Friday, January 17, 2020

Consider the hummingbird...

 Brian Doyle, in "Joyas Voladoras," asks us to consider the hummingbird. For the most part, Doyle wants us to consider the size of the hummingbird heart, about the same size as a child's fingernail or an eraser on a pencil. That little heart beats about ten times a second. That rapidity is understandable given the enormous energy needed to do the amazing aerodynamics the hummingbird displays. It can fly backwards, dive at sixty miles an hour, fly five hundred miles without resting, visit a thousand flowers a day.  But that little heart can only go so long before it burns itself out. The hummingbird lifespan is maybe two years.
         Joyas Voladoras (flying jewels) is the name given hummingbirds by the first white explorers in the Americas.  The Americas is their only habitat, all three hundred plus species of them. Once, in Mexico, sitting in the open-air veranda of a Mexican restaurant, I saw more flying jewels in that one spot than I had seen in my whole life. There were feeders hanging from the roof sheltering us from the sun and rain and dozens of hummingbirds were darting in and out. Their music was audible and their visual background to an excellent meal was extraordinary.Hummingbirds are the world's second largest family of birds with an estimated 338 species. Few in the world are aware that thirty-four species, or nearly ten per cent, are threatened with extinction.

          Honey bees work hard. Their wings can beat about 200 times per second and they can fly fifteen miles an hour as they visit fifty to a hundred flowers on a trip. Bees have a heart in an open circulatory system that pumps blood from the back of the bee toward the front. There are no veins or arteries. All its organs float in a combination of lymph and blood.

We're becoming more aware of the threat to bees and other pollinators from several factors. Industrial agriculture is one with it's heavy reliance on insecticides. Other factors are destruction of habitat, parasites and pathogens, lack of forage and climate change. Fortunately, some are working hard to improve the honeybee population.

      The "Flow Hive" is a man made bee house that allows honey to be collected without disturbing the bees. Australian beekeepers Cedar and Stuart Anderson developed the hive and have sent more than fifty thousand of them to beekeepers around the globe. It's estimated they have helped increase the honeybee population worldwide by ten percent. All of the profits of the sale of the flow hive go into protecting pollinator habitat in Australia and the U.S. It's amazing what this father and son team have done, just the two of them, to respond to a critical need.

Brian Doyle tells us the blue whale has the largest heart of all earth's creatures, about the size of a small car.  A child could walk around inside of it, with valves the size of swinging doors in a saloon and four rooms to explore. You need a big heart to drive a creature a hundred feet long, about the length of three school buses.  The blue whale weighs more than seven tons, as much as four tons at birth. (I always thought I was twelve pounds at birth till I told my mother and she laughed so hard she cried). According to Doyle, we don't know a lot about blue whales except that they are in all the world's oceans, usually travel in pairs and they make exceptional sounds.

Human hearts beat somewhere between sixty and a hundred times a minute, Depending on your life span, it may beat somewhere between three and four billion times. During a recent cardiogram, I watched my own heart beat and listened to it working hard to keep my blood flowing. It was an awesome and humbling experience. How amazing an instrument we have all been given, How amazing an instrument in the blue whale, the honeybee, the hummingbird, the human being.

There's a long tradition in the Christian faith affirming each and every part of creation as a gift from God. The Genesis story repeats again and again, in refrain, that each and every thing God created was "good." That includes the hummingbird, the honeybee, the blue whale, the human being. Each reflects God's glory and the world is poorer if any one creature is lost.

        As the power brokers and profiteers of the planet dim God's glory in the destruction of God's good creation, let those feeding the hummingbirds, creating hives for the honeybee and recording the sounds of the blue whale, continue their good work. The human heart, holding all that is in loving relationship, fulfills its destiny. It is the preeminent way to give glory to the Creator.

Carl Kline

Friday, January 10, 2020

Beyond Nationalism, Learning to Make Peace Where We Dwell

          I had come to the meeting feeling somewhat wary, but eager and open to hearing a scholar’s presentation on the life and work of Rabbi Menachem Froman. Rabbi Froman was an entirely unique Israeli rabbi who died in 2013. He was a “settler rabbi,” which would make him immediately suspect to me. At the same time, the contradictions that made him controversial in very diverse settings have fascinated me. He believed passionately that Jews should be able to live in any part of the West Bank. Yet, he sought accommodation with his Palestinian neighbors and condemned the often brutal and racist behavior of many of his fellow settlers. He felt that Arabs and Jews of the region shared a natural bond through a common attachment to the land. Most significantly, though not formally engaged in politics, he suggested that as part of a two-state solution, Jews should be able to remain on the West Bank as citizens of Palestine, not of Israel. The great question, of course, is how such a conversation about the land and its peoples can take place in the midst of such an inherent inequity and imbalance of power, the occupation remaining for now the backdrop for any such discussion. In the shadow of that question, I sat quietly, gauging when and what I wanted to say as the question and discussion period began following the talk.

           As discussion unfolded, from wary but open, I began to feel weary and alone. Not surprisingly, there was much discussion about Zionism, both in theory and in practice. The conversation then turned more broadly to discussion of land and nations, of nationality and nationalism. There was in one comment a tone of disdain for those who eschew nationalism. The thread was clear, from nationalism to Zionism. I could feel within myself an uncharacteristic sense of retreat, as I turned inward. Feeling soul-tired, I realized that it was not so much retreat as weariness. 

         As one who eschews nationalism, I began to feel a sense of personal attack, of not having a place there where we dwelt in conversation. Feeling a deep attachment to what is best in America’s elusive image of itself, so too I recognize the gifts of other nations and peoples, and the equality of all among the family of nations. Similarly, I would never identify as a “patriot,” a word and notion that too often comes to express exclusivity in which the interdependence of nations is shunned. I fear the over emphasis of what is seen to be exceptional in regard to one’s own nation and people, even one’s own group within that nation, that too often comes to be at the expense of the place and rights of others. When we are able to hold in healthy tension the falsely competing needs of both independence and interdependence, we are then able to give due consideration to the commonweal of a common world.

I realized the irony in the timing of this conversation, in the same week as the president’s executive order emphasizing Jewish nationality. There is irony, as well, in an order that cynically expands and distorts the meaning of anti-Semitism in relation to the very issues of place and belonging that were at the heart of the conversation from which I had withdrawn in weariness. So too, I realized that it was the week of the Torah portion Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23). I have long been drawn to the very first word of Vayeshev, the word itself that gives its name to the portion. As the portion opens, Vayeshev Ya’akov/and Ya’akov settled down, a strange comment is offered in the Talumd by Rabbi Yochanan, in every place where it says ‘vayeshev,’/eyno eleh lashon tzar/ it is only the language of pain (Sanhedrin 106a). We struggle to understand, and then we realize that the struggle to understand is not so much with Rabbi Yochanan’s words, but with the word vayeshev itself and the consequences of not understanding what it means in truth to settle, to live in a place, to truly dwell.

I have long been fascinated with the possibility of a slight grammatical shift in the simple word with which the portion opens, a shift that speaks to a shift in human understanding that is not at all slight. With a shift from vayeshev to the more active verbal form of piel, we have va’y’yashev/and he made peace. Referring to Ya’akov in this case, the teaching is for all of us, to truly dwell is to make peace where we dwell. The word yishuv can refer to a community of people, as it specifically refers to the pre-state Jewish community that dwelled in the Land of Israel. In a powerful teaching beyond grammar, yishuv can also mean to resolve or settle conflict, as in yishuv sichsuch, It was this that Ya’akov failed to do, failing to see the discord among his children, discord that he himself had sown in showing favoritism to one child, to his beloved Yosef, forgetting then the commonweal.

As one family becomes all families, the human family, all struggling to learn the way of making peace where we dwell, I realized with this year’s reading of Vayeshev a powerful teaching in the words of the portion’s first line beyond its first word. It is a line of seven words in the Hebrew in which five of those words are about place and dwelling, and Ya’akov settled down in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan/va’yeshev ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz c’na’an (Gen. 37:1). 

       Ya’akov’s failure, as seen by many commentators, is that he sought to settle down as though all was fine in the world around him, rather than fulfilling the deeper meaning of what it means to settle. In a powerfully moving comment on Ya’akov’s failure to make peace where he dwelled, the Torah T’mimah, addressing all who would be righteous, offers challenge from the nineteenth century to all of us in whatever time and place we dwell: for their complete tranquility is not in this world, because it is their duty only to repair the world and fill its deficiencies/l’taken et ha’olam u’l’malei ches’ro’no’teha….

In the approach to Chanukkah that week and its gentle challenge to raise up light, may the flickering of candles call us forth from weariness to the renewal of voice and spirit. Each one as a shammes helping to enkindle another’s light, the way of lighting Chanukkah candles is itself a simple affirmation of interdependence. Beyond the narrowness of nationalism, so may it be for nations and peoples, all realizing that we need each other’s light if our own would truly shine, all learning together to make peace where we dwell.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein 

Friday, January 3, 2020


          We received another letter to the congregation from our  beloved rabbi this week.  They seem to come ever more frequently.  One more letter  exhorting us to pray for one more Jewish community under violent assault as they celebrated Hanukkah.  One more call to prayer for the complete healing for the Jewish brothers and sisters in Monsey as well as the victims of anti-Semitic violence in so many other places around the country. One more call to stand in solidarity with Jewish communities around the world.  One more call to a commitment to work toward making this world a safe place for everyone in the midst of our vast diversity.

Each event of violence toward the Jewish community anywhere challenges our local community’s commitment to lovingkindness, generous hospitality, nonviolence and extravagant welcome to the stranger as  locked doors and armed police presence in the synagogue become the norm.  The high calling to be peace-seekers and peace makers keeps us all on edge as we struggle to maintain the level of chesed, grace, lovingkindness, mercy that we claim as part of our identity.

Meanwhile, a Christian church in Texas comes under attack.  In the aftermath, the congregation gives thanks that there are highly trained, armed members of the congregation who could shoot back, thus saving the lives of many in the congregation.  The wise teachings of a non-violent Jesus give way to armed self defense in the sanctuary in the service of saving lives.

I wonder how to articulate  the difference between hiring protective police presence and  arming members of the congregation?

For today, I am simply sitting in the pain of this conundrum.  How, indeed, do we keep our sanctuaries safe.  In other parts of the world, Muslim communities, Hindu communities, Buddhist communities also come under attack.  It seems that the places where humankind can most aptly work toward a nonviolent world are also the spiritual communities that are most readily and conveniently the targets of violence and hatred.

I recently read the following  paragraph from  The Secret Commonwealth  by Phillip Pullman.  Lyra, the heroine of the story is in a conversation with Farder Coram, an aging gyptian with whom she became acquainted in her childhood in an earlier Pullman novel,  “The Golden Compass” . They are conversing about the hopelessness of overcoming the negative forces that seem to be winning the day:

Farder Coram:  “The CCD faction can’t arrest as many people as hate it, and the people en’t got  the organization to move agin the CCD.  The other side’s got an energy our side en’t got.  Comes from their certainty about being right.  If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want.  It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil.  Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t.  Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back.  To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ‘em.”

         It takes effort on my part to resist dualistic thinking - to pull myself back to center to a non-dualistic perspective - to focus on the Shema - Listen God Wrestlers! God is One!  There is nothing else!    Indeed it does take a lot of wrestling to keep my grounding in that truth, that all is within the Divine Being - all is in dynamic process.    All suffering, all violence, all blessing and cursing manifest the swirling, creative process of Holy Being.  I cling to my understanding,  drawn from my reading of Genesis,  that drawing order out of chaos is what Holy Creativity does.
So, I take a deep breath and enter another day at the very beginning of a new year, with a prayer that 2020 will be a year of 20/20 clear vision for us all -that we may see this world and all its beauty and conflict with clear eyes and incisive wisdom to meet the needs we encounter with lovingkindness, courage, and nonviolent strength that comes from compassion.                                             

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, December 27, 2019

At the Street Corners and Subway Stations of Life

       Journeys in the world become journeys in Torah, and journeys in Torah become journeys in the world, the way of sacred literature. It is thus that Torah is called Torat Chayyim/Torah of Life, or Living Torah. On my way to downtown Boston, entering the subway station I stopped at the automated kiosk to put more money on my “Charlie Card.” As I stood there, following the machine’s prompts, trying to offer pleasantries even if they weren’t returned, a man clearly in need came up to me and asked if I could spare a few dollars. I offered some pleasantries to him as well, though after a brief exchange I’m not sure if I didn’t prefer the non-response of the machine, a thought that itself makes me sad. I realized that I didn’t have any small bills, just two larger ones. I apologized to the man, explaining that I didn’t have anything that I could give him. I was awkwardly holding my wallet in one hand and my Charlie Card and a credit card in the other. He became rather agitated and abusive, raising his voice, pointing to my wallet and saying he could see that I had money. After a short time, he snarled at me and stormed away cursing at what in that moment, I am pained to think he must have felt as my lack of kindness.

Later that evening, as I made my way to the T for the trip home, a man approached me as I stood at a busy downtown street corner waiting to cross. He too was clearly in need, making me wonder of what lessons I was meant to learn on this journey of street corner and subway station Torah. A large, bearded man, his voice almost jovial, he extended his hand as he asked, “can you help me out brother?” I sighed, feeling particularly pained, knowing nothing had changed in my wallet, offering apology and good wishes as the light changed. He smiled and wished me well. Suddenly I stopped as I stepped into the street, turning and running after the man as he stepped from the other corner. I asked him if he could wait a moment and I would run into a store right there on the corner. He smiled and said, “sure, brother.” I went into the store and waited a few minutes in line until I could ask the cashier to change one of the bills in my wallet. It wasn’t as big as I had thought it was, making me wonder if I should just have given it to the first man, or at least to the jovial man waiting outside. Having already gotten change, I came out and gave a few dollars to the man. We shook hands and again he wished me well, not much difference in his jovial demeanor or warmth from what were his blessings for me when I had not given him anything. We had indeed each given something to the other, though I felt that I had received more.

As I continued on my way to the subway station, lost in thought, I tried to understand the two different responses, really the four different responses that had played out in my interactions with the two messengers of God I had encountered that evening. There were two very different responses to me from each of them, and there were two very different responses from me to each of the two men. I wondered if I had failed to find some way beyond words to have shown kindness to the first man. So too, I wondered how much his gruff and abrasive manner had affected me, causing me to shut down the flow of chesed/loving-kindness from me to him. To the degree, sadly, that the manner of the first man may have influenced my response in a negative way, the manner of the second man may have influenced my response in a positive way. Taken together, a teaching on the way of encounter emerges, the way of words and manner to touch the heart of another.

    As I walked, comforted in knowing that at least now there were smaller bills in my wallet, I reflected on the weekly Torah portion called Chayyei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18). The name of the portion means the Life of Sarah, yet it opens telling of her death. Death becomes the ultimate lens through which we learn about kindness. As Avraham looked after the needs of his beloved wife, bringing words of eulogy and tears, purchasing and preparing a burial place, we see enacted the greatest love, that for which there can be no words of appreciation, deeds therefore described as chesed shel emes/deeds of loving-kindness and truth. The words chesed/loving-kindness and emes/truth appear a number of times in the portion, underscoring the nature of our deeds as the true measure of life, deeds of kindness as markers of truth along the path formed of our days. This is how we are to understand the poignant phrase in the portion, Avraham was old, he had come through the days/Avraham zaken, ba ba’yamim (Gen. 24:1).

Of kindness as the light upon our path, that which makes our days truly count, the Slonimer Rebbe offers a beautiful and challenging teaching on these words that describe Avraham as coming through the days. Reminding us that Avraham is associated with the attribute of chesed/loving-kindness, the Slonimer teaches that to come through the days means to do an act of kindness every day, she’b’chol yom tzarich la’asot ma’aseh chesed/for in each day one needs to do an act of loving-kindness…. Bringing home the point by way of warning and challenge, the Rebbe says, d’yom she’eyno oseh bo chesed, lo nech’shav k’yom b’chayav/a day in which one does not do an act of kindness is not considered as a day in one’s life….  In relation to ahavah as love between people in relationship with one another, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes such chesed/loving-kindness as love translated into action. In that way, chesed can be expressed and activated in relation to those whom we love in our lives as family and friends and in relation to those whom we love as fellow human beings, all of those who teach us living Torah on street corners and in subway stations.

    As I sat on the train coming home, quietly reflecting on unexpected teachers in unexpected places, as in “The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel continuing to remind, “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” I opened my phone to learn Daf Yomi/the Daily Page of Talmud. Following a seven year cycle, now in its thirteenth cycle, Jews throughout the world learn the same page on the same day, joined across time and space by ancient words as new as the light-emitting device held in my hand. I smiled with delight as I encountered the beautiful teaching that a child in utero knows the entire Torah, all of which is forgotten when an angel taps upon the upper lip as we emerge into life (Masechet Niddah 30b). In the warmth of rabbinic telling, the small cleft above the upper lip known as the “philtrum,” a word I learned from my dad the scientist (of blessed memory) long ago, reminds of learning left behind, womb wisdom meant to become world wisdom. As the train rumbled along, I then read of the oath that a child is made to swear before leaving the womb, an admonition from the beginning, from before we can know its import, that is meant to follow us through life: t’hi tzadik v’al t’hi rasha/become a righteous person and not a wicked one….

As journeys in the world become journeys in Torah, and journeys in Torah become journeys in the world, street corner wisdom and subway station Torah, so I made my way and wondered of my interactions that night. I wondered of kindness shown to one and not to another, if somehow each was part of a greater whole meant to help me learn the Torah of life. As each person’s soul is admonished to be righteous upon entering this world, our deeds of loving-kindness become fulfillment of the promise. Expanding our own self-righteous sense of what it means to be righteous, we learn to embrace others who also promised, and in their own way fulfill, teachers we might otherwise fail to meet at the street corners and subway stations of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 20, 2019

In the Nexus of the Written and Received - Words that Hurt and Words That Heal

           Written and received, words that hurt and words that heal, flowing through time as part of one conversation, joining generations, challenging. It is the relationship of Written Torah and Oral Torah, the place of their nexus providing a context of relationship between people and people, and people and God. The Written Torah, Torah She’bichtav, is the word of God, whether one understands it to emanate directly from the Holy One or as flowing through the minds and hearts of divinely inspired human authors. The Written Torah as the Five Books of Moses is complete as lovingly transmitted through the ages. The Oral Torah, Torah She’b’al Peh, literally the Torah of the mouth, is the word of human beings engaged with the text of the Written Torah. Open-ended, the Oral Torah is an ever-unfolding conversation through the generations. By tradition, the Written Torah begins at Mount Sinai, God’s gift to the Jewish people through Moses, our teacher. In one of the most radically bold acts of the rabbis, the Oral Torah is also rooted at Sinai, its flow beginning concurrently with the Written Torah. So the rabbis empowered human engagement with the Written Torah, setting forth a dynamic and dialectic by which we learn to probe deeply, eschewing fundamentalism, learning to lovingly debate and challenge, learning the way with dignity of speaking truth to power.  Written Torah and Oral Torah are two parts of one whole, inseparable from each other in the way of Jewish life and learning if we are to fully engage with the Torat Chayyim/the Torah of Life.

           In a boldly trenchant analogy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) compares the Written Torah to the notes of a lecture, while Oral Torah represents the fullness of the lecture itself in all of its richness and varied texture (Commentary to Torah portion Mishpatim, Ex. 21:2). The “notes” are enough to awaken awareness, to jog the memory only if one was at the “lecture,” only if one immerses in the living waters of Oral Torah, reading Written Torah and Oral Torah as one, concurrently, as given at Sinai. In regard to the harsh passages of Torah, to remain stuck in places of violence, or to slam the holy book shut in our pain, or, God forbid, if we accept such brutality as the intent of Torah, then we are not hearing the fullness of the lecture, its voice at times stern, at times pleading. Representing human engagement with God and with people, the Oral Torah is a model for human response and responsibility. Learning how to respond to textual violence becomes a metaphor and training ground for responding to violence in the world.

Encountering the harsh passages of Torah, we cringe, we cry, we scream out, speaking our tearful truth to power, be it the power of God, or of people who would simply read, or rationalize, or, worst of all, callously justify and say that is the tradition. There is such a passage in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim/Judges (Deut. 16:18-21:9). It is a portion whose violence is framed by teachings of nonviolence, as though to warn away from the ways of violence, as though to contain the harsh passages, to underscore that these do not represent the way of Torah. Torah becomes a context of struggle, of seeking the way.

Near the beginning, the Torah offers its classic challenge, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20). Just before the place of the portion’s greatest burst of violence is a series of military deferments, as though to say no to the sword and to those who would wield it, no, no a thousand times no, even God crying out. Immediately after the place of violence, framing and containing the harsh passage, is the command to spare fruit trees in times of war. Particularly in Chassidic teaching, the tree to be spared is seen to represent the ultimate tree, the human being, ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh/for the human is the tree of the field (Deut. 20:19).

And then we come to the harsh passage (Deut. 20:16-18), its words so hard to read, to share, to speak, chanting them in synagogue in a mournful undertone. In regard to the Canaanite nations who dwell in the land we are about to enter, the Torah says, lo t’chayeh kol n’shammah/you shall not allow a soul to remain alive…. We bravely step into the breach, ready to confront the violence, to speak truth to power in the way that we have learned to do from Torah itself. If we do not have the courage to confront violence in Torah, how shall we have the courage to confront violence in the world around us? So we are meant to learn and to transcend.

In the way of Oral Torah we bring teachings to bear that counter the violence, that offer another way, that set up a dynamic that is meant to teach us the way that heeds the Torah’s own call in this very same portion, justice, justice shall you pursue. I am drawn in this portion particularly to the teaching of Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenberg, chief rabbi of Koenegsburg in the mid to later 19th century. In the name of his commentary, the name by which he is known, we find ourselves in that nexus of Written Torah and Oral Torah, the place of our empowerment. Known as the K’tav V’ha’kabbalah/the Written and the Received, referring to the Written and the Oral Torah, Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi seeks through his commentary to show the essential link between these two facets of Torah. So he empowers us to engage with all that is painful in the Written Torah, seeing the importance of our own place in the ever-unfolding tradition. This is exactly the nature of our own learning. It is exactly what calls us to engage with and challenge the harsh passages, drawing from the pained wrestlings of others who came before. Oral Torah is Torah. It is all one Torah with which and through which we engage with life in all of its facets.

In a commentary of overwhelming moral power, staggering in its challenge to the Written Torah and to most other commentators, himself speaking truth to power, the Ha’k’tav V’ha’kabbalah affirms the process of bringing Oral Torah, including our own voices, to challenge the Written Torah. In regard to the harsh passage of our portion, as usually translated, you shall not allow a soul to remain alive, he virtually screams out at the cruelty and then proceeds to show how it cannot possibly be as it would appear, that the Torah, that God, God forbid, would call for the extermination of innocents, d’nireh k’ach’zari’ut g’dolah lish’foch dam naf’shot n’ki’yim/so it appears as great cruelty to spill the blood of innocent souls. He reviews the common views that rationalize the slaughter, offering implicit critique to commentators who would appear to simply shrug. He then goes on to offer his own view. He suggests that t’chayeh/to allow to live has a technical meaning, referring to sustaining a life, in this case enemy captives in order to enslave them. He brings various examples to show how this is the meaning. The negative formulation, as lo t’chayeh/you shall not allow to live is not meant to suggest that we shouldn't sustain captives, but that we should not sustain them for the sake of enslaving them. He then says boldly that instead of either killing them or enslaving them, the verse teaches that we should simply allow them to flee and to settle wherever they like, even in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi then draws together his commentary with great power and conviction, saying that even if you don't agree with his interpretation, you must acknowledge that the verse is not about killing innocents, you are bound to acknowledge/al kor’cha’cha tzarich l’hodot/that the intent in it (the verse) is not to kill all of the people who are found in the city without distinction/bilti havchanah…. He speaks powerfully about citizens -- men, women, and children -- who cry out for peace, but they have no power in the face of their own soldiers. He sees the innocents as m’vakshei ha’shalom/seekers of peace, an amazing phrase by which to describe one’s presumed enemies. 

Empowered in our own wrestling with Torah as Torat Chayyim/the Torah of life, drawn to confront and transcend violence in the text, so we are meant to in life. The approach of the Ha'ketav V'hakabbalah points to the importance of Oral Torah as the key to drawing out a stream of nonviolence that flows through Torah. Oral Torah represents our human struggle with challenges presented by the written word of Torah and in life itself. At times, the Oral Torah fills in blanks and offers the way by which to fulfill a cryptically framed mitzvah, and at times it offers moral direction and a call to question and wrestle with the written word. 

So Torah becomes a "laboratory," a context, in which we are meant to struggle with all realms of life. Oral Torah represents the human will to engage with all of our being, learning to challenge and redirect all that would undermine the beauty of creation and the holiness of life, learning to challenge with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our might. Learning to speak truth to power, we learn to lovingly engage with each other and with God in the nexus of the written and the received.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 13, 2019

Give me your tired, your poor...

          I'm remembering him as my first and quite personal experience of a refugee fleeing his own country in a time of war. Russia invaded Estonia in 1940 and the country became a pawn of the Soviet Union. Mr. Napp and his family fled. 

We live in a time when some 30 million people have fled their homes because of persecution and violence. They fear for their lives should they return. The United Nations Refugee Agency terms it the greatest refugee crisis on record.

At the same time, the United States, historically a welcoming country for those tired and poor streaming toward our shores, has turned it's back and closed the doors. In the early 1980's, we took in more than 200,000 refugees a year. In later years we averaged some 67,000 a year. The present administration capped the number at 30,000 refugees in 2019 and has cut that back to 18,000 for 2020.

        We have the infrastructure, perhaps the best on the planet, for incorporating refugees into our midst. Most of this is provided by private faith based agencies in partnership with the federal government. These include Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, World Relief, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The latter is the agency at work in South Dakota to settle and support those residing in our area. In 2018, LSS in Sioux Falls settled 400 refugees. This year the numbers are down to 103. As this administration continues to close the door, the faith based infrastructure weakens and the light of the lady in the New York harbor goes dark. If the administration doesn't want refugees coming to this country, they should at least get out of the way of private faith based agencies who welcome them. How do we practice our faith of loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger when we are blocked by the government from serving them? Perhaps the government should be sued for denying us our religious rights and our religious freedom to practice the gospel?

I first met Joe at a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the Einstein Institute. Founded by Gene Sharp, foremost scholar of alternatives to war in the U.S., the Institute brought together a diverse group of people, from Generals in the military to activists from Tiananmen Square. During one break, Joe and I found each other, perhaps because we were the only ones wearing jeans among the participants.

Joe was born in Germany. His father worked there for an American corporation. Fortunately for them as a Jewish family, that corporate relationship enabled them to leave the country on the last train before the Nazis began the final solution. They came to this country as refugees. Perhaps because of that history, Joe went on to teach Peace Studies at a leading University. He was also one of the most generous persons I've ever known. Contrary to the usual wisdom, those who have experienced violence are often the most knowledgeable and committed advocates for its alternative. And they demonstrate that alternative in their lives.

This is the season when many will hear the story of a family fleeing to another country, because of their fear for the life of their child. A King, informed of a threat to his power and position by a new born infant, goes on a rampage of killing the innocent children of the land. It's known in the Christian faith as the Massacre of the Innocents. Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees and fled to Egypt. Jesus is saved.

As the story suggests, even welcoming one refugee can make a difference. Even better would be if we took His life and teachings seriously, and lived in a way that massacres of the innocent ceased.

Carl Kline

Friday, December 6, 2019

Better to light just one little candle...


        It is midweek as I write, still reflecting on Sunday morning’s service of worship.  It was the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the ancient rituals of anticipating the renewal and rebirth that comes with the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.  The service was abundant with the full range of human emotion and aspiration.  

    The Pietro Yon organ prelude set the tone with its steady bass beats, like ever advancing footsteps under the clear high notes of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” - - evoking the image of an ever advancing movement toward justice and peace. 

     The diverse congregation gathered.   Children to be baptized;  a brand new nonagenarian celebrating her 90th birthday; the deacons and church school teachers a mix of skin colors; LGBTQ members fully embraced; a terrified family whose mentally compromised son is among the missing in New York City; an equally terrified and grieving woman whose husband is showing signs of dementia; a young man who cares for a sister who has had a debilitating stroke.

     There was the chaos of young children wiggling, struggling to be free of parental constraints, vocalizing lustily as the baptism unfolded.  All this playing out against the ordered and measured background of an incredible  solo offering of  Handel’s “Comfort Ye, My People”, framing perhaps a dozen children gathered with the pastor around the font for the blessing of the baptismal water.

       Three sets of parents, three children, three sets of godparents, one of whom is a Jewish father faithfully bringing his own sons to Jewish services each week in preparation for their  being called to the Torah,  all vowing to resist the forces of evil in the world, to work for justice against oppression and to raise these young souls in the paths of righteousness - the congregation promising to support them all.

     The prayers of the people brought forth the joys and concerns of the congregation to be offered to The Holy One, to be cared for and ministered to by the community gathered.

     An invitation was given to meet one another around an open table for communion to renew and refresh the memory of the life and teachings of Jesus, to renew together the commitment to life in community based on the hope for a new age when “justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

     And then the “bookend” as the congregation hummed together “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the pastor gave the benediction and sending forth.

     As people moved toward the coffee hour, small knots of human-kindness gathered around the young man who has been caring for his sister,  offering loving support in the form of visits and homemade soups; around the woman whose grief at her husband’s decline left her without words, but welcoming the solid embrace of support around her.  The coffee hour simply continued the worship in another room, under another guise, as individuals connected with each other, as strangers were welcomed and fed, as calendars were produced and appointments made to carry the caring, the feeding, the work of justice out into the world.

     The service was a swirl of chaos and order,  rejoicing and pain,  sorrow and hope, all playing out in the midst of an extravagant hospitality that welcomes every part of our humanness into the sacred precincts of worship. 

     As I have continued to reflect on just what exactly happened during that  brief couple of hours I have come to see that it was a momentary peek into the reign of The Holy One, the divine unity for which we yearn in our immense and often challenging diversity.  We call it by so many names - The Second Coming, The Kingdom of God, the coming of the Messiah - - that time when every tear shall be dried, every injustice set right, every broken heart healed.  

     At the beginning of the service, we lighted the first of the four candles in the Advent wreath and claimed it as a symbol of hope.  And then, for a brief space in time we entered into the dynamic unfolding of “the kingdom” in our midst - - shared in a glimpse of what it might look like if we each simply do what is required of us - to “do justice, to love mercy and kindness, to walk humbly with our God.”  

     The  sacred texts affirm that the kingdom is within us and among us, moving inexorably, with slow and steady footsteps toward fulfillment.  This is the hope of Advent.  There is great power in lighting that one little candle.

Vicky Hanjian