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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Feel the Wonder

 

As you read this, take a minute to imagine your next interaction with your spouse, child, parent or close friend. How will it feel? Will it be functional, as you faithfully discharge your responsibilities to those you cherish? Or will it be enthusiastic and alive, reflecting the deep gratitude, love and appreciation you've felt - and can still feel - for these very same people?
In practical terms: When I pick up my children from school today, will I be in middle of a phone call, focused on where I’m going after I drop them at home? Or will I be the parent who once stood in awe of a new life, and is appreciative of a fresh opportunity to honor the relationship? 
Whatever’s going on in my head at the time, we’ll both know the truth. When a person has a spring in his step, a quickened pulse, a sense of wonder and enthusiasm...it shows. When you're happy to do something, your demeanor and actions come ALIVE. You can’t hide it. And you really can’t fake it. 

This also applies to my Jewish practice: When I perform a Mitzvah, am I merely discharging responsibilities? Or am I joyfully laying another strand in the cable which binds me to my G-d, my people, my destiny? 
What message does my observance send to my family? When they see me practicing my Judaism, helping my parents, etc., do they see me carrying a burden or delighting in a relationship? By sensing where my excitement lies (and where it doesn’t…), what am I broadcasting to them about my deepest sense of priorities? 
Of course, it’s human nature to lose our sense of wonder as we become accustomed to someone or something. No matter how outstanding a relationship is, the excitement eventually settles. By nature, we eventually take our greatest blessings for granted.

But we can rise above human nature. 
If I believe in the deep value of a relationship, I need to be pro-active to make sure that it doesn’t dull. I need to consistently re-awaken my initial sense of awe and attraction. 
When I next see my loved one, I should bring myself back to the wonder of our relationship. I should let that awe take me over for a moment. And if I feel it, my demeanor will show it. 
The same applies to my Judaism. G-d cares about our lives. G-d cares about our daily struggles and achievements. What we do is important. So my - and your - next action can be cosmic. 

It may feel ho-hum, but it doesn’t need to be.
As I sit by my computer, I believe that my writing this little essay, my small attempt to brighten the world in my own way, is part of my destiny. That’s cosmic. And I’d believe the same if I were a dentist bent over a patient or a lawyer representing my client. If my actions are contributing to making this a better world, if they're consistent with a Torah attitude to life, if I’m living the destiny G-d set out for me, then I'm doing something monumental.

Your next interaction at home or in the office can be cosmic. And when you feel it, it’ll show. 

The Moses Method

So you’re thinking about 2019 and your mind opens to the reality that something in your life isn't working. You resolve to do better, and that feels good.

Except that you know change is difficult, because we're notoriously ingenious at outsmarting ourselves. 
Resolving makes us feel good, but effecting actual change usually hits some inner roadblocks. 
One common problem is described by ancient Jewish texts as ‘Pharaoh syndrome.' 
The Exodus saga – with the Jews gaining liberty from the enslaving Egyptians - is also a personal narrative. It depicts my/your continuous struggle for freedom from our personal 'Egypts' (behavioral traps and limitations). We each face our personal ‘enslavement,’ and our inner Pharaoh stands in the way of freedom.

So who is [our inner] Pharaoh? Scripture describes him as having a 'hard heart.' 
What does that mean in practical terms? 
Pharaoh understood that his actions were self-destructive and bringing ruin upon his country. He even fleetingly agreed to stop the madness. But he couldn't finalize change. Why? Because his heart just wouldn’t follow his mind’s vision. He knew what needed to be done, but he couldn't close the deal.
This is the internal 'Pharaoh,' stubbornly disregarding the healthy way forward and clinging to self-destructive behavior.
So, whence the salvation? 
Moses, of course.
Moses is described in our Scripture and tradition as a man of total, super-rational commitment. Brilliant as he was, he didn't guide his life by intellect alone. He felt a profound relationship with the Divine, and that's what guided his behavior.
Deep relationships – like the parent-child connection – have a deep, super-rational core, so we know what that feels like. Well, Moses directed that level of commitment to the vision of who G-d created him to be.

We can too.

The 'Moses method' is feeling a transcendent responsibility to G-d and personal destiny, not just logical calculation. And as effective as the 'Pharaoh Syndrome' is against logic, it’ no match for selfless commitment.

The ‘Moses method’ is a much deeper expression of your inner self, so it’s working a different wavelength. 
Here's the bottom line: Sometimes, life's richness is reached when we can step beyond the limitations of the mind, following the soul's lead and expression.
So when you resolve to change your behavior, see it as a part of your commitment to G-d, see it as an exercise of your relationship with your Destiny, see it as an expression of your very reason for existence.
Then see if excuses can block your way.
Pharaoh couldn't.

Traveling Light

The Jewish traveler was aghast. He had come to visit Rabbi Dovber, who would eventually be known throughout the world as a premier spiritual master (Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, 18th century leader of the Chassidic movement), and was dismayed by the Rabbi's poor living conditions. 

When the man entered, Rabbi Dovber was sitting on a wooden (no chairs in sight), and teaching young children Torah. The scene seemed out of kilter; rich spirituality framed by such raw poverty. The man couldn’t imagine living under such conditions. 

Unable to contain himself, he asked the Rabbi how he could live without the basic amenities of a normal house. Why was his home so bare? 

Answering his question with a question, the Rabbi queried “well, where is your furniture?” 

Perplexed, the man replied “Rabbi, I’m obviously in the midst of a journey, and I don’t take my furniture with me when I travel. At home I’m set up fine. That‘s where I'm really invested and that's where it matters.” 

Rabbi Dovber replied “I, too, am in the midst of a journey. G-d sent my soul to this world for a purpose, just as he sent yours. I'm traveling through life and will eventually move on to a higher plane. 

The material is all part of life's impermanence, and I treat it as such. I, too, don't care that much about furniture when I'm 'traveling'. 

I invest my attention and energy in to my ‘home’, my soul condition. That‘s where it matters.” 

Rabbi Dovber was teaching that we’re all on the road of life. We’re each put here for a purpose, and what matters most is the objective. The rest is the trimmings. 

When you're traveling, the mint on the pillow is nice, but it’s not a priority. 

We should focus our attention on life's fundamentals, that's where 'home' is. And at home, everything matters. After all, it’s your home. 

A daily question to ponder is: Where do I really live? 

Which areas of life are genuinely important to me? Which areas of life are just parts of the journey, a means to a greater end? Does my investment of time and effort reflect my priorities?

Putting significant attention into fleeting, self-serving pleasures is kind of like carrying your sofa with you as you travel. It’s putting too much focus on a brief jaunt. 

Travel light.

Live well.

 

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

When I was a kid, I begged my father to take me to a baseball game. I nagged and badgered like only a little boy can. He had absolutely no interest in baseball, and he probably dreaded the idea of spending four boring hours at Shea stadium, but he took me anyway.

People sitting near us may have thought this bearded Rabbi was an interested fan. But I knew that was the furthest thing from the truth. He was sitting at Shea for one – and only one - reason: To make me happy. Tom Seaver was but a piece of my father’s end game: Making his son happy.

His presence at the ballgame wasn’t what it appeared to be. Appearances can be deceiving, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

‘Deceptive’ is a negative word; ‘misleading’ doesn’t sound kosher either. But how do you describe an exercise which appears to be self-indulgent, but is actually being pursued for a higher purpose?

Deceptively meaningful? Meaningfully deceptive?

Here’s a more common example: You see someone eating a tantalizing meal, and assume it’s in the pursuit of self-gratification. What if she simply wants to be healthy, so that she can actualize her Higher purpose by leading a meaningful life? The food happens to be great, but that wasn’t the primary point.

What about someone avidly pursuing his business, who actually places a high priority on bringing quality to his customers’ lives? And wants to earn money to support his community through his take-home revenue?

These individuals may look like they’re serving themselves, but their intent reflects a strong other-centered and G-d-centered ingredient.

Life is full of these opportunities to pursue exercises which have a meaningful essence, even though they look shallow on the outside.

We’re not created to be angels, and we’re not supposed to be sitting in prayer all day. Our purpose includes engaging the material world, whether it’s on Main Street or Wall Street. We need to pursue human endeavors, but the key lies in the intent of our pursuit. Are we conscious of our Higher Purpose? Do we guide ourselves by a Higher Code? If the answer is yes, then the pursuit– notwithstanding its appearance – is very much Divine.

As a people, we are known by the name of our Patriarch ‘Yaakov’ (Jacob). Linguistically, the word Yaakov connotes ‘deceptiveness’. Not a pretty thought. At least on its face.

But Yaakov is actually a name that shouts our mission and calls us to action:

Engage the world, the Torah tells us. You may appear to be pursuing self, but keep your priorities at a high level, and you’ll actually be pursuing G-dliness.

Sometimes it’s about the relationship not the ballgame. And that’s up to us.

Light Your Candle

Have you ever thought that someone looked absolutely radiant? Have you ever been awed by by a teacher’s brilliance? How about the warmth you felt when you saw a joyful child’s beaming face?

Look at that paragraph and think about the verbiage we so commonly use. We use ‘light’ metaphors to describe the often-intangible beauty of the human experience.

And this isn’t a new linguistic phenomenon. The Torah describes Moses’ face, pursuant to his other-worldly experience on Mount Sinai, as “radiant”. Scripture tells us that “one’s wisdom illumines one’s face,” and offers a blessing that “G-d shine His countenance” upon us.

So 'light' is a Torah symbol for full spiritual, physical, mental and emotional expression. With light, we see ourselves and the world in full glory. When we see the world in an ‘illuminated’ way, that means life is making sense to us.

The Torah is telling us that we are all Divine candles, trusted by G-d to shine light in a world that is often ‘dark.’ As we journey through life, we pray for G-d’s help in dispelling the darkness of our confusion, self-absorption and lack of moral focus. We pray for our souls to shine.

We ask for G-d’s help in lighting the wick of our own Divine candle.

When the Temple stood, its majestic Menorah – the seven branched candelabra – represented our multi-faceted nation. When the Kohen (Priest) kindled its flames, he was drawing light to our souls, illuminating our psyches. Lighting our ‘wicks’.

In the days of the Chanaukah events, the Hellenists took control of Israel. They wanted to extinguish our spiritual candelabra. They fed us hedonism, trying to cloud our souls with a self-indulgent veil. The Hellenists presented their lifestyle as the brilliance of societal evolution, but it was actually moral darkness. They weren’t so much trying to annihilate our bodies as they were seeking to extinguish our spiritual light.

They wanted our Holy Menorah - in all its dimensions - to go dark.

The Maccabees heroically fought back and they miraculously won. They preserved Divine light for posterity.

For us.

This Chanukah, dig deep inside yourself to find your own Holy oil. And kindle your inner flame.

Connect with Chanukah’s energy by lighting a Menorah for eight nights (not just the night of the family Chanukah party:)).

Add your candle to the brilliant blaze of our history.

Light up your life.

 

Best wishes for a happy and meaningful Chanukah,

Rabbi Mendy

 

P.S. This coming week, we’ll be launching our end of year campaign, in which our dear friend Mel Feldman will be matching donations up to $60,000. Watch out for our e-mails, and please add your match to the blaze of goodness. Together, we’ll light up the world.

Relationship Ingredients

Love: You know it when you feel it. Your heart feels like it’s surging, pumping on all cylinders, ALIVE. 
Awe: You know it when you feel it. It’s what happens when you’re in the presence of a larger-than-life personality, someone so awe-inspiring that you’re totally overwhelmed, dumbstruck.  
Awe is thrilling, but not in the same way as love. With awe, you're heart isn't on fire, feeling like it is about to jump out of your chest. To the contrary, awe makes you emotionally stand back - shrinking - to make way for the awesome experience. 
Think about how you felt when you saw your baby for the first time: Did you automatically reach out in love? Or did the sight make you pause in wonder, taking your breath away? That’s awe. 
Awe is an emotional force that blows away your normal ego posture, that "I'm the center of the universe" attitude, and it creates a wide psychological berth for the object of your wonder. 
So Awe and Love are two very different emotions, one expanding the sense of self and the other abating it. But they work best in tandem. 
Imagine if you took the opportunity to feel the wonder, the marvel of a loved one, before allowing the love to flow? When you relax your ego, your love can be so much more powerful. So awe – deep respect – is actually a love multiplier. If you're looking for deep connectedness, this combination gets you there.  
Our model for a healthy relationship is our personal relationship with G-d, and Judaism has a two-pronged approach to forging healthy connectedness with G-d. We begin our morning prayers every day by contemplating the miracle of the human body, nature’s mind-boggling complexity and the universe’s majesty. We put life on pause, standing back in wonder at G-d’s creation. Then, once we've felt touched by Creation’s majesty, we can begin to generate closeness with, and love toward, our Creator.

Our relationships, beginning with our relationship with G-d, are the stuff of life. They deserve work and mental exercise to make them the best they can be.

Think about the quality of your Awe and Love. They are the wings that can make you soar. 

 

What Does G-d Do All Day?

The Talmud asks a seemingly unanswerable question:

What does G-d do all day?

Generally speaking, Jewish tradition tells that G-d is consistently – longingly - waiting for our attention. Yes, G-d is hoping for us to see beyond the haze of stress and the gleam of desire, to recognize that we’re created to live a life of meaning. A life connected to G-dliness and Holiness. And when we do, G-d is thrilled.

Like when we start the day with prayer, with introspective thoughts of how we need to align our day with a meaning-centered life. Or at night, when we revisit the day’s choices and how/whether they reflect a purpose-driven life.

But morning, before the day begins and nighttime, as the day winds down, are relatively easier times to focus on life’s purpose.

How about in middle of the day? Can you imagine making time for quiet reflection between meetings, as your mind is racing to “keep all the balls in the air”? Is that even realistic?

Jewish tradition says it is. And the effect is cosmic.

It’s what gives G-d His greatest “thrill”.

That’s why, although we pray three times a day - morning, afternoon and evening - the Talmud finds special value in the afternoon service. It takes more proactive effort to focus on G-d in middle of a busy day. And that makes it all the more beautiful.

So what does G-d do all day?

Let’s focus on one part of the Talmud’s answer: “in the last three hours of the afternoon, G-d frolics with the Leviathan”.

Huh?

Chassidic thought points out that the Hebrew word for Leviathan means ‘connectedness;’ “Leviathan” thus represents the awesome beauty that human beings create when they rise above their egos to find connectedness with something Higher, the Divine. 

So every afternoon, as millions of people choose to put their respective days on pause, to contemplate their priorities and behaviors and connect with the Divine, G-d “frolics”.

Think about the metaphoric word that the Talmud chooses.

Not just a smile.

Not just happy.

Frolicking.

Joyful exuberance.

And it’s up to us.

Resist

Do you resist?

I'm speaking about life here, not politics.

The question is: Do you rebel against your own norms? We all have temptations, habits, and norms we should discipline, if we only have the strength. So the question is: do we have the guts to resist our instincts?

Sometimes we need healthy rebellion in society at large, pushing back against an unhealthy status quo. We need a stirring of the collective spirit to bring consciousness and moral direction to our communities.

But I’m speaking about something more personal. I’m speaking about the person we each see in the mirror. If we consciously want to live a meaningful life, we can push past our norms and so many of our 'limits,' and evolve into more actualized people. But do we want to? Is that fire of rebellion burning inside?

Let’s face it: Even when we’re in a proper functional rhythm, our souls can be asleep. You can go through the motions of being a loyal spouse or parent, while your brain is still in the office – or at the stadium. We can perform good deeds without any excitement or enthusiasm, on auto-pilot. It’s being alive, without really living.

Doesn’t that call for resistance? If we’re living a life of complacency and self-satisfaction, a life without the passion to rise up against ourselves, have we not become ‘spiritual bourgeoisie’?

Time for revolution.

And we want a Divine uprising too.

G-d’s [meta]physical system has been our established order since time began. But it’s time for a radical change. It’s time for G-d to buck His own system, and bring out the meaning and beauty - the Harmonious Oneness - that’s inherent in our world.

We call that a world of Moshiach – a Messianic era. A world actualized.

And it’s G-d’s promise to humanity: When we rise up against our limitations, G-d will rise up against His.

So look at your life and rise above your limitations.

And let the revolution spread.

Ready for Inspiration

Have you ever experienced sudden inspiration? A 'Holy moment'? A sense of clarity about the world, your life and who you can be?

We, the Jewish people had such an experience, infinitely magnified, when we stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

Those standing at the base of that mountain felt their world change: Life made sense, the purpose of existence was clear.

No more nagging questions.

No more internal confusion.

The Torah isn't only about what was, it's very much about what is. The Torah is the story of our lives, in the present day and moments. The Sinai experience, with its clarity and connection, is a personal goal for each of us.

But how do we get there? How do we bring ourselves to an enlightened experience?

Inspiration usually seeks fertile ground, and comes to those who are genuinely receptive to an inner glow. So we need to position ourselves for inspiration, and then pray that the experience sets in.

It's very much about preparation; we need to be primed for the experience.

Look at the Torah's description of the Sinai experience. The Torah doesn't go straight to this pivotal event. The Torah first spends a lot of ink on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of our pre-Sinai ancestors. The Torah’s entire first Book (out of the Five Books), is devoted to the lives of Abraham, Sarah and their descendants.

The pre-Sinai generations grappled with their egos, working to steer their lives toward a meaningful purpose beyond self-gratification. They guided their lives by vision, not impulse. They identified their natural challenges and transcended them, transforming themselves into selfless, principled people. They didn’t postpone their self-refinement efforts because they were waiting for a gift from above.

At the same time, they searched for connectedness with the Divine, and they didn’t take no for an answer.

Abraham and Sara, and their subsequent generations, went through a spiritual evolution which brought their family to a Sinai-ready state. Those who would later receive the Torah at Sinai were standing on their shoulders. That’s why they were ready for Sinai.

Back then, Sinai happened because we were ready.

Today, inspiration happens when we're ready.

Ready?

Hit the Road

Does it feel like Rosh Hashana was ages ago?

Think again.

In a sense, Rosh Hashana is only just ending. You see, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur aren’t just independent holidays; they are part of a spiritual continuum.

During the High Holidays, we reach deeply into our psyches to explore our principles and values. What do I stand for? Am I mindful of my responsibilities to the world around me? Do I properly appreciate my relationship with G-d, my loving Creator?

At the close of Yom Kippur, we lock in (Neilah, the name of the closing prayer, actually means “to lock”) a deeper, more profound sense of connectedness with G-d and with life itself.

So we spend much of the High Holidays in a spiritual cocoon – in our minds and in the synagogue – focused on contemplation and internal growth.

But the High Holidays’ internal dynamics must then find their way into our “external” behavior. We need to express our internal commitment in 'real life' lived meaningfully.

So, after Yom Kippur, we venture back into the outside world of eating, drinking, socializing, etc. But, because we’ve had our High Holiday experience, things are a bit different. Our lives are now in the context of the  Sukkah (the temporary hut in which we celebrate over the Sukkot Holiday), which Chassidism describes as “G-d’s hug.”

Think of it this way: Life in the Sukkah is an external expression of the Divine intimacy we felt during Neilah. We’re able to live “normal life” – eating, drinking, etc.  – within “G-d’s embrace”.  

So Rosh Hashana’s peak is on Yom Kippur, and they’re both manifested in the Sukkot experience.

Sukkot’s zenith is its last day, which is a holiday unto itself, called “Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.” Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to retain the season’s energy (Azteret means “retention”). Simchat Torah is a day to recognize that our commitment to a life lived meaningfully “brings joy to the Torah.” So it’s a day when we rejoice with the Torah. And vice versa.

Simchat Torah ended Tuesday evening. We’ve had a month of preparation for a meaningful journey through the year.

Now let’s hit the road.

A Time to Celebrate

This is a wonderful time of year.

While many tend to think of ‘the Holidays” as referring to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, those Holidays are just the beginning. The Jewish calendar actually has a continuum of Jewish celebrations that begin on Rosh Hashana and continue on for twenty-four days! 

Let’s start at the beginning: Rosh Hashana is the launch of a ten day exercise - culminating with Yom Kippur - when we reconnect with our best selves and with the Divine. These ten days are filled with the serious and introspective happiness that comes with self-awareness and self-improvement. They’re happy, even as they’re focused and introspective.

We then progress to Sukkos, when the High Holidays’ quiet satisfaction morphs into full-blown joy. The High Holidays’ holy moments can be elusive and difficult to concretize. The Sukkah brings our High Holiday inspiration into real life.

For seven days, we eat, drink, study and hang out in a hut (a Sukkah) with an imperfect (temporary) roof. That ‘roof’ represents the Miraculous Clouds which protected the Jews as they travelled in the desert after leaving Egypt. That ‘roof’ symbolizes G-d’s loving protection, then and now.

So the Sukkah is a tangible manifestation of the spiritual intimacy – the connectedness – we felt on the High Holidays.  When we sit in the Sukkah, we’re sitting in G-d’s embrace, because the Sukkah makes G-d’s love tangible in our daily lives.

We then reach the Holiday season’s peak when we celebrate the Torah on Simchas Torah (this coming Sunday evening through Tuesday evening). Simchas Torah drives home the message that we can always embrace, and be embraced by, G-d through studying Torah.

The Torah is your portable Sukkah, one you can access even after the Holiday wraps up.

In the Scripture, G-d tells us: “I have put My words (the Torah) into your mouth and I have covered you with the shadow of My hand." The “shadow of My hand” refers to the Sukkah’s interior shadow, its embrace. G-d is telling us that we can experience spiritual intimacy when we immerse ourselves in the Torah’s words and ideas, when we have the “words of Torah in our mouths.”

And that’s a real - lasting - reason to celebrate. We’re never alone. We can always re-discover the Holidays’ spiritual connectedness, through the study of Torah.

So come and celebrate!

Hug A Tree

Mobility can be a double-edged sword.

‘Growth’ sounds great.

‘Unsettled’ not so much.

As human beings, we find basic peace when we’re at rest. That’s how we fall asleep and that’s how you catch your breath. But inertia and paralysis are unhealthy. Where do we find the balance?

When it comes to material objectives, we can never ‘spike the ball,’ because physical fulfilment is a moving target. When we’re bombarded by a hodgepodge of desires and fears, we end up chasing illusions from one end of life’s field to the other.

The pursuit of spiritual fulfilment is different. Our souls have a core desire to touch the Divine, always yearning for something higher, pushing to rise above life’s mundanity. We’re figuratively standing on our spiritual tiptoes, trying to touch something meaningful, which often feels just beyond our reach.

But it’s not.

Scripture quotes G-d as saying (Hosea 14:9): “I am like a supple Cedar…” The Cedar is a tall tree; the ‘supple Cedar’ imagery is that of a tree we can bend all the way down to our level, so that we can hang on, and be catapulted aloft, as it returns to its natural position.

G-d is that Cedar. G-d ‘bends down,’ making Divine meaning accessible to us at our human level, by giving us tangible, physical Mitzvos. Once we grab on, we are propelled to a higher state, coming closer to the Divine, closer to ourselves.

G-d being described as the 'supple Cedar' tells us that meaningful human life is within our grasp. Hang on to the Cedar, and the soul flies higher, the bond grows deeper, the embrace intensifies. 

This Yom Kippur, disengage –at least for a day - from the material-focused frenzy. Commit yourself to a deep relationship with G-d.

Hug the supple Cedar.

The King and I

It’s that time of year again.

It’s time for me to engage the ‘King.’

You see, Rosh Hashana is coming, and we’ll have an overflow crowd at services.

For me, that’s a precious opportunity to unveil and articulate the Judaic tradition which I hold so dear.

I can express our belief in G-d as a Parent, Who devotedly cares for each of us. This helps us envision how we each matter to G-d.

I can depict our embrace of G-d as a spouse, with whom we share a loving – if sometimes challenging –relationship. That opens a vital window into our deep bond with the Divine.

Loyal and Loving. That’s my G-d.

But here’s the problem. This fundamentally-Judaic image of G-d doesn’t easily dovetail with the Rosh Hashana liturgy. When we open the prayer book, we find a consistent theme of G-d - not as Parent or Spouse but - as ‘King.’

Our Rosh Hashana services are one big Coronation.

That metaphor isn’t a natural for Americans. We’re very happy to have ejected King George III from our lives, and we’re generally not big on respect for the monarchy.

In my experience, Parent and Spouse imagery work. King? That’s a tough one for many people.

So, let us – you and I - [re]frame and [re]define the King concept.

Building on the image of G-d as wholly committed to our welfare (like a parent) and deeply loving (like a spouse), we also see G-d as our [devoted and loving] King.

Why? Because it introduces a wonderful new element: Surrender.

No human – even family - can say to me: “I know you, because I created and designed you. Relax and stop clinging to your self-image and shallow perceptions. I will guide you toward becoming the person I created you to be.”

Only G-d can say that. And I can handle it when it’s coming from G-d. Because G-d DID create me; G-d knows my strengths and genuinely perceives my weaknesses. So I’m comfortable surrendering to my loving and devoted King. Because I’m actually surrendering to my own destiny, my best self.

Yes. ‘G-d as King’ works for my prayer imagery.

How about you?

Now is the Time

Once I’ve made a mistake, can it ever be retroactively un-done?

Of course, we can make amends and learn for the future, But can we ever un-speak hurtful words?

In the concrete sense, that’s not possible. But there’s more to life than the concrete.

So let’s look at regret through a spiritual lens.

Sometimes, we rue an action because it created unpleasant consequences. When you’ve hurt someone important, and the relationship has become uncomfortable, and you apologize: Is it ever because you simply want the pain to go away?

If yes, that's regret of a sort; but it's not transformative remorse. It's more like ‘relationship management.’

In this scenario, you haven’t experienced any real character modification.

You’re uncomfortable with the REACTION to your behavior, not your action itself. Maybe you’re modifying your behavior from now on, but it’s because of someone else's response, not your own principles.

Real behavior modification doesn't usually happen that way. And you never end up ‘un-speaking’ those hurtful words.

But there’s a deeper way.

We can use our mistakes as profound teachable moments. As powerful springboards for positive change. And when you do that, you’ve reached into the past and transformed past mistakes into shining opportunities for present growth and self-improvement.

You’ve done the impossible, by restructuring and upgrading ‘spilled milk.’

Of course, what’s done is done, and you can’t control people’s memories. But you can control your own NOW, and grow from your own past. And, when real change happens, the rest of the world will eventually catch on.

We’re fast approaching the High Holidays, a time for introspection and re-alignment. A time to fine-tune our behavior for the New Year. And G-d is the wind at our backs.

The High Holidays ‘behavioral transformation project’ comes from a deeply empowered place. We believe that G-d created each of us with the capacity to be a true mentsch, living with character and integrity. Our innate potential, which no one external can control, is our gold standard. Every day, we should envision that potential as our gold standard, and measure our behaviors against that potential.

Because we want to do better. And we really can.

What better time to start, than now?

Hear the Knock?

What if today was your wedding anniversary, and you had plans for a romantic dinner? Would you be able to disengage from your work stresses, frustrations over our crazy politics and your ordinary distractedness?

I hope so. Because it's more than worth the effort. Every relationship needs its pause button, a sacred time when the partners put aside their busy pursuits and focus on each other, re-committing for an even stronger future together.

It works the same way in our relationship with our Creator. The High Holidays, which are 30 days away, aren't just a time to show up in synagogue. They are special days, set aside for spiritual intimacy; days when we focus on the purpose of our lives, our personal relationships with G-d and with life itself.  

Ideally, one doesn’t just walk out of a business meeting and sit down to an intimate dinner. One first takes the effort to mentally disengage from one's distractive world, shut one's smartphone, and mentally zero in on the importance of the relationship.

Similarly, Jewish life gives us the month of Elul, a preliminary month leading us up to Rosh Hashana. During Elul, G-d helps us edge out of our own self-absorption, so that we’re in psycho-spiritual shape for our ‘anniversary get-together' on the High Holidays. 

In Jewish tradition, Elul is known as the 'Month of Mercy,' a time when we each go out of our way to empathize with others’ needs, give more charity etc.

But Mercy means more than empathy, it means genuinely feeling the needs of someone who doesn't have any real claim on your time and resources. You have no concrete responsibility to this inidvidual, just a genuine sense that he/she is in need. And that sense creates enough connection to prompt you into action.

Elul is the Month of Mercy, a time when G-d gives us extra capacity to reach beyond our personal sensitivities and needs, and truly open our hearts to another. This makes Elul a great warm-up for the High Holidays: Rising above our self-absorption allows our internal G-dliness to shine, which  in turn primes us for intimate time with G-d on the High Holidays.

The month of Elul begins tomorrow, on Shabbos.  G-d will be knocking on our door, trying to draw us out of our self-directed perspectives in advance of Rosh Hashana.

 Open the door.

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