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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Winds of Change

Do you want to change?
How do you do it?
I've heard of inspiring, motivational speakers who 'change people's lives'.
But I wonder: Can anybody really change your life?
No. Only YOU can change your own life.
The door to character transformation opens from the inside.
When I change, it's because I have made a conscious choice to break, and reconfigure,  my life's patterns.
So who needs a motivational speaker?
We all do.
Because we're not always ready for strenuous character building.
We can't even get ourselves to look for the door, let alone open it.
But when someone paints a convincing picture of your need to grow, and shows you how it's possible to reach your potential, you're inspired to pursue the work of change.
So the motivational speaker plays an important role. He sets the stage, rouses my conscience and shows me the steps.
But that's as far as he can go.
In the play of my life, I need to do the acting.
Yet the external factors play an important role too. For me, a sunny, beautiful day creates more emotional availability than a rainy one. When you are welcomed warmly into a synagogue, when you feel like you belong, you may find yourself more open to a transformative spiritual experience.
Yes, change is in your hands. But setting means a lot.
This weekend, we open a season – a setting – of internal change. The Hebrew month of Elul begins on Saturday evening, and Elul is a month devoted to character improvement.
It's a daunting task, but G-d, our loving 'motivational cheerleader', encourages and prompts us toward self-betterment.
We blow the shofar every day of this month; and when we hear the call of that ram's horn, we hear the inspiring echo of the Divine, urging us to align ourselves with our wonderful potential.
And if we pay attention, there's something in the air.
The breeze you feel is urging the rustling of your soul. The sun's blaze is beckoning your inner potential to shine forth.
So the stage will be set.
But it's up to us to act.

It's War

There’s a war going on.

No, I don’t mean Georgia.

Nor Iraq.

Nor Afghanistan.

I mean you.

And me.

But the war isn’t between us. It’s within us.

Or at least it should be.

After all, we have two opposing forces within each of us. There’s the responsible, selfless, visionary part of the psyche (the ‘G-dly soul’ in Kabbalistic lingo). And then there’s the shallower, self-centered, creature-comfort-seeking dimension (the ‘animal soul’ in Kabbalistic terms).

These two internal forces are always pulling my attention in opposite directions.

It’s war.

And I need to be on constant alert.

It’s not even about grappling with major moral enticements; it’s more insidious than that.

It’s about the struggle to pay proper attention to relationships, to be fully engaged in my five year old’s story, to be fully present in my actions, etc.

It’s about struggling with my weaker self.

Let’s not understate the reality: It’s a real battle.

And it never stops; unless I’ve totally caved in to my weaker side.

Interestingly, Kabbalistic writings refer to Prayer as a ‘time of combat’. At first blush, that strikes me as odd. Prayer seems more synonymous with peace than with war, wouldn’t you think?

But with the above, we begin to understand the idea. Prayer is about getting a firmer grip on ourselves. It’s about cutting through layers of self-image and defense mechanisms; it’s about recognizing counter-productive patterns so that we can break their paralyzing hold on our lives.

When I pray, I need to seriously focus on who I need to be, as compared to who I am. I need to overcome my instinct to look the other way, and embrace the unpleasantness that comes with facing my weaker self.

Framing Prayer as a battle also helps me to appreciate the value of communal prayer.

I don’t want to stand alone in battle; there’s strength in numbers.

When I pray, I’m supported by my comrades’ effort to overcome the impediments that stand between us and our potential.

It’s a team effort; each of us strengthening the other by our very presence and commitment to self-actualization.

Yes, it’s War.

But some things are worth fighting for.

Soul Comfort

Are you comfortable right now?

If your answer is yes, then I imagine you’re lounging on a recliner in perfect weather. With a Pina Colada.

'Comfort'. We think of it as a state of ease and quiet enjoyment. No worries; just relaxation.

Sounds comfortable. And I’m sure it is.

But it describes a vacation, not real life.

And it’s surface-comfort, not soul-comfort.

Deep, genuine comfort comes from finding inner peace and equilibrium. True comfort sets in when we satisfy existential emptiness and find a balm for the psyche.

Not a job for a Pina Colada.

No, authentic comfort doesn’t come from life’s trappings; it comes from a meaningful life.

A lot of our internal unease – the “quiet desperation” that is the stuff of poetic exploration - comes from the fact that we live in a world that doesn’t seem to make sense; it looks shallow, random and meaningless.

And we know better. We need symmetry, justice and meaning. Watching the world's madness violates our sensibilities, because we know something’s not right.

It bothers us.

And it should.

G-d intended your soul-irritant to be your wake-up call; it has to provoke a response within each of us, propelling us to act and bring sanity to the chaos.

That is why we were created.

To elevate the world.

And elevate ourselves.

And, in that process, to find genuine peace and comfort.

Soul comfort doesn’t come from inaction; to the contrary, it comes from meaningful struggle and productivity.

Finding meaning is what brings us comfort.

Real comfort.

In the Torah, G-d says that He will yet ‘comfort us’ in future days. G-d’s not promising Pina Coladas, nor am I awaiting them.

I’m looking for an embrace. I want to experience the true beauty and meaning in what I do. I want to see the richness of the human journey and its accomplishments.

I can handle the work. But I could use the comfort.

And we’ll get it.

That’s a promise.



The Heart of Sadness

I don't like feeling sad.
Melancholy has a sneaky way of draining our energy and paralyzing our lives.
I much prefer a happy mindset.
But here's the problem: Life isn't a string of happy occasions.
Things happen.
I make mistakes, causing discomfort to myself and others.
Others make mistakes, causing discomfort to themselves and to me.
I have stresses and disappointments that seem part and parcel of my relationships and
To ignore them is naïve. To face them is depressing.
What to do?
First, I keep my expectations reasonable, since frustrations are a function of
expectations. Every life on the planet has stress, so I can't honestly be
surprised by my own.
Second, I need to carve out time to face my weaknesses and warts. That's the
only way to an honest life.
I don't want to harp on my failings; but I need to face them. And deep inside,
as disquieting as this introspection may be, I'm glad that I'm going through the
exercise. I'm happy that I have the maturity to face myself, and glad that I'm
self-aware enough to be sad.
Then there's a third element:
I recognize that it's specifically my full plate of
relationships/responsibilities that are the 'troublesome' burden.
I pray to G-d for more manageable stress, but if that's the price of my life and
its blessings, I'll deal with it.
In this vein:
I was always awed by the Rebbe's genuine pain when he would speak of the world's
misery. He sat in Brooklyn, crying real tears about people across the world, people he'd never met.
Watching him, I would experience a strange paradox: I didn't have the Rebbe's
empathy, so I didn't feel the same sadness; but I envied the depth of his
feeling for humanity.
I would've taken the pain of sadness for the power of real connectedness.
A day like Tisha B'av is a day set aside for this type of painful introspection.
Aside from mourning our painful history, we take an honest look at our own
self-destructive behaviors.
It isn't pretty, but it's necessary.
And, deep inside the sadness, there's gladness to be found.
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