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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Johnny Appleseed and Kabbalah

You’ve been hired to create an apple orchard.

You plow, seed, cultivate, prune, etc.

Finally there are blossoms, and then….fruit!

You take a moment to stop the work, to bask in the fruits of your labor. How do you feel? How about the orchard owner?

Deeply satisfied.

Now you can begin to imagine how G-d feels every Friday night. And so should you.

We each have a job in life: Tackle our challenges and moral dilemmas, then rise above them to produce goodness and light in the world, which is the ‘fruit of our labor’. In other words: We were put here to create Holy Fruit. That’s how we spend our week.

The struggle with a relationship, the choices of loyalty to religious tradition, etc; when you respond correctly, you create fruit.

Every Friday night, G-d basks in the glow of our week’s accomplishments, taking deep pleasure in the people He created.  

We partake in G-d’s pleasure with our own Shabbat pleasure. Every Friday evening, we eat a festive meal, which we begin by reciting the Kiddush prayer over enoyable wine. But we first read a Kabbalistic paragraph (p. 178 in our prayerbook) which states “this is the meal of the holy ‘Chakal Tapuchin (Aramaic for ‘field of apples)’”.

Apples?

Apples are blessed with a pleasant aroma and a good taste.

In the Torah’s lexicon, proper behavior creates a ‘pleasant aroma’, while grasping and internalizing Torah ideas is likened to digesting food. Our weekly successes create ‘apples’, with both good ‘taste’ and good ‘aroma’.

Our Sages also note that apple trees grow fruiting spurs (short branches where the apple tree blossoms and sets fruit) and flowers, before the leaves appear.

There’s significance to this sequencing: spurs/flowers and then leaves.

There are two elements to a healthy Mitzvah:

A.    Commitment to proper behavior

B.     Personal meaning in that behavior

Sometimes we can’t find A if we don’t have B. We feel like we need to first find personal meaning before we can commit. When it comes to a Mitzvah, G-d’s directive, the commitment shouldn’t be dependent on anything else.

Commitment to proper action comes first. The personal relevance – important as it is – doesn’t make it or break it. The Talmud teaches that, in our behavioral ‘apples’, this is symbolized by the spurs sprouting before the leaves.

Plant your apples today.

Friday night’s Divine pleasure is just around the corner.

 

Stronger Than The Wind

 

This week’s Torah reading describes how a grieving Abraham approached Ephron, a Hebron landowner, to buy a burial plot for his deceased wife, Sarah. It’s a classic exchange between Honest Abe and the greedy Ephron.

Kabbalistic writings take it deeper, describing this as a confrontation between enthusiasm/humility (Abraham) and lethargy/arrogance (Ephron). In other words, each of these Biblical figures represents a pair of attitudes. But, how? What is the correlation between the two attitudes within each set, and what is the relationship that each set has with its respective Biblical figure?

Spiritual writings point out that in Hebrew the name Ephron reflects the word ‘Aphar’, which means dust. Interestingly, this also reflects Abraham, who referred to himself as ‘dust (aphar) and ashes’ (in contrast to G-d).

What is dust? On the one hand, it is insignificant; we tread upon dust without regard. Psycho-spiritually, this reflects a lack of self-esteem, the joyless feeling of leading an insignificant life.

But there’s another type of dust. The Kabbalah speaks of ‘holy dust’, reflected in the Scripture’s description of the Tabernacle’s flooring as being ‘dust’ (the word ‘Epher’ again). This holy ‘dust’ represents healthy humility.

If I’m wrapped up in what I would have wanted out of life, what I have failed to achieve, what I don’t  have and apparently can’t attain, I’ll have a problem holding on to my zest for life. It’s overwhelming to see myself as ultimately being alone with my burden of climbing life’s mountain and reaching its peak. This is the ‘unholy dust’ attitude.

And, paradoxically, this ‘feeling insignificant’ attitude often comes from self-absorption and distorted self-importance.

Conversely, healthy humility is when I recognize that I’m created by G-d for a purpose that transcends my immediate desires. I’m not flying solo in life; to the contrary, I’m part of G-d’s team of humanity, working together to bring meaning to this world. If I focus on my Divine objective, being productive, performing Mitzvot, and touching other’s lives in simple but meaningful ways, I’m leading a meaningful life. And I’ll be happier.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, my surrender to Higher leads to my self-actualization.

So when Abraham purchased a family burial plot, a place where he, his wife and children would “return to dust” (Job 34:15), he first transitioned the land into ‘holy dust’, dust fit for a holy resting place.

Because everything else is just dust in the wind.

Leadership Lessons

 

It never fails.

I always get goose bumps when we read the Torah’s account of how Abraham argued against G-d’s plan for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The cities’ inhabitants were viciously evil. Yet Abraham – supreme lover of G-d, monotheist par excellence and a man so surrendered to the Divine Will that he was prepared to give up anything and everything – can’t seem to abide by their mass punishment. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do Justice??” he challenges G-d.

Surprisingly – refreshingly? - confrontational words from a humble servant.

Abraham understood that nothing happens without G-d. And Abraham understood that his finite mind simply couldn’t grasp the depth of G-d’s Infinite intentions. Yet, Abraham knew that he couldn’t just sit back in the face of people suffering. If G-d was going to accomplish something, he wanted G-d – with His Divinely Infinite capability – to accomplish that goal without the cost of human suffering.

This exchange profoundly illustrates the true believer’s mission. We should believe in G-d – and G-d’s Goodness and Power - as firmly as Abraham did. At the same time, G-d doesn’t need us as His defense attornies, essentially shrugging off someone else’s pain as “G-d’s Will”. G-d wants us to care about each other, and be pained by each other’s pain. Our challenge is to lessen someone’s pain, not explain it.

Whenever I read this, I think of the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s absolute and total commitment to Torah, in every aspect of her minutiae, was clear. The Rebbe’s complete surrender to – and love for - G-d was impossible to miss.

At the same time, the Rebbe consistently and publicly prodded G-d, cajoling and even demanding, that G-d go easier on His creations. The Rebbe believed and trusted in G-d so much, that the Rebbe expected more from Him.

To me, the Rebbe seemed to care more about defending his people to G-d, than about defending G-d to his people. Genuine leadership, and true compassion for G-d’s creations.

This was Abraham.

It was Moses (who said to G-d about the Jews (Exodus 32:32): “…please forgive their sin; if not, please erase me from Your book that You have written”).

And I saw it in the Rebbe.

We all need to be leaders in our lives.

Let’s learn from the best.

Tumult and Tranquility

Tumult and Tranquility

Tranquility and Pleasure. They would seem to be the pot of gold at the end of anyone's rainbow.

Life’s primary goal seems to be the experience of enjoyment and the escape of suffering. On the face of it, a wealthy person purchasing the world’s pleasures without limit would seem to be experiencing life at its zenith. Yet, when we look deeper, we recognize the curious reality that – in and of themselves - expensive pleasures usually bring cheap thrills; they leave an inner emptiness that propels people to seek a greater high, or to numb the pain by artificial escapes.

Is this Tranquility? Pleasure?

Tranquility is more than freedom from stress and pleasure is more than an externally-induced high.

Consider two people. One seems to lead a stress-free life; he has more than enough money and none of the ‘baggage’ associated with a meaningful relationship.

The other person deals with life’s curveballs every day, facing problems and struggles, and meeting his responsibilities to work and family.

The latter will probably daydream about being the former. But, at the end of your life, whose eulogy would you prefer for yourself?

Instinctively, we seek an internal sense of well-being, a feeling that we’re alive for a purpose and being useful to our world.

If you work hard to construct a new piece of furniture at home, the process may be laborious and aggravating. At the same time, how will you feel when you stand back to view what you’ve created? Could that satisfaction that have been duplicated by a less labor-intensive purchase of the same item?

Beyond the joy of completing your project there’s a general sense of peace and balance, the happiness that comes with leading a life of accomplishment. Our micro accomplishments –making a difference in other’s lives - trigger a more general joie de vivre.

It’s interesting that Noah lived through the world’s greatest global crisis; one can only imagine the stress and tumult. Yet his name, Noach, means tranquility.

Life’s true tranquility and pleasure come from engaging the rushing waters. The more we spiritually insulate ourselves, building our psych-spiritual Ark, the more we protect ourselves from drowning. In fact, an increase in the water’s volume will only lift us higher.

So build your personal Ark through study and prayer, through Connection with G-d.

Then prepare to engage the waters, because that’s where the gold is.

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