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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Addition Through Subtraction

Is it wrong to be ‘selfish’?
In the immortal words of Hillel (our famous 1st century Sage): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” In other words: I need to look after myselfj who else should?
So where’s the problem with ‘selfishness’? For that, we need to consider the rest of Hillel’s statement: “…And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”
Hillel tells me that when I’m taking care of myself so that I might fulfill my responsibilities to the world, that’s fine. But when I’m looking out for myself because I’m the center of the universe, then we have a problem.
If everything is about me, then – in the final analysis - “what am I?”
The problem doesn’t lie in me looking after myself. The problem arises when I can’t see a purpose beyond myself.
Sometimes we have the "it’s all about me" mindset, and that inevitably causes problems in our lives.
That's why the Torah calls for us to ‘circumcise the foreskin of our hearts’. Since this obviously can’t refer to a physiological covering, our Sages tell us that the Torah is referring to the self-indulgent ‘overlay’ which prevents us from truly connecting with others. In this exercise, we're targeting a psycho-spiritual ‘membrane’ of self-centeredness, which turns self-reliance into self-absorption.
The Torah is telling us that we need to cut through this stifling approach to life, to liberate our hearts and souls.
How?
From the outside in.
We start with the external behavior. ‘Circumcising’ my conduct means cutting through my layers of self-indulgence.
For example: Even though I’m not hurting anyone by gorging myself on a scrumptious meal, I am exercising my ‘self-absorption muscle’, and opening the door to a chain of ‘me-centeredness’; which will automatically leave less room for 'we-centeredness'.
The 'circumcision' process peels away the unhealthy layers, so that there’s less self-absorption in the way we act, and in the way speak.
And, then, we can take the step of peeling the overlays - the divisive blockages - from our hearts and minds.
A lifetime of experiences, dotted with disappointments, hurts and failures, can make someone build up pretty strong emotional walls, walls, barriers that can keep you locked into a lonely world.
By healthily penetrating our obstructive layers, we can begin to truly take care of ourselves, by finding our interdependent place in a meaningful world.

Can you see the rainbow?

Clouds.

We see them. And we know how they’re formed.

It’s simple enough.

A. Water fills the earth’s streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.

B. The sun’s rays evaporate some of the water,

C. Droplets rise to form clouds (which eventually yield rain back to the earth).

So, to phrase it differently: Clouds are a joint production of ‘Heaven’ (the Sun) and ‘Earth’ (the Water).

They bring welcome precipitation for our environment, create an overcast day, and sometimes bring storms to shake our world.

Now let’s look a little deeper:

Everything in the world is a physical expression of a Divine energy.

So, spiritually speaking, we can say that the skies represent G-d, while Earth represents Humanity.

And the clouds, hovering between Heaven and Earth, represent our behavior.

Why behavior?

Think about it: Clouds are Earth’s feedback (in the form of vapor) to the atmosphere, and our behavior is our feedback to G-d, our response to His gift of life.

G-d created us for a purpose: To make this a better [Holy] world.

We can either acknowledge – and try to live by - that mission, or we can ignore it and live in misalignment with our core selves.

Either way, we’re giving feedback to the Divine; we’re either welcoming purpose or rejecting it.

So our actions form the ‘clouds’ that hover between us and G-d.

Will they shed the water of life and blessing? Do they portend storms, bringing darkness and disruption?

That is a question we face on a daily basis. And we pray – to a G-d who loves us – for the waters of blessing and tranquility.

But, aside from the rain per se, how do we deal with dark clouds? What if we feel that life is overcast?

Ask yourself: Are my clouds too thick and opaque? Is my life so heavily materialistic and self-centered, that there’s no for purpose and meaning to shine through?

You may need some ‘cloud-thinning’.

If we lighten up on the materialism, and take some time to contemplate purpose, we allow a ray of G-d to shine through.

And when you’re standing in the right spot, with the right perspective, that ray will create the majesty of a Rainbow, which is G-d’s message to you “if you let Me in, I’ll show you the beauty that can be found in the diverse challenges I give you. Just let your droplets refract my light.”

Now it can rain.

A Lifetime of Love

It happens to me every time.

Whenever I read that G-d created the world, I can’t get past the big question: ‘Why?’

Why would an Infinite Being have created this shallow reality? What’s the point in weak humans chasing happiness for the decades of life they’re granted?

Why would I keep asking myself the same question?

Because I really enjoy the answer:

G-d created this world out of love.

Prior to creation, G-d’s Oneness reigned Supreme. There was no other existence; only G-dliness.

Then G-d decided to create an ‘other’.

We – you and I - are that ‘other’.

But G-d wasn’t simply fracturing existence, creating a world of disunity and ‘otherness’. G-d was creating an opportunity for us. G-d was giving us the possibility to [re]create Oneness at a more profound level.

Because there’s ‘oneness’, and then there’s ‘Oneness’.

For example, I am a single organism with various limbs; so my arm is one with my body;

But then there’s a deeper type of oneness. Like the oneness of marriage, when two spouses become one.

Why is it deeper?

Because my arm has no choice but to be part of my body; that’s its natural state.

When two people get married, they’re rising above their natural, self-involved states, choosing to find the Oneness they share; they’re deciding to set aside the ‘I ‘for the ‘we’.

That’s a beautiful Oneness, a Oneness we appreciate, respect and celebrate.

G-d created us as separate from Him, so that we might choose to find Oneness with Him. Each of our lives is its own ‘Love Story’; a vibrant, growing relationship between G-d and humanity.

A Chassidic Rebbe was once asked: “Where can one find G-d?”.

The Rebbe answered: Wherever you let Him in”.

Similar to marriage, ‘letting the other in’ is the key to a relationship with G-d.

G-d wants an intimate relationship with each of us. But powerful relationships don’t happen on their own.

It takes two to want the relationship, two to choose it.

G-d has already made His choice.

Now it’s up to me and you.

Is your life a Divine Love Story?

A Friend [even] in 'Fair Weather'

You’ve probably heard about the Jewish Holidays’ shared theme: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!!!’

Sure, the joke is inaccurate and shallow. But it brings out a valid point.

There’s something about crisis that awakens [many] people to Higher Values, to Priorities, to G-d. So, throughout our history, a communal crisis often brought a spiritual awakening; and our joy in triumph was expressed in a Holy-day, a day of gratitude to G-d.

On Chanukah, Purim and Passover we were threatened by various peoples, and Sukkot celebrates G-d’s protection in the deserts’ untamed wilderness.

Yes, crises seem to be at the center of our Holiday experiences.

Even in our personal lives, we may notice how emergencies give us a jarring wake-up call, prompting us to ask G-d for assistance and to re-evaluate our priorities. And when there’s an appreciable victory, we feel the gratitude.

But what about the other days?

What about a day when things seem to be going right? What about the day when I landed the promotion, my relationships are fluid, my bills are paid? What drives me to G-d then?

What if it’s just a ‘normal’ day? What of a day with assorted stresses and pressures, but – thank G-d – no monumental crises?

Do I appreciate G-d then, amidst the success and the ‘normal’?

Hence Sukkot. Our calendar has a spine of Festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – which are [also] framed in agricultural terms: Passover is the beginning of Spring and the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot is the general Harvest Festival and Sukkot is the Gathering [of the harvest from the fields]”.

Sukkot  was the opportunity to soak in the rewards of your year’s work. It was when you got your ‘bonus check’; a time when you were feeling good about yourself.

So at that time – specifically that time – the Torah guides us to appreciate G-d’s consistent presence and protection. Not amidst crisis, but amidst plenty. When there may be less of an instinctive push.

May this be a year of Sukkot, when we rise to the challenge of appreciating G-d amidst the gifts which are certainly headed our way.

Take Yom Kippur With You

Let’s face it: Change is difficult.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that [most?] people, by nature, are simply afraid of change. As much as one clamors about leaving the status quo, inertia still seems to beckon as a comfortable place.
Why?
I think it’s the sense of vulnerability that inevitably comes with the experience.
If you’re in a bad spot, it may be uncomfortable, but at least it’s your spot. You know what you have and you know what you’re lacking.
Leaving that situation, even if it’s toward a better one, entails a leap/journey. You need to move from point A to point B. And that state of transition is inherently unstable. You’re neither here nor there. You don’t have a settled place.
So if you really want to grow as a person, you need to chart a stable course, one which will afford you the trust and confidence to persevere.
To me, this trajectory is found in the Holidays we now celebrate.
First, we spend an introspective ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; we’re painstakingly stripping the layers of self-image, shallow ego and defense mechanisms that allow us to ignore what we need to see and correct in ourselves.
Now, with Yom Kippur past us, we’re more self-aware; but we’re also a little unsteady.
I know the old me; how will I relate to a ‘new’ me?
Will my self-betterment plan work? Will it affect how I’m accepted and loved?
It’s a little scary. So, one really needs ‘training wheels’ before change can actually set in.
So G-d gives us the Holiday of Sukkot. During this Holiday we sit in a hut – the Sukkah - to eat, drink, study and celebrate with family and friends.
Conceptually, sitting in the Sukkah is like sitting in G-d’s Home; we are enwrapped in G-d’s embrace. Sitting in the Sukkah is sitting in a place of emotional and spiritual security, in G-d’s haven.
What a wonderful transition.
I’ve left Yom Kippur with a budding sense of self and a hope for change. But it’s new to me.
So I adjust in the safety of a Sukkah, protected by G-d and supported by loved ones.
Once the Holiday is over, and ‘I’m walking steadily’, I’m ready to leave the Sukkah and take on the year.
Looking forward!

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