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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Making Sense After Newtown

I’ve gotten a flurry of e-mails seeking a Torah response to the Newtown massacre, searching for a way to "make sense of this terrible tragedy." I can’t “make sense” of this disaster; that would be a hairsbreadth away from justifying it.
But we do need to empathize. And we do need to respond.
I think the nation is going through a collective, empathetic shiva, the traditional period of mourning, for these innocent young lives. This week, we’re all Newtownians.
Jewish Law instructs Shiva visitors not to say anything to the mourners until the mourners speak with them. The Law’s message seems to be: Nothing you say can undo their loss, no words of wisdom can 'make sense' of a personal tragedy. Just be there. Care. Let them know they’re not alone.
After Shiva, the mourners take a walk around the block. This symbolizes the mourners’ first steps out of grief’s intense cloud, as they begin channeling their pain into constructive energy.
As a nation, our collective response needs to eventually convert horror into action, with pro-active steps to spread light in the face of acute darkness.
Two suggestions:
1. We all know people who 'don't fit in'. When you encounter the geek in High School or the socially awkward adult, how do you respond? Do you simply turn your attention to people who are more interesting? Next time, do the moral thing: Remember that this is someone's child, no less than you are. Flash a genuine smile, say a nice word. Make the person feel accepted. Bring light to his/her life.
2. We love this country and its freedoms. Yet freedom without responsibility sometimes leads people to take irresponsible freedoms. We can do better. I dream of a country where children are raised to live by a Higher moral standard (their parents can define that for them), where they feel responsible to a Divine Eye that sees and a Divine Ear that hears. We need this in our common culture.
I don’t know that either of these would have prevented the massacre. I do believe they will bring more light to our world.
While we can't - we shouldn't - try to make sense of Newtown, we can take sensible steps in response.
They won't undo the past, but they will certainly make for a brighter future.

Like a Parent Loves a Child

Are you grown up? Out of school and out of the house?
Is your education complete?
Before you answer that last question, consider the profundity implied by the term 'education'.
It's not just the three 'R's and their academic partners. It’s so much more.
There is a deep objective to educating a child, and it's not simply a function of knowledge. 'Education' is about initiating a child into his/her own personality and talents, equipping them for a meaningful life in a complex world.
Chassidic thought points out that when you launch any new endeavor, you need to pay special attention to its initial stages; you need to ensure you give it a healthy send-off, before you can exhale and trust in its ability to follow a healthy pattern. You need to be wholly invested in those early, vulnerable chapters.
Similarly, in helping to launch a child's life, a parent/teacher needs to shower love and support, building a sense of security and empowerment. Within that healthy cocoon, a child can hit a healthy stride, growing to meaningfully engage the world.
That's the soul of education.
And it doesn't stop with childhood; the concept applies to any situation where the subject is too vulnerable to find his or her own way forward over a threshold.
That's one reason this Holiday is called Chanukah, which literally means 'Inauguration' or 'Education'.
When the Hellenists took control of Israel, and began to seduce the Jews with their hedonistic ways, the Jews were in a particularly weak position, both spiritually and militarily. Their lives went dark; they couldn’t extricate themselves from this threat to their very existence.

But, in the final analysis, we never go totally dark. There's always the spark of elemental connection to G-d that can never be extinguished. Digging deep for that backstop of moral strength, the Jews refused to surrender their religious practices. They wouldn't - they couldn't - separate themselves from their G-d and their heritage.
And G-d - like the quintessential loving Parent - responded. Seeing their childlike vulnerability, G-d showered them with loving care, with spiritual and military strength, with supernatural light in their lives, to make it over this difficult threshold.

That’s what we celebrate on Chanukah: The miracle of G-d’s care and love lighting up the darkness.

In those days.

Today.

Is Your Candle Burning?

Have you ever seen someone look absolutely radiant? Someone seeming to emit an inner glow?

Have you ever engaged a bright person and been astonished by his/her brilliance?

Ever seen someone gleaming, I mean positively beaming, and sense rays of joy lighting up the room?

Ever known someone so morally balanced that you looked up to him/her as a beacon of virtue?

I'm trying to describe an intangible: the inner beauty of the human experience, and used nine synonyms for, or directly related to, ‘light’; and never was I referring to electromagnetic radiation.

Because 'Light' is a metaphor to describe the sublime, our experience at its unclouded best.

It’s not just our colloquial usage either. Torah parlance describes Moses’ face, pursuant to his Divine revelation on Mount Sinai, as “radiant”. We’re told that “one’s wisdom illumines one’s face”; and the priestly blessing prays that “G-d shine His countenance” upon us.

So 'light' is a Torah symbol for full spiritual, physical, mental and emotional expression. With light, we see ourselves and the world in full glory. With light, life makes sense.

G-d tells us that we are all Divine candles, invested in a human condition which threatens to obstruct our inner brilliance. Going through life, we pray for G-d to dispel the darkness of our confusion, self-absorption and lack of moral focus. We pray for our souls to shine.

When the Temple stood, its majestic Menorah – the seven branched candelabra – represented us as a people. When the Kohen (Priest) kindled its flames, he was drawing light to our souls, illuminating our psyches.

When the Hellenists took control of Israel, they fed us hedonism, trying to cloud our souls with their self-indulgent veil. They were promoting moral darkness, and presenting it as the light of societal evolution. The Hellenists weren’t trying to annihilate our bodies; they were seeking to extinguish our internal Divine light.

They wanted our Holy Menorah - in all its dimensions - to go dark.

The Maccabees heroically fought back and they miraculously won. They preserved Divine light. For us.

This Chanukah, dig deep inside yourself to find your own Holy oil. And kindle your inner flame.

Connect with Chanukah’s energy by lighting a Menorah for eight nights (not just the night of the family Chanukah party:)).

Add your candle to the brilliant blaze of our history.

Light up your life.

Travel Light

The Jewish traveler was aghast. He had come to visit Rabbi Dovber, who would eventually be known throughout the world as a premier spiritual master (Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, 18th century leader of the Chassidic movement), and was dismayed by the poor living conditions.
The holy Rabbi was sitting on a board (no chairs in sight), and teaching young children Torah. The scene seemed so out of kilter; rich spirituality framed by such raw poverty. The man, an innkeeper by trade, couldn’t imagine living under such conditions.
Unable to contain himself, he asked the Rabbi how he could live without the basic amenities of a normal house. Why his home was so bare?
Answering his question with a question, the Rabbi queried “well, where is your furniture?”
Perplexed, the man replied “Rabbi, I’m obviously in the midst of a journey, and I don’t take my furniture with me when I travel. At home I’m set up fine. That‘s where I'm really invested and that's where it matters.”
Rabbi Dovber replied “I, too, am in the midst of a journey. G-d set my soul to this world for a purpose, just as he sent yours. I'm travelling through life and will eventually move on to a higher plane.
The material is all part of life's impermanence, and I treat it as such. I don't care that much about furniture when I'm 'travelling'.
My ‘home’, my soul condition, is much better cared for. That‘s where it matters.”
We’re all on the road of life. We’re each put here for a purpose, and what matters most is the objective. The rest is the trimmings; the mint on the pillow is nice, but it’s not a priority.
The purposeful things are we [should] really live; that’s where we want to make sure all the details are addressed. At home, even small details matter; after all, it’s your home.
A daily question to ponder is: Where do I really live? Which areas of life genuinely matter? Which areas of life are just parts of the journey, a means to a greater end?
How much attention do we pay to each?
Putting all our attention into fleeting pleasures is kind of like carrying your sofa with you as you travel. It’s misplaced priorities.
Travel light. Live well.

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