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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Ultimate Vacation

End of August.

The summer, especially the end of it, is traditionally a time for vacation and I hope you’re enjoying – or already enjoyed it – it.

I Googled “what is vacation” and got a box with two definitions:

A.      an extended period of recreation

B.      the action of leaving something previously occupied

The two may be accurate, but they’re not necessarily synonymous. Do you go on vacation to “get away”? Or do you change scenery looking for an opportunity to pro-actively recharge your batteries, to “re-create” yourself?

Part and parcel of the human experience is that we fall into patterns and ruts. Most of us are so consumed by the responsibilities and humdrum of daily life that we become – to some extent – automatons. So we need to break away from time, rising above the trees of life’s forest, so that we can get an aerial perspective of who we are and where we’re heading.

That’s re-creation. Taking the time to consider who we are and who can be. Pushing life’s pause button to consider our deepest priorities, why we’re alive and how we can best spend our time and energy. Such an exercise, whether on a beach in Hawaii or at your office desk, plugs your external world into your soul. And it puts you in position to have a day, or maybe just a few hours,  to live with your behaviors aligned with your values.

You’re the same person as yesterday. But you’re not. Because you’ve brought yesterday to a close and re-created yourself for today.

That’s how we see our daily prayer, as a – re-creative - refresher for the soul. And that’s how we Rosh Hashana.

The High Holiday liturgy presses a theme of humanity’s creation, not as a historical reminder but as a contemporary exercise. Rosh Hashana beckons us to consider our potential and re-fashion ourselves – first in self-image and then in action – to better align our actual with our potential.

It should be re-creative and refreshing. The ultimate vacation.

Hear The Knock?

What if today was your wedding anniversary, and you had plans for a romantic dinner? Would you be able to disengage from your work stresses, frustrations over the Iran deal and ordinary distractedness?

I hope so. Because it's more than worth the effort. Every relationship needs its pause button, a sacred time when the partners put aside their busy pursuits and focus on each other, re-committing for an even stronger future together.

It works the same way in your relationship with your Creator. The High Holidays, which are basically 30 days away, aren't just a time to show up in synagogue. They are special days, set aside for spiritual intimacy; days when we focus on the purpose of our lives, our personal relationship with G-d and with life itself.  

Ideally, one doesn’t just walk out of a business meeting and sit down to an intimate dinner. One first takes the effort to mentally disengage from one's distractive world, shut one's smartphone, and mentally zero in on the importance of the relationship.

Similarly, we have the month of Elul, which is the preliminary month leading us up to Rosh Hashana. During Elul, G-d helps us edge out of our own self-absorption, so that we’re in psycho-spiritual shape for our ‘anniversary get-together' on the High Holidays. 

Easier said than done.

In Jewish tradition, Elul is known as the 'Month of Mercy'. It's a time when we each go out of our way to help others. We give more charity etc.

Mercy means compassion toward someone who doesn't necessarily deserve the goodness (like a judge's mercy toward a convicted offender). You rise above the 'normal' metrics with which you usually guide your choices, and just allow yourself to feel the closeness and caring. So Elul is a time when G-d gives us extra capacity for compassion, and it doesn't stop there. When we rise above our usual self-interest to feel for another, G-dliness shines into our souls and primes us to be appropriately engaged during our intimate time with G-d on the High Holidays.

Elul begins this coming Shabbos. G-d will be knocking on our door, trying to draw us out of our self-absorbed status quo, prepping us for Rosh Hashana.

 

Answer the door.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

You’re worried about a medical issue and are waiting to see the doctor; you’re about to enter a business deal which could conceivably erase any financial worries in your life; your child is waiting for an admissions reply from your favorite University: Do you say a prayer?

In my experience, the answer is often yes.

The doctor has just told you that the shaded area on your scan was a technical aberration and you’re in fine medical shape; you’ve just closed a hugely successful business deal; your child was just accepted into a top-tier University: Do you take a moment to thank G-d?

I’ll let you answer that for yourself.

The common saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes” would seem to say that people are naturally inclined to pray in times of need. But what about times of success? Of Satisfaction? Are those times when we turn to G-d?

They should be.

This week’s Torah reading contains a verse which tells us that “when you eat and are satisfied, you should bless your G-d…”  Scripture only explicitly speaks about a blessing after we’ve eaten, when we’re satisfied and loosening the belt (the Rabbis later instructed us to say a prayer before we eat, too).

One might say that the Torah assumes we’ll pray for food when hungry, but sees the need to instruct us to thank G-d after a good meal.

When we’ve had a success, it’s less instinctive to look heavenward. And when things aren’t unusually successful, but they’re just keeping a good pace, it’s not much different. To use a simple example: If you wake up in the morning and your shoulder hurts, your mind will automatically go to the place of pain. Do you take a minute to feel thankful for your vision and hearing?

Of course we should turn to G-d in time of need. At the same time, we should consciously remember G-d in times when we’re not feeling needy. Every morning, I begin my day with several pages of initial prayers (even before my coffee), which guide me to thank G-d for a new day, for my vision, mobility, etc. I take a moment to thank G-d for my ‘regular’ blessings, recognizing that G-d isn’t just my go-to place for problems, but the source of all good in my life.

Thank you G-d for my blessings. Please keep then coming.

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