myrunningrabbi

Inspirational /Motivational Speaker
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If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”
In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe:

The true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)


Joan Rivers and the Key to Happiness

Joan Rivers, may peace be upon her, once asked her business manager: “How much money do I have in the bank because I want it delivered to my house by the end of the day. I want to touch it!”

She was also famously quoted as saying: “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money you can have a key made.”

An ancient Rabbi asked: “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has and is satisfied with her portion.”

We all know of very wealthy people who are terribly unhappy, and ordinary people who are very happy.

What the sage was explaining is that happiness is the ability to find joy in what you have. Unhappiness is dwelling on what you don’t possess.
This is what we should do every day. Every morning we wake up and it’s a new day. The sacred teaching is that our souls have been restored. We can breath deeply and take in all that is good if we have a roof over our head and family and friends.

And yet we spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and are anxious and complain about trivial things. We count our money instead of counting 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…”

But the Holy One of Blessing wants us to be happy right now, because if you are not happy with your portion in life, then it does not matter how much you have in your bank account. It is never enough.

Don’t let the imperfections blind you to the blessings you have. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
The real key to happiness is to see the smiles of the ones you love and the beauty all around you.

And may you discover the richness and joy and power within you that you surely possess and deserve.


Overcoming Depression

Pain, medicine, and depression were overwhelming me. The doctors told me I was winning my battle with leukemia, but I felt I was losing emotionally. The depression that had overtaken me seemed worse than physical disease.

As a rabbi I thought I had been trained to deal with depression. I was used to members of my congregation coming to me in times of suffering. People counted on me for comfort and understanding. Yet, here I was, unable to deal with my own depression.

Gradually, I was able to summon the strength within me. “God,” I prayed, “I’m trying to get up this mountain, but every time I get near the top, I get knocked down again. And, I’m not asking you to get me all the way to the summit, but could you hold my hand, and, please, don’t let me fall any further into the abyss?”

As I prayed, I searched for the divine spark within my spirit, for the power that I possessed, and which I believe all of us have. And within myself I found the courage and strength to keep fighting and not give up.
In the Jewish tradition, prayer doesn’t mean somehow finding God’s unlisted phone number or rubbing a magic lamp to bring forth a genie. It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value, and discovering what you believe. Prayer is the “self-judgment” that empowers us to reach higher, search deeper, and be true to ourselves.

Here are my suggestions for lifting yourself up in times of adversity:
LET YOUR SPIRIT SING. You don’t need a designated place or specific words. Sometimes the song we sing is joyous; sometimes it is a lament. Sometimes the song is loud and strong; sometimes it is weak and weary. Be in touch with your feelings and help yourself by opening your heart.

BE YOUR SPECIAL SELF. The story of the creation of the first human being, Adam, reminds us that each of us is unique.

Every human being represents the potential of the whole world. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
I vividly recall the time when a young woman came to me talking about taking her life. She was very depressed and felt worthless. I told her that no matter how low a person sinks there is always something special and worthwhile in everyone. I took note of her smile, commented on her touching way of revealing her feelings, and told her that she was special. When she left my study I prayed I had said the right thing. Years later there was a knock on my study door. She had returned to thank me for helping her get through a very difficult time in her life..

REMIND YOURSELF WHAT REALLY MATTERS. When I was depressed in the hospital, I called to mind the good things in my life, what I had to live for. I pushed myself to remember Thanksgivings with my family, vacations in Colorado, running up the ski lift in Aspen, my daughter whirling around the ice skating rink. I thought of my wife and friends who were praying for me. I thought of the nurses who comforted me, and the doctors who struggled to keep me alive.

CONFRONT YOUR FEARS. When one of my congregants asked me, “What do I do in the middle of the night when no one is with me and I’m scared?” I told him, don’t try to run away and hide under the blanket. Sit up in bed and let all the nightmarish things play out before your eyes. Visualize everything that terrifies you. Then, when you have all this in front of you, acknowledge your fears. You have a right to feel frightened and depressed about awful things that have happened. But then realize that despite all that you are still very much alive!

GIVE OF YOURSELF. After my illness, I rededicated my life to helping others, especially those with cancer. Someone is always in need, someone whose plight is worse than our own. By helping others we give meaning to our lives.

LEARN SOMETHING NEW. A young woman, the mother of four children, came to see me. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with her chemotherapy treatments, she treated herself to ski lessons. She wanted to experience something new to take her mind off her illness, to reaffirm her life. “There I was,” she told me, “hanging onto the tow rope, climbing that hill, exhilarated by being outside on a crisp winter day – thankful for the day, thankful for my life.”

Through my illness and depression, I learned to see the true worth within myself, to reflect on the meaning of my life, even to find meaning in my illness.
In a sense, my weakness made me a stronger person. I have learned that what “doesn’t destroy me, strengthens me.” Now, I empathize with other people in a way I was never able to before. I look for the goodness in people and in life. I look for the oneness of all humanity, and I find it.

When you are down, may you find strength in all you do and say and feel and think – and then the miracle will happen; the sun will shine for you; the world will once again be beautiful. Look for it. It will happen. I know.


Who is Truly Religious?

These days I wonder if people who choose wounding and hurtful words wrestle with their demons.

In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be 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 although many things are predestined we have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices and follow the path of goodness.
What is expected of us, according to the Hebrew prophet, is to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One.” When the Sages tried to distill the essence of sacred teaching they quoted this along with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I believe that you may not call yourself religious or pious or faithful members of any denomination if you hurt others, because as it is said: “God wants heart.”

Often my congregants would approach me apologetically and say: “Rabbi, I’m not religious.” My response was to ask; do you care about others and are you troubled by the pain in our world? Because if you are then you may be very religious even if you don’t belong to a house of worship and despite your lack of ritual observance…or for that matter, even if you have your doubts about God.

And although I am a rabbi and proud of my Jewish heritage, I have evolved spiritually to believe that we are all children of the Eternal, no matter what religion or belief system, because the true heart of “religion” is human goodness and decency.
When the groom breaks a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony I say this signifies that our broken world is not yet at peace and still needs healing. In the Jewish mind a central belief is “Tikun Olam”… Repairing a troubled world…through our deeds of justice and compassion and loving-kindness.

There is a tale about a venerable rabbi who lived in a poor Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe during the harsh pogroms carried out against the Jewish people.The time is just before the High Holy Days. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and a poor disciple enters looking very downcast. “Rabbi”, he confesses, “I cannot direct my prayers to heaven on these Days of Awe in the face of all the suffering in the world and the cruel opression of our people.”

It is getting cold in the hut as the fire dies down and the rabbi gestures and gives an answer without words. He takes the poker by the fireplace and stirs the scattered embers. They burst into flame again and there is warmth and light where the rabbi sits with his student who laments the state of his world and cannot bring himself to direct his prayers to the Holy One.

And the disciple, watching this, realizes the rabbi is giving an answer to his pessimism and he declares: “Oh, now I see Rabbi.”

What does the disconsolate student see? What do we see? We are like the flickering embers when we despair because of all the coldness and indifference and cruelty in our world. But just as the embers bring renewed warmth and light when they are moved closer to each other so do we human beings when we encourage one another with acts of kindness.

“Don’t settle for a spark…. light a fire instead!”@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)


To Live Without Regret

Joan Didion writes:” “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. An ordinary instant”. It happened to me when I went from the indestructible “Running Rabbi” to needing a blood transfusion because I was so weak. As I lay in my hospital bed, wondering if I would survive the leukemia that ravaged me, I put on my headphones and listened to Willie Nelson singing: “Maybe I didn’t love you…Maybe I didn’t hold you all those lonely, lonely times…Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time…But you were always on my mind…You were always on my mind.”

Yes, we think there will always be a second chance for that embrace. And we tell ourselves “someday” we will devote more time to those we love and the truly important things that matter. But what if that “someday” never comes?

Jewish wisdom enlightens us that we never know which day will be our last. If we realize that life can be cut short in an “ordinary instant” then the challenge is how do we get our priorities right?
We must never take our friends and loved ones for granted. When I counsel wedding couples I tell them that no matter what conflicts we have with our spouses during the day we should always end the day with a kiss and say ” I love you.” Maybe it sounds corny but I found out it works.

To live a life without regret we must realize that the journey of life is fleeting and not let time pass without embracing those we love with all our heart and soul.

To live a life without regret we must shed the childhood belief that we are unattractive or unintelligent or unlovable. As adults we must rid ourselves of the delusion that we are always right and always the victim.

To live a life without regret we must shed the myths and look at the reflection in the mirror and see ourselves blemishes and all.

A Hebrew prayer cautions us against self deception: “May we ask for honesty, vision, and courage. Honesty to see ourselves as we are, vision to see ourselves as we should, and the courage to change.”
My life has taught me that we have only one brief time on earth and we cannot know what an uncertain tomorrow may bring. So let us get ourselves “a heart of wisdom”.

May we live life to the fullest and without having to regret. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
“The past is over. The future is a mystery. The here and now is all we have. This moment is a gift! “


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.”


myrunningrabbi

myrunningrabbi