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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

New Beginnings, Old Habits

There's something especially beautiful about reading the Torah as a personal roadmap.
From this angle, the Torah's narrative about our slavery in Egypt becomes the deeply relevant story of our personal struggles and successes.
The Egyptian oppression was something of a double-edged sword.

The Torah vigorously denounces man’s inhumanity to man. At the same time, Torah wisdom points to that horrible experience as an important contribution to our maturation as a people.

In short: We grew from the struggle.

The fact that we received the Torah [at Mount Sinai] directly after the Egyptian slavery is an indication that our 'Egyptian journey' was a preliminary to receiving the Torah.
What is this positive ‘Egypt Process’ in contemporary terms? It is the journey of self-refinement, which helps us to reach our own “Mount Sinai”.

We can't seriously hope to achieve self-actualization, while sitting on a beach chair and sipping a margarita.

Self-betterment takes serious work. It’s an internal battle. It’s the ”Egypt Process” in a positive sense, which we need to undergo on the way to our own liberation.

Scripture describes one method employed by the Egyptian slave masters as being: “[back]breaking work”.
What does that mean specifically/

The Egyptians understood that people naturally develop behavioral patterns which become uncomfortable to overcome.
So, the Egyptians devised a devilish plan to break the Hebrews' body and spirit:
They didn't just burden the Jews with physical work; they chose work which grated against their ingrained habits and self-image.

In the Talmud's words: "They gave women’s work to the men and men's work to the women." They didn’t want to simply assign difficult work; that would only break the body, and they maliciously wanted to break our spirit as well.

This negativity also translates into the positive “ Egypt Process” in our own self-development.
One of life’s greatest straitjackets is our own habits and patterns. They're so ingrained it's difficult to even notice them, which makes these habits especially insidious and excruciating to change.
That’s why addressing them is such an important step toward our Mount Sinai.

We can find the strength, the self-awareness and the fearless commitment to move toward our best selves. We can overcome our own deeply ingrained behavioral patterns. It’s a bit strenuous, but there’s no other way to reach your Mount Sinai.

Break free.

Doing Even Better

We each have blessings in our lives.
But it’s often difficult to recognize our good; if only because the stress consumes so much of our brain space.
We have real beauty to appreciate, yet sparks of angst obscure our vision. That’s why it’s so important to take some time every day to refocus our attention and recognize life's good.
Prayer is one such opportunity; it can take a few points off your blood pressure.
But let’s follow this prayer trajectory a bit further. 
Imagine that you’re praying and are now able to see your world more clearly. You’ve begun to perceive and appreciate your blessings. You’re able to visualize how you can effectively respond to your challenges, while maintaining your spiritual integrity.
From that rarefied ‘prayer perch’, your world makes sense; life actually looks pretty good.
So why does our prayer liturgy - thrice daily – also guide us to yearn for Moshiach, for an era without pain, without moral dilemmas and without tests of faith?
If life is good, and rising above my struggles - maintaining soul-consciousness even as I'm engaged in a shallow world - is actually an exercise in character development, why should I be desperate for Moshiach?

All things considered, what am I missing?

G-d is the ultimate good, and G-d is in control of the world. That being the case, we have every reason to hope for – and to anticipate – a world of total connectedness and balance, a world that is pain-free and without tragedy. Feeling Oneness with the Divine and with each other shouldn’t be a struggle; it should be a given.
So while we should be happy with life, we should never be complacent. Our world CAN be better and we need to keep an eye on a better future.
As long as there is pain, disunity and lack of higher consciousness in the world, we can’t rest on our laurels.
So every day, my prayers guide me to appreciate my life, and then guide me to recognize that my world can be so much better, and that I can – and must - actually bring it to that better place.
Starting now.

Aaron's Gift to You

 When there’s broad sunlight, who needs a candle?


Light shines brightest, is most appreciated, and may be the greatest achievement, when it happens in the darkness.


Shortly after the Jews left Egypt, G-d instructed them to build the Tabernacle, which would serve as a direct point of Divine/human interface.


The Torah describes how, for twelve straight days, each of the twelve tribal leaders brought an offering to dedicate the new Temple.


Aaron, the High Priest, was also given a special part in the dedication, in the form of kindling the Menorah, which would stand in the Tabernacle and spread light to the world.


Actually, G-d told Aaron that his contribution to the Tabernacle was even GREATER than those of the tribal leaders; because the Temple would eventually be destroyed and its service discontinued, but the “Menorah’s light would burn forever”, referring to the Chanukah lights.


How is that?


The Temple was the pinnacle of our spiritual experience; that’s why we pray every day for for the Temple’s restoration with the coming of Moshiach.


Yet, G-d told Aaron that his light, in the form of future Chanukah Menorahs (Chanukah wouldn’t become a Holiday until almost a thousand years after Aaron’s passing), was even GREATER than the Temple service?


Here's a thought which gives us insight for our daily lives:


The tribal leaders indeed had an amazing opportunity to dedicate the House of G-d. But their impact was predicated on the Temple; and with the Temple's destruction, their effect functionally came to an end.


Aaron's mission was to spread light, and G-d’s light transcends the limitations of time and space. Because it’s not just physical light; it’s Divine light.


So Aaron’s light would echo through history. One famous example was when the Maccabees were able to find spiritual light and strength in a time of great spiritual darkness.


In other words, the Maccabees first found light in their souls, and only afterward in the Menorah. Both 'flames' were the gift of Aaron.


Today, too, Aaron’s contribution to our lives lies in our ability to find Divine light – internal clarity and beauty – irrespective of our circumstances, in our ability to find a spark of G-dliness even in a dark hour.


So don't let this Chanukah become a distant memory. Pack away your Menorah, but resolve to retain its light.


Because Aaron's gift “burns forever”

Rising to the Top

It's nice to view life through a spiritual lens; it takes some of the edge off life.
What's interesting is that a spiritual perspective often reveals how our ‘truths’ are counter-intuitive. Life's genuine priorities and values are often the opposite of what they appear.

I think about that as I watch my Chanukah Menorah, with its flames illuminating my consciousness. Last night we lit one flame; it was the beacon in our homes, spreading the message of spiritual values and moral clarity. Each night we’ll welcome a new flame, while also celebrating the flames of the previous nights. This nightly pattern will guide us to a crescendo of eight burning flames on the [eighth and] final night of Chanukah.

Each night, the newest light takes center stage; so every light has its night of special attention.

Except for one.

Aside from the Menorah’s eight candles, every Menorah also has a ninth candle, which isn’t celebrated or given too much attention. We call it the “Shamash” or “servant” candle. That’s the candle – usually placed at the Menorah’s top  – which we use to light the Menorah’s flame.

The Shamash isn’t a candle of celebration; it’s a flame of function.  It’s not a flame that shouts spirituality, perseverance or commitment to values. It’s a flame that simply helps the others proclaim their respective message.

Its purpose is to serve.

So why does the Shamash typically rise above the others? Doesn’t that seem incompatible with the “servant” character?

The Rebbe once explained this as a lesson in how we lead our lives:

Leaders, by definition, show others the way; they pro-actively guide affairs. Leadership isn’t typically a low-profile activity; it’s a ‘marquee’ position.

Torah leadership runs in the other direction. It’s about selfless surrender to values and selfless service to others.  

We’re all leaders in lives, in the way we make life-choices and influence those around us.

When we rise above our shallow egos – what we want - and commit ourselves to service – what we’re needed for – we are ready for leadership.

Hence the Shamash candle. Humble in function, dedicated to others' brilliance and flare, it ultimately rises to the top.

True honor finds people when they’re looking in the other direction

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