Talking it out


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares how to face grief and uncertainty. Through “hitbodedut,” or pouring out his heart to God, he finds clarity and support to confront life’s challenges.

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Four years ago, I was in a rough place. My father had passed away about six months earlier, and I was still grieving his absence. I was working in a job that both my boss and I knew wasn’t the right fit for me.

I was commuting an hour each way to and from work, and that was putting a strain on my marriage and family life. Something had to give.

Luckily, I had some time to think about it, on a long solo car trip through my home state of Michigan. I knew I was going to have about 8 hours of alone time, and I prepared myself to make a decision about my future.

knew that I needed to leave my job. But I didn’t know what would come next. How would we manage financially? What would I tell people? If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you might be able to imagine the anxiety I was experiencing.

As I drove north on I-75, at one point I started talking out loud – engaging in a practice called Hitbodedut. Hitbodedut literally means “isolation,” but in Jewish spiritual practice it’s associated with going out alone into nature to pour out one’s heart to the Divine.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The basic idea is that you just start talking, sharing what’s on your mind, what you’re feeling, and continuing to talk for as long as you can. 

I talked about my anxiety, my worry, my feeling of being caught between a rock and a hard place. I confessed my nervousness about making this move, heading into the unknown.

Hitbodedut literally means “isolation,” but in Jewish spiritual practice it’s associated with going out alone into nature to pour out one’s heart to the Divine.

And the more I talked, even without finding the answers, exactly, the more I found myself feeling heard, buoyed, supported. I could do it. I started to believe in my ability to find enough consulting work to keep us financially afloat.

I started to realize that I was kind of proud of myself for taking a risk — and I felt good about telling other people that. Most of all, as I talked I came to really internalize that I had the support of my family, particularly my wife Natalie, who had already assured me that she believed in me, and that this was the right move.

On the basis of that practice in the car, when I got back from my trip, I gave notice. I consulted for six months, during which time I found, applied for, and got the job I currently hold at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality – and of course, led me here, to this podcast.

I need to acknowledge that I was incredibly privileged as I worked my way through this situation. I’m a highly educated man with white skin. I went to an Ivy League school. We had a financial cushion. We had health insurance through my wife’s work. There were a lot of things that made it possible for me to even contemplate a move like this.

All that being said, whatever your background and identity, I suspect you can relate, on some level, to those feelings of constriction I was having. The feelings of misalignment, of being out of place. That something has to give — and if it doesn’t, something is going to break.

(Photo: Getty Images)

And the additional anxiety that arises from the uncertainty about how to find a way out. Maybe you’ve felt similarly about a job, a relationship, or some other really important part of your life. Maybe you’re feeling it right now.

Today’s episode is devoted to those building feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, of that feeling that something has to break. I want to explore those feelings because of where we are on the Jewish calendar, in the month of Tammuz.

Jewish tradition teaches us that on the 17th of the month of Tammuz, Moses came down from Mount Sinai holding the Ten Commandments in his hands — only to see that, in his 40-day absence, the Israelites had built an idol, the Golden Calf. Angry and profoundly disappointed, he threw down the two stone tablets, shattering the word of God.

One might think this was a terrible thing—and, of course, in many ways, it was. It was terrible that the Israelites responded to the anxiety of Moses’s absence by building an idol, rather than learning to live faithfully in uncertainty. And it was terrible that Moses responded in anger and destroyed the tablets.

And yet — the tradition views Moses’s act here in a favorable light. The rabbis of the Talmud even imagine that God said to Moses, “Good job—you did the right thing shattering those tablets.”

So this week, I want to invite you to try hibodedut, talking to the Divine/the Universe/the Ineffable—whatever your name for the animating life force of the cosmos. And I want to invite you to think about those tablets you might need to break: a habit you’re trying to change, a big decision that’s keeping you up at night.

Maybe you’re avoiding a tough conversation with a friend, a family member, a colleague, even yourself. Honestly, most of us are. But give it a shot. Just start talking, and give yourself 10 or 15 minutes in which you just spill it out. Say what’s on your mind.

Listen and see what arises — perhaps more questions, perhaps some clarity, perhaps just the sensation of being able to express, out loud, what’s on your mind and heart.

You might gain some new insight. You might buoy your courage. You won’t know until you try, until you start to break those tablets. Try it out, and let us know how it goes.

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

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