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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Beauty Can Be Beautiful

Vanity table, vanity bench, makeup vanity…

 I just Googled these items and found that they are a normative part of home furnishings.

Interesting. The dictionary defines vanity as shallow, excessive attention to beauty. So, we now have ostentation and self-admiration enshrined in the home with standardized accoutrements.

 It’s an equation that comes straight from your local home-furnishings outlet. Beauty-related furniture=Vanity.

 Living in a Hollywood culture, I can understand this attachment of the ‘vanity’ label. We instinctively associate the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of movie-star glamour. So we denigrate it as vanity.

 But is that what beauty is? Could there conceivably be a place for beauty in a refined, holy life? Of course there is.

 It’s all in the attitude. The operative question is: Why do we want beauty?

 Is beauty an end in itself or is it a helpful aid to a meaningful end?

 Proverbs tells us that “Grace is false and beauty is vain”, but “respect for the Divine… should be praised”.

 Beauty is false and vain when it is detached from a meaningful context, but if beauty helps us in the quest for meaning, that’s great.

 Does one want to turn heads on the street (with a beautiful image) or impress friends (with a beautiful home)? That’s beauty with no substantive purpose.

 Or does ‘looking good’ help the speaker’s meaningful message to be heard, and one’s beautiful Shabbat table help create a serene and dignified ambience? That is beauty which supports a real purpose.

 Both want beauty; but they’re worlds apart.

 The Talmud teaches “Which is the right path for a person to choose? That which is beautiful to himself and beautiful to others”.

 Beauty brings pleasant feelings to the mind. I should be doing good things; and good things should create a pleasant feeling within me. If my positive actions are done with proper regard to those around me, then others should also feel pleasant vibes.

 So my conduct should be beautiful. Now if I can give it a physically beautiful setting, that setting will be beauty with a purpose. How beautiful.

Anatomy of a Mistake

Mistake. Failure. The words make me shudder. Or at least they used to.

 Why? Because I strive for success and achievement.

 Failure is not an option.

 Except when it happens.

 And what then? How do I deal with my mistakes and failures? I’d like to divert my attention, because they’re painful to think about. On the other hand, I shouldn’t live in denial. Should I just bite my lip and move on, hoping that tomorrow will bring back-to-back successes?

 In Torah thought, mistakes and failures are an important part of life. We don’t look for them, but they have a way of finding us. They also, paradoxically, have a dividend for us; it’s called the gift of growth.

 When I err - in a relationship, in comprehension, in my finances, etc. – and I face my blunder, it hurts. I’m hit squarely between the eyes, and the pain can easily become an energy-sapping, paralyzing force.

 But that would be a shame, and it would miss the whole point of missteps and mistakes. It’s not about wallowing in self-pity. It’s about growth. I need to embrace my internal angst and disappointment, and convert that energy into a catalyst for positive action. With my mistake, I’ve learned a lesson for the future.

 Facing my blunder, and analyzing it without fear also bring me new insights about myself and my attitudes. It helps me break new ground in self-awareness. How did I get here, and how could this happen?

My slip-up gives me a better connection with the concept at hand. Until I’ve made a mistake in my handling/understanding of a given concept, the concept and I are ‘mere acquaintances’. When I goof, and consequently take a more mature and committed attitude to the subject matter, we’ve just become more intimate. When a rope is torn it takes a double knot to repair; now, my renewed relationship has a psychological ‘double-knot’.

 So there are three levels to my 'mistake-growth':

  1. I learn a lesson for my future conduct, when I recognize HOW I went wrong..
  2. I learn more about myself, when I analyze WHY I went wrong.
  3. I become closer to the subject matter, since I’ve revisited and renewed my commitment.

 So (as long as I’m consciously guiding my life), my mistakes are just a different way of growing. Nothing to shudder about. That would be a mistake.





We all know how it can be flash-in-the-pan. Think of new year’s resolutions, diets, etc. We mean well, but it doesn’t always translate into transformative living.
Shallow behavior.
We all know it. Think of when we say or do something perfunctorily, without thinking/feeling the corresponding sentiment.  
Inspiration that doesn’t translate into real action is like a soul without a body. Action without genuine intent is like a body without a soul.
If I live a life sprinkled with intangible, not-yet-materialized inspiration, I’ve lived a life with sparks but no fire.
If I live a life of positive behavior with no inspiration, then my life is a diamond, but it reflects no brilliance.
Each – inspiration and positive behavior - is a good thing; each needs the other in order to reach fulfillment. So how do we bring these two together? How do we bring integrity to life?
We need consciousness. When I feel an inspiring thought, when the warmth of meaning hits me, I can’t just pat myself on the back for having good thoughts. I must immediately recognize the need to anchor my inspiration in concrete life.
When I’m exercising a behavior, I need to watch myself. Is this genuine? Do I feel what I’m doing?
So, a higher ‘Me’ needs to guide my instinctive ‘me’ to a life of integrity.
What is that higher ‘me’? What deeper consciousness can help me integrate my inspiration and my actions? What higher sense can help guide me toward more focused behavior?
In Jewish spirituality we call this higher sense: Wisdom (‘Chochmah’ in Hebrew). Wisdom is Vision. It’s a guiding awareness of who we need to be. It’s a deeply rooted compass that is honed by life’s experiences and struggles; after all, the pain of shallow living often calls our attention to the deep need for something meaningful.
Wisdom is called the soul’s ‘oil’; it is the ‘fuel’ for meaningful living. Just as an olive yields its oil through a painful squeeze, our souls produce the Wisdom of life through challenge and pain. Our Oil/Wisdom takes a spark of inspiration and fuels it as a steady flame. Our Oil/Wisdom permeates our actions, so that they are no longer separate from our soul-awareness.
Our Oil/Wisdom allows us to take our spark of inspiration, and our wick of action, and light up our lives, for real.

Of Home and Heart

“Home is where the heart is”. It’s a great quote; but what does it really mean?
Well, what is a home? Obviously, it’s not just a structure for habitation. ‘Home’ is not just a house. Home is a special place.
Home is where I belong, without any whys or wherefores. No particular reasons, responsibilities or needs bring me there. It’s simply my place. I never feel like a guest, or like I don’t belong, because I’m at home.
At home, I am who I am, with no need to hide behind my protective psychological shields. I feel safe acknowledging and facing my flaws, because my home genuinely supports me.
At home, it’s not what I do, but who I am.  I am perceived – by myself and others – in my entirety.
Home is a place of emotional and psychological security, a place where I operate with my fullest sense of being.
So when Gaius coined the idiom “Home is where the Heart is”, he meant that my home isn’t merely my physical abode. Home is wherever I’m made to feel genuinely secure. I’m at home where people truly feel that I belong; it’s where the heart is.
Following that line: When I make someone else feel entirely welcome and wholly embraced, I am creating a home for them. A home for their heart, within my own.
That’s the bottom line of creating a home.
That’s the bottom line of Torah life, too. Throughout our history, Torah has been our treasured guide toward a purposeful life.
Just as I make total space for someone special, making them at home in my life and heart, I need to create similar space for the Torah, space for my Destiny and Purpose… for G-d.
How do I create a Home for G-d? When I do something meaningful, when I consider my destiny before acting, when I spend a few moments in prayer and contemplation, I am welcoming G-d into my life. Eventually, that mindset becomes my standard operating mode, and G-d is at home within me.

Bottom line: G-d’s home is where my heart can be.

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