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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Self-Actualization Revisited

Do you want to meet your personal potential? Who doesn’t?

Psychologists have long recognized self-actualization - or self- fulfillment - as a deeply rooted human drive. We want to be all we can be, to spread our wings and soar.

At one level, the path to this goal takes a lot of introspection and mental/emotional toil. I need to know myself –my own weaknesses and habits - if I want to grow into who I can be. I need to be pro-actively self-aware, consistently observing how I react to various stimuli in my day, and watching my sub-consciously ingrained patterns. It’s exhausting to even think about; but growth takes work.

This process reminds me of the High Holiday exercise. A lot of introspection. A lot of focus on self. A lot of finding inner resolve to fine tune our internal mechanisms.

But focus on self – in and of itself – can actually get in the way of personal growth. Some people call it ‘hyper-intention’. A simple example (taken from Viktor Frankl): When you can’t sleep, and focus on falling asleep, the self-focus obstructs your goal of relaxation. Trying to sleep itself prevents your sleep.

Too much focus on one’s self actually gets in the way.

There’s also something called ‘hyper-reflection’, or ‘thinking too hard.’ When we focus excessively on our potential pitfalls they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So paradoxically, true self-actualization needs more than self-awareness; it needs self-transcendence, or self-negation. G-d created me for a purpose, something larger than myself. I need to accept - surrender to - that idea; we can stop hyper-focusing on who we want to be, and start recognizing who we’re needed to be.

It’s not a mindset “what do I want out of life?”, but rather “what does life wants out of me?”

Some people get bogged down by the [subconscious?] fear of “what will people think?” That’s only a problem when we’re focused on ourselves and our respective images. The problem recedes when I’m swept up in my responsibility to life, to the world around me, to my Creator.

It’s a Passover mindset. The enslaved Jews weren’t a self-aware, spiritually-evolved group. But they believed in a Creator and a destiny. Like children, they were open to something Higher. So G-d reached out and lifted them up.

Passover is about humility. It’s about faith. It’s about rebirth.

Ultimately, it’s about being all you can be.

Do You 'Krechtz'?

The year was 1862. In the Russian town of Lubavitch, two young brothers - sons of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe - played. Little Sholom Dovber was just over five years old, his brother Zalman Aaron was eighteen months older.
Cops and robbers? Cowboys and indians?
Given the home in which they were raised, these boys decided to play Rebbe and Chassid (spiritual mentor and disciple). Being the older brother, Zalman Aaron donned an adult hat and positioned himself as the ‘Rebbe’. Meanwhile, Sholom Dovber presented himself as a 'Chassid', saying “Rebbe, I’m very troubled. Last Shabbos I did something I later learned to be inadvisable, albeit permissible (the boy actually spelled out an aspect of Shabbos observance). What can I do to atone for this inadvertant slip? How can I bring my life and behavior into a better place?”
The 'Rebbe' was ready with a response: "Be careful to look into your prayerbook, actually reading the words, when you pray; don’t recite the liturgy by heart”.
Little Sholom Dovber (who was destined to become the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) quickly responded “Your advice won’t help, and you’re not a Rebbe!”
"Why do you say that?” protested the older boy.
“When a Rebbe hears a person’s plight, and senses his/her pain, he emits a ‘krechtz’ (Yiddish for sigh or groan) before he says offers any guidance (i.e he empathizes and feels their pain before offering any advice)."
"Your advice – in and of itself - might have actually helped, but since you didn’t ‘krechtz’ you’re obviously not a Rebbe and your advice won't work!”
What was this little boy - a Rebbe-in-waiting - actually saying?
When someone share his/her pain or struggle with you, and are positioned to give advice, remember that there's an important pre-requisite: Genuine empathy. You need to truly understand any problem if you're to be of use in solving it. The first step in solving a human problem is empathy.
If you feel the 'krechtz', if you can experience a bit of the other's pain, you are in a position to give good guidance. And feeling the 'krechtz' isn't enough. Show it. Don't be afraid to express your pain.
Sometimes the 'krechtz' itself, the hurting person's knowledge that someone else cares, may be more helpful than any advice.
So give a 'krechtz'. Care.
It may mean more than you can imagine.

Because It's Purim.......

"Who is that man?", the boy asked his father", "he must be the happiest man in the world!"
It was Simchat Torah, 1969, and the boy was amazed at the energetic enthusiasm of a man - with five young kids in tow - who was celebrating the joyous Holiday.
"That man? Actually, his name is Rabbi Hersh Gansburg. It's hard to believe, but he just lost his wife, Rashi; she passed away six days ago at the tender age of 37.”
Shocked, the exclaimed "What? How can he be so happy??" 
"You can be certain that his heart is broken, but it's a Holiday, a joyous time. A Chassidic Jew, even in the depths of his pain, is able to find joy when he needs to."
Later that day, at a gathering (farbrengen) of thousands, the Rebbe turned to this very same man and asked him to say l’chaim on a bit of vodka. The packed synagogue was hushed as the young widower said l’chaim, and then began to sing a hope-filled Russian song [which translates as] “We, in water will not drown nor in fire will we burn”. The Rebbe began to emphatically encourage the crows to sing along, ultimately standing up to dance in place as the crowd became more and more excited, singing faster and faster.

Those present were astounded by this little heartbroken man, swinging back and forth, raising his voice from the depths of his soul, “We in water will not drown, and in fire we will not burn,” as if he was truly the happiest man alive.

A personal note:

I was in Chicago this week to mourn the sudden passing of a 59 year old colleague, a man who’d devoted his life to sparking and strengthening G-d-consciousness throughout the State of IL. To see his widow, children and grandchildren, to feel his loss, was unbearable.

Yesterday, I was at a funeral in Brooklyn to mourn another sudden death. This time, it was the wife of my colleague in Alpharetta, Georgia, a 37 year old mother of eight, who’d been devoting her life to the community down there. .

That young lady was named Rashi. She was Rabbi Gansburg’s granddaughter, the first Rashi named for the lady who passed away in 1969.

Lots of pain. Lots of sadness.

And now Purim.

How to celebrate?

With joy. Because that’s what we do.

The Kabbalah of 'Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe'

Remember 'eenie, meenie, miney, moe'?

As a kid, you wanted to choose a path, a candidate etc, and the reasonable choice or preference wasn’t clear. So you played kid’s roulette; you threw your decision to fate.

What were you doing? You were reaching beyond your normal choosing mechanism (your taste or logic), and surrendering to something beyond your control.

That’s kid stuff, even when it’s played by adults. But let’s take a more serious look at the ‘ennie meenie’ model.

Take Yom Kippur, a day when our fundamental bond with G-d is laid bare. The power of our relationship’s essence is so profound that it can actually heal  breaches to the relationship’s rules (Torah). That’s what brings atonement on this Holiest of days.

In the Torah’s description of the Yom Kippur service (Leviticus 16), a lottery takes a critical role, in that it was used to determine the makeup of the Yom Kippur offering. Where does [an adult] ‘eeinie meenie’  fit into the relationship-baring Yom Kippur theme?

How about Purim? On this most festive Holiday, we celebrate G-d’s rescue (through Queen Esther and Mordechai) of the Persian Empire’s Jews. It was a gripping and triumphant saga, and led to the creation of a Holiday named ‘Purim’.

Did you know that ‘Purim’ means ‘lottery’ [in that it refers to how the wicked Haman used lots to choose a date for perpetrating his plan of Jewish annihilation]? Why would we choose THAT seemingly minor detail as the Holiday’s name?

It seems like there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to ‘eenie, meenie’ and Judaism.

Games of chance are irrational. But sometimes they’re super-rational, in which case they’re not games.

At any given juncture, when my desire – even my logic - leads me in a certain direction, and the Torah points me elsewhere, I’m faced with a very difficult choice. Do I follow my normal decision-making process? Or do I abdicate that process, surrendering to something higher, and go with G-d?

Playing ‘eenie meenie’ can be scary; it’s leaving your decision making to something beyond you. But that’s what we sometimes need to do.

It’s what the Jews did in Persia. And it showed deep faith in – and love for – G-d.

It triggered a reciprocal depth of love for us within the Divine.

Whether it’s the seriousness of Yom Kippur or the joy of Purim, it’s about super-rational connection. Sometimes kids have an easier time with that.

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