Thursday, May 21, 2015

Common Prayer

   by Jennifer Arnold

When I was asked to write for Living Nonviolence, I was told the blog posts “don't have to be about big events or big ideas but trying to make nonviolence more accessible and real to our readers.” Currently I live in the “middle of nowhere,” rural North Carolina, so I feel pretty far removed from a lot of big world events. However, in many little ways I find myself trying to “live nonviolence” where I am.

As referenced in my last blog, a little over a month ago I had the privilege of marching from Selma to Montgomery with the National Park Service in remembrance of the historic march which took place 50 years ago. Through this experience I met many amazing individuals, but I have built an enduring friendship with one person in particular. On the last day of the march this friend looked at me with determination in his eyes and told me, “I need you to pray for me when we leave here.” It wasn’t the typical passive prayer request. He was adamant. And so I purchased him a copy of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathon Wilson-Hargrove, and Enuma Okoro which I already owned myself. Ever since I first received my copy of the book, I had wanted someone with whom to pray. We could be prayer buddies.

In order to understand the significance of this act for me, you must understand that my religious upbringing was neither very liturgical, nor regularly shared. I was raised to think of prayer as an individual act between myself and God. Liturgical prayer, in my mind, was not personal and therefore less valuable. However, as my friend and I pray together out of the book, it is changing the way I think about prayer. I value the repetition of the words night after night. They are becoming part of who I am and I’ve begun sharing the prayers with other friends as well. As more of us share the prayers together the words are becoming part of who we are as a community. Maybe this is why the word “common” is the root of “community”.

It reminds me of the Friday morning prayer I participated in during college. A group of LGBTQ students, faculty, and allies would wake up early and gather to pray a liturgical prayer for ourselves, our campus, and our world. Praying together gave us a unified sense of language and a reminder of a purpose beyond ourselves. We built a stronger community through this shared time together. Three years later I am rediscovering these same experiences by praying through the book of Common Prayer with my friends. To pray in unison, all parties must be present and listening to each other. This changes us – as individuals and as a community – from the inside out.

In no way is this revelation new or earth-shattering. In fact, it is barely a revelation at all, but more of a personal rediscovering of an ancient truth. One that we all share together. And so I will close today in sharing this part of the common prayer with you and your community.

May the Lord bless us and keep us from all harm; and may God lead us to eternal life. Amen.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Just Love People, Just Love People



Tom leaned forward over the reading table as he spoke to us last Shabbos evening. Perhaps steadying himself to soothe nervousness, or to come closer to us in the way of his stance, we responded in kind, sitting on the edges of our chairs, leaning in to hear his words. Having asked for a yarmulke, when he arrived, rather than wear his hat, it sat slightly askew, his wearing it a way of honoring us. Dayenu/it would have been enough for us, as we say at the Passover Seder, honored simply to be in his presence, to welcome him, to hear him. His words came slowly and quietly at first, gradually gaining in strength and intensity, his voice remaining quiet and gentle even when offering harsh critique. Our teacher that evening, he spoke words of Torat Chayim/Living Torah/Torah of life, teachings from his own life carried on words so poignant and powerful. A “twenty year veteran of the streets,” he spoke of his life, of his early years, his journey into homelessness, his life as it is today, a person living among us, so near, so far.

When the electronic ways of modern life that so easily isolate us from each other are infused with primal fear of otherness, we become cut off from each other; and, so too, from our Source, in Whose image each one is created. In his way and in his words, Tom reached out to bridge the divide, many divides, teaching, evoking, modeling a way of being with each other, underscoring through his presence and witness all that joins us as people. However different the stories of life experience that filled the room, of who we are and what we do, and where we live, Tom’s words rose from a place of depth, the dwelling place of his soul, joining us together as one. At times we forget the address of our own souls, becoming spiritually homeless, lost in an artificial divide between spiritual seeking and justice seeking. Tom helped us to find the way home, reminding us that the two are one because we are one, drawing us with his passion and his compassion, his love, and his lack of artifice. As spiritual freshness, we felt the common bond of human emotion that rises from all of us when we let it, when we are not afraid to share of who we are as openly and honestly as Tom did.

Tom spoke in the week of the Torah portion Vayakhel-P’kudei, his words and his presence illuminating the essential theme of the portion, of what it means to build the Mishkan, the sacred space of the desert sanctuary, God’s symbolic home among us. Of our efforts to raise up the dwelling place of God, a place for all to gather, a place that each one can call home, the Torah teaches of each one’s part and of the collective goal and purpose, to join the tent together to become one (Ex. 36:18).  Our sanctuary was one on that night, joined together by someone most often missing from our consciousness. Tom reminded us of all that joins people across the divides of our own making. As his foot tapped to the wordless tunes we sang and his body swayed to words of Hebrew prayer, foreign and familiar, we wondered of our own ability to be so at home among strangers, realizing then that we needn’t be strangers, as Tom knew and shared.

As though sharing with friends of long standing, Tom told of the pain he has known. He told of addiction and his battles to overcome, his determination and perseverance, accomplishments and failures, in that like the rest of us. He told of the cutthroat ways in the streets and in the shelters, not unlike so many realms of human encounter, not the way it is meant to be, the challenge for all of us if we would make of this world a peaceful home for all. He told of government bureaucracy, like the mean streets of an endless maze that saps strength and will and then leads back to the very same place from which one started. 

Tom has stayed away from shelters, finding it easier to remain in the tunnel he calls home. He oversees who comes and goes, allowing no drugs or alcohol. He was asked at the end, “how should I respond if I see you on the street?” He answers so simply and kindly, “say hello, don’t stay ten feet away.” Then he added with a smile, “there are some I would stay ten feet away from, if they’re doing drugs or alcohol.” He took one more question, “what else would you like us to know?” “Just love people,” he said, “just love people.”

Inviting others into our places of worship and into our homes requires the same way of humility with which Tom spoke and prayed among us. In the presence of those with whom we have little encounter, with whose life paths our own rarely intersect, we learn to sit back and become honored guests in our own homes. The Torah portion Vayikra teaches of that humility from its first word, Vayikra/and God called. The last letter of the word is written very small, a small aleph. In that calling God is reaching out to Moses. Embarrassed by such attention, the little aleph reflects Moses’ humility. When we are humble enough to call out to another and open enough to receive the gift of their calling, we create the sacred space of God’s dwelling and we find ourselves at home together. Like the small aleph, we need to diminish ourselves enough to make room as equals for all who enter God’s house.

Sharing Shabbat dinner with Tom around our table later that night, there was not a word spoken among guests of ice dams or storm damage that had touched all but one around the table. It was a humbling gift in learning to keep perspective. One needs a house in order to repair its damage. As through the unfolding cycle of Torah we come soon to one of its central teachings, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we shall hear the abiding challenge in the voice of one who knows, “just love people, just love people.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein
Initial Photo by Tom Hubbard

Saturday, May 9, 2015

War Never Ends



A recent issue of Christian Century had an article by Barbara Wagner Dueholm titled, "War Without End: For My Father, WW2 Was Never Over."

The article is a description of how and why this "devilish young man" Barbara's mother knew before the war, completely disappeared. Shot out of the skies twice, held in a POW camp, and operating clandestine activities in Nazi occupied countries, the war changed him. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he gave voice to some of those experiences his daughter now shares.

“If you knew the things I’ve done, you wouldn’t have a thing to do with me,” he said to Barbara. “You would not cross the street to spit on me.” One particularly difficult time was after he blew up a train trestle, and then watched as a Red Cross train was destroyed.

He had never been an especially religious man, but Barbara concludes, "in the very last days of his life he seemed to retain just enough faith to fear damnation—yet not enough to imagine himself forgiven." His difficulty was not so much what was done to him, even in a POW camp, but what he had done after he escaped. 

This article arrived in my mailbox at the same time as another article reminded me we had just concluded 50 years since the start of the Vietnam War and the convulsions it produced in American society. On this May 1st. and 2nd., a group of veterans of that war, peace movement veterans (including a large contingent of Vietnam Vets Against the War), convened in D.C. to make sure the "commemorative events" the Pentagon was planning were historically accurate and not a revisionist agenda.

Unfortunately, there was almost no media coverage of the Academic Conference from April 29 to May 1, "The Vietnam War Then and Now: Assessing the Critical lessons;" or of the Public Conference on May 1. 

Although there might have been as much notice given those conferences as has been given the Defense Department program. Even with $65 million from Congress to create a web site and establish a program for thanking Vietnam Veterans for their service, the public response seems to be silence. Could it be it's a piece of history everyone wishes to forget, including the veterans, if they could?

The Pentagon reminds us on their commemoration web site that the total number of American dead in that war was 58,253, and 153,363 wounded. There's no mention of the estimated 3 to 4 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians killed. Nor is there a recognition that there was this thing called a peace movement in the country, that brought down presidents, uncovered administration lies and propaganda and eventually helped force the government to support the troops by bringing them home.

Jon Wiener, in an article in The Nation, says instead of offering "thank you" to Vietnam Veterans, we should say "we're sorry." We're sorry for the lost lives of their friends, the time lost in their lives, the nightmares and sleepless nights, the wounds healed and still festering. We should say "we're sorry" they were asked to fight an unjust war, were lied to, and not properly cared for on returning home. 

It's still war without end in Vietnam. Fifty years after American troops first went there, the legacy of unexploded munitions and agent orange lives on. Quang Tri province, an area about the size of Delaware, has the record for being the most heavily bombed area in history. More tonnage was dropped there than on Hitler's Germany. About 10% of that tonnage failed to detonate. Since 1975, 3,419 have died and 5,095 have been maimed by unexploded ordnance.

And the dioxin from Agent Orange continues to show it's devilish work in the third generation. It's estimated that 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed on South Vietnam, exposing as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese to their toxic effects (and these were the hearts and minds we were trying to win). That's not to mention U.S. soldiers exposed to the contents, sometimes cutting the herbicide barrels open to make barbecue pits or poking holes in the drums to make showers.

Chuck Searcy is a Vietnam vet. He went back after some 24 years. He decided to stay and helped found Project Renew, that by one estimate has located and destroyed 370,000 pieces of ordnance in Quang Tri province alone. Fewer children are losing their limbs and fewer farmers are dying in their fields.

Wars don't end in the hearts and minds and bodies of those who witness or participate in them. But even after fifty years, peace agreements can also last. Promises can be honored. Friendships can be renewed. Justice can be served. Earth, honored and respected, can bloom. Compassion can be born again.

Carl Kline

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Evil


In the month of February, 2010, a group of more than thirty men, women and children were traveling on a dirt road in southern Afghanistan. They were riding in a caravan of two SUV's and a pick up truck headed to Kandahar and then on to Kabul. They all came from the same rural area of the country and were traveling together to do various things in the city. Some were looking for work, some wanted to buy supplies and some were students returning to school. 

The area where they were traveling was Taliban territory so they traveled together, at night. Some were Hazaras, an ethnic group always treated by the Taliban with contempt. They were risking their lives because they had little gas and decided to take a shortcut.

Unknown to them, they were being tracked by U.S. intelligence as potential terrorists. After several hours of tracking them with drone surveillance, sending pictures back to Nevada, they were mistakenly identified as all men, no women and no children. (It's hard to tell from a camera 14,000 feet in the air that makes people look like blobs). 

Eventually the order was given to fire and helicopters did the deed. Twenty three people died, including two boys, three and four years old. Twelve were wounded, several severely. The helicopters stopped firing after some of the women who escaped the vehicles frantically waved their kerchiefs at them. 

The commander in Afghanistan apologized. Families of the dead eventually received $5,000 each, plus one goat. And if it wasn't for the reporting of Andrew Cockburn of CounterPunch, just this month in 2015, operation "Noble Justice" might have gone unnoticed.

We're told that some of those who sit at their drone control centers in the U.S., far from the results of their work, are suffering from PTSD. Even when we are thousands of miles away from where we fight to destroy evil, there are consequences right here at home.

It reminds me of the poster on my office wall, back in the 60's. Lyndon Johnson was President and we were involved in a long and costly war that many were protesting. The poster showed the police beating, savagely, protestors against the war. The caption read, "Our Foreign Policy Comes Home."

More recently, a friend asked me what we should do about ISIS, which was for him, the very incarnation of evil. He is following in a long line of politicians, even Presidents, who have a dualistic conception of good and evil. There's no gray. There's no conception of gradations of evil or goodness, especially when it comes to "friends" and "enemies." 

For instance, there's no admission that Saudi Arabia chops off people's heads. It never creates a media firestorm. And did you know the U.S. state of Utah will execute by firing squad? There's good and evil everywhere we look and sometimes what looks good, is at heart evil. 

Author Thomas King sums up the result of our dualistic thinking and its consequences when he writes, "… turn on your television and watch a vengeful United States, burdened with the arms of war, bomb the world into goodness and supply-side capitalism, destroying American honor and credibility in the process."

There's nothing in dualism like the eastern concept of yin/yang or the Pueblo idea that good and evil are tributaries of the same river. In dualistic thinking it's one or the other; good or evil. If you are the evil one, or the evil group, whatever is done to destroy you must be good. Then too, if you aren't on the side of the "good," you must also be "evil." Didn't a President say, "Either you're with us or against us?"

There's the rub! Evil is in all of us, even Presidents. And you can't destroy evil. Try as you will, evil will persist. And in trying to destroy evil, you add evil onto evil onto evil. Eventually it comes back on you. There must be a better way.

When Gandhi discovered that Indian men were traveling to England during the struggle for Indian independence to engage in terrorism, he went to England and met with them to dissuade them from violence. When he discovered they were using religious arguments to support their intentions, he wrote and spoke about how such arguments were baseless, and why. 

Where are the Gandhi's in conflict settings today? Are they risking life and limb to dissuade the terrorists? Yes, but that's a difficult task, as many are trying to survive the bombs and hate of those who would destroy evil! 

We might better heed the advice of Martin Luther King when he wrote to Christians about how to overcome evil.
First, we look for the worst evil in ourselves and make a conscientious effort to fill our lives with something better. How can we possibly know how to conquer evil in another when we don't do the hard work to send it packing in ourselves? Could we as a people, like the Hebrews of old, take a Jubilee year and look at ourselves as through the eyes of God, discerning our own sins and need for change? 

King says never to attack evil directly. You go after evil indirectly. You crowd it out with good rather than drive it out with violence. 

Some of the U.S. neocons still want to bomb Iran. Some aren't happy with diplomacy. Evil, in their eyes, will need to be destroyed.  And all those thousands of nuclear weapons stored all over this country, just waiting, will continue to be labelled "fat man,"  "thin man" and "little boy." And all of them will be good, destroyers of evil.

Carl Kline

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Life on an Urban Farm



“Color me green,” an old environmentalist friend used to say whenever we at Annunciation House of Worcester were undertaking an initiative that met with his approval. It was a nice but also very apropos way for him to signal agreement especially when what we were doing had to do with urban gardening, solar energy projects and the like- with the greening and the regreening of our own little patch in the wide world! It was also nice to know we were pleasing someone in the know about these things even if our efforts seemed to us quite modest considering the great needs of a planet in peril. Still we tried to be a microcosm of what could be done in an urban clime by folks who would have the Spirit move among us “renewing the face of the earth.” Conscious of some calling to this we tried and try to share who we were and are as a simple household blending a variety of influences- Franciscan, Benedictine, Catholic Worker, interfaith, hippie... praying and working for a more just and peaceful world by means quirky and personalist! Our particular vocation seems to be just trying to be open to the designs of the Divine- to utter our own distinct "Fiat" to God as best we can despite or even because of our being of the rascally sort. 

We named our house many years ago at the suggestion of a former Trappist monk and carpenter. At the time, he was refashioning an old garage of ours into a chapel/prayer hut/”poustinia” (translated from the Russian, “desert place”). It was a great labor of love on his part for a family with a bunch of kids now settled in what was once a farmhouse built by Irish immigrants a century and a half earlier. Our home seemed necessarily to have a social dimension to it. There had been an old barn on the property but it had been torn down long before we arrived. But there was still an old garage, a chicken coop and a good bit of land attached to the old house here on the outer edge of what is now the second largest city in Massachusetts. It seemed to all fit together. We experimented with doing what we could to make use of the gift we had received largely because of the generosity of my wife’s mother who had bought the place from old Swedes who followed the Irish in farming here for years. We inherited what was left of the old farm. Because of my Catholic Worker connections, I was particularly inspired to include some of Peter Maurin’s (the co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement) vision into our own family’s based on the pursuit of his three “C’s as he used to call them- “Cult, Culture and Cultivation.” 

Cult has to do with the spiritual life, with giving priority to prayer, liturgy, meditation. So we have a chapel with a name inspired by the weathervane that has long perched atop the old garage displaying a hunting party on a horse following a dog in hot pursuit of a fox that was fleeing from them all. The image and story relayed in the weathervane reminded us of Francis Thompson’s famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” and so we named our chapel after the Hound who we knew to be in pursuit of us too as he was of Thompson who had been an opium addict in late 19th century London. We gather for “Centering Prayer” as a small group and take refuge in the place when “labor and heavy burdens” make for a homecoming to the one who offers us rest there. We have hosted anniversary Masses for our beloved dead and held retreat days in the chapel as well. We’ve a wood stove there to keep us warm in the winter months.


Culture has to do with the life of the mind or what Maurin called “clarification of thought”- meetings in which to talk matters over in a somewhat scholarly but also practical way. In this regard, we have a grape arbor behind the chapel and in good weather we gab there about what we hold or should hold dear.  In inclement weather, we meet in the living room for discussion and reading groups. We gather here to read and comment on books we find helpful to our spiritual and thought life. We have read from Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings and Julian of Norwich’s “Showings of Divine Revelation.” We are currently reading Dorothy Day’s diaries “The Duty of Delight.”  Following our sessions of nourishing spirit and mind, we share a pot luck supper. There is a sense of appropriate and joyous feasting and also of fulfilling Peter’s wish that there be houses of welcome, houses of hospitality. 
  
Cultivation has to do with Maurin’s express desire that farming communes or “agronomic universities” serve as an antidote to those aspects of industrial culture that were and remain irreverent or indifferent to creation. Agricultural and craft pursuits were to be and also suggest to others the pure means whereby a more sanctified economic order could take root in the shell of the old. To this end, behind and to the side of the arbor are our gardens where we grow fruits and vegetables in the spirit of Peter’s vision that we pursue a “Green Revolution” (blessed agriculture) as the basis for securing a whole and holy life. Here we grow a lot of the usual vegetables- tomatoes, cucumbers, squash (summer, zucchini, acorn, and butternut), broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, peas, beans (pole and string), peppers, lettuce, beets, potatoes, Swiss chard, kale, Brussel sprouts, leeks, asparagus, rhubarb and pumpkin. Last year we harvested some garlic for the first time. We have two peach trees which bore abundantly last year and growing cherry and hazelnut trees. We’ve blueberries and black raspberries, apples, pears and Japanese quince and Concord grapes too but the birds have been enjoying those more than we of late. We have in the past made grape jelly and juice. We have put up apple sauce and are still enjoying a large jar of quince jelly. Mind you, we are still city people and the gardens are of a scale as to feed the family here mostly and gift a few friends with a little something fresh and good at harvest time. We used to have chickens that provided us with eggs but gave them up some years ago and in place of what was once the coop is a greenhouse so we can get seedlings ready for planting and have a good storage space for tools. Gardening keeps us close to the soil and to an appreciation of the natural world. It draws us closer to Source and sources reminding us that we too proceed through seasons comparable to those involving sowing, weeding and harvesting. Farming puts us in better touch with our own cyclic experiences of struggle and joy, dying and rising.   

When newcomers visit, a tour is in order and once we’ve traversed the landscape and stopped by the chapel, the arbor and the gardens, the point is made that Peter Maurin’s three “C”s are all here in a row. Although the scale is modest and we need be very humble about our venture, it seems apropos that each “c” is given some attention. Like three little seeds, might they just contain the possibility and potential of generating much new growth? We sure hope so, God willing, God blessing!
(Annunciation House of Worcester has a Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/297981285119/)               
    
Michael Boover
First Published in Living City

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Walk Together Children


Hey y’all. As many of you know, I have spent the last week participating in the National Park Service’s 50th Anniversary Selma to Montgomery Walking Classroom. And now it is time to head home again. What do I even say? It was spectacular. This experience has been touted by the National Park Service as “life-changing” and “history-making” and although I think it’s a little preemptive to claim either of those titles already, I will say that it was such an incredible experience that I am sitting here struggling to find any words to do the journey justice. 

And it was a journey. 6 days ago feels so far away and thinking of returning to my home in Enfield feels even further. I have grown accustomed to walking, talking, singing, and chanting and in some small way I have given a piece of my heart to this 54 mile stretch of 80 East from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Leaving behind a piece of your heart – whether with a person, or a place, or both – can leave you with a strange numbing sort of pain for a while. A pain that you don’t actually want to escape because in some ways it is like being surrounded by a cloud of genuine gratefulness and awe. It is this joyful sadness that I feel today. 

Talking to a friend from the march about this feeling, we both immediately thought of the same quote from Mother Teresa – “I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” This hurt in our hearts, comes from an abundance of love. Love for the people we walked beside. Love for the foot soldiers who came before us. Love for the unity that bound us together in the splattering, wet rain or in the sweat of the beating sun. Love for the openness that let us share deeply as our feet moved together. Love for the sound of voices from across the nation rising as one. Love for the rangers who fed us, taught us, counted us, and kept us safe. Love for the green pastures, cloudy skies, and even for the far-off cows who were mostly oblivious to our presence.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” In many ways, I feel that this proverb is all that needs to be said about our journey. “Walk together children and don’t you grow weary.” Bam. Done. Walk together. Truly walk together. I love that adverb “together”. It’s not “walk near”, “walk with”, or even “walk alongside”. It is walk together. When you walk together, you are one.

Ubuntu (another African concept): “I am who I am because of who we all are.” In walking together, camping together, eating together, singing together, marching into the capitol together we built an impromptu family. The word that keeps coming to me is intimacy. There was a deep shared intimacy amongst us. We learned – not through lectures or reading, but through doing and living – that our strength comes not from any individual but from our unity. Walking by myself I would just be lonely, tired, and wet. All things I hate. Together the hills did not seem so big and the journey did not seem so long. In fact, it is surprising how quickly you can become accustomed to walking 12 miles a day. Days of 3 or 6 miles, we complained, were just not far enough.


At the beginning of the trip, I mentioned that I find it is easy to feel alone in “fighting the good fight” and so maybe the most important part of this trip is just that I don’t feel so alone. This week I saw potential and passion oozing around every bend in the road. People with incredibly diverse interests joined together. Feet that kept walking even with blisters. Honest connections and conversations. It left me feeling like there is a lot of hope out there. Just like my photojournalist friend Albert trains his eyes to look for the best shot, I’ve just got to tune my eyes for the hope that is all around us and then keep on walking. Keep on walking. Together. And don’t grow weary.
Jennifer Arnold
Guest Blogger
First Published at The Education Exploration




Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Seeing Each Other as "One of Ours"



The program began before it had started, its meaning expressed in a chance encounter of two people standing by the threshold of an open door. Chaim had arrived, delivering kosher Middle Eastern food. It used to be when I would place the order and request delivery to the mosque in Roxbury, there would be a moment of confused silence at the other end of the phone. Now it seemed so natural, change over time; Rabbi Reinstein, the mosque, imams and rabbis. As I stood with another rabbi greeting Chaim, Mohamed, a partner in dialogue, walked briskly across the tiled floor of the grand foyer of the mosque. There, at the threshold he extended his hand and began speaking to Chaim in Arabic. Without missing a beat, the Jewish deliveryman responded in animated Arabic. As the two men began to laugh, Mohamed exclaimed, “I thought he was one of ours.” Greeted as a lantsman/countryman, a Yiddish term from Eastern Europe just as foreign to him as to Mohamed, Chaim explained that he had grown up in Libya speaking Arabic. In the relaxed atmosphere and good humor that filled the entry space, others having joined us, drawn to the sound of laughter, we were all, each to the other, as “one of ours,” lantsmen.

With Chaim’s arrival, we were setting up for a program of Building Bridges through Learning. During a time of ugly controversy, fomented by opponents of the very mosque in which we were meeting, a Muslim colleague and I started Building Bridges, seeking to create a different reality by bringing together imams and rabbis to study together. Always with a thematic focus explored through Jewish and Muslim texts, we learn with and from each other, but most importantly, we learn about each other. 

There is a natural bridge between Jews and Muslims that is too often forgotten today. Both peoples are a people of the book, ah’l al kitab/am ha’sefer. Building bridges through learning, we create common ground upon which we, and through us our communities, can come to know each other. With the experience now of nearly ten years of learning together, a depth and sense of trust has developed that brings a growing sense of ease to our interactions, even as we welcome new people. 

Seeking a lens through our texts by which at times to address challenging issues that beset us, and at others to discover and delight in threads of connection, we were exploring on that day a fascinating weave of thematic connection. A little known bond between Jews and Muslims is our common celebration in sacred text and calendar of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery. While not observed on the level of Passover in Jewish tradition, for which the more likely parallel may be Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the freeing of the Hebrew slaves on the fast day known as Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharam. It was a particularly timely theme for the Jewish participants, in the midst of preparations for Passover. During our learning, a Muslim woman at my table said that when she fasts on Ashura she “feels like we are in solidarity with the Jewish people.”

As the planning committee considered the Exodus as a focus, strains of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” spontaneously rose from among us and floated around the table, Jews and Muslims joined by a Jamaican Reggae singer. As the Jewish story of liberation from Egyptian slavery offers universal metaphor and inspiration in the quest for human freedom, the essential question is how to make the story real. To Bob Marley’s question in song, the answer is ours through deed, “Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? 'Cause all I ever have, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.” In our gathering was the beginning of an answer, one small step along the path toward a new way, people joining together, breaking the shackles of all that would divide, familiarity and friendship to replace distance and suspicion.

In a time when despair comes so easily, there is hope in the simple encounters of people with each other, planned and unplanned, always open to possibility and unexpected signs of change. Looking toward the morning light from the midnight hour of our ancestors’ departure, we begin the walk toward freedom. That is the message with which the weekly Torah portion of the week of our program, the portion Tzav (Lev. 6-8), opens and the message of the Shabbat that precedes Passover, Shabbat Ha’gadol/the Great Sabbath. In the first verses of the portion Tzav, the Ascent offering is to be burned upon the altar through the night until the morning, when the new day’s fire shall be kindled from the dying embers of yesterday. In the prophetic reading for Shabbat Ha’gadol, the Prophet Malachi bids us look toward the dawning of the new day of liberation for all, the meaning of Passover and Ashura fulfilled, of swords turned to plowshares, “Redemption Song,” upon every tongue: Lo, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God, Who will turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.

On that Shabbat of new possibility preceding Passover, we stand by the threshold of an open door, looking toward a time when all shall laugh together and see each other as “one of ours.” In the excitement of encountering another whom we only thought was “one of ours,” we suddenly realize that our “mistaken” thought is in fact true on a deeper level than our initial thought. We create in that moment of realization a portal to sacred space, the beginning of relationship before we have even started. Hearts turning to each other in openness, we are all lantsmen who speak a common tongue, the language of the heart.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein