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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Hillel Principle

I meet and interact with lots of people. I value these people and want to treat them fairly, with consideration for their needs and feelings.

But, in truth, how can I? Close friends and family aside, how can I really know the needs, feelings and expectations of so many people? Is that realistic?

Hillel, a 1st century Sage, had an answer, and he summed it up with a practical equation - a Principle for Proper Living:

"What is hateful to you, don't do to others".

This aphorism sends profound messages:

1. The road to harmonious relations begins with your own self-awareness. Become conscious of what hurts you. Then stop doing it.

2. Hillel didn't say 'dislike'; he said 'hate'. We're not talking about mild irritants, so if you don't like coffee, you can/should still offer it to your guests. Rather, consider the things which cause you hurt; think of how it feels to be judged, maligned, disrespected etc. Taste your revulsion; now remember that the other guy has feelings too.

3. Hillel didn't say: "Go out there and save the world". His words are more like "First do no harm".

So go ahead and be a hero, but first - and more importantly - make sure no one's getting hurt.

4. Hillel framed his advice as a passive 'don't do', rather than an active 'do unto others'.

This allows for Hillel's words to serve as practical advice for real life.

Meaning: Personally, I like to have my requests granted. Does that automatically obligate me to grant every request that comes my way?

Obviously not.

That’s impractical and leaves no room for my judgment.

So how should I behave when considering a request?

I should refrain from behavior that I dislike; I shouldn't act condescendingly, disrespectfully, capriciously etc.

I'm an adult, and I don't expect my every wish to be honored. Neither should you. But there's no need to disrespect me. And that applies to you too.

Hillel encapsulated many Mitzvos in this brilliant Principle. 

It's easy to remember.

It's more difficult than it sounds.

It's more rewarding than we can imagine.

 

 

In Search of........the Better Me

Tonight, we enter the Omer's second week (please see Torah thought of 4/17 for a brief explanation of the Omer).

The Omer is an analysis of our emotional 'tools'. I, My higher Self, am not the tools; I am the User.

I am not my behavior. But my Higher 'I' - my 'internal traffic-controller' - needs to consistently monitor my behavior and keep it aligned with my principles.

This week, we explore the psycho-spiritual energy: 'Gevurah'.

'Gevurah' translates as 'strength'. But, as an internal dynamic, I believe it is best described as 'breaking free'.

A simple example, as a follow-up to last week's 'closeness' exercise (please see last week's Omer message): Being self-aware, you’ll notice that when you’re in ‘closeness mode’ you need to calibrate; one needs to occasionally ‘break free’ of  the closeness rhythm to allow for the other person’s space. That’s Gevurah; and there Gevurah means respect.

Do we leave space for our loved ones to be themselves? Do we make space in our conversations, to really hear them when they speak?

Apart from love, the human psyche has other powerful – often counter-productive - forces: Pride, ambition, jealousy, appetite etc. Whenever we break free of those strong internal patterns, we're exercising Gevurah – self-restraint.

When a social setting is 'compelling you’ to say something disagreeable (or to betray a confidence etc), do you 'break free' by restraining yourself?

Similarly: There's a natural tendency to react to a [perceived] provocation; which is allowing the situation to control you. When we pro-actively – and courageously - choose a proper response (which may mean silence), that's Gevurah.

Gevurah is avoiding confrontation out of strength, not fear. It's taking your life back from the situation’s grip.

A slightly different side of the same internal flow: When we pray or meditate, we need to break free of life's tumultuous tide to find inner quiet. That's Gevurah.

The bottom line is that it takes great internal strength to break free of a pattern, habit or stream of life.

In the words of the Talmud: “Who is valiant? One who conquers one’s impulses”.

But Gevurah isn't only an inward motion (self-restraint etc), it also flows outward.

The human psyche is prone to inertia; the status quo is comfortable and movement takes effort.

'Breaking free' means passion (where our ‘internal traffic-controller’) deems appropriate). When our blood begins pumping, when we feel excited and emotionally engaged, that's Gevurah.

Disciplined or passionate, it’s a time for authentic strength.

 Have a meaningful Omer week.

 Rabbi Mendy


What makes you tick?

What makes you ‘tick’?

The answer may appear obvious, but there may be deeper meaning below the surface.

Let's consider [fictional] ‘Jim’:

He is pounding the pavement looking for a job. The search is consuming him, so that's what drives him now.

Or is it?

After all, is ‘work’ his deepest desire? 

Actually, it's not a job he's after, but…..money.

Jim needs a job in order to generate money. His primary need is funding, not a job per se.

So Jim needs money. But why? Does he want money for money's sake?

No. Jim actually wants comfort, security etc. And for that, Jim needs money.

And for that, Jim needs a job.

Jim might have honestly answered our original question with "the job search". But it's obviously much deeper.

His deepest need may actually be self-preservation, self-respect, familial-validation, etc.

But he’ll only find that when he pierces through his ‘layers’.

In many ways, we are Jim, as we struggle for inner freedom.

Jim’s process is actually step two of our Passover ‘freedom train’.

Step one is to identify our personal Egypts - the external distractions, pleasures, fears etc., which trap and control us. Freedom comes through transcending our Egypts, to freely live our lives according to our own deeper vision. 

But leaving Egypt isn't really possible until you know where you want to go. I can’t freely live as Myself until I’ve identified Myself.

What is my ‘Deeper Vision'?

Historically, the Jews’ ultimate disengagement from Egypt came through crossing the Sea.

G-d’s ‘splitting the sea’ symbolizes exposing our inner ‘dry land’, by pushing aside the layers of personality that obscure our deepest selves, as the waters cover the sea.

By identifying our deepest selves, through our own efforts and through the power of Pesach, we can find  - and perhaps reconfigure – our own deepest principles.

Crossing your personal sea puts you on the path to true freedom: A meaningful life.

This weekend we celebrate the Jews’ crossing of the sea.

Make it count.

In Search Of.........The Better Me - Part 1

The Omer period is a period for self-betterment (see Torah thought of 4/17). More specifically, it focuses on harnessing and refining our emotions.

To understand our emotions, it’s helpful to first look at our intellect.

My Intellect is obviously an important tool: it enables me to understand. But I can intellectually grasp a concept, and still remain totally untouched by it. Until a topic triggers my emotions at some level, I – in my fullest sense - am not engaged.

My exercise is theoretical and detached from my personal reality.

Until I emote.

So my emotions are where the world touches me, and where I express myself to the world. It’s my bridge and my portal; my interface with the world. 

In this emotional-refinement exercise, the Omer begins by focusing on the emotional expression, the soul-energy, called ‘Chesed’ (in Hebrew).

‘Chesed’ is usually translated as kindness and/or love. But it’s actually a broader sentiment.

Chesed is that inner feeling of affinity with an ‘other’. It might be a friendly interaction at the office, a desire to help someone in need, or the flow of emotion we call love. It’s the pouring forth (in varying degrees) of positive connectivity to other.

This week is a time to observe our ‘Chesed’ flow.

I need to ask myself: When it comes to my Chesed interactions, is it about me? Or do I really care about other?

[There’s a Chassidic story about a child who watches an adult catch, skin, bone and cook a fish. Before his first bite, the adult explains “I love fish”.

To which the child responds: “If you loved the fish, you would have let him stay in the water. You love yourself, and the fish is just another way of you expressing that to yourself”.]

Do I ever observe, and bask in, the beauty of my internal pull toward another?

For example: When I give my child him a loving hug, do I ever stop to recognize the ‘love’ aspect in my embrace?

When I have a Chesed feeling, am I expressing it enough? Do I express it appropriately and respectfully? Do I respect the other person’s space?

Am I committed to this relationship? Am I prepared to pursue what it takes to retain, and accentuate, the beauty of a given relationship?

Love and friendship are extremely powerful components of life. May a week of conscious observation and exercise last us a lifetime.

 

Have a wonderful Omer week.

 

For more Omer info:

http://www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm .

http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/8b/Your_Guide_to_Personal_Freedom_-_Week_1.php

 

 

 

 

Countdown to a Better Me

Passover is a Festival of national liberation. It’s also a Holiday of internal, personal freedom. It’s freedom in macro, and freedom in micro.

As slaves, we had become spiritually deadened. Not only were we trapped, we had lost our aspirations for anything better. We were resigned to a dead-end reality.

So G-d showed us 'shock and awe' with the miraculous Exodus experience.

G-d shook up our world, catapulting us from our reverie and widening our souls' eyes. We finally realized how alienated we had become from G‑d, from each other and from ourselves. 

That was Passover. A blinding, miraculous inspiration, lifting us out of our collective funk.

But quick-fixes don’t last. A ‘sudden awakening’ is just that; it’s a flash of inspiration, and can easily become the proverbial flash-in-the-pan.

Real character-building takes more time; it’s a real process.

In addition, G-d now wanted to give us the Torah; we needed to be morally fit for this special gift.
So G-d told the Jews to undergo a seven week exercise, a process of introspection and self-refinement. We needed to fan our inspirational spark, turning it into a healthy flame of psycho-spiritual illumination and consciousness. 

That seven week exercise culminated in the Holiday of Shavuot, when we received the Torah.

That’s the macro perspective. Now let’s personalize it.

The Seder experience should bring us a paradigm shift, an awakening, to recognize who we need to be. Passover should lift us above our haze, our habitual patterns, our personal Egypts.

So we have a flash of inspiration. But, what happens the next day? We can’t ‘go back to sleep’. We begin a self-betterment program, to translate our inspiration into real character-transformation.

Every year, beginning on Passover’s second day, we re-visit this seven week process, which is known as the 'Counting of the Omer'. On each of its 49 days we focus on developing a different element of the personality. It's like the 49-step program (7 days x 7 weeks) to recovery from ego/impulse-dependency.

 On Sunday night, please count the Omer. Click here for what you’ll need.

http://www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm .

For added meaning, please check out http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/8b/Your_Guide_to_Personal_Freedom_-_Week_1.php

 Out of respect for the Holiday, please print out what you’ll need before the weekend,

 We will be sending an e-mail on Monday evening to explore the Omer’s first week, and its relevance to our character development.

 Enjoy your Pesach!

The Story of our Lives

Children love stories.
Adults too.
After all, stories are a special vehicle of learning and communication.
What is a story? A story takes a series of individual events, conflicts, twists and turns and weaves them into…a symmetrical whole.
There’s a guiding theme. There are lines of causality drawn between seemingly unrelated goings-on. There’s a rhythm and balance.
It’s a story.
Which brings us to Passover. At the Seder, our questions are answered through the Haggada, which translates from Hebrew as ‘the telling’; the
telling of the story.
The Haggadah weaves together historical facts to compose a narrative. It’s a story of an imperfect people who suffer great challenges. These people recognize that they are never alone, because they have a G-d Who cares. With that recognition, they turn to – and place their trust in - the Divine, and ultimately achieve freedom.
In a nutshell, that’s the body of the Haggada.
It’s a story of our ancestors.
And it’s a story of our own. Because we’re still not free.
We may not be slaves in the conventional sense, but we’re controlled by impulses, appetites, temper etc; we’re still trapped in ourselves, our habits and our patterns.
And, whether we recognize it or not, we yearn for freedom. So we have the gift of Passover.
The Exodus was just the beginning. This historically critical event is much more than an event. It’s the force of Freedom in life, a Divine energy waiting to be tapped, especially on the Seder night.
But we need to unlock this energy. And a primary key is: The story.
In the story - our story - we recognize that we’re on a human journey filled
with many ‘Egypts’. In the story – our story – we recognize that we live this journey for a Higher Purpose. In the story – our story – we recognize that there is ultimately a symmetry to the narrative of our lives, and that transcending the Egypts is the only way to our internal Promised Land.
At the Seder, we recognize that each life is a unique and precious story, and that we are co-authors of our individual narratives.
At the Seder we resolve to guide our life’s script in a transcendent, liberated direction, and we trust in our Author above to give us the strength we’ll need.
It’s Passover. Attend a Seder. Hear your story. Visualize the coming chapters.
Now live them.
 
Best wishes for a meaningful Passover,

 

Rabbi Mendy

Are you curious?

Did you ever wonder why little kids ask so many questions?

Why is the sky blue? Who is that man standing on the corner? How does fire heat our food?

It’s a kid thing.

Maybe it should also be an ‘adult thing’.

After all, a question is simply a tool of discovery.

When I’m interested in something, I should explore it; as I explore, questions are my spade, my flashlight.

But genuine interest is the launching pad. If I’m not really curious, my question can’t be authentic.

That’s why a child’s question is pure. Children don’t ask mechanical, perfunctory or ‘socially necessary’ questions; they haven’t yet fallen into mindless patterns.

Their interest is genuine so their questions are genuine.

Why should adults be any different? Where does the sense of wonder and curiosity go? Are we trapped in a world without wonder? Do we lose interest in life’s mystery?

It’s interesting that the Passover Seder revolves around the ‘question’ tool. And that the questions – even for the adults – are portrayed as the CHILD’S question. That seems to be the model.

Perhaps this is teaching us an important path to freedom from life’s narrow straits a.k.a our personal ‘Egypt’s: We need to rediscover the ‘childish’ curiosity within us. Maybe Passover is a time to ask ourselves whether we still have the fire of exploration flickering inside: Do we still wonder about the mystery of Creation or the beauty of our relationships? Are we in pursuit of life or our own tails?

So here are three question-exercises which flow from the Seder and its lessons:

  1. Stop every once in a while to notice the awesome wonder of your world (people, things etc). Just like a kid.
  2. If you have no questions, see step 1.
  3. Watch your questions (especially to your loved ones) to see if they’re truly tools of interested inquiry. If not, see step 1.
  4. Care enough about the world to ask. Don’t be afraid; the kids seem to do okay.

 

How Free Can I Be?

Are you free? Am I?

 At one level, we certainly are. We’re living in an incredible country, free of undue governmental interference and coercion. We can worship as we please, opine as we wish, and dress etc., however we like.

 But still the question persists: Am I truly free?

Not necessarily.

 I may be free of external constraints, but that doesn’t mean I am internally – spiritually, emotionally and psychologically – free.

 It’s a struggle we all face. Instinctively, we operate from a ‘Self’ position - self-interest, self-gratification, self-preservation etc. 

 I’m just a small human being. If my life revolves around MY sensitivities, needs and desires, then I have a very small orbit. I can’t be truly free, because I’m trapped in the world of ‘Me’.

 Even when I’m high-minded, and focused on my own character growth, I am still preoccupied with Self. Self-development is a very important and virtuous exercise. But bottom line: It’s all about [a more evolved] Me.

 So, how to be free?

 I need to transcend the limitations of my existence. I need to engage, and truly invest myself in, a pursuit beyond my limited existence.

 When I’m committed to others, surrendered to higher values and goals, I begin to experience an unshackled me. When I steer my internal attachment away from my self-serving impulses, I clear a way for my Higher Self to shift into gear.

 So, perhaps counter to conventional wisdom, self-actualization actually happens through self-transcendence.

 This is a primary Passover theme. During our Freedom Holiday, we are told to eat Matzah and to refrain from ‘chametz’ (leavened bread).

 What are Chametz and Matzah in the soul-psyche, and how do they relate to this Holiday’s Freedom goal?

Chametz and Matzah are very similar. Technically, they can actually have the same ingredients: flour and water. But there’s a critical difference: Chametz has been allowed to rise, while Matzah is kept in its simple form.

 Chametz symbolizes the bloated ego; the complex psyche with its self-image, its creature-comfort needs and its life-machinations.

 Matzah embodies internal simplicity, the ego-less commitment to higher principles and goals.

 Matzah means getting beyond my puffed-up perceptions, and surrendering myself to life’s real business.

 That’s as free as I can get.

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