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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Heart of Sadness

I don't like feeling sad.
Melancholy has a sneaky way of draining energy and paralyzing life.
But here's the problem: Life isn't a string of happy occasions.
I make mistakes, causing discomfort to myself and others.
Others make mistakes, causing discomfort to themselves and to me.
We all have problems.
To ignore them is naïve. To face them is depressing.
What to do?
First, let’s keep our expectations reasonable, since frustrations are a function of
expectations. Every life on the planet has stress, so we can't honestly be
surprised by our own.

Expect stress.
Second, I need to carve out time to face my weaknesses and warts. That's the
only way to an honest life.
I don't want to harp on my failings; but I need to face them. And deep inside,
as disquieting as this introspection may be, I'm glad that I'm going through the
exercise. I'm happy that I have the maturity to face myself, and glad that I'm
self-aware enough to be sad.
Then there's a third element:
I recognize that my full plate of relationships/responsibilities come with a price tag: Some stress is inevitably/eventually attached.
I pray to G-d for more manageable stress, but if that's the price of my life and
its blessings, I'll deal with it.
Watching the Rebbe as I was growing up, I was always awed by the genuine pain being expressed as the Rebbe would speak of the world's misery; a Rabbi crying real tears about people across the world whom he'd never met.
I didn't have the Rebbe's genuine empathy, so I didn't feel the same sadness; but I envied the depth of
feeling for humanity.
I would've taken the pain of sadness for the power of real connectedness.
A day like Tisha B'av (a fast day, when we commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temples) is set aside for this type of painful introspection.
Aside from mourning our painful history, we take an honest look at our own
self-destructive behaviors.
It isn't pretty, but it's necessary.
And, deep inside the sadness, there's gladness to be found.

That’s key.

When Tisha B’av falls on Shabbos, the fasting is pushed off until Sunday. This gives us an opportunity for the gladness, the sense of deep connection with our loved ones and the world, but without the attendant sadness.

Let’s make something of this Shabbos.

Can Sadness Be My Friend?

Don’t worry. Be happy.

We like to be content and upbeat.

Want to stay away from sadness; it has dark overtones, and describes an unpleasant state of mind.

Indeed, Torah thought guides us to seek and maintain a joyful attitude. Positive thinking and an optimistic demeanor are very important ingredients for a Torah life.

That makes this time of year especially challenging: We are in the midst of observing Judaism’s annual ‘three week period of sadness’, which mourns many of the tragedies we’ve experienced throughout our history, but primarily focuses on the destruction of our two Holy Temples – and two Jewish Commonwealths  (490 years apart) - two millennia ago.

On the 17th of Tammuz (which fell on July 8th this year), Jews throughout the world fasted to remember the marauders’ breach of Jerusalem’s protective wall. On August 29th, Tisha B’av, we’ll fast again, to bewail the Temples’ actual destruction.

It’s a gloomy few weeks. At the same time, we can’t allow the mood to paralyze us.

While some forms of sadness are decidedly unproductive, some sadness is actually constructive. You can tell the difference by observing their respective manifestations.

When sadness brings despair, the desire to crawl under the covers and wish the world away, that’s not the productive type.

Yet sadness – in controlled quantities – can facilitate self-honesty; it can be a call to action, prompting you to take control of your life.

With a quick Google search, I found a study from the Australian University of NSW which concludes that “sadness promotes information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” That’s how an unpleasant internal atmosphere helps you grow.

When we’re flying high, we’re probably less inclined to recognize and address our weaknesses. Why should we go through the emotionally-demanding exercise? Things are great!

Self-improvement takes self-honesty, and the guts to tackle the rough edges you find inside. And we usually don’t go to that place unless we’re dragged there, kicking and screaming.

So once a year, Torah life presents us with a necessary – albeit unpleasant – opportunity.  And it’s happening right now.

Now. Now is the time to focus. Now is the time to recognize. Now is the time to correct.

It will give you something genuine to celebrate once it’s all over.

Dancing with the Divine

Self-sufficient.

Dependent.

We’ll take the former.

Think of your most vulnerable moment. A time when your security nets were insufficient, and it seemed like there was no one to catch you. That pit-in-your- stomach despair is a feeling nobody wants to experience.

On the other hand, remember when you were embraced by someone who had the power to handle your problems; someone who loved you and was wholly concerned with your welfare.  Like a parent caring for a baby. Safety at its best.

We all want to feel secure. But that feeling brings its own challenge: We usually take it for granted. When a protective power is warding off problems in your life, then - unless it’s before your eyes - you tend to take it in stride. How can you feel saved if you haven’t had an opportunity to internalize the threat? Aside from the lack of thankfulness, we relax our own efforts while basking in the protective shade.

Watch small children. They usually have no idea what we’re doing to protect them, and they take their security for granted. And the more we coddle them, the more we potentially disempower their own efforts at achieving genuine security.

Think of American society pre 9/11. Most of us took our safety from terrorism for granted, and there seemed little need for personal efforts at self-protection. Then we woke up to the truth of our vulnerability.

Safety vs. Vulnerability.

Two poles in our delicate dance with G-d.

G-d is our Rock, our ultimate security. When you genuinely trust G-d, you sleep easier.

 Yet we can’t take G-d’s protection for granted. We need to recognize humanity’s intrinsic frailty, thank G-d for His protection, do what we can to help ourselves, and trust the Divine for the future.

Think of the Jews in the desert. They went to bed without any food for the next day (vulnerable). Yet they firmly trusted that the manna would fall the next morning and satisfy their needs.

It’s an important model. The spiritually-connected person doesn’t get up in the morning feeling invincible because G-d will protect him/her. We take pause to recognize every human’s intrinsic vulnerability. Then we thank G-d for our blessings, and find trust for the future in a loving, protective G-d.

It’s confidence with gratitude and humility.

A great way to live your day.

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