Friday, February 21, 2020

To Build Connection in the Places of Our Common Vunerability

As I said goodbye to a visitor, a question was left with me, and so it has lingered. In a voice both perplexed and pained, I was asked, “Why is there such a negative view of Esau in our tradition, so much more negative than the Torah itself would suggest?” Esau, of course, is the brother of Ya’akov, the one from whom Ya’akov wrests both the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. Long through the shimmerings of time and history, Esau, as Edom, comes to be associated with Rome, fierce oppressor of Jacob’s descendants. As in regard to so much strife in Torah, particularly in B’reishit, beginning with Cain’s killing of Abel as the first murder, much of the interpersonal strife and violence we encounter plays out in the family context, among those who are siblings. The first murder is fratricide, as every killing of one human by another has been ever since. The allusion becomes clear, all humanity are siblings, all children of a common Creator in whose image we are created, whose tears dampen the soil wherever we live in conflict with each other on this earth.

          A parent struggling to be lovingly present for each of his children, whether in fact blind near the end of his days or only willfully so, we are told of Isaac’s horror upon realizing that he has blessed his younger son with the blessing meant for the elder. Having returned from the hunt and having prepared a meal for his father, Esau weeps and cries out, the Torah telling of a broken soul, When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly loud and bitter cry, and then he said to his father: “Bless me also, O my father!” (Gen. 27:34). Of bitter tears and the cry of a wounded heart, we have already encountered the same pain in the father’s generation, the divide then between Isaac and his brother Yishma’el. As migrants cast out and wandering in the desert, the water carried by Hagar and her son is spent. The forlorn mother places her son in the shade of some desert brush.

       We are told that God heard the voice of the child and that an angel called out to his mother, saying, Do not be afraid, for God has already heard the voice of the child, there where he is/ba’asher hu sham (Gen. 21:17). Drawing on midrash, on the words there where he is, Rashi teaches that a person is to be judged by the deeds they do in the moment, v’lo l’fi mah she’hu atid la’asot/and not according to what they may do in the future. The place of that moment was and remains a place of human vulnerability, and therefore a place that offers the greatest potential for human connection. It is a place that reminds of the times when we are each in greatest need of human connection, times when we are parched in body and soul, times when we each thirst for love and compassion and can recognize such need in the other.

Holding up a mirror in which to see ourselves, the Torah now brings us to the weekly Torah portion called Vayetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3), along with Yaakov, to encounter Lavan, uncle of Jacob. Having already witnessed human vulnerability, we are reminded of our own as we come to see it in those we meet in the turning of Torah. Yaakov has fled his brother’s anger, arriving in Charan, there among his mother’s family falling in love at first encounter with Rachel.

He agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in order to marry Rachel. In the familiar story, on the wedding night Lavan presents the undoubtedly well-veiled bride, who in the morning Yaakov discovers is the elder sister, Leah. Yaakov confronts Lavan and says, What have you done to me…? Why have you deceived me…? Responding to the one who has also deceived, Lavan’s words drip with irony, It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder. We wonder how Lavan’s words touch Yaakov, whether they do in the moment of his own vulnerability, when he is the one deceived. The uncle’s words become a mirror in which Yaakov can see himself if he is willing to look, to gaze and reflect in all of his pain and vulnerability. Lavan’s words can also become a mirror for us if we are willing to look, to bravely accept an opportunity in which to gaze at aspects of ourselves that we may prefer not to see.

Through the years, Yaakov has grown abundantly, with his two wives, both Leah and Rachel, and with their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, becoming the father of eleven children, rich in herds and flocks. Twenty years having passed, he now seeks to return home to his family in Canaan. Well aware of Lavan’s jealousy and that of Lavan’s sons, Yaakov sets out a plan, coordinated with his wives in defiance of their father, to secretly flee. When the time comes and the great procession makes its way into the unknown, distance is put between them and the sure to follow retinue of Lavan. Eventually the distance is bridged, if not the hearts of fleer and pursuer, an encounter that is hard to imagine, wondering who would speak first and what to say to the other.

The Torah sets the stage for us, telling us of human vulnerability as the place of the encounter, a place beyond time and space, a place carried in each of our hearts. We are simply told, And Yaakov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramean in that he did not tell him, because he fled (Gen. 31:20). That is exactly what Lavan says just a few verses later, you have robbed my heart…; and you did not permit me to kiss my sons and daughters…! As with Yishma’el earlier, and then with Esav, the Torah brings us to a place of human encounter, holding before us emotions that we can understand because they are our own. In the context of Jewish law, beginning in the Talmud ((Tractate Chulin 94a), Jacob is wrong to deceive Lavan, however much we may understand his actions. Such deception is called g'neivat da'at/stealing of mind, accomplished when outer actions and spoken words belie inner feeling and intent. We are meant to ask, to wonder, what else might he have done; how differently might he have responded to the situation; how might he have directly engaged with Lavan to open the possibility of understanding and a different way of departure?

As we consider why such a negative view of Esau has developed in the tradition, so too with Lavan. We can surely draw negative inferences about both of them from the Torah text, but not at all to the extent of evil later ascribed to them. There is surely as much fault to find with Yaakov and others of our ancestors. My visitor’s question lingers, so why such a negative view as it plays out through time? Perhaps it emerges from our own vulnerability and pain, from our own experience as a people. That we might learn to break such destructive dynamics, Torah challenges us to think of our own lives and their contexts, of our own experiences with people. We are meant to ask what we might do to help foster reconciliation and the possibility of wholeness in all the varied ways of our own relationships with people as they occur in the living of our lives. The challenge for us then becomes how to avoid weaving new enmities and enemies from what are often scant threads of conflict as encountered in the texts of our lives.

        The Torah is meant to be a context in which to wrestle with life and its encounters, and so we are meant to wrestle here, as indeed Jacob will soon do. As we encounter people at their most vulnerable, however much they may seem to us to be “other,” we are able to see ourselves reflected in their pain. The negative portrayal of the other emerges, perhaps, through our own inability to look at what is most difficult to behold in our selves. Torah offers a context in which to wrestle, a place in which to ask hard questions of our selves and of each other as we seek to understand the Esaus and Lavans whom we encounter along the way of our lives. We come to ask how and why we create enemies, why we foster images of the other that allow us to continue seeing them as an enemy.

While my visitor’s question still lingers, in considering the negative images ascribed to others, may we bravely seek to build connection in the places of our common vulnerability. From the place of shared human pain, may we come to know the heart that would be shattered if that which was most precious to it was stolen, and in protecting from such sorrow may know shared human joy. So the rabbis asked, who is a hero of heroes/aizehu gibor she’b’giborim? And they answered, one who makes of their enemy their friend (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23).

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Go down Moses..."


                A couple of weeks ago, I had surgery to replace a faulty part of my right knee.  All went as expected and the recovery process is remarkably smooth and remarkably fast.   My first real  outings were to attend services at our local synagogue and church.  I was unimaginably touched by the tender care  and concern I received in both places.  Much prayer for a full and complete healing, offers of meals (which I readily accepted), tender visits from members of both congregations, lots of emails and phone calls with good wishes.  (This “double belonging “ really pays off in a crisis!)😁   At the synagogue there was sensitive “accompaniment” into and out of the building lest I stumble and fall.  My food appeared in front of me at the table during the Kiddush lunch that follows the service.

When I entered the church on Sunday morning, the pastor greeted me and suggested that I sit in the front pew so that I would have more room for my less than flexible leg.   My husband located a chair to place in front of me so that I could “elevate.”  Another church member walked by and glanced at the chair and commented “that’s way too high  and uncomfortable” and she quickly brought another chair that was a much better fit.  She looked again and said “you need a cushion under your leg” and promptly disappeared, returning a few minutes later to place a  wonderfully soft cushion under my leg.  Ahhhhh!   Just right.

I reflected on the caring I had received across the weekend services.  Some verses from Exodus (3:7&8) kept reverberating in my mind, words spoken by G-d to Moses in the conversation where G-d is  about to commission Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.   Robert Alter in THE HEBREW BIBLE: A Translation With Commentary renders the words this way: “ I indeed have seen the abuse of My people and its outcry because of  its taskmasters.  I have heard, for I know its pain.  And I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt and bring it up to a goodly and spacious land…” The Message  translation reads: “I’ve taken a good long look.  I’ve heard their cries.  I know all about their pain.  I have come down to help them, to pry them loose from the grip of Egypt.”   And one further variation from the New International Version: “I have seen their misery.  I have heard them crying out.  I am concerned.  I have come down to rescue…”

       The micro inevitably leads to the macro.  Pharaoh rules with a harsh and unkind fist gloved in the desire to limit Medicaid, requiring people to work in order to receive government health benefits, to reduce Social Security benefits, to cut food stamp programs, to maintain unconscionable wealth in the hands of the few while infrastructure deteriorates, white supremacy flourishes and  anti-semitism slithers openly once again like a toxic basilisk permeating the land with its foul, fatal breath.

And G-d says to Moses: “I have taken a good long look and seen their misery. I have heard their cries.  I have come down to help them - to pry them loose from the grip of Pharaoh.”  The action words have seemed to me to be a kind of formula for pastoral care - to see and hear and understand the pain of another - - and then to take action in the other’s behalf.  This is certainly what I experienced in my encounters in my beloved faith communities  where  people care for one another and observe each other’s vulnerabilities - - pay attention  - - and act to relieve sadness, pain, discomfort where they can - - where I was seen and attended to.

The election year is unfolding at a rapid pace.  In a still wide field of candidates, there is much uncertainty yet about who is most likely to unseat Pharaoh. The divine model provides a good gauge of character for figuring it all out - - can we elect a winning candidate who clearly sees the devastating pain of this country?  Is there one among the many who can hear the cries that surface among people too long denied justice and full participation in American life and government?  Is there one strong enough, attentive enough, compassionate and empathetic and savvy enough to pry us loose from the grip of Egypt?

Perhaps a more important question is “Are there enough of us who will listen to the challenge that is placed  before Moses to become the means through which the seeing, the hearing, the concern and the action are made manifest in the service of a greater wholeness for all?”  Time is short.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 7, 2020

Traveling Together Toward Wholeness

         I participated in a meeting recently in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston where many of my relatives lived and that I would often visit as a child, not far from where I live now in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The gathering was part of an ongoing effort to connect older and younger activists. Regardless of age, a greater bridging happened around the table, all of us coming to be joined across differences of race, neighborhood, faith, economics and all else that serves so often to divide. We talked about the very divides that at least for the moment seemed to be bridged among us. Reflecting on the neighborhoods of Boston and the surrounding communities, voice was given to the “avoidance of contact” that fosters implicit racism. Before long, as painful stories were shared by African American partners, what is often referred to as implicit racism seemed pretty explicit, the very terms of reference we use serving to paper over the deeper brutality of racism.

Fostering ongoing, day-to-day, meaningful contact among diverse communities remains one of the great challenges in the quest for racial and economic justice and equity. Laws mandating equality do not in themselves insure equity, and surely not contact with each other. The invidious politics of avoidance and separation run deep. The tragic and shameful legacy of redlining and blockbusting in the once Jewish neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan insured the separation of Blacks and Jews. At a conference I attended last June, an elder African American woman who had lived in these neighborhoods since that time cried as she lamented all these years later the separation of our communities.

          These are painful and personal realities for Jews. We have known so deeply what it is to be avoided, to be the other. We have known ghettos and we have known restrictions quietly practiced and kept in place to subtly insure that contact would be avoided. I remember as a child growing up in nearby Winthrop hearing the word “restricted” in regard to both Blacks and Jews. Sadly, at times, we have helped to facilitate such avoidance of others, as in the Jewish flight from the three neighborhoods. At times, our pejorative use of the word goyyim, a perfectly fine word meaning “nation” or “people,” has reflected a cathartic lashing out; and at times a reflection of racism imbibed and made our own from the ways of the society in which we sought to “make it.” At times our avoidance of others, however sad, has been understandable. Separation has been a way of keeping protective distance between our selves and those who would and did harm us. So too, as for many minorities, separation insured a way of maintaining our own distinctive ways and identity, offering a hedge against assimilation.

Prior to the meeting in Dorchester, at which these were all such real questions, I had already been thinking about “avoidance of contact,” of what it means and how and why it happens. It is a question that plays out with painful and poignant consequences in that week’s Torah portion that is called Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43). As Yaakov makes his way home to his family, he knows that he will need to encounter his brother Esav, that one way or another a reunion will happen. After twenty years away, having fled his brother’s anger and threat to kill him for stealing the elder brother’s birthright, he now approaches the fateful encounter. Wrestling through the night, whether with an angel, with God, with the spirit of Esav, with himself, he struggles with all that has been and all that shall be. Refusing to let go of his adversary, he is struck on the hip and wounded, limping now toward wholeness. He is told that Esav is approaching with four hundred men, clearly armed, the danger seeming clear. Yaakov prepares a plan, arranging his family into cohorts, each to approach Esav ahead of him, each bearing gifts meant to appease. As the plan unfolds, suddenly Yaakov runs as fast as his limp will allow, making his way past the cohorts into which he has divided his family, making his way to the front, there to face Esav alone, no longer avoiding contact. The two brothers fall into each other’s arms and weep, and Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, fell upon his neck and kissed him; and they wept (Gen. 33:4).

It is a powerful and beautiful moment, the past carried away on a stream of tears, the brothers bathed as though in a mikveh/ritual bath of hope. That poignant moment in the text of Torah is not allowed simply to be, and nor are the brothers allowed to remain in their embrace. The word for kissed/va’yishakehu is dotted in the Torah text, a small dot above each letter, even on the parchment of the holy scroll itself. Some interpret the dots to mean that Esav’s kiss was insincere, while others take it at face value, joining his kiss with his tears, weeping seen as more assuredly genuine and harder to effect. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes from nineteenth century Germany, “Tears emanate from the inmost depths of the human soul. By this kiss and these tears we recognize that Esau is still a descendant of Abraham.”

For all that should join the two brothers, when the time comes to move on from the moment of reunion, Yaakov declines Esav’s suggestion that they travel together. It is for me a deeply sad moment in Torah, one whose consequences continue to reverberate as we seek our way in a world torn with divisions. Yaakov says, Let my Lord, please, pass on before his servant, and I will continue to move at my own quiet pace, in accordance with the pace of the herds… and the pace of the children (Gen. 33:14). It is a beautiful thought and image to travel at the pace of the children, but it becomes clear as Esav suggests at least leaving some of his men for protection that Yaakov is seeking to avoid further contact with the other. In this case, the other is part of himself, his twin brother. Perhaps that is precisely the message that we are meant to learn here, that whenever we avoid the other, we are avoiding part of our self.

In a beautiful teaching from nineteenth century Poland, the Ha’emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, appears to share my sadness with Yaakov’s response to his brother, offering a gentle challenge and reminder that we can yet take another approach. Addressing us, he writes, and so for the generations, in a time when the seed of Esav awakens in pure spirit to recognize the seed of Israel…, then we too awaken to recognize Esav, for he is our brother…. Across time and neighborhoods, no longer avoiding contact, may we recognize each other as the siblings we are, traveling together then toward wholeness.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 31, 2020

Humility! Can We Impeach on this Value?

It's a sad and tragic time in the U.S.A. An impeachment trial in the Senate is underway. Democrat or Republican, one can only grieve that the political situation has become so desperate that we have reached this critical event.

Neither of my Senators have responded to my fundamental impeachment question. I asked them both if it was against the law to solicit help from a foreign government for aid in an electoral campaign. Now the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has just issued a report that when the President held up aid allocated by Congress for Ukraine, he broke the law. Whether that legal opinion, or the news from one of the principal Ukraine players, Lev Parnas, will have any effect on our Senators, the trial, and the hyper-partisanship in the Senate, remains to be seen.

            For me, the legal questions are secondary to the moral questions. I'd like to see an impeachment inquiry by a broad and diverse gathering of religious leaders and ethics scholars to try the President on ethical and moral grounds. There's nothing I'd like better than to witness the retiring editor of Christianity Today, who sees the President having a "grossly immoral character," in the same debate hall with Franklin Graham. Or I'd love to watch Serene Jones , President of Union Theological Seminary, go toe to toe with Paula White, the President's personal pastor.

Probably the first moral issue I'd ask them to address would be lying, since that seems to be the President's most grievous sin. As of December 15, the Washington Post claimed the President had made 15,413 false or misleading claims. That's a lot! Of course we all know the Washington Post is part of the "liberal" press that doesn't like the President. Besides, I can hear some of his supporters say, some of those claims may have been out of ignorance or to protect some important national secrets. Can we forgive what my mother called, "little white lies?'

        But then yesterday I watched the President answer a question about Lev Parnas, saying he didn't know him, didn't know who he was or what he did. That, after I had seen several different pictures of the President with Mr. Parnas, including video at Mar-a-Lago, and several others where Parnas was laughing it up with the President's personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani. The President's response to the questioner was what my mother would call a "bald-faced-lie!

I'd ask the moral impeachment gathering to consider what Scripture has to say about lying. Although I'm not one to use Scripture as proof text for my personal convictions, I know many evangelical Christians do. So I'd like the gathering to consider Proverbs 12:22: "The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy." Or given the tendency of the President to bully, threaten and demonize his opponents, maybe the moral impeachment trial should consider Ephesians 4:29: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

Maybe the religious leaders could take the following list of Christian values and examine the defendant according to each of them. Christian Sunday Schools try to instill these values in children (that's where the list originates): respect; responsibility; self control; moderation; honesty; integrity; kindness; compassion; forgiveness; contentment; thankfulness; patience; perseverance; peace; loyalty; commitment; justice; hope; service; joy; humility.

Humility! Can we impeach on this value? There's a story in the Gospel of Luke about two men who went up to the temple to pray. Jesus told this parable, "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others." In the parable, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. One was a braggart and the other one recognized his limitations. Jesus concluded, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

I'd like the trial to consider humility … and wealth and poverty. Maybe they would consider the story of the widow's mite in relationship to the Trump Charity that cheated kids with cancer, was fined and disbanded.

Perhaps more important than any other, the impeachment gathering might examine the President on his concern and care for God's good Creation. How might he respond to Romans 1:20? "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

Carl Kline

Friday, January 24, 2020

You don't have to Like Everyone, but you do have to Love Them

            At the neighborhood Black Lives Matter Vigil for January, the fiftieth monthly vigil since we began standing together on the first Thursday of each month, there was not the customary speaker prior to taking our places along Centre Street. Instead, people were asked to bring favorite quotes of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to publicly share. I tucked into the big pocket in my old barn jacket one of my favorite books of Dr. King, a collection of sermons called “Strength to Love.” I had in mind one of his subtler teachings, one that is not carried on his soaring rhetoric, one that I often share, especially with children. It is a teaching not so much about the world, the nation, and society, but about the individual, about ourselves and about our way of interacting with others, particularly with people we might prefer not to engage with. In that way, of course, it does become about the world and about the cosmic interconnection of all life, about how our own individual behavior and ways of engaging with others sends out ripples into the world and becomes an influence either for good or ill.

The essence of Rev. King’s teaching that I had in mind is very simple, and so complex and challenging. It seems almost as a riddle, which is how I present it to children, trying then to resolve what appears to be its paradox, “you don’t have like everyone, but you have to love them.” In a sermon titled, “Loving Your Enemies,” Rev. King gives greater expression and theological underpinning to the tension between liking and loving. Drawing from the Greek, Rev. King speaks of agape as, “understanding and creative, redemptive good will for all (‘men’) people. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love (‘men’) people not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every (‘man’) person because God loves (‘him’) them. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed….” As Dr. King contrasts the difference between the romantic love of eros with the love that is agape, it may be similar in Hebrew to the difference between ahava as the love of hearts joined as one, and chesed as loving kindness that is an expression of one’s humanity and that of the other.

Reading Rev. King’s sermon, I thought about Jewish approaches to the same question, of how we respond even to those who would harm us in a way that acknowledges their humanity. It is the great challenge that is planted in the very beginning of Torah, in the sublime and seminal teaching that every person is created b’tzelem elokim/in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Here, in this noble affirmation of humanity is also planted the painful problem of evil. What happens to the image of God when its bearer does not do it justice, even entirely abusing it through the abuse of other bearers of God’s image, failing to acknowledge either their own humanity or that of others? Yet, because God’s image is planted within every human being without exception, there remains something of the human essence to love. It is that love, I think, which is in part at the root of our horror in the face of vile and violent behavior. Our horror emerges in part in response to that grotesque twisting and violation of the godly image and of all that it means to be human. Our horror in the face of brutality is perhaps an expression of hope. God protect us if we become numb and fail to be horrified by brutality against anyone. And so too, we are horrified that one can so twist the image of God that has been planted within them.

As Dr. King draws on Christian sources to teach love of the enemy, so I look to Jewish sources. In the tension between love and like, as Dr. King draws it out, is a root teaching of nonviolence. Whether in regard to confrontations between collections of people or between individuals, the challenge is to recognize the inherent humanity of the other and to seek points of contact, offering a mirror in which the other might be able to see him or her self. In the Torah’s way of teaching, we often learn of human behavior and of what we can identify as the ways of nonviolence through stories and situations, challenged to ask what we would do.

          There is beautiful teaching to be drawn from the weekly Torah portion that framed the January vigil, the portion called Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27). It is a teaching that offers insight into the ways of nonviolence, drawing out the essential dynamic of recognizing the image of God in the other and helping them to do the same. While it plays out through the portion, the essence of the teaching is at the very beginning, vayigash elav yehudah/and Yehudah approached him…. It is the moment when Yehudah steps forward to plead with the viceroy of Egypt on behalf of Binyamin, the youngest son of Ya’akov, the youngest of the brothers, who has been framed for the theft of the royal goblet, now to remain in Egypt as a slave to the viceroy. While the brothers do not yet realize, that the viceroy is their brother Yosef, whom they had sold into slavery long ago, Yosef, on the other hand, does realize that the brothers have surely changed, that their t’shuvah is complete.

As Yehudah begins to plead for the sake of Binyamin, commentators ask what it means that he approached the Viceroy, given that he was already standing right there. In a beautiful commentary that begins with this question, the Or Ha’chaim, a seventeenth century teacher from Morocco, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, speaks of a deeper turning that is more than physical. Drawing from Proverbs (27:19), he teaches of a reciprocal approaching of hearts one to another: ka’mayim la’panim la’panim ken lev ha’adam la’adam/as in water, face answers to face; so the heart of one to another…. The Or Ha’chaim teaches that if Yehudah would awaken compassion in the Viceroy, he had to first awaken his own love and compassion for the Viceroy. Only then could he draw Yosef near to him and open Yosef’s heart to receive his words and his effort toward reconciliation. It is a powerful teaching about the dynamics of nonviolence, underscoring that it is not enough to utilize nonviolence only as a strategy. The power of nonviolence lies in heart to heart connection, in seeking to awaken recognition of a common humanity, recognition of the image of God that defines each as a human being. While we cannot like every person, in our love for the humanity of the other we affirm our own humanity and theirs. Having the courage to approach the other, as in water, face answers to face, so the possibility is opened toward rapprochement.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

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