Friday, July 19, 2019

Tell me a story...

Every so often I'm reminded of the power of stories. Facts may help to change a person's mind, but stories have a chance of changing the heart.

For instance, if you really want to understand what sacrifice for your country is like, sit down with a veteran and hear their personal story. That will stay with you much longer than a parade, speeches and fireworks. 

Better yet, hear the other side of the story as well. Hear the story from the adversary. Then you may come away with enough understanding of war that you'll join those veterans who know it's not something glorious and celebratory, but it's disturbing enough to eat at you all the rest of your life.

I've heard stories from Vietnam veterans that touched my heart. There was the vet who spent forty days alone in the desert, like Jesus, fasting and reading and praying to put his life back together again. There's the friend who will die taking pieces of debilitating shrapnel with him. There's the veteran who will never have children because of her exposure to toxic substances. 

        Last summer I had my first opportunity to hear from a person native to Vietnam, a casualty of war in his own country. He was a child when the war came to his village. In the confusion and terror of the initial fighting, he was separated from his family and left behind. Another fleeing family grabbed him up and took him with them. He never saw his birth family again; still has no knowledge of what happened to them.  

As he recounted the story of his loss and eventual adoption in the U.S., he had to gather himself in long periods of silence and tears. I envisioned him with veterans I have known, both of them far more open hearted to the other than those of us who have never seen the violence of war up close. We can make lots of excuses and rationalizations in our minds about the necessity of war, perhaps because we don't have the stories of reality that touch the heart.

I'll never forget my week end with the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The small village where the event was located was filled with huge circus tents. Thousands of people were there to hear storytellers from diverse backgrounds. 

Brother Blue, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill,  was black, walked around the crowds with balloons tied to his blue clothes and told folk tales from Africa and Asia; or sometimes he told Shakespeare's stories in a contemporary context. A playwright from Yale, he became famous as a storyteller on the streets of Boston. 

Moving from tent to tent and storyteller to storyteller, over the course of two days, one joined hundreds of others in times of laughter and grief, joy and tears, all through the power of oral storytelling. I came away convinced that the power of the spoken word was alive and well, if only we were prepared to listen.

My habit is to read stories before going to sleep at night. I read fiction, novels. There is far too much non-fiction in my daylight hours. Fiction, stories, help me sleep. Perhaps as I've aged, I need the story time of childhood again. Reading The Chronicles of Narnia to our children before bedtime is one of my most memorable experiences. I still hear them saying, "One more chapter dad, one more."

         Stories help put politics in context. There's a story I remember of parents fleeing to another country with their new born child, because there was a danger he would be killed. There's a story I remember of a whole people fleeing, seeking a "promised land," because they were oppressed and treated as slaves where they were living, There's a story of a person of another ethnicity helping a wounded traveler on the side of the road. There's a story of one laying down his life for others.

One could hope those Biblical stories still resonate as people reflect on our southern border. One could hope those stories are still being told, again and again and again. 

My fear is of a different story. It's a story where things get reversed, where lies become truth and evil becomes good and war becomes peace. It's a story with phrases like Big Brother, Hate Week, Thought Police, Fake News, Not One of Us, and Doublethink take on a life of their own. An Orwellian society is not my idea of a story with heart.

      How about the story of estranged brothers finding peace with each other again? Or what about the story of the hated brother, sold into slavery, forgiving his brothers and coming to their aid? Or can't we remember the story of the flood, or the garden, or who is responsible for this amazing creation?

Carl Kline

Friday, July 12, 2019

"What Does America Stand For?" - - Of Leader and People as One

           In my most cynical moments, coming at times in spite of myself, I have wondered if America has gotten what it deserves in this president and all the damage and harm that he has done. I catch myself quickly. All those who have been so harmed cannot be deserving of such harm, whether of people or earth, and of relations one to another in the fragile web of life. My thinking shifts then from the cynical to the intensely sad, wondering if all that has transpired today through a masquerade of leadership is the natural consequence of American emphasis on independence rather than interdependence, of self more than group. I wonder if today’s government has emerged from attitudes once carried in such expressions as “better dead than red,” or in the notion that anyone should be able to “pull them self up by the bootstraps.” I wondered in the week of the Fourth of July what it says of a nation’s character and values that in singing of who we are it is of “bombs bursting in air,” rather than of “purple mountain majesty,” which might have been our anthem. I wonder if our poisonous legacies of racism and xenophobia that make some unworthy of compassion,  blind us to the image of God in every human being. In such views and values there is reflected an essential lack of inter-human connection and of compassion, attitudes that have become full blown today in our national disconnect from the good and from goodness.

In the way time and text become entwined, I was stunned to come across a Talmudic debate that leapt off the page and played into my musings. Chad amar/one says, dor l’fi parnas/[the character of] a generation is according to its leader. And one says, [the character of] a leader is according to their generation (Arachin 17a)…. I stared at the page and kept going back over the words, still needing to explore and go more deeply. I wondered if it is as clear-cut as the debate might suggest. It would seem it is some of both, that a leader does emerge from the values and character of the people.  So too, a leader can help to shape the national character, drawing out that which is most noble in the people, or that which is most ignoble. 
In a way that I think can equally be seen as natural consequence, the great commentator Rashi suggests God’s role in choosing leadership that reflects the nature of a society. Commenting on the Talmudic view of leadership and people as offering a moral mirror of each other, Rashi teaches: im ha’dor az/if the generation is arrogant/the Holy Blessed One raises over them an arrogant leader/parnas az; v’im ha’dor nochin zeh la’zeh/and if the generation is peaceful one to another, the Holy Blessed One raises over them a leader who guides them peacefully/parnas ha’manhigam b’nachas….

        Continuing to muse on the symbiotic relationship of national character and leadership, the weekly Torah portion called Korach (Numb. 16:1-18:32) offers its own challenge and warning. In a jarring moment of conflict and turmoil, Moses is challenged. The portion pulsates with an underlying question of how we make room for challenge as part of political and communal dynamics. We watch Moses to see how he as a leader responds to challenge. There is merit in Korach’s charge that Moses has taken on too much power, that all the people are holy. The way of our speaking truth to power is held up for us to examine, to consider what works and what doesn’t work and why and why not. Is Korach seeking to disburse power more equally or to usurp more of it for himself? Whether it is Moses’ job he seeks or Aaron’s, tensions play out as between branches of government, here a divide between priest and prophet and the underlying question of how each is meant to serve the community and a greater good.

Each forming parts of one whole, as branches of government, the priests in the line of Aaron are those who would serve in the sanctuary, giving symbolic structure to the ideals to be nurtured in the people. In the prophetic line of Moses are those called to remind the people of what God seeks of us, as the Prophet Micah taught, it has been told to you, O mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God… (Micah 6:4). Neither way, the role of priest or prophet, of legislator or judge, is to be sought for personal gain. Each role is to be placed as a mantle in response to God’s call. Each as a call to service, the call to leadership was meant to help shape national character, and so too the character of the leader.

As the struggle between Moses and Korach plays out, it is a mistake to see the Torah as offering a model for leadership. Nor does the Torah offer an explicit model in most realms of human struggle. For all of the explicit mitzvot that it gives, the Torah is not primarily prescriptive. Rather, it offers a context in which to struggle with real life situations, which, however much the details may vary through time, remain timeless in their familiarity and immediacy.

Holding all of my wrestlings with Talmud and Torah and the day’s tortured news, Mieke and I took a delightful break for a Fourth of July FaceTime visit with grandchildren. Oma asked, “why aren’t you at camp today?” And the older two answered as though, “of course, Oma,” “it is the Fourth of July.” And what does the Fourth of July celebrate?” In one voice, they answered, “It is America’s birthday!” “What do you think we could give America as a birthday present?” Seven year-old Leo answered with a shy a smile, “We could make Trump not be president any more.” “Yes, that would help,” I said, “but we need to do more than that. America needs to be about more than one person.” I thought of the Talmud’s question about leaders and people and who determines the character of a nation. “What can we the people do?” I asked, making allusion beyond their understanding to the essence of which the day is meant to remind.

Feeling my way I said, “We could remind everyone what America is supposed to stand for.” Without a moment to expand on my tentative response, four year old Ruby asked, “what does America stand for…?” “Wow, what a great question, Ruby,” the question giving me pause, the pure innocence of a child’s asking causing my voice to crack for a moment.

“It is supposed to stand for equality, Ruby. That means that every single person is just as important and has the same rights as everyone else.” One of the kids chimed in as though on cue, “That means everyone can vote….” “Yes, that is true,” I said, “and so important. Do you know, though, that when America started only white men could vote, not women and not Black people. That doesn’t sound very equal does it? That has changed over time, but not enough. Not everyone is able to vote today even though they are supposed to be able to. Also, not everyone has what they need in America. Some people have so much and others don’t even have enough to eat, so that is not equal yet either. As a birthday present, we can remind all Americans about what equality really means and help to make it happen. That is what America is supposed to stand for.”

Off to the side, their mom’s voice reminded them about the long line of people walking past their corner with signs supporting immigrants, “like Zayde did in Boston,” Noa said.” My voice cracked again at the unexpected opportunity to so meaningfully mark the Fourth of July. “We have to make our birthday present even bigger,” I said. “When we remind people what America stands for,” Ruby, “we have to remind them that we are supposed to welcome the stranger and the immigrant, to be kind and caring to people in need. That is what the Torah teaches us too. There is a poem on the Statue of Liberty in New York that welcomes every one. It says to come, everyone who is tired, and poor, everyone who wants so much to be free. The poem was written more than one hundred years ago by a Jewish woman whose name is Emma Lazarus.”

As we said good-bye, I thought of Isaiah’s words of hope that a little child shall lead. On a day that should be given to reflective pause, it was the question of a child that led me to consider, “what does America stand for?” In all of their innocence, the children knew just what to ask. As the children lead, so may we merit the leaders we truly deserve, and together give shape to a national character rooted in interdependence and compassion, of leader and people as one in purpose and destiny.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein

Friday, July 5, 2019

It doesn't have to be this way...

     During the farm crisis of the 1980's, there was a steady stream of students in my campus ministry office, looking for someone to listen to the troubles on the farm. I remember one young man describing the tension whenever he went home. His mother and siblings were walking carefully and talking quietly because his father was hitting the bottle big time. The student had found half empty liquor bottles hidden in several places in the barn.

On another occasion a student wanted to explore what an alternative future for him might look like. It was becoming obvious that his future was not in farming. The family homestead of several generations was about to go under. There wouldn't be a farming operation for him to take over. You could see the grief of his forebears in his eyes.

Farmer suicides are back on the front pages. Statistics are being debated, as comprehensive studies are not available, but some suggest the suicide rate of farmers in this country is higher than for veterans, and we all know suicide rates among veterans are extreme. The latest statistics are 20.6 veteran suicides per day, including active duty troops and national guard.

Net farm income has declined by 50% since 2013. Median farm income for 2019 is forecast at -$1,449. You can only go so many years where the cost of production is more than the income from the product before it's bankruptcy or, increasingly, suicide. Besides, that 2019 projection was likely before we understood the continuing consequences of the trade war with China. Soybeans have already taken a nose dive and can likely drop further with the increased tariffs. One wonders how farm state Republicans like our own can stay so muted about what's happening to their major constituents, as a clueless President strives to run the business of trade like his personal real estate investment. It seems this President is at war with everyone, either in a war of words, a trade war, a sanctions war, or, God forbid, a new hot war with Iran.

If all that wasn't bad enough, we have an administration hell bent on doing everything it can to increase the climate crisis while farm families are underwater. The future farming climate is clear, as we hit 415 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in human history; hotter and wetter. That's not very good news to agricultural workers in the Midwest, already waiting on flooded fields to plant their crops. Now, as I write this, we're looking at five more straight days of rain.

      Actually, farming as we know it, is not a life sustaining occupation anywhere anymore. The suicide rate among farmers is a global problem. In India, since 1995, 270,000 farmers have taken their lives. Many attribute this extraordinary number to the adoption of modern agricultural practices, where one has to buy seed, and fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and equipment, year after year, going into larger and larger debt to moneylenders. Instead of traditional practices of saving seed and using more organic methods for regeneration of the soil, and plowing with the bullock, farmers line up at the Monsanto store and fill the till.

Suicide among farmers is not limited to India and the U.S. In Australia a farmer dies by suicide every four days. In the U.K. it's one a week. And in France a farmer dies by suicide every two days.

It doesn't have to be this way! The growth of farmers markets in this country is one example of a return to simpler days and healthier ways of being. Here is farm food going right to the dinner table. You don't have to have a huge operation with all the attendant inputs to grow food fit for human consumption and to provide an income. You don't have to "feed the world" or buy up another section. We can move in the direction of smaller operations and more sustainable livelihoods. There are organizations all over the country prepared to help those with a desire to live on the land and work with it, to do farming in a sustainable way.

One such organization in our own backyard is Dakota Rural Action. The DRA mission statement reads, "Dakota Rural Action is a grassroots, family agriculture and conservation group that organizes South Dakotans to protect our family farmers and ranchers, natural resources and unique way of life." As important, is their mission statement for rural vitality. "To lead South Dakota citizens toward a knowledgeable understanding of the relationship between agriculture and the environment; supporting and promoting agricultural systems that protect our air quality, water quality, public health and socio-economics; and sustaining vibrant communities for future generations."

        We are failing our family farmers. We need to wake up and recognize our food doesn't come from the grocery store. It comes from seeds someone plants in healthy soil that needs to be watered well, needs sunshine to grow and harvest.

Carl Kline 

Friday, June 28, 2019

"I was thirsty..."

In January of this year, four women were arrested in Arizona for leaving water in the desert for migrants, They were aware of 155 deaths in their area since 2001. They have been charged with misdemeanors and face fines and up to six months in jail. They are members of a faith based group called "No More Deaths." They traveled into the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge to leave water and food for those attempting to cross this 50 mile wide border with Mexico. They are well aware, as are others in their organization, that around 3,000 remains have been found in border desert areas since the year 2000.

There are more serious charges in the case of Scott Warren. Scott is also a member of the same group, "No More Deaths," and teaches at a local community college. He is charged with two counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy. The charges could result in as much as 20 years in prison. His crime was giving food, drink and a place to stay to two migrants, and according to government prosecutors, "conspiring" with others to help illegal immigrants. The case is being watched closely by humanitarian aid groups and Christians who take Matthew 25:40ff. seriously.

        In the meantime, Honduras, the murder capital of the world, from which many are fleeing toward the U.S., is in turmoil. As I write this, doctors and teachers are on strike. An attempt to move toward privatizing education and health care has been tabled for the moment to try and quell the outcry, but budget cuts in both medicine and education have already done significant damage. The unpopular Honduran President is using the military with tear gas and live bullets to disperse the crowds of protestors.

Thanks to Hilary Clinton and others, the previously elected President of Honduras was deposed by a military coup and sent out of the country in his pajamas in 2009. Since then, the murders and corruption have escalated, as well as those fleeing the country for the U.S.. The present President, Hernandez, is our number one ally in Central America, even though he has siphoned off government money for his own political purposes, has dismal approval ratings, and been a target of drug trafficking by our own intelligence agencies. 

His younger brother was arrested last year and investigated for trafficking tons of cocaine into the U.S. from 2004 to 2016; but there is no evidence charges were brought nor that the investigation still continues. President Hernandez released a statement saying he enjoys a good relationship with the DEA.

The response of our President to the situation at the border is well known: separating families, detaining children in cages, building walls and wire, threatening and bullying anyone he sees as responsible. So the latest Presidential proclamations are that detained children will not have access to legal aid, recreation, or education. And Mexico faces rising tariffs on Monday, if they don't take stronger measures to stop the migrants.

Some sections of the response from the President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, are following.

"I am aware of your latest position in relation to Mexico. In advance, I express to you that I do not want confrontation. The peoples and nations that we represent deserve that, in the face of any conflict in our relations, no matter how serious, we resort to dialogue and act with prudence and responsibility.

Human beings do not abandon their homes for pleasure but out of necessity. That is why, from the beginning of my government, I proposed opting for development, cooperation and assistance to the Central American countries for productive investments to create jobs and resolve this painful issue in depth.

President Trump, social problems are not solved by tariffs or coercive measures. Why the overnight conversion of the country that is the brother of the world’s migrant into a ghetto, where the migrant is stigmatized, mistreated, persecuted, expelled and justice is extinguished for those who seek with effort and work to live free from misery? The Statue of Liberty is not an empty symbol.

With all due respect, although you absolutely have the right to say so, “America first” is a fallacy because until the end of time, even over national borders, universal justice and fraternity will prevail. Specifically, Citizen President, propose to deepen the dialogue, seek fundamental alternatives to the migration problem."

      The problem is not a wall or no wall, a tariff or no tariff. The fundamental problem begins at home, in our country and others, where we have trouble mobilizing the instructions of Jesus into social structures, where the needs of the hungry, thirsty and naked are met. I always thought Jesus was pretty clear! When we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, we are doing it to him. That's what he said! I also thought the Bible was pretty clear! There are at least 22 admonitions to welcome the stranger. Especially if one's country is at least partly responsible for their flight. 

It appears these days that America will be made great again by putting Jesus and followers on the scaffold, a fitting symbol for the struggle between human empire and God's Kingdom.

Carl Kline

Friday, June 21, 2019

Blessed to be a blessing

        The month of June initiates more than one season on our island.  The solstice, of course, means the beginning of the summer season.  The beginning of summer means the tourist season is entering full swing with all the bane and blessing this means for us year-rounders.  With the beginning of summer also comes the destination wedding season and all the color and excitement of multiple marriages being solemnized every weekend at various venues all over the island.  For a person of my age, it is a curious phenomenon that most weddings now occur in open fields, at lighthouses, on the beach, under ancient copper beech trees and not very often in church sanctuaries.  In place of Wagner and Lohengrin, arrangements from Stevie Wonder and The Beatles are more apt to be heard in processionals and recessionals

Over the years, I have come to understand a healthy marriage as not just the union in life partnership of two individuals, but also as a resource, as a well, perhaps, where others can come and draw upon its strength.  A loving relationship between marriage partners might also become a safe place for friends and family and others to rest, feel understood, to be nurtured, when life is stressful.  More obviously, a healthy marriage is a good place in which children can grow up feeling loved and secure and where elders may support one another as they age.  Whether solemnized in public ritual or un-witnessed in a private commitment, in a religious ceremony in a sanctuary or in a civil ceremony in front of a judge, a carefully, consciously considered marriage has the potential to be a place of harmony and order through which the world around it may be blessed.

In Richard Rohr’s meditation from The Center for Contemplation and Action this morning, there are reflections  about the lifelong challenge and gift of conscious, committed love, drawing insights from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin”:

“…conscious love leads two lovers beyond themselves toward a greater connectedness with the whole of life. Indeed, two people’s love will have no room to grow unless it develops this larger focus beyond themselves. The larger arc of a couple’s love reaches out toward a feeling of kinship with all of life, what Teilhard de Chardin calls “a love of the universe.” Only in this way can love, as he puts it, “develop in boundless light and power.” (Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1969, 84.)
So the path of love expands in ever-widening circles. It begins at home—by first finding our seat, making friends with ourselves, and discovering the intrinsic richness of our being, underneath all our ego-centered confusion and delusion. As we come to appreciate this basic wholesomeness within us, we find that we have more to give to an intimate partner.
        Further, as a [couple] become[s] devoted to the growth of awareness and spirit in each other, they will naturally want to share their love with others. The new qualities they give birth to—generosity, courage, compassion, wisdom—can extend beyond the circle of their own relationship. These qualities are a couple’s “spiritual child”—what their coming together gives to the world. . . .
From there, a couple’s love can expand still further, as Teilhard suggests. The more deeply and passionately two people love each other, the more concern they will feel for the state of the world in which they live. They will feel their connection with the earth and a dedication to care for this world. . . . Radiating out to the whole of creation is the farthest reach of love and its fullest expression, which grounds and enriches the life of the couple. This is the great love and the great way, which leads to the heart of the universe.  (John Welwood, Journey of the Heart: The Path of Conscious Love (HarperPerennial: 1990), 206-207.)

My hunch is that very few couples who decide to marry actually do it with the intent of becoming a “radiating love” that will affect the world. Sometimes it just happens by virtue of who the couple is -but more often, perhaps, the notion of a committed and growing relationship in behalf of the world may need to be introduced into the consciousness of the couple to be intentionally nourished as part of their commitment to each other. Those of us who have the honor and privilege of walking with couples through the process of preparing for marriage could consider introducing the possibility into their thinking.

My mind often goes back to the ancient relationship between Abraham and Sarah and the Holy One who placed a claim on their lives as an aging couple. 
As the Holy One  commissions them to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house” the commission continues with “I will bless you…you will be a blessing…in you all the families of earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Their lives unfold in some wild and wooly ways as the narrative takes shape, perhaps not the best model for a marriage today - - but the intention in the commission is what is important - as God’s people in the world, they are blessed to be a blessing.  It invokes a certain level of consciousness about the power of love in a relationship to bless all who come into its presence. 

It is the beginning of the height of the traditional wedding season.  May all who enter into the sacred contract of marriage with one another be blessed with the awareness of their potential to bless the world with their love.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, June 14, 2019

I always look forward to this time of year because of my favorite sporting activity. No, it's not the NBA finals nor the competition for the Stanley Cup. And although tennis is probably my first love it's not even the French Open. It's the Scripps Spelling Bee!

Now I realize that a lot of folks wouldn't consider competitive spelling a "sporting" event. But for me it has all the essential characteristics, including the fact that you always find it on ESPN.  This is actually a three day event. There were 562 young people under the age of 15 who participated this year from all over the U.S. and six other countries. 

If you watched the finals this past Thursday evening, you saw history in the making. For the first time ever, the final evening of competition went twenty rounds. Never before in the ninety two years of this event have competitors lasted that long. Think of boxers going twenty rounds. Neither would be left standing! And here's the other historical first. There were eight finishers!

       When we turned on the TV there were sixteen contestants who had weathered the initial competition and were going for the $50,000. prize. Slowly, very slowly, they began to falter. Who wouldn't? In the twenty rounds there was only one word I recognized and knew how to spell; kairos. I had to write down a few of the other words.

What if I gave you the definition, part of speech, origin and pronunciation of these words? You'd be able to spell them, right? How about moazagotl, or anthocyanin, or omphalopsychite or passacaglia? No guessing! This is for $50,000.!  

Those initial sixteen contestants Thursday evening went through ten rounds without missing a word. By the sixteenth round they were eight. When they were still eight in the eighteenth round, history had already been made and Dr. Jacques Bailey (who provides the words, year after year, and was the winner of the contest in 1980) announced that at the end of the twentieth round, all those remaining would be considered winners and receive the first prize.

Let me mention at this point two essential characteristics in this competition of a good sporting event. There was length. Tennis tournaments last more than three days. And on a good day you can have a final match that lasts three and a half hours, or more. Length of competition is often the sign of an intense and exciting sporting event and this year's Bee was long. At one point in the final, one of the eight contestants, instead of asking for part of speech, asked what time it was. When it was over, another mentioned how tired he was. I watched past my bedtime.

      Another characteristic of a classic sporting event is sportsmanship and camaraderie. I've never seen so many high fives between competitors, nor such unrestrained joy with each other when they realized they had all won. Even when the eight who faltered left the stage they were hugged and congratulated by many who had gone before them. In fact, there seemed to be one official hugger, who hugged many as they left and held one of the winners in a long embrace.

You could tell the young spellers were feeling the pressure those last two rounds. It reminded me of the way athletes need to discipline the body to respond appropriately in tense situations. Here the brain needed to be disciplined and calm to keep the adrenaline from forcing a mistake. And the finalists were not anxious just for themselves but for the others as well. It was a group effort, everyone sending energy and support to the final contestants, so they could all say "we did it."

Next year they may need to lower the age for participation to under ten or maybe change it to participants over 65. That would be a sporting event!

On the same day as the Spelling Bee, I watched a video of a young gymnast with autism. Her disability has not kept her from winning meets. The night before, millions watched the young man blind and with autism sing on America's Got Talent.

I'm constantly impressed these days with our young people. If it isn't spellers or singers or gymnasts, it's school strikers. It's Greta Thunberg and the way she has garnered the attention of world leaders (just not in this country). It's the students at Parkland. It's all the ways the young are overcoming obstacles, often assuming responsibility for things their elders have ignored. They are disciplined in mind and body, unafraid to put themselves forward.

A long time ago, someone affirmed the young among us; that they brought with them signs of the Kingdom of God. How joyous it is when competition becomes camaraderie and all eight can be winners.

Carl Kline

Friday, June 7, 2019

Turn it, Turn it, All is within it -- Of Torah, Of Baseball, Of Life In Memory of Bill Buckner

I have found myself pausing reflectively in front of one shelf in my study a number of times recently, ever since hearing of the death of former Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner. In the right hand corner of the shelf there is a small glass case framed in black-stained wood. In the case there is a signed baseball, a few warm words in blue ink before the signature: “To Vic, Happy 60th, Bill Buckner #6.” In truth, the connection I feel with that baseball is more with the person through whom it came to me than with the one who signed it. Through the years, however, I have come to feel that the life teaching of a baseball player and the challenges he faced on and off the field is its own gift. It is a gift whose meaning has come to be interwoven with my love for the one who gave the ball to me and facilitated its signing.

My son, Yossi, was working in New York that summer for the TV program, Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Larry David. One episode was built around Bill Buckner and the one game in his long baseball career for which he is, sadly, most known. On the day of the filming, Yossi’s job was to look after Bill Buckner, picking him up at the airport and taking him wherever he needed to be. Having become friendly during the day, at some point Yossi shared that he would be heading to Boston soon for his father’s sixtieth birthday. And then Yossi asked Bill if he would sign a baseball for me. Yossi ran to the props department and came back with a baseball that Bill Buckner happily signed. The story still makes me smile, even causing me to tear up now as I feel the ballplayer’s warmth.

As I explained in sharing this story as part of a High Holy Day sermon in 5771 in September 2010, Bill Buckner’s story is about much more than baseball and about much more than Bill Buckner. It is about life and about all of us. It is about t’shuva, the way of our turning to each other to make amends, to reweave wholeness, and about the way of our going on the path of life. It is about how we pick up and keep going when things don’t work out quite as we hoped they would. And it is about how we respond to others when they don’t come through quite as we hoped they would.

As some surely remember, and as others have surely heard the much-told tale, it was on October 25, 1986. It was the sixth game of the World Series between the Red Sox and the Mets. Playing in New York, Boston was leading the series three games to two. The game went into extra innings, with the Sox going ahead in the top of the tenth. In the bottom of the tenth, the Mets tied the game. With a runner on third, Mookie Wilson at the plate for New York, a routine ground ball to first, the promise of another opportunity for the Sox. And then it happened. The ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. The runner on third scores and the Mets win. Having been one out away from their first World Series title since 1918,     the Sox lost that game, and the next. Winning the World Series would wait until 2004.

Whether a baseball fan or not, the story of Bill Buckner is for all of us. It is about how we respond to ourselves and to others when an error is made, when the ball goes through our legs or those of another. The fans and the sports media were brutal to Bill Buckner. I start to cry as I think of how his error brought out the worst of people. His was simply an error on the ball field, hardly the only factor that contributed to yet one more season of demise for the Red Sox. The error of Boston fans on the field of life contributed to the near destruction of a life. Bill Buckner continued to play ball for a few more years, retiring after a career that spanned more than twenty years, a career in which he accumulated more total hits than either of the baseball greats, Ted Williams or Joe Dimaggio. Eventually, he and his family moved far enough away from New England to escape the vitriol that continued to be directed at him by fans whose inability to forgive stands as a warning to all of us.

It is the nature of life. Balls go through our legs at the most inopportune time. Mistakes are part of life. Sometimes the stakes are higher and sometimes lower. That is why we need t’shuva, that turning to forgive, to reweave wholeness. In a ballpark conversation once with my youngest daughter, much important “Torah”/teaching to be learned while watching a ballgame, I asked whose responsibility was it to do t’shuva, Bill Buckner’s or the fans’? The answer was clear. The fans’ error was the greater one, the one with the greatest consequence, and the one with the greatest challenge for all of us.

 Asked about the play that defined his career, Buckner said: “It’s an issue society has to figure out, especially when it comes to teaching lessons to children. I realize professional athletes accept some of that responsibility…. But is that what you want to do to the kids, that they shouldn’t try?” It takes courage to try. It takes courage and faith to fail. A question of acceptance and forgiveness, a way of going in life, how do we judge our selves and others when the ball goes through our legs?

Bill Buckner died in the week of the Torah portion called B’chukotai (Lev. 26:3-27:34). I thought about that as I looked at the baseball and read his good wishes to me. The portion offers teaching about how we go, how we walk on the way of life, how we comport our selves in the world. So it opens, im b’chokotai telechu/if you will walk in my statutes…. The Slonimer Rebbe pushes back vociferously against any who say that these words are simply about fulfilling commandments. He says that these words are about going in the way and spirit of the Torah/al halicha ba’derech v’ru’ach ha’torah. The Slonimer points out that there are many situations encountered in life for which the Torah does not offer specific guidance, a specific mitzvah/commandment. That is when we need to know and be guided by the way and spirit of Torah, a way that encourages us to walk in harmony with God and with people, a way that begins with a gentle breath upon the water, the first expression of God’s hope for us in birthing a world.

        Hoping that we will learn to walk with each other, God says a few verses later, I will walk among you/v’hit’halachti b’to’cha’chem and will be God to you, and you will be a people to me…. Rashi brings a beautiful rabbinic reframing of that verse, God telling the people: atayel imachem b’gan eden k’echad mi’kem/I will walk with you in the Garden of Eden as one with you and you shall not be shaken…. A way is modeled for us, a way by which we shall walk together, giving strength and understanding to each other, adults and children, that none shall feel shaken by mistakes or be afraid to try, walking together toward wholeness.

        As I stood in front of the shelf in my study this week, gazing at the baseball signed in blue ink, reading its warm words, I thought of the teaching that makes Bill Buckner’s memory a blessing for all of us. Carefully turning the baseball in my hand, feeling the smoothness of its surface punctuated by the roughness of its stitching, melodic modes and moods, seasons of life, I imagined how he might have turned it, perhaps a bit wistfully, before signing it. In the turning of a baseball, I thought of a teaching of the rabbis concerning Torah, hafoch ba, hafoch ba d’kula ba/turn it, turn it, all is within it… It is true of Torah, it is true of baseball, and it is true of life. In the turning of life, we know for a certainty that there will be for each of us high points and low, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tribulations. Sometimes the ball will go through our legs, and sometimes through someone else’s. The only question is of our response, whether we shall further compound the pain, or if in the fullness of Eden’s vision we shall walk together, responding with compassion for ourselves and for others. It is a teaching of Torah and of a warmly signed baseball in a small glass case, the giver of the ball and its teaching having become one, and of the love that joins us on the path of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein