Friday, September 21, 2018

Finding Hope In Hard Times

In the past, as in the present, people who occupied positions of political leadership had their own press agents, who were paid handsomely to make their employer look splendid in the eyes of the people and in the historical record. But there were also court reporters who told an unvarnished version of events.
While the former spun straw into gold, the latter chronicled the heavy human price paid for such finery. Take the case of King Solomon, for instance. The question we must ask ourselves as we read the biblical text is not which version of events is true, how do we separate fake news from the truth, but rather, how do we distill hope for the present and the future from this history.

To this very day Solomon is renowned for this legendary wisdom, When he became king, he asked God for the gift of wisdom.Clearly his ambition was to make Israel great again.He assembled a core of press agents to "capture" stories that might detract from his goal and to promote news that would advance his agenda. The royal press agents were so successful in their effort to cast the king in a positive light that the phrase "the wisdom of Solomon" has slipped into common usage.

Reading the biblical text more closely I find that there are lesser known and less celebrated aspects of Solomon's reign that members of the press corps inserted into the historical record. For ease of reading I do not cite chapter and verse in the following. Rather, I invite readers to do their own investigation of biblical texts and draw their own conclusions. The following highlights of Solomon's time as king raise two questions for me. Why were these stories allowed to remain in the sacred text? What lessons might we take from this history.

When King David was approaching death there was more than one candidate to take his place as king. There were no televised presidential debates as we have now, but clearly Solomon was neither the natural choice, nor was he everyone's first choice. There was backstage maneuvering and palace intrigue. Solomon did not have the popular vote, but the Electoral College was on his side. This helps explain why Solomon conducted a palace purge soon after his coronation. Loyalty paved the pathway to the king's inner circle.

Marital fidelity was not one of Solomon's virtues. According to the legend he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the eyes of religious conservatives Solomon's lack of fidelity was his great sin. They did not forgive him.

Solomon had a great edifice complex. He not only built a great Temple for God, he also built a fine palace for himself, and he is credited by the biblical story with erecting many other impressive buildings. There is no record that he named any of the buildings after himself, but he had enough gold and sliver and precious gems that he could easily have done so if he had wanted. He was not lacking in hubris.

King Solomon was a skilled deal-maker. He used the power of his office to build international alliances, and to amass great personal wealth. There was no emoluments clause to fuss with. Legend has it that many rulers from many lands came to him to pay tribute, stay in his hotels, and shower him with favors and gifts of every sort. He was a very wealthy man.

Some would refer to the reign of Solomon as Israel's "Golden Age," but others might call it the "Gilded Age." Forced labor was a fact of life for many, while the few basked in the blessed light of previously unknown prosperity. The chasm between the rich and the rest was deep and wide. And, there was no social safety net for so-called "takers."

Near the end of his reign Solomon reflected on all that he had done, and he wrote the following:

"So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil that I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Eccl 2: 9 - 11, RSV).

      Upon Solomon's death the kingdom was split in two, never to be reunited again.
Yet, to this very day there are many who cherish the hope that perhaps, one day, a new Temple will be erected on the very spot where Solomon's Temple once stood, and there will be a new Golden Age for Israel.

This nationalist dream is not unique to any one nation. Indeed, we live in an age when nationalist ideology is re-asserting itself in many forms and in many places. In some instances this resurgent nationalism borders on idolatry.

Rather than thinking of the reign of Solomon as a Golden Age, I see it as the foreshadowing of a failed state. His policies, practices and priorities left a divided nation that did not have either the will or the resources to heal itself. While Judaism remains a vibrant and vital religious heritage and faith, Israel itself has perhaps never fully recovered from the hubris of Solomon. Other nations, including our own, labor under their own outworn mythologies of exceptionalism.

I ask myself if we are witnessing the making of a failed American state today. Our national debt has reached historic heights, yet the stock market continues to climb ever higher; the social safety net is being shredded in the name of fiscal austerity, yet the defense-homeland security-industrial complex continues to expand; federal oversight and regulatory agencies are stripped of power and personnel, yet the ecological crisis deepens; and, a growing chasm separates the rich from the rest. The list of concerns grows longer if not by the hour then by the day.

         Are golden dreams the only refuge we have for hope?  .

While wrestling with the above, I have been reading Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1997). First published in 1971, it remains a compelling book. In the concluding chapter, Galeano writes: "In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion" (p. 267).

I am inclined to believe that there were reporters in the age of Solomon who were suspicious of wealth and so they seeded the official record with stories of dissent, knowing that in doing so they were sowing seeds of hope for a more open society.

The questions for us, then, are these: Where do we see seeds of hope being planted today? What stories are we telling and celebrating? Perhaps these questions are the true legacy of a wise king who at the end of his days wanted to tell a cautionary tale.

David P. Hansen,
Author and Contributor

Friday, September 14, 2018

Crossing the Bridge to Freedom



I remember well that day, February 11, 1986. I was sitting with a group of colleagues that had formed a religious court, a Beit Din, at the mikveh in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had just served as midwives, if you will, having welcomed several new Jews into our people. Far away, and worlds away, a Jew had been returned to his people. It was the day that Natan (then as Anatoly) Sharansky had crossed from East Germany to West as part of a prisoner exchange, ending the long saga of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Avital, who had campaigned tirelessly for his release, his was the face of Soviet Jewry.

On that day in the winter of 1986, three rabbis sat spellbound, responsibilities completed, listening to the news and sharing what we had read. Beyond the euphoria of one person’s liberation, of a long trek to freedom completed, we kept coming back to one moment, the very final moment of the trek, continuing to imagine it, to replay it, exploring its significance as we might mine a text for meaning. The text in this case was one person’s courageous final act in the face of oppression, one final step toward freedom in which that step became its own affirmation of what it means to be free.

          Sharansky crossed from East Germany to West at the Glienicke Bridge, where at its Berlin terminus of Wannsee, Nazi chiefs affirmed the “Final Solution” in 1942. As he began to walk alone across that bridge to freedom, when we might have expected him to virtually run, to at least walk as directly and quickly as possible to the other side, he did something very different which bewildered all of those who watched, those waiting for him at the other side and all of those watching on televisions around the world. The newly freed prisoner took a long, slow, zigzag course across the bridge. Beyond the deep, existential questions of survival, of faith, of hope that would become the primary questions over time, answers to inspire and challenge, the immediate question was obvious. Asked by newscasters and loved ones, by common folks and famous, by three rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia, the question was the same, asked with incredulity, the answer awaited with baited breath. Why had he walked that zigzag course across the bridge? The answer was as startling as it was simple. The KGB agents who had brought him to the bridge had told him to walk quickly across in a straight line. And so, of course, as his one last act of defiance in the face of his oppressors, turning to the right and turning to the left, he walked in a slow zigzag course across the bridge to freedom.

I haven’t thought of that story for some time and am intrigued that it came to me while reading one verse in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9). Such is the joy of making our way through each year’s Torah cycle, a journey repeated year after year, new insights and associations emerging in the context of a given year’s realities, whether from within ourselves or in the worlds around us. I have never thought of that story before while reading Shoftim, but for some reason it came to me this year. Perhaps it is because the specter of tyranny is afoot in the land, the call to resistance and courage needing models to inspire, joined together in holy disobedience. Perhaps it is because the tensions within the Torah are the tensions with which we live, the tensions we seek to resolve, or not, in seeking our way across the bridge.

The Torah portion opens with a call to appoint judges and officers to insure that justice be done in the land. A call to justice as the way of the nation, there is an underlying recognition that the collective flowering of justice depends on each one’s adherence to doing what is right. The challenge of justice is addressed to each one of us and then to the nation that is the collective formed by all of us, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 17:20). The entire passage at the outset of the portion is in the singular, understood in Chassidic commentary to mean that each of us is to appoint an inner judge to mediate our engagement with the world. Placed within our hearts, or at each portal of the senses, we are to discern from within the way of good or evil. It is from within ourselves that we are to learn the way of self-control, whether with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, our hands, that we channel our desires in the way of doing good and not harm.

Of the external judges, the priests, the Levites, the judge that will be in those days/ba’yamim ha’hem, meaning in each age, that will be in our own time, we are told that we shall do according to the utterance of the word that they will tell you…; you must do with care all that they will teach you…. There is to be a process of collective discernment, a process of learning that leads to teaching that leads to doing. Then comes the verse that brought to mind that zigzag journey across the Glienicke Bridge, Upon the utterance of the teaching that they will teach you, and upon the judgment that they will say to you, must you base your [own] action; you must not turn aside from the word that they will tell you, [neither] to the right [n]or to the left/lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagido l’cha yamin u’s’mol (Deut. 17:11). Our commentators wrestle to understand what these words mean, the latter ones in particular. There are conflicting views. One suggests that even if it appears to us that left is right and right is left, we should do as instructed. Another view says precisely the opposite; that we should do as told only when left is left and right is right, when our actions do not violate the truth that is before us, the very truth that the Torah itself has planted within us. The commandments are holy and are meant to guide us in the way of truth and justice, of compassion and peace, helping us to see the image of God in each person. Rejecting a ruling concerning the ways of Torah may at times be the greater affirmation of Torah. The rabbis taught that at times we should even violate a negative commandment of the Torah when another person’s honor would be compromised in our heeding of Torah (B’rachot 19b). 
         Ideally to walk hand in hand, in accord with good and righteous teaching, learning and inquiry as the way of discernment, the way of the nation, accepted and affirmed, inner judge and outer judge then to be in harmony.   There are times when the truest way of walking the straight and upright path, at one with Torah, God, and people, is to walk a zigzag course that says no to tyranny. With discernment, courage, and hope, the vision affirmed in the way of our walking, we cross the bridge to freedom.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 7, 2018

Believe In Something



I did not intend to watch the funeral service for Senator John McCain, televised by every major media outlet in the country, but the television was on and once I looked at this remarkable event I found it difficult to turn away. So many aspects of the service were so disturbing that I simply have to share my reflections--and give thanks to other journalists and writers who likewise found the spectacle mystifying. Let me count some of the ways.
It seemed to me that Senator McCain planned the caravan across the country from his home in Arizona to Washington, D.C. with Abraham Lincoln in mind. The Lincoln funeral train traveled from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln's funeral train traveled through 180 cities and seven states. One procession was for the President of the United States, the other for a Senator. One person was assassinated, the other died of cancer. The differences between the two men are immense, but I can imagine that in his own mind as he planned his own funeral procession, McCain was thinking of Lincoln. He, McCain, wanted to be remembered and celebrated as a hero who died in service to his country in the tradition of Lincoln, or so I think.

            McCain’s funeral was not held in a federal office building, but in the National Cathedral. I wonder if he attended worship services there on a regular basis. I don’t know. What I do know is that the church-state-military-security alliance was on full public display for all the world to see. At the very least the scene should give Christians pause when they read the story of Jesus’ birth found in the second chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew, or the story of his death, found in Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27. Every empire needs religious legitimation, but are there any limits?
       During the funeral service a great deal was made of McCain’s experience as a POW in Viet Nam. I take nothing away from his bravery, courage and solidarity with other Prisoners of War. But simple honesty demands that we acknowledge that he broke his arm and leg after he ejected from his fighter jet and landed in a lake with something like fifty pounds of equipment on his back. The Vietnamese did not break his arm or his leg. He likely would have died in that lake had the Vietnamese not rescued him and taken him to a hospital where he received the attention and care of skilled doctors and a well-trained medical staff. The simple truth is, the Vietnamese saved his life even though he was flying missions that killed countless numbers of their own people.
Figures vary widely but perhaps as many as 2,000.000 Vietnamese died in what they call the “American War.” The “Viet Nam War,” the U.S. name for the conflict, claimed the lives of over 282,000 U.S soldiers and allies. It is not a chapter in U.S. history to be celebrated.
           As citizens of United States we want, I want, to believe that our nation is defending democracy around the world, protecting the down-trodden and championing the causes of freedom and human dignity. This desire to believe makes the contrast between Senator John McCain and the Nike advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, which was released the day after the McCain funeral I think, all the more remarkable.
              Both men embody in their own way the Nike slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Two visions, two nations. Can a house so divided stand? Deeply troubled by the display of unity between church and state that I saw in the National Cathedral, I remain a “prisoner of hope,” to borrow from the Apostle Paul, for I believe that fundamentally Christians must witness to a gospel of nonviolence. Such a witness changed the world once, and it may do so again.

David P. Hansen
Contributor and Author


Friday, August 31, 2018

First to Cry Out in Horror, then to Raise up Sparks -- Torah’s Challenge from within its Own “Harsh Passages”



The pain was palpable around the learning table. How to enter the harshness of the passage, even as it seems the Torah itself wishes to soften what it knows to be wrong in its essence? How do we read through the lens of our own sensibilities words that hurt and discomfort, words that describe a situation that never should have come to be? Yet it does come to be, then and now, over and over and over again. It is one more instance of the brutality that people bring upon each other, reflected not in the news of the day, but in our holiest text. Regardless of how the details vary, of time and context, in the varied guise of people and place, degrees of sophistication in the ways of our hurting others, so we have done and so we continue to do.

This weekly Torah portion Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), opens in the midst of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes so helpfully as one of the “harsh passages” of the Torah. Whether of life or of Torah, we struggle to know if this is what defines the essence. Is this the Torah? Is this life? Is this what it is all about, what we are left with when all else is scraped away? The portion opens, ki tetze la’milchamah al oy’vecha/when you go forth to war against your enemies, and, God, your God, delivers one of them into your hand, and you will take his captives, and you see among the captives a woman of beautiful form, you desire her and you take her as your wife.... It is the pain of women that sears the pages. Perhaps that is why it is there, to help us appreciate the pain of others by seeing the pain of those most vulnerable, those most in need of empathy and help, as in the constant reminder of our duty to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And here it is the woman, torn from her family, her people, her land to become another’s wife, to be forcibly married to a soldier who has been drawn to her body.  First we cry out with horror for such debasement of women, not to see in the controlled license given to the solder an act of sensitivity, but a glimmering of sensitivity that bids us to complete it. Before we can act on that glimmering, though, first we need to address the situation for what it is—rape—in the context of a forced and unequal marriage.

           It is painful to read these verses, painful to share them, to draw attention to them. And yet I do, because if we avoid what is painful, fearing to engage with the harsh passages of Torah and life, then we shall never transcend them. For all of the pain in life, we see and feel the warmth of a summer’s sun; we delight in the gleeful and oblivious laughter of children, in the spark of love when people are truly drawn to each other as equals. We witness within ourselves and in the world around us the power of kindness to transform and transcend. We stay engaged because we are alive, we are human, we have no choice if we would feel and affirm goodness and hope, a future for those very children whose laughter keeps us engaged.

In the face of the very harshness that he identifies, Rabbi Heschel responds out of the pain of his own soul.        Having witnessed enough of human brutality, fleeing the fires of Europe, much of his family having remained and been consumed, he describes the “harsh passages” as seeming “to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God.” Wrestling for his sake and ours, he writes (God in Search of Man, p. 268), “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….” 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.

We scream, we cry out, and we ask where do go from here and how do we get there? The Torah is a context for struggle. It is called Torat Chayyim/Living Torah, Torah of Life. It is real and often as seamy and sordid as it is sublime, a reflection of life in all realms of life. We are meant to wrestle and to struggle with life as it is reflected in Torah in order to learn how to struggle with life as it happens around us. The challenge is to learn the ways of redirecting the violence, of transcending and transforming the seamy and the sordid, of text and of life. That is why we engage with texts, to learn about life and how to live. The Torah is holy because it challenges us to be holy, not only through exhortation, but through engagement with the profane as well as the sacred, all part of life. Moved by the beauty of creation as it is in the world around us and by the words of B’reishit/Genesis that describe the world’s coming to be, moved by the laughter of the children and of the flowers that sway in a summer’s breeze, we know that it is “the compassion, justice, and wisdom” that are meant to abide for all time, the vision and the way until we get there, when the harsh passages shall be but a memory of a long and arduous journey.

          We take a breath around the table. There is a glimmering that rises through the pain. The law that the soldier is to marry a woman that he is drawn to hurts in its incompleteness, and yet it is a glimmering, a channeling on some most basic level, an effort to redirect initial passion, perhaps to prevent rape on the battlefield, so incomplete, but a glimmering. Perhaps? The challenge then is where do we go from here…; from there in the Torah to here amidst the churning of our own gentler sensibilities, from here to there…, to a time when the harsh passages shall have been smoothed away by the very gentleness that allows us, that demands of us to feel such pain.

The rabbis spoke of this law, in all of its incompleteness, as a context of struggle with the yetzer ho’rah/evil inclination: lo dibra torah eleh k’neged yetzer ho’rah/the Torah speaks only as counter to the evil inclination (Kiddushin 21b). Some say the statement is only about this context of struggle, the soldier on the battlefield. And yet, from the most extreme context of violence in which this teaching is set, the context of war and its brutality, a way is set to help us find the way out. For the Chassidic teachers, the context of war in the Torah becomes a context in which to face our own inner struggles with the evil inclination and our own demons, to wrestle toward the transformation and redirection of the less than admirable forces within our selves. These are the very forces, anger, greed, lust, self-loathing, which on a mass scale if left unchecked can precipitate the ways of war, violence, and rape that the Chassidic teachers seek to transform. The surface meaning and context, the p’shat of the text, is immediately transformed, deftly turned with gentle hand as though to say this is not the way, the transformation of words pointing the way to the transformation of reality.


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, the Apta Rov, called the Ohev Yisrael/Lover of Israel, ancestor of our Rabbi Heschel, a thread unfolding through the generations, transforms the very verse that is the source of our pain. Of the captive referred to in the opening verse of the parsha, this refers to the holy sparks that were scattered, and engulfed, and locked away, and confused in all the external realities of the world….         Our task is not to abuse and betray one another, but to raise up those scattered sparks of holiness and return them to their source, thereby creating a world of wholeness.    Referring to us, and so to encourage, the Apta teaches of the vision and the way, of how to get from then to now, from here to there, b’ma’asehem ha’tovim, u’v’machshavtam ha’t’horah hayu podim otam me’ha’sh’vi/through their good deeds, and through their pure thoughts, shall they redeem them (the holy sparks) from captivity.

What may be the most startling transformation of the text, and so of war and violence, is in the commentary to this passage of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov in his work Igra d’Kallah, fittingly, The Letter of the Bride.         
The Dinover teaches that the captive woman is none other than the Sh’china, God’s female presence in the world: l’derech ha’m’kubalim/in the way of the kabbalists/mystics, kol ha’parasha m’daber al golus ha’sh’china/the entire portion is speaking about the exile of the sh’china/she’hi b’shiv’ya/for she is in captivity. The harsh passage is softened, touched by sparks of light, in the way of our reading and making our way through it, in the challenge leveled from within at the violence of its own context.

Reading through the lens of my own experience of text and life as a male, I acknowledge with humility that the possibility of so re-creating the p’shat/surface meaning is, of course, rooted in the painful real-life experience of women as reflected in the words of Torah themselves. The challenge and the glimmerings of response also begin in the Torah itself, awaiting completion through us. Raising the nascent sparks to fullness, it is for us to liberate the captive by insuring, first and foremost, that such brutality doesn’t occur in the first place. Our task is to free the captive woman of Ki Tetze, as everywoman and as Sh’china, allowing her gentleness to flow out into the world, softening its harshness with her motherly love, and ours.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, August 24, 2018

That We MIght Walk Humbly With God and People



After the rains fell so suddenly and then the sun appeared, I quickly got up from my desk and went downstairs, opening the door and stepping outside. As I always do in such times of rain and sun in quick succession, I had come to search for a rainbow. A rainbow is a symbol of peace, of wholeness and harmony. The rabbis long ago taught that the rainbow is the symbol of God’s universal covenant with all of humanity, a promise not to again destroy the earth. In ancient times, an inverted bow was a sign of peace, a hope for reconciliation. As between heaven and earth, so the rainbow becomes our challenge to respond in kind to God’s promise. The rainbow as our witness, we too are then to solemnly swear not to destroy this precious planet, that we too turn all weapons upside down and promise not to use them again.

Searching diligently, I did not see a rainbow on that morning. Walking back up the front stairs, I could see the quizzical look on the housepainter’s face. I explained that I had come to look for a rainbow, sharing my disappointment in not seeing one. The housepainter smiled and offered a beautiful teaching. He quietly said to me, as though to reassure, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” It is such a deep and encouraging teaching, expanding the arc and embrace of the rainbow. Somewhere else, other people are looking up and seeing a rainbow and delighting in its magic and promise.

God needs all of us to see a rainbow and be reminded of its promise and its challenge. Simply to see a rainbow softens the heart and opens our souls to greater embrace. The very presence of a rainbow is the beginning of its own promise fulfilled. Touched by wonder, how can we countenance the ways of damage and destruction?

With heart softened and soul opened, we are more able to ask of ourselves and of God, what do you seek of me, what shall I do, how shall I be in this world? It is a question in the weekly Torah portion called Ekev. Moses says to the people, and now, O Israel, what does God your God require of you/mah ha’shem elokecha sho’el may’imach? Only to revere God, your God; to walk in all God’s ways and to love God, and to serve God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut. 10:12). Soon after, the Torah explains what it is to love God, to be as God, for God is one who secures the rights of the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger, to give the stranger bread and clothing. You too shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… (Deut. 10:18-19). Love of God requires that we love people. That is what God seeks of us.

            There is an immediate parallel between these words in our Torah portion and the words of the prophet Micah in the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Micah also asks of what God wants and then tells us, higid l’cha adam/it has been told to you, O mortal, mah tov u’mah ha’shem doresh mim’cha/what is good and what God seeks of you/ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatzne’ah lechet im elokecha/only to do justly, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God… (Micah 6:8).

I feel a particular connection between the verses of God’s seeking in in the portion Ekev and in Micah. Ekev is my birth portion, though my Bar Mitzvah was a few weeks earlier on the Shabbos of Balak. Ever since chanting the words of Micah at my Bar Mitzvah, they have remained as a compass in my life, as a rainbow reminder of what God seeks in all the ways of my going. As I always like to share, when I spoke of Micah’s words at my Bar Mitzvah, my mother, her memory be a blessing, asked me to add a few words to Micah’s. Urged to walk humbly with God, so my mother asked me to say, “and with people.” In the portion Ekev, the portion of my birth, my mother’s concern is given voice. If we would revere God and walk in God’s ways, so we are to love the most vulnerable among us, to walk humbly with them as our way of walking humbly with God.

These two portions become as one to me, joined beneath a rainbow’s arc, the Torah portion of my birth and the Torah portion of my Bar Mitzvah, Ekev and Balak. As the housepainter taught, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” With that awareness, feeling the wonder as beheld through another’s eyes, may our hearts be softened and our souls be opened, that we might walk humbly with God and with people.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, August 17, 2018

Seeking Simplicity



              Quite a few years ago, I gathered with a number of other folks from our community for a 6 week series on “Voluntary Simplicity”.  The workshop sessions were designed to raise our consciousness about the methods by which we can simplify our lives in all kinds of ways, from de-cluttering to down-sizing to re-cycling and on and on.  The idea being that, in many cases, small and less are better - that there is liberation in simplification.   Even though I have not necessarily made lifelong friendships with the people in the group, they are still “there” as a virtual support group for my own personal efforts to simplify my life.

Fast forward to today, the work is ongoing.  My “support group” currently resides between the covers of three books: EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis,  FREEDOM OF SIMPLICITY by Richard Foster, and THE BUDDHIST PATH TO SIMPLICITY by Christina Feldman.

As my husband and I age, we are acutely aware of a desire not to leave a huge mess for our kids when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”  So simplifying has a very concrete reality attached to it.    We need to downsize our pile of “stuff.”  I am the first to admit that this process is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, as well as very time consuming. Every book, every tchotchke, every old photo, every piece of furniture evokes emotions, memories, and the inevitable choice of whether to retain or let go. 

To maintain a bit of momentum with this process, I have engaged Morinis, Foster and Feldman as my spiritual “clean-up” support people.  Much to my delight I have found that the spiritual practice of simplicity is well developed in Buddhist, Jewish and Christian tradition.   My first eye-opening reminder came from Foster: “The first insight into simplicity that we receive from [the Hebrew Scriptures] is radical dependence, the second is radical obedience.  Perhaps nowhere is this more graphically seen than when Abraham was called upon to surrender his most priceless treasure- his son Isaac...through a long and painful process Abraham’s life had been honed down to one truth - obedience to the voice of YHWH.  This “holy obedience” forms the grid through which the life of obedience flows.”

As I reflect on the notion of “radical obedience” I am aware that this is a challenge to the various idolatries of  “more”, “bigger”, “shinier”, “newer.”  “Radical dependence” implies letting go of a lot of contingency plans - the illusion that I can create a  secure, worry free future if I can acquire just the right “stuff.”    And that inevitably leads to more complexity - - how to insure it all?  where to store the excess?  how to protect from the corruption of moths and dust?   As Foster notes: The idolatry of affluence is rampant.  Our greed for more dictates so many of our decisions.”   

 On a personal level, greed might determine where I choose to live, how I spend  my resources, what I demand in the way of services and resources to keep me comfortable in the manner to which I have become accustomed.  In the larger world greed for more determines whose land will be violated for more oil.  Greed determines which oceans will be polluted with untold square miles of plastic waste.   The need to protect what we “have” dictates who may enter this country and who must leave.  Greed dehumanizes life from the highest levels of government on down.   Radical dependence and radical obedience are somewhat alien concepts - - easily rejected challenges to our unexamined way of being..

      Alan Morinis  offers a brief bit of wisdom: “An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin  and stopped to visit the Chafetz Chaim.  Entering the great sage’s simple apartment he was struck by how sparsely it was furnished.  ‘Where is your furniture?’ the man asked.  ‘Where is yours?’ replied the Chafetz Chaim.  “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the man. ‘I too am only passing through,’ was the Chafetz Chaim’s reply.”

The principle behind this wisdom is “being content with what we have,”  perhaps identifying what we really need and separating it from all that we want.   Again from Morinis: “A need is different from a desire.  A need really is essential.  A desire on the other hand, is backed by an emotional force that turns it into a virtual demand: I have to have it.  And it is our desires that create trouble for us.  Desires can commandeer our lives on behalf of their fulfillment. And when they go unrealized, they deliver up anxiety, anger, frustration, and unethical behavior that we want to avoid.”

Thankfully, when confronted with our everyday desires, most of us have a built in mechanism that keeps us from veering into unethical behavior in order to achieve what we want.  But I would venture to say that few of us are free of the anxiety and frustration that accompany our desires.   Therein lies the challenge to simplify, I think - - to do the spiritual work of downsizing in the “desire department” in order to experience a simpler sense of inner peace.

         My morning reading today led me to Christina Feldman’s notion of compassion as a key element in a life of simplicity.  She describes Kuan Yan, the bodhisattva of compassion, as “one who  listens to the sounds of the universe.”  Feldman writes of compassion: “Compassion is a true vastness of the heart and a depth of wisdom that listens to, embraces and receives suffering.  It is an antidote to hostility, resistance, and division.  Learning to listen to the sounds of the universe is learning to soften and melt our armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.”

Whew!!  Exploring the path to simplicity is anything but simple.  The very micro-environment of my home becomes a constant external reminder of the internal work I need to be doing.   So - just for today - my inner focus will be on “learning to listen to the sounds of the universe” in order to discern more clearly where I need to dismantle my own personal “armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.” 

It seems to be a fundamental truth that a path to liberation, whether in the inward realms of spirit or in the external world of wealth, power and politics, may be found in the discipline of simplicity.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, August 10, 2018

God's Formless Presence is Crystallized in the Form of Every Human Being


       It is a truism, yet one whose truth and its implications is most often forgotten. Not a matter of remote theological musing, but of urgent and immediate challenge, Jews sing of it in prayerful song, in Yigdal, as drawn from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, eyn lo d’mut ha’guf v’eyno guf, lo na’aroch elav k’dushato/God has neither bodily form nor substance, holiness beyond compare. It is deeply held in Jewish thought and tradition that God has no body, no physical form. It is for that reason that iconography finds no place in artistic expressions of Jewish faith. And yet…, a small word in whose balance so much hangs, the human being is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elokim (Gen. 1:27). The human being is told to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), God, whose holiness is beyond compare. It is the human being who carries God’s unformed image in the world and gives it form. That is in part why we are not to create images by which to depict God. God already has an image to represent the Godly in this world, and that is the human being, mortal adam..

        In caring for other human beings, we care not only for God’s representatives in this world, but so too for God’s very likeness, and so we become holy, as God is holy. Beyond perception in itself, God’s likeness is, nevertheless, ever before our eyes. Meant to be cared for, every person carries the precious image of God. Every act that harms another human being is a failure of moral perception, a failure to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in this world. God has no form or image, and yet over and over and over again, we destroy God’s image, and God weeps with pain. Every word that cuts to the quick of another’s soul cuts to the quick of God’s soul. Every act of callous disregard for the depth of feeling that makes us human is an act of disregard for God’s pleading presence in the world. Every act that harms the body, soul, and psyche of another human being fills the world with cosmic weeping from beyond the world itself.

       Created in the image of God, the human being carries the divine likeness, reflecting God’s image in all the ways of human diversity, refracting God’s light through deeds of holiness. As a focal point of veneration, therefore, images are not to be fashioned either of God or of people. It would be as though to replace, or displace, the human, and so to displace God. It would be to replace who we are as vessels and means of holiness, in all of our eternal essence, with finite images of stone, or metal, or wood. As a thread that runs through the weekly Torah portion Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), we are both cautioned and commanded not to make images. There are some thirteen direct or indirect references to images and to the way of our perceiving things in the portion. There are four specific prohibitions to the making of images, culminating in the second of the Ten Commandments as carried in Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:6-18), You shall not have another God before My Presence. Do not make yourself a representation/lo ta’aseh l’cha pesel, in the form of an image, nor in the form of any other likeness….

It is not only God who is not to be replaced by an image, but the human being. As its own teaching on care for others as rooted in care for ourselves as bearers of God’s image, introducing the Torah’s several warnings not to create images there is a preface with some form of the word shamor/watch over: as in rak hi’shamer l’cha u’sh’mor naf’sh’cha m’od/only take heed and guard your soul exceedingly Deut. 4:9); v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’teychem/so take heed exceedingly for the sake of your souls… (4:15); hi’sham’ru l’chem/therefore take heed to yourselves (4:23). It is in the various forms of this phrase as a call to watch over ourselves that the rabbis rooted a sacred obligation, a mitzvah, to look after and care for our bodies, to regard the body as holy, a sacred vessel worthy of respect and care.

In its joining of respect and care for the human body as a reflection of God’s image and the prohibition against creating what we might call replacement images, so the Torah roots the moral power of that prohibition. Every single human being is irreplaceable, each one unique and precious in their humanness. Of that moral import, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in a powerfully moving essay in his book, “Man’s Quest for God” (p. 125), “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.” Heschel goes on to write (p. 126-127), “What is necessary is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol…. The divine symbolism of man is not in what he has—such as reason or the power of speech—but in what he is potentially…: to be holy as God is holy….” The likeness of God, Heschel writes, “may be defiled, distorted, and forfeited…. The goal of man is to recognize and preserve his likeness or at least to prevent its distortion….”
     As Rabbi Heschel teaches, evil finds its root in our failure to recognize God’s image in every human being. In fierce tension, such is the potential for human goodness and the potential for evil. In our failure to live in accord with who we are and are meant to be, in our failure to recognize ourselves and others as bearers of God’s image, the potential for evil is realized. In a nation, a world, a time of so much violence, of so much disregard for each person’s humanity, God’s image is cut down as though it was so much stone, or metal, or wood.
We are the flesh and blood representation of the Holy One. It is that all-inclusive we of humanity that underscores the barbarity of tearing children from their parents’ arms, of hounding human beings as though they were so much vermin, of speaking in ways to demean and belittle, of wars, of nuclear imaginings, of disregard for the very earth on which we live and strive. And God weeps and mourns for the image-bearers, groaning with the pain of God’s flesh and blood children.

At the end of a day while in Prague recently, a day when I had traveled to Terezin, one of so many hells on earth where human beings were burned as though wood, or stone, or metal, I prayed at the Alt Neue Shul, most famous of Prague’s synagogues. It is the synagogue where the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, prayed, the place where so long ago he learned and taught and wrote his books. I stood directly across from the seat that had once been his, no longer used since the 15th century in deference to him, still his seat.     It was my father’s sh’loshim, the thirtieth day since his funeral. As I rose to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead that speaks only of life, so too did the one member of the local community, saying Kaddish as a matter of course for all of those for whom there is no one to say Kaddish. When the man realized that I was a mourner, he lowered his voice and motioned to me in deference. I was overcome with emotion, trying mightily to stem the flow of tears as they rose with the sacred words carried on my voice. As well as for my dad, I realized that I was saying Kaddish for all those nameless souls, there in the synagogue of the Maharal, across from his seat, words rising to the vaulted ceilings and then beyond.
       On portion Va’etchanan, the Maharal wrote on the matter of images, a teaching to remind of what is ultimate, of the human being who is not to be displaced: ki v’tzelem elokim bara et ha’adam/for in the image of God did God create the human, and since the human was created in the image of God, hinei/behold, k’mo she’ha’shem yisborach hu/the human is like the holy blessed one…, she’ha’adam she’hu nivra b’tzalmo hu kolel kol olamo/for as the human is created in God’s image, the human contains all of God’s world… (Gur Aryeh, vol. 5., p. 31).
         Of urgent and ultimate truth, of challenge as immediate as the day’s wrenching news, God’s formless presence is crystallized in the form of every human being. Such is our potential to be vessels of holiness, our choice through deeds of goodness to be reminders of God’s presence. 
Beyond the work of human hands in stone, or metal, or wood, of imperishable essence before the edicts of pharaohs, fuehrers, or presidents, before the fires of hell on earth in which Jewish bodies were burned, every human being is of ultimate meaning. Caring for and honoring the flesh and blood reality of each one’s being, tending to the needs of each one’s soul, so we honor the formless Holy One, source of all life in whose image we are created.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein