Friday, May 17, 2019

Letting the Light Come In



            One of the most special moments of the Jewish week is Havdalah time. It is a simple gathering, celebrated most often in the home, marked by wine, sweet spices, and a gracefully braided candle of many wicks. The word means to distinguish, as in to separate. I prefer to think of Havdalah, however, as marking a bridge between Shabbos time and weekday time. More importantly, it is a bridge between the Sabbath that has just ended and the envisioned day that is all Shabbos, yom she’kulo Shabbos. I came to a new insight recently through the help of the Slonimer Rebbe and, even more, the help of all of the Thursday morning coffee shop Torah seekers with whom I learn. I found myself reframing a Havdallah custom of my own that I have followed for so many years. Even as I look ahead to Shabbos, I find myself also looking ahead to the bittersweet moment of Havdallah, waiting to bring in real time new insight into the embrace of the prayerfully familiar.

It is customary to do something upon saying a blessing, to at least symbolically join action with intention. At Havdallah, we sip the wine that marks the joy of Shabbos, joy that we hope will one day fill the earth and touch every heart, each one free to rejoice in their portion, free and unafraid. We smell the sweet spices and imagine the sweetness of Shabbos infusing the world all around, sweetness gently opening every heart, tenderness revealed from deep within. As in lighting the Shabbos candles with which this day apart begins, perhaps it would be enough, dayenu, simply to behold the light of the braided Havdalah candle, simply to take in the flame and its meaning, a flame that is fuller for its rising from many wicks interwoven, many flames become as one. In order to do something beyond the act of seeing, beyond beholding, there is a custom to extend one’s hands with the palms up, then to turn the fingers down and to see the light illumine one’s fingernails.

I have never been satisfied with that custom, never having found similarly deep meaning in examining my fingernails as in the customs associated with the other items. The candle itself is filled with meaning, the interweaving of wicks reminding of the greater light to be raised up when the many are joined as one. Indeed, we realize in making Havdallah that only by so joining together shall we get to the day that is all Shabbos. Working together remains the great challenge, our separation from each other a barrier that can block out the light. So too, the depth of pain in the world all around us and in our own lives or the lives of those close to us can become a barrier to seeing the light as it rises from the many wicks of the Havdallah candle.

          At some point, no longer remembering when or how it came to be, I simply held up my hands as though, God forbid, to block the light of the Havdalah candle. And then I opened my fingers, just a little at first, and then wider and wider, allowing the light to come though, then turning my hands down and allowing the dark and light of life shadows to dance upon the palms of my hands. That remains my custom each week, at that moment of transition and bridging, pausing to behold the light of Shabbos, allowing it to shine through all of the barriers that beset us, in the world and in our own lives. It is a moment when light truly shines through brokenness because we allow it to. It is a moment in which rays of hope point, nevertheless for all that besets us, toward the day that is all Shabbos, time of Mashi’ach/Messiah, time of swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks.

          The weekly Torah portion, Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23), is set amidst so much pain, so far from that time of wholeness. As the saga of Yosef and his brothers unfolds, a family is torn apart. Thrown into a pit by his brothers, Yosef is drawn out by a passing caravan of merchants and is brought down into Egypt and sold as a slave. The eldest brother, Reuven, had planned to rescue Yosef and return him to his grief-stricken father. Judah had sought to save Yosef with less magnanimity, suggesting that the brothers themselves sell him as a slave, thus to derive some profit rather than to kill him. After the incident at the pit and the beginning of Yosef’s cruel journey, there is an interlude in the saga that will soon be resumed. Yehuda goes off to find a wife. That mysterious telling begins with the words, va’y’hi ba’et ha’hi/and it came to pass at that time… (Gen. 38:1).

The words are relatively straightforward, referring to that span of time in which Yehuda takes leave of his brothers and goes off on his own journey. The rabbis are drawn to that simple phrase, however, looking beyond the obvious and asking, “what came to pass at that time?” And so they fill in the blanks and suggest what was happening at that time: the tribes were engaging with the sale of Yosef, and Yosef was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, and Ya’akov was engaged with sackcloth and fasting, and Yehudah was engaged with seeking a wife, and the Holy Blessed One was engaged – creating the light of the Messiah/boreh oro shel melech ha’mashi’ach -- va’y’hi ba’et ha’hi/and it came to pass at that time… (B’reishit Rabbah 85:1).

In the strange unfolding of Yehudah’s tormented journey, he does find a wife, and the light of the Messiah is imperceptibly sown. Of three sons with his wife, the first two die, followed then by the death of his wife. Each son had been married to Tamar, to whom he had promised his third son in due time, a promise reneged upon, fearing lest the younger one should die as well. Going off again, seeking comfort this time, Yehudah has an affair with a prostitute, who, unbeknownst to him, is in fact his twice-widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar.
Discerning glimmerings of light beyond, through choreography meant to insure an enduring bond to the family, albeit through the father, Tamar gives birth to twin sons. One is named Peretz, meaning “breach,” and the other is named “Zerach,” meaning “ray of light.” Through the breach, light will shine. It is the light of the Messiah that God was preparing, for with Peretz, as enumerated at the end of the Book of Ruth, begins the line of David, from which will come the Mashi’ach. Through the cracks of a family’s shattering shines the light of redemption.

      From the midrash that imagines what came to pass at that time, the Slonimer Rebbe draws from its themes of national and collective redemption to help us each see the light that shines through the struggles of our own lives. He teaches that before there can be new blossoming there needs to be furrows into which seed can be sown. Looking to the painful context in which we here encounter Yosef and his family, the Slonimer himself wrestles, as we do, and suggests that the cracks in the life of this family are the very furrows in which the light of the Mashi’ach might be sown and then blossom. Interweaving the brokenness of people and the brokenness of the world, each reflected in the other, the Slonimer teaches that the broken and scattered heart will not be scorned/lev nish’bar v’nidcheh… lo tivzeh, for this is the foundation of renewed blossoming/she’ze’hu ha’yisod l’tzmi’cha m’chudeshet. Of another rebbe, it is what Leonard Cohen (his memory be a blessing) teaches: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in….”

May we behold in every season the light of the Havdalah candle and of every gentle flame that beckons, and through all the barriers that beset us may we open up our fingers and let the light come in.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein




Friday, May 10, 2019

Be angry but do not sin...


      There was an article in the IDEAS section of Sunday's Boston Globe ( May 5, 2019) this week about anger addiction.  The writer described one man’s personality change as he was increasingly engaged in listening  to  radio programs of the Rush Limbaugh genre.  Frank Senko went from being a loveable, genial, ”hippie before there were hippies” type guy to being “irritable, cranky and irascible” - engaging in the habit of spending three hour “lunches” with Rush Limbaugh. His daughter shared: A man who’d made his children read for an hour before bedtime, who always told them that higher education was the most worthwhile thing they could do, became suspicious of universities as liberal incubators. A man who used to stop people on the street when he heard an accent he didn’t recognize to say hello now didn’t like immigrants or Hispanic people. A man who’d welcomed his children’s gay friends into his home “didn’t want it in his face” anymore.
      For some time now -at least since the 2016 election, I have been monitoring my own responses to the level of anger I hear on the news, regardless of the station.  Irritability, adrenalin, and fatigue all seem to be the way my body responds to the ongoing expressions of anger and outrage that are a consistent part of our daily lives if we  are regularly part of “the listening public.”
Regardless of the source of the insult - Limbaugh or the White House or the commentary and spin - - indulging in anger seems infectious -perhaps even an addicted response that can change our personalities and our outlook on life.
        “He became a person we hated being around and we didn’t know. It was like that movie [Invasion of the Body Snatchers]: ‘What happened to Dad?’” said Frank Senko’s daughter. “It was a really horrible period of time for us . . . It was a nightmare, both my brothers blocked him, I blocked him.” Senko’s stomach clenched every time she thought of visiting. Her dad was angry all the time. And Senko knew exactly what was to blame: The steady drip-feed of outrage he listened to every day.
         As I listen to the folks I encounter in the course of a week, I hear the stress, the irritability, the impatience.  I see the aggression and rudeness that come with anger in everyday social interactions, in the way people drive, in the insensitivity to and impatience with the needs of others.
Anger’s ubiquity, its stickiness, indicates that we get something out of it. Frank Senko’s anger had become a habitual response to perceived threats and cues, a repeated behavior for a specific reward that led him to abandon the values he’d taught his own children and isolate himself to simmer in the vitriol coming over the airwaves. Senko had another way to describe her dad’s behavior: “He was addicted.”
       So -I am pondering the question of the right place of anger as a legitimate human emotion.  I feel as though it has become distorted and abused in some way.    Ephesians 4: 25-27 reads this way (NRSV): So then, putting away falsehood, let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger and do not make room for the devil.
         Many years ago, I was taught that anger is an appropriate and healthy response to injustice, that it is energy that can be used to create change where change is needed.  Anger arising out of compassion and empathy may be the fuel that is necessary to engage in truth telling - the energy required  to encounter falsehood.  There are many things about which anger is the emotion we feel in order to energize ourselves to act in the service of  justice.
         So what is the difference between the “Limbaugh” anger that seems to catch so many people in its addictive net and the kind of  anger that becomes the energy for creative change?  I wonder if part of the difference is that the kind of rage response that seems to hold so many people in its grip these days is one that only empowers and feeds on itself to permit an individual to feel larger, somehow - - more powerful- - simply by virtue of the effect that their rage has on other people around them. It is destructive anger which accomplishes little more than its own self perpetuation.  On the other hand, the anger of which Ephesians speaks is one that is directed toward rectifying wrongs and restoring relationships -an anger that does not permit falsehood but rather desires truth.   The anger in Ephesians is to be limited - not to survive the setting sun - and is not to be the source of discord and separation (making room for the “devil”) but rather the instrument of  building up a whole community in truth and love.

       Frank Senko’s story had a happy ending to what his daughter described as his anger addiction:     But there is hope. You can quit anger. Senko’s dad did, before his death at the age of 93 in 2016 — with a little help. After his radio broke, he stopped listening to the talk shows; he and Senko’s mother started eating lunch together again. He stopped watching Fox News when they got a new TV and his wife programmed the remote with all her channels. And while he spent a week in the hospital recovering from kidney stones, his family quietly unsubscribed him from the right-wing emails he’d been getting.
“He became happy. And adorable. And we became friends again. And he and my mother got along really great,” said Senko. “The last couple years of his life, he was himself again, and we had him back.”
          Unlimited and unthinking exposure to the destructive, sensationalist anger that emanates from the Rush Limbaugh and Fox News types of media is not good for us - pure and simple.  It affects our personalities and our responses to life around us.  Better, perhaps, to take control of the dial or the remote and fill our senses with reasoned consideration of the issues that come in moderated voice tones that do not activate the adrenalin and the rage response but rather may generate in us the response to act with compassionate anger in behalf of sanity and justice, truth telling and reconciliation.   From time to time we may need to ask ourselves  “What the heck am I listening to?  And why?”

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, May 3, 2019

Truth be told....

When I was growing up, lying was a punishable offense in our home. In order to avoid detection of some of my inappropriate deeds, I began to learn all the subtleties of lying. For one thing, you could leave some things out of the story when confronted by mom or dad. It's called lying by omission. Another option was to add some extraneous detail that would moderate the lie and make it more acceptable. Or you could exaggerate the situation to make the lie seem necessary. Or you could try and project an image of a concerned and caring son, who wouldn't deliberately do a bad thing, only do it in ignorance or believing it was the right thing to do. This approach could sometimes mean the difference between punishment and mercy.

       Some of the ways of lying I learned from my sister. A good example was one night when my parents were out and our grandmother was watching us. We were at an age where siblings fight. The object of our fight that night is long forgotten but the result I remember well. My sister was older and stronger than I was. At some point in our struggle, she threw me on the glass top of our coffee table and broke it. When my parents came home and saw the destruction, my sister told them I broke it. Yes, technically, it was my body that did the damage. She left out the rest of the context and as the younger and rowdier sibling I was punished for the damage. It's called lying by blaming!

On another occasion, I was anxious to join a ball game with kids in the neighborhood in the empty lot next to our home. This was an after dinner routine that was often a highlight of my day. As i was about to go out the door, my dad asked me to empty the wastepaper basket into the furnace in the basement. I grabbed the basket, did the deed and ran out to play ball. A few minutes later my dad called me into the house and asked me if I had emptied he waste basket in the furnace. I said "yes." He then led me downstairs to show me the pieces of paper that didn't make it into the furnace,  scattered on the basement floor. This was an instance of what my father considered a partial truth and it meant missing a ball game that night and a spanking besides. Partial truths sometimes substitute for an outright lie.

As a kid, I thought my mother had mysterious powers for detecting lies. For one thing, you didn't want to look her in the eye. When she wanted to know the answer to a question and you were lying, you knew her next response would be, "look at me!" It was hard to know what she read in your face but she always saw the fib there. The other drawback to not being straight with mother was she seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. She always seemed to know more about what I was doing than I did.

Pinocchio came out as a Disney movie before i was born. It must have influenced the childhood refrain one heard on the playground. "Liar, liar / pants on fire / nose as long as a telephone wire." Even in the childish circles of my upbringing, lies were recognized and called out.

Truth be told, I believe I learned in our home and larger community that lying was wrong. One lie can lead to another and another and before you know it, a person doesn't know the difference between a lie and the truth. Some people lie knowing it's wrong but believing they have valid reasons for doing so. You may encourage someone on their death bed with words of healing, knowing full well they will never get better. But even in such circumstances, it may be faulty reasoning. Perhaps the ill one is waiting for someone to acknowledge their approaching death and talk with them about it.

Our Senator Thune made a passionate speech on the floor of Congress during the impeachment trial of President Clinton. It was clear Clinton lied under oath about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky. Thune said, "The President genuinely believes that he is telling the truth. We are left with one of two equally miserable realities: either the President chooses contempt and complete disregard for the truth, or his conscience is so diminished as to leave him unable to discern the truth from his lies. Both conclusions are ruinous to a constitutional republic whose leaders must command the trust of those they lead."

         It was an excellent speech! Senator Thune mentioned the word "trust" on several occasions. "Lying to the American people is a betrayal of trust." "It is a matter of trust." The Senator rendered his decision in favor of impeachment after "much study, much thought, and much prayer."

As of April 1, 2019, President Trump has made 9,451 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post. My parents would be appalled, even though they were dyed in the wool, conservative Christians.  From, I'll release my income taxes to "never;" from I don't know anything about a payment to Stormy Daniels to, yes I did, and all the others; there is no trust! 

Are you praying about grounds for impeachment Senator? Lots of your fellow Americans are!

Carl Kline

Friday, April 26, 2019

It isn't big...

 

It isn't big, but it's a model of what one person and a small town can do to secure the future. This February, Plains, Georgia, began getting half their energy from a small solar installation. Former President Carter leased ten acres on the edge of town for this project. The solar farm will generate 1.3 megawatts of power a year. That translates into 3,600 tons of coal. For the small town of 760 people (in the 2010 census), it's a big deal. And for the climate, it demonstrates what one person and one community can do to ensure we have a livable future.

You may remember that Carter was the President who installed 32 solar panels on the White House. At the time, he said, "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people." Since his successor Ronald Reagan took the solar panels down, perhaps they are now lodged in one of the Smithsonian museums, an example of a road not taken. The "greatest adventure" still awaits us.

In the same way, Carter was the President who asked us to slow down and use less fuel. Instead, we sped up. He's the same President who at the age of 94 is building affordable housing for those who need it with Habitat for Humanity. He and Rosalynn went to Canada right after their seventy first wedding anniversary for a five day building blitz. They helped build 150 homes across the country. At one point, he became dehydrated and had to be taken to the hospital, only to turn up again for work the next morning at eight. 

There's a pattern here. The former President recognizes the basic needs of people for electricity, clean air and water, a livable climate, affordable housing and he goes to work to make it happen. At 94, and with only personal resources, he can only do so much, but do it he does.

One more thing needs to be said about this longest lived President. He's a man of faith and Christian character. He's been married to the same woman for seventy two years. If you're old enough, you may remember he almost lost the election because he expressed dismay at looking at women with "lust in his heart." In an interview with Playboy magazine (another politically incorrect choice), he quoted the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. "I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery." Then he went on to say he had to confess he had committed adultery in his heart many times. A public that thrives on the salacious was not all that welcoming of humble confession and truthfulness.

Carter teaches Sunday School at the Maranatha Baptist Church. He limits his teaching to twice a month these days since he and his wife have decided they need to slow down a bit. There are usually three or four hundred people who attend, many lining up the night before in order to get a seat. One of the requirements is you have to stay for church. You can't just ogle the former President and then leave.

He's written thirty three books. Many of the books are about his faith. When he left the Presidency and was thinking about what he would do next, he decided he would write. Their peanut farm had taken a serious financial hit in a blind trust while he was President, and went some  $1 million in debt. That was no longer a viable project. He decided against the financially lucrative speaking circuit of other ex-Presidents and he and Rosalynn returned to their $167,000 home in Plains. As taxpayers, we spend less on this former President than any other. He doesn't even have health insurance from the federal government as you need to be an employee for at least five years. They fly commercial when they fly, a little different from a private jet with golden plated bathroom fixtures. He writes from a converted garage. He says he was never interested in getting rich.

     Many remember the Carter Presidency for long gas lines and the hostage crisis with Iran. I remember it as a time where we brought those hostages home without killing thousands or million of people and when we were asked to begin thinking seriously about our use of fossil fuels and alternative energy sources. I remember an emphasis on human rights and the peace accord between Israel and Egypt that helped the President win the Nobel prize. But perhaps the most remarkable virtue of the Carter years was truthfulness. Missing was the misinformation, manipulation and outright lies of political image making. 

In a recent interview Carter called the present occupant of the White House a "disaster." Then he concluded, "the nation's 'moral and ethical values' are still intact and Americans eventually will 'return to what's right and what's wrong, and what's decent and what's indecent, and what's truthful and what's lies.' But, 'I doubt if it happens in my lifetime.'" 

I'd like to see him proved wrong!

Carl Kline

Friday, April 19, 2019

At the Southern Border – “A Laboratory of Injustice, A Landscape of Hope”


Part Two: A Landscape of Hope  
(Ed. note - For Part One scroll down to yesterday's post. )

          At the Hope Border Institute, encountering more of the righteous, the tzadikim, we were told of how the border has been a “laboratory of injustice,” but for them it is a “landscape of hope.” Our guide into Mexico was a young man named Diego, someone whose life represents the hope waiting to flower from that place. He grew up in Juarez, just over the border from El Paso. As a child, he would go back and forth for school, as so many did, for school, for work, to shop, to visit family. He spoke of his hope for the area, for the “borderlands,” a place that is one community on both sides of the border. He spoke of the gash formed by the wall that cuts through the region, dividing human beings from each other, people who are meant to be as one in the borderlands. It is a beautiful image for the whole world, human communities that transcend the borders between them. That is part of the teaching that rises from the “landscape of hope.”

As we made our way on foot back across the bridge between Juarez and El Paso, we encountered US guards just before reaching the border itself.
They are standing illegally on the Mexican side of the border, cynically placed there to prevent migrants from stepping onto US soil, from which they would legally be entitled to ask for asylum. From the bridge we could look down through steel grating and see migrants who had been arrested being herded into a makeshift camp, there beneath the bridge. In that moment I so wished that I had superhero powers, my body and soul aching to swoop down and carry them all to safety. I sang the words of Rebbe Nachman to myself as I cried, kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha’ikar lo l’fached k’lal/the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all. I hoped that somehow my singing might help the people below to find courage and not be afraid, even the children.

Standing at the wall that cuts through the heart of the borderlands, I searched for hope in the eyes of the children of Juarez with whom we spoke through the steel slats. With the help of others who could translate for me, I responded to one bright-eyed boy of eleven who asked me my name. When I told him that my name is Victor, he laughed and said, “no, it can’t be, that’s my name.” We laughed and joked for some time. Diego was standing beside me and explained that there is a special relationship between people with the same name. In Spanish, each partner of the same name is called a “tokayo” in relation to the other. I extended my hand through the slats and kept saying to little Victor, “tokayo, tokayo.”

       Just to the side of where I stood with Victor there were photographs taped to the cold steel, pictures of two other children, Jakelin and Felipe, the two children who died while in detention, their memories blessing the borderlands that it might yet become the landscape of hope it is meant to be. Her fingers gently curled around the steel edges of the slats, touching the photographs, a girl-woman of sixteen spoke with us, telling us of her coming marriage. A child-bride, her words carried wisdom beyond her years, words of lament for the suffering of so many, for those who had died, for those who struggle to find hope as they make their way through the borderlands.

In the shy smile of this girl about to be thrust into womanhood, motherhood undoubtedly not far off, I saw the face of Our Lady of Guadeloupe as depicted in the brilliant colors of a mural on a wall of Casa del Migrante, a shelter that we visited in Juarez. A mother blessing her children, the mural makes clear the extreme dangers of the journey, migrants clinging to the roofs of boxcars as the train approaches a tunnel, darkness enveloping the future, but for the reassuring light of a mother’s smile. We were introduced at the shelter to a woman whose arm was in a cast. She had traveled some two thousand miles on foot from Honduras to Juarez with a broken arm, receiving medical attention only once she arrived in the shelter.

In the silent space amid the cracks of my broken heart, I am seeking, searching out the lessons of this journey to the borderlands. It is the silent space from which God calls to us. It is the silent space that we are called to enter in the very middle of the Torah, in the heart of the Torah, the silent space of the borderlands between the beginning and the end, the place where journeys meet as one. In the Torah portion for the week of our journey, Parashat Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1-11:47) we come as migrants to the very middle of the Torah, the silent space that lies between the two words darosh || darash/and Moses diligently searched. So it is for us to search, to seek, to hear God’s call from the very middle of the journey as we seek our way across the narrow bridge, right where the border is. At the very end of the portion, God tells us as we make our way through the desert, ki ani ha’shem ha’ma’aleh etchem me’eretz mitzrayim/for I, God, am the One Who leads you up from out of the land of Egypt. We are one with those who seek the way up from the lands of their suffering, seeking refuge among us. I pray that we shall be as God’s angels, like the tzadikim of the borderlands, helping them to make their way to safety, traversing what might yet be a landscape of hope.

Just before God’s promise to lead us up, at the end of Parashat Sh’mini (Lev. 11:44), we are told, sanctify yourselves and then you will become holy/v’hit’kadishtem vi’h’yi’tem k’doshim. In a very simple comment that goes to the essence of what it means to be holy, the modern Chassidic Rebbe, the Slonimer Rebbe, known as the N’tivot Shalom/Paths of Peace, draws on the classic teaching of the Talmudic sage, Hillel. Offered as a summary statement of all of Torah, Hillel taught: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (Tractate Shabbat 31a). We need to imagine ourselves at the border, each as a refugee, asking of how we would wish to be treated.

      As Jews, we know what that has to mean. We know the ultimate consequence for us of doors closed to refugees. We see the shoes, the piles of shoes. We know to what ends the “banality of evil” can lead. Upon arriving for the start of this journey to the border, I walked to the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. Standing in front of the small, closed building, I wanted to affirm at the start of our journey the Torah’s reminder not to oppress the stranger, meant to be felt viscerally by each of us, to be felt in the depths of our soul, the verse that is repeated some thirty-six times, …for you know the soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt/v’atem y’datem et nefesh ha’ger ki gerim he’yi’tem b’eretz mitz’rayim. What would it mean in the way of knowing the soul of the stranger, and what would be its impact on national policy, if we could see ourselves in every refugee at the southern border, if we could see and affirm our shared humanity?

As we davened Mincha, praying the prayers of afternoon right alongside the border wall, song and prayer wafting through the slats to our young friends, I heard my name called as had never before happened in prayer. My eyes were closed as I prayed the Amidah, touched by fervor, by yearning. In the midst of prayer, I heard my name called by an angelic voice, gentle but insistent, calling over and over again, Veector, Veector, Veector. I began to smile, bursting with emotion, tears of joy and sorrow welling. It was God’s voice calling through little Victor, my tokayo, my friend. So may God’s voice of motherly love be heard in human key, giving succor and hope to all who make their way through the borderlands; giving challenge to all of us who are called to be as the tzadikim, to do the work of Elijah and help turn “a laboratory of injustice into a landscape of hope.”

Rabbi Victor Reinstein





Thursday, April 18, 2019

At The Southern Border - "A Laboratory of Injustice, A Landscape of Hope"


Part 1 
“A Laboratory of Injustice"

           I returned recently from El Paso, so much in the news lately. There is an emergency at the border, but not the one trumpeted from the White House. The emergency at the border is the emergency faced by so many suffering human beings fleeing violence and poverty, desperately seeking refuge. It is the emergency faced by those who believe that America still stands behind the words of a Jewish poet emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” It is the emergency faced by all of the caring and righteous people who are doing their utmost to help those who suffer. My mind is flooded with images that come on a flow of tears. My heart is breaking from what I saw in just a few days, traveling to witness and to bear witness with T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights, and HIAS, the venerable organization that was founded to help Jewish refugees when no one else would, now an organization that is acting from that memory to help all refugees.

I returned feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, wondering at the physical, emotional, and moral stamina of those who work with migrants every day. Images and vignettes come to me, fragments of thoughts that swirl, some telling of the heartache and some of the hope. In the brokenness of my heart there is a silent space from which I seek to hold and to hope, to search out the ways in which we are called to act in response to a moral emergency.

         In the way of the Haggadah, as the rabbis taught, we begin the telling from a place of shame and move toward the praiseworthy, matchil big’nut u’m’sayem b’shevach (Mishna P’sachim 10:4). So we began with a visit to the Otero County Processing Center, a place of shame, a privately contracted prison in New Mexico. The very idea is scandalous and revolting, that a corporation is profiting from the misery of human beings. We were led on a tour of the prison by the warden herself, along with a chaplain and an ICE agent, all clearly wanting to show us how well they do in caring for those incarcerated there, clearly wanting to show their professionalism. We could see men in chains being processed. The warden simply opened the door to dormitory rooms, no knock, of course, no regard for the dignity of those inside. Before leaving one room, I asked the warden to please say in Spanish to the men we had intruded upon that we thank them. She looked at me quizzically, but she did say it to them. We waved to the men we passed, giving thumbs up. I tried to make eye contact with as many as I could, touching my heart, extending my hand.     
             The motto of Otero is “BIONIC,” for “Believe It Or Not, I Care.” I don’t believe it, not for a moment. I was filled with the awful sense of Hannah Arendt’s description of the work done for the Nazi state by “good Germans,” the banality of evil. Hardly a new question, I wondered about those who carry out the cruel policies, the jailers, the judges, the border guards. I wondered how they sleep at night, how they hug their own children. I wondered how buried within themselves is the spark of their own goodness that waits to be called forth.

We saw among these ordinary people, presumably otherwise good people, an amorphous allegiance to the state that blinds eyes and heart to the desperate needs of human beings standing before their very eyes, placed by circumstance into their control. At the same time, in its cynical manipulation of language and policy, referring to “illegal” migrants, illegally moving U.S. border guards onto Mexican soil, we saw how the government itself shows no allegiance to the very laws that are meant to reflect the more humane principles upon which this country’s moral survival depends. I thought often of the challenge set forth by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) in his Torah commentary to Exodus chapter 23, verse 9 on the Torah’s oft repeated exhortation not to mistreat or oppress the stranger: “The treatment accorded by a state to the aliens living within its jurisdiction is the most accurate indication of the extent to which justice and humanity prevail in that state.”


      Approaching Passover, I thought again, and so many times over, of the Haggadah, of our own story of suffering and liberation, of a desert journey to freedom. I thought of the suffering visited upon children in the story, of the children in the Haggadah, of our own children at the Seder table as we visited a privately run children’s home. There seemed to be a genuine sense of caring for the children among the staff, but how to balance caring and the policies that have resulted in the incarceration of children, children without their parents, trauma on their faces, not free to leave, not free to be children? 
            I keep seeing the face of one child, a boy of fourteen sitting in the back of a classroom, soft, shy eyes; short, curly black hair, an unformed question on his lightly pursed lips, as though asking so many more than four questions, why, a hundred times, why? As I try to hold this child’s face, it merges and becomes one for me with the face of a Holocaust child that stares at me weekly from a page in a small book of Shabbos table songs and blessings. I imagined his longing for his parents, of his parents’ longing for him. I wondered, as he must, of their whereabouts; wondering if and when they shall be reunited. I wondered if he would be for me this year the simple child or the child who does not know how to ask.

       Turning the hearts of the parents to the children and of the children to the parents, Elijah’s presence at the Seder tells of the ultimate turning, the flowering of a world filled with peace and justice. In the journey from the shameful to the praiseworthy, we encountered some of the most righteous people I have ever met, people who are doing the work of Elijah. With little time to ask of why or when, they do all in their human power to lovingly assist the thousands upon thousands of people who come seeking asylum, seeking shelter, most of whom will never find a place in America to call home, but who now need a roof, a bed, food, and comfort. The finest of Catholic faith is expressed by these saints, by these people who struggle daily to meet overwhelming human needs. 
We would call them tzadikim/the righteous ones, people such as Reuben Garcia, who has directed Annunciation House for more than forty years.  On the back wall of the room in which we met with Reuben is a large crucifix formed of wire boxes attached to each other. In each box that forms the cross is a pair of dusty shoes. They are shoes that were worn by migrants as they made their way through the desert. Staring at the shoes, I could only think of the piles of shoes stacked in the concentration camps, there where the journey ended for so many of our people.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein 

Ed.note: Part 2 will be posted as tomorrow's blog

Friday, April 12, 2019

This Is Not What You Have Taught Us, Our Teacher



I wasn’t going to go there. I rebelled as it repelled. With much to struggle with in the weekly Torah portion called Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:11-34:35), and much to uplift, I was not going to go to its lowest point of encounter with Torah, with life, with God, with Moshe. It is with Moshe with whom there is the greatest struggle here. I have tried hard over the years to embrace Moshe, having once struggled with him, hard for me at times to seek out the teacher, Moshe as Rabbeinu/our Rabbi/our teacher, to feel at ease with him, comfortable asking questions, challenging him and still loving. And now there is this, anger worse than when he later hits the rock when asked by God only to speak to it, and of greater consequence, at least for others if not for him. 

          It is understandable that Moshe was filled with despair, even anger on seeing the people dancing around the golden calf when he comes down the mountain, the holy tablets held in his arms, as though stone of flesh pressed to the flesh of his body, embraced with all his being. Enraged at what he saw, he threw the precious tablets to the ground and they shattered, shards littering the space between him and the people, between the people and God. Those shards are holy for all time, reminding us of our moments of brokenness. They too are to be placed in the Holy Ark along with the whole tablets for which Moshe will return to the mountaintop. It had all begun so hopefully at the beginning of the portion. There is a census, each of the numbered ones to give half a shekel, the rich shall not give more and the poor not less, equality underscored, each but a half without the other. In the giving, there shall be no dying among them, each one numbered, each one important, each one counting. A census initially for those going into battle, there is atonement in the giving, in the counting, atonement for killing, as though such atonement is possible, yet in the illusion of such atonement an expression of horror for what it means to take a life, even the life of a presumed enemy. We extrapolate from the teaching of the half shekel, opening it up, remembering that all are created in the image of God. Every life counts in our striving to be whole, each one needing the other.

And then we come to the verses that I so wanted to avoid but couldn’t. By going where we don’t want to go, by engaging with challenges we would prefer not to face, in Torah and in life, we learn about both, Torah and life, and about ourselves. After shattering the tablets, Moses called for all of those who are for God to gather around him. The tribe of Levi gathered. Moses commanded each one to put a sword upon their thigh and to go through the camp killing all who had worshipped the golden calf, let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman… (Ex. 32:27). As the horror ended, in the aftermath of this paroxysm of violence, some three thousand were dead.

       How does such horror unfold? How can people carry out such violence? These are the same questions we ask when we read or hear the day’s news. How? Why? Struggling with these questions in the controlled context of Torah, as we are meant to struggle, we learn to struggle with the same questions as they assault us in the world. 

         Then we come back to the beginning of the verse, when Moses calls the people together and the tribe of Levi gathers. Moses says to them, ko amar ha’shem/thus says God…. And then we look, and we look again, and again, and we realize that God has not spoken of this, that God has not told Moshe to so hideously command the people. And then I realized why I had to go there, to come to this verse that repelled me, precisely in order to rebel, to cry out, to say no, that is not what God said, not then, not now. There are commentators who justify, who see the command as implicit, such killing, God forbid, as a cleansing after the sin of the golden calf. It is not dissimilar to justifying and rationalizing violence in so many realms of our lives today, too often avoiding our own complicity. It is hard not to see the slaughter, as other commentators do, as vigilante justice, as what amounts to extra-judicial killings. 

       Only in entering the “harsh passages” of Torah, as Rabbeinu/our teacher Heschel so aptly calls them, do we learn to wrestle with violence and learn how to transcend violence, first in Torah, and then in life. Bravely entering the places we would prefer not to go, we encounter others who struggle, learning from their wrestlings, joining ours with theirs across time and space, becoming a timeless movement for justice, peace, wholeness, and gentleness, finding with their help our own voice with which to cry out, to challenge.

        The voice of a teacher thunders in disbelief from the school of Elijah, so carried as though to be registered as a cry of protest in the work of midrash called Tana d’vei Eliyahu/A Teacher of the School of Elijah:

I call heaven and earth to witness before me, that the Holy Blessed One did not say to Moshe to stand in the gate of the camp and say, ‘whoever is for God come to me, and let each one put their sword upon their thigh and let each one kill their brother, and their friend, and their relative;’ and he said ‘thus says God, the God of Israel….’ Rather, it was Moshe himself who so judged and said in his heart, ‘if I say to Israel that each one should kill their brother, their friend, their relative, Israel will consider and they will say to me, ‘this is not what you have taught us, our teacher/lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu’ (Tana d’vei Eliyahu, Seder Eliyahu Rabba 4:1).

And even if God had said it, then as well to remind, “this is not what you have taught us, our teacher!” Fittingly, drawing on an ancient legacy of protest, the midrash from the school of Elijah appears in commentary to the Torah portion Vayera in which Abraham challenges God (Gen. 18) not to destroy the innocent with the guilty in the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, our ancestor’s words amplified by the teacher in the study hall of Elijah and come to us, “shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?!”

        It is, ironically, or perhaps by intent as counter balance to remind, that in the very portion of Ki Tissa God reveals to Moshe God’s true essence: Hashem, Hashem/God, God, Kel rachum v’chanun/God who is merciful and compassionate, long suffering, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth… (Ex. 34:6). Confident in what we have learned, in the spirit of father Abraham and a long ago teacher in the school of Elijah, we therefore say even to God, lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu/this is not what you have taught us, our teacher
            
           It is from that confidence in what we have learned from God, from Torah, from Moses, from our own experience, that Rabbeinu Heschel speaks of our approach to the “harsh passages,” those “which seem to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God. In analyzing this extremely difficult problem, we must first of all keep in mind that the standards by which those passages are criticized are impressed upon us by the Bible, which is the main factor in ennobling our conscience and in endowing us with the sensitivity that rebels against all cruelty…” (God in Search of Man, p. 268). He reminds us that the “harsh passages” do not represent abiding values, that they are not prescribed as a way of behavior, “that they stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice, and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times” (ibid). 

         In this spirit, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches: concerning every matter that one rises to do, one needs to discern whether it is good in the eyes of God…; and in all of our deeds, we need to weigh, ‘what is the will of God in this?’ So a person is able to attain and to know in themself in the way of the teaching nishmat adam t’lamdenu/so shall a person’s soul teach them… (N’tivot Shalom, Par. Mishpatim, p. 183-184). Infused by the essence that we have suckled from Torah, and inspired by our teachers when teaching in that spirit, so shall our souls teach us to know and to do what is right and good.

     Through the words of a long ago teacher, there is ironic hope in Moshe’s recognition that the people have integrated the very teaching that he himself would violate. Such is the power of the people to remind leaders of what God most wants when a leader turns from the path of righteousness, justice, and decency. We need to have enough grounding and faith in the very Torah that we learn and love, and so for each people’s holiest books and highest ideals, to know how to challenge from within whatever violates its own ideals and ultimate values. Entering the harsh passages, we learn to struggle and to look deeply at who we are and are meant to be. We look at the values that have shaped us in our core and given expression to the ideals that define us as a people, for which we have been known in the world. We learn from the very sources of our ideals, from our texts and their teachers, to know in our souls when the essence of the sources themselves, and of their Source, is violated. We know from all the way back when God’s spirit is violated, even by God, from that gentle beginning when the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters. In that knowing, so shall we have the courage to say when necessary, this is not what you have taught us, our teacher/lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein