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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Long Live the King!

What visual image comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘King’? Caligula? Henry VIII?

Do you view kings as self-indulgent tyrants who rule by virtue of their respective births?

If so, that can present a problem with relating to our High Holiday liturgy. Our prayers are consistently referring to G-d as our ‘King’; in fact, the Holiday is framed as a Coronation of the Almighty.

So how do you squeeze G-d, the pinnacle of Holiness, into such an inadequate metaphor?  

At one level, I can understand that a King represents the highest level on the human-authority totem pole. So, our Sages, looking for an earthly metaphor to portray a Divine concept (known as an anthropomorphism), framed G-d as a ‘King’. At the same time, if we – especially us Americans who ejected King George - presently see kings in a less high-minded light, one might contend that this is a metaphor which has outlived its usefulness.

Our liturgy was devised by holy people with profound spiritual insight, and their liturgical choices contain countless of levels of mystical depth. So, let’s stick with the word our Sages chose: ‘King’, and just redefine the term king to meet their intent.

Getting past history’s caricatures, what is a genuine King? A King is someone who occupies an elevated place because he is an elevated person. An authentic King has character that is head and shoulders above the crowd, and someone whose focus is singularly attuned to the needs of his people. In fact, he is one with his people.

Hebrew has two words to describe a sovereign leader, ‘Moshel’ and ‘Melech’. The former translates as ruler, the latter as king. Ruler describes someone who governs irrespective of the people’s will; the people are responsible to serve their monarch. Aside from their surrender, their opinions are irrelevant.

A king isn’t just a monarch. He’s someone who the people willingly accept, someone to whom people surrender with safety and joy in their hearts. That level of commitment on the part of the governed reflects the intimate connectedness between the two parties.

Indeed, the Rosh Hashana liturgy makes many references to ‘Our Father, Our King’. The King is also a parent, and we are the children. Even as we recognize Divine authority’s awesomeness, we feel the deep embrace, love and concern of our King/Parent.

So, yeah, I’ll stick with King.

Mercy Matrix

It’s that time of year. That terrifying chasm-in-time between day camp and school. My three youngest wake up with a chorus of “I’m bored” – even though they had an action-packed day yesterday and it’s only 7am.

We’re their parents, and we need to provide for their needs. At the same time, we shouldn’t give them everything they want. We give lovingly, but within reason.

Yesterday afternoon, they went swimming. A half hour after their return, they were bored again.  I didn’t NEED to provide more entertainment. At the same time, I felt for their distress. I had pity.

So I took them for Slurpees. I just felt that the situation called for me to go beyond my normal protocol.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want to demostrate the difference between kindness and mercy. Kindness is a feeling or act that comes from friendly connectedness of spirit. Mercy is about showing kindness when it isn’t deserved.

Imagine a parent’s mercy on a child, helping him through a difficult patch of his own making. Or a judge using legal discretion to grant a lighter sentence to a convicted violator. It’s not about the person deserving kindness; it’s about the sense of mercy being triggered within the grantor. And that mercy wells from such a deep psychological place that it transcends the normative ‘kindness protocol’.

We’re entering the High Holiday season. The Rosh Hashana/ Yom Kippur liturgy has plenty of references to G-d’s “attributes of Mercy”. What does that mean in Divine terms? It means that is transcending His normative ‘kindness protocol’ to grant us what we need.

Rosh Hashana isn’t about what we deserve, it’s about recognizing that G-d is a loving Parent, and loving Parents find mercy to help their children even beyond what’s ordinarily deserved.   

Before Rosh Hashana, we have a month of preparation, the month of Elul. In Elul, the Mercy is slightly different in that G-d nudges us to have mercy on ourselves, to recognize our own disconnect from Holiness and reach beyond life’s distractions to plug [back] in to a meaningful relationship with G-d. Elul means finding a deeper place within our own psyches, transcending our ‘normative system’ of wants and desires, to find a place of closeness with the Divine.

Elul is also a special time to be merciful to other people. When we find the ‘mercy muscle’ within ourselves, we find a deeper part of our souls, and we trigger Mercy within G-d and the cosmos.

What better preparation for Rosh Hashana?


Last week, my son spoke with a successful jeweler, and confirmed a story people tell about the man:

This Jeweler had a financially-strapped neighbor who decided to try his hand at jewelry, so the neighbor asked the jeweler for help. The latter took him to all of his suppliers, with complete transparency about how he makes his money.

 “Does that make ANY business sense?” he was asked.

The elderly man smiled, “As hard as I work, I won’t get one penny more than G-d gives me.”

Then he laughed “Years later, I’m still rich, that fellow still isn’t; and I have a good story!”

By historical terms, we live in a wealthy country and a comfortable era. Yet many of us don’t feel that way. Many don’t have enough to pursue their desires, and long-term financial security seems elusive, especially since 2008.

Let’s learn from another ‘wealthy’ time in history:

When the Jews left Egypt, they went out into the wilderness. How did they survive? G-d. For example, when they awoke in the morning, they found Heaven-sent Manna on the ground outside their tents.

The Manna was white, a bit bland looking, but it had whatever taste you desired. Fettucini Alfredo for lunch? You got it. Grandma’s brisket with mashed potatoes for dinner? That was the exact taste in your mouth.

But there was a wrinkle. You couldn’t store the manna for tomorrow; if you tried to save some, it miraculously spoiled.

The Talmud points out that the Manna – for all its wonders - had two elements which were dissatisfying to the human psyche/palate.

A.      There was no sense of security. Since they couldn’t put away for a rainy day, they ate well today, but with unease about tomorrow.

B.      People eat with their eyes. The Manna tasted great, but the bland appearance detracted from the pleasure.

In more modern words: They were objectively given wealth, but they subjectively felt dissatisfaction/’poverty’.

Our society is blessed with plenty; just three generations ago this lifestyle was unimaginable. Believe it or not, we have our very own Manna from Heaven.

Recognize it.

Let’s use and save our money wisely; let’s also recognize that our wealth is ultimately G-d’s blessing, our Manna. Sharing, by giving to charity, shows that awareness.

Let your senses enjoy life’s pleasures, but don’t get too bummed out if you’re not touching every single sensual base. Don’t get in your own way.

Just enjoy the Manna.



STRESSED . . . . . . . . AND BLESSED

 Sometimes it seems as if some people are more blessed than others, that the blessings – and stresses – in life are not equally distributed.
But, of course, once we peel away the surface, we all have stress. And we all have blessings.
The stress, the pain, is real and often seems to have the power to eclipse our blessings. But blessings we all have.

It may not feel that way (and telling this to a person in the midst of anguish, is counter productive and offensive) but every life has some light.

Waking up in the morning is a blessing.
Basic functions like vision, hearing and mobility are blessings.
A friendship - how much more so a relationship - is a blessing.
The ability to help another person in need (even if it's just allowing them to vent) is a blessing.
We all have blessings. When we’re genuinely conscious of our reality, we’ll find those blessings. Even as we’re stressed.
Problems and blessings can co-exist: The greatest joy won’t solve our objective problems. And the most stressful problems don’t erase our objective blessings. But they’re both real. And we can’t forget the blessings for the pain.
This consciousness is our morning meditation and prayer.
We identify our blessings and thank G-d for them. We FEEL blessed.
Then, empowered by our blessing, we identify our stresses and ask G-d for help with solutions.
The problems are still problems. But they’re standing side-by-side with our blessings, not eclipsing them.
It makes a world of difference.

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