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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

A Reason to Rejoice

 Jewish holidays tend to commemorate historic Jewish events. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we want to truly celebrate a holiday, if we want to access its soul and find its ability to elevate our lives, we need to make it personal.

In other words: I have to look at an ancient narrative, and find…myself.

How would that work with the Purim holiday?

On Purim, we celebrate the Jews’ miraculous rescue from annihilation more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Persia. Haman, wicked advisor to King Ahasuerus, despised the idea of Jewish identity. So he convinced the King to kill anyone who retained it.

The Jews didn’t back down. They were worried; they prayed, they fasted and they stressed. But their commitment was strong, and they were ultimately saved.

Beautiful narrative. But how is that my story?

I have, thank G-d, never been threatened with annihilation. I’ve had, and continue to have, my share of stresses, problems and close calls; but nothing in the realm of mortal danger. So I can’t honestly see myself in those Jews’ shoes.

Unless.

Unless I see all moral challenges as being similar in soul, even if they’re vastly different with regard to physical consequence.

The Jews were asked to repudiate their relationship with the Divine, and they decided to honor that relationship, even at the expense of their own lives.

We all have relationships with our Creator, and have the ability – and hopefully the commitment – to honor that relationship through our actions.

But the commitment is often threatened.

For example, if one is committed to “respectful discourse,” does that internal pledge collapse in the face of a co-worker’s offensive comment?

Or, if one is committed to lighting Shabbat Candles on Friday before sundown, what happens when life seems to get in the way, especially if it’s “just this once.”

When a relationship matters, we find a way to honor and protect it, even in the face of challenge.

On Purim we rejoice. We take an opportunity to bask in the beauty of our relationship with the Divine, and we uncover our own deep commitment to staying the course, even in the face of challenge.

L’chaim.          

The Cosmic Kiss

This morning, my six year old son behaved so maturely that it made my heart swell.

I told him how much “nachas” (parental pride) I felt, and then I bent down to give him a kiss.

In retrospect: Why the kiss?  I had just expressed loving and encouraging words. If I needed to increase the sentiment, I could have just added to my verbal embrace; what made me shift my mode of expression from the verbal to the physical?

In other words: Why do we kiss?

We ordinarily communicate through words, because that’s our conventional conduit for expressing thoughts and feelings. But sometimes words feel inadequate; they can seem like a paltry tool to properly express ourselves.

So we choose a different, supra-verbal tool: the kiss. We select an extra-ordinary way of showing we care, and that we feel connected.

With that in mind, do you think you can “Kiss” G-d?

Using our human model, let’s try to understand what that might mean.

We conventionally connect with the Divine through prayer and study. When I’m in conversation with the Divine, I can feel our relationship and our closeness.

But I - and probably you – don’t have the luxury of pursuing a directly focused relationship – an “engaged conversation” - with G-d all day. We need to spend most of our time outside that spiritually comfortable place, engaging a decidedly non-spiritual environment.

What can we do?

When words won’t work, we go for the kiss, i.e. we find G-d in our everyday actions,

Imagine if you approached your profession as a way of fulfilling your Divine purpose in the world?

Imagine going to work on Wall Street (for example) this morning, settling into your chair and looking at your prospects for making money.

But, today, you choose to view your job as a means for fulfilling your purpose in life. So you decide to see your prospects as opportunities for helping clients earn money (a meaningful objective), so that you can support your family and community (a meaningful objective). You conduct your business - notwithstanding the dog-eat-dog world - on a Torah-guided, moral level. You choose to find an appropriate Kosher lunch.

In the course of your day, you’re not conversing with G-d per se, but your showing a real commitment; a connection that transcends conversation.

You’re giving G-d a kiss.

And I’d bet He’s thrilled.

 

 

Be Here Now

 

An insightful friend wrote to me this morning: “When a person is ‘present,’ he/she is nowhere else. Just here. That is all there is to it, and, of course, much easier said than done…. When I am just here, and nowhere else, I have no thoughts about what I am about to say, what he or she is about to say, what I have to do next…. I am just here and nowhere else.”

As someone who struggles with “Blackberry on the Brain,” and with the difficulty of being truly present whilst feeling torn in multiple directions, these words struck a chord.

But every worthy objective needs a tool. How does one become “present”?

It brought to mind an insight which I once heard from the Rebbe:

In the Torah, G-d commands the Jews to contribute half a shekel (a form of currency) to a fund for the Tabernacle’s needs.

The Torah describes the shekel as being twenty gerah (a smaller currency), which would obviously make the half-shekel ten gerahs.

But the Torah doesn’t say “contribute ten gerahs”; it emphasizes that it needs to be HALF a shekel.

Why, the Rebbe asked, does the Torah employ (seemingly) roundabout verbiage to emphasize a “half” concept?

Deepening the question, the Rebbe noted that the same contribution seems to emphasize a contrary message: The Torah instructs that the donation itself not be in installments; one needed to give the entire contribution at one time.

So one needed to give HALF a shekel, as a WHOLE (undivided) contribution.

What is the Torah trying to tell us?

The Rebbe explained it this way:

If you want to give of yourself WHOLELY to a person or situation, then you need to recognize your own “Half-ness.”

As I understand it, if I want to be totally present in any situation, I need to rise above my preoccupation with what’s happened or what will be, the part of my brain invaded by thoughts of where else I need to be and when. I need to recognize that the person/situation deserves undivided attention. Because it’s not about me and my day, me and my Blackberry, or me and my future appointments. It’s about us. Me and you. Me and what I’m facing at the moment.

At present, I’m only half the equation. When I really respect that, I’m ready to be here.

In full. For real.

 

The Sinai Challenge

 

Does Judaism believe in Asceticism (the practice of self-denial)?

Conventional wisdom is that Judaism doesn’t endorse the practice, and that’s true…to an extent.

There’s obviously a huge span between self-denial and self-indulgence, and eschewing one pole doesn’t necessarily put us at the other.

So, no, we’re not into self-denial (for its own sake), but we’re not into self-indulgence either.

Judaism is about living a life of Purpose, a life of Connectedness (to our Divine raison d’etre), and a life of Holiness.

And self-indulgence can get in the way.

Purpose, Connectedness and Holiness all share an inner rhythm. They’re all about living our days for something greater than our personal impulses and immediate needs.

And self-indulgence runs in the opposite direction.

It’s a simple equation: The more I live my life to serve my impulses, the less I live my life to serve a Higher Purpose. It’s not evil; it’s just not Purposeful.

The fifth Chabad Rebbe (Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch) was once approached by a disciple, who asked for help in controlling his own devious nature.

The Rebbe told him to fast on a regular basis. The disciple was very surprised, since this kind of self-denial isn’t a common Chabad practice.

The Rebbe told him: “Simply refraining from eating all day is self-emaciation. ‘Fasting’ is s course of self-betterment.”

The Rebbe then instructed him to dedicate some time every day to introspective self-analysis; suppressing his physical appetites would make way for his self-betterment efforts.

Practically speaking: When I sit down to dinner tonight, I can eat to simply feed my appetite; household pets do much the same.

Or I can choose to eat what makes sense for my health, recognizing my responsibility to use my food-generated strength and nutrition to brighten the world in which I live.

It’s not about self-denial. It’s about Purposeful Living.

We are created to be humans, with some strong human impulses. Yet we are asked to harness those impulses without being overrun by them.

We are asked to engage the world, without being TOO engaged by it.

That’s our challenge.

That challenge of Torah. The challenge of Sinai. The challenge of a meaningful life.

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