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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

A Half Makes You Whole

Money is an incredible tool. It gives you power and broadens your horizons.  

At some level, the money in your pocket can buy you pleasure and prestige; it can also give you peace of mind and security for the future. The dollar represents so much of what we want, so much of what we’d like.

Think about how much of your life, maybe even your self-image, is relying on that dollar.

Now let’s back it up a bit. How did you get that money? Imagine that you’ve worked very hard, taking risks, beating off threats, putting in long hours to earn the money you now possess. In this sense, the money also represents your hard work, the lifeblood you’ve invested in earning a living.

In our society, dollars are more than currency: They embody yesterday’s struggle and tomorrow’s pleasure.

With that in mind, we can appreciate the immense beauty of giving charity. When someone gives money - THEIR money - to a greater need, they are parting with something very essential, an embodiment of their personal toil and their pleasure. By gifting of themselves to something beyond themselves, they elevate those funds – and the personal attachment to them – to a level of selflessness. We call that Holiness.

Charitable people tend to recognize that they are part of a greater whole. When someone realizes “what I need is only half the picture, and the other half is what I’m needed FOR,” life’s equation changes. My assets don’t only represent my pursuits in life; they represent my responsibility to life.

That’s why we call charitable giving ‘Tzedakah’ (in Hebrew). ‘Tzedaka’ means justice, because generosity reflects a mindset of responsibility to the world.  

In this week’s Torah portion, G-d tells each person to give a ‘half-Shekel’ to the communal fund. The Shekel was a silver coin, which the Torah specifically describes as weighing 20 ‘gerahs’ (a Biblical weight measurement) of silver. So why not just say “donate 10 ‘gerahs?’” Why phrase it as ‘half a shekel’?

The Torah is driving home our point.

When we recognize our own ‘half-ness,’ we’ll be ready to give ourselves whole-heartedly to our neighbors’ needs.

The half-Shekel makes the giver whole, because recognizing that we’re half of the picture allows to appreciate the fuller perspective.

Tzedaka. What a concept.

Does Time Need to Fly?

Our youngest daughter, Faigie, just got engaged, thank G-d.

So many e-mails and voice messages seem to echo my gut reaction: Where did the years go?

Why does time seem to fly, and melt into a blur? Is it only as we grow older?

Perhaps.

Let’s look at how children operate.

Watch a child’s wonder at observing an ant, the moon or a river. My grandchildren’s lives seem to be a string of exciting adventures, capturing their full curiosity and engagement.

Adults tend to live differently.

We aspire to stable relationships, jobs etc., which means we live with a lot of repetition. The stream of new curiosities is largely replaced with a to-do list of things which we've done countless times before.

Repeating an exercise will often generate less emotional engagement, since one’s “auto-pilot” often kick in.  

For example: I've noticed that when I am finding my way – especially sans GPS - to a new location, my trip home seems quicker than my original journey. I think it’s because I am thoroughly engaged – all synapses firing - during my initial trip into unknown territory, engrossed in my directions, every street sign, traffic patterns.

On the way back, more familiar with the way, I can drive on semi auto-pilot - listening to music, conversing (hands-free of course) with others or lost in my own thoughts.

When a day is filled with discovery, every moment is an experience; so a day is truly a FULL (experience-filled) day. It thus takes up more space in my life.
Conversely, a day that's basically a 'repeat' tends to quickly fade into the background. It’s more likely to fade into the blur of my past.

But even we adults can pro-actively bring our days to fuller life.

The Torah describes the aged Abraham as being “elderly, coming into his days.” The Rebbe explained the second (unusual) adjective as meaning that Abraham internally experienced every single day. Every day was a meaningful adventure, in that every day was a gift from the Divine, full of opportunities for strengthening his moral character, his relationships, his soul.

Abraham experienced no time-blur. There was full appreciation for – and wholesome engagement with - the now. So, his hours and days remained in full color. We can safely assume that Abraham never asked Sarah: “Where have the years gone?” 

Some days are especially memorable for me, like when my youngest daughter gets engaged. I’m sure you’ve had special days that resonate in your memory.

Today, with whatever it brings, is a whole new day. A day with entirely new opportunities. For all of us.
 Make this hour an Abraham hour. Then make it an Abraham day.

Happiness

Happiness. Joy. Contentment.

We want all of these. And, at the end of the day, this very pursuit is what guides so many of our efforts and behaviors.

When you think about it, ‘happiness’ (to use a catch-all word) isn’t something you can purchase, and it’s not synonymous with pleasure; it’s a balanced state of inner wellbeing.

It’s also a tricky thing to achieve.

Yet, every year, we have the Hebrew month of Adar (this year, we have two of these months, Adar-a and Adar-b, since it’s a Jewish leap year), when we’re instructed to “increase Happiness.” How does that work? Where would I purchase it? How can I pro-actively get myself into a happy state?

Adar-a begins this coming Monday evening, so we’re fortunate that the Shabbos Torah reading actually provides us with insight into a formula:

1. We’re told to lend money, interest-free, to a person in need. This Mitzvah is about genuine empathy. Maimonides lists eight levels of charity and considers a loan to be the premium. Why? Because it preserves the recipient’s dignity and self-worth, since the person need not see himself as a ‘charity case.’ So while giving charity is a great Mitzvah the Torah is teaching us to go even further, by taking the effort to step outside our own [good] feelings and consider the recipient’s broader emotional needs. It’s not only about doing good, it’s about feeling the other’s pain.

2. If you see your enemy’s animal “suffering under its load,” the Torah tells you to assist the animal repeatedly. Imagine that: Someone has done you wrong, and is now in need. The Torah wants you to transcend your own [legitimate] hurt to acknowledge his - and his animal’s – pain. And lend a hand. Not easy, unless you can transcend your own resentments.

3. We shouldn’t bully anyone. But G-d singles out those who may feel specifically vulnerable and tells us “Don’t taunt a stranger…don’t cause pain to the widow or orphan…if you cause them pain I will heed their cry…”. Some people are in situations which make them more sensitive than others. Pay attention, because people’s feelings matter.

This brings us back to the joy of Adar: There’s no greater recipe for happiness than stepping out of your own self-interest. Devote effort to something outside of, or larger than, yourself, and you’ll be refreshed by the beauty of the experience.

It’s Adar. Give yourself a reason to be happy!

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