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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Self vs. Selfish

 Nationalism? Globalism?

Get my house in order and take care of my own life and its needs? Open the door to others and share my blessings?

It’s possible to satisfy both. The quandary often lies in deciding which element we should emphasize at which point in the ubiquitous struggle of self vs other.

On this point, the Talmud tells us that “one who says ‘what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine’ shows ignorance.” In other words: It’s healthy to recognize that we have boundaries and borders. What’s mine isn’t intrinsically yours. And what’s yours isn’t actually mine.

A society declaring that everything belongs to everybody is creating a world of anarchy. Such a worldview, teaches the Talmud, demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of human nature and its needs.  

A sense of self, of our personal boundaries, is healthy. Recognizing someone else’s boundaries is critical to a sense of respect. The Talmud is telling us that it’s good to know where we each begin and end.

But the Talmud goes further with a curious statement: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours…this is the attitude of Sodom”. Sodom is the Scriptural epitome of a selfish and cruel society, of man’s inhumanity to man. Why should a simple recognition of our respective borders be labeled with such a horrible moniker?

The Talmud’s point is that a secure sense of self, recognizing one’s own independent and valuable place in the world, is extremely important. Independence is a good thing. We want it for our children as they grow out of their dependency stage.

At the same time, independence is not the ideal end-game. If one grows into independence, but hasn’t recognized the need to genuinely share one’s life with others, that’s called stunted development.

We want independence to mature into interdependence. Once I’m truly standing on my own two feet, I’m in a position to go beyond my personal borders to share life with someone else. And that’s where I’ll find life’s richness. In other words: The Talmud tells us that one’s proclamation of independence needs to be followed by a comma, not a period. It’s healthy to achieve an understanding that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” But you can’t stop there; we know where that got the Sodomites.

Find independence. Then keep growing and share yourself with others.

That’s what life is all about.

A Legacy of Love

What is love?

Love is closeness.

Even more, it’s whole-hearted, committed closeness.

The heart’s warm flutter can be fleeting infatuation, here today and gone tomorrow. Love is different. It’s substantive. Real. Love is a bond that stands strong in the face of day-to-day volatility, an emotional anchor that’s unshaken by life’s waves.

Love is other-centered devotion. There’s a Chassidic story about a child who watches an adult catch and prepare a fish. Before his first bite, the adult exclaims “I love fish.” The child responds: “Sir, you apparently don’t love fish; if you did, you would have let this one stay in the water. You actually love yourself, and this fish is just another avenue for feeding your self-love!”

Genuine love isn’t about us gratifying ourselves (although that may be a nice by-product). Love is about making space for the other’s needs. Love is when the other’s sensitivities become our personal concern.

Sometimes, looking after our personal needs is a part of other-centeredness. If I take a day to care for myself, so that I am better fit to discharge my responsibilities to G-d, to life and the world, I’m still living a day of other-consciousness. Meeting my own needs can be a necessary preparation for fulfilling my responsibility to others.

In Torah language, this deeply committed, loving relationship is called a Covenant (Bris in Hebrew); it’s when two parties reach a profound, integral Oneness.

That’s what Abraham had going with G-d.

Abraham made genuine space in his life for G-d. Abraham’s definition of a ‘meaningful life’ was to be the person who G-d had created him to be. So his material endeavors, including his ‘self-gratifying pursuits,’ were all opportunities for deepening – and expressing - his devotion to living a meaningful life.

That’s why G-d commanded him to express their Covenant by marking an area of the physical body which symbolizes the pursuit of pleasurable physical engagement. To Abraham, all of life – even the pleasurable part - was all about reaching his/our Divinely-granted goal of finding deep connectedness with others and making this a better world. Life was all about the Covenant, all about mindfulness of higher Purpose.

Abraham showed us how to live life as it’s meant to be lived.

Creating Rainbows

Clouds.

We know how they’re formed.

A. Water fills the earth’s streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.

B. The sun’s rays evaporate some of the water,

C. Droplets rise to form clouds (which eventually yield rain back to the earth).

Now, let’s phrase it differently: Clouds represent the Earth’s ‘feedback’ to the skies, bringing welcome precipitation to our environment, creating overcast days, and sometimes bringing storms to shake our world.

A little deeper:

The ‘heavens’ - the sky for the purpose of this conversation - represents G-d, while the Earth represents Humanity. And the clouds, hovering between Heaven and Earth, represent our behavior; our behavior is our feedback to G-d, our response to His gift of life.

G-d created us for a purpose: To make this a better [Holy] world. We can either acknowledge – and try to live by - that mission, or we can ignore it and live in misalignment with our core selves. Either way, we’re sending up clouds.

So what do we do when we feel that life is overcast?

We look for a rainbow, and they only occur when the clouds aren’t too thick and opaque. When our lives are heavily centered on self-focus, we leave no space for the rainbows. Living a good life means thinking about purpose. When we stop asking ourselves “what do I want out of life?” and begin asking “what does life want out of me?” we allow a bright ray of G-dliness to shine through.

When you stand at the right attitudinal angle, looking at your day with the right perspective, you can catch the majesty of the Rainbow. And it has a message from G-d: “Let Me shine through; I’ll show you the beauty that can be found in the diverse challenges I give you. Just let your life’s droplets refract My light.”

Position yourself wisely. And look for that rainbow.

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