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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Torah Project

Last evening's Torah launch was a very powerful moment for me.
We've written a Torah before, and that was special in its own way.
But this Torah seems to be gathering steam as a TRULY communal Torah. There's a lot of work ahead; we need to really connect the dots to make this a community Torah. But it seems within reach.
The Torah is intrinsically a unifying document. It connects us with the Divine, by showing us to lead a meaningful life, as our Creator would have it. It's actually referred to as our Ketubah - wedding document - with G-d.
In addition, it brings unity between us. The Torah gives perspective which allows us to perceive and appreciate the value in every living thing - and each other.
It presents a program for a meaningful life, but in a way which allows for people with divergent attitudes to find their respective places within this overall program. 

We may be different; but we are unified by the goal.

I believe this is going to be a wonderufl thing.


Sunday morning free-for-all

The discussion group this Sunday was interesting and lively.

A few general points were batted around:

1. We should all have principles which we REALLY hold dear.

2. We should be able to maintain friendly feelings for those who don't share those principles.

3. The kicker is how we reconcile 1 and 2.

As an example, let's think about how someone who really is anti-smoking, believing that a smoker is killing himself and those around him.

When he sees a person smoking, it should bother him. The very sight should strike a negative chord inside. Then, he should be able to focus on the humanity within that smoker and feel the sense of communal connectedness that's healthiest for us all.

If the non-smoker is so accepting and tolerant that he doesn't even feel a pang of negativity (hopefully a feeling of sadness for the smoker's self-destructive path and eventual suffering), then he doesn't really have a deeply held 'anti-smoking' principle. He doesn't really stand for that idea.

The same applies to Jewish principles. I'm very friendly with people who don't live (yet?) by Jewish principles. I'm also an accepting guy. But if I don't even feel the negative pang when I see someone violating Torah (before I rise above it to connect with - and care for - the person inside), then I've got a problem of principles.

And I admit that after years of living here, I do have that problem. It doesn't even strike a chord sometimes. And I need to deal with that.

[I didn't mention this yesterday, but I just remembered a quote from Shlomo Carlebach which I saw when I was a kid. It went something like this:

Today we have Jews for Moonies, Jews for Jesus, Jews for everything. But that doesn't bother me as much as the many sweet yiddelach who are 'Jews for Nothing'].

We also discussed the idea of calling someone's attention to their own counter-productive behavior. We got into a conversation about whether a golfer would call attention to a friend's deficiancy in grip or swing. They apparently wouldn't.

I've got a problem with that.

We shouldn't walk around criticizing people. But if I'm really friendly with someone, and believe they feel safe enough with me to hear my constructive criticism, then the Torah considers me selfish for not sharing my persepctive. Why shouldn't I help them see what they apparently can't on their own?

My example is if someone has food hanging from their lip. Do you gently tell the guy? Won't it be a help to him?

If we don't say something, it's because we don't care enough about the person's dignity. And that's selfish, not 'sensitive to embarassing someone'.


A Thought For the Week

These weeks we read Torah descriptions of Abraham and Sarah, and their lives.
Abraham searched for the Divine his entire life. Then, at age 75, G-d reached out for him, telling him to go to Israel. Later, at age 99 (!) G-d tells him that he needs to be circumcised (while his descendants would begin implementing that ritual at eight days of age).
This week's Torah portion opens with Abraham, days after the circumcision procedure, standing at the door of his tent. Then "and G-d appeared to him....".
Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson (1861 - 1920) was the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. When he was a young boy of four or five, he learned about the opening scene we just described.
The young child went to his grandfather (Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the third Rebbe) and complained. Why, he asked, does G-d appear to Abraham; after all, the Almighty hasn't appeared to him, young Sholom Dovber?
Rabbi Menachem Mendel answered: When a ninety-nine year old man decides to follow G-d's word and circumcise himself, with all the pain that entails, he is deserving of Divine revelation.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel taught his grandson, and us all, a very important lesson. What we do in life is critical. But the actions themselves don't necessarily lift us above our human path. We're just following the normal path at a higher speed or altitude.
However, when a person has self-sacrifice for a higher purpose, when someone elevates principle above comfort to do something for one's Creator, that catapults him to a different level.
Abraham did lots of good things. When he did good things despite the pain, he was ready for a new chapter in his spiritual development.
This applies to all of us.
We need to focus on our North Star, our higher values, and forge ahead in that direction, despite the obstacles.
We can do it. I know that to be true.
After all, it runs in the family.

Shabbat Shalom,

notes from sunday...

We had an interesting conversation at our Sunday morning discussion/brawl yesterday.
I brought up the idea that American Law focuses a lot on individuals' rights (which is why I can live so freely as an observant Jew in this wonderful country).
The Torah, however, has very little discussion of rights; it's mostly about responsibility.
Rights vs. Responsibilities.
There's a big difference.
Rights is about me and my wants, my space, my senstivities - what's-coming-TO-me. Responsibility is about my empathy, my response (as in response-ability), to the needs of 'other' - what's-needed-FROM-me.
For example: A child has the right to an education by American Law. By Torah Law it's framed as the responsibility of a parent to educate a child, and the responsibility of a child (as he/she grows older) to educate himself/herself.
It's about what's needed OF ME.
I'm glad that my government allows for plenty of space, and doesn't saddle me with responsiblities as they see fit.
But I need to fill that space, the liberty of a free life,  with a moral system of my choice.  That's what Founding Fathers expected of me.
I need to make 'other' - and the responsibility to 'other - an important part of my life. That's the (unlegislated!) American way.

A thought for the week

Years ago, an electrical fire spontaneously erupted in our synagogue's attic (back when we still functioned in the 'little Shul on the prairie'). 
A passerby saw smoke coming out of our attic window, and pounded on the synagogue door to alert someone. No one was there. This kindhearted person then ran across the street - to the Baptist church - and told the pastor of the emergency.
He, knowing that my family lived next door to the synagogue, came banging on the door of my home. My wife, Malkie, opened the door and was greeted with the pastor's breathless news: "the synagogue's on fire!" Her immediate reaction was "we need to save the Torahs!".
Pastor Pendell repeated that story to me because he was so impressed my wife's value system, with her instinctive 'care for Scripture'.
Indeed, it's a nice story. But why - in fact - did she have that reaction? And it's not just about her.  In the millennia of persecution, and burning synagogues, we hear story upon story about people risking their lives to save a Torah. Why? The Torah in a given synagogue is quite replaceable, So it's not about saving a priceless artifact.
Even more: Life is paramount. Yet people often risked their very lives.
Why? What is it about our attachment to Torahs?
This is Torah-attachment is an interesting phenomenon, which I'll try to briefly explore:

The Torah is our marriage contract with the Divine; it binds us to G-d. Every Torah is a new manifestation of the original, and carries the magnitude of our original Covenant at Sinai.

It's not just another copy of an old document. It is a fresh incarnation of the original 'marriage' at Sinai.
That being the case, how can we bear to see it burn? Who cares if I have another copy? If I value my relationship - my Covenant - with G-d, then I need to value this penultimate expression of our Covenant.
(In this week's Torah reading we are introduced to another 'Covenant,' the idea of the Bris, Abraham's 'Covenant' with G-d.)
What is a Covenant? It's a level of relationship which transcends reason. If I'm someone's good friend, then there's usually a reason - e.g. we share interests, kids are in the same school etc. When the reason dissipates, the friendship is likely to follow suit.
Our relationship with G-d is beyond that. It exists because it does, and nothing can make it unravel. The Torah is a tangible expression of this super-rational relationship. And we need to honor it in that way.
We at Chabad are fortunate to be in the position of beginning our own Torah, on October 28th. This isn't just filling the need for another Torah or a way of posthumously honoring a loved one (the Torah is open to collective sponsorship, but is being generously underwritten in memory of Marc Kissel).
Writing a Torah will be a community exercise, and it will be a communal reawakening of our super-rational relationship with the Torah's Author. It's a very special process, which will create a very special document. 
And it will be ours. For life.

Shabbat Shalom


This week's Torah reading, describing the Great Flood in Noah's time, opens the door to complex theological debates: Divine Retribution/Divine Compassion, theodicy, etc.
I keep on struggling with those issues, but I've pretty much achieved a mental and spiritual equilibrium with them at this point in my life. My greater focus goes to the Chassidic explanation of Noah, as it pertains to each of us.
In our own ways, each of us is Noah, trying to survive life's turbulence and rushing waters. Sometimes, life itself threatens to submerge us.
To us, the 'Noah' in each of us, G-d says "come to the Ark (teivah in Hebrew)". The Ark will shelter us. Even more, the ark transforms the water into a [conceptually] positive force. How? Think about it. Once I'm in that Ark, I rise higher with each rush of water.
What is this 'Ark' in my life? The words of substance, of Torah, of prayer, of prioritization and focus. These words - and the ideas they convey - buffer me, cocoon me, and shelter me from the world's harshness and force.
In Hebrew, the word Teivah - meaning Ark - also means 'word'.
So, G-d tells us - Noah - to "come to the word".
When you get up in the morning, Noah, spend some time immersing yourself in meaningful words, thinking about your destiny and G-d's desire in your purposeful day. You have a mission to make the world a better place, and you've been equipped to do it. Come to the word. It will more than shelter you; life's challenges will become learning exercises, making you a stronger human being. Lifting you higher.

Shabbat Shalom
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