Friday, May 29, 2020

Words Both Written and Spoken, from Heart -to-Heart and House-to-House

           I delight in interfaith conversations, in words both written and spoken that bridge from heart to heart and house-to-house. I was fascinated recently as I read a particularly timely Fatwa, in effect what is called in Jewish tradition a T’shuva, a legal response to a question of religious practice. As I read the response entitled, “Fatwa Regarding Eid Prayer in Light of COVID,” I recognized in the response to the question on the minds of Muslims the dialectical way of question and answer so similar to Jewish legal process. As Jews faced at Pesach the unthinkable inability to gather for Seders and services, and so again seven weeks later with the inability to symbolically gather in person at Sinai to mark Shavuous, the Feast of Weeks that celebrates the giving of Torah, so our Muslim neighbors have wrestled with how to mark Ramadan, and now its closing celebration of Eid al-Fitr.

Ramadan ends this Sunday with the “festival of the breaking of the fast,” which is what Eid al-Fitr means. Communal prayer is always central to Muslim observance, but especially so on Jumma, the Friday Sabbath, and on festivals. The Fatwa that I read was in response to the question of how to mark Eid at home. It felt deeply familiar, the same questions that we are asking, how to mark yontev, Shabbos, how to say the Mourner’s Kaddish in the absence of an in-person minyan. As we work through the dialectical balancing of values we weigh all matters of ritual and observance on the scale of life, life itself offering counterbalance to all else.

In the first paragraph of the Fatwa, there is a central focus on one element of communal worship that appears impossible to observe on one’s own. So the Fatwa begins: “In light of the masjid being shut down due the COVID-19 crisis and the upcoming Eid prayers, the Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) Council encourages that Muslims pray Salat al-Eid (daily prayers of Eid) in their homes with their own families (or individually in case one is living by oneself), and there is no need for a khutbah….” After reviewing various precedents in the way of case law, as in Jewish legal process, so the Fatwa ends: “All our four schools of law state that attending the khutbah of Eid is not obligatory, nor is the khutbah a requirement of the Eid prayer, it is not required to give khutbah in every home. The Fiqh Council encourages masjids to live broadcast Eid khutbahs, and all families pray their individual congregational prayers at a given time, and then, after they finish their own Eid prayers, they can listen to the live khutbah as a general reminder. And Allah knows best….”

        I have generally associated khutbah with the talk of the Imam on Jumma/Friday, much in the way of a D’var Torah or a D’rasha on Shabbos and other holy days by a rabbi or other member of the community. I have on occasion gone to the mosque where my friend and partner in dialogue Ismail is the imam. I had never had a sense, however, of the centrality of the khutbah in the way it is emphasized in the Fatwa addressing Muslim observance of Eid al-Fitr. As I looked at the word that tells of the words spoken by the imam, I saw a familiar root shining through the unfamiliar, a bridge forming. The root of KhuTBah clearly seemed to have written all over it, if you will, the same meaning as the Hebrew root KaTaV, the root of the word to write.

So I wrote a letter to Ismail and to another Muslim friend asking of the underlying meaning of khutbah, receiving insight, as well, into another word for the Imam’s talk, khatira. After asking about my wellbeing and that of my family, Ismail humbly offered a gift of wisdom, itself seeming to come to me as the imam’s khutbah: “Indeed, Ramadan this year has been quite different from years past, to say the least. But very good still. There is always a silver lining in what we may perceive as undesirable or unwelcome, even if it is a pandemic. If only we had the wisdom to be patient long enough to see it....” Saying Ameen, Ameen to my friend’s khutbah, I read with delight his response to my questions of a Hebrew-Arabic cognate, and so I share with you:

“The Arabic word "Khutba" comes from "khataba" which means to have a formal conversation or a formal discussion. A "mukhataba" is the act of having some formal discussion. Hence the Friday Khutba or "address" from the imam to the community. A "khatira" comes from the word "khatara" which means to think of, ponder upon or to stumble upon an insight concerning a subject matter.
 It is also used to mean the sharing of a thought or an insight. So a "khatira" can be a pondering upon any subject, or an insight, that might be of interest to a person. Their sharing it with others is also called a "khatira". A "khatira" can grow into a "khutba", and conversely, a "khutba" can be reduced to a "khatira". Incidentally, a "kitab" is a book but can mean a letter as well. It is taken from "kataba", to write.”

I thought of a phrase that often comes to me in the gathering of imams and rabbis to learn together that Ismail and I help to coordinate, ahl al-kitab/people of the book. Clearly, the link is obvious between the Arabic and Hebrew root meaning to write. As I shared with Ismail, it may be most obvious in the word for the marriage contract, the Ketubah. While I have not made a cognate connection with the word khatira, I find a meaningful symbolic connection. It would seem to be parallel, as a talk emerging from one’s own thinking and wrestling about a matter of importance, to the meaning of d’rasha. The English word “sermon” does not convey the depth of meaning held in either khatira or d’rasha. D’rasha derives from lidrosh/to search, to seek. In truth, one can only give a d’rasha, and so a khatira, if they have done their own seeking, then to share with others the fruit of their seeking, the living words distilled from their own encounter with God’s word, with the words of others, with life.

That is the challenge Jews face as we approach Shavuous, the holiday that celebrates the giving of Torah, to engage, to search, to seek, to receive and renew the Word. So it is that the weekly Torah portion that always precedes Shavuous is the portion called Bamidbar (Numb. 1:1-4:20). The word that gives its name to the entire fourth book of Torah and to its first portion means in the wilderness or in the desert. Staring out from the word, as in the way a root stared out at me from khutbah, is the root DaVaR, the root that forms word/davar or speak/m’daber. In the desert/midbar, God speaks with us, m’daber. At the end of forty years, the letter mem, whose numerical value is forty, falls away and we are left with the word/davar. Whether as khutbah or as d’var Torah, meaning emerges, then to be shared from heart to heart, whether in person or across video links that join us from the sacred spaces of each one’s home, each one’s mikdash m’at/little sanctuary of home masjid or home synagogue.

In our shared way of seeking to balance the challenges of this time, of law and spirit, health and holiness, yet striving to see the good in the challenge, the “silver lining” of which Ismail warmly suggested awaits us, so we come to places of deeper meaning. In the way of our seeking, meaning emerges as new fruit blossoming; new understanding distilled in the holy words of a khutbah or khatira, a d’var Torah or a d’rasha. Offered in the approach to the holy week that comes with the moon’s turning for both Jews and Muslims, Ismail’s good wishes still speak as words of blessing for all of us: “Hope this clarifies the distinction between the three words. Be well and Eid Mubarak to you too and to all your family! And looking forward to meeting in person again at some point in time in the near future.”

In the way of good wishes for a blessed Eid and a good yontev, may all of us be together in person again in the near future, always connected, though, in words both written and spoken that bridge from heart to heart and house-to-house.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, May 22, 2020

"...that others might simply live"

This mother's day I decided to share my artistic talents (LOL) and make a card, rather than buy one. As I put the card together, I realized I would need some glue. There used to be a glue stick in a drawer of my desk organizer so I went to retrieve it. To my surprise, the drawer was so full I had a hard time getting it open.

           This is what I found from forty years of collecting clutter in one small drawer of what we call an "organizer:" pencils, pens, business cards (some are mine from the 90's and dozens are from other people), piles of membership cards (three from one organization for 2020; two sent me before I joined), clamps, batteries, old Ford stamps, souvenir golden shoes in a pan (writing on the package in Hindi), random telephone numbers, cough drops, typewriter correction tape,  I-Slice (CD Opener),  Liquid Paper, matches, staple remover, thumb tacks, magnifying glass, random buckle, masking tape, pin back buttons ("Create a Department of Peace", "No Food Tax" and "Do Justice, Seek Peace, Build Community")), beaded key chain, broken beaded necklace, beaded pen holder, letter opener, gummed labels, ruler, highlighters, magic markers, Scripto leads, broken stapler, staples, instructions for the telephone, paper clips. There was no glue stick!

Looking at all that stuff reminded me of an experience with a young friend. We were at a camp together and occupied separate rooms a few doors away from each other. Going to his room, I was upset by the mess I encountered. Clothes were strewn all over the room, the bed was unmade; it looked like a tornado had been there. I said to him, "You know, a cluttered room is a sign of a cluttered mind." I'm sure if he were to see my office today, and the drawers of my organizer, he would remind me of my remark.

I've been reading Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Eudora Kohl. It tells the story of two young women homesteaders settling on the South Dakota prairie between Pierre and Presho. It's helping me remember some of the challenges and difficulties the settlers faced, simply to put down roots; to satisfy the basics of food, water and shelter. At the same time, one wonders if it would have been easier if these early homesteaders had approached the challenge with a different attitude and mind set, similar to that of the original inhabitants. Why one can't learn to exist in harmony with the natural world, instead of insisting on dominating it, is a question we European immigrants still need to answer, should we wish to survive the present and future environmental crisis.

Native Americans give us clues about how to live in harmony with the natural world, without a lot of "stuff.". But they are not alone. I marveled at my friends in India, when I first watched them brush their teeth in the morning with twigs. None of them had toothbrushes that came packaged in throw away plastic. Little did I know then the twigs had an element that acted like aspirin, so they cleaned their teeth as well as got an added medication. Or how refreshing it was to eat off of a banana leaf, with one's hand. No dishes or silverware to buy or wash. Just put the used leaf where the cow or the goat will find it.

One of the characteristics of those early days in South Dakota, retained to a large extent in many of our rural communities, was the idea of mutual aid. If you needed to move to a new tar paper shack, someone with a wagon would come and help. If you were caught in a snowstorm, the nearest home would welcome you and provide hospitality. If there was only one piano for miles around, it could be transported to where it was needed. It was a concept, "sharing," that increasingly got lost in a materialistic, consumer society, Back then, not everyone needed everything.

          There was a person by the name of Vinoba Bhave who started a movement in India after the death of Gandhi. It was called the Bhoodan or "land gift" movement. It was a voluntary effort where those who had land were asked to contribute one tenth of the land they owned for the landless people in the country. If you had one hundred acres, you were asked to contribute ten. If you had ten, you were asked for one. Over the course of twenty years, four million acres were collected by Vinoba and his followers and distributed to the landless.

I was present when two of those followers, Krishnamal and Jaganathan, convinced an exceedingly rich landowner to sell several acres of his property to the area landless at a price they could afford. The landowner had pictures of his grown children on the mantle in his palatial home, standing by their Mercedes and Rolls Royce vehicles in Europe. The palace area was surrounded by a high stone wall with glass embedded at the top. 

The owner had left some of his far-away land fallow the year before. The homeless had planted it and just as they were to harvest it the owner had it plowed under. Sometimes goons were sent to harass and beat the landless. Krishnamal and Jaganathan approached this wealthy man on the poverty or wealth of his soul. When the agreement was concluded, we celebrated with the landless that evening, with singing and dancing and shared joy.

What is useful in my organizer drawer I'm going to share. What is clutter, I'm going to recycle or remove. What I'll try to remember better is the phrase, "Live Simply that Others Might Simply Live." It seems an especially appropriate mantra for our time.

Carl Kline

Friday, May 15, 2020

One World!


What is one thing that humans have learned the most about during the   Coronavirus pandemic?

The power of human connection.

Humans are connected in ways we never even thought possible. Initially the Coronavirus was just something we watched on the news. We “didn’t have to worry” about it because it was in China. It was thousands of miles away. Most Americans thought it was a Chinese disease that we didn’t have to stress about. We continued on with our daily lives. However, the death tolls in China continued to climb. We still really did not worry.
Then on the news we started to see how the Coronavirus impacted Italy. Again we watched the death tolls climb. Still as typical Americans we continued to only worry about ourselves.
Then in the blink of an eye America was turned upside down by the Coronavirus. Schools were closed, businesses were closed, and we were all put in quarantine to stop the spread. People made a mad dash to the grocery store to stock up on everything they could leaving the shelves bare. New York City was absolutely devastated by the affects of the Coronavirus. Our country was begging for ventilators, masks, and sanitizer as we now prepared to go to war with the Coronavirus. And the Coronavirus continues to make its way through OUR communities.
China doesn’t seem so far away now does it? We, as Americans, are not so different after all. Humans are so interconnected that a disease that started in the community of Wuhan has spread across the globe in a matter of months.
One of the biggest lessons I think everyone has learned from this is how much we are truly similar. We are just as related to someone thousands of miles away in China as we are to our next door neighbor. As a world we are all going through this together!
We are one world!

Courtney Glines, guest blogger

Friday, May 8, 2020

To Be The Means for Each Other's Healing



For many, it is not easy to speak up for one’s own needs. Often easier to speak up for another, it takes a certain way of courage to cry out and tell of one’s own pain. I think of these dynamics as we make our way through this difficult time of the pandemic, fearing for the many who suffer in silence, whether of loneliness, of food and financial insecurity, of the illness itself. There is a powerful tension in the weekly Torah portion, a double portion called Tazria-M’tzora (Lev. 12:1-15:33) that celebrates one who would speak up and cry out their own pain, while revealing in the same moment why it takes courage to tell of one’s own needs.

           There are those who use sacred verses as cudgels, who dare to twist God’s compassion into expressions of hate and exclusion. There is a classic instance of such twisting of words meant to heal into words used to harm in Tazria. In regard to the leper as archetypal pariah, one so in need of love and yet cast out, the Torah says, his garments shall be rent, his head shall remain unshorn, he shall cover himself down to his upper lip, and he shall call out:…. Here I pause, unable to complete the verse without taking sides, and I must take a side. I must cry out with the leper, pleading for compassion, for social nearness, not distance, even if for now we must be apart for the sake of health. Compassion is about more than whether we can physically hug and hold another. It is about the entire social and spiritual context in which we hold and care for others, how each one is seen in all of their humanity, in the full context of their personhood.

I pause in reading that verse in order not to read it in the way it is most often read, in the way of being waved as a cudgel. The last three words of the verse are most often read and understood as, and he shall call out: “Unclean! Unclean!”/v’tamei | tamei yikra. The emphasis is clear, the “leper,” though not likely about leprosy as we understand it, is to warn people away, not to come near to them in their illness and pain, whether of body or spirit. So have those who suffer been ostracized through time, sent out of the camp literally and figuratively.

Through careful and brave reading of the text, we find ourselves crying out with the one who suffers, realizing that we are often the very one who is suffering, that their voice is ours and our voice is theirs. The way that the Hebrew is written is very important, v’tamei | tamei yikra. One of the ta’amim, the “trope” signs to guide us in correct reading and chanting, there is a vertical line between the two appearances of tamei that is called a p’sik, indicating a pause, as a rest in music. Often translated as unclean or impure, in either case meaning in a ritual context, it is helpful to understand the word as referring to one who is ritually or socially unavailable due to being in another state, needing to engage with another reality, with other needs that require one to be apart. In such a way it has seemed to me that in this time of being apart for the sake of health and healing we are all tamei, all physically unavailable to each other, and that as such we are all crying out for connection.

                                      

That is exactly how the verse is meant to be read and understood, a matter beyond language, not as telling of a person in need of succor warning others away, but of that person bravely crying out their pain to tell of their need. In the face of how this verse has been abused in order to abuse other human beings, we realize why it takes such courage to cry out and tell of our own needs. The fear of being shunned and driven away is palpable, and so the Torah makes its point. We can feel the fear and pain of the one crying out. The rabbis long ago recognized that it takes courage to so cry out, offering a powerful teaching meant to encourage us in speaking out on our own behalf, and so to hear the cries of others. We too are created in the image of God, each one a child of God. Challenging all of those who would abuse God’s Torah and any one of God’s children, the rabbis say of these three words, v’tamei | tamei yikra: it teaches that one needs to make known their pain to the many/m’lamed she’tzarich l’hodiyah tzaro l’rabim/and the many will seek compassion on their behalf/v’rabim m’vakshim alav rachamim (Mo’ed Katan 5a).

In case we have any doubts of how the rabbis meant for the verse to be understood, from the nineteenth century, the ever-sensitive Torah commentator known as the Torah T’mimah, Rabbi Boruch Ha’levi Epstein, weaves gentle strands of connection meant to illumine the way of healing: those who hear will seek compassion for the one who suffers, that they be healed from their pain. Drawing from the Book of Eicha/Lamentations, bacho tivkeh ba’laila/she shall surely cry out at night, the Torah T’mimah emphasizes that we too should cry out at night, for of one who cries at night, those who hear their voice will cry with them/ha’sho’me’a kolo bocheh k’negdo.

From each of our own places, when we are able to cry out even silently, may we know that willing hearts will hear and hold our tears, crying with us. It takes courage to acknowledge and then to tell of our own needs, to speak up on our own behalf. That is the power of a verse in Torah that itself has been so abused, that itself cries out for understanding. Toward healing of Torah and of people, may we listen for each other’s cries in the night, together turning toward the dawn, cries of lament become songs of healing and hope, tears gathered into waters of life. Our voices tell of who and how we are, and so too our silence, our ability to hear, to listen, and to hold. Joined by a thin line that marks a place of pause, a calling out for human connection, together, may we be the means for each other’s healing.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, May 1, 2020

Let's do it!


             Years ago, working at a camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I learned an important lesson. One of my responsibilities was training counselors before the campers arrived. A goal of the camp was to teach cooperation and group decision making. To do this we would take the trainees on an overnight into the mountains. Hiking, we emphasized awareness of the surroundings. Climbing, we emphasized not leaving anyone behind. As a trainer, I was responsible for making sure we all learned where we were on a trail and how to set a climbing pace that was rigorous but possible for all.

On my first training run, we came to an unexpected split in the trail. As several of us looked at the map, we came to different conclusions about the right way to go. As the leader, certain of my reading  and not wanting us to get lost on my watch, I decided to exert my authority and go against the decision of the others. We ended up lost in the mountains in the growing dark, adding three hours to the experience. I learned the value of cooperation and consensus decision making. They learned it through a negative experience.

We always have a choice for cooperation and consensus decision making. It can make for a better hike, a better camp, a better organization, a better product, a better country. Cooperation could make America great again. Instead of nationalizing rugged individualism and competing with every country on the planet, we could regain leadership in the free world by freeing ourselves from our delusion of superiority and greatness and cooperating for the betterment of all. Let me cite a few examples.

1. Germany and France have just joined together with WHO (World Health Organization) to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. Joining together in an $8 billion research and testing program, they are promising that any vaccine should be available to all, without showing favor to the country that develops it first. At the same time, leaders in other countries, like the U.K., are suggesting they should be at the front of the line. And in the U.S., President Trump has suggested defunding the WHO, which some have characterized as taking away the fire trucks in the midst of the blaze.

2. The Secretary General of the U.N. has called for a global ceasefire. Recognizing that the war against the COVID 19 pandemic is taking, and will continue to take, enormous resources of every country on earth to save lives and economies, it's an opportune time to cooperate in ceasing the other wars around the globe. It could be a game changer for the human community. Imagine, instead of encouraging the U.S. Navy to fire on Iranian boats, giving oil a helpful bump on the Stock Market, we lifted the sanctions on Iran so medical supplies and equipment could flow to the Iranian people. Or what if we dropped test kits and protective equipment on Somalia instead of bombs? 

           What if we cooperated with that U.N. ceasefire and called our ships back from Venezuela, our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and put the savings into ventilators and PPE's instead of the F15? What if we put the resources we spend on missile building (classified as an essential industry) into paying farmers for food being wasted as    restaurants are closed and putting that food in our feeding programs?

3. Instead of 2 slices of bacon with my eggs this morning, I only got 1 1/2 pieces. I didn't ask if this was because of the Smithfield plant closing in Sioux Falls. We now know the Sioux Falls plant produced four to five percent of pork products. The normally invisible workers there are an important part of the food supply chain. Without them, we don't get our bacon and the hog farmers don't get their market. Now we know many of them are recent immigrants; as are workers at other processing plants; as are workers in the California vegetable fields and the Washington state orchards; as were the roofers who put new shingles on our house.

So now the President threatens to cut off all immigration for the next sixty days, as if the symbol of the wall weren't enough. Will this global crisis enable us to put our best minds and hearts together, to cooperate and create a policy of cross border transit that makes sense for everyone?

4. In 1997 a treaty was signed to ban land mines. At present there are 164 countries that are cooperating and those that have not yet signed are generally not producers or users. Land mines are indiscriminate, usually killing or injuring civilians. The treaty has been a model for international cooperation. The U.S. has just announced, during the pandemic, that we will not be following the treaty. Add it to withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the fracturing of NATO, and go it alone trade deals. We continue to go our own way, making singular decisions about what path we should take without consultation, certainly not consensus decision making.

        5. Then there's "moon mining". Arrogance has no limit. I guess it's an American moon, as our President has given an executive order that it can be mined. I guess it's the next frontier, or without international consultation and action, the next war zone.

Unlike anything else in our history, the pandemic and the increasing problems of climate change should convince us of the need for planetary consultation and action. We can't afford leaders who take us down the paths of "I know best." We'll end up lost in the dark. Our current isolation and social distancing reminds us how much we need and want each other . We have an amazing opportunity for new cooperative ventures and inclusion of all in the decisions for the future. Let's do it! We're all in this together.

Carl Kline

Friday, April 24, 2020

Trouble In Paradise



It was inevitable, I suppose, that the controversy over when to re-open the economy that is unfolding across the country would surface here in our small community as well.  We are a bit of a microcosm sitting in the often choppy Atlantic waters off the mainland coast.    Businesses here are shuttered and suffering.  The usual spring sounds of pneumatic nail guns and power saws, the smells of paint and lacquer, the traffic of pick-up trucks that all signal the onset of the pre-season spruce-up are missing.  The re-opening of shops on Main Street and Circuit Ave. is not happening.  As in so many cities around the world the streets look like a scene from “On The Beach”, a long ago post-apocalypse movie that portrayed a planet devoid of human life, even though all the buildings remained intact.

As patience wears thin and uncertainty about whether there will be a summer “season” looms, it is hard to know what the best wisdom is for moving ahead.  The exchanges in the local paper, pro and con, relative to the planning of an "open the economy" rally at a major intersection have been heated and often mean-spirited on both sides of the arguments.

Curiously, as frequently happens, the text our little Torah study group is reading seems highly pertinent after nearly 3000 years.  The 13th chapter of Leviticus is full of conversation about how to deal with various skin afflictions, diagnosis, treatment, quarantine - - it’s all there.  Not pleasant reading, it requires a bit of discipline to revisit this book year after year.   And each year, we are reminded again by rabbinic commentators that the tradition holds that skin afflictions are a manifestation of “the evil tongue” - lashon hara.   A proof text appears in Numbers 12 in the story of Miriam speaking unkindly of Moses to her brother Aaron and subsequently developing a skin condition which results in her being quarantined  outside the camp for 7 days.  Her failure to address her brother, Moses, directly, rather than airing her complaints to another person about him is identified as lashon hara and the connection is  made between her words and her skin condition.

It is small wonder then that the rabbinic commentators had strong opinions about the issue of the use of the tongue in negative ways.  In his essay titled “Words That Heal” * Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The Rabbis said some severe things about lashon hara.  It is worse than the three cardinal sins -idolatry, adultery, and bloodshed -combined.  It kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one of whom it is spoken, and the one who receives it.

          We are inundated with the “evil tongue.”  It seems to be the predominant way in which we communicate our fears, our dissatisfactions, our needs to be right, our need for power when we feel helpless.  It is most demonstrable and visible at the highest levels of government.  It is fascinating to observe how leaders at the state level, governors in particular, struggle to soften, perhaps antidote, and compensate, for the conflict laden effects of  lashon hara that makes their jobs even more difficult as we try to find our way through the murky complexity of an envisioned return to “normal.”  It is no wonder that it has been said that  “do not bear false witness” is the commandment most frequently broken and most difficult to keep.

Rabbi Sacks passionately argues: “I believe we need the laws of lashon hara now more than almost ever before. Social media is awash with hate.  The language of politics is ad hominem and vile.  We seem to have forgotten that (the ancient texts) are here to remind us that: evil speech is a plague.  It destroys relationships, rides roughshod over peoples’ feelings, debases the public square, turns politics into a jousting match between competing egos and defiles all that is sacred about our common life. It need not be like this.”

Sacks invites his readers to view  “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, the film that offers a glimpse into the life and influence of Fred Rogers, for a real life portrayal of how good speech can heal where evil speech harms.  Surely good viewing during a weekend (at least in southern New England) that promises to be gray and rainy. 

May we enter each day with a commitment to offer words that heal in a world desperately in need of healing and wholeness.

Vicky Hanjian

*The full text of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks essay "Words that Heal" may be found at www.rabbisacks.org


Friday, April 17, 2020

Calling to One Another Across Time and Distance


There is much calling out these days, calling to neighbors and friends from afar, picking up the phone and checking in with people we may not have been in touch with for a while. There are people I find myself speaking with through one medium or another with whom I would probably not be in touch if it weren’t for the situation we find ourselves in during this time of the Coronavirus. Calling out across time and distance, we are making connections, nurturing connection as an antidote to the loneliness of isolation. Hearing another’s voice and feeling touched by a call, we are able to find pause from our own ruminations and feel grounded in the caring concern of another.

            When our own hearts are heavy, it can be hard to give voice to hope, to find our own voice at all. In going through a hard time collectively, a time that is universally difficult, we know that we are not alone in moments of fear and worry. As in the steps of a sacred dance, the dance of life, one person steps in and another steps out, part of a grand design, the lesson in the turning of generations, each one with a time to give, each one with a time to receive. In a time of shared distress, we can know with certainty that we are not alone with our worry, the calling of another to remind and open up the way of sharing. In the turning of the circle, days and weeks unfolding, we alternate, times when we are feeling stronger and able to reach out to another, asking of how they are, giving strength. And there are times when we feel weaker, needing to be lifted up by another, so the nature of giving and receiving, steps in the dance. It is always true, but now even more, calling to one another across time and distance, connecting.

It is the dynamic with which the third book of the Torah begins, Vayikra/Leviticus, opening with the portion that is also called Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), its very first word, vayikra, setting the tone for the entire book. Through the lens in time of this year’s reading, it becomes the Book of Calling: Vayikra el Moshe/And (God) called to Moses. Circling through this portion, interweaving through the entire book, as in the dance of life itself, an ebb and flow of distance and nearness, yearning ever seeking resolution in return to each other. Expressed in ways both foreign and familiar, offerings of animals as a means to draw people near, the sharing of a sacred meal, that is the goal and the hope, that we be near to each other and to God, near even in distance, ever striving. The motif of Vayikra as the Book of Calling is expressed in the word for offering/korban. It is formed of the root karov/near, close. It is what we need, what we seek, especially in times as this when even for a greater good we need to be physically distant from one another.

          Of time and Torah turning, Moses is downcast at the outset of the Book of Calling, feeling distant and apart. At the end of the Torah’s second book, Sh’mot/Exodus, God’s presence has filled the Tent of Meeting upon its completion and Moses is no longer able to enter at will: Moses was no longer able to enter the Tent of Appointed Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Dwelling Place (Ex. 40:35). Even as God needs comforting at times, now it was for God to call out to Moses, faithful friend of God and people. Seeking to give strength and comfort, to reassure, God calls out, VAYIKRa el Moshe/and God called to Moses. By tradition, the aleph that is the last letter of the word is written small, an expression of how Moses feels in this moment, downcast and small in spirit. God calls, and then God speaks and then God says, three verbs of connection, of reaching out, all in one short verse. Most often, God speaks and Moses hears, and then Moses conveys to the people what God has asked. In this moment something more is needed, connection first and then content.

As Rashi (10th century) explains, drawing from the deep well of earlier teaching, in the way of God’s calling, Moses is given space in which to pause and to reflect, liten revach l’moshe l’hit’bonen/to give Moses space in which to discern. Only then does God speak, and then say, helping Moses to realize that in truth he is not alone. It begins in calling out, in forming connection, the calling itself meant to open the heart of one who is cast down, reminding of another’s caring presence. It begins with making connection. Such is the gentle teaching in a commentary called Siftei Chachamim/Lips of the Wise (a 17th to 18th century commentary by R. Shabbtai Bass that builds on Rashi): God does not speak with him suddenly, but rather at first calls him, Moshe, Moshe, and says hineni/I am here.


Interwoven with cycles of nearness and distance, the third book begins with a calling out, an expression of presence, the Book of Calling, to say to another, I am here/hineni. Such calling, Rashi teaches, is the language of love/lashon chibah. The Apta Rov, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, ancestor and namesake of our Rabbi Heschel, known as the Ohev Yisroel, teaches on God’s calling to Moses, ki al’y’dei k’ri’ah na’aseh shiluv/for through calling is formed connection.

Of connection formed between Heaven and earth, that very possibility affirming human worth and the holiness of our relationships with each other, the dynamics sing out in chorus from the title itself of our Rabbi Heschel’s book, “God in Search of Man.” In God’s need for us, no less than our need for God, there is dramatic reminder of the reciprocal and reciprocating role between the caller and the called. If God needs us, then surely we need each other. In the way of Martin Buber’s teaching of I-Thou, each one is a precious partner, each one needed.

              During this time of physical distance from one another, we need not be separate. We need each other all the more. We can yet be very close, karov, if we would but call out to one another, reminding of our presence. Across time and distance, connection is a way of comfort and reassurance. Each one of us shall at times feel down and distressed, the one needing to be called. Each one vulnerable, without fear or shame, there is only to smile at being human. And at other times, each of us shall be the one to call out to another, our own voice the balm to soothe away loneliness and despair. In the blurring of the holy and mundane, in the way of that old artifact called a phone book, the way of the third book of Torah as the Book of Calling to remind, the Rabbi of Apta teaching across time, through calling is formed connection. As God called out to Moses, so may we call out to each other, saying in the way of love, hineni/I am here….

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein