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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

How to Grow in the Dark

Can people actually change?  

We all have habits we could do better without, and shtick that gets in the way of a better life. Inertia has a crushing, paralyzing effect on people, so the possibility of change can feel like an impossible illusion. Should we just shrug our shoulders and accept our warts? Or is there some way we can reach a better self?

Our Sages, connoisseurs of the soul and the human condition, have long told us that we can improve our personalities and behaviors. Provided that we really want to.

Our lunar calendar actually sends us a monthly message to this effect. Our daily calendar is in sync with the moon’s waxing and waning, reflects our own uneven struggle to live better lives. A fuller moon represents days in which we feel more soul energy, days in which we’re more connected to strongest selves. Waning reflects the opposite.

Once a month, there’s no waxing or waning. Just darkness. When the moon passes between the sun and the earth, the moon disappears and we have an opaque night. No moonlight at all. Yet perhaps counter-intuitively, that’s actually when the new moon is born; a time when our calendar takes a quantum leap forward into the future.

The Jewish calendar teaches us that sometimes we need to close our door and shut the lights. Instead of tweaking yesterday's habits, it's time to shut down yesterday's system and decide who I want to be from now on. That's darkness with a mission, darkness that can herald rebirth.

Rosh Chodesh is the term we use for the beginning of a new month, triggered by the birth of the new moon. Rosh Chodesh is an ideal time for this darkness/rebirth dynamic. And this coming Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh of the month of 'Nissan,' the month of Passover. Our mystical greats tell us that each day of Nissan has special rebirth potential; each day is like Rosh Chodesh. Each day reflects the Passover energy, the energy that once expressed itself in the birth of a nation, the energy that once gave Jews the power to 'pass over' – transcend – their slave mentality.

It happened once and it can happen again.

We're heading into a month of personal rebirth. Rebirth which begins with the willingness to turn out the lights on one's old self, and progresses with the genuine desire for –recreation.

It starts this Shabbos.

Israel Diary #5: Watering the Caper Bush

An unspoken question looms over many Israel trips: How much time should you spend looking at old stones and graves? Past is indeed prologue, but how much prologue does one need?

Friday morning, we traveled to Hebron to visit the Machpela tomb of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Was it all about days bygone?

Kabbalistic imagery describes us each as being entrusted by G-d with a personal garden which represents our life's work. Metaphorically speaking, you and I spend our lives planting, cultivating and nurturin‎g a plot of earth which sits at the base of a mountain. Water, representing G-d's blessings, flow down the mountain to provide nourishment for each garden's vegetation and growth. 

Why the need for a mountain in this metaphor? Because the mountain's slope represents the preceding generations of one's respective ancestry.  In other words, G-d's blessings flow to us through the genealogical topography formed by prior generations' souls.

In other words, visiting the Machpela was also very much about the present. The blessings I receive from G-d today  are launched through the agency of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, standing at Hebron's Machpela Cave isn't about what was, but about what is. It meant connecting with the source of my soul's nourishment, with G-d's point of contact for my life's flow of blessing.

I was plugging into my energy source.

Leaving the tomb, the group energy was one of inspiration. And the hostile environment, as evidenced by the need for heavy IDF protection, didn't dampen our spirit. To the contrary, it seemed to energize our singing and dancing, the celebration of our history and spiritual identity.

I felt our Hebron inspiration continue as we returned to Jerusalem to enjoy Shabbos with our 450-strong group of American Jews‎. 

And on Sunday Hebron's lesson crystallized, when we traveled south to the historic, desert-like area of Beit Guvrin. There, our guide pointed out a caper-bush, explaining that - in the plant world - this bush is a remarkable survivor. The bush has a natural mechanism to maximize nutrition uptake from poor soils, and thus survives and thrives in harsh environments. ‏Interestingly, this plant stubbornly survives attemps at eradication, and responds to pruning by quickly and vigorously growing back, more profusely than before.  

‎Our guide also mentioned that the caper bush is the plant we see growing out of the Western Wall. Intrigued, I asked him for the plant's Hebrew name. When he responded "Tzlaf", it all came together for me. The Talmud compares Jewish survival, our miraculous existential stubbornness to the Tzlaf, which I know understood to be the caper bush. 

You and I have a c‎aper bush base to our respective gardens. 

Abraham and Sarah certainly watch us with pain and pride, as we continue to survive a world of ISIS and BDS, of hatred and ignorance.

And they continue to funnel an abundance‎ of water to our caper bush, blessing and empowering us for a bright future.

Am Yisrael Chai‎. 

Israel Diary #4: City of Our Story

Israel's archaeology is ‎more than fascinating; it's imperative. To my knowledge, one hundred years ago no one cast doubt on the Jews' millennia-long presence in the Holy Land. Even those who would [dare to] dispute present ownership couldn't deny the history. 

Times have changed. The irrational and absurd have become fashionable in polite company. 

That's why it's so important for us to understand the archaeological evidence found in places like the Western Wall, the Temple Tunnels or the excavation of King David's palace. Scripture comes to life as we see evidence of the places and events that have been described by our writings for millennia. 

But Jerusalem is more than a place of our history. It's our present and our future. 

When we started off in Jerusalem this morning, we were addressed by Rabbi David Aaron who asked us to imagine being a word in a written document. How would you feel if you were a word in a dictionary, where your only relationship with the neighboring words is that you share the same first letter?

What if you were a word joining with other words to form a sentence in a comic book? You'd be part of a meaningful expression, but it would be fantasy.  

But what if you had the deep honor of being a word helping to form sentences and chapters in an epic magnum opus? What if you were an indispensable part of a cosmically‎ important manuscript for the generations?

With that, he asked us to remember that indeed we are each a word of G-d. We're each an important paart of telling G-d's story of humanity, and more specifically the story of the Jewish people. ‎In life, we can sometimes feel like a stray word, a word without context, a word without a story to tell. 

Jerusalem is where our story comes together. Jerusalem is where we can feel our respective places in history, and give voice to our soul's story.

Jerusalem is where we fit in with our people and our story. 

It's where we finally meet ourselves. 

It's coming home.

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