Friday, February 23, 2018

Truth Matters



Truth matters! In a time of increasing propaganda, the deliberate repetition of misinformation and outright and blatant lying, we need to reaffirm the value of truth telling.
Most people learn the value of telling the truth early in life. Parents can be especially sensitive to gradations of lying. The child may hesitate to be fully transparent. For parents, that betrays a reluctance to reveal the whole truth. There may be a tendency to exaggerate. For parents, that demonstrates something is likely being hidden. There may be a strong denial, with yelling, stomping feet and slamming doors. For parents, that illustrates there is much more to come to light. It's hard to raise a child on lies.
    When Jesus was asked "what is truth," he invited his questioners to look at his life and what he represented. Ultimately truth is revealed, or not, in a person's life. We call it integrity. It's about following one's truth no matter what.
Gandhi said his life was an experiment in truth. He believed one must follow their truth no matter where it leads. For him, Truth was God. (Now before any Christians get all bent out of shape about this designation, take the time to understand the ancient sanskrit origin of the word Gandhi uses for Truth, Satya. It starts with Sat, the word for Being with a capitol B).
Most people who know the value of truth also recognize that truth is elusive. One person's truth can be another person's poison. Truth is usually divisible. We have to establish processes to try and discern the truth in any given situation. So in our government, we establish a free press. We establish freedom of speech and assembly. We establish checks and balances and a tricameral system. We establish courts and a system of justice.
We investigate. We try to gather facts, not opinions, but facts. We gather evidence. We interview those who may know something about the event in question. We use an adversarial system in a court of law. We ask a person, "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God," with a hand on the Bible. We don't always get it right but we try hard since getting to the heart of a situation matters.
We went to see the movie "The Post" while it was in Brookings. We recalled those days when we were being lied to by our government. The "good news" out of Vietnam was repeated again and again while the "bad news"was the reality and the truth. Only after the war was over did we discover that Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin incident, forcing Congress to allow full scale military action, was a lie and the steady drumbeat of "winning the war"was meant to deceive. We were grateful for a whistleblower named Daniel Ellsberg and a free press with the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers.
It reminded me of the other time lying was coming from the oval office. President Clinton said, "I never had sex with that woman." My mother and father would have been all over me with additional questions on that one. Like, "what do you mean by 'had sex?'"
Now we have a President who lies consistently. The New York Times has been counting, though the President labels the Times and all of the liberal press as "fake news." And when it comes to the Russia investigation, one has to wonder what the President is hiding that requires such frequent and aggressive activity against others.
Let's get to the truth. Let the Russia investigation play out. That was the essence of a response I received to a letter I wrote to Senator Thune some time ago. He seems to be of the same conviction now, given his statement to the Washington Post Thursday about the "Nunes memo."
"Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Thursday that 'the Senate Intelligence Committee needs to see [the memo], for sure' before it should be made public. Thune, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, also told reporters that if the House was going to release the GOP’s memo, they should also release a rebuttal memo from House Democrats at the same time.
'I think they have to take into consideration what the FBI is saying,' Thune said of House Republicans angling for the memo to go public. 'I think they need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about how this bears on our national security.'”
I, for one, am grateful that at least one Republican Senator is willing to stand for pursuit of the truth and with our intelligence community. We won't reach the truth through partisan politics, suppression of evidence or removing those in our intelligence offices from their positions.
       Besides, our democracy is on the scaffold. Democracy can't survive on propaganda, partisan politics and lies. Neither can it survive if foreign agents are allowed to invade and sway our elections. What will Congress do about the Russia sanctions that are being ignored by this administration and cyber warfare from Russia that continues?

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Last Gasp of a Dying Past




After the most recent degrading remarks by our President, I concluded he would have wondered how someone born in such a shithole as a manger, along with all those animals, could be an object of worship.

His foul mouthed remarks about Haiti and Africa, more than any other he has made (and he has made many), sealed the deal for me of his moral character. (Honestly, even after the Access Hollywood tapes, I held out hope he could be changed by the Presidential office).

The President has become the living symbol of the dying and despicable struggle to make America white again (and male). With each passing day, it becomes clearer and clearer that one of his most important agendas is reversing the racial demographics of this country. No more people of color coming in and lots more going out. And he continues to have the support of Republican partisans, who for years have been struggling to find ways to identify with people of color, and failing election after election. Apparently they have concluded that if the battle is lost to recruit people of color to their party, change the equation by sending them home and importing more Norwegians.   

One part of the President's racist method includes broadcasting stereotypes. Early on in his campaign, we learned that all Mexicans were rapists and murderers. He would describe one criminal act of someone in this country without documents, and extend that criminality to all residents native to Mexico.      He included in his web of suspicion the workers from Mexico who re-shingled our home, who repaved Interstate 29, who cared for the cattle who gave us our milk, who picked the vegetables and fruits I ate yesterday, who came to our nonviolence trainings in the Black Hills.

He stereotypes Muslims as security threats, when the evidence is we are far more likely to be killed by a natural born citizen than a Muslim immigrant (the home grown killers are even invading our houses of worship). He institutes a Muslim ban from Islam dominant countries and hate crimes against Mosques and our Christian cousins rise. He foments religious hatred to the point where in South Dakota, some decry an interfaith prayer service at our state capitol. What is so terrible about people of different faiths praying together unless the "other" is a stereotype and not a person?

He stereotypes Haitians. He sends them home. I've been to Haiti. It is the poorest country in the hemisphere. There are historical reasons for the poverty, just as there are historical reasons for our relative wealth. That history is connected. But amidst the poverty in Haiti there is also beauty and joy. It is unlikely one born with a golden spoon in his mouth and always surrounded by the trappings of wealth would be able to see it. He would likely just see a shithole. But I wish the President would try. Please Mr. President, make a trip to La Gonave. Walk the hill from the dock and meet the people as I did. See the human spirit in the midst of the poverty. Understand they don't all have AIDS and be chastened.

He stereotypes Africans! There are 54 countries in Africa. We have long standing relationships with many. What must leaders in those countries think? How does it reflect on all of us? On an earlier occasion he is reputed to have said, Nigerians should go back to their huts! Perhaps he thinks Native Americans should go back to their teepees; and where would they put them?

Recent experience with Nigerians interested in learning about Gandhian nonviolence has helped me better understand the economics in that country. Fossil fuel interests dominate the Nigerian economy. Shell oil is famous there for lobbying government officials with enormous sums of money, destroying agricultural environments and some believe colluding in the assassination of a nonviolent activist.
      Nigerians do not live in "huts." That is a racist stereotype! Go, Mr. President! See Nigeria! See the world! And don't just stay in Trump Towers! Perhaps you can stay with my friends, Christopher Ehidiamen, a Christian teacher and leadership consultant for Nigerian corporations. Or maybe be hosted with Betty Abah, of CEE Hope, working with adolescent girls and against child marriage. See the real Nigeria and how we as a country might learn from them, how to be great again.

This President is a challenge for the party of Lincoln; for those who still believe in the Constitution and a democratic society; and most important to me, he's a challenge for the Christian church. Now is the time for the church to proclaim in no uncertain terms that ALL are children of God, born with dignity and deserving of our respect. Now is the time to make Sunday morning, as well as Friday prayers, or the Sabbath, or any other time of the week, the most colorful ever. It's our heritage and our destiny! This President and his stereotypes are the last gasp of a dying past.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 9, 2018

"What Would You Do?"


What would you do? That is the question that lingers long after the last scene in a Belgian film, “Two Days, One Night,” that my wife and I watched recently. So too it is the question that is meant to follow us through Torah, lingering in the spaces that give rise to midrashic searching, to questioning and wrestling. I am hardly a film critic and am wary of watching if I don’t know a film’s “V” rating, the “Victor factor,” whether too violent or too sad, preferring to watch movies mostly to find respite from life’s harsher realities. Drawn to a Belgian film initially as a connection with Mieke’s roots and family, it offered a powerful reflection on life, pushing at times the limits of the “V” rating, but no more difficult than engaging with parts of Torah. The film became for me a commentary on Torah and life, as the two are joined in the context of living life with people, bringing us to ask, “what would you do?”

In the film, which unfolds in the course of one weekend, the main character, Sandra, is away from her factory job on a health leave as she struggles with depression.         
Highlighting the stigma of mental illness as a subplot, the owner of the factory where she works is wary of Sandra’s return. Duplicitously setting the stage for the moral drama that we are meant to become part of, the owner of the factory offers a choice to the other workers.
      They can each receive a 1000 Euro bonus or Sandra can return to work. It can’t be both. With the devoted support of one co-worker who has told Sandra of the insidious choice, labor rights now another subplot, Sandra spends one weekend, thus “two days, one night,” searching out each of the other workers. Gathering courage from out of her despair, she goes to each one to put a human face, hers, on the choice that they and we are faced with. What would you do?

Through the lens of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), that question becomes the test of what it means to truly live. Our response to “what would you do?” becomes the moral measure of life, our own and of life itself, of what it means to live with wholeness, integrity, and truth. The question becomes more pointed when made real in given moments of our lives, those times when we need to answer in real terms, not “what would you do?”, but “what are you going to do?”

The Torah portion begins with a setting of the stage, with words that on the surface seem simple, even pedestrian, telling of Yaakov’s living in Egypt for the last seventeen years of his life. Now on his deathbed, we are told, Vayechi Yaakov/and Jacob lived…. That phrase offers its own teaching, a question pulsating beneath its apparent simplicity, “what does it mean to truly live?” About to be gathered to his people, Yaakov’s life swirls before him in all of its days and nights, all of its highs and lows, a life filled with so much struggle and strife, so much pain. Finally finding some solace in the dimming light of harsh truth, a dysfunctional family whose torment he is largely responsible for, there is a certain comfort in the questions that emerge. The questions that begin on one person’s deathbed become for us questions of life that are comforting in their way of encouraging us to live. Yaakov as Yisrael is calling us as his children, b’nei yisra’el/children of Israel to rise up each day to engage life and people with integrity.

The moral choice in whether to think only of oneself and one’s own follows Sandra through the film as she visits through one weekend each of her co-workers. The question put to each person she visits increasingly becomes our own, will they/would we forgo a sizeable bonus to still include among us one whose need for work is equal to our own? So too, Yaakov’s life in flashing before him also flashes before us. As he sees, perhaps through tears, those moments in which he lied and cheated, twisting the bonds of love with his father and brother, colluding in untruths with his mother, favoring one wife and one child to the detriment of all, does it matter that seamy decisions might have been shrouded in the assumption of a greater good, as his mother believed, that he and not his brother was the more worthy progenitor? The question remains, in film, in Torah, in life, “what would you do?” As Yaakov wrestled in the night, so do we and seek our way.

     As his deathbed wrestling plays out, even now more urgently than his wrestling with the angel long ago, Yaakov calls for his beloved son, Yosef, and asks him, even pleads, v’asita imadi chesed vemes/deal with me in loving-kindness and truth (Gen. 47:29). Still in this world, the father asks his son to try to hold him in both kindness and truth. It is only after death that we speak in Jewish tradition of all that we do on behalf of the dead as acts of chesed shel emes/kindness of truth, or true loving-kindness. The frailties and failures of a life do not disappear with death, but are then held as part of one whole, an ideal with which we may struggle at times, yet to be wrapped up in kindness that allows the dead to be more fully gathered to their people. So Yaakov pleads, that he not  be buried in Egypt, but brought home to Canaan to sleep in the ancestral grave in the Cave of the Machpelah.

That Yaakov sought to fully live in Egypt in the latter years of his life gives reality to his lasting teaching for us. It was here, in exile, away from home, away from all he had hoped would be, that he wrestles more deeply and earnestly than he had before. It is here that he finally finds at least an approximation of wholeness, even if yet imperfect, with and within his family. The holy RIM, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Rothenberg reminds us of Egypt as the narrow places in our own lives, Mitzrayim, from meytzar/strait, the places in which we are challenged to yet live with truth and integrity, to make our way without losing who we are. Ironically, it is Yaakov in Jewish tradition who is associated with truth, not as representing the ideal of truth, but as a frail human being who struggles, like all of us, toward the truth. Needing the blessing of truth to help him on the way of truth, we say in words of prayer each morning, thereby making the gift our own, titen emet l’Yaakov/give truth to Yaakov (Micah 7:20). Helping us to see Yaakov’s very human struggles as our own, however they may differ in degree, the RIM teaches, in this way we are also able to live in every Mitzrayim that is each one’s/al y’dei zeh y’cholin l’chi’yot b’chol ha’mitzrayim she’yesh l’chol….

Whether in the day-to-day kindnesses we do for others, even at our own expense, or in allowing for the inconvenient presence of social programming in our own back yards, or in paying taxes with a sense of prideful purpose for the sake of the common good, or in recognizing that “me first-ism” is not the way of truth in either interpersonal or international relations, these are the real life situations in which we are called to act with integrity. These are the “narrow places” in which we wrestle, not in the gathering of our days, but all along the way, in the real moments of life, as in “Two days, One Night.” Holding all of the tensions between kindness and truth, with compassion for our selves and others, the question from film, from Torah, from life becomes our own, “what are you going to do?” emerging from “what would you do?”

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, February 2, 2018

Singing

There's a singing video making the rounds on social media. Apparently there are more than 12 million people who have viewed it. You see a teacher sitting on the bleachers at her school as a group of young people are singing to her. The children are smiling and moving with the music, even while sitting, and are obviously into the song. They are probably forty or fifty in number, racially diverse, accompanied by what one assumes is their music teacher. At one point he has a short solo part and a beautiful voice. Toward the end of the song the children all hold out a flower they had hidden below their seats and extend it toward the teacher.   

In all of this, we periodically see the teacher, who is crying. She wipes her eyes. She manages weak smiles before the tears flow again. At one point she is so moved she almost falls over backwards. It's as if the power of the music and the energy of their care for her sweeps her off her seat. 

She has cancer. The students know it. They are offering her a love song. It made me cry.

         Another video on social media made me cry as well. This one was of a mother forgiving her son's killer in court. She hugs him. She hugs his mother. She greets all the members of his family. She tells the killer she will always be a part of his life and she will not let the society kill him. She makes it clear that all lives are connected so taking one life affects many lives. She is obviously Muslim and acting out of her faith.

I may be getting more sentimental with age but I don't want you to think most things make me cry. Still, the tears do seem to come more lately and I'm wondering why. They can flow listening to good music or watching good theater. It can happen when I'm telling a story about an event that moved me or reading someone's else's story in prose or poetry. I've begun to seriously ponder what's behind it all.

This is my conclusion so far. In a world seemingly gone mad, I crave examples of kindness and harmony. In the event with the teacher, I saw and heard both. After seeing the video, I wondered about the healing capacity of that experience for the teacher. How did it impact her body? How did it help her fight her cancer?

We are learning some of the physically therapeutic benefits of music. Studies have concluded that music can make a difference for those with brain injuries, stroke, Parkinson's, perhaps even autism. Music therapy has come into it's own. Movement can be aided by rhythmic auditory stimulation. Musical improvisation can help with emotional expression. Singing and respiratory exercises can aid in restoring speech. Even persons with severe brain damage and no speech or movement can be stimulated by music to smile.

Once when I was as ill as I've ever been, the Canadian Tenors sang constantly by my bedside. They moderated the pain as well as any opioid. If I woke in the middle of the night and the CD had run its course, we just started over again. Given how mothers have used lullabies to soothe crying babies for ages, it seems strange we haven't recognized the therapeutic value of music as medicine sooner.

Then there's kindness. It's also about harmony. It doesn't have to be as unusual and dramatic as forgiving your son's killer in court. It can be as everyday as forgiving the person who cuts you off in traffic instead of carrying that anger through your day.

Undeserved kindness is so exceptional it can be life changing. Especially when we know we've done wrong, to be forgiven and embraced is shocking. To be kind and forgiving when we've been wronged, is equally shocking. Kindness sets in motion an energy that creates change. When God does it, it's called grace. 

I confess it's difficult to face some days with harmony and kindness. If one is open to what's happening in the nation and the world, there is bound to be disharmony and upset. At one time we were promised a kinder, gentler conservatism. There are no such claims now. At one time we had political parties that could sing in harmony (with enough practice). Today they sing very different tunes, alone.

Our task is to keep singing. Music and harmony is the way of the world. Do you remember that old round we used to sing, "Music alone shall live, never to die." And our task is to do those small acts of kindness for those with cancer, brain injured, or simply stressed in the super market. 


One of these days maybe we can send a mass choir to Washington to serenade the Commander in Chief and the Congress. Perhaps there could be some healing.

Carl Kline

Friday, January 26, 2018

From Resistance to Renewal





         I had been looking through a box of old political, peace, and social justice pins, reminders of long ago demonstrations and projects for the sake of a greater good. I was looking for one pin in particular, one that I had thought about as I read and reflected on the Torah portion called Lech L’cha/go forth, or, as read literally, go to yourself (Gen. 12:1-17:27). I had seen the pin not too long ago, but now it seems to have disappeared, at least for the moment. Perhaps that is part of its teaching, to tell of a time when the way it represents will no longer be needed, when we shall no longer be called to stand up to unjust power and so to speak our truth. Perhaps also, the disappearance of this pin is to remind that what it represents is not enough by itself.

The missing pin is of a black symbol emblazoned starkly on a white background. The symbol is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the Omega. Perhaps as the final letter it points also to when it shall no longer be needed, to a time beyond which there shall no longer be need to respond to its call. The Omega - Ω –became the symbol of draft resistance during the Vietnam War era, and thereby a general symbol of resistance. I can see that missing symbol so clearly, wearing it on my jacket wherever I went over a good number of years. I wore it when I went to the YMCA where I worked with kids while going to college, and when I served breakfast to many of the same kids early in the morning before school as part of a free breakfast program. So many of the issues are sadly the same today, so many human needs left unmet in the face of inhuman policies and a burgeoning military budget.

Throughout the land there is a movement of resistance rising today. In great gatherings of commitment, in vigils and walks, rallies and meetings, arrests and fasts, we are refusing to cooperate with evil, with brutality, with hate. Raising voices and signs, wearing old and new pins to remind, we are challenging in ways both great and small all that demeans and denies a common humanity that joins all people as one. In the midst of resistance, we still need to pause and to consider that resistance is not enough by itself. Resistance is a necessity of the moment, but even from within the moment and movement of resistance, we need to look beyond, to what it is that will follow when  morning finally comes.

            If a new day will dawn, we need to create its ways now and nurture them into being from in the very midst of resistance, modeling what it is with which we would replace the ways of hate and injustice, of violence and brutality. Children need breakfast, now as then, and our acts of public resistance later in the day will not feed them. The very feeding of children, of doing what is right in public and in private, of refusing to demean another, of standing up for those who are put down and mistreated, of loving in the face of hate that proliferates, all of this is the way of resistance. 
Living lives of goodness and decency, smiling at strangers, helping those in danger of deportation who need sanctuary, all of this represents sacred resistance; the way of the future lived now. Gandhi spoke of the need to create new structures in the midst of the freedom struggle, the meeting of human needs all along the way, as “constructive program.” While essential, it is not enough to challenge what we know is so wrong. Resistance is the starting point, the necessary beginning right from within which we nurture the new world into being.

The critical and creative tension between resistance to evil and the creation of an alternative reality is held between the end of the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32) and the unfolding of new possibility as it begins in the portion, Lech L’cha. Indeed, our calling is in those words, go forth, and in its literal meaning, go to your self, find your calling, find your place in the struggle and in the journey. It is here that the Slonimer Rebbe (a teacher of our time) introduces his signature theme, that every person has their own unique task and purpose in this world, their own unique way of bringing tikun/repair. In the midst of resistance to evil, we are each called in our own way to bring goodness and healing with every step of our going forth, to replace evil with good.

The journey of Avram and Sarai, not yet Abraham and Sarah, began before they are told to go forth, before God says for the first time, Lech L’cha. At the end of the portion No’ach, there is a cryptic statement, five simple words, va’yikach terach et avram b’no/and Terach took Avram his son. Where did he take him, and why? From a young age, Avram had seen through the shallowness and cruelty of his society. Both literally and figuratively he smashed his society’s idols and called for a new way, a way that recognized the creator God and the equality of all people created in the image of one God. Resistance had become dangerous and Nimrod as tyrannical ruler of the land sought to kill Avram. His father took him to save his life.

Resisting tyranny, Avram and Sarai pitch their tent along the way. It is a tent whose sides are open in every direction, that from wherever they have come, all who appear might find safety and sanctuary, welcomed without question. On their journey from resistance to renewal, they teach the way of kindness, washing the feet of wayfarers, feeding them, and offering shelter. As our legacy, their way of kindness becomes the constructive program that is at the heart of resistance, creating a new way from within the midst of challenging all that is wrong in the world around us. In the disappearance of a small pin that calls us to resist, a black Omega on a white backdrop is the hope that someday resistance will be unnecessary, 
that we will have arrived in a time of vision fulfilled, of peace and justice, of harmony and hope, the day that is all Shabbat shalom/Sabbath peace. Sowing seeds along the way, deeds of kindness to soften the ground, then shall encircling flowers blossom around the tent of open sides and all shall see the beauty that from resistance has arisen.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein


Friday, January 19, 2018

Living The Nightmare - Living The Vision



            I walked into our bedroom in the midst of the evening news.  The TV screen was filled with the warning of an imminent nuclear attack with the emphatic statement “This is NOT a drill!”   In the split second of seeing the announcement on the screen, I felt the terrible adrenalin surge of fear.  A sense of unreality filled my field of vision - along with an “O God - It is happening!”  And then in a fraction of a second, the newscast continued with the story of the  mistaken alarm that had terrified the people of Hawaii - warning of an incoming ballistic missile aimed at that lush, beautiful, often dreamed of corner of the world.
 
           I had trouble falling asleep that night and when I finally did, my sleep was broken and restless.  At around 3 AM I laid there and asked myself “What’s going on - What is disturbing my rest?”  In an instant the answer came clear.  On a physical level, my body was still processing the adrenaline surge that came with the fear associated with those few seconds of partial truth as I responded to the notice on the TV screen.   But beyond that realization, I also knew that old, deeply seated anxieties were being activated again - memories going back more than 60 years.
            I do not recall there ever being much conversation in our home about the possibility of nuclear attack during the cold war.  But what I do recall is the purchase of a gas powered generator - just in case.  I remember the collection of gallon jugs of water that were frequently refreshed and refilled - sitting on the floor in our basement.  I remember the appearance of multiple cans of different kinds of food appearing on the pantry storage shelves at the foot of the basement stairs -this in a time when frozen foods had become the modern suburban housewife’s blessing.  I remember the construction of a rudimentary extra bathroom in the basement.
            More vividly, I remember the air raid drills at school, the huddling under my coat in an underground hallway away from windows.  I remember strategizing in my head about getting to the school bus that would take me home to the safety of my family if there was an attack.  I remember wondering what would happen if the bus had to stop and we had to get out and seek cover.  Would it stop next to a ditch where I could find protection?  I remember wondering what to do about wearing light colored clothing and wrapping myself in a white sheet to protect myself from radiation if it was winter and I was wearing dark colored clothing and  a white sheet wasn’t available.  I remember waking from dreams in a sweat because the bombs had come.   I was 9 years old.
            As I listened to the follow up reporting on the news, I heard a father telling how he had gathered his family in an inside bathroom without windows - huddling in a bathtub  for protection.              I heard of families running from home to the mountains for safety. I saw people frantically running in the streets, uncertain how to make themselves safe.   I heard of  human beings desperately trying to reach their love ones to say  “I love you.”  A nightmare revisited.
            I realized that so little has changed since the nuclear threat trauma of  my childhood.  We seem to still live with the mentality that there will be a safe place to hide - that we can protect ourselves by retreating to a room without windows, that the mountains away from a city will provide safe haven.  I am just waiting for the government’s instructions to keep a supply of white sheets handy to wrap ourselves in as protection from radiation.
            At the highest levels of government, nuclear sword rattling seems to be a fun game between bullies who have no grounding in the history of the reality of what nuclear weapons do.   They do not see thousands of human beings being killed instantly.   They do not acknowledge the desecration of the earth, the destruction of the environment, the radiation poisoning and cancer that will kill survivors.  They do not acknowledge the possibility of a nuclear winter in which  humans, animals, crops, and, quite possibly, the planet itself will die.  At times I wonder if the bullies with the power have any inkling that they themselves might be incinerated - or are they so certain that their bunkers will allow them to live on as they always have.
            It takes a lot of will and energy and prayer to draw myself back from the edge of the abyss of fear and anger and resentment engendered by the willful lack of consciousness and empathy and compassion that seem to order the days of our supreme leaders.   I want my grandchildren to sleep through peaceful, nightmare free nights.  I want to hold on to the vision of  the Biblical prophets of a time when creation will be at peace with itself.  The best I can do today is turn to beloved thinkers and writers and prophets who continue to hold forth the vision when I am temporarily unable to hold it  myself.   Today, I turn to Howard Zinn:

            To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic.  It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places - and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, at least the possibility of sending this top of a world spinning in a different direction.  And if we do act, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.   The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

            I have today to live in a way that human beings should live - - in defiance of all that engenders fear and anger and disgust.  I have today in which to honor the holiness of creation.  I have today in which  to reach out in kindness and compassion to the beleaguered checker at the Stop and Shop.  I have today in which to join my companions in the prayerful rest of Shabbat - re-committing ourselves to the repair of the world.  I have today in which to claim a marvelous victory.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values


Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values

During the years of my childhood, my family went camping every summer, sometimes on Cape Cod, most often in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We began with one tent, and as the family grew a second tent was added, our campsite becoming a veritable encampment. My parents were purists, only tents, never any thought of a trailer or even one of the pop-up varieties, a “tent-camper,” as we called them with some scorn. Nevertheless, the tent-campers fascinated me, always eager to befriend the kids of such families in order to get to see their home in the woods up close. Accepting my parents’ good-humored dogma that real campers slept on the ground, I think what really fascinated me, beyond the technology of a tent folded neatly into a metal container on wheels, was the brand name on most, if not all, of the tent-campers. I can still see the letters that fascinated me then, big letters that spelled the word, NIMROD.
I didn’t realize for some time, that the name of the camper was actually the name of a person. At some point I picked up a general sense that this was a famous hunter. Shrouded in mystery, I assumed this Nimrod was a quite a camper, surely sleeping on the ground, probably not very happy to be associated with those who didn’t.

To my surprise, I next encountered Nimrod one year in Hebrew school. Seeing his name in Hebrew letters, I immediately saw the large English letters of his name on those pop-up tent-campers. Suddenly day dreaming of the past summer’s camping trip, enough information filtered through from the page and the teacher’s voice to bring me back to the moment. I started to realize with consternation that this Nimrod for whom the campers were named was not such a nice guy. Maybe he had been a great woodsman, a great hunter, but he was also quite a tyrant,
the one who wanted to throw the young Avram into a fiery furnace for rejecting his countries dogmas, for daring to be an iconoclast, literally smashing his father’s idols on his way to following one creator God in whose image all people are created equally.  I worried for Avram, seeing something of myself in his familiar stubbornness and insistence on following what he believed to be right.

          I thought of those long ago campers as I read the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32). Year after year I am drawn to the earlier parts of the portion, to the enticing and familiar stories of No’ach and the ark, of the violence that filled the earth, of God’s promise following the flood never to destroy the earth again, yet waiting desperately for us to make the same promise. I am always drawn to what seems to be the more exciting campsites and the more compelling stories to be told around the campfire. Yet every year as I come to the end of the portion I pause with amazement when I encounter Nimrod. This is the source of the hunter and woodsman who I first encountered, fittingly, in the woods.

In reading of Nimrod this year, I thought of a teaching of the Slonimer Rebbe, that all of the Book of Genesis is meant to help us clarify values, to purify qualities and ways of being and behaving in the world. It is all about taharat ha’middot/clarifying of values. I began to wonder about Nimrod, about the values we are to learn, remembering what he tried to do to the young Avram, feeling the tension between the evil I sensed of him and the trailblazer in the woods who beckoned to me, the young camper who wanted to swing an axe and handle a knife and be a hero.

It begins simply enough, and yet there is something mysterious, as though pushing us to ask, but who is he really? The Torah says simply, Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a hero upon the earth/hechel li’hi’yot gibor ba’aretz (Gen. 10:8). Just what is a gibor, what is the nature of his being a hero? Gibor can be a hero, a mighty one, someone of strength. But what is the nature of that strength? Much of the latter part of the portion of No’ach offers a lens through which to consider how we use our gifts, our strength, how we use technology and intelligence, whether to build a tower of Babel to storm the heavens or to create an ark in which to ride out the storm, offering a model of harmony, lion and lamb together, a way yet to be realized after the flood.

We are told next that Nimrod is a gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/a crafty hero before God. Most translations translate tzayid in its more usual meaning as a hunter. In translating gibor tzayid as “crafty hero,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) is drawing on a root meaning of tzayid as deceit and deceiver, tzad. The hunter needs to be secretive and quiet, to utilize stealth and wiles.
               As much as I disdain hunting, except by those for whom it is truly for the sake of sustenance, I can respect those who respect the animals, even in the course of hunting them. This is not the way of Nimrod as seen through the lens of a tradition that saw the mistreatment of animals as a precursor to the mistreatment of people. Establishing himself as a great hunter, Nimrod sowed fear with his prowess, gradually turning to people as his pray.

Yitzchak Abravanel, a fifteenth century commentator of both Portugal and Italy, writes that until Nimrod all people were equal, hayu b’nei ha’adam kulam shavim. Abravanel goes on to say that the statement “he became a mighty man in the land,” means he became a tyrant. In a conversation across centuries, that all of this was “before God,” becomes the source of a powerful warning from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “Nimrod began to oppress his fellow ‘men’ in the name of God. He was the first to misuse the name of God, to surround brute force with the halo of Divine approval…. Nimrod became the prototype for all those dynastic rulers who craftily crowned themselves with the halo of pseudo-sanctity and whose power, politics and hypocrisy were characterized by the saying, k’nimrod gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/like Nimrod, a crafty hero before God.”

In a time when truth flows into the ground like the blood of slain animals, when hubris and hate proliferate, Nimrod appears as an archetype to remind us of danger along the path of life, of danger on the trail, of whom not to follow. He becomes a lens through which to clarify values and qualities, to remind of the treacherous divide between truth and falsehood. Turning from the ways of Nimrod, we strive to restore human equality as it was in the beginning, harmony between people and animals, as within the ark upon the flood, and so with earth, a dove alighting with an olive branch. In a place of peaceful encampment in the woods, lion and lamb together, Nimrod becomes again but the name of a simple dwelling that once so intrigued a young child.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein