Friday, February 15, 2019

Listening: A Meditation on Acts16:9-10

     I was recently invited to be the visiting preacher in a congregation in my community. The text  for the day was Acts 16: 9 - 10, which reads: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man from Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when he had seen this vision, sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The text goes on to say that “Immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
I do not know why this particular passage was selected, or why the theme “Listening,” was given, but I told the congregation that I thought they had picked one of the most important, timely and controversial passages possible. I commended them for their boldness.
     When I was a child in Sunday school and later in seminary, I learned that the Christian movement began as a Jewish sect centered in Jerusalem. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul, the champion of the liberals, successfully argued against Jewish Christians that Gentiles could become Christians without converting at Judaism first. From that moment on the Christian movement spread throughout the Mediterranean and far beyond. There was no central plan. Followers of the Way of Jesus went to Africa, India, Asia, but in the New Testament account we have the impression that Paul was a central figure in spreading the message of the gospel. According to our tradition, Paul, more than anyone else, was responsible for spreading the message of the gospel beyond the enclave of Jerusalem.
     In these verses from the Book of Acts, Paul is in modern day Turkey when he receives a vision of a man, an angel some would say, standing on the shores of Macedonia calling to him and saying: “Come over and help us.” Paul and his colleagues immediately pack their bags and go to Macedonia. According to the tradition, this visit is the first time the Christian message is brought to Europe. Rome eventually replaces Jerusalem as the center of the Christian movement, and Europe becomes the center of the Christian faith.
     Fast forward to 1492 when Columbus sailed the oceans blue. Christian kings and popes believed that they heard the Angel of Macedonia calling again. This time they wedded Paul’s vision and the summons to “come over and help us” with the Great Commission found at the end of the gospel according to Matthew, where the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age” (Mt. 28: 19 -20). In other words, the church claims for itself the mission of spreading Christianity around the world to the end of time.
     Fortified with these texts from Matthew and Acts, for the last 400 or 500 years Euro-American Christians have claimed that the mission of the church is follow the example of Paul, heed the call of the Angel of Macedonia and the words of Jesus, and go forth to civilize and Christianize primitive people, pagans and heathens, who are locked in darkness. When Christian missionaries went to the Hawaiian Islands and when they went to India they went to civilize and Christianize people whom they decided needed their help. When missionaries came to North America they said that the indigenous people were “wild animals” and “beasts.”
     For all these long centuries the mission focus of the Christian movement has been to civilize and Christianize non-Christians. It has been a history of conquest justified in large measure by these two texts: the Great Commission to go into all the world and baptize everyone until the end of the ages, and by the vision of the angel of Macedonia standing on the shores of the New World calling to Christians to “come over and help us.”
      It is important for us to know this history. Even as it makes us uncomfortable, we need to know it. When we see white politicians wearing black face and Ku Klux Klan hoods, when we witness white supremacy, we need to know that there is a religious subtext to all of this.
A significant number of people, learning of this history, have said: “If this is what Christianity is, and if this is what the church is about, count me out. I’m done with it.” They are leaving the church because of its hypocrisy. But it isn’t that simple. We cannot just close the book, blow out the candle, ring the bell and walk away. Missionaries who came to civilize and Christianize non-Christians were acting in good faith. They believed that they were doing the right thing. There are Christians today who still believe that this is the right thing to do.
     Those of us who want to change the story have to come to terms with this history--which is our history. Scott Momaday, a Native American author and scholar, says in one of his essays that “white Americans are willing to take on the burdens of oppressed people everywhere, but we are decidedly unwilling to divest ourselves of the false assumptions that impede our good intentions.” We need to divest ourselves of these false assumptions. In order to do this, we need to go back to texts like this passage in the Book of Acts and reinterpret it and give it fresh meaning. Let me share with you what I mean.
     The Christian movement in Paul’s time was not Rome’s favorite religion. In the first and second centuries there were serious religious persecutions of Christians, so much so that a second century church leader named Tertullian was able to say that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Paul himself was in and out of jail many times. When he writes in Second Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4: 8-9), it’s not hyperbole. Christians in Corinth and Christians in Macedonia knew first-hand what Paul was saying.  
      The Macedonians were not asking Paul to help them become more like the Romans. They were part of a resistance movement and they wanted Paul to help to organize a resistance movement to the Roman Empire. The early church was a genuinely counter-cultural movement. That’s why it was persecuted.
The Book of Acts tells the story of Pentecost--people heard the gospel in their own languages. No one was forced to learn Hebrew, or Latin, or Greek. No one was forced to attend a Christian boarding school or abandon their native language and learn English as the language of the civilized. They spoke in their native languages. They kept their own names. Their cultures were honored.
In Acts, Chapter 4, verse 32, we read: “The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things he possessed were his own, but they had everything in common.” The measure of the economy was the elimination of poverty and want. That’s what this text means. The early church did not want any of their members to be homeless or to go hungry. They wanted to create an economy as if people mattered. And they organized themselves and their communities accordingly.
In the letter to Galatians, Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free; neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). The classic strategy of divide and conquer  does not work if people refuse to recognize the divisions. Over and over again in his letters Paul reminds us, “In Christ you are a new creation.” The mission of the church, the reason Paul went to Macedonia, was not to civilize and Christianize heathens and wild beasts. He went there to organize a resistance movement, to show the world that there is a better way to live.
     In the complexity of our times, I submit, that the angel of Macedonia is calling us to be part of such a movement. Politicians may wear black face or revert to racist language and images, but the reality is that interracial families and communities are here to stay. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is hot, and some of our leaders seem intent on stoking fires of fear of Muslims, or Jews, or Gays, or whomever is the next target, but the reality is that people are coming together in communities all across the land to meet each other and talk with each other so that we can find ways to work together to make our communities better places for everyone to live.
     This past week I’ve met with union organizers who are working in our largest grocery chain to expand union membership and combat wage theft, job mis-classification, and other forms of unfair labor practices.  Only a few years ago we hardly heard any public discussion about poverty, or debt, or health care. Today these topics are being talked about at kitchen tables in lunch counters everywhere.
      So today I am asking you to think of the text in a new way. The angel of Macedonia is calling you.          
Find your passion. Get engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. Find out what you can do to make this community a better place for everyone. This is the word of our tradition for today.

Rev. David Hansen, contributor
Biblical references are from the RSV.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Continuing Saga

The second cataract has been attended to.  The month long discipline of eye drops morning and evening has ended.  My  vision has been pronounced 20/20 and except for some magnification for reading and working on the computer I am free of wearing glasses for the first time in 35 years. 

   The clarity of vision, the depth and brightness of color and the amount of light I enjoy has not come without a period of adjustment.  Even though pronounced “healed” by the eye doctor, my eyes have been “aching”. I  feel as though they are working over-time.  I need to rest my eyes periodically.  It occurs to me that all the miniscule muscles and nerves that work to allow and control the  light that enters my eyes have to adjust to their new work load.  (I am not at all sure that this is scientifically so, however, but it seems reasonable.)

So, of course I am set to wondering how it is for people who have seriously impaired vision or who have not had vision at all and then are able to have their vision restored or given to them through medical and surgical miracles.   The miracle of clear vision is not without its downsides.  Clear seeing can be challenging and sometimes painful.

The Gospel of John (9:1-41) tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth - - using the technology of the age - a bit of spit and a bit of dust from the earth mixed to form a salve for the man’s eyes.  The man’s sight is given to him.  He only gets to celebrate for a very short time before he becomes the center of heavy theological discourse about the nature of his healing and, of course, the nature of the one who healed him.  He doesn’t get to enjoy unmitigated pleasure with his new found sight for long.

As the story comes to its conclusion, Jesus utters some challenging words to his listeners: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’  your sin remains.”

More and more, I am understanding this story as telling me something about the responsibility that comes with increasing consciousness of life around me.  As I become more and more aware of the state of the world, I also become more accountable for my role in it.

    So I am again in a state of pondering the meaning of the latest revelations of racism and sexual misconduct coming out of the state of Virginia - and the “zero tolerance” response coming from the Democratic Party. As Jesus demonstrated elsewhere in the sacred texts at the near stoning of a woman caught in adultery,  it is all too easy and reasonable to point the finger at the “other” until we find the same behaviors in ourselves.

As a people, we are at a different level of  awareness than we were a few of years ago.  In some sense, the spit and dust have been applied to our eyes - - a terribly messy business at best.  We can’t go back to turning a “blind eye” toward behavior that was once easily hidden or tolerated or denied. 

The line from the Ray Stevens song “Everything is Beautiful” keeps slipping into consciousness: There is none so blind as he who will not see.  It harks back to a quote from John Heywood, 16th century philosopher: The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.  Heywood’s articulation has even deeper roots in the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings to Judah: Hear this, O foolish and senseless people , who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears but do not hear. (Jeremiah 5:21)

        There is a story in the sacred texts of Christianity of a fellow named Saul whose job it was to search out new Christians and persecute them.  As the story goes, he was on his way to the city of Damascus to carry out his mission when he had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that literally knocked him off his horse.  He came out of the encounter blinded and needed to be led from place to place by someone else.  As a result of prayer by Ananias, a member of the Christian community, Saul was flooded by what the early Christians referred to as The Holy Spirit, and “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” (Acts 9:18).  The "sight" he had post encounter was not the same as he had prior to falling off his horse.  It resulted in a change of direction and a new identity.

I wonder if that is the grand and overarching process that we are in - a process of being knocked off our horses - - of having the scales removed from our eyes -- of having our eyes opened, our cataracts removed.  The question that remains is “How will we be responsible with our growing clarity of vision?  Could we handle a new direction? A new identity?"
It all remains to be seen.    

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Healing Imperative of Moral Anxiety

I was taken aback by the framing of the question, puzzled at its puzzlement to the point of being incredulous. The answer seemed obvious, held in the very web of factors presented to us. It was at a recent gathering of rabbis, whose programmatic title was: “The Age of Anxiety: What Rabbis Need to Know.” Clearly, anxiety is a serious mental health challenge, one that will always need caring and skilled intervention toward addressing the internal and personal dynamics of one’s own experience and chemistry. While this was part of the program’s focus, there was another dimension, and it was in the approach to that other dimension that I felt so troubled.

       Referring first to the high incidence of anxiety among Americans today, the introductory material we received then went on to say: “Yet, ironically, we have fewer reasons to be anxious today than ever: Advances in technology, economics, medicine, and other fields make us more productive, connected, affluent, and privileged than any period in history. Why is the modern world such a ripe context for the development of emotional disorders, and more importantly what can we do about it?

      I sat at the edge of my seat for much of the talk, feeling distress, and, indeed, anxiety, as the presenter offered the same framing as I had read in the written materials. In the positing of a question that utterly ignored what is right in front of us, I nearly screamed, “the world is falling apart, how shall we not be anxious?!” It seemed so clear, that for so many people there is a painful awareness of the jagged edges of external reality as felt within themselves, that cuts to the quick of every tender, caring heart, of every heart that holds the world’s pain as its own. How not to feel anxious, for people and for the world, and for the fate of future generations that hangs in the balance?

The presenter asked, “how many of you know someone who lives without plumbing, or who has never been on an airplane?” Struggling to contain my feelings, I wondered, does it really matter if I don’t know anyone personally without plumbing or without the worldly experience that was somehow assumed to mitigate anxiety? I thought about all of those who live in wretched poverty in this country and in so many places in the world, all part of the human family. I thought of all the migrants suffering at our southern border, their pain inflicted in my name. I thought about the intrinsic lines of connection that join us to each other, of the teaching that emerges from the very beginning of Torah, that all people are created in the image of God. How can I not feel anxiety in knowing how many in my extended human family live lives that are so filled with pain and struggle?

When the time for questions finally came, I couldn’t believe that what seemed so obvious was not addressed. As time went by and my hand seemed unnoticed, I felt like I would burst. Near to the end, as someone else pointed to my raised hand, I finally shared my distress, telling of the anxiety, as it were, that I felt in the disconnection between inner and outer worlds. I challenged the speaker’s suggestion of privilege as a bulwark against anxiety, pointing to it, rather, as the very cause for such collective anxiety. With privilege in regard to wealth and justice, to health and opportunity, to happiness and fulfillment, we come to be divided from each other as human beings. 
Privilege separates, even from those who are near and dear to us, each one caught up in their own pursuits. In the grand scheme, the environmental disasters that threaten the earth’s future are a consequence of privilege, of living without constraints, of living as though we can do whatever we want and take from the earth and others whatever will satisfy our own presumed needs. I thought of all those who feel so deeply the pain of the world, who struggle with such anxiety of conscience to respond with awareness of our own privilege to the profound disparities in relation to others. It is privilege itself that becomes the source of our existential anxiety.

Feeling the pain of others as a source of anxiety runs deep in Jewish tradition. In a very different context, not as a matter of privilege, but in regard to an intrinsic human bond that is frayed by privilege, we are challenged in at least two settings in the Torah portion read during the week of the gathering, the portion called B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16), in regard to how we respond to the suffering of others. When the Israelites have crossed the sea and are standing on the far shore watching the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the returning waters, they couldn’t sing at first, the verses suggesting that they stood in dumbfound silence. A powerful Musar teaching notes the silence before song could arise:

          ‘And God saved Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore.’ They had not yet uttered song, they had not sung their redemption song nor sung concerning the downfall of the Egyptians, for they were greatly distressed; for all this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy when seeing a great camp of human beings strewn upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the dying?

From much longer ago than nineteenth century ethical teaching, in the Haftorah of that week from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31), the Philisitine general Sisera is killed, one who plundered, raped, and destroyed. Near the end of the Haftorah his mother waits for her son’s return, looking through the window, coming to realize that he will not return. The rabbis likened the sound of her weeping to the weeping sound of the shofar’s broken notes. From the weeping of Sisera’s mother, vat’yabev em sis’ra/and the mother of Sisera wept (Judges 5:28), Rosh Hashannah came to be called by its least familiar name, Yom Yabavah/Day of Weeping, honoring the universal cry of one mother whose son will not return.

Each of these cases offers an extreme instance of identification with the pain of others, even of those who would harm us. So sensitized to the breadth of human life, we are meant to feel anxiety at all harm done to others. In doing all that we can to repair the world in which we live is a path to our own wholeness. Activism is therapeutic, not only in its successes on behalf of others, but for ourselves. We are strengthened and given meaning in the empowering realization that we can do something about all that weighs upon our hearts. Holding in our hearts those without plumbing and benefits of privilege, remembering those who are knocking at America’s doors, those who suffer war and famine, holding with love the earth herself, so may our own souls and psyches be made whole, as we learn to breath through and act upon the healing imperative of moral anxiety.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 25, 2019

A DarknessThat Can Be Felt

              Each week a few good friends gather for a potluck supper and a glimpse at the part of the scriptures that will be taught during services at the synagogue on the following Shabbat.  A couple of weeks ago our potluck was pretty luxurious:melt-in-your mouth brisket, kasha varnishkes, savory roasted squash and brussels sprouts, a green salad and a delicate pastry filled with apples and dark cherries   Well fortified with all these treats, we plunged into  “darkness” - - the ninth of the ten plagues that were visited on Egypt.

Using a commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we pondered his question: “What is this plague of darkness doing here (in the order of the ten)?  We discussed the symbolic significance of the various earlier plagues and the notion that while they increased in severity as the narrative progressed some of them were mostly a nuisance.   Darkness might fit into the “nuisance” category.  Apparently there were frequent dust storms in the region where the narrative is set that often created a temporary darkness - a nuisance - to which people became accustomed, knowing it would blow itself out within a day or two. We explored with Rabbi Sacks the difference between “signs and wonders” and drew closer to his conclusion that the plague of a “darkness that can be felt” was less a wonder and more a sign - a “coded communication” as Rabbi Sacks suggests.

The obliteration of the sun, causing a “darkness that can be felt” might be interpreted as a sign that the God of Israel was more powerful than Ra, the sun god of Egypt.   But Rabbi Sacks argues that rather than an expression of Divine power over the sun, the plague represents "...the rejection by God of a civilization that turned one man, Pharaoh, into an absolute ruler (son of the sun god)with the ability to enslave other human beings - and of a culture that could tolerate the murder of children because that is what Ra himself did."

While we try to stay close to the text, it is inevitable that we would also try to see how it informs and addresses, and perhaps, even parallels life today.  With the irresponsible wielding of so much power at the highest levels of government, with the lives of young children at risk on our borders, with the callous disregard for the well being of  hundreds of thousands of federal employees (not to mention the population of the entire country being adversely affected in myriad ways yet to be calculated), it is hard not to see the warnings, the signs, the coded communication in the sacred texts.

           There was a total eclipse of the moon the other night.  The sky here was overcast so the eclipse was not visible, but there was a quality of darkness that night that was almost palpable - a darkness that could be felt.

Rabbi Sacks draws the connections.  Placed elsewhere in the lineup of the 10 plagues, the darkness might be absorbed as one more nuisance plague.  But placed where it is, leading up to the tenth plague that results in Pharaoh’s final acquiescence to the  demand to let Israel go into freedom, the darkness that can be felt does, indeed, become a coded communication for the generations to follow: "The ninth plague was a divine communication that said: there is not only physical darkness, but also moral darkness.  The best test of a civilization is to see how it treats its children, its own and others’.  In an age of broken families, neglected and impoverished children, and worse - the use of children as instruments of war - that is a lesson we still need to learn."

It is hard to escape the truth of the challenge - - we are a people who sit in a moral darkness that can be felt.  The sacred stories hold the coded communication for our liberation.   The prophetic voice from a bit farther along in history champions hope - “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light...”  We do not have the luxury of just sitting in this moral darkness that can be felt.  Elsewhere in the sacred texts there is a call to us to be “light for the world.”

Ever since our observations of MLK Day, an often repeated line keeps echoing in my brain: “The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.”   At the moment, that arc seems shrouded in darkness - - waiting for us to be the light that will illuminate it - the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, January 18, 2019


Let's talk about walls. We might as well. It seems all the rage these days. Grown men and women fighting over why, whether, when and where, how high and how much. All this while thousands of their own suffer new affronts and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free simply huddle, hungry and short of breath.

               Let's talk about walls, like the one in China. Built and rebuilt over centuries, it houses many of it's builders. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction in 221 B.C., the labor force was mostly soldiers and convicts. As many as 400,000 died in the effort and their bones are part of the barrier. At different points in history the wall was breached, rebuilt, extended to as far as 13,000 miles. At one point the same peoples were occupying the land on both sides of the wall. 

Now, of course, The Great Wall of China is primarily a tourist attraction, as we live in an age where people can fly.

Or let's talk about the Berlin Wall. An affront to human decency and democracy, this wall lasted from 1961 to 1989. The wall was built by East Germany to protect their population from "fascist" elements from the West, who were bent on destroying the will of the East German people to build a socialist state. The official name was the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, in German, Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. This wall was a concrete barrier with a death strip, a no man's land, where many fleeing the East for freedom lost their lives. 

     West Germans called it the Wall of Shame and it came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War. It walled people in as much or more than it walled others out. The pictures are still in my memory of the celebration and joy as the wall was torn down, piece by piece, by reunited families and a reunited country. 

Or what about the walls of Jericho? I love that story! It demonstrates the problem with walls. Once you wall others out, you also wall yourself in! "Now Jericho was shut up from within and from without because of the people of Israel; none went out and none came in."
It also demonstrates the fragility of walls. Walk around them seven times, blowing the trumpets on the last pass and they will tumble of their own accord. Watching the story of Jericho on Veggie Tales, my young son was always fascinated when the wall fell. He would want to play that scene over and over again. I'm certain he must have learned the secret of felling a wall, he watched that scene so many times.

Then I think of Robert Frost and his poem "Mending Wall," "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." It's not just the weather that eventually fells the stones, but it's the hunters wanting to out the rabbits for their dogs. And although Frost's neighbor is convinced "good fences make good neighbors," Frost is not convinced. Maybe if there were cows. But his apple trees are not going to eat his neighbor's pines.

"I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old time savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, not of woods only and the shade of trees. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense."

As the debate in our country continues and millions suffer from lack of resolution, we might consider the history and lessons of walls. What is their intention and what is the emotional and political freight they carry?

For Christians who take the Bible seriously, they might consider all of the references to welcoming the stranger in Scripture. And since so much of the emotional energy for building walls is fear, they might consider the passages in first John like, "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear." 

Still, I'm sure we will continue to hear from the likes of Reverend Jeffress who claims, “The Bible says even Heaven itself is gonna have a wall around it. Not everybody is going to be allowed in. So if walls are immoral, then God is immoral.”

             Emperors and autocrats will always want to build walls, to wall their subjects in and their enemies out. It's as true of an autocratic and judgmental God as it is of the human kind. But for me, "there's something that doesn't love a wall." One could simply be rational and recognize that these days, we can climb and tunnel, and we can fly, like the Army Special Forces guy who brought 70 pounds of cocaine into the country on a troop transport. Or, in a more positive frame of mind, perhaps that something that doesn't love a wall is love of neighbor. Or perhaps it's fundamentally a love of freedom.   

Rev. Carl Kline

Friday, January 11, 2019

Created in the Image of God's Name

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

 In the week that we began to read from the second book of Torah, the Book of Exodus in English, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names in Hebrew, I found myself at the Israel Book Shop for the afternoon prayers called Mincha. Davening/praying among the basement stacks of holy books, as I completed my own prayer, I paused to look around and take in the aura cast by the titles that surrounded me. 
There was a box of books at my feet, its volumes arranged horizontally, their front covers facing up. I saw that it was a set of the Mishne Torah, the legal code of Moses’ Maimonides, the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, Moses son of Maimon (1135-1204). I bent down where I stood and quietly picked up the top volume and randomly opened it.

I am not sure if the great sigh I let out was one more of amazement or of comfort, whether it was heard by those still praying as distraction or as amen to their prayers. I had opened the volume called Sefer Hamadah/the Book of Knowledge. I had opened to chapter six in the section called Hilchos Yisodei Hatorah/the Laws of the Foundations of Torah. I began to read at the beginning of chapter six, laws one and two, Rambam’s warning of culpability for anyone who destroys the name of God: kol ha’m’abed shem min ha’shemot/anyone who destroys a name from the holy and pure names through which the Blessed Holy One is called…. Rambam then goes on to enumerate seven such names from among the seventy names by which God is called in Hebrew, seven that are most holy and pure: the most holy name formed of the letters yud hey vav hey, known as the shem ha’m’forash/the ineffable name, the name that is not to be pronounced, known also as the shem ha’vaya/the Name of Being; and so too the names el, and eloha, and elokim, and ehiyeh, and shaddai, and tz’va’ot.

                I found myself trembling there among the books and among the prayers wafting around me. Entering the Book of Names in the cycle of reading Torah, thoughts swirled within me, feeling so deeply for those suffering at our southern border, their names unknown to us except for the dead children; feeling so deeply for the homeless who live and die on our streets, their names unknown to us as too often we quickly pass them by; feeling so deeply for children of war and poverty wherever they are, their names unknown to us, yet neighbors all, each of these with a name lovingly given by their parents. To open to that page in that moment in that week, God’s amen to my prayers, as though offering answer and insight to an unasked question, a gentle touch upon my brow. I realized in that moment, that Rambam’s warning, each one who destroys a name/kol ha’m’abed shem…, is as much about the destroying of human names and the taking of identities as it is about destroying God’s name.

In the first portion of the second book, the first portion in the Book of Names, after Moses has encountered God at the burning bush and is given his life’s mission, told to go back to Egypt and bring God’s word to Pharaoh, let my people go, Moses asks God a simple question. Worried that the people will not believe him, that he has not been given such a task, Moses asks God what he should say when the people ask of God, mah sh’mo/what is his name? At that time, God conveyed a three-word name, ehiyeh asher ehiyeh/I will be that which I will be. Then, as though to make it simpler, God tells Moses to tell the people that he was sent by ehiyeh/I will be. In these profound names is the ever-present possibility of becoming, and so for us who are created in God’s image.

In the very first line of the weekly Torah portion called Va’era (Ex. 6:2-9:35), second in the Book of Names, God shares with Moses another name, God’s most holy name, the name formed of the Hebrew letters yud hey vav hey. They are simply the letters of the verb to be, and yet they are not the word “to be,” simply the letters, not a formal word at all, therefore a word without gender, without time, simply the shem havaya/the Name of Being.

I trembled when I read the words of the Rambam, not for fear of destroying God’s name, something in regard to which I am quite careful. I keep a box in my study in which to place worn out holy books and loose pages that contain God’s holy names, all later to be lovingly buried in the way of those who once held the books and encountered God upon the page. It is easy to take care that we not harm God’s name, and, indeed, if we do, God is forgiving. It is precisely the type of sin between a person and God for which on Yom Kippur we find forgiveness. It was not about God for whom I trembled. I trembled with the thought of what we are to learn about human beings, about people, each one created in the image of God. We are not only created in the image of God, but in the image of God’s most holy name.          

               When arranged vertically, the letters yud hey vav hey represent the human form. The little yud at the top is the head. The first hey, a horizontal line with a vertical line coming down from each of its ends, forms the shoulders and arms. The straight vav forms the spine. The second hey forms the pelvis and legs. To destroy God’s name is to destroy the human form. To destroy a human being is to destroy God’s most holy name as it is carried in the world.

I thought of the very first book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a book of poetry written in Yiddish when he was a young man. The book’s title tells of the fiercely tender love for God and people that would fill all of Rabbi Heschel’s books and all of his ways in the world in the years to come. That slim volume is called, Der Shem Ha’m’forash – Mentsh/The Ineffable Name – Human.

           Every human being has a name, a bond with God and with people. Every human being carries in their human form God’s name of being and becoming. Every human being is holy. There in the bookshop, amidst holy books and holy prayers, I trembled as I read Rambam’s warning not to destroy God’s name. So may we tremble for all of the bearers of God’s name who are denigrated, denied, and, God forbid, destroyed. 

Each person’s own name gives unique expression to the way of their being called in God’s name. With love and with 
compassion, may we ask of all whom we encounter, just as Moses asked of God, how are you called, what is your name?

Friday, January 4, 2019

These are the Names of the Children

First, to pause and say their names, that by their names they be counted among us:
Jakelin Caal Maquin
Felipe Gomez-Alonso


Two children who died at our southern border, two children in the custody of the United States, two children for whom we weep, for whom we are responsible; two children who should have been filled with life, with joy, with curiosity, their days unfolding before them. Two children whose parents could not bear the impossibility of life without hope and so for their children set out into the desert toward the mirage of the promised land and the hope of which they dreamed. Eight-year old Felipe died on Christmas morning, a day that for him should have been filled with magic and delight. As one child of the Holocaust is easier to embrace than all Six Million at once, the tears come so freely for these two children whose names are Jakelin and Felipe, age seven and eight, two children whose names are now known among all the nameless and numberless.

               Dispensing with names and identities, border authorities determined that numbers would suffice. A recent photograph from the border could only make us gasp in disbelief, to scream in horror, numbers written upon the forearms of old and young, human beings reduced to a number. If not a tattoo, the permanent markers to remind of the drawings these children should have been making, of the imaginations that should have been given play and expression. Perhaps, for those who live, these shall be their drawings, images of all they have seen transposed some day from head and heart to hand, all that they have seen to be committed to drawings and childlike poetry and prose, if only artist and their work survive to tell the tale. I think of the children of Terezin, whose art I saw last summer upon the walls of the barracks where they lived and dreamed their dreams, signing their holy work with their names.

       As we begin the second book of the Torah, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names, it is in its first portion, Sh’mot/the Portion of Names (Ex. 1:1-6:1), that our enslavement begins. The promise of hope is carried in the book’s English calling, the Book of Exodus. The book and the portion begins with the telling of names, v’eleh sh’mot b’nei yisrael ha’ba’im mitzrayma/these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt. It is in the present tense, not only about them and then, but about us and now, and so for the whole Torah. The portion is filled with names and naming, an emphasis on names when names are about to be taken away by the oppressor. That is the teaching at the outset of this journey into the depths. If we are to survive in order to make the journey into the desert in time to come, we need to hold on to our names, to our identities, to who we are.

Our commentators remind us to hold on to who we are through time, in all of our travels and travails across time and space. Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (15th-16th century Italy) teaches so simply of the link between names and survival: sh’mo shel adam hu atzmi’yuto/a person’s name is their essence. Of the opening verse of the Book of Names, Rashi (11th century France) wonders, as we do, why we had the very same words near the end of the first book, B’reishit/Genesis, when Jacob and his whole family come down into Egypt (Gen. 46:8), these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt…. Rashi offers a beautiful insight, teaching that from the earlier verse we learn that they were counted in their lifetimes through their names/she’m’na’en b’chai’ye’hem bish’motam. And then he goes on to tell of what we learn from the later verse, u’m’na’em achar mitatan/and so they are counted after their deaths. Having explained why the repetition of a verse, Rashi poignantly tells of deeper meaning, l’hodi’ah chibatam/to make known that they are beloved, so in death as in life. Our ancestors were numbered by their names and by their names made to count. They are remembered and beloved by their names, as they were in life, so in death. Through our names, and all that our names stand for, we survive.

                 When names are taken away, replaced by numbers, identities are destroyed. It is the way of the oppressor. It is harder to notice unique identities, to notice people as human beings when they are part of an amorphous mass, whether as slaves or as part of a migrant caravan. And then to give them numbers at the border, lest we realize they are real human beings with names and identities. It is what Woody Guthrie sang of so long ago in “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.” He wrote the song in 1948, telling of a plane that crashed in California while carrying twenty-eight migrant farmers back to Mexico. Only in recent years were these fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers identified by name, no longer to be known only as “deportees:”

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”

Helping us to see our own story as a paradigm, helping us to feel the pain of others through our own pain, to honor the preciousness of each one’s name, a powerfully beautiful midrash teaches: A person has three names/sh’losha shemot yesh ba’adam, one that God calls them, adam/human, one by which their mother and father calls them, and one by which they call themself…. It is the name by which God calls us, adam/human, that reminds us that every human is precious in the eyes of God and so should each one be in our eyes. Other namings are added in a beautiful song by the Israeli singer, Chava Albershtein. We are named, she sings, by our deeds, by the natural world around us, by our work, and by those who love us and those who hate us, by the sea, and by the seasons of a year. And in the end, she sings, each person has a name… that is given to them by their death/l’chol ish yesh shem… v’natan lo moto.

 Beloved in life and so in death, we remember them by their names, as given to them by God, by their parents, by themselves, and now by their deaths, their characters only beginning to be shaped. Saying their names, we count them among us and make their memories a blessing:

Jakelin Caal Maquin
  Felipe Gomez-Alonso

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein