Friday, January 12, 2018

Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values


Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values

During the years of my childhood, my family went camping every summer, sometimes on Cape Cod, most often in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We began with one tent, and as the family grew a second tent was added, our campsite becoming a veritable encampment. My parents were purists, only tents, never any thought of a trailer or even one of the pop-up varieties, a “tent-camper,” as we called them with some scorn. Nevertheless, the tent-campers fascinated me, always eager to befriend the kids of such families in order to get to see their home in the woods up close. Accepting my parents’ good-humored dogma that real campers slept on the ground, I think what really fascinated me, beyond the technology of a tent folded neatly into a metal container on wheels, was the brand name on most, if not all, of the tent-campers. I can still see the letters that fascinated me then, big letters that spelled the word, NIMROD.
I didn’t realize for some time, that the name of the camper was actually the name of a person. At some point I picked up a general sense that this was a famous hunter. Shrouded in mystery, I assumed this Nimrod was a quite a camper, surely sleeping on the ground, probably not very happy to be associated with those who didn’t.

To my surprise, I next encountered Nimrod one year in Hebrew school. Seeing his name in Hebrew letters, I immediately saw the large English letters of his name on those pop-up tent-campers. Suddenly day dreaming of the past summer’s camping trip, enough information filtered through from the page and the teacher’s voice to bring me back to the moment. I started to realize with consternation that this Nimrod for whom the campers were named was not such a nice guy. Maybe he had been a great woodsman, a great hunter, but he was also quite a tyrant,
the one who wanted to throw the young Avram into a fiery furnace for rejecting his countries dogmas, for daring to be an iconoclast, literally smashing his father’s idols on his way to following one creator God in whose image all people are created equally.  I worried for Avram, seeing something of myself in his familiar stubbornness and insistence on following what he believed to be right.

          I thought of those long ago campers as I read the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32). Year after year I am drawn to the earlier parts of the portion, to the enticing and familiar stories of No’ach and the ark, of the violence that filled the earth, of God’s promise following the flood never to destroy the earth again, yet waiting desperately for us to make the same promise. I am always drawn to what seems to be the more exciting campsites and the more compelling stories to be told around the campfire. Yet every year as I come to the end of the portion I pause with amazement when I encounter Nimrod. This is the source of the hunter and woodsman who I first encountered, fittingly, in the woods.

In reading of Nimrod this year, I thought of a teaching of the Slonimer Rebbe, that all of the Book of Genesis is meant to help us clarify values, to purify qualities and ways of being and behaving in the world. It is all about taharat ha’middot/clarifying of values. I began to wonder about Nimrod, about the values we are to learn, remembering what he tried to do to the young Avram, feeling the tension between the evil I sensed of him and the trailblazer in the woods who beckoned to me, the young camper who wanted to swing an axe and handle a knife and be a hero.

It begins simply enough, and yet there is something mysterious, as though pushing us to ask, but who is he really? The Torah says simply, Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a hero upon the earth/hechel li’hi’yot gibor ba’aretz (Gen. 10:8). Just what is a gibor, what is the nature of his being a hero? Gibor can be a hero, a mighty one, someone of strength. But what is the nature of that strength? Much of the latter part of the portion of No’ach offers a lens through which to consider how we use our gifts, our strength, how we use technology and intelligence, whether to build a tower of Babel to storm the heavens or to create an ark in which to ride out the storm, offering a model of harmony, lion and lamb together, a way yet to be realized after the flood.

We are told next that Nimrod is a gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/a crafty hero before God. Most translations translate tzayid in its more usual meaning as a hunter. In translating gibor tzayid as “crafty hero,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) is drawing on a root meaning of tzayid as deceit and deceiver, tzad. The hunter needs to be secretive and quiet, to utilize stealth and wiles.
               As much as I disdain hunting, except by those for whom it is truly for the sake of sustenance, I can respect those who respect the animals, even in the course of hunting them. This is not the way of Nimrod as seen through the lens of a tradition that saw the mistreatment of animals as a precursor to the mistreatment of people. Establishing himself as a great hunter, Nimrod sowed fear with his prowess, gradually turning to people as his pray.

Yitzchak Abravanel, a fifteenth century commentator of both Portugal and Italy, writes that until Nimrod all people were equal, hayu b’nei ha’adam kulam shavim. Abravanel goes on to say that the statement “he became a mighty man in the land,” means he became a tyrant. In a conversation across centuries, that all of this was “before God,” becomes the source of a powerful warning from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “Nimrod began to oppress his fellow ‘men’ in the name of God. He was the first to misuse the name of God, to surround brute force with the halo of Divine approval…. Nimrod became the prototype for all those dynastic rulers who craftily crowned themselves with the halo of pseudo-sanctity and whose power, politics and hypocrisy were characterized by the saying, k’nimrod gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/like Nimrod, a crafty hero before God.”

In a time when truth flows into the ground like the blood of slain animals, when hubris and hate proliferate, Nimrod appears as an archetype to remind us of danger along the path of life, of danger on the trail, of whom not to follow. He becomes a lens through which to clarify values and qualities, to remind of the treacherous divide between truth and falsehood. Turning from the ways of Nimrod, we strive to restore human equality as it was in the beginning, harmony between people and animals, as within the ark upon the flood, and so with earth, a dove alighting with an olive branch. In a place of peaceful encampment in the woods, lion and lamb together, Nimrod becomes again but the name of a simple dwelling that once so intrigued a young child.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 5, 2018

Mountains

     "Our Ascent of the Everest" is the account of Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay, became the first humans to set foot on that mountain peak. The book includes the initial climb in 1951 that established the possibility of an approach from the south and the climb in 1953 that brought them to the summit.
      The book is well written with significant detail about the challenges and the natural geography. The ice falls, the crevices, the sheer cliffs, the blizzard winds and bitter cold make for suspenseful reading. And the sheer stamina of the climbers in such rare air is amazing.
     Mountain climbing stories are always an attraction for me. Maybe it has something to do with the ancient ideas of how mountains reach into the heavens and if you climb high enough you get closer to God. Or maybe it's the physical challenge of doing something that truly tests your physical, mental and emotional capacities. Or perhaps it's just the sense of pride and satisfaction you feel when you finish a task well done. Whatever, when I read Hillary's account, it's as if I'm right there as well, all the way to the top as they survey the scene from the summit.
     I first learned to love mountains in New Hampshire. Granted, they are nothing like Everest and the challenges are far more modest. But there can be similar satisfaction and sometimes the view from the summit can be just as otherworldly.
      Once, climbing in the White Mountains, we walked through crusted snow for several hundred yards. It wasn't a strong crust. Every third or fourth step we would fall through thigh high. Pulling your leg out of the snow without going through the crust with the other was far from easy and I could identify with what it was like for Hillary as he described that kind of experience on Everest.
     On the same climb in New Hampshire, when we reached the summit, the clouds were below us. You don't have to be at 28,000 feet in the Himalayas to have that experience. It can happen at 4,000 feet as well. And there's an awesome quality to it, where even with knowledge of airplanes and space exploration, one can still feel like you are invading the heavens. 
     It was instructive to me how Tenzing Norgay offered gifts to the Gods in gratitude when he reached the summit of Everest. As a Buddhist, he believed the Gods of those mountains were responsible for safe passage. And Hillary buried a small plastic cross given him by John Hunt, leader of the expedition. Reverence in the face of such a trying experience and successful conclusion seems natural.
     My appreciation for the Everest expedition is tempered by a recognition that we humans always seem to be striving to overcome nature and leaving our waste behind, not always working in harmony with nature and respecting the pristine quality of her beauty. It's certainly understandable why after a terrible struggle to simply survive the elements, the expedition would abandon oxygen bottles, tents and all manner of trash, as they tried to descend alive. Still, some of the most inaccessible places on the planet now have their trash heaps. As Gerard Manley Hopkins would say in his poem God's Grandeur, "all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell."
      Saint Bonaventure is considered one of the earliest ecologists. He believed that even the smallest things in creation were significant. If we lost even one species of God's creation, that would diminish the glory of God and our appreciation of that glory. For those of us living in the 21st. century, when wilderness is disappearing rapidly as we invade woods and mountains, Bonaventure's conviction becomes instructive. As some 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every 24 hours, the rate of extinction is 1,000 times the norm. Biologists say we haven't seen anything like it since the age of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
          Bonaventure believed, "The universe is like a book reflecting, representing and describing its Maker.   He, therefore, who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things, is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the first principle from such great signs is foolish." 


Perhaps the essence of wisdom is seeing utter foolishness in the face of great achievement.

Carl Kline

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Dream of Jerusalem:To Dwell Is To Make Peace Where We Dwell



      It is not what I had planned to write about as my Shabbat letter that week. It is not what I wanted to write about. It hurts, bringing tears, to feel enmeshed in the raw politics that swirl in the world around us. I am not a political commentator, but a lover of Torah, of people, of my people, of all people. I am called to respond when people are hurting. I look to Torah as a lens through which to look more clearly, at times as a telescope to see distant realities, and at times as a microscope to reveal what is right in front of us. Jerusalem is a magnet that calls us whether we want to be called or not. We cannot engage in Jewish prayer without speaking of Jerusalem. We cannot learn our holy texts without encountering, without entering the courtyards of Jerusalem. We cannot follow the cycle of the Jewish year and not be among the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem, bearing gifts of field and flock. We cannot attend a Jewish wedding and celebrate the continuity of our people through one couple’s love without remembering Jerusalem, her destruction and her rebuilding.

        Memories flow unbidden. My first time in Jerusalem, the first morning, a Friday, walking in the streets and suddenly pausing, thinking it all seemed so familiar, taking in the scent through open windows and thinking, it all smells like Bobi’s kitchen. On a sabbatical, approaching the Kotel with my children, pointing out the site of the Holy Temple above. It was during Chanukkah and four year old Yossi rose up in ancient revolt, calling out to an imaginary Syrian-Greek soldier, “there is only one God!” It is the miracle that we emphasize, Yossi, the miracle that happened then, the right to be who we are, for all to be who they are, and the miracle that is still waiting to happen, waiting for us to bravely kindle the light and make peace.

      We had a house guest that week from Jerusalem, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, indefatigable, prophetic campaigner for justice and human rights, rights due to Jews, to Muslims, to Palestinians, to Israelis, to all people because they are people, human rights for all because they are human. It was late at night when he arrived. We began to speak of the day’s events, the day on which it was announced, the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the ancient city at the center of our people’s story. We began to talk, and then it seemed too heavy, too much. We turned to Torah. Rav Arik spoke of his favorite midrash on the week’s Torah portion, the portion called Vayeshev. As in the world, so in the Torah portion, itself a reflection of the world, so much of the mourner’s sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov for the loss of his beloved son, for Yosef now sold into slavery, torn from his family, for Reuven as eldest brother on failing to protect the younger brother. And what is the Holy One doing, the midrash asks, creating the light of the King Messiah/boreh oro shel melech ha’moshi’ach (B’reishit Rabbah 85:1). Before the Messiah will come, though, the Holy One is waiting for us to also kindle light.

     For some there was light on that day of the announcement, for others only darkness. If we would bring the peace and wholeness of the day that is neither day nor night, as we sing of Messianic time at the Pesach Seder, then there needs to be light for all. The miracle cannot be limited, its light constricted. As we stood in the kitchen late at night, two rabbis sharing words of Torah, knowing we were really talking about the events of the day, I shared an insight that came to me long ago on the first word of the portion Vayeshev. There is a fateful dynamic and challenge in that one word. Vayeshev ya’akov/and Jacob settled. With a slight grammatical shift, we have va’y’yashev ya’akov/and Ya’akov made peace. A phrase emerges in Hebrew, yishuv sich’such/to settle conflict. There is a strange rabbinic teaching on the word vayeshev: Every place it says ‘vayeshev,’ it is not but the language of pain/kol makom she’ne’emar vayeshev eyno eleh lashon tza’ar (Sanhedrin 106a).
          It is a teaching that has guided my life, to truly dwell, to settle in a place, we need to make peace in the place we dwell. And if not, then, alas, there shall be only pain. The rabbis say further that Ya’akov sought to live in tranquility when it was not yet time, failing to recognize the needs and realities that swirled around him. Offering commentary through the lens of his own gentle soul, the Torah T’mimah, Rabbi Boruch Ha’levi Epshtein (19th century), teaches of the responsibility of those who would walk among the righteous, there is not complete rest for them in this world because it is their duty only to repair the world and to fill its deficiencies/rak l’taken et ha’olam u’l’malei chesronote’ha.
     We were as Jacob that week, and so we are, as he was in that moment of seeking to dwell in the way he wished to before it was time, when there was yet too much work to do to dwell in tranquility. However much we wish to dwell at the intersection of the ideal and the real, it is not that time yet; there is too much work to do. In the relationship of Jews to Israel, in the way of day-to-day details of modern statehood, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. We know only too well, though, when we allow it into our consciousness, that another people is still waiting for their state. Palestinians wait for the day when they too will dwell in a way that honors their love for the same city. In our shared love is a glimmer of hope, however hidden the light that the Holy One weaves, each strand touched with God’s tears. It is not yet time to proclaim and to act in a way that threatens the dwelling of others in the sharing of holy space. If only the proclamation had specified West Jerusalem, offering hope and shared yearning for the day when the capital of Palestine would rest in East Jerusalem, when the stories of two peoples would be told in the City of Peace/Ir Shalom. To dwell is to make peace where we dwell. If not, there shall only be pain.
          Whether in communal statements or in private conversations, to be true to the very meaning of Jerusalem there needs to be recognition of each one’s dreams. The flowering of the Jewish dream of Jerusalem internationally recognized for what it is as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel depends on equal recognition for the flowering of Palestinian dreams, of East Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of Palestine. The needs of Palestinians cannot be as an afterthought in communal, political, and religious statements. The weight of fifty years of occupation will only be made heavier if the fulfillment of one people’s dreams appears to defer yet longer the dreams of the other. If we do not make peace where we dwell, we shall only dwell in pain.

         The dream of Jerusalem has been deferred before, waiting for the right person, the right time. King David desperately wanted to build God’s house, the Temple in Jerusalem, but it was not yet time, as recorded in the Book of Chronicles: And David said to Solomon, My son, as for me, it was in my mind to build a house to the name of God my God; And the word of God came to me, saying, You have shed abundant blood, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in my sight. Behold, a son shall be born to you, who shall be a man of tranquility; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Sh’lomo/Solomon, and I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for my name… (First Chronicles 22:7-10).

The Torah portion Vayeshev is one of warning, of challenge, and hope, with its gentle teaching that to dwell means to make peace where we dwell, seeds of the future planted amidst the pain of the present. David was not fit to build the Temple because of the blood on his hands, and yet the twisting line to the Messiah begins in this portion, rising from out of the breach. The line of the Messiah begins with the birth of Peretz, born to Tamar and Yehuda, as we see later in the Book of Ruth. Peretz means breach, as a furrow in the ground, a seed of hope planted in the furrow of despair.       The Slonimer Rebbe teaches, a new flowering begins with the blossoming of the light of the Moshiach/she’tatchil tz’micha chadasha tz’michat oro shel Moshiach.

     As Jews everywhere pray for Jerusalem on Shabbat evening, may it be for all who dwell there and for all of the dreams and dreamers that yearn for tranquility. May we breathe in all of the stories that are carried in Jerusalem’s rarefied air, that are held in her ancient stones, that rise in the swirling of her dust. There is more work to be done now, but that is what we are called to do, to repair the world and fill its deficiencies. Not simply to dwell or to declare a dream fulfilled before its time, may Jerusalem yet be Ir Shalom/City of Peace. Blessed are you, God, who spreads the sukkah of peace over us, over all the people Israel, and over Jerusalem…,and over the hopes and dreams of all of her people and peoples, that together we shall make peace where we dwell.


 Rabbi Victor Reinstein















Friday, December 22, 2017

With Apologies to Lawrence Ferlinghetti



On this Sunday in Advent, in the Year of our Lord 2017, I have been inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I am waiting,” and the story of Jesus’s birth as told to us in the Gospel of Matthew:
It’s four in the morning, and
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone to really discover America
and wail,
and I am waiting
perpetually and forever
for a new rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting
and I wonder if you are wailing and waiting too
I wonder if Joseph wailed when Mary told him she was with child and he was not the father
and I wonder if Mary wept knowing that her fate was in a man’s hands and he had the power of life and death over her and her child
and I wonder if like me they too were waiting for a new rebirth of wonder
and I wonder why God chose some no-count couple like Mary and Joseph,
living in some backwater hamlet named Bethlehem
to make his grand divine entrance onto the world stage
when Caesar lost his cool and Herod sent his soldiers
to slaughter every Hebrew boy child under the age of two
and I wonder if the real point of the Christmas story
isn’t to shake us loose from the powerful paradigms of disbelief
that pull us away from acknowledging the presence of God
in this and every other place on this this blessed planet
we call our home
or is it really God’s home and
there is nothing that is not holy
and no one who is not sacred and God comes in this most peculiar way
just to say, “Hello”
and in the soft innocence of a child to tell us
now is not the time to surrender to the
lethargy of indifference
or the dullness of disbelief
or the safety of the status quo
for you too have found favor in the eyes of God
and in the wildness of holy love
there no is shelter from the storm
no room in the inn
no safe routines of convention and common sense
for now, today, you must choose
between the hopes and fears of all the years
and the only compass God will give you or me or any Mary or Joseph is
love
which God promises is wiser than the wisdom of humankind
and stronger than the strength of the all the armies of all the empires
that ever marched
and all the bombs that ever fell on upturned faces
then or now  or ever
so go with Mary, be a Joseph,
let your love loose in some
new derring-do
and experience your own
rebirth of wonder

Rev. David Hansen


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Promise of Peace



It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
So begins Charles Dicken’s story, The Tale of Two Cities. I ask you, on this second Sunday in the season of Advent, are these not the times in which we live.

         Some men like our president speak in superlatives. Others like Senator Grassley deride the “little people” whom he accuses of spending “too much money on booze, women, and movies” while he and others in some brazen act of reverse Robin Hood steal from the poor and give to the rich.
 People living in high places have no qualms about transferring billions of dollars to the wealthiest one-percent, or discrediting and desecrating sacred institutions of democracy, or exploiting their power for personal pleasure, or waging preemptive wars in the name of peace, or inflaming Jerusalem in some new orgasm of violence. “We will bomb you into oblivion,” Donald says. And he means it. As if to reward him the stock market climbs to new heights. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. It is an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness.
Stay woke my friends. Stay woke. Can you hear the voice of John crying in the wilderness? After the killing of Trayvon Martin the black community’s response was “stay woke.” Become aware. Be aware of the ways which racism, sexism, class-ism, militarism, economic and environmental violence, and the desecration of sacred places like Bears Ears National Monument affect the way we live. Stay woke to what is happening in our communities and the world in which we live. Stay woke.
Developing a healthy paranoia doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Maybe it’s just you trying to be healthy. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway for our God in this moral desert. Stay woke until every valley is lifted up, and the crooked places made straight, and the glory of the Lord is revealed in some shimmering moment of truth. Stay woke.
The birth of Jesus is not about a strange event that happened once upon a time in village far, far away, long, long ago, when a child was born. The birth of Jesus is the story of the enfleshment of God. That is what the word “incarnation” means. It means “going into flesh.” The Spirit going into flesh. And, Mary’s flesh magnified the Lord.
Robert Frost gave voice to this powerful promise of hope in a poem in which he wrote:
But God’s own descent
into the flesh meant
as a demonstration
that the supreme merit
lay in risking spirit
in substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
and for all its worth
charges into earth
in birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.
We may take the view
that it’s derring-do
thought of in the large
was one mighty charge
on our human part
of the soul’s ethereal
into the material.
Frost, a prophetic poet, believed the greatest enterprise of life is our penetration into matter, carrying spirit deeper and deeper into matter.
The meaning of the incarnation and the doctrine of transubstantiation is the celebration of the mighty charge of the ethereal into the material. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth.
What does all this mean to you and me in practical terms? What am I trying to tell you about the promise of peace? We have just witnessed seven murders in ten days in Wichita. The habits of violence are deeply ingrained in our culture and in us. It is fair to ask if peace is possible. Like the prophet Habakkuk we stand on the ramparts of the besieged city and ask, “Is there any word from the Lord?”
My friends in the Satyagraha Institute tell me there is. They offer these three steps, which they call three key principles for peace:
1.     Change happens one person at a time. A community will change only to the extent that individuals in the community are willing to change. And we, each one of us, can be instruments of change. We can create ripples of change that will alter the nature of our relationships and our communities and our nation and the world.

2.     The path to change requires face-to-face interaction, meeting, and dialogue. If we want to
      be agents of change we need to spend quality time with others who can help us work through difficult questions. Nothing can replace the power of studying, eating, reading, talking, walking, working and relaxing with others.

3.     Deep change, like fast-acting yeast, takes time.
So stay woke, my friends. Even now God’s spirit is charging into earth in birth after birth. And you are a child of God. And that is amazing and wonderful and very good.

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, December 8, 2017

Among the Trees and Grasses, Finding Solace and Strength


From words of Torah, prayers form, words become vessels to fill with our soul, Torah filling us, each of us filling Torah. It is the way of sacred scripture in every tradition, encountering God and ourselves in the seeking, in the shimmering union of text and context. As we make our way along the path of Torah from week to week, wooded glens open before us, places to pause and rest, oases from the strife and struggle along the way of life. There is succor for the weariness and worry held in the details of our own lives, and for the collective worry from all that assaults us in the political climate of these times. Given the gentle beauty of our sensibilities, we can’t in conscience put aside our awareness of those who suffer, or not consider the ways we might help to meet their needs. Yet even here, there are times when we need to pause, to sigh, to breath deeply, to remember the beauty of the world all around us and within us. There are times when we may recall places of beauty we have been, that gave of their gifts to us and helped us to relax.
             Perhaps a pond deep in the woods, a beautiful flower we saw along the path to get there. Perhaps it was a mountaintop and all the beauty along the way of hiking higher and higher. Perhaps we didn’t have to go very far to come to such a place, delighting with the flowers and bushes that grow along the sidewalk, roots of trees breaking through the cement that invades their space. And in the changing of seasons, now to stop in the midst of all that swirls and see our breath that comes from within and reminds of a place even deeper where our very soul abides. Seasons continue to turn in their way, snowflakes then to melt upon our skin. We hold the memories of what has been, sensing the beauty, seeing it with eyes closed with all the freshness and clarity of when we were there, of when it was new and now, time and place shimmering, gifts of forest and field continuing to touch, to inspire and infuse.

It is the essence of an exquisite teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) that is rooted in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah/the Life of Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18). Following the trauma of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, of father’s intended sacrifice of son, Yitzchak goes out into the field to meditate, va’yetze Yitzchak lasu’ach ba’sadeh lifnot arev/and Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).  It is the same root, whether of language or spirit, la’su’ach/to meditate, to pray, to converse, and so too the root of si’ach/a bush, a shrub, green and verdant growing things. So from his own traumas, so much pain and sorrow in his life, Rebbe Nachman would go out each day to be alone in nature, among the trees and grasses, finding solace and strength in field and forest. From words of Torah he formed words of prayer, May I merit to make it my custom to go out each day to the field and be among the trees and grasses and every shrub of the field. And there may I merit to be alone and to increase in conversation between me and the one to whom I belong (Likutei T’filot 2:11).

It is all in the way of Yitzchak going out into the field that Rebbe Nachman teaches, words of Torah become prayers, become vessels, become places of respite, of sanctuary. I share his teaching as I translated it long ago while sitting in the woods of a Jewish summer camp, children’s voices all around, laughter and joy to inspire, Shabbos coming near.

             Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called “sicha” (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub). This is in the aspect, derived from B’reishit 2:5 which says “si’ach ha’sadeh/shrub of the field.” Every shrub of the field gives strength and aids one in their prayer. This is the aspect of B’reishit 24:63, “And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field,” that his prayer would be with the aid and strength of the field, that all of the grasses of the field would give strength and aid to his prayer. For this reason, prayer is called “sicha,” as explained above. Therefore, in the curse in D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:17 (which is in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma) it is said, “and the ground will not give its produce/v’ha’adamah lo titen et y’vulah,” for all of the produce/herbage of the earth needs to give strength and aid within prayer. And when there is a defect or barrier concerning the earth’s giving aid to prayer, of this it says, “and the ground will not give its strength. And even when one is not praying in a field the produce of the earth still gives aid to their prayer. That is to say, all that supports a person, for example, eating and drinking, goes forth to provide such support (as eating and drinking support the body, so the produce of the earth also supports the soul and aids one’s prayer). When one is in the field, however, then nature’s support for their prayer is greater, then all of the grasses and all of the produce of the ground give strength to their prayer, as explained above. And this word “produce/yivol” can be derived from the first letters of the verse (Gen. 24:63), “and Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field/Va’yetze Yitzchak La’su’ach Ba’sadeh…, for all of the produce of the field prayed with him, as explained above… (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).

        As we go out each week to meditate in the Sabbath field, L’cha Dodi/Come Beloved, so may we find beauty and rest among all the delights of Shabbos.     Aid and support given to our prayer, continuing then to inspire and nurture as we re-enter the world of time, may we merit to remember what we have seen and known, strength given to body and soul, renewed and refreshed.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, December 1, 2017

An American Thanksgiving

     This Thanksgiving, some things I saw on the internet made me think more seriously about the first inhabitants of this land. One writer told the traditional Thanksgiving story of friendship and a shared meal with the usual characters like Squanto, helping the early settlers plant and harvest their escape from starvation.
     Another told the story about how the first Thanksgiving was proclaimed by then Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Bay Colony, as a celebration for massacring the Pequot people. The Governor wanted prayers of gratitude in the churches for this great victory. One commentator of the day remarked, "Let the whole Earth be filled with his glory! Thus the Lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance." Another said God had destroyed the enemies of his people; "Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling (Mystic) with dead bodies." 

       A third video shows some young Native American women telling the story of theft, pillage, rape and terror and then turning over a laden Thanksgiving table.
      Different people see history through different eyes. But European Americans should all be able to recognize three things: we stand on stolen land that belonged to someone else; the original Americans are still with us; the first inhabitants continue to petition for recognition of their rights, like clean water and sustainable economies
     And although there are still Christians who stereotype all tribal peoples as pagan or heathen, the informed are aware of the deep spirituality and sacred traditions that have been carried on, even in the face of government prohibition and attempted genocide. 
     For fifteen years I coordinated a program in reservation communities where people came from many different countries and across the U.S. to immerse themselves in traditional and contemporary Native American life. We carried our home, a couple of tipis, on the top of our vans and without watches or rigid plans camped on the property of hosts and welcomed visitors as resource persons. As often happens in Indian country, people heard of our interest in learning and wonderful elders and teachers found their way to us.
     During and after these programs I was sometimes invited to ceremonies, including the sweat lodge ceremony. It's not my place to say too much about sacred ceremonies of Indian people. But as a Christian pastor, I must say that the sweat lodge experience for me was like a whole body experience of baptism, of being born again.
       One is cleansed not only of the bodily toxins but through prayer, of the emotional and spiritual toxins as well. If the arrogant and self righteous in the Christian community could give up their sense of superiority for just a moment, to truly learn of this sacred ceremony, they  might recognize that other traditions have similar and just as meaningful ways of approaching the Creator.
      Some Indian people have confessed that when they first heard about Jesus from the early missionaries, they understood. Their culture encouraged them to be willing to suffer for others. They were schooled in the value of generosity. There was an emphasis on the common good. So when they heard about this person who went to his death for others, it fit with their traditional understandings. Their sun dance ceremony represented something similar. It was about purification and sacrifice. 
     What those same Indian people didn't understand was all the baggage that came with Jesus. Baggage that eventually resulted in the destruction of indigenous people and the outlawing of their most meaningful ceremonies. Those of us of European descent would do well to confess it. It was the self righteousness and manifest destiny of those early pilgrims that resulted in the elimination of the Pequot people. It was the papal declaration of the Doctrine of Discovery that set the stage for stealing land and exterminating resisters. The Christian religion brought colonial baggage to this continent, conquering for Christ. 
      And in many ways, that nativist spirit is still too prevalent in the land. The cartoon of Indian people cutting off new immigrants from Europe is altogether appropriate in a Trumpian climate. One cartoon has the picture of an Indian man with the words,  "So you're against immigration? Splendid! When do you leave?"
     We need to work harder in this culture to incorporate some traditional indigenous values. We're in relationship, with all that is. When you enter the sweat lodge ceremony, you remind yourself of this reality. You are also reminded of the elements of all life: water, fire, air and earth. You are reminded we can't treat the earth like a thing and expect it to give fruit in its season. We can't treat the waters like our toilet and expect to be healthy. We can't use and misuse the others around us and expect mutual aid.
     Religious leaders from all across the country disowned the Doctrine of Discovery at Standing Rock last year. They confessed God did not give anyone a right to take lands occupied by others. Now it's time to give flesh to that confession. A good first step would be respecting Native sovereignty and Native values when it comes to pipelines.

Carl Kline