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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Freedom to be Honest

Self-assessment can be a tricky exercise.

On the one hand, we need to be fearlessly honest. Deflecting blame and finger-pointing may be instinctive (who likes to shoulder blame?) but it doesn’t get us anywhere.

I need to face my own inadequacies and mistakes, learn from them, and evolve into a better person.

But what about the flip side? What if I’m so bent on being ‘honest’ that I consistently find fault in my own actions? What if I find myself claiming too much ‘credit’ for collective miscalculations and blunders? What if I start defining myself by my own ‘downside’?

In a strange way, being hard on yourself can make you feel good. You can get a virtue-thrill from being so ‘honest’, even when you’re not being accurate.

But that’s not the authentic – truly honest – path. An honest self-assessment will have my  rising above my emotional tendencies – neither ducking blame nor grabbing it - to assess myself objectively (as objective as one can be about oneself). If I try to stand apart from my emotions, and view myself dispassionately, I’ll probably find a ‘mixed bag’ personality; there will be elements which I want to fix, and other elements which I need to continue exercising and expanding.

I assume that I’ll find both of those elements because I’m human, and we’re all a ‘mixed bag’.

I’m describing a level of internal freedom, the freedom to honestly assess oneself, without being sidetracked by one’s emotions.

And now is an especially pertinent time to focus on internal freedom, because it’s the Passover season.

Passover isn’t only about our past.

Our ancestors’ story needs to be our story. So Passover is a time of Freedom for the human spirit, a season in which we can all transcend our individual ‘Egypts’.

Life is full of ‘Egypts’ i.e. forces which constrict us, impeding our souls’ healthy expression.

These ‘Egypts’ are often internal and self-imposed; and they take many forms: Fears, Anxieties, Perceptions, etc.

A person’s self-image can be an ‘Egypt’, since a counter-productive self-perception can really get in the way of a meaningful life.

Where can we turn for our personal liberation?

To Matzah.

Why Matzah? Matzah is made of flour and water, but it must be prepared and baked quickly, before it can rise. Once it rises, it becomes ‘Chametz, (dough that has risen/’leavened’) and unfit for Passover.

So Matzah is the simple flat bread, while Chametz is ‘bloated’. Matzah is humility, the surrender to honesty; Chametz is undisciplined emotional expansion and impulse.

Passover, and the Matzah, want to teach us an important lesson in personal freedom: Don’t let your impulses, even your ‘virtuous’, high-minded ones, run the show.

With humility, you should find the freedom to see – and like - yourself honestly.

Another reason for Passover joy. 

Divine Dreams

 

Think about your deepest wish. I don’t mean an ice cream sundae or new shoes; I mean something really close to your heart, a deep-seated desire that strikes at your very core.

Develop this idea, so that you’re imagining it in detail. Focus on it, emblazoning its image on the backdrop of your mind.

You know that this very important mental image is just a wish.

Now, how would you feel about someone who made it a reality? Can you imagine a deeper sense of gratitude?

According to Chassidic thought, ‘Divine Dreaming’ is what gives rise to our entire existence. G-d ‘craves’ something, and its ‘mental image’ is burned into the ‘Divine mind’. That’s why G-d created the world. Just to serve this ‘craving’.

[G-d obviously doesn’t have a ‘craving’ as we understand the sensation. ‘Craving’ is a Rabbinic metaphor for ‘deep-seated desire beyond our (human) understanding’. So read Craving as: Deep-Seated, Beyond-The Human-Ken Desire].

What is so monumental, so powerfully important, that it could grant G-d ‘Divine Satisfaction’?

You.

And me.

And our struggles to live the purpose of our Creation.

That’s what’s so valuable.

When G-d created the world, it was in pursuit of a ‘deep-seated dream’; and it is us.

You see, we all struggle. I try to avoid generalizations, but I believe it’s safe to say that morally-conscious people all struggle to maintain their Higher vision and balance. Maintaining a healthy perspective and balancing our values/priorities isn’t easy.

For some of us, it’s too many distractions. For some, it’s the existential distress that comes with having too few distractions. But, for all of us, a meaningful life has its price; it takes a struggle.

And that struggle is what G-d finds so precious.

In the Torah’s Creation-narrative, we find G-d’s creative process metaphorically depicted as Divine Speech: “Let there be Light”, etc.

So G-d spoke the world into being. But, thought usually comes before speech, so what was G-d thinking?

Our Sages say that G-d was conjuring a very deep-seated wish: That deep ‘Mental Image’ was you and I finding the strength to do the right thing.

Sometimes it’s “How do I deal with that annoying situation?” Sometimes it’s “I know I have that family responsibility, but I’m just too tired”.

Sometimes it will involve finding the moral strength to light Shabbat candles or lay Tefillin.

So, at any given moment, recognize that you have something productive to do. Remember that G-d contemplated this very moment.

And make His dream come true.

Gaining Control

Emotions are a funny thing.

They express your personality. They’re the bridge – or the barrier – between people. They’re an important internal indicator: When I emote, I know that something matters to me.

But emotions can get away from you. Like when you ‘fly off the handle’ or behave ‘over the top’.

Emotion is your psyche’s fire. And, like fire, we need to treat it carefully. Like fire, emotions have great function; but, like fire, we can’t let them get out of hand.

Emotion is a huge part of our lives. It touches on our temper, our food impulses, our loves and hates. Emotion even impacts our understanding - unless I’m ‘emotionally-available’ to internalize and accept hear your words, I probably won’t be able to appreciate their logic (i.e. if I don’t like you, your opinion is probably wrong).

Sometimes, it can feel like emotion controls life.

But it doesn’t have to. And it shouldn’t.

Intellect is the more sedate and controlled side of the human psyche. Logic is cool, calm and somewhat detached.

It’s soothing water to help you control your emotional fire.

A man once sat on a subway in NYC, while a mother with three young children sat next to him. The kids were unruly and really got under this fellow’s skin. As his anger-quotient rose, the mother noticed his discomfort. Apologizing for her children’s behavior, she explained that they were on the way home from the hospital. The children’s father had just passed away and they were a bit overwhelmed with the confusion in their lives.

This subway traveler was totally transformed. Ashamed of his snap to judgment, his anger was immediately replaced by empathy and concern.

Why? What made his anger disappear? What changed?

His perspective. With new information, with a new understanding, he revised his mental ‘framing’ of the situation, and his emotions immediately followed suit.

Too often we feel that our emotions ‘run away with us’. They don’t have to.

The Torah is G-d’s ‘manufacturer’s manual’ for the world, including the human psyche. Torah thought lays out a sketch of ‘the way we work’, and it tells us that we can harness our emotions.

Much of Torah life, the Mitzvot and their mindset, relates to this goal of corralling human nature and bringing it into line with a purposeful life. Each Mitzvah is its own exercise, bringing us closer to our better selves.

Check out the program.

It works.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do you believe in Miracles?

Have you ever experienced any? Think back on your day, to the moment when you first opened your eyes. Have you experienced since then?

Before you answer, consider this:

You opened your eyes! Is that anything less than a miracle? How about your mobility, hearing, cognition? Are these things that ‘just happen’, or are they cause for a swell of gratitude?

How about the loved ones in your life? Are they anything less than a miracle?

The real question is: How do you view your life?

Every life takes twists and turns. Today, some things will go right and some things won’t. Which takes up more space in my eyes? The good or the not-so-good? How do I see my day/life as a whole?

When I genuinely appreciate the good, it helps me see my journey – in its totality - as a blessing.

Once I see I see my life as a gift, the aggravating bumps take on a different, more manageable, context. They become lessons, exercises in self-betterment, tests of character.

(I don’t mean to diminish the pain of our individual problems; on the contrary, I pray that G-d give us all tranquility and revealed good. But – until then – we need to find a productive way to deal with our obstacles).

This is the powerful lesson of Purim, the Holiday which we’ll celebrate this coming Monday evening and Tuesday.

We have Holidays like Passover, which celebrates the open miracles we experienced in the course of our Exodus from Egypt.

In our lives, that corresponds to the ‘over the top’ moments of good fortune we may experience in the course of our lives. We each have our own special days, our individual ‘splitting of the sea’, and hopefully turn to G-d and thank Him for our good fortune.

That’s Passover. Purim is different.

Purim doesn’t have any blockbuster miracle to celebrate. In the Purim story, things turned out positively, and we chose – we had the consciousness and vision - to see it as a miracle.

In the scope of your life, the ‘Passover miracles’ will probably be few and far between. Most of your life is like today, a ‘regular’ day with nothing ‘special’ to celebrate; unless you have vision and choose to appreciate and celebrate.

Then, every day’s a Holiday.

Time to celebrate!

 

 

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