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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Is Stress a Part of Life?

 

I wonder: Does anyone live a stress-free life?

I can’t say for sure, but of one thing I’m relatively certain: No mature adult has a challenge-free life.

Most of us carry responsibilities, and responsibilities come with challenges.

[If there’s such a thing as a mature adult who carries no responsibilities, I’d bet that his/her lack of responsibilities is what presents a challenge. Everyone likes to feel needed and useful; and it’s difficult to feel useful if you’re shouldering some responsibility to others.

Bottom line: We all carry something.]

But are challenges synonymous with stress?

Not necessarily. Stress is an optional reaction to challenges.

Work becomes drudgery and exertion becomes stress when we don’t see meaningful purpose in what we’re doing.

When we’re working hard for a meaningful objective, we can feel at peace and the stress seems to ease. So meaning is essential.

But the world doesn’t show its meaning at first blush. You need to peer beneath the surface, to pro-actively refine the way you see your world, if you want to view your day in a purposeful light.

By that, I mean we need to see our daily lives as filled with opportunities to fulfill G-d’s intent in our creation. There’s no greater meaning than that.

But it’s not easy. The struggle for a meaningful life is hand-to-hand combat, fighting for every inch, in vanquishing life’s facade so that we can connect with its real beauty, its Holiness.

In this week’s Torah portion we read the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

Our Rabbis saw this as a depiction of our (Jacob is “us”) struggle to conquer life’s shallowness, the veneer with which G-d papered his beautiful world.

We triumph when we can finally recognize the Divine beauty in our daily lives.

Interestingly, the Scripture describes this wrestling match as being a tussle that ‘kicked up dust’. And the Talmud tells us that this dust rose high, so high that it “reached the [anthropomorphic] Heavenly Throne”.

Why the focus on dust?

Dust in the air obscures your vision; it distorts your perception.

That’s what the struggle was about: Cutting through life’s static to find meaning.

So the dust is critical, because it represents the struggle itself.

And that struggle strikes directly at the Heavenly Throne.

It’s what life is all about.

 

Sometimes I Envy Myself

Do you rejoice at someone else's good fortune?

I'll bet you often do.
But how does it feel when someone - friend or family - is catching breaks that seem to be eluding you?
When someone’s child is accepted to an Ivy League school while yours can't seem to get the attention of any Tier 1 university?
When a friend stumbles into a great business opportunity, while your best efforts work seems to go unrewarded?
Are there times when your mouth smiles in congratulations, while your eyes can't keep up with the display of joy?
It's not that you begrudge your friend his/her good fortune. You’re simply plagued by an irresolvable, gnawing question: “Where’s MY piece?”  
There’s a word for that unsettled feeling, it's called “envy”. And it’s toxic. As King Solomon said: “A tender heart brings healing of the flesh but envy brings rotting of the bones”.

Scripture’s use of a strong expression like “rotting of the bones…” tells us that envy bores very deeply into the human psyche.
At the same time, envy seems built into the fabric of life. Millennia ago, King Solomon observed: “I have seen that all labor and skillful enterprise spring from man's rivalry with is neighbor; it is futility and vexation of the spirit.”

It’s there. But we can rise above it by re-framing how we see ourselves.
Envy often stems from the tendency to define our self-worth by how we compare to others. Your neighbor’s good fortune can bring your own “deficiency” into glaring relief. And that hurts.

Here’s where Torah thinking comes in:

G-d gives us each our own gifts and our own challenges.

My life is my unique journey, meeting my unique set of problems with my unique set of tools.

In that sense, nobody else matters. We are competing against ourselves. Period.

We can live easily with someone else’s good fortune, because life isn’t a zero-sum game and that wasn’t part of my destiny.

As empathetic person, we can choose to feel our friends’ joy. As conscious, evolving people we can choose to find inspiration in others’ attitudes, character, etc.

But their blessings are their blessings.

Time to focus on our own.

What Does G-d Do All Day?

He’s waiting  – longing - for our attention.

Yes, G-d is hoping for us to see beyond the haze of stress and the gleam of desire, to recognize that we’re created to live a life of meaning. And when we do, G-d is thrilled.

Like when we start the day with prayer, with introspective thoughts of how we need to align our day with a meaning-centered life.

Or at night, when we revisit the day’s choices and how/whether they reflect a purpose-driven life.

Morning, before the day begins. Nighttime, after the day has wound down. Those are relatively easier times to be conscious and thoughtful.

How about in middle of the day? Can you imagine making time for quiet reflection between meetings, as your mind is racing to “keep all the balls in the air”?

Is that even realistic?

Jewish tradition says it is.

Even more, finding G-d-consciousness when it isn’t easy is what gives G-d His greatest “thrill”.

That’s why, although we pray three times a day - morning, afternoon and evening - the Talmud finds special value in the afternoon service.

Because in the middle of my afternoon, it takes more proactive effort to focus on G-d and on my purpose in lifeAnd that makes it all the more beautiful.

This idea gives us insight into a cryptic Talmudic teaching. 

The Talmud – which is primarily an exposition of Jewish Law, but also explores spiritual and ethical ideas, usually through cryptic stories and metaphors – asks the question (Avoda Zara 3b):

What does G-d do all day?

This discussion will just focus on one part of the answer: “in the last three hours of the afternoon, G-d frolics with the Leviathan”.

Huh?

Chassidic thought points out that the [root of the] Hebrew word for Leviathan means ‘connectedness’; “Leviathan” thus represents the awesome beauty that human beings create when they rise above their egos to find connectedness with something Higher, the Divine. 

So every afternoon, as millions of people choose to put their respective days on pause, to contemplate their priorities and behaviors and connect with the Divine, G-d “frolics”.

Think about the metaphoric word that the Talmud chooses.

It’s not just a smile.

Not just happy.

Frolicking.

Exuberance.

Sounds like a good time to pray.

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