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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Ready?

Are you ready for Chanukah?
Chanukah seems simple enough: We light the Menorah, eat some latkes and play some Dreidel; then add gifts and a family get-together to round off your Holiday.
Actually, it’s much richer, and more complex, than that simple equation.
Take the Menorah, the shedding of illumination. What does that mean? By its Dictionary definition, to ‘illuminate’ means to cast light on something, as kindling a Chanukah Menorah illuminates a dark room.
But, illumination also means to brighten, in the sense that a smile brightens your loved one’s mood.
It means to clarify, in the sense that an insightful statement can resolve your friend’s scattered state of mind.
It means to ignite, in the sense that an inspiring word will spark your co-worker’s soul.
It means to enlighten, in the sense that finding purpose will illuminate your life, by dispelling the dark shadows of meaninglessness.
It means to make resplendent, in the sense that nurturing your spousal relationship will make its beauty shine in your life.
So illumination is a lot more than striking a match. It’s about connecting with transcendence, beauty and clarity.
And that’s what Chanukah is all about. The Hellenists had tried to gut Judaism of its ‘G-d element’; they permitted ‘rational’ Jewish practices, but forbade Divinity as part of the equation. But the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) understood that this struck at the soul of Judaism, and gutted the very rituals they ostensibly allowed. If one sees the world as an inherently meaningless sphere hurtling through space, then life is inherently meaningless, no matter what rituals one follows.
The Hasmoneans knew that G-d and Torah would bring Holiness to their lives, clarity to their quandaries, spark to their souls, and purpose to their worldly journeys. They knew that G-d is the indispensable ingredient for a genuine life of beauty.
The Hasmoneans also set the bar for future Chanukah celebrations. Brightening your living room is relatively easy illumination to accomplish. But achieving the more profound illumination, finding Higher Light and Connection, is more complicated than striking a match. It takes advance soul-searching and preparation.
So: Are we ready?

Deceptively Meaningful

 

When I was a child, I begged my father to take me to a baseball game. I nagged and badgered like only a little kid can do. He has absolutely no interest in baseball. Zilch. He probably dreaded the idea of spending four boring hours at Shea stadium.

But he took me anyway.

In retrospect, others in the stands probably thought my father was an interested fan; but I know he wasn’t. He was there for one – and only one - reason: To make me happy. Tom Seaver was but a conduit to my father’s end game: Deepening his relationship with his young son.

Appearances can be deceiving; and sometimes that’s a good thing.

Sure, ‘deceptive’ is a negative word; ‘misleading’ doesn’t sound kosher either. But how do you describe an exercise which appears to be self-indulgent, but is actually being pursued for a higher purpose?

Deceptively meaningful? Meaningfully deceptive?

Here’s a more common example: You see someone eating a tantalizing meal, and assume it’s in the pursuit of self-gratification. What if she simply wants to be healthy so that she can actualize her purpose by leading a meaningful life? What of someone who works in business because he wants to honorably serve his customers? Because he wants to generously support his community through the money he earns?

These individuals may look like they’re serving themselves, but their high-minded intent makes them other-centered and G-d-centered.

This is actually the stuff of life: Pursuing exercises which have a meaningful essence, even though they look shallow on the outside.

We’re created as angels, and we’re not supposed to be sitting in prayer all day. Our purpose includes engaging the material world, whether it’s on Main Street or Wall Street. We need to pursue human endeavors; the trick – nay, the soul – lies in the intent of our pursuit. Are we conscious of our Higher Purpose? Do we guide ourselves by a Higher Code? If the answer is yes, then the pursuit– notwithstanding its appearance – is very much Divine.

As a people, we are known by the name of our Patriarch ‘Yaakov’ (Jacob). Linguistically, the word Yaakov connotes ‘deceptiveness’. Not pretty, on its face.

But in light of the above, it’s actually deceptively beautiful. Yaakov is a name that shouts our mission and calls us to action: Engage the world, but – while you’re doing so – don’t lose sight of life’s Higher Purpose.

The View from Jacob's ladder

Your flight crew has asked the passengers to buckle their seatbelts. Airspeed has been reduced, and your flight begins its steady descent for landing.
From your window, you have a bird's eye view of people on the ground, going through their daily lives. You can see slow-motion Matchbox cars bringing people to their respective destinations.
You have a perceptual advantage over the people you're observing: On the ground, they can’t see how they fit into the picturesque countryside or the busy city. They can’t see the traffic miles ahead, nor what’s going on at the location they left two minutes ago.
Two vastly different perspectives:
The aerial view allows one to see a large swath in its entirety and within its landscape. You don't lose the forest for the trees.
The ground view gives you details that are critically necessary; yet these life-sized minutiae often fill your entire visual field, eclipsing the wide-angle perspective and its benefits.
We need both perspectives for purposeful living.
Imagine an aerial view of your life. What would happen if you stepped away from your immediate struggles - the ones so close to your face that they block out the light - to panoramically observe where you're coming from and where you're going? What if there were a transcendent perch from which you could 'modify your travel plans' and get you to your 'destination' more effectively? What if you could see your life – the ups and the downs - through a wide-angle lens, a context which could soften the pain of your immediate struggles?
Scripture tells us that Jacob had a dream in which he saw angels climbing up and down a ladder; the ladder had its feet firmly planted on the ground, while its top reached into the heavens.
The Kabbalists taught that this ladder, a bridge between heaven and earth, represents prayer. Prayer is the process of climbing higher and deeper within ourselves; it's scaling your psyche to find the holiest and G-dliest - unscathed by the world - place within yourself. Prayer is ascending Jacob's Ladder to find clearer perspective of my personal potential, my life on the ground, and where I can make some helpful changes.
Take some time to focus and go on up; you can see a beautiful life from up there.

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