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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Infinite Points of Light

Light has a special quality. When I say 'light', I'm not just referring to the physical luminescence that spreads through a room when I flip a switch. 'Light' is so much more than that.

Depending on the particular usage, 'light' can refer to an upbeat ambience, spiritual awareness, love, cognitive insight, the sparkle in one's eye, mental clarity and joy (and probably a bunch more that I'm missing).

Light is warm and feels right. We all know what a 'dark' day or mood is like. And, instinctively, we are all drawn to the light.

Well, Chanukah is all about light. It's about bringing 'illumination', in steadily increasing increments, to a world in need - starting with my inner world. So Chanukah is a specific celebration of a specific episode, but it's also about bringing 'light' to my business dealings, my relationships and the way I operate in the privacy of my own mind. It's about doing something meaningful, being in the right mindset and operating that way; it's about kindling 'candles' throughout my day and bringing light to the world. As Scripture tells us: "For a Mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light".

So this coming Tuesday evening, set up a Menorah, make a blessing and light a candle. Read about the holiday and its significance to our lives in 2007.

Then take a quiet moment and focus on the candle. In your mind's eye, recognize that the flickering candle is you, and the light it sheds is your effect on a dark world. 

Because lighting the Menorah isn't  just about the flame. It's about the light.

 

Every Day a Struggle, Every Day a Victory

We all struggle. Actually, let me rephrase that: We should all be struggling. If someone isn't struggling to make his/her life meaningful, then their spirituality is probably at room temperature; there's no yearning, no spiritual pulse.
Why? Because that's the nature of this journey we call life.
G-d created a world which doesn't instinctively yield meaning. It
appears shallow out there. It's 'dog-eat-dog', 'look out for number one', 'nice guys finish last'; you know what I mean. Sure, there are meaningful moments, but the human default position is one where 'I' am at the center of the world, while a truly substantive life focuses on 'other'; genuine meaning is found in what we give to the world, not in what we get.
So we struggle. We're struggling with our selves and with our surroundings. But in a way, we're also struggling with G-d. We're struggling with the shallow facade which our Creator designed, trying to touch the inner meaning which we know He values...and we crave.
This is our destiny. It's in our very name. The name Israel - Yisrael in Hebrew - is described in this week's Torah portion to mean 'wrestling with G-d...and prevailing".
Every time we conquer our weaker selves, or the shallow world, to guide our lives in a meaningful direction, we're prevailing against a worthy opponent, and realizing our destiny. You can't get better than that.

The Liberated Flame

Jews pray. Abraham prayed. Isaac prayed. Jacob prayed.
But as I go through life, I notice that genuine prayer is really something of an acquired taste. Yes, prayer is certainly an integral part of Judaism, but it's often easier said than done. One can't just assume that by opening a prayer book he/she will be inspired to pray meaningfully. One needs the right mental posture, and some emotional availability, to bring prayer to life. It takes some preliminary attitude adjustment.
We find one element of this in the Talmud's advice to give charity before we pray. Indeed, many spiritual Masters would, as preparation for their prayers, seek opportunities to help the poor.
Chabad thought explains that my pre-prayer charity will actually enhance my own personal prayer experience; my prayers will come alive - energetic and enthusiastic - because I've contributed to another's life.
I was thinking about that a bit. Charity is a great thing. But what connection does it have with my prayers? How do I connect the dots between helping the pauper and my personal prayer enthusiasm?
Here's a thought:
Real prayer requires a sense of need.
If I feel totally self-sufficient, smug with self-satisfaction, then I really have no room for prayer in my life. I'm it. Numero Uno. The world revolves around me. 
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Why open up to anybody, especially in prayer?
Genuine prayer is about yearning and connecting. Yearning for, and connecting with, my G-d. Yearning for, and connecting with, my destiny. Yearning for, and connecting with, my higher self. But first I need to yearn. It's crucial to the exercise.
Yearning means that I know there's something beyond me. I yearn to reach higher, to do better, to outrun my weaker self.
But if I'm all wrapped up in myself, I'm not yearning for anything. I'm not seeing higher; I'm just seeing me.
[As we approach Chanukah, with its emphasis on lights and flames, we need to remember that the soul is "G-d's flame". Just as the flame flickers higher, seemingly trying to reach beyond itself, so too does the soul consistently yearn to touch the Divine.]
So I guess Chassidic thought sees my charity as important therapy. If I can bring myself to feel for someone else's needs, if I can crawl out of myself to empathize with someone, then I'm ready to yearn.
I've left my spiritual prison of self-centeredness, venturing into the rela world.
Now, I just need to look up.

 

A thought for the week

As we approach Chanukah (we're less than a month away), we begin to think dreidels, latkes, gifts etc.
But if we look at the events which brought us to this Holiday, we should begin to think of Chanukah's real lesson: 'Principles'.
As we know, Chanukah celebrates the Jewish victory, 2200 years ago, over a massive Syrian-Greek army. The Maccabee army's heroic efforts freed the Jews from religious oppression and physical subjugation.
Something to celebrate, to be sure. But this was more than a war of independence.
More than anything, above and beyond nationalistic pride, the Maccabees stood for principle. They stood by their values; even when it got tough.
In their oppression, the (Syrian-Greek) Hellenists didn't want them all dead; we weren't dealing with Hitler in that sense. Actually, these people would have allowed for much of Judaism to be practiced.
They just didn't like the super-rational element. The idea of Holiness and Divinity grated on their nerves.
But the Jews wouldn't back down. They could have de-emphasized the G-d element of Judaism, and presented the rational face. They could have rolled with the punches, "going along to get along", just to survive. They still could have been Jews, and they still could have kept most of their observances.
But G-d is a value. A principle. And they stood by their principles.
Now's a time of year for us to search ourselves, asking: what are my Jewish principles? Do I have any, and what are they?
But in a real way.
As a child in the seventies, I remember seeing a quote about the fact that today we have so many Jewish groups, that there are Jews for everything (when I google "Jews for" and look at the list, I'm amazed - even Jews for Jeter!). But, in the quote, the real concern was the syndrome of "Jews for Nothing".
It became a phrase that pegged a real phenomenon: Jews with nothing Jewish to stand for.
We all have very multi-faceted lives, taking up a lot of space in our brains and hearts. But where do G-d and destiny fit in? And how important are they?
In these coming Chanukah-focused days. Let's have fun, but let's not forget fundamentals. 
We owe it to the Macabees, and to ourselves.

A thought for the week

We can learn so much from a careful look at how great people live their lives. I don't mean their marquee achievements; I mean life as a whole. 
For example, we study about our matriarch Sarah, and her groundbreaking work in spreading monotheism. But there are nuances in her life, in her attitudes, which can lend profound lessons to me and you, for the here and now.
This coming Shabbat, we'll open the Torah reading with the fact that Sarah passed away: "And Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years...."
From the way that the language is framed, our Sages derive that Sarah didn't only live out her days, she ENLIVENED them. 
What does that mean?

People of character and vision don't just biologically function through a given day; they breathe vitality and substance into each and every day. 
When I get up in the morning, I have the opportunity to proactively grab my day and guide it in a meaningful direction. No matter what I do for a living, I can find meaning in the things that I do and the results I accomplish (starting from the meaningful objective of supporting my family and community). 
I'm not trapped in an impervious flow of time. I can impact my time, making it special, steering it toward a purposeful existence. 
Shabbat is very helpful in this effort. In many respects, Shabbat is a spa for the soul. It's a time to stand back and soak in who I am, and why I do what I do. With proper perspective, I can better guide my life toward an objective. I can bring meaningful closure to the previous week's events; I can also gather the inspiration I'll need to infuse soul into my upcoming week. 
Even during the week, I have times for prayer, which are like 'mini-Shabbats'. When I pray, I search myself and my particular situation to find a substantive purpose. Once I have my bearings, I am better equipped to be the sparkplug of my day.
G-d gives us life, but it's up to us to truly LIVE it.

Shabbat Shalom

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