Friday, August 7, 2020

And it Came to Pass After the Plague

  It would be such a simple and familiar story, but for the place of its telling. It is a story of two young women dreamily imagining the future in a place in which there was no future, in a place in which dreams were snuffed out along with those who dreamed them. Nevertheless, my friend Gerda, and her friend Eva, dared to dream, and to imagine a future that included them, a future in which they counted as human beings, in which their lives mattered. A friendship formed in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, two girls become young women, sustaining each other with stories in the absence of food, stories that helped them to look beyond the plague, beyond the narrow straits of their confinement. Each would survive, they promised each other, and each would marry, one giving birth to a son and one to a daughter; and these children would grow and marry, and the two friends would become family; eventually, even, to become grandmothers together. From the narrow place, they would dream and imagine what would be, of what life would be like after the plague. Gazing across the expanse of time, they sowed seeds of hope in the empty space between, and so it came to be.

From that time and place, we learn a lesson of what it means to look ahead, to look beyond the harsh realities of a given moment in time. Whether of personal liberation or collective, the two intrinsically entwined, the courage to survive is expressed not only in grand heroic deeds, but in daring to imagine life’s mundane details triumphant. Even from in the midst of struggle, when life is narrowed to its essence, only to survive, or in the first moments of emerging from the straits, that is when we need to pause and to imagine what can be, not simply to go on in the ways that have always been. The imaginings of two young women looking beyond the horrors of the Holocaust were not mere stories to amuse, but shared tellings to inspire the will to survive. In the way of a fairy tale to tell of deeper meaning, a reminder in their story that each is needed for the other’s survival, that each one counts in relation to the other, that the future can only be for all of us.

I have thought about Gerda recently, her story coming to mind as I have reflected on what it means to look ahead from in the midst of a difficult time. For all of the differences in history and context, and the nature of suffering, between Gerda’s experience and ours, there are important parallels, and therefore lessons, to be drawn from one time of extremis to another. In our time of pandemics colliding, the pandemic of a virus and the social pandemic of racism, the greatest danger as individuals and as a society is at the end to simply emerge without taking time to reflect and to be counted on for the sake of change. As Gerda imagined her own survival, for those today who have suffered both directly and indirectly through breath-taking illness and breath-taking violence, the extreme realities of this time have been personal in ways that not all of us have felt. In its disparate impact on communities of color, the Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the ugly strand of racism that is woven into the fabric of American life, as antisemitism had festered through centuries in Europe, exploding finally in the Holocaust.

   
Of racism endemic to the pandemic, I thought about the signs that Gerda describes in her book, “THESE I DO REMEMBER,” the signs that she passed as a child on her way to school, signs that shrieked with blood-curdling hate, “The Jews are Our Misfortune.” I closed my eyes and paused in reading her painful words, and I wondered “what if,” among all the myriad other “what ifs;” what if there had been enough brave people to have placed a very different sign in the windows and gardens of every house in Gerda’s hometown of Ansbach, and throughout that bloody land, a sign that cried out to remind, “Jewish Lives Matter.” It is a fundamental truth that all lives matter, but sometimes we forget what that means, that it really means all lives. Then we need to remind of those who have been forgotten, marginalized and brutalized, as though their lives really don’t matter, that they don’t count in the same way as others. And so we remind that Black Lives Matter.

In the space between now and then, when we shall have emerged from the plague, is the time for a national reckoning. It is a time for a true census taking of people and values, a time to remind that each one counts and each one is counted upon, a time in which to affirm beyond words that every life matters. It is a time in which to insure that we do not simply slip back to the way we were. Such is the reckoning we are called to do, to realize that we can indeed reduce our carbon footprint; that we can live more simply, for the sake of earth and each other, now and for generations to come. We can channel the energy and commitment of alliances formed in horror to be a great movement for constructive change, reaching out even to those who would oppose until they realize it is for them too. Of inequities brought into painful focus by the pandemic, lives not mattering in realms of health care, of housing, of education, of criminal-justice, we can no longer say we didn’t know. Now is the time to consider what life will be like after the plague.

These are the lessons held in the Jewish liturgical cycle as we follow it in the present moment, and in the turning of Torah and its marking of time. In the midst of summer’s beauty and bounty, when life should be embraced in all its fullness, as in the coming of a pandemic with spring’s first blossoms, we enter a time called beyn ham’tzarim/between the straits. For three weeks we make our way through a period of semi-mourning as the fitting approach to Tisha B’Av/the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, day of mourning and fasting for the destruction of the Temples that represented the world, the beginning of exile, of lives not mattering among the nations. These weeks begin with the Torah portion called Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1), named for a violent zealot who saw the need to act, but in taking up the spear could not see a new way of acting.

Pinchas had sought to stem the dying, already at twenty-four thousand, in the face of what was as much a social as a biological plague, death brought on by the moral unraveling of a society. Taking a breath after the dying and the killing, not simply to go on, the words of Torah are stunning as read through the lens of this time, va’y’hi acharei ha’mageifa/and it came to pass after the plague… (Num. 26:1).
The lesson is brought home with anomaly, the stark setting of contrast between the way assumed to always be and what is called for now, bidding us then to look ahead. Immediately after the sentence begins with the words that stop us, and it came to pass after the plague, we are stopped in earnest, a wide swath of blank space opening before us on page and parchment.
Underscoring the anomaly, scribal notes emphasize that a space is to be left right there in the middle of the sentence. Shaken from complacency, stopped in the way of reading and living, we pause in the silent space to consider how to go on after the plague. When next we take up the telling, it is with a commandment to conduct a census, to take a count of the entire community, counting each one to underscore that each one counts, to know who has been lost to the plague and who will lead the way on a new journey.

The Or Ha’chaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar (18th century Morocco and Jerusalem), teaches that in the space of pause that comes after the plague is the tikkun/repair that joins what has been and what will be, repair enacted through the counting of each one. Of the collective formed of individuals, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom No’ach Berzovsky (20th century Poland and Jerusalem) emphasizes the significance of the census following the plague, poetically teaching that each of us is as one grain of dust, all joined together in the way of dust that forms earth that is filled with the potential to sprout new life: particles joining, cleaving, nursing/nurturing one from another/ha’gargarim m’chubarim u’d’vukim v’yonkim zeh mi’zeh, and in this way there is to the dust become earth the potential of sprouting new life/v’al’y’dei zeh yesh l’afar ko’ach ha’tzmi’chah.

          
In the garden of days and generations, it is the way of Gerda’s story, a dream to sprout new life, personal survival intrinsic to the survival of the people, each one needed, each one counted. As the opening to a new story, and it came to pass after the plague, it is for each of us now to fill in the blank space beyond with the quill of our deeds. A story once told in extremis of young people daring to dream, time and details changing, but in its dreams for a future equally promised, a story still meant to be simple and familiar, then to say, after the plague, and so it came to be.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 31, 2020

Like leaven in the loaf...


It is the season in Jewish tradition when the  Haftarot of Admonition are read - those texts from the prophetic voice that express warning and Divine displeasure with human behavior characterized by injustice, greed, and neglect of the needs of the poor, the orphan and the widow.

  
This morning, as our rabbi led us in thinking about the nature of prophecy and the prophet, she posed two different notions of what a prophet might be: one who “hears” the voice of God in an ecstatic state, such that what the prophet speaks are the word of God and not his or her own.  Such a person does not personally own the words given to him or her to speak but attributes them to the Holy One.

     A second notion posits that a prophet is one who engages with HaShem -perhaps even wrestles with the Holy One, so that the prophetic word that emerges is a collaborative effort between prophet and HaShem.  Isaiah and Jeremiah, classical prophets, might exemplify the former.  Moses, who interacted and engaged with HaShem as he sought divine inspiration for his leadership might be considered an example of the latter.


Following her  teaching, our rabbi invited us to think together about who we might recognize as a prophet in our time.  As might be expected, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first mentioned.  Others such as Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela were also lifted up.  Even the often prophetic voice of Bob Dylan made the cut.

What seemed very clear to me as the discussion unfolded is that we seem to always look for the “BIG” voices - the ones that move multitudes with their clear seeing and their vibrantly amplified messages calling for  justice and speaking truth to power.  And yet, as I listened to our rabbi and her rabbi husband speak, I saw even more clearly that the prophetic voice is not always or necessarily the booming one.   Both rabbis embody the prophetic voice as they faithfully draw our attention to the ancient texts that are so pertinent for us today.  They consistently focus our minds and our attention on the call of HaShem to live lives of holiness, committed to justice, to equity for all, and especially for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate health care and those most vulnerable to abuses in a systemically racist culture and criminal justice system.  They invite and help us to stand with the prophets of old.

What struck me even more powerfully was that in their faithful commitment to focusing our attention on the sacred texts, our rabbis are in the process of cultivating a “prophetic consciousness” in each one of us in the congregation, empowering each one of us to live prophetic lives in our own spheres of influence.
This is, of course, a much slower and less dramatic way of bringing human consciousness around to the place where it embodies the command to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”   But it is an inexorable force.  

Like the slow and hidden work of the yeast in a beautiful challah,  the steady focus on the prophetic words from the voices from our history shapes and guides our thinking and action in a world that might conclude that the age of prophecy is long gone.

 As the day progresses, I find myself wondering how much more quickly the age of “prophetic consciousness” might expand if we each listened with sharper minds and ears to what our rabbis and ministers and imams and priests might be trying to do as they fulfill their own prophetic calling to expose the words of the prophets, inviting us to fill ourselves up with them so that we, too, feel ourselves in that great rushing movement where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 24, 2020

To Bravely Enter the Silence


What shall we make of these days? What are the lessons that we shall learn? To realize that we have the opportunity to make something of our experience and to learn from what we are going through is empowering. In the midst of a reality over which we have so little control, there are choices that are ours to make. The way that we choose to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves becomes its own way of giving personal shape to a collective experience that at times threatens to overwhelm. Are these days of isolation and separation simply an interruption in the flow of our lives? Or can this time be a bridge that joins our days, the days as they were before and the days that shall come after? In the silent space of solitary experience, and yet of common pause, how shall we each search out the lessons and insights that are ours to scribe on the parchment of our lives?

It is a teaching that comes not with words of Torah, but in the silence that lies between words, a silence lovingly held in the portion called Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1-11:47). So in love with Torah down to its smallest details, the ancient scribes counted every letter and every word of Torah. So it is that in the portion of Sh’mini we know that we have come to the very middle of the Torah as marked by both letters and words. Of the middle in letters, the very middle of Torah is the letter vav in Vayikra 11:42, the letter vav, a letter of joining one to another, the conjunction and, here writ large, standing out from the midst of a word. And soon before that, marking the middle of the Torah in words, two words taken together. Moses is searching. It is a painful search, angry, disjointed, space opening in which to calm.

        Moses has been searching, even frantically, for the goat of a sin offering, the goat meant to be ceremonially eaten by Aaron and his priestly sons as part of the rite of atonement on behalf of the people. Grieving for two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, struck down on a day of glory, killed before the altar for bringing “strange fire,” the very words suggesting mystery, the incomprehensibility of human tragedy, Aaron is not in a state of mind and heart to consider eating a sacred meal. Dispensing with ritual in the absence of intention, he consigns the entire offering to the fire instead. To his brother’s effort to explain the unexplainable, to give greater context as though to justify the unjustifiable, Aaron remains silent, va’yidom aharon/and Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3). Aaron’s silence points the way to a greater silence, the silence of the heart, the silence that is at the heart, that is the heart, silence that speaks louder than words.

As the scribes count the Torah’s words, we come to the very middle, to the heart of Torah. The middle is formed of two words that tell of Moses’ searching,
 darosh || darash/searching || he searched. Clearly, two words cannot form the middle of the Torah in words. The rabbis teach that darosh marks the end of the first half of the Torah, while darash marks the beginning of the second half of the Torah. The very middle of the Torah, therefore, is the silent space between the two words of searching. From that silent space, the very heart of Torah, we look back to search out all that has been, seeking to make sense, to distill wisdom; and we look ahead, searching out glimmers of the future as it disappears into the unknown, sparks of faith dancing on the edge of uncertainty.

From the silent space that lies between, whether experienced as a pause in the journey or as a part of the journey, how to be in that place is a matter of choice. It is unsettling, if not frightening, to be in a place of pause, a place in which there are no words to guide, only words to encourage us to search, to really search, darosh || darash. It is the place from which faith emerges if we tend its seed, watching over it, delighting in the gentle, joyful strength it gives. Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, 1855-1926, Rebbe of Sochatchov, known as the Shem Mi’sh’muel, teaches on the silence of this parsha, the silence of the silent spaces of Torah and life, d’mimah sh’murah al chizuk ha’emunah/silence protected is the strength of faith. In silence, faith is nurtured if we allow it to be. From generations earlier in the Chassidic line, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Rebbe Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilikov, grandson of the holy Baal Shem Tov, taught of the creative possibilities that might emerge from silence, teaching that from that silent place of seeking emerges great insights of torah she’b’al peh/Oral Torah, the teachings of human struggle and engagement with Torah and life. Similarly did his nephew teach, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, opening us up to the depths of Torah to be found in the challal ha’panu’i/the hollowed out space of time set apart, when we can either sink into the depths, or make music as from a hollowed reed that becomes a challil/recorder.

That is where we are in these days, choices offered as gifts, choices become a living line to grasp as we journey into the music of silence. Of silence framed by words of searching, these days can be of meaning if we allow them to be. For all of the pain and worry, the loss and fear, endeavoring to do all that we can to help each other, it is yet for each of us to bravely enter the silence of our own hearts, as the Torah beckons us to enter its own innermost heart and there to be with the silence. This is not a time apart, but rather it is part of the journey of life, a time that bridges what came before and what shall come after. As words of Torah, each one lovingly counted, the days that came before are precious, and so shall be the days yet to come, even more so when touched by faith freshly nurtured in silence.
 








Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, July 17, 2020

Earth's crammed with heaven...

The pandemic has led to a quieter life style in my little corner of the world. Sitting in the back yard I'm aware of the wind in the trees, the singing of the birds, even the buzz of a dragonfly or bee. Although there is more traffic noise a block away because of sixth street repairs, it doesn't normally drown out the more subtle sounds of the world of nature. That is, unless it's a passing motorcycle or a truck with a noisy exhaust. Those noises demand your full attention and leave little room for the subtle sounds of nature.     Given all the noises of normal life in our society, one wonders if we haven't deliberately increased our noise level to drown out the sounds of nature, providing us one more example of our dominance over it. Leaf blowers drive me crazy. Our lawn mower is much worse than the battery powered mower of our neighbor. Even our older air conditioner drowns out conversation near it.

Then too I think of the overwhelming sound of those B1-Bombers at Ellsworth Air Force Base. You will have to lip read the words of the person standing next to you. There's no way you can hear them with that overpowering noise. I suppose it's simply another way of emphasizing the nuclear load in the hold.

Dominance!

 I'm beginning to wonder the same thing about our night lights. Just try seeing the night sky amidst the street lights of the city. One could easily go their whole life in city streets without seeing the milky way in all it's glory; maybe seeing the moon occasionally, when the moon is full and the smog level is low.   I was reading where astronomers at the University of British Columbia are saying the milky way is made up of as many as 600 billion stars. They have concluded there may be as many as 6 billion earth like planets in our milky way galaxy. In order to be considered earth-like, the planet would need to orbit a sun, be about the same size as earth and be rocky. Maybe there are 6 billion earths!

 We may have a good, but unconscious reason, for fogging the night atmosphere. How small is earth! How insignificant humans are in the larger scheme of things! This "pale blue dot" is minuscule! It's hard for us to dominate a galaxy. Better to turn on the night lights and impair our vision.

 With each passing day, I become more convinced there is no "normal" to return to after this pandemic. It is sim[ply one of an ever increasing series of messages from the earth, that we need to change our ways. We are called to some revolutionary, some evolutionary changes, in our behavior.. Either we learn to live in harmony with some degree of humility with the natural world and each other, or we won't live at all. Dominance in relationships has never worked, whether between human beings or with nature. It is short-sighted and short-lived, at best.

 Many are beginning to "get it". We are part of nature. We are related in an intricate web with all other life. We aren't meant to be alone, separate individuals. Nor are we meant to rule over nature but rather relate to it. We are natural (nature) beings. We are social beings. We are part of larger relationships.     Look how younger people can't stay away from each other. They fill the beaches, the restaurants and the bars. Older people sit in forced isolation and depression, missing contact with friends and family. Children want to be back in the classroom, not to sit six feet from each other but to interact and have recess together. Teachers express exhaustion at teaching on line and organize drive-bys to have even modest contact with their students. Business people want to see their customers. Shoppers are anxious to hit the malls. Churches want to open and congregations are anxious to be together. Everyone seems anxious to be "outside," for a walk, a bike, a ride in the country or a hike in the woods.

 We are at a turning point in human history. Check it out at the WHO web site. This pandemic and its message is global! We can choose a socially constructive alternative to our rugged individualism (everyone and every nation is on their own) of the past. We can choose environmental consciousness and respect instead of the dominance and exploitation of the past.


 Elizabeth Barrett Browning says it well in her poem "For Those Who See." Take off your shoes!

 “Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”



Carl Kline

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Flag and the Sign to Remind, and a Simple Flower of Hope



Soft light plays on the rainbow flag that hangs in the porch window. Just beneath the flag is a Black Lives Matter sign, the one we take to demonstrations, the one without a wire stand. The dramatic interplay of color tells of Torah, the Torah of justice, Torat Chayyim/Torah of Life, of letters and parchment, Black fire on White fire, here in reverse. I hear the voice of Pete Seeger (of blessed memory) singing through time a children’s song, “Oh the ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write….” I hadn’t planned to put the flag and the sign together, but it seems so right. Coming home from a demonstration, I set the sign down on the windowsill beneath the flag. It happened to be just the right amount of space and it didn’t seem fitting to put the sign out of sight, even if there is another in the garden, the one whose wire base is set in the warm earth, justice waiting to flower. I had earlier taken a photograph of the sign in the garden, one single pink tulip in front of it bravely rising toward the light, the flag and the sign.

I gazed and reflected upon the flag and the sign on the fourth yahrzeit of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Forty-nine people, mostly LGBTQ people of color, were slaughtered by the gunfire of one so filled with hate he could not see their humanity, nor his own. Forty-nine souls, each one counting and counted, as in the counting of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuous, counting days to remind that each one counts. All the more so, to remind that every person counts, that every person is of infinite value and meaning. Why is that so hard for us to understand and so to live? In the confluence of days, in the midst of so much pain, remembering them on their fourth yahrzeit came in the midst of the shiva days for George Floyd, the flag and the sign. And the flower reaches toward the light.

As we nurture flowers in the garden, helping each one to grow and become in its rising toward the light, so the flowering of each person’s light as we help each other to grow and become. It is a simple message conveyed through carefully calibrated language at the beginning of the weekly Torah portion called B’ha’alotcha (Num. 8:1-12:16). Moses is to instruct Aaron regarding the lighting of the menorah in the sanctuary. The common word to light, l’hadlik, is not used. The Torah’s language tells, rather, of much more than the ancient menorah, in your causing the lights to go up/b’ha’alotcha et ha’nerot, the seven lights shall shine toward the [center of] the menorah/el mul p’nei ha’menorah. Causing light to go up is the way of helping the light of another soul to shine, holding the light of our own soul’s caring near enough to encourage the other to rise and become, as in the way of teacher and student. It is the way of lighting Chanukkah candles; one flame held to another until the second ignites, two flames bursting into brightness, each rising together higher than one alone. Helping each other to shine, our light shines together toward the center, toward our common source, toward the Holy One in whose image all are created.

Forbear of all Torah commentators, Rashi asks from eleventh century France why the juxtaposition of lighting the menorah at the beginning of this portion with the bringing of gifts by the princes of each tribe at the end of the preceding portion (Num. 7). Rashi explains that it is God’s way of soothing Aaron as he is told how to enkindle the lights of the menorah, causing light to go up. As the kohen gadol/high priest, neither Aaron nor his priestly tribe was among those bringing gifts for the dedication of the sanctuary. These were the gifts that down to the smallest details were exactly the same from each tribe, no one wanting to outshine another, each seeking to uplift and celebrate the other. Downcast for his absence in this pageantry of equality, Aaron needs reassurance. Concerned for Aaron’s feelings, God tells Aaron to see the importance of his role, to see the importance of causing light to go up, even more precious than the bringing of physical gifts for the sanctuary.

As the physical is impermanent, light is eternal, a reminder of the human soul that is God’s candle in the world. The rabbis teach that the light of the menorah represents the primordial light of creation, the light of the first day that was called into being before the physical sources of light had been created, the sun, the moon, and the stars. That light could not be destroyed by hate and violence, not by the Babylonians nor the Romans. It is the light that is stored up for the future whose coming depends on us, on our turning of swords into plowshares, of enemies into friends, of hate into love. It is the light of peace and wholeness, the light of justice and fairness that will fill the world when we have learned to live together and help each other to grow and become. The instructions are not for Aaron now, but for all of us to become lifters of light.

It is hard to imagine such a time, and yet in the way of our coming together in these days perhaps an intimation, hope in the passion for justice rising. It was hard for Moses, too, to imagine such unity. The menorah was to be hammered out of one piece of gold, from its root-stock, to its flower, it is beaten work (Num. 8:4). There were to be three almond blossoms along each branch, flowers rising toward the light, all hammered out of one piece of gold. Seeing Moses’ confusion, God points and says ZEH/this is how to do it. Though challenging enough, it was not the physical challenge of fashioning the menorah from one piece of gold that so confounded Moses. It was the symbolic expression of unity represented by one unbroken piece of gold that offered the greater challenge, the implication of a common source from which all is formed. That remains the symbolic challenge of the menorah, one piece of gold meant to represent unity, all of us joined as branches, each offering of their light back to the common source, the trunk, all as branches on a great tree of light. In a powerful midrash, God shows Moses a vision of that menorah of unity; the Holy One showed him white fire, red fire, black fire, green fire, and from these God made the menorah…; God incised that image upon Moses’ hand, and said to him, ‘go down and make it according to the image on your hand…’ (Torah Sh’laymah, Midrash Tanchuma).

As we look through our fingers at the end of Shabbos toward the dancing light of interwoven wicks that form the Havdalah candle, may we see reflected upon our hands the menorah formed of fire, many hues to remind of each one’s light. As it was for Moses a sign of unity, so for us the menorah lights of a rainbow flag of fiery colors joined as one. Lifting up each other’s light on the menorah of life that is formed from one holy source, may we illumine the path toward the day that is all Shabbos, toward that time of harmony, of peace and justice flowering. So may we make of their memories the blessing of their lives, remembering on their yahrzeit the forty-nine who were killed at the Pulse nightclub, and George Floyd in this week of his shiva. As a blossom placed upon each branch of the menorah, tender, fragile, and beautiful, each of us is needed to raise up the light of another, the flag and the sign to remind, and a simple flower of hope rising toward the light.


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 3, 2020

Power Over...Power With


There have been some rather stark and divergent responses on the part of police in recent days. In some places, you have seen police chiefs joining crowds of justice seekers as they presented their concerns at police stations and city halls. In others. police were kneeling as the throngs approached. In these instances, there were no face shields, no padded vests, no billy clubs, no tear gas. The police stood ready to hear, negotiate and support whatever changes were necessary to improve their community. It's called sharing "power with" the community, rather than exercising "power over" the community.

The other "power over" responses of police we have seen are always presented as more exciting and I guess "newsworthy." We've seen them day after day. Lines of militarized police, sometimes flanked by national guard, meeting the crowds with equipment that makes them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, with the rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and paintball guns. It's what the President calls "domination."

This distinction between "power over" and "power with" seems especially critical in our time. There are so many areas of our life where we can see this conflict in approach at work.

   
We see it in the home, where one party has to exercise power and control "over" all the others. As the pandemic has spread, so has domestic violence. When the world seems out of control, some seek even more control over the little world they inhabit.

Looking back on my childhood, I'm aware of how sharing was built into everyday life. I grew up wearing and sharing hand-me-down clothes and passing them on to my younger brother. Whatever toys and play things we had were shared, or should a fight break out, shelved. We all sat down to eat together as a family, sharing a common meal. We shared our home with my grandmother. I shared a bedroom with my brother. There was a household system in place where you learned to exercise "power with" others. If families today are broken, perhaps it's because we now have a closet full of clothes, a phone, a car, a bedroom, and a bank account for every child in the family. Where do we learn to share, to exercise "power with?"
     
     Power sharing is not always learned in our educational systems! There was a time when I tried to do "course contracting" with my college students. I happen to believe that everyone learns best in a system where there is little coercion, whether from a grade or an ideology. Someone once suggested educational institutions should be run like a public library. If you check out the book and don't read it, that's your loss. No one is going to test you on it. Maybe you will want to discuss it in a book club, but that will just help you in your understanding, not earn you a grade.

Course contracting didn't work very well. Students would contract for an A, recognizing the criteria and what they would need to do to earn it, then signing the contract. Consistently, because all of their other classes were grade centered and more demanding at any given time, my students would put off and/or neglect their contract. It was hard to compete in a "power over" system with a "power with" grading plan.

      It can be difficult to find power sharing in our economy. I have a young friend who has been quite specific about the kind of business model he prefers. It's one with as little hierarchy as possible, where decisions are made on the basis of consensus with those who work there. His belief, and mine, is that when you have a diverse group of people operating with a common purpose, the result of your work will be optimal. Shared power produces! There are entrepreneurs these days working on a "power with" model, but too few and far between.

Perhaps the most obvious and most destructive to the body politic is the "power over" in government. Most people in the federal government will likely admit that our two-party system is not working very well. Blame is the name of the game. One tires of hearing how the "other" party is making it impossible to do the people's business. Who would you nominate, from either party, as the most successful in Congress at reaching across the aisle? It's an understatement to say that antipathy to sharing power is not healthy in a democracy.

I'm aware there are many who have a conception of God as a domineering and sometimes violent parent. He is not beyond striking you dead for an unforgivable sin. If ever there was a "power over." for them, God is it! To those folks I'd like to suggest the definition in 1 John of God as love. See love at work in the natural world around you. See love at work in your family and larger community. See love at work in your church. See love at work in the stories in the Gospels. It's all about being "with," not "over." Get with it!

 

Carl Kline


Friday, June 26, 2020

Searching Out the Land, Each of Us Become A Different Spirit

         
It began as a journey to study the American penal system, yet the more famous book that emerged from that far-flung voyage across the Atlantic was his work that came to be a classic, “Democracy in America.” Count Alexis de Tocqueville left France for America in 1831. Arriving on the young country’s shores, he set forth to search out the land. He saw the possibility of America and also its failings, its ideals and their miserable inconsistencies. He saw the brutal irony in the nation’s celebration of freedom as its founding ideal, while building its nascent economy on the backs of human beings stolen from Africa. He had to have seen the stirrings of the entitled sense of manifest destiny that would become the genocide of indigenous peoples to make way for America. The irony remains to this day in the tension between the primary purpose of his journey, to study the American penal system, and the primary focus that emerged regarding the nature of American democracy.

In the mirror of Juneteenth this year, a day that many of us of white skin would not be talking about were it not for the unresolved legacy of slavery pulsating in the immediate realities of today, de Tocqueville’s ironies are particularly painful in our inability to stare fully into the face of their truths. The very fact that the thirteenth amendment was needed to abolish slavery stands as a stark reminder of one of America’s original sins. Emerging after that June 19th day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were finally told they were free, two additional years having been stolen from their lives since the Emancipation Proclamation, the thirteenth Amendment reminds of a past we hardly consider in trying to understand the depth of racism’s hold on the soul of this country and the enduring torment of a people.

Searching out the land, de Tocqueville beheld the spirit of equality, celebrating the promise of representative democracy. It was a promise in its making of severely limited parameters, its call to be heard both then and now in lofty declarations and in echoes from the breach. With a striking immediacy of language, perhaps as warning and aspiration, de Tocqueville spoke of the tenuous nature of America’s greatness: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Not someone who often comes to mind, I thought of the French Count as I engaged with the weekly Torah portion called Sh’lach L’cha (Num. 8:1-15:41) as it came this year in the week of Juneteenth. Scouts are sent to search out the land, entrusted to bring back report of what awaits the people. They see the fullness and the beauty, and they see the challenges. There is a painful reality in all of this; the greatest challenge acknowledged in the scout’s report is that there are other peoples living in the land. As Israel had once lived in that land, cycles of exile and return begging for humane resolution, so for other peoples living in the land then and now; an endless cycle of claiming land through power that insures that no one will ever be secure in the land. Engaging with Torah on all of its levels and layers, I am often comforted by the Chassidic reading that sees in this narrative, as in other instances of violence and struggle, a mirror in which to see our selves, a lens through which to look within and search out our own inner landscape.

       
The scouts return and bring back an “evil report,” telling the people there is no way to go ahead, that a leader should be appointed to take them back to Egypt, back, alas, to slavery. Emphasizing a way of perception that quickly lends itself to inner exploration, the scouts reveal a self-image that reflects a slave’s mentality even among free people: We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so, too, were we in their eyes/v’chen hayinu b’eyneyhem (Num. 13:33). As the people weep and clamor to return to Egypt, two of the scouts, Calev and Yehoshua, plead with them not to lose faith, not to throw their national mission to the desert winds. In mourning for the despair that surrounds them, these two tear their garments as a public expression of grief. Through the eyes of midrash, we see Calev leap onto a bench, taking the role of organizer, speaking words of challenge and solace to the people, expressing a common bond of concern with them, lifting up the good that he knows is among them, that still resides in their hearts. Among the people there are some who respond as an angry mob, threatening to stone these two to death, these few who would challenge the many. Speaking to the fears of the people, there is a change that comes subtly at first. Fearless, Calev continues to speak, to soothe and to challenge until the mood begins to shift. Of this brave servant of God and the people, it is God who says, perhaps in time to come to be said by the people too, ru’ach acheret imo/there is a different spirit with him (Num. 14:24).

Searching out the land both of self and nation, a challenge from Parashat Korach to search within our selves and allow a different spirit to emerge. It is the spirit of Calev, as we might embody it today, a spirit that is bravely able to see the beauty in the ideals and landscape of this nation, and also to see the way in which that beauty has been so cruelly defaced. Atoning for the original sins of both slavery and genocide, we can yet create wholeness from out of brokenness. In worlds so far apart in both time and context, perhaps never before cited together, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw the fierce tensions at play in early nineteenth century America, the Slonimer Rebbe sees powerfully conflicting forces in the very character of the Land of Israel. Of fierce historic tensions desperately seeking resolution, the Slonimer writes in his probing teaching on the scouts and their report: the holiness of the Land of Israel is of the highest level/k’dushat eretz yisrael hi g’vo’hah b’yoter; and in contrast to this, the forces of the sitra achra/the demonic side are greatest, centered, so too, in the Land of Israel/ha’yu m’ruchazim az b’eretz yisrael….

These are the tensions of which Juneteenth should remind. These are the tensions to be kept in mind when standing in vigil and taking to the streets. It is easy to make of a Holy Day a simple holiday. It is harder to raise up the reason for a day’s being set apart and to accept its challenge going forward. It is easy to go out on occasion to the streets, much harder to make active in the day to day the reasons for our making the long walk. As throughout the land a call for justice rises, along the streets and in the village squares, even with the remove of time the American spirit manifest for both good and ill as de Tocqueville might have experienced it. So too, as for the scouts, the challenge remains for us to search out the land and see its beauty, and the cruel inconsistencies that bar the way to a promise fulfilled. As good and evil swirl together in life and death struggle, it is our challenge to insure no more death through the brutalities of a system’s failure. Searching out the land, may we raise up the best of what we see in village, town, and city, each of us become of a different spirit, and so the nation.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein