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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Calling Jacob

The world feels like its spinning out of control.

Whereas war zones used to feel like faraway, dangerous regions, last week’s Paris massacre taught us that Jihadis see the entire world as a war zone, and anyone – including me and you – as their enemy. Now, perhaps more than ever, is a time for strong, nuanced leadership that can walk the tightrope between security and selfishness, protection and paranoia.

Do we impale ourselves on the flag of America’s openness to refugees? Or do we close our borders - and our hearts - to those who may be in genuine need? Do we suffocate our society by over-wrapping ourselves in the flag of American citizenship and privacy rights? Or do we become suspicious of our fellow Americans, wondering which neighbor may have come to our shores with evil intentions?

This is not a simple dilemma. It’s a struggle between maintaining the security of our shores and maintaining our moral soul. We don’t want to sacrifice either. At the same time, we can’t always have our cake and eat it too.

In the Torah, our Patriarchs and Matriarchs each emblemize a particular trait or strength. Our Patriarch Jacob exhibits the attribute of Truth. Truth doesn’t mean honesty, as in the opposite of fraud. Truth means staying true to one’s ultimate objective, and harnessing all of one’s tendencies in the service of that goal.

A simple example: A very giving person (like our Patriarch Abraham), can get so caught up in the ‘giving mode’ that he neglects himself, damaging his health and impeding his future capacity to give. He’s focused on the giving, not on the ‘big picture’ goal of maximizing his ability to give in the future; so he doesn't modulate his giving.

He pursues one value at the expense of another.

Jacob kept his eye on the goal. He protected himself against a murderous twin brother, and a cheating father-in-law, without sacrificing his morality. A person excelling in Truth always stays true to the final objective, knowing how to modulate his tendencies and ideological preferences so that they don’t lead him off the rails, to his ultimate detriment.

Perhaps more than ever, we need 'Truth Leadership'. Leadership that isn’t based on one’s personal ideology or one’s preferred image in future history books. Leadership that exhibits balanced focus on the big picture.

A nation’s body and soul are at stake.


Looking to the Light

Sometimes life feels dark. I’m guessing that everyone goes through occasions when they feel like life’s walls are closing in and all doors of escape are closed. It’s difficult to hope for a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ when you feel that you’ve reached a dead end, and there’s no escape in sight.

Historically, we’ve gone through many periods of profound darkness. Thousands of years ago, barbarians came to Jerusalem to destroy our Holy Temple. They sacked our commonwealth, demolished our central place of worship and brought darkness to our lives.

After the Destruction, the great Rabbi Akiva visited the desolate Temple Mount with some Rabbinic colleagues. Seeing an animal running through the area that had previously been the Holy of Holies, they broke down and cried. All of them but Rabbi Akiva, who smiled.

Rabbi Akiva explained to his bewildered colleagues that the Torah forecasts a world where we will experience ruin and redemption, pain and pleasure, horror and happiness. The prophets, he explained, had clearly forecast the Temple’s destruction and the acute darkness they were all feeling. Yet those same prophets, he pointed out, had also forecast the beautiful light of redemption.

They foretold darkness and they foretold sunrise. Now that I see the darkness, I’m confident there will be a sunrise.

Thinking Jewish means recognizing that, until the universe experiences a Messianic shift to permanent goodness, there will always be a flux between two poles. Sadness and Happiness. Night and day.

In the Torah’s depiction of Creation’s six days, each day concludes with the language “it was evening and it was morning….” Following that rhythm, our calendar day actually begins in the evening and progresses to the morning, ending with sunset. We begin by accepting the night, but only as a first step; we go to bed with confidence in the sun rising. This is also reflected in our lunar (moon-based) calendar, which reflects life itself. Waxing, waning, darkness and fullness.

Last night, the moon was dark, not even a sliver of light. Our world was dark. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, we call that the BIRTH of the new moon (launching the Jewish month of Kislev). We have confidence that G-d gave us a world where this is just the beginning. The sun will yet rise and the moon will yet shine at its fullest.

Life will again feel bright.

Hebron on My Mind

Are we disconnected islands floating down the river of time? Or do we have roots, a history and a heritage? While now – the 'present' - should be our primary focus, we shouldn’t de-contextualize a specific slice of time from the larger time-continuum.  My ‘now’ should be firmly rooted in my ‘then’, with a wise eye on the future. That applies to each of us as individuals, and to us as a people.

Jews have a deep history and heritage, which is an important rudder for our present and future. When we pray three times a day, we begin by recalling our ancestors going back to the time of Abraham.While prayer isn’t a time for history lessons, we recall our ancestors because they trail-blazed the path we’ve been following through history. We recall our ancestors because they are beacons of inspiration for us, their children. We recall our ancestors because we owe something to them, our past.

That’s the way we think.

This coming Shabbos, Hebron will be visited by thousands of Jews from all over the world. Why this week? Because this week’s Torah portion relates how our matriarch Sara passed away in Hebron, and how Abraham buried her in that city. 

Abraham and Sara had lived in Hebron for years, and the Scripture tells us that Abraham purchased a family burial site - the Cave of Machpela - for four hundred centenaria shekels (a sum of one million ordinary shekels!) and buried his beloved wife there. 

In Hebrew, Hebron (Chevron) means connection or fellowship. Hebron is a place where we can link up with our ancestors, and thereby plug into our millennia-old heritage. It's a place where anyone - irrespective of background - can come to connect with higher meaning. 

Revered by Jews for thousands of years, Hebron is also a city whose history is presently under attack by revisionists (click  here for info) who have been – with UN assistance - slowly unwinding our historical connection to Israel. It's difficult to believe; but it's actually happening, as we speak.

Thousands of people are spending Shabbos in Hebron so that they can feel their connection to our history and heritage. I'll be in NJ, but I'll have Hebron on my mind. Hebron, the city of our Ancestors. 

Hebron. Mine and yours. 


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