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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Finding Paraguay?

When I sat down at my computer yesterday, I was greeted by an article telling me that Paraguay was voted the world’s happiest country.

G-d bless Paraguay. But I’m staying right here.

While societal and environmental factors can certainly influence someone’s internal attitudes, happiness isn’t about living a specific state; it’s about a state of mind. 
Society often confuses happiness and pleasure, but they’re really not synonymous. Pleasure is something you can pro-actively pursue and create; you can literally buy it off a shelf. For example: A steak, a baseball game and a new car are all pleasure-producing items; it’s just a question of money.
And you can feel pleasure even if you’re not happy.
So what is Happiness? 
To me, happiness is the glorious feeling of contentment that comes with feeling that your world makes sense. 
It’s not about being free of stressful situations. You can be ‘happy’ even when you’re hard at work, or caring for an ill relative. 
Happiness comes when we see our work and stress within a meaningful context; disquiet in life is acceptable when it’s part of your journey toward a desired goal. 
I think the ‘pursuit of Happiness” is a misleading phrase. You don’t actually pursue happiness. You can’t pro-actively buy it off a shelf.

But you can pursue a life that ‘makes sense’, and has a conscious, pro-active, meaningful objective. And then the Happiness can then settle in.
So how does life ‘make sense’? Even more, how can one genuinely live a life of purpose if he’s living in a Purpose-less world?
To me, there are three very important ingredients to a happy life: 
Belief in a Loving Creator/Parent
Belief that our lives matter to our Creator/Parent.
Internal commitment to a life of Meaning – as defined by our Creator/Parent.

These beliefs frame every day in a meaningful context.
They don’t insulate me from life’s curveballs, and they don’t necessarily ward off tragedy (G-d forbid).

At the same time, faith in a G-d who is with us for the painful ride, and a faith that one day we’ll understand how the suffering isn’t meaningless, can help us stay internally stable – even happy - amidst the storm.

So, living right here in the good old US of A, I will certainly suffer.

At the same time, G-d willing, I can also choose to be happy.

It’s up to us.

Do You Want To Want?

Israel’s army liberated the Western Wall in 1967’s Six-Day War

After 1900 years, the Jews had finally regained this peak of religious significance. Many of the soldiers were overwhelmed by emotion and began to cry.

They say that a vehemently atheistic soldier also began to cry. His comrades asked: "This is a HOLY – religious - site; what makes YOU cry?"

The soldier responded: "I am crying because I am not crying."

Very profound.

Depending on particular skill-set, we can sometimes appreciate a brilliant scientist’s intellect, an ingenious artist’s expression, etc. We can grasp, acknowledge and even be appropriately humbled, because we grasp what’s before us.

But sometimes we don’t ‘get it’. Sometimes we can’t really appreciate the profundity of what’s unfolding before our eyes. We know it’s there, because others see it; we’re just not equipped to ‘get it’.

We appreciate that there’s something to be appreciated. We acknowledge that there’s something to be acknowledged.

We want to want.

But that’s as far as we can go right now.

It feels like the statement/syndrome that I hear often: “I don’t believe, but I’d love to.”

I want to want.

This seems like a spiritually primitive place but it’s actually very profound. Acknowledgment that comes through the grasp of my skill-set is limited to that grasp. Acknowledgment/appreciation that comes from my LACK of a skill-set, is limited only by the extent of my heart and soul.

The religious soldier appreciated the Wall’s presence using specific tools – knowledge, training etc – and his inspiration was commensurate to those tools.

The non-religious soldier used no tools. He just felt. He didn’t really know what he felt, but he could appreciate that something special was going on. So he cried.

They were both humbled. But, on the humility spectrum, the non-religious soldier’s seems deeper and more profound.

When it comes to our relationship with G-d, this humble place – “I want to want” - has distinct beauty; because it is ultimately only through humility that we embrace G-d’s deeper existence.

‘I want to want’ is indeed low on the spiritual totem-pole, but that’s exactly why it reaches so high within the Divine.

This Sunday is Lag B’Omer, a spiritually powerful day when we commemorate the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of Judaism premier mystics.

At the same time, it’s a day associated with this [seemingly] spiritually primitive place of “I want to want” (click here to read more on the blog).

Touching the spiritually profound through the humility of being spiritually-unsophisticated?

Exactly.

THe Business of Life

The Business of Life

When I reflect on myself and my role in the world, the word 'merchant' doesn't come to mind. But, then again, all of life is a type of 'Divine Commerce'.

Trade is an interchange of goods and commodities. When I buy something it comes into my possession, and when I sell something I'm transferring the object from my domain to someone else's. That's basic business.

It's also a framework for life.

Consciously or sub-consciously, we tend to divide life into two dimensions: The important and the less-than-important. And individual experiences seem to naturally fall into one category or the other. But we can pro-actively choose to guide – to transfer - our experiences from the not-so-meaningful orbit to the more important.

For example: If, in the middle of my busy day, one of my children is calling my cell phone about something I consider less-than-important, I need to take pause.

The topic may be trivial, but our relationship is not. Every interaction is potentially ‘important’, and here is an opportunity for 'relationship-building'. I may still choose to defer the specific conversation until later. But not because I under-value the power of the conversation.

And rest assured: If I feel it, the other party will too.

I 'commercial' language, I need to ‘procure’ slices of life from the trivial domain, ‘acquiring’ them for the sake of meaning.

This also applies to my relationship with the Divine.

If I eat a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch today, that’s relatively trivial. But does it need to be?

What if I begin by thanking my Creator for incredible world and the food I'm about to eat? What if I'm conscious of my need to make a difference in the world, and my need for nutrition as fuel?

If I'm mindful and focused, I can transfer my lunch from the mundane to the meaningful; the bowl of soup becomes a tool in my life’s mission.

When I take a situation and infuse it with meaning, I'm ‘acquiring’ it for the Divine. That's spiritual commerce.

G-d gave us a world that seems disconnected from meaning, out of His 'domain'. Our job is to 'buy it back'.

And the merchandise pays immediate dividends: The inner peace that comes with living a Purposeful Life.

Make It Shine

Higher and lower.

Knowledgeable and ignorant.

Richer and poorer.

There seems to be a vertical scale in so much of life. In most cases, those at the lower end of the scale would like to reach the higher pole, while those ‘on top’ seem fine right where they are.

But life isn’t actually so linear.

‘Higher’ isn’t absolute. Even when you’re ‘on top’ in an area of life, if you want your strengths and advantages to truly ‘shine’, you need to share them with those ‘lower’ on the scale; perhaps counter-intuitively, those ‘lower’ contribute significantly to those ‘higher’.

The Talmud quotes Rabbi Chanina, one of its intellectual greats, as saying “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my peers and from my students most of all.”

That wasn’t poetic flattery of some youngsters. He meant it.

So how can Rabbi Chanina, lucky enough to have studied with some of history’s greatest minds, say that he has learned more from his students who are [presumably] way down the knowledge totem pole?

It’s not that he received more information from his students. Rabbi Chanina’s knowledge – his facts and data - became more lucid to him through his teaching.

Another Talmudic quote: “When a student approaches a teacher and says ‘teach me Torah’, when the teacher accedes and teaches ‘G-d illuminates the eyes of both (Proverbs 29:13).’”

When a teacher conveys knowledge HE/SHE receives illumination [too].

How?

When we want to share knowledge with someone who has less of it, we need to first crystallize our own understanding. You can delude yourself into thinking you understand something, but you can’t properly teach what you don’t really understand. The teaching process, from the preparation to the delivery, brings insight – illumination – to the teacher’s own intellectual grasp. Nothing brings more insight to an idea than successfully teaching it.

And it’s not just about knowledge. The Talmud tells us that “the pauper bestows upon the benefactor more than the benefactor bestows upon the pauper.”

The wealthy person needs something beyond money: meaning and inner satisfaction. And they aren’t up for simple sale.   

Happiness comes with the meaningful SHARING of wealth. I’ve heard it from so many philanthropists: When a person uses wealth – or any other of their gifts - to actually improve others’ lives, his/her world can literally light up.

So appreciate your gifts. Share them.

And feel the glow.

 

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