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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Let It Find You

Looking for happiness?

Then again, isn’t everybody? Isn’t the ‘pursuit of happiness’ a cornerstone of our society?

Happiness is a vital ingredient to being healthy, successful, likable etc. But happiness isn’t a product, something you can really pursue (don’t confuse it with pleasure, which you can easily find with something you buy off a shelf); it’s a state of being, a feeling that settles in on you when you’re properly primed for it.

In fact, studies have shown that people who concentrate on happiness as a goal tend to find less happiness in life. Sounds paradoxical, but it shows that one needs to focus one’s attention away from one’s own state of unhappiness; you need to lose yourself in a mindset which positions you for the happiness waiting to find you.

One important method is finding gratitude for the little things in life. People often see happiness as being the result of a ‘special’ event. If ‘special’ means extra-ordinary then you’re waiting for something which – by definition – doesn’t happen every day. Not a good place to be.

But what if you woke up every morning and focused your attention on the fact you’re alive, saying “thank you G-d for another day of life (replete with stress as it might be)”? What if you took the time to consider your healthy basic functions (digestive, sight, hearing, etc) and thank G-d for them (despite other infirmities you may have)?

What if you took a few moments to consider a special relationship in your life and thank G-d for it? How about thanking G-d for the opportunities you have to brighten your world by touching someone else, by doing a Mitzvah?

In other words: what if you took a few moments to digest your blessings?

You’d be ready for happiness to settle in!

Tomorrow and Shabbos are two days in which we celebrate the new month of Adar (click here for info on Adar and here for why this year we have TWO Adars!). For millennia, Jewish wisdom has told us that this is a month when we are specifically primed for happiness, and when a joyful attitude is the primary conduit for G-d’s blessings.

Get into the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and into a better psycho-spiritual place: spend some time every day finding the blessings which G-d has woven into the fabric of your life.

And let happiness find you!

Service With A Smile

You’re looking after your family responsibilities.

Maybe it’s ferrying your daughter to a lacrosse game, attending a family wedding; or meeting your spouse for an overdue ‘date night’.

They are indeed duties. Do you treat them as such? Or are you emotionally-invested? Are you a dutiful servant or is your heart in gear?

With some mental reframing, we can generate emotional engagement in our tasks. For example, we can rise above the ‘chauffeur drudgery’ by focusing on the relationship-building that comes with driving a precious child to her game. Think about how you’re contributing to her healthy childhood, and how one day you’ll be wistfully longing for the simple moments of parent-child bonding. The simple ‘chauffeuring’ comes to life.

Meaningful relationships have a built-in emotional connection, waiting to be revealed. Our effort needs to focus on dispelling the mental distractedness, and allowing the emotions to flow; if you find yourself feeling functional, dig a little deeper and tap your natural geyser of emotion.

So we’ve identified two levels of function: Dry task and emotional engagement.

But we can do even better. Emotional engagement will do wonders for our relationships, but what if the emotions themselves are lacking? What if I’m naturally reserved and a particular setting calls for passion? What if I’m naturally excitable and the situation calls for calm?

Chassidic thought teaches that we can actually mold our internal processes. With focused mental concentration, we can fashion for ourselves a more productive emotional profile. It isn’t easy. But it’s possible.

These three approaches also apply to our relationship with the Divine:

I can do a Mitzvah because that’s the way I was raised. Someone else might perform a Mitzvah because “it can’t hurt” or because he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t. Those are functional Mitzvos without a positive emotional connection.

A person can dig a little deeper to find the natural joy in doing a Mitzvah and forging a deeper relationship with G-d.

Even more, a person can mold his/her own processes, engendering a new emotional connection.

There’s a large scale of possibilities. The question is: are you committed to the work of doing better?

Let the relationships value loom large in your mind, and you’ll slowly climb the scale. Where you end up is between you and G-d.

Just give it all you’ve got.

Some Things Are Eternal

Forty-six years ago, the late Prime Minister and Genral, Ariel Sharon, tragically lost his son Gur to a shooting accident. In response, the Rebbe – with whom he enjoyed a close relationship - sent him a condolence letter.

I excerpt here – using my own words - a thought contained in that letter, as we remember Arik and our own loved ones who have passed on through the years:

In Jewish tradition, when we visit a ‘Shiva house’ - where people are mourning the loss of a loved one - we wish the mourners the following blessing: “May you be comforted amongst the mourners over Zion and Jerusalem”.

You are speaking to someone who has recently experienced destruction in his/her life with the loss of someone dear, and yet you refer back to the destruction of the Holy Temple/Jewish Commonwealth two thousand years ago. Why?

Why do we mention a millennia-old collective tragedy? Why is that relevant to this person in pain?  What if he/she has never been to Israel and can’t relate to the destruction?

The Rebbe pointed out that Israel’s holy sites hold a very special place in our hearts (I personally just went across the world with a group of people to celebrate a Bar-Mitzvah at the Kotel).

Why do we travel to visit the Kotel? Because it’s special.

But why is it so special? After all, it’s merely a section of wall that surrounded the Temple Mount where the Temple stood, but that Temple is long gone. It’s a thing of the past. The glory was destroyed by the Babylonians and Romans thousands of years ago and all that remains is this lonely wall.

So why do we go there? In search of nostalgia?

The answer is that we believe the power of G-d’s presence still resonates at the Kotel. There is a living, pulsating Holiness which our enemies could not touch and certainly not destroy. The Romans could only demolish physical structures; they couldn’t impact the soul.

Similarly, we tell a mourner: We bury bodies, not souls. Just as Jews collectively believe in the continuity of Holiness at the Kotel (witness the huge numbers visiting there every year) , so must you believe in the continued existence of your loved one, a soul still vibrant and fresh.

Take heart, we say, in the experience of your history and people.

Death can’t touch a soul.

The relationship is forever.

Relationship with A Capital R

Relationships are the stuff of life.

They are the attachments we share.

Think of a relationship as a rope that joins two people. Each show of love, each demonstration of respect, adds another strand to this cable of connectedness, increasing its overall strength. Though individually miniscule, hundreds of threads woven together can create a rope that becomes more and more unbreakable.

Similarly, relationships reflect what we invest in them. Some are so weak that they are derailed by relatively minor incidents, and some so strong they can withstand a storm. It all depends on the strands.

But a parent’s love for a child would seem to be different; it seems to transcend the ‘relationship rope’ metaphor. Certainly, threads of positive interactions are critical to a healthy parent/child relationship, and a damaged ‘rope’ will make for a great challenge. At the same time, a parent/child relationship it isn’t only about the threads. It’s elemental; and it’s not something we can break.

No matter how frayed the ‘rope’, a healthy parent can never really divorce a child. A child is – biologically and spiritually – an extension of his/her parents.

The creator is fundamentally invested in the created.

This is important to remember when we think of our relationship with G-d. The Torah tells us that “G-d’s portion is His people; Jacob is the rope of His inheritance”. The Torah compares our relationship with G-d to a ‘rope’. Every time we honor our relationship with G-d, we express our soul identity and add a strand to the rope of connectedness.

But there’s something else in that verse: It says that we are G-d’s “portion”, we are each a piece of the Divine. Just like a parent never divorces a child, we can never be truly disconnected from our Divine Parent. We may go through some tumultuous times, and the rope may become quite compromised, G-d forbid. But the elemental relationship transcends it all.

This Shabbos – the 10th of Shevat - celebrates 64 years since the Rebbe assumed leadership of Chabad. A genuine Jewish leader never gets distracted by the extraneous ‘disconnect’ that may arise between his people and the Divine. He focuses on identifying, and bringing to the surface, our unbreakable bond with G-d; and then inspiring us to rebuild the rope, one strand at a time.

This was the Rebbe’s life.

Thank you, Rebbe. Thank you so much.

Reflections From Israel #2

Malkie and I leave Israel tonight, G-d willing, after 10 incredible days here. As I think about the trip, and our return home, it strikes me that 'reflections' is a particularly appropriate word to use as a title for some thoughts.

To reflect means to show, to cast back, an image received; which is an important concept in Jewish thinking.

When we pray every morning, we try to connect with our higher selves; we try to visualize the people who G-d created us each to be.

When I pray, I need to retreat from life's fracture and envision the 'possible me', my soul in its full expression. In the quietness of prayer, I want to find my inner G-dliness, my internal 'sun'.

Most of us don't sit in meditation all day, and it's difficult to stay fully aligned with our best selves when life is throwing its curveballs. At the same time, we CAN each be a moon, reflecting our souls in our choices and behaviors.

The Talmud tells us that one reason we follow a lunar calendar (as the Torah instructs in this week's Torah portion) is that we need to emulate the moon. We aspire to alignment with the Divine, with our souls, so that our external behaviors - our reflections to the outside world - show a full moon.

At the same time, if we find our reflection waning, even disappearing, we don't despair; we recognize that is just the harbinger of rebirth. Every month, with the birth of the new moon, the night sky goes dark. But only temporarily. Soon enough,the moon is 'reborn' and begins once again to wax large.

Our personal moon cycles - our waxing and waning - aren't fixed in nature like the moon in the sky. We have a tendency to fluctuate, with brighter moments and not-so-bright moments, but we also have the ability to 'manually' re-align our moons.

Every morning, and whenever we can during during the day, we can take a moment to bring our outer selves into sync with our higher selves. To reflect - once again - our inner sun.

So, whether it's me and the sun of my Israel lessons, or its you and the sun of your own awareness of great you can be, it's always a time for reflection.

Light up the night.

Reflections From Israel #1

It's been a week - a very eventful week - since Malkie and I arrived in Israel (Mazel Tov to the Feldman family who invited us to their family Bar-Mitzvah!).
We've had a profoundly meaningful seven days in the Holiest place on earth.
So, as I watch the sun rise over the Old City of Jerusalem, I wonder what I could possibly share with friends back home who are probably planning their New Year's eve, not particularly thinking about Israel and may have never actually been here.
While everyone should try to visit this Eternal City (we really need to arrange a community trip!), most of us will ultimately - until the Moshiach arrives - live our lives outside Israel.
The one word which comes to my mind is 'Inspiration', which the dictionary defines as "stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity".
That's Israel.
In my week here, I've seen how Israel can extract spiritual consciousness and Jewish identity where people didn't know it existed. I've seen people moved to tears and spurred to dance even as they couldn't say why. I've heard people express the feeling of 'coming home', to a place thousands of miles from their respective houses.
I've seen the soul show its beautiful face, and it's more captivating than the sunrise.
I've seen the Jew within the Jew. It exists. And it's beautiful to behold.
We all have a holy space deep inside our psyches that is our personal Jerusalem. It's a place where we feel whole, balanced and connected.
Jerusalem on the map is a place that brings out your Jewish best. Jerusalem in your soul, which you can visit with some quiet prayer and thought, is a state of mind which can do the same.
Take some time today to visit your Jerusalem. Make a commitment to strengthening your Jewish identity on the road ahead.
Then act on it.
Build your Eternal City.

Rabbi Mendy Herson

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