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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

G-d Prefers Light

There’s a curious piece of Midrashic (ancient Rabbinic) wisdom focusing on the beginning of Genesis. Scripture tells us that “G-d called the Light: ‘Day’”, which the Rabbis see as an allusion to the righteous behavior which would exist in the future world. Then it says “G-d called the darkness: ‘Night’”, an allusion to the ways of the wicked.
The Midrash observes that once these two paths have been depicted “we still don’t know which is preferred by G-d, so the Scripture tells us ‘And G-d saw the Light and it was good’; [Ergo,] G-d prefers the way of the righteous.”
That’s a tough one to understand. G-d obviously prefers righteousness over evil. So what question is the Midrash addressing, and what is the answer?
Here’s a Chassidic interpretation:
Behaving properly, and pro-actively leading a life that brings light to the world, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We all live in a world with other people, and not everyone lives according to the values we hold dear.
So what do you do when someone close to you, someone within your healthy sphere of influence, is behaving in a way which violates your core values? Or even if it’s not values per se, what do you do if you think someone is pursuing a flawed strategy or path?
Remaining silent isn’t always a moral option. If you care about the person, and believe in the value/strategy, how can you deprive that person of your feedback?

Criticism isn’t a pleasant thing to hear, but it’s often a necessity. We all need feedback so that we can improve ourselves and our lives. If we value personal growth, constructive criticism is nothing to fear; it’s our friend.
At the same time, criticism can be a very destructive force. Angry, cutting criticism is anything but constructive. It may get a load off your chest but it doesn’t improve the world.
So these are the two proper paths being evaluated in that Midrashic piece. The Torah obviously advocates a life of righteousness. The question is: How does the righteously-living person communicate with one who seems sidetracked?
In the way of the righteous (gentle, empowering guidance)?
Or in the way of the wicked (harsh and angry criticism)?
The Torah, life’s User’s Manual, teaches us: G-d prefers Light. Spread it.

The Power of No

Not a very enticing to title, is it?

Saying ‘No’ negative. Austere. Unattractive.

So let’s think about how sometimes saying ‘No’ can actually be saying ‘Yes’.

A scenario: You’re at home and you see a piece of chocolate, and it looks delicious. Your doctor hasn’t warned you against it, your weight is in check, the ingredients are kosher and the luscious snack belongs to you.

What’s the downside of eating it? Is there any point in denying yourself this treat? It feels like masochistic self-flagellation to tell yourself no.

What would be the point?

There are several:

1. We often try to numb ourselves with food, drink and other pleasures. These stimulants help us avoid facing - and dealing with - the issues in our lives. Indulgence usually means distraction from life’s real work. So itt’s good to discipline oneself to indulge responsibly, with a healthy objective. That comes through training yourself to say no once in a while.

2. We operate best when we think clearly, choosing a healthy path forward and avoiding decisions based on impulsive desires. The more we indulge the senses, the more difficult it becomes to disengage from their grasp. You can’t usually do it on a dime. If you don’t want inanimate objects and substance-less fantasies to have control of your life, it’s good to exercise self-discipline. If only for the sake of showing yourself you’re in your life’s driver’s seat.

3. The Torah tells us that G-d created us each for a purpose. That purpose (which means leading a Torah-sanctioned life, which will include caring for ourselves and our families etc) needs to be at the center of our lives. When we have our focus straight, we lead Holy (= purpose-centered) lives, even as we’re at the office etc. Yet life’s lusts and pleasures have a way of becoming their own gods, becoming their own objectives, at the expense of the truly important. Self-discipline helps keep the objective straight. That’s why there’s a [Yiddish] Chassidic saying which translates into: “What is forbidden, is forbidden. What is permitted, we don’t need”.

So enjoy yourself. Just remember that sometimes saying ’no’ is actually saying ‘yes’  to your best self and to a life of meaning.

Find Your Toolbox

A moralist was widely celebrated for his great humility. So the Rabbi decided to pay him a visit; he wanted to see firsthand what the hubbub was about.

The Rabbi was taken with the man’s behavior; he seemed truly selfless and without ego. At the end of the day, the man humbly opened the door to allow the Rabbi to leave. As the Rabbi walked out, the man looked up and asked “so, are you impressed?”

Humility that is a public display of ‘selflessness’, driven by the hope of garnering praise and admiration, isn’t humility at all.

What is humility? Humility begins with the honest recognition of one’s strengths. When we acknowledge that G-d has endowed us with talents and strengths, and consider the responsibility attached to those gifts, we should be humbled.

Why? While we’re each ‘gifted’ with a ‘toolbox’ of [latent] skills, most of us never get near the positive potential of our talents, especially their capacity to help the world. Shouldn’t that be humbling?

Even more: The raw material – our basic inborn aptitude – is a gift. When we run with it, we can be proud of our effort and accomplishment. But the gift itself isn’t an authentic reason for pride. It is life’s gift; it’s not our doing.

To illustrate: Consider a high school student who has a natural facility for mathematics, and does very well on tests with minimal effort. Is there any legitimate reason for him to feel better than a fellow student who struggles with the subject, and works much harder to receive a lower grade?

To the contrary. Our gifted student would do well to recognize his natural good fortune, and recognize that inborn skills aren’t earned. He might even consider that his less-mathematically-endowed peer, given his effort, may very well have achieved more in personal growth and development, despite the lower grade score.

This helps to explain how Moses, perhaps the most gifted human to ever live, is also described as the most humble:

Moses was acutely self-aware. His introspection revealed an array of personal talents, and each of those talents was a call to action; every gift was a responsibility to the world.

Talents didn’t make him feel like a better person than the next guy. They made him – and they should make us – feel more motivated to achieve the potential that G-d has laid out for each of us.

Let’s get to work.

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