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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Just because

Think before you act.
I think that’s a good principle for life; it’s one I teach to my kids.
But it doesn’t always apply.
When I awake at night to the sound of my baby crying in feverish pain, do I pause for calculations? Do I weigh my options, balancing the inconvenient awakening with the distinct possibility that I may need this kid when I’m a geriatric?
Nah. I just jump out of bed. Why? Just because.
Because I share a special relationship with my baby, a deep connection that defies description. When he calls, that extraordinary bond beckons, and I need to respond. So I jump out of bed, sans intellectual analysis.
Just because.
Is it rational? Not really. But it's not irrational either. Let's call it super-rational.
I rationally understand that this relationship has tremendous depth. My intellectual analysis confirms that this is a safe and intimate connection. When I genuinely feel safe in a relationship, when I can truly let my guard down, I can confidently move upward into the transcendent world of super-rationality, love etc.
The same applies to my marriage, and – perhaps in differing degrees - to any other deep, safe relationship.
I feel that way with G-d, too.
When I contemplate a Jewish practice, I want to understand its contribution to my life and my destiny; I want to appreciate how it elevates my consciousness and/or improves my day.
But that understanding and appreciation isn’t an absolute prerequisite. I feel safe enough with G d, confident enough in the rock-solid stability of our relationship, to do a Mitzvah ‘just because’.
Actually, doing something for a loved one ‘just because’ (super-rationally as distinct from irrationally) adds a special flavor to the recipe of our relationship. It says ‘I trust you’. It says ‘I love you’.
Doing something for G-d ‘just because’ lays an extraordinary element to the bond we share. It says ‘I’m yours’ and ‘I surrender’.
So even when I can find personal benefit in my interaction with a loved one, I should always try to find a shining ‘just because’ at its core. Because commitment without a ‘just because’ is commitment of my mind and actions, but not commitment of my soul. For some relationships that’s enough, and for some relationships it isn’t.
Why not? Just because.

The Wonder of What We Have

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 my demeanor be that of a loyal chauffer with other things on my mind? Or that of a parent who once stood in awe of a new life, and is now appreciative of an opportunity to honor the relationship?
It’s fair to say that the answer is between me and my loved one. But make no mistake; we’ll both know the truth. When a person has a spring in his step, a quickened pulse, a sense of wonder and 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. Now measure your IMAGINED interaction against that image, and decide how you want to guide the ACTUAL. 
Let's also take this concept to Jewish identity: 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?
Now think of the message I send to my children in this regard. When they see me practicing my Judaism, 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?
Enough questions. Here’s the bottom line: It’s human nature to lose our sense of wonder as we become accustomed to something. Even if that something is outstanding, we'll eventually take it for granted once the excitement settles, if we just follow human nature. 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. 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.
I believe that my writing at this moment, a small attempt to brighten the world in my own way, is part of my destiny. That makes it cosmic. And I’d believe the same if I were a dentist bent over a chair or a lawyer representing a client. If my actions are contributing to making this a better world, if they're consistent with a Torah attitude to life, then I'm doing something monumental. Absolutely monumental. I, the dentist, the attorney - you - just need to feel it.

Can you feel that? Then let it show.  

Shabbat Shalom


The Pit or the Well

Ever feel like you're 'running on empty'?

Some days, we feel like we have what it takes. We're in the right mental place; we've got the enthusiasm and wisdom to deal with the things that come our way. We’re in the right ‘zone’.

Other days it feels like we're at a dead end, mentally and emotionally exhausted. We don't have the inner strength or insight to get over the hump.

What to do?

Here's a thought: The Torah refers to each of us as a 'well', as in 'a natural source of water'. Now, what's the difference between a pit and a well?

One is just an abyss, yielding nothing but emptiness. The other is also a hole in the ground; but beneath that apparently desolate bottom lays a reservoir of water, the source of life.

A pit is lifeless, with no hope for growth and vitality. A well may look like a pit, but it actually has a hidden treasure waiting to burst forth. One just needs to dig deeper.

The 'running on empty' feeling is part of life; it's a struggle we all face from time to time. But in Chassidic thought, the struggle is what yields the greatest reward. When I face an obstacle, that problem is actually beckoning, calling out and saying "'conquer me". And when I face that challenge, I need to know that engaging my difficulties is my soul’s greatest exercise. This is my destiny.

So, the Torah, by calling me a well, gives me important encouragement. When I'm feeling empty, alienated and disconnected, when I feel like I'm at bottom, my 'well' self-image gives me the strength to dig just a little deeper.

And when I do, I'll hopefully access that special geyser of hope, strength, inspiration and wisdom that I carry with me. Just beneath the bottom.

Shabbat Shalom

Timeless Time

Everybody struggles with time. Maybe we're rushing to make an appointment, or wondering why the clock seems to move so slowly. But time is an ever-present, and often frustrating, part of life.

So let's take a fresh look at time. Imagine that we can control time.

Because we can.

Time doesn't have to be a neutral backdrop to my life. I can actively grab hold of my time, and make it meaningful. When I consciously use my time to make my world a better (read: holier, more sensitive, etc.) place, I take a moment, and make it cosmic. I make my time into something timeless.

Think of it this way (somewhat paraphrasing a thought of Victor Frankl’s): One type of person looks at life as a wall calendar. He sadly observes that his calendar, from which he tears a sheet every day, grows thinner and thinner. That person sees himself as a victim of time.

Now consider a person who actively engages his time, seeing each new day as a fresh opportunity for meaningful living. He, as he removes each successive leaf from his calendar, can then use it to record that day's meaningful activities. If he puts those pages into a folder each day, he has a successively growing record of his meaningful life.

That's taking control of your time.

When the Jews left Egypt, on their way to Sinai, they were granted their first Mitzvah. It was to create a calendar. But it wasn’t just about the organizing system. It was about the freedom that comes with controlling one’s time.

We all live in a world which has an incessant flow of time, but we have the freedom to create diamonds out of every moment.

In transcending our personal ‘Egypt’, in finding freedom to guide life instead of succumbing to it, this perspective is liberating.

It’s about finding the Infinite within the finite. And that’s what life – and genuine freedom – are all about.

Shabbat Shalom

Getting By or Getting Better?

We all make mistakes. And sometimes others get hurt in the process.
When I accidentally step on someone's toe, I've caused discomfort to an other. Conceptually, that happens pretty often.
My response? I apologize. And then I move on with my life.
It's a very common phenomenon: We discomfit or embarrass someone, defuse the situation by expressing regret, and then continue unscathed down life's path.
Do we grow from the episode? Do I take the time to analyze why I was so careless as to step on someone's toe? Do I process and internalize so that I'm more sensitive to my surroundings next time? Too often, the answer is no. 
If I'm apologizing so as to navigate an awkward moment, or because I was caught doing something wrong, then the apology is externally generated and is unlikely to cause internal change.
It's only when I'm personally chagrined by my behavior, when I'm rattled internally, that growth can begin.
When the Jews were in Egypt, Moses kept begging Pharaoh to "let my people go". When he didn’t listen, G-d directed calamities to afflict Egypt, to help ‘convince’ Pharaoh to let the Jews leave. 

Yet, the Torah tells us that G-d "hardened Pharaoh's heart" so that he obstinately refused.

Why? If G-d was trying to force Pharaoh's capitulation, why get in the way by hardening his heart?
Actually, G-d had our point in mind.
G-d didn't obstruct genuine remorse on Pharaoh's part. He just didn't want a shallow, forced apology. G-d didn't want Pharaoh to recant his ways in order to stop the pain; that would be an easy - in fact, deceptive - way out.  G-d didn't allow for that, because G-d wants authentic self-reflection, genuine internal change. 

So G-d ‘hardened’ Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh never genuinely regretted his actions; G-d made sure he didn’t do it falsely either.
The same applies to our own, personal 'Egypt', our individual life-ruts: Superficial apologies are good for 'getting-by'; but they stand in the way of 'getting-better'.
So, which is the objective: 'getting-by' or 'getting-better'? It's our choice.

 Shabbat Shalom

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