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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Shabbat Shalom

In this week's Torah portion, Moses tells the Jewish people to follow the Torah and live proper lives. Aside from the obvious need to follow G-d's Will, this conduct would bring an additional benefit: The nations of the world would sense that the Jews are connected to G-d, and respect them (Deut. 28:10 "...then all the people of the world will see that G-d's name is proclaimed over you and respect you". ) Seems like an easily understood, inspiring lesson: Do the right thing and you'll have an easier time navigating life.

But the Talmud puts a curious spin on this idea; it teaches that this verse specifically "refers to the Tefillin [on] the head (Tefillin - usually translated as phylacteries - are prayer accoutrements. Black boxes containing scrolls are strapped to one's forearm and head)". Out of all the Mitzvos we keep, it's specifically the Tefillin which trigger a reality in which the world respects our way of life. Why?

One important point concerns the scrolls inside the Tefillin boxes. Those parchments contain the famous Shema prayer, which proclaims G-d's Oneness. When the Torah makes such a 'big deal' of Oneness, it isn't simply precluding a second God; it is establishing a belief system.

In a Torah system, everything in life can fit into a meaningful paradigm. Nothing in life - business, food, pleasure etc. - need be outside the rubric of meaning. Meaning isn't restricted to 'holy moments' of introspection or altruism.

When we engage the world properly, as G-d wishes for it to be engaged, our 'normal' lives can be truly substantive. We can follow a meaningful thread throughout our entire [seemingly] mundane day. The day - with all its hectic variables - can have One theme: Meaning.

That's a Shema message, and thus a Tefillin message.

But the Talmud goes one step deeper. When referring to the Tefillin in this context, the Talmud calls them the 'Tefillin IN (as opposed to 'on') the head".

What could that mean?

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, whose resting place I visited last week, gave an interesting interpetation.

He said that Tefillin, with its Mitzvah-sanctity and message of Oneness, is holy in its own right. But it's only when the message is INTERNALIZED, 'in' the head, that the effect is maximized to the extent that the Torah forecasts.

When we proclaim Oneness, that's important. But when we truly integrate Oneness into our lives, living a wholesome 'Oneness' life, the world can't help but notice - and respect.

Shabbat Shalom

Mendy

It's all about life

Over the past week, this blog has been pretty intense. There has been nice feedback, a lot of it in private e-mails (c'mon guys, it's a collective conversation!), but it's been heavy on the spirituality side. I love it, but I don't want to get trapped in that sublime 'rut'. It's about translation into real life. So I'd like to open that angle. Not to negate the former, but to bring it to REAL life.

It's like prayer, which is certainly a spiritual exercise, but needs to find expression in how we live our 'normal' lives at home, work etc. 

IOW, my life isn't about retreat to Russia, it's about interacting with my family, with you, with the checkout clerk in Pathmark. All of that needs to be guided by a moral framework, which I call G-d and the Torah, but the bottom line is 'Am I living a meaningful life?'.

My trip to Russia was like a long, refreshing prayer session. I'll only know that it was truly meaningful when (if?) I see it guiding my 'normal' conduct in a more wholesome direction.

We're approaching Rosh Hashana, when a lot more people come to services. May I ask what we're looking for?

Russia/Ukraine Journal #3

Tuesday morning back in BR. Great to be home; deeply grateful to have taken my trip.
 
The last time I wrote was Friday, so here's a brief account on what transpired since.
 
We spent our first few days in Ukraine. Then we traveled to Rostov in Russia. 18 years ago, crossing from Ukraine to Russia was no big deal, similar to crossing state lines over here. Now, the border control has gotten so difficult  - we literally had to walk across a significant distance dragging our suitcases - it was comical. I never saw Borat, but I've gotta believe this was straight out of there.
Rostov is a lower middle class city which has notable historic significance in Chabad.
In brief: The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 uprooted the Chabad community from its century-old centers - most notably the town of Lubavitch in White Russia - pushing them into temporarily safer zones. One of them was Rostov.
Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (the Rebbe, after whom we've named our baby), his family and a group of disciples settled in Rostov. A multi-dwelling building was procured for the Rebbe and some families, and that became the center of Chabad life.
Meanwhile, plans were made to re-locate to Turkey, in search of (relative) religious freedom. But the Bolsheviks arrived in early 1920, making movement impossible, and Jewish-life very difficult.
The Rebbe passed away soon after (just before Pesach in 1920), leaving his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (our Rebbe's father-in-law, who passed away in NY in 1950 and is buried immediately adjacent to the Rebbe here in Queens) as the Rebbe. I grew up, and still try to grow, with stories of their self-sacrifice at that time. Their commitment to Judaism was unwavering, flowing from a firm belief that the Bolsheviks only had control of their bodies, which they could torture and oppress, but that their souls were transcendent and beyond any oppressor's reach. With that as a sincere perspective, they had the ability to stare danger in the face without flinching from their ideals.
Several years ago, Chabad (Rabbi YY Aharonov, director of Chabad in Israel) was able to regain control of that multi-plex. It is now a Chabad synagogue and school. The school is off for the summer, so we only had a small group for Shabbos.
But it was awesome. Immersing myself in Rabbi SB's mikveh, praying in his study - feet from where he passed away (stories in themselves), reading the Torah for the minyan in that powerful place (part of that reading being "Look down from your Holy Abode in the Heavens and bless your people Israel") was very moving for me. This is an experience I can't relegate to my personal history; it needs to inform, inspire and guide my present and future.
More about Rostov. But not for this installment.
Sunday we spent in the town of Lubavitch, which in a tiny hamlet, but served as Chabad's center for 102 years. Amazing history, which gave greater context to my relationship of learning from the Rebbe. If the Rebbe is (metaphorically) the faucet watering my psycho-spiritual garden, then was visitng - and connecting with - the various stages of water-source and 'piping'.
So it was an amazing re-connect with deep principles: A desire to truly connect with G-d and humanity, genuine respect for others - including a willingness to (truly)inconvenience one's self to help another - , control of one's own base impulses, the struggle to maintain a higher-level consciousness of destiny, values and objectives.
Truly good to be back, but I hope to have a soul extension-cord which is still plugged in there, through the Rebbe who is here.

Ukraine Journal #2

It's Thursday night, five minutes to midnight in Rostov, Russia.
We arrived here Tuesday morning, so I've had three special days. I think they've been successful, but the jury is still out on that. Because success can only be gauged if there's an objective and benchmarks.
My objective in coming to Russia was in re-connecting with special places, sacred spaces, which reflect my core identity.
That sounds pretty vague, so let me put it this way:
I'm born American, and proud of it. But Chassidism in general, and specifically Chabad Chassidism, have their roots in Ukraine and Russia. In the past few days I have visited (in the Ukrainian hamlet of Mezhibuzh) the synagogue and resting place of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. I have visited (in the little town of Haditch) the gravesite of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. And quite a few others.
Yes, I've visited a bunch of graves.
I've also visited places with timeless energy. You see, we bury bodies, we don't bury souls. By visiting these gravesites, I have the opportunity to achieve a greater connection with these greats and their values.  
In a way, I'm coming face to face with my very identity. Chabad Chassidic thought isn't just a philosophy to which I happen to subscribe, it's my very identity and they lens through I [hope to consistently] view the world.
If I can connect with the spiritual giants who blazed a path for people to achieve genuine connection with self, humanity and with the Divine, than I'm more alive than ever.
I hope to write again before Shabbos,
 
Mendy
 
 

Ukraine Journal

It's Wednesday morning here, 25 hours after our arrival (my friend Yossi Sterberg and myself).

I'm here on a spiritual pilgrimage, but the first thing which strikes me is the change in Kiev since I was here under communism almost 18 yrs ago.

It seems a bustling Western-style city. Vibrant. Manhattan-like.Flashy cars (I don't think I saw a single un-cracked windshield last time) Three large orthodox shuls, kosher etc.

The countryside still seems the same though.

Cows walking streets, lots of bikes, some horse-wagons on the roads.Hovels as homes. But one thing struck me.

We were driving down a small road in Haditch, a tiny village, and I saw a classic sight: three gnarled, weatherbeaten, kercheifed Ukrainian women are sitting in the shade, with hens, roosters and a calf at their feet, leaning against a decrepit picket fence in front of their tiny homes. Relaxing in this simple haven from the world.

As I pause to take in the sight, my eye follows the fence upward to its top - where the satellite dish is proudly perched.

Mendy

Think I'm getting the hang of this.

We had a pretty raucos Sunday morning discussion group today. True to form. 

We should probably pay Ken to attend.

Won't be around next Sunday, though. I'm leaving tomorrow to Russia for a week. I'll be turning 40 on Tuesday, G-d willing, so Malkie and I decided that a trip to Russia - Chabad's birthplace and home to some spiritually 'high-voltage' places - would be a great idea.

I'll be in touch from there, though. Technology's a wonderful thing.

Mendy

 

Thanks Laura,

I'm new to blogging, but I believe it's an online conversation - with myself and others.

So, even though posting Torah thoughts is a nice idea (the one Friday was my weekly, e-mailed Torah blurb), it's more about DIALOGUE.

People have been suggesting this for a quite a while, so I hope we can collectively make this a meaningful place to blog.

A good number of people picked up the mistake in my bio (wrong number of kids!), so I know you're out there.

Let's blog!

 

Mendy

 

This week, we entered the Jewish month of Elul, the month immediately preceding the High Holiday season. Each Elul, I’m reminded of, and moved by, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s (the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away in 1950) recollections of his youth in the town of Lubavitch in White Russia (Belarus). Rabbi Schneerson was a diarist, and he poignantly describes Elul in Lubavitch. There was an introspective smell in the air, he writes, an ambience of self-improvement. In fact, the young Yosef Yitzchak sensed a ‘self-betterment wind blowing’ through the trees. What does this mean in practical terms?

I think of it this way. If we observe ourselves and our judgments, we can all recognize that our emotional stance influences our cognitive one. For example, in this Shabbat’s Torah (Shoftim) portion, judges are warned against taking bribes for “a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise”. If a fellow is taking bribes, how can he be called wise? He’s an amoral thief, no matter how high his IQ!

The Torah is telling us that a person can be moral and cognitively sound, ‘wise’, and still be blinded by his subconscious emotional posture. The Torah isn’t talking about greedy villains who knowingly pervert 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 can not be objective; his cognition is impaired.

The Torah is teaching this to the righteous – the wise - among us, to illustrate the power of emotional availability.

I think that the same principle applies to Elul. We can all say we want to be better. We can even mean it. But are we there internally? Is our emotional posture ready for that? 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 ambience grants us rare emotional availability, which positions us for real change. We’re poised in the right direction; real change can happen. We just need to take the step.

Rabbi Mendy Herson

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