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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

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Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

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The “three day a year Jew”.

This widespread phenomenon of Jews who attend synagogue only on Rosh Hashana (two days) and Yom Kippur (one day)  is the subject of many a sermon and the punch line of many a joke.

Sermonizing and laughter aside, let’s try to understand this concept of the “three day a year Jew”: First of all, there’s really no such thing. Jews are Jews, 365 days a year. A specific Jew’s conduct may just not tell that story on a given day.

At the same time, there is clearly a disconnect between many Jews and ‘organized Judaism’. For thousands of years, most Jews prayed thrice daily and joined public Judaic gatherings whenever they occurred. In more recent times, there’s been much less involvement at a synagogue and religious communal level.

Except for the High Holidays.

Why?

I’ve been asking myself that question for more two decades, since our first local High Holiday service in 1994. Even back then, in a ramshackle house and with a far smaller group of friends, the High Holiday bump in attendance was evident. I didn’t fully understand it then, and my question has fleshed itself out over time. What gravitational-pull do people feel? Are people feeling an emotional attraction? Is attendance a nod to their [deceased] parents and grandparents? Are attendees afraid of getting zapped by G-d if they don’t show up?

Maybe some feel drawn to join the Jewish Community at this annual get-together, for the very sake of joining the Jewish Community, irrespective of why we’re gathering. Maybe some just go to services because “that’s what we do.”

My experience tells me that there’s no pat answer.  

My experience also tells me that the question, although interesting, misses an important point.

Two weeks from today Jews will gather as a community. They will celebrate a day of Oneness with each other and with G-d. Jews who don’t frequent synagogues or Torah classes on an average Saturday, let alone a Thursday, will be come together to fulfill a Mitzvah and hear the call of the Shofar, as their ancestors have done for over 3300 years.

Across the globe, Jews will pull themselves away from their usual distractions and gather in synagogues.

Does it really matter why?

I’m just really glad you guys are coming

Just In Time For A Weary World

Hurricane Harvey’s rain threat is over, but the devastation is enormous.

And it’s not like our world as too stable before this disaster. Polarization, terrorism, the resurgence of neo-Nazism. Syria and ISIS. These aren’t just problems “over there.’ They hover above our ‘real’ lives. In one way or another, they filter down to me and you, and add to our 'normal' stresses and challenges.

The world can certainly use a fresh, optimistic new page.

That’s why I feel like Rosh Hashana isn't coming a second too soon.

The High Holidays about a lot more than ushering in a new calendar year; they go way beyond donning our finest and attending services. All of that is [important] window dressing for Rosh Hashanah’s primary theme: G-d’s Infusion of New, Divine Energy Into a Tired World.

Just as a sleepy person gets rejuvenated by a jolt of caffeine (or some good sleep!), an exhausted world receives a Divine ‘shot-in-the-arm’ every Rosh Hashana.

How does this work?

Kabbalistically speaking, the world is totally dependent on Divine energy, which G-d grants in energy-increments. Every Rosh Hashana, G-d breathes new life into the world; and that keeps us juiced until the following Rosh Hashana.

But it’s not a purely automatic process. It’s actually very inter-active, and very much user-generated.

It’s up to us. In other words: Rosh Hashana isn’t a spectator sport. It’s a drama, and you have a leading role.

Every year, as the High Holidays set in, it’s our individual job to take a moment – a genuine moment - to re-connect with ourselves, our purpose in life, and with our Creator.

When we renew our commitment to meaningful living, re-affirming our relationship with the Divine, G-d is overjoyed to reciprocate and grant us life – vigorous, sparkling, energized life – for a New Year.

A world re-energized. Lives infused with new hope and vigor.

G-d knows we can use it.

Elul Power

This week, the Jewish calendar guides us into Elul, the month immediately preceding the High Holiday season. It’s traditionally a time for focus on our personal self-improvement.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, was a diarist, and he wrote a vivid description of Elul in the town of Lubavitch (in White Russia of the time) where he grew up. There was a soul-searching ‘smell in the air’ throughout the town, he writes, with a ‘wind of self-betterment’ blowing through the trees, and rustling the leaves. 

Powerful prose.

Now what does this mean in practical terms?

 I think of it this way. If we observe ourselves, we can see that our personal emotional posture influences our logic and judgments. That’s human nature. Consider the Torah’s warning against judges taking bribes: “for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise.” How does the Torah call an amoral bribe-taker ‘wise?’

The Torah is telling us that a person can be moral and cognitively sound, ‘wise,’ and yet be blinded by his subconscious emotional posture. The Torah isn’t talking about a greedy villain who knowingly perverts justice for a few dollars. The Torah is talking about someone who wants to be just, who THINKS he’s being just, but is incapable of truly wise thinking because of a personal, subjective connection.

When a person is emotionally available, unencumbered, he is then open to true to intellectual progress. When a person is emotionally unavailable, when he is tied to a position by an extraneous force, he cannot be objective; his cognition is impaired.

The Torah is illustrating the power of emotional availability.

This is a central concept of Elul. We can all say we want to be better. We can even mean it. But are we ready? Is our emotional posture open to it? Are we emotionally available for real change?

It’s difficult to know, and it’s difficult to achieve. That’s why G-d gave us Elul.

Life’s backdrop, the very rustling of the wind, is different these days. Ambience affects us, and the Elul ‘wind’ grants us rare emotional availability, which positions us for real change.

When we’re properly poised; real change can happen. This is the time.

If Werewolves Knew

 On the night of August 7th, look outside and you’ll see a full moon. Although common folklore has associated lunacy - even vampires - with lunar fullness, Judaism sees spiritual beauty and meaning in the full moon.

The sun is the universe’s luminary, and the moon its reflector, and (as we observe it on earth) every month they go through a cosmic dance. The New Moon cycle begins with darkness, a moonless night. The moon then begins to wax, showing us more and more of the sun’s brilliance.

Ultimately, we get to see the moon in total symmetry with the sun’s rays: The full moon.

This dynamic represents our own dance with the Divine. G-d is the source of all light, the true ‘Sun’ of our universe. Our job is to reflect Divine meaning; we need to be a ‘moon’ to G-d’s ‘Sun.’

When we’re off our game, we go dark. Our world is a moonless night, lonely and vulnerable.

When we’re aligned, the world is bright. Life makes sense. We can see where we’re coming from and where we need to go. Life still has pitfalls, but we’re safe and secure. We’re connected.

In other words: WE need to be the full moon.

On the [lunar-based] Jewish calendar, the 15th day of the month is when there’s a full moon. That gives us some insight into why Passover is on the 15th of Jewish month, as is Sukkot.

Interestingly, the Talmud tells us that the 15th of the month of Av – sometimes referred to as Tu B’Av - is greater than them both.

Why?

Because there’s no deeper security than the safety which comes after vulnerability and instability.

Think of a couple experiencing their honeymoon, an unchallenged oneness. Then real life hits, so the union faces instability and challenge. The couple’s in a vulnerable place, because they haven’t each yet evolved into a healthy, interdependent unit.

By using their imbalance as an opportunity to strengthen themselves, the couple comes out stronger. They’re more secure because they have conquered the instability.

Tisha B’av (this past Tuesday) was a time for mourning the havoc that comes from being disconnected from self, from each other and from the Divine. Moving on, we’ve resolved to reconnect, and our new alignment has the safety – that special glow – that comes with personal transformation.

This Monday, our personal moons will shine especially bright. Catch the glow.

Summer Is An Opportunity

Are you getting away this summer?
Taking some weekends off? Maybe a week or two abroad?
These months are commonly a time to slow things down a bit, or at least carve out more time for 'self' and family.
Each season has its own unique beat. As we move through the days, months and years, we need to pause and identify each season's tempo, embrace its particular character and grow with it.
So, let’s think about summer: What is particularly striking about this season?
Obviously, summer is a time of increased light and warmth; we have longer daylight hours, and higher temperatures. In other words, summer is a time when the sun is in fuller glory and effect.
That’s summer in macro; but this also applies to each of us in micro.
In a way, we each have our own internal seasons. We each also have our own internal ‘sun, ’ the soul.
There are times when we go through an internal winter, when our moral vision and priorities don’t express their full light into our daily lives. There are times when conscience and values are in relative hibernation, when the spirit is cold, and moral growth seems a part of the distant past.
Then there’s summer. Summer is about letting my internal sun shine. Summer is about feeling my own internal capacity for spirituality and warmth, a capacity that might recede in the face of a hectic schedule.  
So if I’m able to relax a bit from the everyday stresses and get away, then I need to use that opportunity to synchronize myself with nature; I need to create my own internal summer by increasing the light and warmth in my life.
We each have valuable relationships - with loved ones, with our community and with our G-d – and relationships need nurturing. So if you’re running on fewer cylinders this summer, and have some extra space in your brain and heart, those relationships could probably use some extra warmth.
You have an internal sun. Let it shine. 

The Sad Path To Happy

Don’t worry. Be happy.

We like to be content and upbeat.

We prefer to stay away from sadness, with its dark overtones and unpleasantness.

Indeed, Torah thought guides us to seek and maintain a joyful attitude. Positive thinking and an optimistic demeanor are very important ingredients for a Torah life.

That makes this time of year especially challenging: Next week, we’ll enter Judaism’s annual ‘three week period of sadness.’ We’ll mourn many of the tragedies we’ve experienced throughout our history, with primary focus on the destruction of our two Holy Temples – and two Jewish Commonwealths  (490 years apart) - two millennia ago.

This coming Tuesday, July 11, the 17th of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar, Jews throughout the world will fast to remember the marauders’ breach of Jerusalem’s protective wall. On August 1st, Tisha B’av, we’ll fast again, to bewail the Temples’ actual destruction.

It’s a gloomy few weeks. At the same time, we can’t allow the mood to paralyze us.

While some forms of sadness are decidedly unproductive, some sadness is actually constructive. You can tell the difference by observing their respective manifestations.

When sadness brings despair and our desire to crawl under the covers, it’s not the productive brand of sadness.

At the same time, there is a form of sadness which – in controlled quantities – can facilitate self-honesty; it can be a call to action, prompting you to take control of your life.

With a quick Google search, I found a study from the Australian University of NSW which concludes that “sadness promotes information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” That’s how an unpleasant internal atmosphere helps you grow.

When we’re flying high, we’re probably less inclined to recognize and address our weaknesses. Why should we go through the emotionally-demanding exercise? Things are great!

Self-improvement takes self-honesty, and the guts to tackle the rough edges you find inside. And we usually don’t go to that place unless we’re dragged there, kicking and screaming.

So once a year, Torah life presents us with an important opportunity.  

These three weeks will be a time to focus, a time to recognize, a time to correct.

They'll also give us something genuine to celebrate once it’s all over.

Everything is New Under the Sun

 Nature has its cycles. The sun rises and sets. The moon waxes and wanes. G-d gifted us with a world that is fundamentally foreseeable, and that predictability breeds security. 

At the same time, predictability often breeds inattentive complacency. When we’re subconsciously expecting to exhale after we inhale, only to inhale once again, do we even notice?

“There’s nothing new under the sun” means that all of our natural blessings are old news, which often means we take them for granted. Without pro-active mindfulness, we tend to settle into mindless expectation of our recurrent gifts.

So the Torah guides us to mindfulness.

When the Jews left Egypt, they spent forty years in the desert living on supernatural miracles: Manna from heaven, protective Clouds of Glory, etc. But life isn’t about living on open miracles. G-d’s end game was for us to settle in Israel and lead normallives: To work hard, and reap the gifts those efforts.  

However, along with this comes a built-in challenge: to maintain conscious gratitude for the Divine gifts in our natural lives.

The Torah tells us that 3289 years ago, as Joshua finally led the Jews to settle Israel, he made the sun stop in its tracks (Joshua10:12), bringing nature's fundamental cycle to an unexpected halt. 

What was his purpose?

Settling Israel wasn’t only about finding this new nation a place to live, it was about helping them find the way to live. Joshua was teaching us to recognize that G-d’s Hand is always in Nature’s glove. That the sun’s cycles are only recurring because G-d gives us that blessing.

Indeed, G-d is giving us the gift of nature right now, so – in a sense – everything is new under the sun. It’s our challenge, and our privilege, to draw that Divine mindfulness into our daily lives.

This coming Tuesday, the 3rd of Tammuz, the day that the Rebbe passed away (23 years ago) also marks 3289 years since that fateful day when Joshua “stopped the sun.”

The Rebbe’s life was a successful campaign to breathe Divine consciousness into our lives, shepherding people across the globe toward a life of meaningful connectedness, of Torah study and Mitzvah observance. The Rebbe consistently called our attention to the G-dliness that pulsates just beneath life’s surface, ‘stopping our sun’ to jog us into awareness.

Rebbe, we love you and miss your physical presence. Your inspiration is our engine to continue bringing the world to a better place.

Humility=Ambition

Do you think anybody really wants to be arrogant? 
Is there somebody out there who actually aspires to obnoxiousness? 
I doubt it.
On the other hand, do you really want to be ‘humble’? 
Do you think the average person pictures ‘humility’ as equating to ambition and a drive for success?
Or does the word ‘humble’ conjure an image of someone lacking presence and self-confidence, an easily manipulated wallflower shyly averting his gaze? 

Let’s rethink this.

Torah wants us to live proactively and energetically. We are encouraged to vigorously engage the world and usher it to a meaningful place. 
That same Torah guides us to be humble. How can these two attitudes co-exist in one person? 
Humility doesn’t mean being a doormat. It means being honest with yourself, and seeing yourself for who you really are.
Authentic humility doesn’t deny – to yourself or others – your value, strengths and talents. That’s not called humility, it’s called [self-] deception. 
Humility means being fully aware of your talents; it means total consciousness of your advantages in life – genetic, familial/societal or financial. 
Humility is the attitude which you approach your gifts and talents.
We all need to look at ourselves and take honest stock of our G-d-given ‘toolbox,’ the skills and opportunities with which we’ve been endowed. We should recognize that each of these life-advantages comes with a responsibility. G-d grants us gifts for a purpose: we need to develop and utilize our ‘tools’, making them into accessories for meaningful living. 
So we need to look at each of our gifts and recognize that gifts are just that: Something we’ve been given. Gifts aren’t accomplishments. They’re opportunities.
We should consider each of our gifts and ask: Am I doing this opportunity justice? Could I not be doing more to actualize it?

We should also recognize that people without our specific talents, our tools, have simply been dealt a different tool box. The gifted toolbox doesn’t make one a qualitatively better person, it’s what we’ve accomplished with our tools.

To a humble person, the real measure of life isn’t the hand we’ve each been dealt; it’s what we’re doing with it.
So humility is a sense of responsibility: I need to be who G-d created me to be. Humility is when I’m not competing against others, but against my own potential. Humility is a sense of always being conscious for new opportunities.

Now let’s get out there and be the best we can be. Humility demands no less. 

Share Some Light

So you’re out with friends, and you’re passionately debating a hot social issue. You’re having a good time; but then you notice that one friend is kind of quiet. His body language tells you that he isn’t familiar with the subject and is psychologically standing to the side.

Your easiest course of action is to do nothing. In other words, bury your mental note and jump back into the fray.

After all, what CAN you do? No one knows everything, and you friend happens to lack proficiency in this area.  There’s nothing for him to be ashamed of; it happens to everyone at one time or another. At the same time, you personally dislike being trapped in a conversation that’s beyond your scope, so you know how he feels.

So here’s an option: Create a respectful portal through which your friend can enter the discussion. Without condescension, find an accessible way for him – based on his personal knowledge and experiences – to enter the world you and your friends are experiencing.

It may take some thought, and some pro-active guidance of the conversation, but it can often be done.

I’m describing inter-personal sensitivity, and it goes far beyond group conversations.

One needs to be actively conscious and self-aware to notice other people’s needs and act upon them. It’s much easier to stay in my ‘world’ and relate to people at that level.

But if I really care about people, if I really want to connect with them, I need to consider THEIR perspectives and needs. Without compromising my values, I can usually find common ground, a user-friendly point of contact.

But first we need to care.

This Shabbat, we read that G-d instructed Aharon the High Priest (Moses’ brother) to light the Menorah in the Tabernacle. Chassidic thought tells us that the Menorah, with its seven branches, symbolizes the people and their various personality types. Aharon saw them all as ONE Menorah and embraced them all, with love. With that love, he ignited their hearts and souls.

Today, remember that we’re all part of one Menorah, even when we appear to represent different branches. We’re one, so care – genuinely - about the next person you meet.

You may actually bring light to someone’s life.

 

Can You Feel It?

This week, we celebrated fifty years since the IDF liberated our historic Western Wall in 1967’s Six-Day War.

After 2000 years of restricted – or no - access, the Jews had finally regained this hugely-significant site. It was a historic moment, and many of the soldiers were overwhelmed by emotion. Some began to cry.

I once heard that a vehemently atheistic soldier also broke into tears. His comrades asked: "This is a HOLY – religious - site; what makes YOU cry?"

The soldier responded: "I am crying because I’m so disconnected from my history and people that I feel no need to cry."

Very profound.

Depending on our particular skill-set, we can sometimes appreciate a brilliant scientist’s intellect, an ingenious artist’s expression, etc. We can grasp, acknowledge and even be appropriately humbled, because we recognize the treasure that’s before us.

But sometimes we don’t ‘get it.’ Sometimes we can’t really comprehend the profundity of what’s going on before our eyes. We know it’s there, because others see it; we’re just not equipped to ‘get it.’

We want to appreciate the beauty, but ‘wanting’ is as far as we can go right now.

The faith corollary is: “I don’t believe, but I’d love to.”

This is actually a very profound spiritual place. When I pro-actively use my personal skills to grasp something, my grasp is limited to my tools’ capacity. By contrast, when I acknowledge/appreciate based on my LACK of a skill-set, my appreciation comes from my heart, and is limited only by capacity of my heart and soul.

The religious soldier appreciated the Wall using specific tools – knowledge, training etc – and his inspiration was commensurate to those tools. The non-religious soldier used no tools. He just felt. He didn’t really know what he felt, but he could appreciate that something special was going on. So he cried.

Both soldiers felt humbled. But, on the humility spectrum, the non-religious soldier’s seems deeper and more profound. More essential.

When it comes to our relationship with G-d, this humble place – “I want to want” - has distinct beauty; because it’s ultimately only through humility that we embrace G-d’s deeper existence.

As we celebrate a unified Jerusalem, and as we approach the Holiday of Shavuot, let’s explore, analyze and feel.

But then let’s just feel humbled by G-d’s embrace, whether we fully ‘get it’ or not.

You can ‘get’ a lot out of that.

Taking the Next Step

I assume it’s a pretty common scenario.

Somebody's walking life’s path, oblivious to his own benign neglect, when suddenly...boom! He hits his 'brick wall'.

Maybe it’s a family member or an accountant, perhaps a client or an employer; somebody perceives the truth and yells “Stop! This can't continue; something needs to change.”

It feels like an unpleasant, jarring disruption to life's rhythm.

It’s also an important wake-up call. And even though it’s painful, the stress can serve as productive energy, propelling us out of our rhythm’s gravitational pull.

In a way, it’s our personal Passover story.

We each have our own ‘Egypt’ - our own counter-productive habits which stifle our growth.

When we’re fortunate, our ‘Moses’ – our conscience, spouse or friend – helps us recognize our pattern, catalyzing us to urgently ‘leave [our] Egypt in haste.”

In this sense, the word ‘Pass-Over’ also refers to the liberating leap from a spiritually constricted life to a visionary, conscious one.

But what about the times when I’m not escaping an Egypt? When things seem just fine? When I feel no friction and face no brick walls?

Then, I face a different danger: Complacency. When I feel that I’m on a good path, I’m more likely to put my life on auto-pilot. I can relax; if I’m not being chased, why run?

Because when I’m on ‘auto-pilot’, I float along with life’s current, without the initiative to go quicker and further. Because when I’m on ‘auto-pilot’, I’m without the healthy anxiety, the butterflies in my stomach, that accompany a quantum leap forward.

My life deserves more.

We shouldn’t only grow to escape the pain, we should grow because we have great potential and a beautiful destiny.

So the Torah gives me an exercise called ‘The Second Passover’ (‘Pesach Sheini’ in Hebrew) and it’s about finding the strength to ‘Pass-Over’, to leap forward in my life even when I’m comfortable where I am. The day is about me taking the opportunity to consider where my life is going RIGHT, and finding the strength, vision and humility to make go even MORE RIGHT.

This coming Wednesday, May 10 (Iyar 14), is the Second Passover. Mark it on your calendar so you can have a piece of Matzah and think about your life’s potential.

Choose a growth-objective.

Pass-Over your own complacency.

Because finding Freedom isn’t only about leaving captivity; it’s about taking a leap forward.

The Crown Jewels

Look at a sparkling diamond, exuding its brilliance. Where does this stone come from and how did it get to this gorgeous state?
Before it got to your piece of jewelry, your diamond was deep in the earth, covered by dirt. Then someone mined, purified, cleansed and polished the gem, making it worthy of its glorious setting.
The Talmud teaches that when we pray sincerely, an Angel lifts our humanly-uttered prayers aloft and “weaves the letters into crowns for G-d.” In other words, our words are diamonds, mined from the depths of our psyche, so precious that they crown the Divine. Our prayers are more precious than we may think.
Chassidic thought looks at the struggle of finding focus and authenticity in prayer as an exhausting, yet purifying, exercise.
A. Focused, meditative thought, without any intrusion from the psyche’s ‘floating junk,’ isn’t easy to maintain. When we pray, trying to forge a bond with the Divine, and manage to find a connection which pulls us through the static to bond with the Divine, we come out stronger. Like a diamond coming through the soil, you’ve been ‘cleansed’ by your internal battle.
B.  Pouring your heart out to G-d, in a genuine - let it all flow – way, isn’t easy. It’s humbling to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and that you need help from something higher than yourself. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, it’s also liberating. On the other side of that ‘prayer therapy,’ you will have grown.
So a few words of poetic Talmudic metaphor actually hold a powerful life lesson: The words of your genuine, committed prayer are actually precious gems. The morsels of your emotion and energy, breaking through the ‘dirt’ of your life, are deeply precious to G-d. In fact, they represent the very reason for which G-d created the world, the desire that we would reach out for Him. The words of your sincere prayer form the very essence of G-d’s Presence in Creation, the Divine Crown. When you reach out for Him, He couldn’t be happier.

Try it today.

The Soul of Matzah

Passover - and Matzah ! - are just over two weeks away.

So let’s explore the Passover experience, and the Matzah, our famous brittle bread. 

Most of us know the narrative's basics:
The Jews were enslaved in Egypt, until G-d told Moses that it was time to liberate them, and started to afflict the Egyptians with plagues.

Then, two weeks in advance, G-d gave Moses the process of liberation:

A.  On the night of the Exodus, the Jews were to have a special meal, consisting of a Passover offering, Matzah and bitter herbs.

B. Later, at midnight, G-d would inflict a final plague on the Egyptians.

C. The Jews would leave in the early morning hours.

Ultimately, they needed to rush when they left and their bread didn’t have time to rise. So the dough was made into Matzah instead.

Those are the basics.

Note that the Jews actually had two Matzah experiences. There was Matzah on the planned-in-advance, Passover evening menu. And then they had a second Matzah experience, which seemed to be happenstance.

Now to the subtext:

In Chassidic thought, simple Matzah represents humility (as distinct from the puffed-up ego represented by bread).

Self-absorption desensitizes us to our need for spiritual growth, creating a daunting "personal Egypt". By contrast, Matzah represents humility and openness to self-improvement. It also represents faith, which is receptivity to something greater than us.

So, G-d told the Jews to find a Matzah mentality, and thereby leave their "personal Egypt." They met their objective, and opened the way for a second level of Matzah, a deeper dimension of surrender.

The first Matzah represents the Jews' self-generated submission to G-d. The second experience was Divinely-granted, generated by G-d’s revelation of Himself to the Jews at that time. With that experience, could any vestige of shallow self-interest possibly remain?

So Passover had two stages: Once the Jews had worked with themselves to find humility and faith, G-d granted the Divine coup de grace to their ego struggle.

That second Matzah wasn't planned, and it wasn't in our hands to create. It was a Divine gift. A gift that keeps on giving.

This year, at the Seder, we can experience both Matzah levels, because G-d grants the gift, again and again; if we’re ready for it.

The preparation begins now.

Bringing Ourselves into Line

Emotions are a funny thing.

When something triggers emotion in me, I know that it matters. Emotions also form a bridge – or a barrier – between people. So emotions are a critically important part of the personality.

But emotions can also get away from you. Like when you ‘fly off the handle.’ Emotions are your psyche’s fire. And, like fire, we need to treat them carefully and keep them under control.

Emotion even impacts our understanding. Unless I’m ‘emotionally-available’ to internalize and accept hear your words, I probably won’t be able to appreciate their logic (i.e. if I don’t like you, your opinion is probably wrong).

Sometimes, it can feel like our emotions control the joystick of our lives. But they don’t have to. Because we also have intellect.

Intellect is the more sedate and controlled side of the human psyche. Logic is cool, calm and somewhat detached. It’s soothing water to help you control your emotional fire.

I remember reading how a man sat on a subway in NYC, while a father with three young children sat next to him. The kids were unruly and really got under this fellow’s skin. As his anger-quotient rose, the father noticed his discomfort. Apologizing for his children’s behavior, he explained that they were on the way home from the hospital. The children’s mother had just passed away and they were a bit overwhelmed with the confusion in their lives.

This subway traveler was totally transformed. Ashamed of his snap to judgment, his anger was immediately replaced by empathy and concern.

Why do you think his anger disappeared?

It’s because his perspective changed. With new information, a new understanding, he revised his mental ‘framing’ of the situation, and his emotions immediately followed suit.

Too often we feel that our emotions ‘run away with us.’ They don’t have to. When we reframe how we see the world, our emotions can come into line with our reasonable selves.

Much of Torah life, the Mitzvot and their mindset, guides us toward this goal of corralling human nature and bringing it into line with a purposeful life. Each Mitzvah is its own exercise, bringing us closer to our better selves.

G-d wants us to become optimally-functioning human beings, so G-d gave us a user’s manual for life – the Torah – to help us achieve that goal.

Check out the program.

It works.

Torah's Tips for Happiness

Happiness.

The search for that ‘pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ is what guides so many of our efforts and behaviors. We all want it.

As we mature, we begin to recognize that ‘happiness’ is not something you can purchase and it’s not synonymous with pleasure; it’s a state of being. We also begin to realize that it isn’t an easy thing to achieve.

So how do we approach the Hebrew month of Adar (beginning this Sunday), when “increasing Happiness” is the theme? I can’t just command myself into Happiness; I need to get there in an authentic way. How?

One might say that the Torah gives us a formula in this week’s Torah reading, in which we have some clear directives:

1.      Lend money, interest-free, to people in need. Torah finds great value in giving to the disadvantaged. But, in a way, lending money is even greater. With a loan, as distinct from a gift, the recipient’s dignity and self-worth is more easily preserved; the person need not feel like a ‘charity case.’ The Torah’s teaching kindness with empathy. Even if you’re giving to someone, which is a beautiful Mitzvah, take the opportunity to step outside your own [good] feelings and consider recipient’s feelings beyond his needs.

2.      If you see your enemy’s animal “suffering under its load,” the Torah tells us to repeatedly help the animal. Interestingly, the Torah calls it your ENEMY’S animal. So someone has done you wrong, yet G-d still wants you to recognize his problem (and the animal’s pain). G-d wants us to transcend our world of self-interest to help, even if it’s people we have good reason not to like.

3.      There’s a special additional reading on this Shabbat, which tells of the Mitzvah for each Jew to donate half a Shekel to the communal offering fund. For this ‘fundraising’ drive, no one gave more and no one gave less than that amount. It wasn’t just about amassing the funds, it was about participating as part of the larger community.

The message seems clear: There’s no greater avenue to happiness than stepping out of your own self-interest. Devote effort to something outside of, or larger than, yourself, and you’ll be refreshed by the beauty of your encounter.

It’s Adar. Give yourself a reason to be happy!

 

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