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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

THink You Can't? Think Again

Most of us are familiar with Pharaoh, the villain of the Passover story. He tortured and enslaved the Jews, until G-d sent Moses to demand: "Let my people go!”. His country was ultimately decimated by ten plagues and the Jews were liberated.

The narrative depicts Pharaoh as stubbornly self-destructive. Why does he persist in his evil ways, when he knows that freeing the Jews will stop the plagues and ease his pain? Why doesn’t he just do the [self-serving] right thing?

A closer look at the Torah's narrative sparks an additional question. Scripture clearly says that G-d 'hardened Pharaoh's heart', reinforcing his stubbornness, and that was why he didn't acquiesce to

Moses’ demands. So if G-d messed with his mind and he was unable to make a good choice, why is he punished for making a bad one?

Here’s a way to understand Pharaoh, and simultaneously understand more about ourselves:

When a behavior brings painful results, it’s normal – even reflexive -to work toward modifying that behavior; we simply want to avoid the pain. But there’s an exception. It’s when we tell ourselves “I can’t change”.

Let’s say someone finds it difficult to show a spouse emotional support, and therefore catches marital grief. Or someone is less than diligent and consequently suffers at the office. The easy way out is to say “hey, this is the way I am” and then blame others for their lack of understanding.

This pain won’t bring behavioral modification, because the person seems himself as a victim of [other-inflicted] pain, rather than its cause; it’s all the other party’s fault.

That doesn’t mean the person can’t change; it’s just that he’s placed himself in a particularly non-growth-inducing spot. His self-righteousness/pain supports his illusion of "I can't change, so this isn’t about me".

That’s a way to understand Pharaoh’s situation. In response to Pharaoh's cruelty, G-d desensitized him enough so that the pain didn’t inspire him to change. Instead of digesting what he was doing to others, he chose to focus on ‘what was being done to him’. His own self-improvement wasn't on the table.

But G-d didn’t see him as incapable of growth; He demanded better behavior. Pharaoh just couldn’t find the strength to deliver. He didn't have the moral guts to find his better self.

That was then, this is now. Yet Pharaoh lives on in many of us.

Time for freedom.

My Pharaoh, Your Pharaoh

I'd bet it's a common human experience.
You’re facing a decision. Something like: Should you stay a little
longer in the office or make it home for dinner with the family? You
consider the options: Are you rationalizing selfishness, or doing the responsible thing? You choose a course of action, believing that you've been honest with yourself.
Now, what happens when you come across new 'evidence' which shows that you're actually on the wrong path? What now?
That's where character comes in. People with moral strength have the guts to stop short and admit a mistake. They have the courage to change direction.
People with weak values keep boring ahead, irrespective of the facts.
It's what we call a Pharaoh personality.
Pharaoh obviously didn’t like the Jewish people’s presence in his
land, and that was a - or perhaps the - reason behind his evil
behavior. On the other hand, did you know that G-d told Abraham his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13-14)? Since it’s conceivable that Pharaoh was aware of this Abrahamic vision (would Abraham have kept it a secret?), perhaps Pharaoh thought he was doing G-d’s work! Implausible as it may sound, the question begs to be asked: Is it possible that Pharaoh – aside from personally disliking the Jewish people - thought he was doing G-d’s work, and helping the Hebrews live out their Divinely-ordained history?
No.
Here’s why.
Irrespective of why Pharaoh launched his slavery program, he was eventually confronted by Moses, a man who showed his G-dly credentials and gave him clear instructions: "Let them go. You’re doing something wrong. You and your people will suffer if you continue".
Yet Pharaoh continued. And Pharaoh suffered. But he refused to change course; it took ten devastating plagues to loosen his grip. What kind of a person looks facts (Moses’ message from G-d) and self-destruction in the face, and continues on his wrong-headed path?
A person who can’t admit he made a mistake. A person who can’t find the courage to change direction.
In this sense, Pharaoh lives inside many of us.
When you hand your inner Moses the reins of your life, you'll find the strength to rise above your personal Pharaoh, escape your individual Egypt and find the way to your own Promised Land.

When you look deeper, you’ll find that Torah's the story of your life.

Unscrambling Life's Messages

A special person in your life leaves you a note: The letter V.  A little later you find an E, then an O and then an L.

Hmmm..….

You now have four random letters in which you can find very little significance. What could they mean? Is it possible there’s no significance?

Suddenly it hits you. The letters spell the word LOVE.

Once you get the right perspective, and put the letters into proper context, they coalesce into a beautiful word, an affectionate communication, a stream of warmth into your life.

You actually live this every day.

Kabbalistically speaking, letters are a metaphor for the events and objects of our lives. In a world where meaning is hidden, we often see life as a de-contextualized jumble that doesn’t make much sense. So, do we just shrug our shoulders and assume that there’s no meaning to be found? Or do we keep searching for the message?

Let’s look at your day:
Say you'll be spending an hour with a client, or doing housework.
In and of themselves, such hours come and go; they’re unremarkable in the scope of your life.

Metaphorically, these mundane hours are meaningless, random letters.
But now put them into context: You were created by G-d for an objective that is important; it’s unique to you, which is why G-d found it necessary to create you.  This doesn’t mean that your respective raison d' être necessarily entails headline-grabbing accomplishments. It means that G-d wants you and me to lead purpose-driven lives, focused on our responsibilities to our Creator and to the world around us. And to G-d, that’s really important.

When we’re mindful of this objective, and see our tasks – like a client meeting or laundry – as part of the trajectory toward a meaningful life, we’re achieving our goal.

Your day is full of letters; you just need to put them in context.

This is a fundamental function of prayer. In the contemplation of prayer, we take life’s details and frame them, forming beautiful sentences out of important letters. In that sense, prayer is redemptive; it releases events from the trap of meaninglessness, elevating them so that they’re re-experienced as part of a cosmically meaningful journey through life.

It’s up to you. Free yourself.

What would YOU do?

 

A teenager is kidnapped by his brothers and sold into slavery. The youth works his way to freedom and scales his new land's socio-political ladder, eventually becoming the second most powerful man in the country.
Years later, facing a regional famine, the brothers travel abroad to buy supplies from a prominent political leader, who - unbeknownst to them - is the boy they once betrayed. A perfect opportunity for revenge.
What does he do? What would you do?
The drive for revenge seems natural. When someone is wronged, we want justice, to ‘get even’. Some may even see and 'honor' in 'avenging a wrong'.
But it's not that simple in the Torah mindset.
Revenge is a desire to hurt someone, just because that person has done harm. It's not about undoing the damage, it's about inflicting more pain. The desire for revenge doesn't come from a good place, and the Torah forbids it (Leviticus 19:18).
We certainly want Justice, and Justice sometimes hurts; but hurting isn’t the objective. Rehabilitation and moral cleansing, even if only on a soul level, is the goal.
So let's go back to the opening scenario, which actually describes our ancestor Joseph and the Biblical narrative of the interactions with his brothers. He had a great opportunity for revenge.
And how did he respond?
First, he managed to discern whether his brothers had changed. Did they regret what they'd done to him? Had they learned and grown from their negative experience? Once he was certain that they had spiritually evolved, and that they had grown through repentance, he revealed his true identity to them.
Then he shows us a Torah attitude. He tells them (Genesis 50:19:21): “Although you intended to harm me, G-d had a positive plan…”.
Fascinating.
Joseph doesn’t whitewash their behavior. He calls them out as people who had negative intentions. Their intentions weren't good.
At the same time, he looks beyond their choices. He doesn't give others the key to his life. He recognizes that his challenges have a purpose, and that the way he meets those obstacles fulfills his destiny. Joseph endures terrible pain and acknowledges it. But he refuses to be defined by it. He’s not gripped by self-pity or revenge.

Instead he says “G-d, if this happened to me in Your world, there’s got to be a purpose, and I’m going to find it.”

A profile of Biblical proportions.

 

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