myrunningrabbi

Inspirational /Motivational Speaker
Contact AAE Speakers Bureau 800 698 2536

image

Email Me

hirshel@aol.com
image

Call Me

914 272 5682

What to Wish For

A Russian short story portrays an aristocrat who has only a few days to live. When he replays the tape of his life in his mind he realizes he has wasted most of his life in the pursuit of wealth and power devoid of real meaning. He is desperate to rewind the tape but it is too late.

So, think of the time you have until the tape runs out and contemplate how you spend your precious time. The Rabbis said: “Change for the good one day before you die”, and since we never know when that is:

We must treat every new day as an opportunity to measure the goodness of our deeds.
@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
This reminds us to be careful of how we spend our time and to value life and enjoy it, because once it’s gone it can never be retrieved.
A nurse named Bronnie Ware devoted herself to working in Hospice care in Australia. She wrote a book about what she witnessed first hand: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. When she questioned those entrusted to her as to whether they had any regrets and if they would have changed anything, these are the themes that emerged.

1. I WISH I’D HAD THE COURAGE TO LIVE A LIFE TRUE TO MYSELF, NOT THE LIFE OTHERS EXPPECTED OF ME.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

2. I WISH I HADN’T WORKED SO HARD.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I WISH I HAD THE COURAGE TO EXPRESS MY FEELINGS.

“Many people supressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocore existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I WISH I HAD STAYED IN TOUCH WITH MY FRIENDS.

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I WISH I HAD LET MYSELF BE HAPPIER.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habbits. The so called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have stillness in their life again.”

Yes, death can instruct us how to live. We can follow the examples of others to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. We can summon the strength and courage we have within to enrich our lives.

Whatever time you have remaining may you be true to yourselves and make every day a blessing.


Unlocking Your Inner Strength in a Crisis

In June 2013, feeling great, I was on a family vacation, walking in the Adirondacks, when my oncologist called with the alarming news that a routine test showed that my lymphoma had returned in a more aggressive form. My wife and I sat anxiously holding hands in his office and I had no choice but to begin chemotherapy immediately before it was too late. This would be my fourth battle with cancer and maybe my last.

On the very eve of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, life giving drugs were infused into my body through a port implanted in my chest. If you wonder why a Rabbi would be in the hospital and not in his Synagogue offering prayers it’s because our God is a God of life and we are taught that saving a human life supercedes almost all of the commandments.

With the medicine coursing through me I was offering fervent personal prayers. These were not exactly the literal words of the Psalm which begins: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence cometh my help…” I learned to personalize my prayers many years ago when I first faced leukemia and my Christian friends held my hand and prayed with me at my bedside and said: “Lord, please help our friend Hirshel. He wants to live to see his children grow up and rejoice in happy times.”

Yes, my friends taught me how to pray, and one night when I was all alone in my hospital bed, and shaking with awful fevers and chills, instead of praying “I lift my eyes to the mountains” I said:

“Dear God, please help me. I’m not asking You to get me all the way up the mountain, but could You hold my hand and keep me from falling all the way down the mountain into the abyss.”
And those words were comforting to me.

Friends, when you pray for strength:

May the words that come from your heart give you the strength you surely possess.
@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)


What a Dying Christian Taught a Rabbi

When the doctors and nurses saw how depressed I was from the fevers and gnawing pain it worried them and they came to my hospital room to challenge me saying: “Why not be a rabbi and offer encouragement to your fellow patients?” But first we want you to get out of bed and go down for therapy to alleviate your pain.” I was kind of embarrassed and said I would try.

There in the basement of the hospital they lowered me gently with a sling into a pool of warm water and it really was helping. I happened to look up and there was a young patient seated in his wheelchair in front of a pair of wooden parallel bars. They were urging him to try to raise himself and calling out his name: “Come on Jerry, you can do it!” And Jerry gritted his teeth and with supreme effort it seemed he lifted himself up almost imperceptibly maybe a couple of inches at most.

At that moment I realized the cancer had probably affected Jerry’s spine and how brave he was. I thought to myself: What guts!

Later, back in my room, I remembered how the doctors and nurses challenged me to be a rabbi. I thought about young Jerry and wheeled myself down the corridor to visit him. He was all wrapped in blankets, and shivering, but he put himself out and asked me how I was doing.
Thoughtlessly I started to utter a littany of my own complaints and when Jerry inquired if the doctors had seen me I cynically answered: ” No, Jerry, I think the doctors must have bad news about my condition and they’re just avoiding me.”

Jerry looked at me straight in the eye and asked: “Isn’t your name Hirshel and aren’t you Jewish? And didn’t I hear that you are a rabbi?” Then Jerry took me by surprise and said: “Well, rabbi Hirshel, I’m Christian and I don’t know that much about the Jewish religion but aren’t the Jewish people supposed to be an example of hope to us because of how they have survived against all odds. So, Rabbi, why don’t you try to be more hopeful?” I thought that young Christian, Jerry, knew more about my religion than I did.

Weeks later, after my blood counts recovered, the fevers abated and I started to gain weight, I convinced the doctors that I was strong enough by climbing a little flight of stairs in the hospital and they finally said I could go home. It was a bitter winter in Chicago and I was all bundled up and clutching the experimental medicine that saved me from this rare leukemia. Two months before, with high fever and wearing a protective mask I was transported from my home in New York on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” and that very night the doctors received emergency permission to treat me as a “Compassionate Use” patient.

After my rescue I agreed to fly to the Midwest every month to be studied and tested as an experimental patient so the doctors could learn more about how the drug was working and the side effects. I remembered Jerry who was still there struggling to survive and I went to see him after they drew my blood. I could see he had grown weaker. As soon as he saw me he said: “There’s my friend the Rabbi. You made it and you had a lot of courage.

“No, Jerry, you are the one with courage” and I admire you so much. I’ve been praying for you a lot.” I left to fly home feeling so bad about my friend Jerry and made up my mind to always see him if he was still there while fearing the worst?

When I returned the next month the first thing I asked the nurses was: “How’s my friend Jerry?” And they said: “Rabbi, Jerry didn’t make it.” I broke down and the nurses said they thought I would be able to hear that because I was used to hearing that as a Rabbi. But of course I was human and they showed me into the Chapel so I could have some moments to recover from the sad news about my friend.

On the way home I resolved to always keep the memory of that brave young man in my heart. But, I thought I wanted to do something more that I had never done before. I would mention that young Christian’s name aloud, along with the Jewish names, just before the “Kaddish” memorial prayer.
That very Sabbath I called Jerry’s name before leading my congregation in the Kaddish Memorial Prayer my people have proclaimed through the ages in memory of our departed along with the martyrs of our people who never abandoned hope in the Holy One.

And, yes, Jerry’s name is there as it will be in every year to come because I have come to believe that my prayers as a rabbi should should be inclusive and reflect our shared humanity. For surely:

We all suffer and rejoice in the same way and that surpasses all religious distinctions.
@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)


I Would Be Happy If Only…

Maybe I had to endure serious illness in order to help people find meaning and strength in adversity. In the words of Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was within me an invincible summer.” Finding meaning requires that we overcome our self-absorption with material goods. We spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and complain and anxious over trivial pursuits. We count our money instead of our blessings and appreciating all that we have.

We are continually dwelling on what we don’t have. We all think: ”I would be happy if only…”
According to Psychology Today, fifty books were published on happiness in 2000 as opposed to last year when more than 4000 books appeared. My prescription for happiness is not sugary promotions. It is not the power of positive thinking. It is not to be beautiful, wealthy and successful.

The key to living a meaningful life is the same as it always was. It is learning to do the tough work of mastering our baser impulses and nurturing our most exalted selves by refusing to indulge in fear or anger and opting instead to feed our capacity for kindness and compassion.

It is to recognize all the gifts that come your way and appreciate those gifts and those around you. My prescription is contrary to much of what pop psychologists preach. I teach that what we do in this world matters. Our words have power: Power to hurt or wound, but also the power to heal and comfort. We wish we could be perfect but we are not perfect. We hurt people we love and we lose our temper. We speak with sarcasm. We can be petty and small minded.

But if we realize what we said, and regret what we did, then words can have a tremendous power. And if we admit the things we have done wrong and change the the way we act then life is not absurd.

Our words and actions, our thoughtfulness and compassion, can fill our lives with meaning.
In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be as swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of the Holy One.” We realize that every day is a struggle between our good and bad impulses, and though many things are predestined:

We have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
The Sages made sure to point out that both the bad inclination and the good inclination are essential aspects of our humanity. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are part of us – much like the hemispheres are essential parts of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress the bad inclination, but to channel and master it.

The Sages ask: Who is mighty? The ones who master their inclination.”


Making Our Lives Matter

When I was diagnosed with leukemia I thought, “Why not me?” As a rabbi visiting patients for so many years, I realized that no one is immune and anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old. My childhood nickname was “Sunshine”, and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor, “What can we do?”

The belief in the possibility of hope is the narrative of the Jewish people. We have historically been geniuses of hope. The gateway to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy has the inscription, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Playwright Eugene O’Neill said, “Human hope is the greatest power in life and the only thing that defeats death.”
False hope is dysfunctional, and can lead to to disillusionment. False hope makes people vulnerable to hucksters and simplistic “pie in the sky by and by.” But we can believe in the extraordinary around us.

The quality of hopefulness should not be left to chance. Hopefulness comes from immersing our lives in values larger than ourselves, enabling our lives to touch the eternal and leave a lasting impression on the world.
One of the problems of living in a self-centered culture is that we avoid dedicating ourselves to changing the world for the good of others. Why is it that so many World War II veterans are reported to have looked back on their experience as the best part of their lives? Why is it that many people do not start living until they face the end of their lives?

It is because deep within us we want our existence to matter. We worry that we may leave without having and impact, that the fact that we lived will never be noticed or remembered. That we may have lived for nothing.

If my people could overcome the despair of the death camps, then certainly life can be filled with hope each and every day. The song of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust proclaims, “Never Say You Walk the Final Road!”

As long as we live and breathe, hope glimmers within; with our every act and encounter we can touch other lives. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” the psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes how he endured the Nazi concentration camps and lost almost all of his family in the Holocaust.

While Frankl was in Dachau and Auschwitz he observed that how the prisoners reacted differently to the same conditions of great suffering. Frankl discovered that he people who had a greater chance of surviving were those who set a purpose for themselves. Their positive attitude attitude helped the to triumph over their circumstances; for example to cling to the hope that they would be reunited with their loved ones.

Frankl says we can’t always chose the circumstances of our ordeals, but we can and must chose how we will react to suffering and adversity.
No matter what our plight, we are free to chose our attitude toward the tough times. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
So we can find meaning and hope even in the darkest days.

In the words of the Psalmist. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”


Overcoming Loneliness

A Rabbi said: “The way we usually approach loneliness is mostly by avoiding it, because we have all seen lonely people sitting next to other lonely people on lonely park benches, and they are the people we would least like to be. So we shy away from the subject altogether because in our idealized, packaged version of healthy adjustment, there is no room for loneliness, not even a little bit.”

The author Thomas Wolfe wrote in an essay entitled “Loneliness,” “that far from being a rare and curious phenomenon,” loneliness “is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

How sad that in the digital age the more we are connected to everything – the more we feel detached, isolated and separated. And we stare at our phones and hide behind the digital screens.
How often to I pass a bunch of teenagers sitting on the steps and not looking at each other or talking to their friends right there next to them.

“How is this a life?” asks a 30-something blogger.

It’s not a life, actually. We cannot spend our days hunched over a screen forging a sense of human interaction. This is not what we are made for. I can guarantee all your best memories live within the moments with others.

Recently, a congregant of mine suffered a loss and only found out about their bereavement when I happened to go on Facebook. I wrote to my Temple families and sermonized pleading with them to at least call me and the people close to them to hear our voices and let us go in person to comfort them.

The blogger Jamie Varon asked perceptively, “When you look back on your life will you be happy about how much you binged on Netflix? Will you be happy about the graveyard of plans you let fall by the wayside? Will you be happy when you are surrounded by no one because we’ve all pushed each other away?”

That’s an excerpt from her essay entitled, “This is the New Loneliness.” A New Loneliness has seized a new generation.

And maybe, when we ditch our phones and stop surfing and posting and liking, we should ask ourselves: why?
My wedding couple tell me that they met the old fashioned way because online dating – searching for suitable people all looking anonymously – only intensified their loneliness.

Now loneliness is viewed as a public health issue because researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to cognitive decline.

A Rabbi asks us to examine ourselves honestly. How much loneliness have I brought upon myself through narcissism and a lack of self-awareness? Why not set aside your loneliness by doing something for someone else.

Anyone who serves at a homeless shelter, or tutors disadvantaged kids, or volunteers at a hospital, knows this.

From time to time, we are all lost and lonely in this impersonal world. So make real friends and reach out to the strangers and the estranged. And find your path in life together.


Extremely Unrandom Acts of Kindness

Think for a moment, of a time in your life, when you felt pretty low, Maybe you were breaking up with someone. Maybe someone you love was sick. Or maybe you lost someone or something that meant a lot to you. What did it feel like when someone offered you kindness. What did that do for your spirits?

We live in a world that values kindness. A search on Google for “random acts of kindness” will produce thousands of results. Random acts of kindness are in life insurance commercials and something positive to end the Evening News on television. The homeless person who spends his last dollar to help a friend in need. The rich man who leaves his company to serve meals in a homeless shelter.

Random acts of kindness make us feel really good as they should. But the thing about a random act of kindness is that as it’s name suggests …just random. The person who receives it has to rely on a whim. Either you are feeling incredibly grateful one day or your feeling very guilty on another day. As someone has said, they make the world more accidentally beautiful. But they are unpredictable, unexpected, and surprising.

Our challenge is that a person’s need for kindness is always there and not surprising. And the really giving act means that we are challenged to remove randomness from the equation and replace it with consistency.

So why not do something above and beyond and let’s call it an extremely unrandom act of kindness.

Extremely unrandom acts of kindness do not rely on your feeling of gratitude or your need to get rid of some guilt. Extremely unrandom acts of kindness depends on the resolve to reach out to others in our lives without depending on a mood. Our partners, our children, our parents and grandparents, and the strangers we encounter.
A colleague has spoken about where we can practice this. In our own homes: Is the language harsh and angry when they walk in the door or do we meet them with a smile? Is our judgement of their choices sarcastic or do we offer them encouragement and tell them we believe in them? With our friends do we let their loneliness make us uncomfortable or do we reach out. Do we look through people or do we stand up for them when others are bullying them. Do we notice their tears and ask what’s going on?

So what if we removed randomness from the equation and replaced it with being consistent? Was I kind today? Who in my world needs me?

Let kindness explode from our hearts. Become unbearably predictable and terribly boring in our unrandom acts of kindness so that not one person feels isolated. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
And may we each be overflowing with the goodness of extremely unrandom acts of kindness.


A Key to Living Longer and Stronger – the Attitude of Gratitude

In the early 1990s one of the great medical research exercises of modern times took place. It became known as the Nun Study. Some 700 American nuns agreed to allow their records to be accessed by a research team investigating the process of aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. At the start of the study the participants were aged between 75 and 102.

What gave this study its unusual scope is that in 1930 the nuns, then in their twenties, had been asked by the Mother Superior to write a brief autobiographical account of their life and their reasons for entering the convent. These documents were now analyzed by the researchers using a specially devised coding system to register positive and negative emotions.

By annually assessing the nuns’ current state of health, the researchers were able to test whether their emotional state in 1930 had an effect on their health sixty years later. Because they had all lived a very similar lifestyle during these six decades, they formed an ideal group for testing hypotheses about the relationship between emotional attitudes and health.

The results were startling. The more positive emotions-contentment, gratitude, happiness, love and hope-the nuns expressed in their autobiographical notes, the more likely they were to be alive and well sixty years later. The difference was as much as seven years in life expectancy.

So remarkable was this finding that it has led, since then, to a new field of gratitude research, as well as a deepening understanding of the impact of emotions on physical health.
Since the publication of the Nun Study and the flurry of further research it inspired, we now know of the multiple effects of developing an attitude of gratitude. It improves physical health and immunity against disease. Grateful people are more likely to exercise regularly and go for regular medical check-ups. Thankfulness reduces toxic emotions such as resentment, frustration and regret and makes depression less likely.

Gratefulness helps people avoid over-reacting to negative experiences by seeking revenge. It even tends to help people sleep better. It enhances self-respect, making it less likely that you will envy others for their achievements or success. Grateful people tend to have better relationships. Saying “thank you” enhances friendships and elicits better performances from employees. It is also a major factor in strengthening resilience.

One study of Vietnam War Veterans found that those with higher levels of gratitude suffered lower levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Remembering the many things we have to be thankful for helps us survive painful experiences, from losing a job to bereavement.

A colleague has said that part of the essence of gratitude is that it recognizes that we are not the sole authors of what is good in our lives. The egoist, says Andre Comte-Spoonville, ” is ungrateful because he doesn’t like to ackknowledge his debt to others and gratitude is this acknowledgement.

“Thankfulness has an inner connection with humility. It recognizes that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all to the divine within us. Those who are incapable of gratitude live in vain; they can never be satisfied, fulfilled or happy: they do not get ready to live.”

On October 3rd 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, thanking God that though this nation was at war with itself, there were still blessings for which both sides could express gratitude. Thanksgiving reminds us of how indebted we are to others and on a Spirit greater than ourselves.

As it is with individuals and nations giving thanks leads to health and happiness.


There Is a God

Over a hundred years ago in the town of Berditchev, there lived the saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. One day he ordered the town crier to come to him.

“What is your wish?” he asked the rabbi.

“Go to every storekeeper and shopkeeper in the market place,” Levi Yitzchak commanded. “Tell them to close their business and assemble in the town square, for I have an announcement to make.”

“But, Master,” exclaimed the town crier, “today is market day and this is the busiest hour. Could you not postpone your announcement?”

“No,’” he replied. “Go and tell them that Levi Yitzchak has an important proclamation. It cannot wait a day or even an hour. They must halt their trading, close their shops, and come to the town square at once.”

The town crier reluctantly left to do the rabbi’s bidding. He stopped at every store and every shop and told the people that the holy rabbi had ordered them to come to the town square for an announcement of great significance. Grumbling at the ill-timed disruption, but with their curiosity piqued, the people obeyed the command, shut their stores and gathered in the town square.

Once all had assembled, the rabbi stepped up onto a box, signaled for silence, and began to speak: “I have asked you to come here on this busy day at this busy hour because I have news of great consequence for all of you, news which cannot be delayed even another moment. And it is this: I declare to you: ‘There is a God in the world!”
There is a God in the world! A colleague of mine has sermonized that “given the fractured world we inhabit and the frenetic lives we lead, we often need reminding. But there is a God in the world, revealed in our yearning to do what is right and good; in gratitude for all that is beautiful in our lives beyond our ability to control or create, and in our courage to persevere through life’s inescapable sorrows.”

God given strength resides in each of us…and in those around us. Fred Rogers, remembered in the wonderful film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” told a favorite story from the Special Olympics:

“For the 100 yard dash. nine contestants.assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun took off. But not long afterward, one boy stumbled and fell…hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him…slowed down and kissed the boy, and said.’This’ll make it better.” The boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their hands together, and walked to the finish line.”

The world is full of people ready to say, “I will hold your hand if you let me.” The nineteenth-century holy man understood: “Human beings are God’s language,” he taught.

But what of those moments, a rabbi taught, when our own strength fails, and darkness conceals those hands reaching out to help us? Then, especially, we must remember Levi Yitzchak’s pronouncement: “There is a God in the world.”

THERE IS A GOD IN THE WORLD, AND NO ONE IS ALONE.


Coronavirus-A Time of Opportunity

A colleague has offered comforting words. We all need some healing of our souls. The fear and uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus has stressed and strained us all. Let us take the opportunity to find the peace we need to restore some sense of balance.

Embrace this day as a respite from tension and worry, an island of calm, and a time of renewal. Take some time to be outdoors away from crowds and commune with nature. Draw closer to the members of your household and connect remotely with family and friends. As the beautiful poem below suggests, let’s make this a time to feel deeply within our hearts and allow love to flow freely from our souls in all directions.

POEM BY RONNIE WEIL
“What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath as the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling-

Give up, just for now,

On trying to make the world different than it is.

Sing, Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life.

Center down. And when your body has become still reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. Surely that had come clear.

Do not reach out your hands. reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise the world you love for better or for worse,

In sickness and in health,

So long as we all shall live.”


myrunningrabbi

myrunningrabbi