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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

The Soul of Sadness

I don't like feeling sad. 
Melancholy has a sneaky way of draining our energy and paralyzing our lives. I much prefer a happy mindset. 
But here's the problem: Life isn't a string of happy occasions. Things happen. 
Sometimes, I make mistakes, causing discomfort to myself and others. 

Sometimes, challenges just come our way, without any apparent human causality. 
Stresses and disappointments seem part and parcel of our lives. To ignore them is naïve. To face them is sad.
So we need keep our expectations reasonable, since frustrations are a function of expectations. Every life on the planet has stress, so I can't honestly be surprised by my own. 
I don't want to harp on my failings, but I need to face them. And deep inside, as disquieting as this introspection may be, we should be glad that we’re going through the exercise. I should feel inner satisfaction that I have the maturity to face myself, even when it’s uncomfortable. 
There's another important ingredient to a healthy approach to life’s less-pleasant side: ">The gift of living on this planet is what brings me my 'troublesome' burden. I certainly pray to G-d for more manageable stress, but if that's the price of my life and its blessings, I'll choose life. 
When it comes to feeling others’ misery, I was lucky to have the Rebbe as a role model. I was awed by the depth of the Rebbe’s pain when he would speak of humanity’s distress, when he was so often referring to people whom he'd never met. I envied the depth of his connection to others. 
We are now in the midst of an annual calendar period we call ‘the Three Weeks,’ a zone dedicated to feeling the world’s pain and facing our own contributions to it. This past Sunday was a fast day – the 17th of Tammuz – and two weeks from this coming Sunday (on August 11) we’ll observe the fast of 9 Av (Tisha B'av). Jewish tradition sets aside this time to consider our painful history, acknowledge the problems of our present and take an honest look at our own unhelpful behaviors. All with an eye toward healing. 

The Soul is Always Whole

The Western Wall.

World famous and a focal point of Jewish and global spiritual consciousness.

But what is it?

For eight hundred and thirty years, a Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash in Hebrew) stood as the center of the Jewish world. The Temple was more than a building; it was the supreme point of contact – the nexus - between the human and the Divine.

But what was, no longer is. We haven’t had a Temple for more than two thousand years. The Temple no longer stands; it was destroyed by the Babylonians and later by the Romans.

All we have is the ‘Western Wall’, a remnant of a retaining wall.

That’s all.

So, is the Western Wall a place of national nostalgia, ground zero for our collective pining over a lost glory? Is it the symbol of our hopes for the future?

Yes. And Yes. But that’s not all.

The Western Wall is more than a psychological touchpoint.

It’s a symbol of what STILL exists.

From a Judaic perspective, the Temple’s ‘body’ was destroyed but its ‘soul’ remains whole. The Babylonians and Romans – outside forces – destroyed the buildings, but had no control over the spirit.

The Divine Presence still resonates in that very spot. The Western Wall remains a CURRENT place of contact, an eternally fresh reservoir of Holiness.

The Temple’s soul is forever whole.

The Rebbe applies this principle to each of us, because we are each a ‘Holy Temple’, each of us a ‘Sanctuary for the Divine’.

When we look at ourselves honestly, we can sometimes see that our personal ‘construct’ is in disrepair. We can see that we have been impacted by the world’s negativity, selfishness and cynicism. Our personal ‘Temple’s’ have been damaged.

But we each have an internal Western Wall. Despite it all, our soul is whole; our basic goodness, our intrinsic Holiness remains beyond any external contamination. Life’s ‘Babylonians’ and ‘Romans’ can do a lot of damage, G-d forbid, but they can’t touch your soul.

Your soul ‘wholeness’ is always there.

Tomorrow (17 Tammuz) commemorates the day that our enemies breached Jerusalem’s walls, on their way to destroying the Temple three weeks later (on Tisha B’av, the 9th of Av).

We usually fast on this date, but not when it falls on Shabbos. So we postpone the fast until Sunday.

It’s a time of year to reflect on the world’s pain, and on G-d’s gift of an untouchable soul.

It’s in you. Bring it to the fore.

The Big Campaign

Another campaign season.

With lots and lots of people running for the office.

Imagine your day, if you were among the group trying to be elected President. I’d bet that a Presidential campaign absolutely consumes the participants' total lives and brain space. They probably eat their breakfast and go to bed with the election in mind. 

With a goal like that, you’ve got to be all in. Total engagement.
Beyond politics, I believe there's a lot to learn from that image of commitment. 
True, head-to-toe commitment isn’t always inspiriting. Sometimes, it can describe an obsession or unhealthy attachment. For example: When a person's business objectives, strategies and worries fill his/her thoughts and mind 24/7, leaving no space for life’s other – higher? – priorities, that ‘commitment’ is getting in the way of a meaningful life. 
But there are healthy 'total commitments'. Like the commitment to 'Meaning' itself. 
When I'm committed to the idea that I was created for a purpose, and that my family, occupation etc. are part and parcel of that Divine destiny, that commitment imbues my life with spiritual oxygen, with a soul. Life becomes a consistent string of opportunities to embrace the Divine.
My commitment isn't a distraction from life; it's a stimulus that inspires me toward work, family, self-rejuvenation, etc, in a meaningful way. 
So, in metaphoric terms, we’re all running our own personal campaign, trying to achieve the ‘office’ of a meaningful life. G-d is my campaign manager, and His Torah guides my steps through the day. 
What if you don’t feel that drive? Find it. It’s in your psyche. It may be buried beneath that desire for a hot dog, but it’s there. Waiting for you to bring it into your daily consciousness.

When we get up in the morning, our prayers pro-actively call that attitude into our minds. It’s a pivotal exercise for the day: Setting the Goal.
The rest of the day is all about the campaign.
May we all win

The Rebbe

This Shabbos – tonight and tomorrow – are the Rebbe’s 25th yahrtzeit. For the past week, my phone has been alive with tweets of articles trying to unpack that bottomless question: "What made the Rebbe so special?"

And the articles, written by personalities across the world, have been fantastic (check out for some inspiring material).

The Rebbe and his perspectives have been a huge part of my life, for my entire life, even before I can remember (e.g. when the Rebbe guided my mother not to induce my birth, even though the doctor preferred to). In my childhood home, my father, Dean of the Rabbinical College in Morristown and the Rebbe’s personal representative to the State of NJ, was consistently referring to guidance he was getting from the Rebbe. When the Rebbe launched a new campaign to bring holiness and goodness to the world, which was frequent, that objective would permeate our lives.

So I have many, many memories. Yet, my mind always seems to gravitate to the Rebbe’s deep respect for every person, every living being, and every situation.

To the Rebbe, I truly mattered. And so did you. No matter what your particular background, or weltanschauung may be. The fact that we exist, that G-d intentionally creates each of us, gave every person de facto importance in the Rebbe’s mind.

That’s why the Rebbe constantly urged us to ask ourselves: Am I living up to my life's mission?

The Rebbe saw importance in every event and every interaction. If I bumped into you on a street in Manhattan, found myself with an extra hour on a layover in Frankfurt, or was faced with a sudden challenge in my life, the Rebbe saw that as a challenge. The situation beckoned: “embrace me as an opportunity for learning, moral growth and a better world”.

To the Rebbe, every life was intrinsically valuable, so every step of the journey was necessarily important.

There was no throwaway in the Rebbe’s lexicon. No irrelevant people. No thoughtless comments. No 'flings'. In our shaky world of impermanence, from disposable cellphones to empty relationships, the Rebbe was a consistent and persistent Rock of Meaning.

When you were with the Rebbe, life was an opportunity and we needed to grab the moments and make them meaningful. He encouraged us, inspired us, motivated us to be better Jews and more actualized human beings.

I think about him multiple times a day, and he continues to inspire my life.

Thank you Rebbe.

We love you.

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