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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Living Purim Today

Jewish holidays tend to commemorate historic Jewish events. But it’s not just about looking at an ancient narrative, discussing people and events of yesteryear. We need to relate the holiday to our present lives.  When we see it as a current event, a relevant energy for today, we begin to find its soul, its ability to elevate our lives.

How would that work with the Purim holiday?

On Purim (which we begin celebrating the evening of March 9), we celebrate the Jews’ miraculous rescue from annihilation more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Persia. Haman, wicked advisor to King Ahasuerus, despised the idea of Jewish identity, so he convinced the King to kill anyone who maintained it.

The Jews didn’t back down. They prayed, they fasted and I’m sure they stressed. But their commitment was strong, and they were ultimately saved.

Beautiful narrative.

Now how is that my story, when I’ve lived my entire life in the land of the free, practicing my Judaism without interference?

I’ve got to drill down and identify an underlying, personal connection with the Purim challenges, even if they manifest themselves very differently in my life.

In the Purim events, the Jews had a big reason to repudiate their relationship with the Divine; it literally would have saved their lives. Yet they decided to honor their relationship with G-d, come what may. Even today, our commitments to G-d are often threatened, even if it’s not with the danger of physical harm (G-d forbid). Let’s take a simple example: if you are committed to “respectful discourse,” does your internal pledge collapse in the face of a co-worker’s offensive comment?

Taking it to a more ritual place, let’s say you are committed to lighting Shabbat Candles on Friday before sundown.  What happens when life seems to get in the way, especially if it’s “just this once?”

When a relationship matters, we find a way to honor and protect it, even in the face of challenge.

On Purim we rejoice. We take an opportunity to bask in the beauty of our relationship with the Divine and we uncover our own deep commitment to staying the course, even in the face of challenge.

L’chaim.          

When Half is Whole

Yogi Berra once said “no matter where you go, there you are”. Joking aside, this idea - being present where you are actually isn’t as simple as it sounds. Especially to someone (like myself) who struggles with “Smartphone on the Brain.”

How does one manage to actually be ‘present’ on a regular basis?

In the Torah, G-d commands the Jews to contribute half a shekel to a fund for the Tabernacle’s needs. The Torah then defines a shekel as being 20 gerah (a weight) of silver. Do the math, and a half shekel is obviously ten gerah. So why doesn’t the Torah just say that? Why does the Torah – in a way that feels circuitous - tell us that a Shekel is twenty gerahs and the donation should be half of that?

The Torah seems to be underscoring the significance of ‘halfness’.

The Rebbe once noted that the Torah also instructs the donation itself to be made in one gift, not in installments. Practically, one needed to give the entire contribution at one time.

So, the Torah seems to be combining two opposite concepts: give HALF a shekel, as a WHOLE (undivided) contribution.

The Rebbe explained it this way:

If I want to give WHOLLY of myself to a person or situation, to be totally – WHOLLY - present in any situation, I need to rise above my preoccupation with what happened this morning or my next appointment.  I need to unplug from my concerns for where else I need to be and when and recognize that the person before me deserves my total and undivided attention.

Because, it’s not about me and my broader day, me and my e-mails, or me and my to-do list. It’s about me and the person or situation before me.

When I can really respect that I’m only HALF of the present equation, I’m ready to be there in WHOLE.

So ‘going somewhere’ doesn’t necessarily mean I’m actually there. Going somewhere with a sense of respect for WHY I went there, with humility and respect for the exercise, makes me actually arrive at my journey.

It’s the half-Shekel method to respecting our relationships.

The Mission Beckons

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad community, most of its members were refugees from the infernos of Hitler and Stalin. This relatively small group gathered in Brooklyn to hear their new, forty-eight year old Rebbe lay out a vision for the future. And hear a vision they did.

Here's my takeaway of what the Rebbe told them:

We all yearn and strive for connection with an Infinite G-d, an unfathomable Divine Reality. At the same time, we live in a world that seems shallow, unreasonable and replete with moral challenges.

And that’s exactly the point.

G-d’s deepest core-desire is fulfilled when we, in our simple human lives, make cosmic choices; G-d's most profound presence is drawn into our reality when we rise above our own egocentric impulses, and transcend the bombardment of external distractions, to do the right thing.
But it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s about making a commitment to a purposeful life.
A Genuine, deep-seated commitment.
In my mind, it’s the type of total engagement that shows itself when a loved one is in dire need. There’s no space for a cost-benefit analysis, because we need to respond unconditionally and emphatically. We spring into action – sometimes super-rationally – to honor the deep relationship we share.
In the case of a commitment to a purposeful life, we’re making a super-rational commitment to Higher Living through our relationship with the Divine, and, in so doing, acquiring an antidote for our irrational and counter-productive behaviors. We are overriding the irrational with the super-rational by bringing G-d’s Essence into our lives.
And that’s the end-game of all creation. All of spirituality, the angels and the metaphysical cosmos, are simply means to an end: Our daily struggle to live a purposeful life in this otherwise-seemingly shallow and chaotic world.

That’s been the challenge of history, to bring Divine Essence into a seamless presence in our world and merit the coming of Moshiach.
It can sound grandiose to think that we’ll accomplish a goal that has eluded previous generations. But we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Our strength lies in the foundation they have established and our challenge lies in taking advantage of the opportunity they have granted us and completing what they’ve begun. It’s our mission, to actualize the objective of the generations before us.

This week marks 70 years of the Rebbe’s leadership, and the Rebbe’s voice still speaks to us. 

He’s telling us that the mission can’t wait. 


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