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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

A New Grandfather Reflects on Gaza

For the past few weeks part of my brain has been consistently focused on Gaza. For the first time in my forty-six years, I’m feeling that Israel, and the Jewish people, are very much alone in the world.

Hamas is indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets at innocent civilians (a war crime). Some of those very rockets fall on Palestinian schools/hospitals, and Israel is blamed. Residents of Israel’s south have awakened to the frightening reality that terrorist groups were planning to pop out of tunnels in their otherwise-peaceful backyards, ready to commit mayhem and murder.

And the world, including Western media, calls for Israel to draw back from its campaign to destroy Gaza’s terror infrastructure.

That bleak reality is where my psyche has been fixed for several weeks.

Then, yesterday, our daughter Chaya gave birth to a baby boy. Our first grandson, G-d bless him.

All of a sudden, light and love beam into a dark world. A new baby. New hope. A fresh start.

Renewal.

Life’s paradox of mixed emotions.

We’re in the saddest period of the Jewish calendar, the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av, when we’ll mourn the destruction of the two Holy Temples which stood in Jerusalem. The Talmud tells us that the Moshiach, the spirit of redemption, was born on Tisha B’av, that very day of destruction.

In other words, the seeds of redemption and renewal are found amidst the ashes.

Global anti-Semitism is giving us a Tisha B’av moment. That’s why now is the time for us to search for, and find, the kernels of a new world. Now is the time for Israel to recognize that it needs to disregard international pressure and pursue its principle of humanely securing its citizens’ safety. Now is the time for people of conscience – Jew and non-Jew – to speak up and point out that the Hamas Emperor, ostensibly clothed by well-meaning tax money, is a naked barbarian.

As naïve hopes of Hamas’ peaceful side have gone up in smoke, we – you and I – need to shift the chattering-classes’ conventional wisdom. Now is the time for liberal-minded, freedom-loving people to publicly point out Hamas’ destruction of their own people.

Don’t be paralyzed by the bleakness; every day a new baby is born. Speak up to whoever will listen. Impact your local discourse. It will make a difference.

Future hope – moral clarity - is born amidst the ashes.

Bashert

 

I met new local friends last Friday night. Afterward, they told me they believed our meeting was ‘bashert'.
I agreed.
Have you ever heard of 'bashert'? It’s a Yiddish word which means ‘destiny’, or ‘it was meant to be’.
Many people use it to encapsulate the idea of a soul mate, as in “looking for my bashert”.  But the concept goes far beyond match-making. It’s about life.
Do you believe that the challenges you face, the people you meet and even your mistakes are random? That life is an orchestra without a maestro?
Or do you believe that G-d has a plan for you? That the Divine has placed each of us here with a destiny, and that every moment of every day is the unfolding of that Grand Plan?
In other words: Does life have inherent meaning? Or is it intrinsically meaningless, and we just occasionally fool ourselves by attaching subjective meaning to random events?
The 'bashert mindset’ is faith in Divine Planning. Believing in bashert is believing that all aspects of my life have meaning. It’s also the faith that my job is to find – and actualize – the productive purpose that G-d has buried in the event I’m facing.
So, when you're faced with a nasty customer or obnoxious boss, when life at home presents you with a stressful dilemma, the 'bashert mindset’ counsels "Take a breath and choose wisely; this is all part of your Divinely- destined journey. Make this next step a step forward."
What does this means for two people who ‘serendipitously’ meet? It means that they should guide the meeting to a productive place, making it an encounter that furthers their own respective journeys, and hopefully benefits the larger community.
The meeting may appear random, but when you believe in 'bashert' there's no such thing.

Bashert is the belief that G-d gives you a life full of opportunities for growth.

It’s also the belief that opportunities are only half the equation. We are co-Creators in this life we’re given.

G-d gives us the opportunities.

The rest steps are up to us.

Guiding History

Don Isaac Abarbanel was one of the greatest statesmen in European Jewish history. Born in 1437, his family fled the massacre of Jews at Castille, and settled in Lisbon, where Isaac was born. A brilliant young man, Isaac became Treasurer to King Alfonso V.

Despite his prestige, Don Isaac eventually had to flee Portugal. He settled in Spain, where he became a senior financial advisor to Queen Isabella. Then came the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. He once again picked up his wanderer’s staff, joining his expelled brethren in exile.

I grew up reading about Don Isaac and others like him.

I, an American boy feeling safe and respected in my own country, struggled to understand how Don Isaac’s world tolerated such irrational injustice.

“It was a different world and a different time,” I said to myself. “Thank G-d for the USA."

My Holocaust readings brought the question chronologically closer. How could the world have stood by and watched such murderous insanity?

“It was a different world and a different time,” I said to myself. “Thank G-d for the USA."

In 1989-90, I spent months teaching Jews in the former Soviet Union. I found the anti-Semitism so tragically irrational that it was almost comical. The “Jews and the Capitalists” were being excoriated in one part of the country at the very same time that “Jews and the Communists” were being lambasted elsewhere in the very same country.

“This is a different world,” I said to myself. “Thank G-d for the USA."

In the past week, there have been violent demonstrations against Israel and Jews in Berlin and Paris. The Don Isaac Abarbanel Synagogue in Paris was attacked by a mob protesting Israel’s response to Hamas lobbying thousands of rockets at non-combatant Israeli citizens while hiding among their own civilians. Is this sane? Would they tolerate that attacks in their own cities?

Sadly, Don Isaac has no rest from history’s eerie and irrational echo. But, tragically, it’s not just Don Isaac. And it’s not just Europe.

According to news reports, Jews were vocal participants in Manhattan’s anti-Israel demonstrations; some of our own brethren are swept up in the insanity. Right here in the USA. In our time.

We don’t have to be passive victims of history. We live in a great and free country. We can guide our history to a saner place.

Educate yourself. Speak up.

Future generations are relying on you.

STANDING TALL

My sixteen-year old daughter left for Israel this week, together with a group of 50 other girls her age. Tourism doesn’t usually thrive when missiles are falling, yet not a single girl cancelled the trip.

My wife Malkie and I, the other girls' parents (and local Federation Directors who flew there this week), know that ‘playing it absolutely safe,’ and decreasing Israel’s tourism, would be handing a victory to the terrorists.

Every once in a while, we get an opportunity to stare our values in the face and ask “how much does this mean to me?” We need to be ready with an answer.

Today marks eighty-seven years since the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, was freed from Communist captivity.

When the Marxists  took power in Russia, they were homicidally brutal in their passionate drive to destroy Judaism. In conventional thinking, the Previous Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn), a world-renowned Rabbi running a network of religious institutions, had a lot to fear. But his thinking was principled, not conventional. He stood for G-dliness, and he would not back down in the face of Man.

The Rebbe was incarcerated in the feared Spalerno prison, beaten and sentenced to death. His response was to stand tall and demand his religious rights. He never handed his captors the gift of his fear.

When the authorities eventually commuted his death sentence, and sent him from prison to relative freedom in exile, the government reserved a train-ride which would have him travelling on Shabbat. He refused to leave that hellhole until he could be guaranteed a trip that protected his religious values. He would not bend.

When he was finally released, the Rebbe spoke publicly at the train station. Ignoring the Communist operatives in the crowd, he publicly declared, “These oppressors can only exercise power over our bodies, never over our souls! The imprisonments and torture are temporary; our values are timeless. Stand tall and keep strengthening your religious observance!”

The Rebbe stood for principle, even in the face of life-and-death adversity. Today is the day he persevered.  So it’s the perfect time to ask ourselves: “What do I stand for, for if I bend under pressure, was I ever really standing?”

Stand tall. The Rebbe did. We can too.

Today

Ten brilliant scholars stood outside the study of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the 1st Chabad Rebbe. They were waiting for the Rebbe to review with them a mystical discourse.

 When the door opened, they all entered except for Rabbi Isaac. He was much younger than the others and thought it appropriate that he remain outside the door.

The Rebbe asked, “Who remains outside?” Someone responded, “A young man.”

 The Rebbe said, “A young man can become an older man.” With that invitation, Rabbi Isaac rejoined the group.

 In retelling this incident later on, Rabbi Isaac related that the Rebbe’s comment threw him off balance. His mind and heart were flooded with the remark. For several minutes, he could think of nothing else.

 But why? Surely he wasn’t overwhelmed by the notion that younger people grow into older ones.

In the Rebbe’s words, Rabbi Isaac heard a profound psycho-spiritual boost. "Don’t be limited by your present capacity. You have an older, wiser man inside of you. Unlock him. Live the future now."

Rabbi Isaac’s deep self-awareness, and his profound confidence in the Rebbe’s words, triggered an internal transformation. His previously-hidden potential began to actualize in newly-broadened vision and depth. He was overwhelmed and it took him a few moments to adjust. But he walked into the Rebbe’s room newly able to see past today’s limitations and live tomorrow’s potential.

Many decades ago, my father (Rabbi Moshe Herson, the Rebbe’s chief representative in the State of NJ, and Dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown) stood in a private audience with the Rebbe (the 7th Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty). Still in his thirties, my father was Dean of a fledgling College in Newark, and tasked with growing both the College and the [virtually non-existent] presence of Chabad throughout the State.

The Rebbe blessed him and said, “You should become the success today that others are tomorrow.”  

Why didn’t the Rebbe tell him, “You should become today who YOU can become tomorrow?”

Perhaps the Rebbe was giving my father a similar jolt of confidence as Rabbi Isaac received. Perhaps the Rebbe was gifting my father with an awareness of his own potential by giving him a frame reference as to who he could be. The Rebbe may have been saying: “Identify someone who you feel is successful, experienced, accomplished. And remember, that is who YOU could be. Today. You don’t need to postpone maximizing your potential until you’re older. Be that person now.”

 Look around. See what’s possible. Visualize a greater tomorrow.

 Live it today.

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