord, applause, curtain, beautiful.

What makes this all beautiful — to me, anyway — is that in both stories we can sense a relationship between the individual parts and the larger whole. The total performance — the world, the Mishkan —is beautiful.

Each individual part of it is also beautiful, special, and important, from the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant to a thread of linen on the uniform of the priests. Here in this Torah portion, each part — and, really, each person who makes that part — has a moment to be honored, appreciated, and thanked, in the context of that larger group project. It’s like Moses is asking each soloist and section to stand up and take a bow.

Given the nature of a podcast, the practices I offer on this show are individual practices, things you can do on your own. But this week, in the spirit of this reflection, I want to invite you to try to practice in a group, at least once.

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where I work, holds a daily live online 30-minute meditation sit at 12:30 pm Eastern time, and hundreds of people join in every day.

We also have a live weekly online Jewish yoga studio on Monday mornings, and we have a special meditation sit live online for folks in their 20s and 30s on Monday nights.

If none of those work for you, here’s a meditation practice you can do with a friend or roommate, or with a small group you might gather together in your living room. You can put this on speaker and do it together. And, for this week, we’re going to leave off the music. Let’s see what happens.

Begin by assuming a meditation posture–dignified, upright, allowing the air to flow. Not too rigid, but awake–not just shlumping on the couch. Try to embody Jacob’s ladder: grounded in the earth, your head ascending up towards heaven. 

If it’s comfortable for you, soften your gaze or close your eyes. 

Take a few good deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. With each exhalation, try to bring a little bit more relaxation to your body. If there are any spots that are a little sore or anxious, try to bring some softness to them.

Now allow your awareness to center on your breath. Make it really simple. Just notice when you’re breathing in and when you’re breathing out. In. Out. 

You might try to notice when the cool air enters your nostrils, when your inhalation reaches its peak, when your exhalation starts, when breath becomes air, when the cycle begins again.

Just delight in the simplicity of it. You have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do.

The air you’re breathing right now is part of our interconnection. It is given to us, free of charge, by the plant world. And as we take it in and convert it to carbon dioxide, we then give it freely back to them. See if you can sense that interconnectedness — we’re all part of this whole, but we all have our special role in it.

In the same way, the breath that’s happening for you right now is breath you’re sharing with the other person or people in the room. You are sharing heat, energy. You’re sharing your presence. See if you can notice that, be aware of it, hold it lightly, be held by it.

The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that even if just two people are sitting together and sharing words of Torah, they bring the Divine presence into the world.

As you sit with this sensation of presence — your presence, your interconnected presence with the world, the presence of the person or people you’re sitting with — you might become aware of a larger presence that’s gently, lovingly holding it together.

You might, you might not — there’s no right answer to the question. But if you do sense something larger, I want to give you permission to think of that as the Shekhina, the Divine presence.

What we’re doing with this practice is, really, creating the Mishkan — a place where the Divine presence can dwell, and where we can connect with it. In these last few moments, take three last breaths, in and out, and with them, offer a blessing, to yourself and the person or people you’re with: a blessing of safety, of happiness, of peace. 

And then, when you’re ready, open your eyes.

Take your time coming back into the rest of the world. If you feel like it, consider taking a few minutes to journal about your experience, and maybe share your reflections. And if this was good for you, try doing it again next week.

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

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

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