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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Gratitude Attitude

The Hebrew word for ‘turkey’ is 'Tarnegol Hodu', which means bird of thanks. While it jives nicely with the fact that turkey is a traditional Thanksgiving delicacy, its name actually has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. I just thought it an interesting Hebrew tidbit to catch your attention during this period when our country is focused on Thanks.


Because gratitude is an important Jewish theme. The first words out of our mouths every morning, as we open our eyes and recognize that it’s time to awake,  is short formula thanking G-d for another day. Once we’re up and ready to go, we speak to G-d – and to ourselves – using an ancient prayer liturgy which begins with the word ‘Hodu’, meaning ‘Thanks’.


One of Judaism’s central objectives is to help us find gratitude. We start every day with spiritual therapy, conditioning our minds and attitudes to feeling gratitude for our blessings.


Too often, we spend too much of our energy worrying about our challenges. Our problems seem to obstruct our larger field of vision. It’s as though our troubles were physically confronting us nose-to-nose, thereby eclipsing the broader – fortunate – context of our lives. Judaism wants us to take a step back and recognize the truth of our lives, the fact that we have a mosaic of wonderful blessings sprinkled with real challenges.


And that’s empowering. When we process the enormity of our blessings, we’re better positioned to tackle the rough edges, the challenges.


This coming Shabbos, we’ll read how our Patriach Jacob had to flee his murderous brother Eisav.  On the run, but trusting G-d, Jacob makes a vow: If I can make it, survive and thrive, I’ll remember Your kindness. I won’t take it for granted, assuming my smarts and know-how got me through. I’llappreciate. I’ll give back to You, G-d. I’ll give back to You by giving to my community. I’ll acknowledge my blessings from You by committing to improving the world through community.


While every day should be devoted to giving thanks, there’s something beautiful in society choosing a day to emphasize it. On this national holiday of Thanksgiving, as we think about the things in our lives for which we are grateful, let’s channel Jacob and think about our Chabad community, a community that we have built together. This beautiful place we call home. The friendships, the connection, the intellectual and emotional stimulation. The camaraderie, the spirituality…each and every person who walks through these doors and – as a result – contributes to the overall mosaic if the Chabad we love.


Please help our Chabad community reach its 2014 financial goals and position us for an even brighter 2015, filled with broader programming and greater community impact. Please click here to help our Chabad community.


Battle The Darkness

Well before the Geneva Conventions gave humane guidelines to war, the Torah told us that we fight a war in order to win safety for our bodies, but be sure not to lose the sanctity of our souls. The Torah even prohibits the unnecessary destruction of fruit trees that may inhabit the battlefield.

War is hell. And a soldier is supposed to worry about fruit trees?

A soldier on the battlefield needs to have his basest instincts at full throttle; his life depends on that. Yet even the engaged warrior, muscles tensed and blood pumping, needs to stay conscious of his higher moral values,; he need to consciously set peace and nurture as his ultimate objective. He needs to leave the battlefield no less human than he entered it.

War is hell, but soldiers shouldn’t be the devil.

So how do we respond to the gruesome massacre that happened in Jerusalem yesterday? Two monsters with meat cleavers attacking worshippers at prayer? Victims left with mutilated bodies, still adorned with Tallis and Tefillin? The attackers’ families, friends and community members celebrating and distributing candies?

Is there any culture that can call this behavior human? I only hope that Muslim leaders here and abroad will call this barbarism by its rightful name. And I pray that the heroic IDF manages to contain any such attacks in the future.

But what can I do? What can we do? We can raise our voices to increase the public outcry. We can pressure our elected officials to make sure the US holds the PA and Hamas responsible.

And, especially in a time of darkness such as this, we can bring more light to the world through Mitzvos. I think we should continue the Mitzvah that Rabbis Goldberg, Kupinsky, Levine and Twersky began so peacefully early Tuesday morning, the Mitzvah of Tefillin.

They were laid to rest today, so they couldn’t lay Tefillin today.

But we can.

Their heads and arms can no longer wear Tefillin, but we can be their heads and arms by laying Tefillin in their honor. They can no longer recite prayers, but we can be their mouths.

This Sunday, Chabad will have a “Har Nof Tefillin and Tefilah” at 8:15am. We’ll gather to lay Tefillin and recite prayers in defiance of the beasts who would cut down all Jews, G-d forbid.

Come in and bring some light to the gruesome darkness.


Eulogize With A Smile

Death is sad. It’s difficult to lose someone close.

At the same time, death often has a positive effect on how we view someone. We seem to crystallize the good of a life lived, remembering them that way for posterity.

Human beings are complicated. Every personality has some good and some not-so-good. Idiosyncrasies and quirks.  That complexity sometimes creates static that obscures the good one brings to the world. Sometimes life’s overlay distracts us from seeing a person’s core goodness.

But death seems to blow that all away. When someone is on their deathbed, his/her shtick is irrelevant, so we tend to see their goodness distilled for clear viewing. We seem feel that death brings a life to its sum total, so there’s no need to focus on every line of the equation.

That’s why there’s a eulogy. An authentic eulogy doesn’t say anything false. It doesn’t embellish or exaggerate the good. It’s simply a crystallized look at a life lived, and the goodness which the deceased brought to this world.  

In this week’s Torah reading, our matriarch Sarah passes away and Abraham responds by “eulogizing her and weeping for her.” Sarah was an incredible woman and Abraham knew that better than anyone. He knew what he’d lost, and certainly that was enough reason for him to weep.

Yet the Torah gives us a sequence: He first eulogized, and then wept.

As much as we know someone’s admirable traits, as much we love them, we’re not always focusing on the goodness that’s laced into their broader, busy lives. We see them in their totality, warts and all. But death seems to shift our perceptions. 

When Sarah passed away, we can be sure that her loving husband immediately felt the pain and mourning. Yet Scripture tells us that it was only after ‎Abraham's eulogy that he began to cry. 

So here's a question for us: Why do we need to wait for death to gain this clarity of perspective?

We can ‘eulogize’ people when they’re alive and well? We can look at our loved ones,  seeing beyond all the chaff that accumulates on life, and bring their beauty into sharp focus?

It just takes some effort.

Until G-d finally eradicates death from the earth, the natural course of events will eventually have us all eulogizing with tears.

But we can change the course and ‘eulogize’ a loved one who’s perfectly healthy.

Eulogize with a smile.

What if Abraham Had An IPhone?

I recently got a new smartphone (I have to admit it's a Blackberry) and stopped into a cellular outlet to have them transfer the data from my old phone. The young technician had me sit at his desk while he plugged my two phones into his desk-top machinery to begin the process. Once they were safely plugged in, he began texting from his own phone. After a minute, he checked the progress of my data-transfer, gave me a quick look, and went back to his texting. He continued to communicate for the next minutes with whomever he found interesting, as I twiddled my thumbs until the work was done.

In another era, I would’ve walked away from my five minutes at this guy’s desk knowing his name, birthplace and occupational aspirations. And he would know mine. We would have conversed, because that’s what people do.

But this is a different era. An era when you can text as you bump your way through a busy sidewalk, send e-mails during someone else’s presentation at a meeting, and read a text while you’re helping your 3rd-grader with his homework.

It’s an era when the wonder of technology allows you unprecedented ability to stay in touch with your loved ones. As long as you’re within range of a cell tower, you’re not alone.  

Yet, we often see how this blessing is twisted into a tool of self-absorbed detachment from our immediate surroundings, a vehicle for self-centered attention to our own communications, with absolute disregard to other people sharing our space.

It can go either way and it’s your choice: Will that gadget be a helpful cell-phone?

Or will it become a disruptive Self-Phone?

During these weeks, our Torah readings focus on Abraham who personifies love and compassion. Abraham gave himself fully to others, and he represents genuine relationships between people, relationships that can’t be captured in emoticons or 160 characters.

What do you think Abraham would have done with an IPhone? I’ll bet he wouldn’t have interrupted your conversation to glance at an incoming text, or sat across the table from you communicating with unknown friends a world away.

I imagine he would have used it as a tool to enhance his deep connection to someone else, not fracture the relationship, and definitely not replace it.

Technology is a great blessing, but it needs balance.

Be Abraham.




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