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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

We Are The Flames

Flames have a special place in Judaism.
Consider the Shabbat candles which we light every Friday evening.
They represent a powerful dynamic:
On Shabbat, we stand back from the grindstone, disengaging from life's tasks to focus on life's context, meaning and goals.
On Shabbat, I take an aerial view of my life, rising above my splintered weekday-persona to consider my more wholesome potential.
In this sense, the Shabbat lights grant me illumination and perspective; they allow me to see where I've been stumbling and which paths I need to pursue.
So this coming Friday evening, I'll try to rise above my personal stress and struggles; I'll guide the Shabbat lights' glow inward, searching for a part of myself that isn't defined by the pain, a piece of me that is whole, an internal place of faith and confidence in the future.
That's the Shabbat experience.
But this Sunday evening, I'll be lighting a different type of flame: The Chanukah Flame.
Whereas the Shabbat candles foster personal/familial balance and peace, the Chanukah candles are outwardly focused.
The Talmud describes the Chanukah candles as tools to 'illuminate the outside'. The flames need to transform the external darkness, bringing warmth and illumination to an otherwise dark place.
Finding our personal sense of wholeness, faith and confidence, isn't enough. Chanukah instructs us to share it with others, to illuminate the 'night' outside our four walls and beyond our respective driveways.
At this moment, the world is experiencing a 'perfect storm' of economic misfortune. Beyond the measurable damage in dollars and cents, there is an accompanying fear and uncertainty which casts a paralyzing shadow.
It's dark. And the future isn't yet looking brighter.
The world needs a candle, a stabilizing beacon of light.
That candle is us.
If we can share hope for the future, we will have brightened lives. If we can lend mental clarity to distinguish between rational and irrational concerns, we will have illuminated hearts.
If we can inspire faith and trust in the Divine Parent who loves us all, we will have provided warmth to a cold spirit.
We will have touched the flame of our souls to ignite another's wick.
We will have lived the Chanukah message.

The Oasis

The Shema is probably Judaism’s best known prayer. Recited twice daily, its opening verse proclaims G-d’s Oneness – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” The subsequent verses tell us to take this message and make it central to our lives - teach it to our children, speak about it publicly, hang it on our doorposts (the Mezuzah), etc.

Now, I would think that G-d’s existence, and the idea of responsibility to something higher than myself, is the most important doctrine I would need to consistently retain. Why this emphasis on numbers (One G-d as opposed to many)? Important as it is, why do we need to constantly reinforce the Oneness doctrine?

The answer is that we’re not just proclaiming one Deity as opposed to several. That idea only scratches the surface.

The Shema is actually proclaiming that our topsy-turvy world, our complex lives, the disjointed and sometimes fractured reality we see, are all part of G-d’s Oneness. My health, my kids’ soccer game, my boss’s attitude and my 401k are all part of the Divine harmony. Scattered as my life may seem, everything can and should fit into my journey toward a life of meaning. There can be Oneness to my life.

I think of it this way: Each of my life’s facets is a distinct pearl. When I consciously infuse these ‘pearls’ with vision and purpose, I am stringing them together with a strand of Holiness. My life is now a beautiful necklace.

This helps explain why we traditionally cover our eyes when reciting the Shema.

My physical eyes, my natural instinct, show me a world of pain and fracture. Where’s the Oneness?

So I cover my eyes, because I need to see with my soul. I need to envision a world created by One G-d, with One purpose and with an inherent Oneness waiting to be discovered.

Now I can see a Shema world.

This concept gives me a clear compass, a safe haven, and an energizing motivator in a confusing, insecure and [sometimes downright] depressing world.

Important as this concept always is, it has special relevance in this period of time.

This coming Tuesday, 12/16 on the secular calendar, will be the 19th of Kislev, a day celebrated as the ‘Rosh Hashana for Chabad Chassidic Thought/Life”.

To me, Chabad theology is one large ‘Shema’, finding unity and connectedness within all parts of the Torah and life itself. Chabad thought allows my mind to hover above reality, so that I can see the forest for the tress.

What an oasis in a rocky world.

Thanks, Chabad Rebbes.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart.

In the Wake of Mumbai

The funerals are over and the bodies are buried, but I’m still thinking about the Mumbai Massacre.

So many innocents mercilessly slaughtered, so many families irreparably devastated. I know that there were close to 200 people murdered. But the numbers themselves don’t really allow me to grasp the catastrophe; they over-simplify the horror, coalescing to blur the tragedy’s enormity.

Each of these victims had individual loves and aspirations, each was a loss that shattered others’ hearts into a million pieces.

Can you process that?

Now do it another 200 times.

I actually can’t do it; the exercise boggles my mind and overloads my emotional circuits. But, one way or another, we need to digest the pain if we are to taste empathy.

Personally, my portal into this emotional inferno begins with Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg, the Chabad team who settled in Mumbai to create a Jewish oasis for locals and tourists. They are (conceptually speaking) my family, my brother and sister, who were brutally slaughtered.

It hurts more than I could have imagined.

And I need to broaden that heartache to empathize with the victims I never knew.

But then I need to put my angst to work. Pain packs a punch, and it has an intensity that’s waiting to be channeled.

We can and must - harness this energy to propel our lives forward.

Here’s a brief thought:

In Mumbai, we saw the tragic intersection of 12 young people. Two were devoted to bettering people’s lives. Ten were bent on destroying them.

Why the difference?

They simply had starkly different worldviews.

One saw potential friends; the other potential enemies.

Two poles of the humanly possible, within me and you.

The accounts of selfless kindness exhibited by Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg are inspiring. They may sound otherworldly, but they’re not.

These weren’t human beings from another race. They were like me and you.

But they devoted their lives to tapping the beauty that can be found in the human spirit.

They were a testament to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who encouraged us each to find the Holiness we each carry within our souls.

If we’ve learned anything from Gabi and Rivkah, let it be this.

We are all selfless, superior human beings just waiting to happen.

We only need to actualize ourselves, one day at a time.

In the spirit of Mumbai.


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