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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

So Happy You're Coming

The “three day a year Jew”.

This widespread phenomenon is the subject of many a sermon and the punch line of many a joke.

Sermonizing and laughter aside, let’s try to understand this concept of the “three day a year Jew”: First of all, there’s really no such thing. Jews are Jews, 365 days a year. A specific Jew’s conduct may just not tell that story on a given day.

At the same time, there is clearly a disconnect between many Jews and ‘organized Judaism’. For thousands of years, most Jews prayed thrice daily and joined public Judaic gatherings whenever they occurred. In more recent times, there’s been much less involvement at a synagogue and religious communal level.

Except for the High Holidays.

Why?

I’ve been asking myself that question for two decades, since our first local High Holiday service in 1994. Even back then, in a ramshackle house and with a far smaller group of friends, the High Holiday bump in attendance was evident. I didn’t fully understand it then, and my question has fleshed itself out over time. What gravitational-pull do people feel? Are people feeling any emotional attraction at all? Is attendance a nod to their [deceased] parents and grandparents? Are my friends afraid of getting zapped by G-d if they don’t show up? Do people feel drawn to join the Jewish Community at this annual get-together, for the very sake of joining the Jewish Community, irrespective of why we’re gathering? Are people just going to services because “that’s what we do”?

My experience tells me that if there is an answer, it’s not a neat and pat one.  

My experience also tells me that the question is ultimately irrelevant.

What matters is that Jews get together as a community in a Jewish House of Worship to celebrate a day of Oneness with each other and with G-d. Jews who don’t frequent synagogues or Torah classes on an average Saturday, let alone Thursday, will be gathering tomorrow and Friday to pay respect to their heritage, to join their brethren in prayer, and to hear the call of the Shofar as their ancestors have done for over 3300 years.

Tomorrow is a time when Jews all over the world will pull themselves away from their usual distractions and gather in synagogues.

Why? Who cares?

I’m just really glad you guys are coming. 

Life in The Funhouse


The "Al Chet" confession of sins is said ten times in the course of the Yom Kippur services. It features a long roster of sins we may have committed over the course of the year.

Sin.

 The word sounds ominous. A moral breach, a stain on my soul.

 For many, the assumption is, “If I sin, I am a sinner.” That’s dark. At the same time, we say a daily prayer “My G-d, the soul which you have given to me is pure….”

So which is the real me? Pure soul or sinner?

 G-d created us as pure extensions of Himself. Just as a child is a reproduced extension of mom and dad’s DNA in a separate body, we are each a piece of G-d Himself in human trappings.

We’re essentially Divine.

 But G-d also gave us a weak human overlay. We’re created to struggle with the façade of self-centeredness and amoral impulses, to bring our essential Holiness into blossom so that it reigns in our psyches. Will my next choice be consistent with my Divine Essence, or will it be a concession to the façade?

 In other words: G-d gave us the ability to see ourselves in a funhouse mirror. It may actually feel fun; but it’s not the real you.

Why did G-d create us with this paradox? It’s a Divine set-up, for our own ultimate benefit.

 Good behavior is only virtuous when we have a choice to be bad; otherwise we’re just good automatons. G-d gave us this moral obstacle course, so that we can achieve goodness that shines.

And when we make a wrong moral choice, we’re choosing an immature distortion of our essential Holiness. We followed the path of our façade, and chose the funhouse reality.

 Maybe the sinful act was losing one’s temper, or cheating, or withholding empathy; any disconnect from the person who G-d created me to be creates a psycho-spiritual blemish.

That’s sin. And it happens way too often.

 The Talmud comments that G-d ‘feels remorse’ over creating the negative instinct (yetzer hara in Hebrew) within people. G-d has remorse for giving us this ‘necessary evil’ of free moral choice. G-d regrets seeing how much we get caught up in the funhouse.

 But it’s critical to recognize that the funhouse can’t touch our essence, and we should never mistake our missteps for an innate blemish.

When we sin, the sin is real; it’s just not the real me. The real me, the essential me, is one of G-d’s Holy children.

Al Cheit, yes, we have missed the mark many times this past year. But we’ll do better this coming year. Because we ARE better.

 

Do You Fear G_d?

I've met many people who are spiritually turned off by the idea of 'fearing G-d'.

This High Holiday period is a time when I have a heightened sensitivity to this syndrome. Who knows? People may be sitting at our services and think we're praying to a G-d we 'fear'.

So, for the record: I’m not afraid of G-d.

I’m not afraid of my parents either.

To me, being ‘afraid’ means that I am significantly concerned about danger heading my way. It means that I think specific individuals may actually inflict harm on me, and I don’t feel safe with the object(s) of my fear. That doesn’t apply to G-d or my parents.

It’s not like I don’t understand what it means to fear authority figures. My home and school sometimes used the carrot and stick approach, so as a kid I had reason to fear consequences.

However:

A. That was a childish part of my youth. I stayed away from misbehavior to avoid discomfort, not because of any high-minded moral vision. It was a simple cost/benefit analysis. I hope to have outgrown that.

B. I never doubted my authority figures’ genuine concern for my welfare. I wasn’t afraid of THEM per se. I feared the painful fallout.

So, even in my childhood fears, I was never afraid of my G-d or my parents.

I’m still not, if we define fear as dread of impending personal harm.

I feel secure in G-d’s love for me as His child. At the same time, I experience many emotions which can be seen as part of the ‘fear’ spectrum.

I fear the possibility of my behavior damaging my relationship with G-d and with a meaningful life.

When I observe bad behavior’s ugly side-effects, I’m frightened by the damage that human beings are able to wreak upon each other.

When I consider the majesty of G-d’s creation, and the immensity of G-d’s blessings to me, I stand back in awe and reverence of our Creator.

When I consider life’s enormous responsibilities, how much G-d and my world expect from me, I’m overtaken by feelings of gravitas and solemnity.

When I consider the world’s array of misfortunes, I recognize that G-d protects me from so much. My blessings outstrip what I objectively deserve. So I feel serious consternation as to whether G-d will continue His flow of unearned, bountiful kindness.

So, while I have feelings on the fear spectrum, I don’t fear a G-d Who wants revenge, a G-d with Whom I can’t feel totally safe. That’s not my G-d.

So when you see the word ‘fear’ in your prayers this Rosh Hashana, don’t run.

There’s no reason to hide.

It’s Rosh Hashana. Come closer.

In grateful humility.

SOMETHING TO REMEMBER

 Sometimes I forget things, even things that happened yesterday. We all do.
I also remember many things; even some things that happened decades ago.
Why do I remember some events and forget others? There’s plenty of research into how we encode, store and retrieve memories. The bottom line is that some things strike us deeply, and become imprinted on our deeper psyches, so we remember them. You remember something because it matters.

You can have a deep grasp of a concept today and forget it by next week, because it didn’t matter all that much to you. We’re finite humans, so our brains can’t retain every mental image and every idea that we engage. Our minds have limited RAM and backup space, so some things need to be ‘dumped’ to reduce brain clutter..

But what about G-d, the Omnipotent and Omniscient (all-knowing) One? With unlimited ‘brain space’, G-d shouldn’t forget anything. Yet, in our High Holiday prayers we beseech the Almighty “Remember us for life!” and “Remember our Ancestors’ loyalty!”

Could G-d actually forget us?

Scripture uses human terms to describe Divine functions, because ‘human’ is the only language we understand. So we get our minds around a human metaphor and then we strip it of its human trappings, searching for the function’s ‘soul’, so we can begin to fathom what that function represents within the Divine.

Isaiah quotes G-d as saying “…I will erase your sins; I will not remember them”. He doesn’t say “I’ll forget your sins”; G-d doesn’t forget anything. He says “I won’t remember them.” In other words, “I know you’ve made mistakes. But I love you so I won’t make a big deal out of them.”

So not-remembering doesn’t mean forgetting (G-d doesn’t ‘forget’), it means not giving that item central focus.

So when we pray on Rosh Hashana, and ask G-d to ‘remember’ us, we’re saying “Please give full focus to the fact that we’re your children. And no matter how Your child behaves, he/she is always Your child. And when Your child realizes the fundamental need for a healthy relationship with his/her Parent, there should be no need for discipline.”

That’s our Rosh Hashana prayer to G-d: Irrespective of some questionable choices, we’re Your kids, so we need to be central to Your Divine focus. You’re our Parent, so we’ll mirror the attention.

Our relationship runs deep. So does memory.

Please remember.

 

Rabbi Mendy Herson

 

 

 

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