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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

What Happened to Moses

When I read the Scriptural narrative of Moses' life, it's difficult to
escape a glaring question: Why was Moses left behind - to be buried in
the desert- when the Jews finally crossed into the Promised Land?
Think about it: The man had left the luxury of Pharaoh's palace and
taken a difficult stand against injustice. He had liberated the Jews
from Egyptian slavery and led them on a forty year journey - through
the desert - toward Israel.
And, then at the end, as Israel is in sight, G-d says "sorry, you're
staying here".
Moses was able to view the Land, but he would die - and be buried - in
the desert.
Where's justice?
All the years of service, all the aggravation, the rebellions and the
strife. He took it all for G-d's sake. Couldn't he just set foot in
the Holy Land? Could he at least be buried there?
Our Sages explain that a faithful shepherd never abandons his flock;
he doesn't come home until they ALL do.
Moses knew that a generation of Jews had died in "the great and
awesome desert [a land of] snakes and scorpions... (Deut 8:15). He
also knew that one day, with the Messianic era and Resurrection of the
Dead, they would yet enter Israel.
Moses would wait for them; he would wait to enter Israel until he
could be with his ENTIRE flock.
In a somewhat similar vein, our Matriarch Rachel was buried on the
road to Bethlehem.
Our Sages tell us that Rachel chose to be more accessible to her
future grandchildren in their trials and tribulations; with her grave
at the roadside, they would have a place to find faith and inspiration
as they travelled the road of future subjugation.
It's a leadership thing.
Interestingly, each Chabad Rebbe expressed a deep longing for the Land
of Israel, yet each has been buried outside the land of their longing.
As I type this, I am in Moscow, having just visited the graves of five
Rebbes in Russia and Ukraine. After I land at JFK Airport, I will be
visiting the graves of the Rebbe and his predecessor, the Previous
Rebbe, in Queens.
This morning, I woke up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I had been
visiting the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneersohn (the Rebbe's
father), whose yahrtzeit we'll commemmorate this Shabbat.
The Communists exiled Rabbi Levi Yitzchok to Kazakhstan because it was
"the middle of nowhere".
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok passed away in 1944. The "middle of nowhere" now
has an active Chabad Center; and hundreds of local Jews will be
visiting Rabbi Levi Yitzchok's grave tomorrow and Sunday, re-affirming
and strengthening their Jewish identity.
It's amazing what a sheperd can accomplish by staying with his people,
even in the middle of nowhere.

 

Back to the Future - Rostov

Between 1813 and 1915, Chabad Chassidim lived in the town of
Lubavitch, in what was then called 'White Russia'.
Despite the Czars' anti-semitism, the Jews' societal
disenfranchisement and the pervasive poverty, the Chabad community
developed a very sturdy spiritual world.
Lubavitch probably looked needy from the outside, but it was firmly
secure on the inside.
These people were firmly in touch with themselves, with destiny and
their place in the world.
Lubavitch had a spiritually idyllic soul, housed in an uncomfortable
body (material situation).
This spiritually-grounded community was rudely jolted by the physical
dangers of World War I, followed by the ruthless cruelty of the
Bolshevik revolution.
In 1915, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, felt that
the community needed to protect itself by moving away from the War's
front lines. They sadly uprooted themselves from their beloved home
town and moved to Rostov, on the Don river (within days of their move,
the Rebbe's house in Lubavitch burned to the ground).
Despite their extreme poverty, they managed to buy a small compound.
This had barely enough space to house the Rebbe's family, a synagogue
and the Yeshiva (an academy of Higher Learning which the Rebbe had
founded and was very dear to his heart), called Tomchei Temimim.
They began to settle in. But not for long.
In early 1920, the Bolsheviks captured Rostov. Any gatherings of three
or more people needed a special permit and they began to cruelly
persecute the Jewish community.
As I was growing up, my father would tell me how the ailing Rebbe
defied the Bolsheviks by holding a public Purim feast that year. He
sat with his community in serenity and joy, as the Bolsheviks - who
had burst into his home by force - watched in awe, and ultimately took
heel to leave these Chassidim alone.
The Rebbe, who had devoted his life to expounding the depth of Torah
thought, to teaching and guiding his people, soon passed away; a few
weeks after Purim in 1920.
On the second of Nissan, he peacefully returned his soul to his Maker
as he lay in his study (Kabinet in Russian).
In his final moments he said "I'm going to Heaven, and I leave you my
writings. Take me (my writings) into the Study Hall and we will be
together".
This past Shabbat, I prayed in that Kabinet. I immersed myself in the
Rebbe's Mikvah (ritualarium), slept in the Rebbe's compound, and
immersed myself in the Rebbe's writings.
I also visited the Rebbe's grave on Friday and Sunday mornings;
because the Rebbe's soul still pulsates in the world, wherever we let
it in, and I wanted a frontal embrace at his gravesite.

I had an inspiring taste of Rostov, which is ultimately a revealing
insight into Chabad's soul, so I thought I'd share....

Back to the Future - Lubavitch

On Thursday, I visited the town of Lubavitch, the seat - the 'Capital'
- of Chabad Chassidism for 102 years, and home the Lubavitcher Rebbes
of those times.
I grew up with many stories of events, challenges and triumphs of the
Lubavitch community in Russia, and this little village was at the
epicenter of those stories and lessons.
It's small in size. At the same, it, in many ways, represents my
spiritual lifeblood.
While the village is very rundown and has no Jews, the fall of the
Iron Curtain has allowed for the construction of a new Chabad Center,
which is a hospitality center and serves as a testament to the town's
important history. The center has a wall with [as many] pictures [as
can be found] of the students who studied there from 1897, when the
Lubavitch Yeshiva - known as Tomchei Temimim - was founded.
But that's not why I went. I walked the fields, knowing that I was
following the tracks of spiritual giants, titans of true authenticity,
perpetual seekers of Divine unity.
We visited the graves of the two Lubavitcher Rebbes who are buried
there: Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (passed away
1866) and his son Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash (passed
away in 1882).
To visit these graves was to embrace the spirit which they bequeathed
to the world, which is a sense of devotion to G-d, to Holiness and to
humanity.
The Rebbes' spirit and mission needs to live and reverberate in
Basking Ridge and Central NJ.
It does already. But we're not done.

Back to the Future - Liozna

Last Thursday, we visited the town of Liozna. A small city, it was
home to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, and the city in which
he developed Chabad Chassidic thought.There are presently no Jews in
the town (as far as we can tell). But, before World War 2, that wasn't
the case.The town's Mayoress approached us to convey her awareness and
respect for Liozna's special place in Chassidic history (she added
that Marc Chagall used to live there too!).She seemed so conversant
with 'Chassidic Geography' that I asked her if she herself was Jewish.
She smiled and said: "Probably! My family is here for generations andd
the village population used to be overwhelminlgy Jewish, so maybe a
grandmother!"While Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself is buried in the town
of Haditch, his daughter - known as Rebbetzin Devorah Leah (d.) - was
buried in Liozna. She is famous in Chabad literature as a woman of
deep spiritual insight and great self-sacrifice.Our visit to her
gravesiter wasn't about history. It came from a deep-seated, personal
desire to connect with someone I admire and respect. Her soul
continues to exist, and I feel honored to have brought her into my
life to the extent I did.

More coming up....

Looking for connections

I feel very fortunate: A dear childhood friend has gifted me with a
joint, weeklong pilgrimage to Eastern Europe; it's a journey to Holy
Sites, primarily praying at the resting places of reknowned Chassidic
Masters.
Now, I know that sincere prayer can be effective anywhere, even in
one's living room; we're never out of G-d's 'earshot'.
So why am I here in Rostov, Russia as I write these words?

Effective Prayer is a bit of an art form. To find a sense of
self-awareness, and the connection of self with the Divine, one needs
to cut through one's internal static, the sense of distractedness and
self-absorption that comes with life.
In order to truly pray, you need to get into a 'zone', and that's not
as easy as it sounds.
While Jewish Law advances the synagogue and prayer group (Minyan) as
our prescribed - effective - setting for Prayer, our Sages also
suggest that periodic visits to a cemetery are advisable.
Why?
A. A cemetery - with its clear message of human mortaility - is
conducive to a sober, self-reflective attitude.It helps dispel the
trivialities which cloud the mind and allow for crystallization of
life's priorities.
B.This sense of focus is often amplified when one is visiting the
gravesite of a person with whom one has/d a deep relationship.
Revisiting the relationship, or perhaps the last interactions the two
of you had while he/she was physically alive, This poignant,
emotionally sensitive state of mind can be a helpful setting for
proper prayer.
C.Practically speaking, different venues have varying effects on prayer.
One can certainly pray while sitting in the stands at a Yankee game,
but it's not a setting that's conducive to contemplation and
introspection.
On the other hand, standing at the Grand Canyon would seem to present
a much more contemplative ambience.
Praying at the grave of a person who lived a committed, purposeful and
inspiring (Holy!)life sets a tone, and its a tone which is helpful for
prayer.
D.Looking at the practical metaphysics of prayer, Torah thought
teaches that some places have better "reception" for our
communications with the Divine.
To use a rather pedestrian example: We all know what it means to find
the right spot for clear cellular communiication.Some places are
obviously better than others.
Similarly, our Sages speak of"conducive" places for prayer. There are
areas - the Western Wall for example - where the 'air' is less
'polluted' and allows for prayers to rise to the Divine.
The gravesite of a Holy person is just such a place.The spiritual
vibes which emanate from a Holy person - and his/her resting place -
create a "spiritual clearing" from which our sentiments are better
able to ascend to more rarefied realms and find their 'mark'.
E.During the course of human life, a persons's soul is contained
within the body. After passing, the soul's transcendentlevels ascend
to higher planes, but the soul's interactive dimension, its interface
with the human world, continunes to resonate in the world s/he "left
behind".
That is why Talmudic literature describes a righteous person's death
as "s/he left life to the living", meaning that s/he has left life -
spirituality, faith, love etc, - to REMAIN within the acessibility of
those who remain living on a physical plane.
In this sense, it is specifically AFTER the person's physical passing
that the greatest accessibllity is manifest. While the person was
alive, we had access to him/her through their speech and actions,
which were limited by the scope of his/her body, ability to
communicate etc. Now, his/her spiritual life is acessible to anyone
and at any time.
The only proviso is that I/we express a genuine desire to connect with
that soul.
And the Kabbalah teaches that our most effective point of interface is
at the deceased's gravesite.

More on this and on the specific points on the itinerary on the blog.

By the time you read this...

I will (G-d willing) be in Eastern Europe, on a weeklong pilgrimage through Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan (I'm typing this on my Blackberry as I wait for my flight).
I use the word "pilgrimage" because it's the only single word I can come up with. I actually think a  phrase would describe it better: I'm on a "journey of connecting with my spiritual roots, my G-d and myself".
Why the trip?
Lots of people - myself included - go to Israel to visit the Kotel (the Western Wall).
Why are we paying homage to the retaining wall of a building (albeit the Holy Temple) that was destroyed 2000 years ago? Is it purely a function of connecting with our history?
Not for me. When I - and many others - visit the Kotel its because I know that its essence, its spiritual vibrancy, continues to resonate as it did thousands of years ago.
The Babylonians and the Romans were able to destroy a physical building, but they couldn't reach its soul. The body/building went down in flames, but its spiritual power continues to resonate.
So a 'pilgrimage' to the Kotel isn't [just] about our history, it's very much about our present. It's about finding a connectedness and balance, about "plugging in" to find energy and "spiritual current" TODAY, and for the future.
In a similar vein, I frequently visit the Rebbe's grave (known as "the Ohel")in Queens. When I go, it's with several age-old Judaic axioms in mind:
1. The righteous are called "living" even after their passing. Their lives are ones of spiritual connectedness with G-d and their people; that doesn't die.
2. The righteous are engaged and effective in the physical world even after their passing; actually, their presence is to an even greater extent once divested of the body.
So when I go to visit the Rebbe, it isn't to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. I go to bare my soul, and to feel the empowering embrace that I know is there.
Over the next week, I'll be visiting the gravesites of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement), his successor Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch and the first five Chabad Rebbes (the Rebbe and his predecessor/father-in-law are buried side by side in Queens).
It's about digging deeper into my soul.
Jewish spirituality describes each of our lives as a garden at the base of a mountain, with G-d's blessing and presence represented by the stream of water that flows down the mountain to water the garden.
In that imagery, our righteous ancestors and leaders guide and facilitate the flow.
So, to me, the Rebbe is the mouth of the stream which waters my garden, and - to take the analogy further - I'm taking a week to climb my mountain to connect more deeply with my stream.

I'll be posting updateskeep touch through my blog; please do the same!

Rabbi Mendy

How's Your Vision?

What does it mean to be visionary, to have a vision for your life and pursuits?

In a basic sense, this means conceptualizing goals and objectives; it means considering future potential and focusing on a target for growth. It means recognizing that “now” isn’t all that there is.

“Now” – disconnected from the future and its possibilities – can be stale and aimless.

“Now” is our reality; but vision can breathe commitment, animation and hope into that reality.

Vision brings optimism and direction; it is the dream, but it should also be the pro-active inspiration driving us to bring dreams to life.

The problem is that, with the passage of time, it becomes more difficult for the realistic person to continue dreaming. Disappointments eventually take their toll on the human psyche.

Which raises the question: When does one learn to adjust one’s expectations and recognize that that dreams are……just dreams?

Never.

While we should always be acutely aware of reality, warts and all, we can never stop believing in – and working toward – a brighter future.

Consider this: Our Holy Temple, along with our entire Jewish Commonwealth, was destroyed by the Romans almost two thousand years ago.

It’s been rough ever since, and we’re fully aware of our reality. Every year, on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av (this year corresponding to Tuesday, July 20), we mournfully remember the destruction and recognize the pain of our own times.

Yet, interestingly, the preceding Shabbat is always marked? celebrated? observed? as a “Shabbat of Vision.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an eighteenth century legendary Chassidic master, explained that every year on the Shabbat before our collective day of mourning, G-d shows us a Vision of the Future. We are shown a vision of a rebuilt Temple, a reconstituted People and better world. 

G-d equips us for the mourning by ensuring that hope – the Vision – never dies; this Shabbat exercise ensures that our sobering recognition of “now” doesn’t smother our hope for the future.

I can’t see this Divinely-granted vision with my physical eyes; but if G-d’s showing it to me, it must be resonating somewhere in my soul.

So this Shabbat, I’ll prepare to tackle reality on Tisha B’Av by first searching myself to find G-d’s vision of a beautiful future.

Will you join me?

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