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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

We're At War

There’s a war going on.

No, I don’t mean Afghanistan or Syria.

Or even Congress.

I mean you and me. But it isn’t between us, it’s within us.

Or at least it should be.

We each have two opposing forces within our respective psyches. There’s the responsible, selfless, visionary dimension (the ‘G-dly soul’ in Kabbalistic language). And then there’s the shallower, self-centered, creature-comfort-seeking dimension (the ‘animal soul’ in Kabbalistic terms).

These two internal forces are always pulling my attention in opposite directions.

They’re at war, fighting for control of my choices, and I need to be on constant alert.

I’m not speaking about the major moral dilemmas, the challenges to our basic integrity, which we sometimes face. It’s more common, and more insidious, than that.

I’m referring to our struggle to pay proper attention to relationships, to be fully engaged in a five year old’s story, to be fully present in our actions, etc.

It’s about struggling with my weaker self.

It may be common, but we shouldn’t understate the reality: It’s a real battle.

And it never stops. Unless I’ve totally caved in to my weaker side.

Interestingly, Kabbalistic writings refer to Prayer as a ‘time of combat.’ At first blush, that strikes me as odd. Doesn’t Prayer seems more synonymous with peace than with war?

Prayer is about getting a firmer grip on ourselves. It’s about cutting through layers of self-image and defense mechanisms; it’s about recognizing counter-productive patterns so that we can break their paralyzing hold on our lives.

When I pray, I need to seriously focus on who I need to be, as compared to who I am. That’s easier said than done, since there’s a strong instinct to look the other way, avoiding the unpleasantness that comes with facing one’s weaker self.

Framing Prayer as a battle also helps me to appreciate the value of communal prayer. I don’t want to stand alone in battle; there’s strength in numbers. When I pray, I’m supported by my comrades’ effort to overcome the impediments that stand between us and our potential.

It’s a team effort, with each of us strengthening the other by our very presence and commitment to self-actualization.

Yes, it’s war, and a warrior needs to have all internal pistons firing with awareness and focus. It’s an individual battle, but we’re in this together.

See you at services?

Beyond Howling Wolves

Look outside tonight and you’ll see a full moon.

Common folklore has associated lunacy - even vampires - with lunar fullness, but Judaism sees spiritual beauty in the full moon.

The sun is the universe’s luminary, and the moon its reflector, and every month they go through a cosmic dance. The New Moon cycle begins with darkness, a moonless night. The moon then begins to wax, showing us more and more of the sun’s brilliance. Ultimately, we get to see the moon in total symmetry with the sun’s rays: The full moon.

This dynamic represents our own dance with the Divine: G-d is the source of all light, the true ‘Sun’ of our universe, and our role is to reflect G-dliness - Divine meaning – to the world.

In other words: G-d created each of us to serve as a ‘moon’ to his ‘Sun’.

When we’re off our game, our world goes dark; it feels like a lonely and vulnerable – moonless – night.

When we’re aligned, life makes more sense. We can see where we’re coming from and where we need to go. There are pitfalls, but we feel safe and secure. We’re connected.

The goal is to be a full moon.

On the [lunar-based] Jewish calendar, the 15th day of the month is always the full moon. Which helps us understand why Passover and Sukkot are each on the 15th of their respective Jewish month.

Well, today is the 15th of the month of Av, and the Talmud tells us that it’s even more powerful than those Bibilical Holidays.

Tisha B’av (last weekend) was a time for collective mourning. We each focused on our disconnect from self, from each other and from the Divine.

But we’re past that now. And our new alignment has the special glow that comes with achieving security after our Tisha B’Av grapple with vulnerability and instability.

Think of a couple experiencing the oneness of their honeymoon. Then real life hits, and they face challenges, instability. When they work through the challenges, they’re in a stronger place than they began. They now know their relationship has the strength to weather turbulence.

By using their imbalance as an opportunity to strengthen personal weakness, the couple comes out stronger on the other side. They’re more secure because they have faced instability and grown from it.

The post Tisha B’av full moon represents our alignment with G-d, post-challenge. It represents the reality that we have that connection readily available, even when it’s feeling dark.

Today is the 15th of Av.

Take a moment to feel your alignment with G-d.

Your moon is full, so why not bask in the light?

Finding Zion

Have you ever had a moment of mental and emotional clarity, when you understood your very reason for being?

Have you ever sat and contemplated: “Why am I here?” and actually come up with an answer?

A sense of purpose is crucial – actually indispensable – for living a life of meaning. When we have a raison d’etre, life’s details fall into place and sanity begins to reign. We no longer struggle to make sense of our lives. To the contrary, we can now allow destiny to express itself through our daily choices. Life is no longer about us and our desires, it’s all about the mission. The objective.

It’s a liberating and inspiring place to be.

Spiritually speaking, the word, ‘Zion,’ refers to that place.

Let’s unpack the word: Scripturally, Zion usually refers to Jerusalem/Israel, or the Jews as a people.

Linguistically, ‘Zion’ means a ‘sign’ or a ‘symbol’.

What is the core function of a sign? The dictionary defines a ‘sign’ as “any object, action, etc., that conveys a meaning.”

So Zion means a mechanism to convey a direction, a meaning.

So you and I are G-d’s signposts, to each other and the world.

Our deepest identity is to be a Zion - a ‘sign’. We are each a functionary whom G-d created to ‘convey direction and meaning’. We are each designed to live lives which announce that G-d creates everyone for a purpose, to proclaim that Higher Purpose should be our central focus, eclipsing our short-term desires.

That’s the Zion identity, and now is a specific time for ‘Zion’ focus.  

Tomorrow, Shabbat, is the 9th day of Av, known as Tisha B’Av (we usually fast on this day, but in deference to Shabbos, we postpone the fasting until Saturday night and Sunday). Tomorrow, we’ll read “Isaiah’s Vision,” predicting the tragedies we bring upon ourselves through unfocused, selfish living.

Yet Isaiah gives us an antidote: “Zion will be redeemed through the Law (Torah) and its captives through Righteousness” – we ‘redeem’ ourselves when we acknowledge our own ‘Zion’ identity, when we embrace our purpose as a Divine sign in the world.

Zion is your soul’s essence, and it’s waiting to be expressed.

In advance of Tisha B’Av, Isaiah reminds us that life’s journey isn’t about creating meaning; it’s about finding what’s already there.

Find your essence and let it breathe.

It’s time for Redemption.


Years ago, I was standing with a friend, a seasoned businessman, as his adult son walked by. Nodding toward his son, he muttered to me: “My son needs to understand that the stock market doesn’t always go up”.

You don’t understand life until you grasp the totality of its rhythm; real life has ups, and not-such-ups. And that’s life.

Until Moshiach comes, and the world’s absolute G-dliness shows itself, problems will continue to disrupt our lives. And so much of life depends on how we deal with its ‘down side’.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, was brutally oppressed by Stalin’s regime, for spreading Judaism and helping Jews. After gaining his freedom, he would occasionally try to recapture the horrible experience, mentally transporting himself back to the gulag and its pain.

Why? Not because he enjoyed the pain and suffering. But because he valued the character, the inner strength, the experience had actualized. The Rebbe never looked for pain, but when it came his way he didn’t focus all his energy on his suffering; he looked for strength to grow from the experience. We’ve all got our sufferings, and now is an especially appropriate time to contemplate how we respond to them.

The world has a Divine rhythm, a flow of energy, of ups and downs. And now is a time to focus on the not-very-happy dimension of life. While the Jewish calendar generally guides us toward a a spirit of positivity and joy, there’s also a stretch of time – three weeks to be exact – when the calendar turns more somber, guiding us to focus on the ‘downs’.

And that’s where we are right now. Tomorrow will be two weeks since we began our Three Weeks, and a week from Sunday, we’ll be fasting for Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of Av - when we’ll remember the destruction of the Temple.

It’s a time to look at our lives, our families, our communities and our world, and notice the destruction. It’s a time to soak in what’s NOT going right. But it’s not about marinating in the negative; it’s about growing, finding strength and faith.

When we acknowledge the bitterness, and strengthen our vision for the road ahead.

This is life.  Now let’s focus on making it a meaningful journey. 

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