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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Ingredients for a Loving Relationship

Love: You know it when you feel it. Your heart feels like it’s surging, pumping on all cylinders, ALIVE.

Awe: You know it when you feel it. It’s what happens when you’re in the presence of a larger-than-life personality, someone so awe-inspiring that you’re totally overwhelmed, dumbstruck. 

Awe is thrilling, but not in the same way as love. With awe, you're not in 'expansion mode'. You're not on fire. You don't feel like your heart is leaping out of your chest cavity. To the contrary, awe makes you emotionally stand back - shrinking - to make way for the awesome experience.

Think about how you felt when you saw your baby for the first time: Did you automatically reach out in love? Or did the sight make you pause in wonder, taking your breath away? That’s awe.

Awe is an emotional force that blows away your normal ego posture, that "I'm the center of the universe" attitude and creates a wide psychological berth for the object of your wonder.

So Awe and Love are two very different emotions, one expanding the sense of self and the other diminishing it, yet they work best in tandem.

Imagine if you took the opportunity to feel the wonder, the marvel of a loved one, before allowing the love to flow? With your ego mindset relaxed, your love can be so much more powerful.

Awe is a love multiplier. If love is deep connectedness, this combination gets you there. 

This helps us understand Judaism’s two-pronged approach to forging a healthy relationship with G-d:

First, we put life on pause, contemplate the universe’s majesty, nature’s complexity and the miracle of the human body. We stand back in wonder at G-d’s creation.

One you've felt Creation’s majesty, you've made space within yourself; now you can begin to generate love and closeness.

An effective way is to consider your blessings. If you're reading this, you have the blessings of life and cognition. Contemplate those blessings and work forward; think about your life and its beauty. Thank G-d for giving you what you have.

You'll feel closer.

Our relationships, beginning with our relationship with G-d, is the stuff of life. They deserve work and mental exercise to make them the best they can be.

Awe and Love are the wings that can make them soar.

The Secret of Dikduk

The seven year old boy was struggling with his Hebrew grammar studies.

[Hebrew is highly inflected, as compared to other languages. So Hebrew grammar - known as Dikduk - is especially complex and nuanced.]

It was 1887, and little Yosef Yitzchok, who excelled in all other areas of study, just couldn’t grasp Dikduk.
The boy’s father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson (fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe), hired a skilled tutor; but the boy kept struggling. Crestfallen, Yosef Yitzchok approached his saintly father and - in tears – expressed his deep disappointment.

After serious thought, Rabbi Sholom Dovber spoke to his child (I’ll present the Rebbe’s words as I understand them, not verbatim):

Some areas of Torah are primarily conceptual; they may be a concept, an art or a skill. Other things are fundamentally ‘labors’; their focus is more on the task at hand, the brass tacks, than the particular philosophy.

Dikduk is a laborious, detail-focused pursuit (the word ‘Dikduk’ actually means punctiliousness, scrupulous attention to particulars). Grasping ideas and principles doesn't make you a Grammarian; it’s about bottom-line attention to detail and structure.

Apply the Dikduk attitude – meticulous, detailed mindfulness – to your internal posture, to measure how you’re feeling toward others. Bring the Dikduk attitude – careful attention – to the flow of your thoughts, guiding them to positive and productive places. Administer the Dikduk attitude – painstaking scrutiny – to your speech, assessing how you express yourself to others. Extend the Dikduk attitude –precise fine-tuning – to your actions, monitoring and refining the way you treat others.

The Rebbe was teaching this gifted little boy that the key to better living goes beyond the realm of theory. It lies in punctilious attention to detail. Sure, we need a theoretical framework; but the primary accomplishment lies in our concrete behaviors.

This opens a tiny window into how one Chassidic master raised another (decades later, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok became the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe).

It also reveals the spirit which Rabbi Sholom DovBer breathed into the Yeshiva he founded, Tomchei Temimim, which I was privileged to attend (the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown goes by that Hebrew name: Tomchei Temimim).

Today, the 20th of Cheshvan, is Rabbi Sholom DovBer's birthday, so we need to say “Happy Birthday Rebbe”.

Thanks for everything.

Occupy Sodom

“What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine.”

Socialism simplified.

The Talmud calls this attitude “ignorant” (Avot 5:10). People need to have their personal space and property respected; it’s critical to their emotional health and their productivity quotient.  To think otherwise betrays ignorance of the human condition (I saw living proof of this when I lived in Communist Russia for six months).

Sure, Torah strongly advocates sharing. But when I choose to share my assets with you, it’s my Mitzvah. It isn’t because you have a right to my things.

So what’s mine is decidedly not yours. And vice versa.

So the next piece of that Talmudic quote is puzzling. A opinion is brought: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours is a Sodomite characteristic (Sodom and Gomorrah are the epitome of selfishness and cruelty).“

What’s wrong with that statement? Why isn’t it a fair and normative way to live?

Torah wisdom teaches that the ‘Sodomite Syndrome’ actually has a potentially positive dimension to it.  

Sodom symbolizes a strong sense of self, which can be a very good thing. It means having self-sustaining confidence. It means feeling that my life is between me and G-d, period. It means that I’m not intimidated by others’ opinions; comments from the sidelines may be instructive, but they aren't definitive.

My life. My struggle, My growth.

That’s healthy Sodom.

It’s independence as the opposite of dependency; , but not – and this is a critical distinction -  independence as self-centeredness.  It’s independence that grows into inter-dependence. Once I'm secure in my identity, I need to consider my responsibility to others.

As Hillel taught "If I am not for my myself who will be for me (independent sense of self)
but if I am only for myself what am I (interdependent sense of responsibility to others)."

Independence then interdependence.

"What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" is only a negative attitude if there's a period at the end of that sentence. If we see each other as mutually exclusive – non interdependent -  islands.

But what if there's a comma? What if I say "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours, AND,  since we share a responsibility to better the world, let’s commit some of our rightfully-owned resources and create a better society?

That’s capitalism with a soul.

Sodom redeemed.

Learning to Love

What is love?

Love is closeness.

But it’s more. It’s committed closeness.

The heart’s warm flutter is often fleeting infatuation, here today and gone tomorrow. But love is something different. It’s substantive; it’s real. It’s a bond that stands strong in the face of day-to-day volatility, an emotional anchor that’s unshaken by life’s waves.

In Torah language, it’s called a Covenant (Bris in Hebrew), which is when two parties reach a deep, integral Oneness. It’s an authentic RELATIONSHIP.

That’s what Abraham had going with G-d. We, too, can each find this beauty in our own interfaces with the Divine, and with our loved ones.

But love is acually more than commitment. It’s other-centered commitment.

There’s a Chassidic story about a child who watches an adult catch and prepare a fish. Before his first bite, the adult exlaims “I love fish”. The child responds: “Sir, you apparently don’t love fish; for if you did, you would have let this one stay in the water. You actually love yourself, and this fish is just another avenue for feeding your self-love!”

Genuine love isn’t about us gratifying ourselves (although that may be a nice by-product). Love is about making space for the other’s needs; it’s about the other’s sensitivities becoming our personal concern.  

Of course we need to look after ourselves too; but that needn’t be a contradiction to other-centeredness. If I take a day to care for myself, so that I am better fit to discharge my responsibilities to G-d and the world, I’m living a day of other-consciousness. Filling my needs is a necessary preparation for benefitting others.

Abraham modeled this attitude for us. His relationship with the Divine showed total commitment. He made genuine space in his life for G-d’s Will. And he had the ability to find meaning in everything he did; even his physical life, including his ‘self-gratifying pursuits’, were opportunities for deepening – and expressing - his relationship with the Divine.

That’s why G-d commanded him - and us - to embody the Covenant by marking an area of the physical body, and specifically an organ which is symbolizes the pursuit of pleasurable physical engagement. To Abraham, it was all about building relationships and making this a better world, all about the Covenant.

Abraham showed us it can be done.

Now let’s go live life as it’s meant to be lived.

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