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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Power of a [Half-]Shekel

 

Money is an incredible tool. It gives you power; it broadens your horizon of possibilities.  

At some level, the money in your pocket can buy you pleasure and prestige. It can give you peace of mind and security for the future. The dollar is so mighty because it represents so much of what you want, so much of what you’d like. Your life, and maybe even your self-image, is rolled up in that dollar.

Now let’s back it up a bit. How did you get that money? Imagine that you’ve worked very hard, taking risks, beating off threats, putting in long hours to earn the money you now possess. In this sense, the money represents your hard work, the lifeblood you’ve invested in earning a living.

In truth, these dollars are more than currency: They embody yesterday’s struggle and tomorrow’s pleasure.

With that in mind, we can appreciate the immense beauty of giving charity. When someone gives money - THEIR money - to a greater need, they are parting with something very deep, with an embodiment of their toil and their pleasure. They are giving of themselves to a greater need, and by doing so they elevate their entire lives as represented by the money.

But why? Why would anyone willingly give their money away to someone else?

The answer is that charitable people recognize that they are part of a greater whole. When someone realizes “what I need is only half the picture, and the other half is what I’m needed FOR”, life’s equation changes. My assets don’t only represent my pursuits in life; they represent my responsibility to life.

That’s why we call charitable giving ‘Tzedakah’ in Hebrew. ‘Tzedaka’ means justice, because generosity reflects a mindset of responsibility to the world.  

In the Torah, G-d tells each person to give a ‘half-Shekel’ to the communal fund. The Shekel was silver coinage, each weighing 20 ‘gerahs’ (a Biblical weight measurement) of silver; if you do the math, a ‘half-shekel’ was obviously 10 ‘gerahs’.

Why couldn’t the Torah just tell each person to give 10 ‘gerahs’? Why the emphasis on ‘halfness’?

The Torah is driving home our point.

When we recognize our own ‘halfness’, we’ll be ready to give ourselves whole-heartedly to our neighbors’ needs.

The half-Shekel makes the giver whole.

Tzedaka. What a concept.

Are You Chassidic?

You can probably pick out a Chassid on the streets of New York by the traditional dress, the side-curls or even the accent. But those are pretty superficial indicators. Are they what really makes a Chassid into a Chassid?

The term Chassid actually goes back millennia. Derived from the Hebrew word for ‘kindness’ (chesed), the name became a term to describe extreme piety.  The Talmud refers to figures as far back as Adam as a ‘Chassid’, and uses the term to describe especially holy people.

Today’s Chassidism – and the more recent usage of the term ‘Chassid’ - traces back to a movement that began in 18th century Eastern Europe. This latter-day Chassidism has many different streams, Chabad being one of the better known. So what does the label Chassid mean in our [more modern] lexicon?

Over the past two centuries, the Chabad Rebbes gave a definition to the term and its implications. Aside from Torah-true behavior in concrete terms, the Chassid strives for a specific attitude.

A.      The Chassid tries to genuinely feel another’s pain, and to truly rejoice in another’s good fortune. To that end, the Chassid delights in helping another, even when it demands self-sacrifice.

B.      The Chassid regularly and pro-actively pursues honest self-awareness. Perceiving life as a tireless exercise in self-improvement, the Chassid can’t afford the normative human tendency to overlook one’s own flaws (and focus intently on others’).  There is work [on one’s self] to be done, and we can’t get distracted by the ego’s fragility.

C.      Truth is an absolute value, including an honest perspective of one’s motives and actions,

D.      The Chassid is guided by his/her responsibilities. The Chassid accepting that every action should have purpose, consciously submits to a ‘North Star’, the Divine. The Chassid may have a variety of material pursuits, but they all need to be aligned with higher meaning.

Chassidism isn’t for a select few who look and speak a certain way. It’s an attitude to embracing meaning in life. One begins with the ‘installment plan’, finding an appropriate are to begin finding deeper introspection and connectedness, and then working to maintain self-awareness and achieve incremental growth.

And this thoughtful life is there for anyone who is motivated to achieve it.

So, are you Chassidic?

Go For The Gold

The Jews’ historic experience at Mount Sinai may very well be Judaism’s defining moment. The Divine revelation to an entire people, and the granting of a Code for humanity, changed the course of history.

That’s why the Jews’ behavior, only forty days after the Great Experience, is so baffling. Scripture tells us that Moses went up on the mountain (pursuant to the initial public Revelation) for a forty day period of communion with G-d. When he didn’t return on [what the Jews mistakenly believed was] the fortieth day, the crowd went into a frenzy. They decided to create a Golden Calf, and proclaimed “THIS is your G-d, O Israel, which brought you up from Egypt!” A clear rejection of their recent Divine experience.

It’s mind-boggling. How could they have been so blind to their reality? Aside from the religious blasphemy, it just doesn’t make sense on a human level.

The Talmud addresses this question, and tells us that the Jews were indeed above this kind of behavior; they were fundamentally better than this kind of behavior. Yet, amongst the millions of people, some had a seed of doubt by some (which one can imagine). The unusual thing is that G-d allowed for that seed to grow into a full-fledged panic and then rebellion.

Why would G-d enable this?

Our Loving Parent wanted to open our door to dealing with mistakes. The Jews’ response to their tragic misjudgment; their growth, repentance and rehabilitation, is a critical part of the Sinai experience.

We were given our destiny at Sinai. It was the launch of a perspective, a way of life. Sinai taught us that we need to approach life – all areas of life, not just the spiritual ones – with a search for meaning.

This lesson couldn’t have been complete unless it included dealing with failure. Uncomfortable as it is, failure is often a better teacher than success.

Everyone 'fails' at one time or/and another. The question is: What’s your response? Do you learn and grow from it? Or do you let it sap your energy, define your self-image and paralyze your life?

At Sinai, G-d gifted the world with a program for life. A life that has some clearly meaningful lessons; it also has many not-so-clear meaningful lessons, lessons that are a challenge to discover.

Sometimes the real gold is in the challenge.

Who Will Remember Me?

Last week, I was sitting with a friend in his office, speaking about life. The man, who runs a successful business and has raised a beautiful family, acknowledged his good fortune and then added: “but in five generations no one will remember me anyway”.

I digested the comment in silence. It struck me that I have never considered whether people – family included – would remember me in five generations, and that I certainly have never set that as a goal or expectation. Indeed, I thought, many people come to say Yizkor – the memorial prayer – on Holidays, and I’ve never heard anyone memorializing an ancestor of five generations back.

So I responded: “Our objective is to make meaningful choices that impact the world today. When I behave thoughtfully and properly, taking the steps G-d would have me take, I’m creating eternal goodness that will always be a part of my relationship with the Divine. Whether other people recognize or remember what I’ve done is ancillary. Human acknowledgment is finite and futile; but G-d, and the goodness we create, are eternal”.

That conversation rang in my head for several days. I believe that most of us have a primal need to live beyond our deaths. My friend and I were no different; we each wanted a whisper of eternity.

But what does that mean?

In concrete terms, it may mean being remembered in five generations. But that objective is almost certainly destined for failure, and I think we can satisfy the desire for posterity with something more substantive than human acknowledgment.

So let’s define our expectations and hopes: We can each do something special TODAY to bring light to the world. We can do a Mitzvah, we can touch someone’s life, we can make a difference. The energy we create doesn’t depend on people’s memory and it won’t dissipate when they forget.

It’s eternal beauty, a bond your soul has forged with G-d and the cosmos. And it will last for as long as your soul and G-d last.

Forever.

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