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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Yes, It’s Personal

I like to read. I want to be aware. I want to gather information. Then I want to move on. I don’t need to open my heart to everything I read. But when studying the Torah, that approach doesn't do the trick. From a Chassidic perspective, I haven't really grasped a given Torah concept until I've found MYSELF in the narrative. In other words: I may understand the minutiae of a specific law, lesson or historical event being described, but I don't really 'get it' until I relate to it personally. Once I personally plug in to the Torah, once it is the tale of my life and once I am part of its rhythm, only then I have begun to digest the Torah in a real way. 
For example, take the famous episode of our enslavement in, and subsequent liberation from, Egypt. Are the historical facts important? Absolutely. But there's so much more. The Exodus story is MY story, and YOURS.
You see, Egypt represents limitations and impediments (its Hebrew name is related to the word for 'constrictions). Egypt represents my inability to apologize, my fear of failure, my fear of change. Egypt is my personal trap...and yours. So, Egypt is more than a geographical place, it is a condition; perhaps a state of mind.
And leaving Egypt means transcending my impediment to growth, getting past my fears and emotional blockages. Leaving Egypt means my personal liberation, and realizing a new level of 'me'. 
And like the original Egyptian Exodus, I'm not alone. G-d helps me with my growth.
But I need to take the first step. First, I need to recognize my Egypt, and I need to GENUINELY desire change.
It isn't easy... but it's worth it. 

It's a wonderful life

We all want to live. During the High Holidays we talk of being 'inscribed in the Book of Life', at festive occasions we say 'L'chaim!' - meaning 'To life!' Chai ('life') jewelry and 'tchochkes' are big Judaica items.
So life seems to be a good thing; we're looking forward to 'life'.
But what is life, and what is living? To take an extreme example, was a Gestapo officer truly alive, irrespective of his cardiac and pulmonary activity? Can we say that Osama is alive, just because he's not yet biologically dead? Or is living something deeper, more substantive, more transcendent?
In Jewish thought, connectedness is what allows for life. Just as the heart pumps blood which carries oxygen to the body's various limbs, so too does our collective Heart, G-d, provide the spiritual life force to enliven all of creation.
We're like one big body, and each of us is a limb. Just as with a limb, disconnectedness from the collective organism, or from the heart, is disconnectedness from Life itself.

In real terms, this means that alienation from the whole, a sense of 'it's all about me', disconnects one from the flow of life’.
When my actions are connected with meaning, with a higher purpose and with consideration for others, spiritual ‘blood’ courses through them. I am alive.
Each day, each moment, we can choose Life.
Be conscious. Choose wisely.
L'chaim!

The Launch

We all have inspiring thoughts from time to time. Every once in a while, our brains will flash a mental snapshot of who we can/should be, or we'll resolve to live more meaningful lives. I obviously don't live in other people's heads, but I believe that these occasional glimpses of moral clarity are part and parcel of the human experience.
Now we need to ask ourselves: What happens with these positive impulses? Are they figurative 'flashes in the pan'? Or do they yield substantive results, transforming one's conduct and attitude? Assuming that we want to translate these thoughts into concrete change, the next question is: How?One important technique is to avoid quick, broad changes. If I'm driving down the highway, and suddenly recognize that I should be spending more quality time with my child, I shouldn't just make a sweeping resolution to become a different person. That's a bit too open-ended, and thus unrealistic.
Over-the-top isn't an effective strategy.
Here's a better way: When that figurative 'light bulb' goes off in my head, I can resolve to act differently today, or maybe even this entire week. I should concentrate on a limited, manageable chunk of time into which I can sink my teeth. It's a realistic goal; and I can renew my pledge as the time expires.
So, incremental growth is healthy growth. That's a message of the Chanukah candles: First, we bring the light of one candle to the world. Then, a second. And so on.
But what now? Today is the eighth day of Chanukah. Tomorrow there are no more Chanukah candles. The Menorahs and dreidels are packed away.
But it can't end here. This is just the launch.
Now we need to take Chanukah's inspiration and elevate our lives throughout the year.
Our conceptual Chanukah lights need to keep burning, even after the Menorah is packed away. Hmmm. Lights burning beyond their normal capacity. I guess that'll be our own personal 'Miracle of the Oil'.

Upward Mobility

A beautiful thing about Jewish life is our constant flow of events and exercises. Each Mitzvah, every holiday, beckons us further along our personal road of self-actualization; and each elevates our conciousness in some manner or form.

Sounds empowering. But, in a way, it also sounds tiring. Why can't we just leave well enough alone? You know: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Or "be satisfied with what you have".

In truth, I DO need to find satisfaction with my present situation when it comes to my car, clothing, house etc.

But my life's moral/spiritual journey is different. That's all about progress.

Just standing still on life's road is actually regressing. In the words of the Talmud: "One who doesn't INcrease, DEcreases".

Why? Because living a value-based life means being on the edge, constantly watching for the opportunities and challenges that arise. I need to always be searching, looking for ways to reach my potential.

I should generally be comfortable with who I am, but I should never abandon the vision of who I can become.

I need to keep growing, because self-satisfaction leads to complacency, and moral-growth paralysis. It's the feeling of "If I'm good enough, why grow?"

So Chanukah teaches us an important life-lesson. Even though we lit x candles yesterday, we need to burn even brighter today.

Because life is about growth, and about consistently increasing the light we bring to the world. Sounds a bit daunting. But I guess that's the price of a meaningful life.

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