Friday, January 18, 2019

Walls

Let's talk about walls. We might as well. It seems all the rage these days. Grown men and women fighting over why, whether, when and where, how high and how much. All this while thousands of their own suffer new affronts and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free simply huddle, hungry and short of breath.

               Let's talk about walls, like the one in China. Built and rebuilt over centuries, it houses many of it's builders. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction in 221 B.C., the labor force was mostly soldiers and convicts. As many as 400,000 died in the effort and their bones are part of the barrier. At different points in history the wall was breached, rebuilt, extended to as far as 13,000 miles. At one point the same peoples were occupying the land on both sides of the wall. 

Now, of course, The Great Wall of China is primarily a tourist attraction, as we live in an age where people can fly.

Or let's talk about the Berlin Wall. An affront to human decency and democracy, this wall lasted from 1961 to 1989. The wall was built by East Germany to protect their population from "fascist" elements from the West, who were bent on destroying the will of the East German people to build a socialist state. The official name was the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, in German, Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. This wall was a concrete barrier with a death strip, a no man's land, where many fleeing the East for freedom lost their lives. 

     West Germans called it the Wall of Shame and it came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War. It walled people in as much or more than it walled others out. The pictures are still in my memory of the celebration and joy as the wall was torn down, piece by piece, by reunited families and a reunited country. 

Or what about the walls of Jericho? I love that story! It demonstrates the problem with walls. Once you wall others out, you also wall yourself in! "Now Jericho was shut up from within and from without because of the people of Israel; none went out and none came in."
It also demonstrates the fragility of walls. Walk around them seven times, blowing the trumpets on the last pass and they will tumble of their own accord. Watching the story of Jericho on Veggie Tales, my young son was always fascinated when the wall fell. He would want to play that scene over and over again. I'm certain he must have learned the secret of felling a wall, he watched that scene so many times.

Then I think of Robert Frost and his poem "Mending Wall," "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." It's not just the weather that eventually fells the stones, but it's the hunters wanting to out the rabbits for their dogs. And although Frost's neighbor is convinced "good fences make good neighbors," Frost is not convinced. Maybe if there were cows. But his apple trees are not going to eat his neighbor's pines.

"I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old time savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, not of woods only and the shade of trees. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense."

As the debate in our country continues and millions suffer from lack of resolution, we might consider the history and lessons of walls. What is their intention and what is the emotional and political freight they carry?

For Christians who take the Bible seriously, they might consider all of the references to welcoming the stranger in Scripture. And since so much of the emotional energy for building walls is fear, they might consider the passages in first John like, "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear." 

Still, I'm sure we will continue to hear from the likes of Reverend Jeffress who claims, “The Bible says even Heaven itself is gonna have a wall around it. Not everybody is going to be allowed in. So if walls are immoral, then God is immoral.”


             Emperors and autocrats will always want to build walls, to wall their subjects in and their enemies out. It's as true of an autocratic and judgmental God as it is of the human kind. But for me, "there's something that doesn't love a wall." One could simply be rational and recognize that these days, we can climb and tunnel, and we can fly, like the Army Special Forces guy who brought 70 pounds of cocaine into the country on a troop transport. Or, in a more positive frame of mind, perhaps that something that doesn't love a wall is love of neighbor. Or perhaps it's fundamentally a love of freedom.   

Rev. Carl Kline

Friday, January 11, 2019

Created in the Image of God's Name


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

 In the week that we began to read from the second book of Torah, the Book of Exodus in English, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names in Hebrew, I found myself at the Israel Book Shop for the afternoon prayers called Mincha. Davening/praying among the basement stacks of holy books, as I completed my own prayer, I paused to look around and take in the aura cast by the titles that surrounded me. 
There was a box of books at my feet, its volumes arranged horizontally, their front covers facing up. I saw that it was a set of the Mishne Torah, the legal code of Moses’ Maimonides, the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, Moses son of Maimon (1135-1204). I bent down where I stood and quietly picked up the top volume and randomly opened it.

I am not sure if the great sigh I let out was one more of amazement or of comfort, whether it was heard by those still praying as distraction or as amen to their prayers. I had opened the volume called Sefer Hamadah/the Book of Knowledge. I had opened to chapter six in the section called Hilchos Yisodei Hatorah/the Laws of the Foundations of Torah. I began to read at the beginning of chapter six, laws one and two, Rambam’s warning of culpability for anyone who destroys the name of God: kol ha’m’abed shem min ha’shemot/anyone who destroys a name from the holy and pure names through which the Blessed Holy One is called…. Rambam then goes on to enumerate seven such names from among the seventy names by which God is called in Hebrew, seven that are most holy and pure: the most holy name formed of the letters yud hey vav hey, known as the shem ha’m’forash/the ineffable name, the name that is not to be pronounced, known also as the shem ha’vaya/the Name of Being; and so too the names el, and eloha, and elokim, and ehiyeh, and shaddai, and tz’va’ot.

                I found myself trembling there among the books and among the prayers wafting around me. Entering the Book of Names in the cycle of reading Torah, thoughts swirled within me, feeling so deeply for those suffering at our southern border, their names unknown to us except for the dead children; feeling so deeply for the homeless who live and die on our streets, their names unknown to us as too often we quickly pass them by; feeling so deeply for children of war and poverty wherever they are, their names unknown to us, yet neighbors all, each of these with a name lovingly given by their parents. To open to that page in that moment in that week, God’s amen to my prayers, as though offering answer and insight to an unasked question, a gentle touch upon my brow. I realized in that moment, that Rambam’s warning, each one who destroys a name/kol ha’m’abed shem…, is as much about the destroying of human names and the taking of identities as it is about destroying God’s name.

In the first portion of the second book, the first portion in the Book of Names, after Moses has encountered God at the burning bush and is given his life’s mission, told to go back to Egypt and bring God’s word to Pharaoh, let my people go, Moses asks God a simple question. Worried that the people will not believe him, that he has not been given such a task, Moses asks God what he should say when the people ask of God, mah sh’mo/what is his name? At that time, God conveyed a three-word name, ehiyeh asher ehiyeh/I will be that which I will be. Then, as though to make it simpler, God tells Moses to tell the people that he was sent by ehiyeh/I will be. In these profound names is the ever-present possibility of becoming, and so for us who are created in God’s image.

In the very first line of the weekly Torah portion called Va’era (Ex. 6:2-9:35), second in the Book of Names, God shares with Moses another name, God’s most holy name, the name formed of the Hebrew letters yud hey vav hey. They are simply the letters of the verb to be, and yet they are not the word “to be,” simply the letters, not a formal word at all, therefore a word without gender, without time, simply the shem havaya/the Name of Being.

I trembled when I read the words of the Rambam, not for fear of destroying God’s name, something in regard to which I am quite careful. I keep a box in my study in which to place worn out holy books and loose pages that contain God’s holy names, all later to be lovingly buried in the way of those who once held the books and encountered God upon the page. It is easy to take care that we not harm God’s name, and, indeed, if we do, God is forgiving. It is precisely the type of sin between a person and God for which on Yom Kippur we find forgiveness. It was not about God for whom I trembled. I trembled with the thought of what we are to learn about human beings, about people, each one created in the image of God. We are not only created in the image of God, but in the image of God’s most holy name.          

               When arranged vertically, the letters yud hey vav hey represent the human form. The little yud at the top is the head. The first hey, a horizontal line with a vertical line coming down from each of its ends, forms the shoulders and arms. The straight vav forms the spine. The second hey forms the pelvis and legs. To destroy God’s name is to destroy the human form. To destroy a human being is to destroy God’s most holy name as it is carried in the world.

I thought of the very first book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a book of poetry written in Yiddish when he was a young man. The book’s title tells of the fiercely tender love for God and people that would fill all of Rabbi Heschel’s books and all of his ways in the world in the years to come. That slim volume is called, Der Shem Ha’m’forash – Mentsh/The Ineffable Name – Human.

           Every human being has a name, a bond with God and with people. Every human being carries in their human form God’s name of being and becoming. Every human being is holy. There in the bookshop, amidst holy books and holy prayers, I trembled as I read Rambam’s warning not to destroy God’s name. So may we tremble for all of the bearers of God’s name who are denigrated, denied, and, God forbid, destroyed. 

Each person’s own name gives unique expression to the way of their being called in God’s name. With love and with 
compassion, may we ask of all whom we encounter, just as Moses asked of God, how are you called, what is your name?

Friday, January 4, 2019

These are the Names of the Children


First, to pause and say their names, that by their names they be counted among us:
 
Jakelin Caal Maquin
Felipe Gomez-Alonso

 


Two children who died at our southern border, two children in the custody of the United States, two children for whom we weep, for whom we are responsible; two children who should have been filled with life, with joy, with curiosity, their days unfolding before them. Two children whose parents could not bear the impossibility of life without hope and so for their children set out into the desert toward the mirage of the promised land and the hope of which they dreamed. Eight-year old Felipe died on Christmas morning, a day that for him should have been filled with magic and delight. As one child of the Holocaust is easier to embrace than all Six Million at once, the tears come so freely for these two children whose names are Jakelin and Felipe, age seven and eight, two children whose names are now known among all the nameless and numberless.

               Dispensing with names and identities, border authorities determined that numbers would suffice. A recent photograph from the border could only make us gasp in disbelief, to scream in horror, numbers written upon the forearms of old and young, human beings reduced to a number. If not a tattoo, the permanent markers to remind of the drawings these children should have been making, of the imaginations that should have been given play and expression. Perhaps, for those who live, these shall be their drawings, images of all they have seen transposed some day from head and heart to hand, all that they have seen to be committed to drawings and childlike poetry and prose, if only artist and their work survive to tell the tale. I think of the children of Terezin, whose art I saw last summer upon the walls of the barracks where they lived and dreamed their dreams, signing their holy work with their names.

       As we begin the second book of the Torah, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names, it is in its first portion, Sh’mot/the Portion of Names (Ex. 1:1-6:1), that our enslavement begins. The promise of hope is carried in the book’s English calling, the Book of Exodus. The book and the portion begins with the telling of names, v’eleh sh’mot b’nei yisrael ha’ba’im mitzrayma/these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt. It is in the present tense, not only about them and then, but about us and now, and so for the whole Torah. The portion is filled with names and naming, an emphasis on names when names are about to be taken away by the oppressor. That is the teaching at the outset of this journey into the depths. If we are to survive in order to make the journey into the desert in time to come, we need to hold on to our names, to our identities, to who we are.

Our commentators remind us to hold on to who we are through time, in all of our travels and travails across time and space. Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (15th-16th century Italy) teaches so simply of the link between names and survival: sh’mo shel adam hu atzmi’yuto/a person’s name is their essence. Of the opening verse of the Book of Names, Rashi (11th century France) wonders, as we do, why we had the very same words near the end of the first book, B’reishit/Genesis, when Jacob and his whole family come down into Egypt (Gen. 46:8), these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt…. Rashi offers a beautiful insight, teaching that from the earlier verse we learn that they were counted in their lifetimes through their names/she’m’na’en b’chai’ye’hem bish’motam. And then he goes on to tell of what we learn from the later verse, u’m’na’em achar mitatan/and so they are counted after their deaths. Having explained why the repetition of a verse, Rashi poignantly tells of deeper meaning, l’hodi’ah chibatam/to make known that they are beloved, so in death as in life. Our ancestors were numbered by their names and by their names made to count. They are remembered and beloved by their names, as they were in life, so in death. Through our names, and all that our names stand for, we survive.

                 When names are taken away, replaced by numbers, identities are destroyed. It is the way of the oppressor. It is harder to notice unique identities, to notice people as human beings when they are part of an amorphous mass, whether as slaves or as part of a migrant caravan. And then to give them numbers at the border, lest we realize they are real human beings with names and identities. It is what Woody Guthrie sang of so long ago in “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.” He wrote the song in 1948, telling of a plane that crashed in California while carrying twenty-eight migrant farmers back to Mexico. Only in recent years were these fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers identified by name, no longer to be known only as “deportees:”

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”

Helping us to see our own story as a paradigm, helping us to feel the pain of others through our own pain, to honor the preciousness of each one’s name, a powerfully beautiful midrash teaches: A person has three names/sh’losha shemot yesh ba’adam, one that God calls them, adam/human, one by which their mother and father calls them, and one by which they call themself…. It is the name by which God calls us, adam/human, that reminds us that every human is precious in the eyes of God and so should each one be in our eyes. Other namings are added in a beautiful song by the Israeli singer, Chava Albershtein. We are named, she sings, by our deeds, by the natural world around us, by our work, and by those who love us and those who hate us, by the sea, and by the seasons of a year. And in the end, she sings, each person has a name… that is given to them by their death/l’chol ish yesh shem… v’natan lo moto.


 Beloved in life and so in death, we remember them by their names, as given to them by God, by their parents, by themselves, and now by their deaths, their characters only beginning to be shaped. Saying their names, we count them among us and make their memories a blessing:

Jakelin Caal Maquin
  Felipe Gomez-Alonso

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 28, 2018

Of Dread and Hope and the Quest for Wholeness - The Covenant Between the Pieces




On a long ago Shabbos in the week of reading the Torah portion Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), while a rabbinical student in Jerusalem,  I participated in a retreat just outside of the city. The retreat was held at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Ha’chamisha, on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The entrance to the kibbutz is near where relics of the 1948 war litter the roadside, the remains of military vehicles, of trucks that carried soldiers to battle, of tanks that tell of the deadly “progress” of weaponry when compared to the killing machines of today. The relics are preserved for posterity, whether to remind or to warn. If to warn, then of what they warn is left to passersby on the highway, whether the path of time shall lead to never ending war, or to a time when all weapons shall be as rusting relics by the roadside.

The Jerusalem to Tel Aviv highway passes through the broken pieces of military hardware, a reminder of our failure to find other ways to resolve conflict and create wholeness. That is the image that I still remember bringing to the retreat, having passed through the pieces just before arriving. On that Shabbos of Lech L’cha, the focus of our learning was not on the compelling opening of the parsha, not on the words themselves, Lech L’cha, and the start of the journey of the Jewish people. We did not look at the rich Chassidic reading, though drawn from ancient insight, that understands the two words not as a strong imperative, you shall surely go!,  but as a call to go to yourself. While that did not seem to be the focus, perhaps it really was, but approached from another vantage point.

I still remember vividly that the study focus of that Lech L’cha retreat was from a bit further on in the parsha, on chapter 15. I still remember being mesmerized by the imagery in that chapter, left with questions and wrestling that remain until today, questions that come to me year after year as we arrive at this stopping point, this place of retreat in the turning of Torah. Not yet called Abraham, Avram is afraid, feeling broken, feeling as though there is no future. Desperately wanting children, he and Sarai, not yet called Sarah, have despaired of that ever coming to be. God has in fact already told Avram to look up into the heavens and count the stars, promising that so shall their seed be for multitude. But Avram could not hear the promise from the midst of his own despair.

Perhaps as therapist now, God realizes that Avram needs to do something, to move, to create symbolically a new reality, one that emerges from the broken pieces of the reality in which he stands. In a strange and eerie ritual, God tells Avram to take several animals, three calves, and three goats, and three rams, and then a turtle-dove and a young pigeon. He is to cut the larger animals in half, placing the halves opposite each other, leaving a path between them.  All unfolding in the context of a vision, Avram does as he is told and then falls into a deep sleep. He is overcome by dread, a great darkness/ayma cha’shay’cha g’dolah.   When the sun sets in the vision-dream, a smoking furnace and a flaming torch pass between the pieces. God has told Avram of both the trials and tribulations that shall befall his descendants, an ironic affirmation that indeed he and Sarai shall have children, and also of the wholeness that he shall know. He is told that he shall go to his ancestors in peace, to be buried in a good old age. That is understood by tradition to mean that the two children yet to be born, Yishmael son of Avram and Hagar, and Yitzchak, son of Avram and Sarai, driven apart by the jealousies of adults, shall find wholeness in the turning of generations. God then makes a covenant with Avram, offering a promise of future. That covenant is called B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim/The Covenant Between the Pieces.

      Ever since that long ago Shabbos spent at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hachamisha, I have been fascinated by the B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim. I have at times felt haunted by the image of the “smoking furnace” and “flaming torch” that passed between the pieces, by the unmistakable Holocaust images that rise unbidden, the smoky stench of burning flesh almost palpable. As I recall, that was part of the focus of our learning on that Shabbos. Themselves touched by the haunting imagery, the rabbis read into the text. From the slavery in Egypt, of which the Torah tells, Avram is then told of the trials his children will face, of later oppressions and exiles, the oppressions of Babylon, of Persia, of Greece, and Rome. It is hard from our place in time not to add the ultimate trial of the Sh’oah, dread, a great darkness/ayma cha’shay’cha g’dolah.

From the very first time I traveled from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and saw the wreckage of war along the roadside, associations that came to be made with Parashat Lech L’cha, I have felt the vision of Avram to be as a wrestling toward wholeness in the struggle for peace among people. I have felt his dread and his hope to be a legacy for all of his children and theirs, for the whole human family, siblings all. It is a legacy of dread that each generation shall continue to litter the roadside with its tools of war. Avram’s dread becomes our hope when the dread is felt strongly enough as our own to shake us free, impelling us to change. It is Avram’s legacy of hope that we shall heed the warning and put an end to the strife that divides us all along the path of life.

           Of divisions within our selves, for the first time in all the turnings of Torah since that long ago Shabbos of Parashat Lech L’cha, I have encountered the Covenant Between the Pieces in a different way this year. Perhaps a new understanding has emerged in relation to stories of people’s lives I have heard in these times. Perhaps it comes of brokenness encountered in the quiet weeping of people among us, perhaps in the face of all the pain for all the wreckage left along the roadside by the hubris, the belligerence, and violence of these times. In my reading of Parashat Lech L’cha this year, I have found in the B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim a covenant that emerges from brokenness, a covenant and its promise made with all of those who make their way through the broken pieces of the world and of their lives. As God says to Abraham, so to us, do not be afraid/al tira.

The Covenant Between the Pieces/B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim is the covenant that speaks to me in these days. It is a covenant made from in the midst of brokenness, one that calls us to see the broken pieces, even of our own making, that litter the way forward. And yet, it calls us to go forward, to see the light ahead that shines beyond the trials of the journey. As God promises to be with us, so we promise to be there with and for each other, in common cause hope already instilled. The Covenant Between the Pieces offers the hope of healing in the midst of brokenness. Walking on the way between all the broken pieces, whether the relics of war or the struggles of our own lives, we affirm the very human covenant of what it means to walk with hope through the brokenness of our lives and of the world, and so to live.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 21, 2018

Eyes Remade For Wonder*


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner ‘s book *Eyes Remade For Wonder begins this way: Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, author of one of the great works of Eastern European mystical theology, the Sefas Emes, commented that when Jacob dreamed about a ladder joining heaven and earth, he had attained a level of spiritual awareness that would have filled most people with pride.  God had spoken to him personally and assured him of a successful future.  Instead, however, Jacob was overcome with reverence. “And Jacob awoke from his sleep....Shaken, he said ‘How awesome is this place!’” To our surprise, however, Jacob’s ego does not get bigger, it gets smaller! Such reverence, says the Gerer Rebbe, is a sure sign that someone is on to a great truth.  Indeed, every event that occasions reverence also participates in ultimate truth. “Reverence is the beginning and the end of everything.”[1]

                About five days ago, I had my left eye “done” - - cataract surgery.  I had heard all kinds of stories about the various improvements in vision that I might expect.   None of them prepared me for the experience of waking up on the day following the surgery.   I came down stairs to breakfast and as I looked out at the birthing sunrise,  my first response was that “Oh my, I have lost a certain quality of color” - it was as thought some parts of the spectrum were missing.   I experimented with closing first one eye and then the other and it was only a matter of moments before I realized that I was having an  experience  of a clarity of vision I had been missing for the last few years. Rather than losing color,  I was seeing more of the spectrum than I have seen in a long time.  I stood in awe as I watched the sun rise - - witnessing shades of purest blue in the pink and orange and lavender light array that I had not seen before. 

I moved to our south facing kitchen window where I enjoy the daily ritual of watching the morning sun illuminate a tall, silvery, skeletal oak tree - long dead but refusing to truly die.  With each sunrise it seems as though the glory of God is revealed when the light softly moves up its branches.  With my new eye, the light reflected in its familiar structure took my breath away - - literally breath-taking!  The difference between what I saw as glory with my right eye (the “undone” eye) and what I am now able to see with my left eye left me feeling weak-kneed with free flowing tears tracking down my face.  With Jacob, I felt the truth vibrating within me: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

        For the rest of the day I moved about my world closing first my left eye and viewing life through the mist of the remaining cataract in my right eye and then closing my right eye and viewing the world through the clarity of my new lense.   How many times can one say “WOW!” in the course of one day?  The title of Kushner’s book came to mind - - my eye has been “remade for wonder”  and the effect is one of awe and reverence for the profound beauty I encounter in each moment.

I have been contemplating this experience - knowing that it is transitory.  When I have the second surgery in a few weeks, the contrast will disappear.  Both eyes will soon see the same array of color. All will soon become “normal.”  Something in me wants to extract every drop of meaning from what I experience in this “in between” time - to delight in the contrast for as long as possible - - to stay in this awesome place that is the gateway to heaven, to dwell in the glory from moment to moment.

But then a second sacred story comes to mind.   Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a mountain top where his glory is revealed to them.  They offer to create three dwellings there - perhaps a way to contain the glory, to preserve the moment for themselves.  But the master teacher leads them back down the mountain, informed and inspired - -  transformed by what they have known, but forbidden to speak of it as they go back to the work of servant-hood in the valley. (Matthew 17:1-9) He guards against their ego needs.

How easy it would be to get caught up in “the ego” that would keep things as they are for the ongoing enjoyment of the bliss, the constant return to the light and the glory and the beauty - - and yet, I find it is also becoming a distraction in its own way.  In mid-moment, I find myself being drawn to blinking my eyes to enjoy the contrast, forgetting that I may be engaged in conversation with another person -leaving the present momentarily to enjoy what only I can see.  So easy to fall into the subtlety of  attachment to the fleeting knowledge of the holy - - grasping - - holding on - - thus creating an un-holiness, an un-wholeness out of a holy but transitory gift.

Baruch Hashem!!  Blessed is the One who inspires teachers like the Gerer Rebbe, teachers like Jesus, who remind and correct and re-direct us with their knowledge and awareness that glimpses of holiness are not meant to be grasped.  They are  instances of transformation.  They are brilliance to light us on our paths in awe and reverence,  gifts that challenge our attachments even to the revelation of the Holy.

So - the second appointment is made.  In a few weeks my eyes will “normalize.”    Even so, I like to think that my eyes have, indeed, been remade for wonder - that my vision will be clearer - - that clarity of vision will indeed lead to a state of reverence that is the beginning and the end of everything.

          From time to time, we humans need “eyes remade for wonder” and especially in these dark and confusing times when reverence for life, for the planet, for order,
for each other and even for ourselves, seems gone missing.   May we be blessed in the New Year with clarity of vision - - with eyes remade for wonder.

Vicky Hanjian












[1] Rabbi Lawrence Kushner  Eyes Remade For Wonder Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT.   1998.   p.3

Friday, December 14, 2018

In Accordance With the Pace of Children - For Leo and Ruby


            Of seasons dancing out of time and sequence, joined and juxtaposed in imaginary play, and if we are lucky, willing and wise, then to follow according to the pace of the children. So it happened on a late fall day that in looking ahead to winter, seeds of spring were planted and flowers of summer grew.

Ever since seeing a video of his zayde pushing a snow blower through the aftermath of a blizzard, our oldest grandchild, six-year old Leo, has wanted a snow blower of his own. I tell him each time he asks that I have spoken to his parents and they promise that when it snows in Los Angeles they will get him one. Rather than wait for that unlikely event, I took Leo and four-year old sister Ruby to shop for a snow blower this week. For a number of years, we have owned a snow blower together with several of our neighbors, adding a communal dimension to snow removal that feels right, needing to be in touch with each other in the face of every storm, warmed by the need to communicate and coordinate, to know that all are well. Our old machine wore out by the end of last winter and we needed to get a new one before the snows of this winter. I offered to do some research and to go look at a new machine.

On the very morning that Leo, Ruby, six-month old Wolfie, and their parents arrived this week, I asked the two elder siblings if they would like to come with me to look at and maybe even buy a snow blower. Though a bit bleary from an all night flight from Los Angeles, they were thrilled to finally get a snow blower, agreeing that it would stay here in Boston for us to use. Meeting one of our neighbors at the store, the kids delighted in reaching up to the handgrips of different machines, checking the tires, turning cranks and pressing buttons. There was some consternation concerning color. Leo wanted a blue snow blower, and, yes, Ruby wanted a pink one. They finally agreed that because the only choices were red or orange, orange would be okay because that is the color Oma wanted. After some discussion with a salesperson, we decided it would be the nice big orange one. We then went inside to do the paperwork and actually purchase Leo and Ruby’s brand new snow blower.

As I stood at the counter, I realized that the salesperson was looking over my shoulder. I had been oblivious to the sounds of children coming from somewhere in the store behind me. “Are they yours?” the man asked. At first I was flattered, wondering if he really thought I could be their father. Hesitating for a moment, not wishing to dispel my own sweet illusion, I said, “Well, they’re my grandchildren.” I quickly realized that he was not concerned about my ego, or with generational niceties. Putting his pen down, the man leaned toward me and with measured tone as cold as the flying snow said with a rather loud, feigned whisper, “could you ask them to put the rake back?”

         Walking over to Leo and Ruby, I was mesmerized by their impromptu game. As we were planning for the coming New England snow, these two foreigners from southern California were in the midst of sunny gardens of spring and summer. I paused for a moment to watch, realizing that the storekeeper’s eyes were fixed on me, a snow blower sale waiting to be completed. There was that rake to be removed in Leo’s right hand. In his left hand, poised above Ruby’s head, was a large watering can, apparently unseen by the storekeeper. As Leo poured imaginary water over his sister’s head, he said, “okay, you’re the flower and now you are growing.” As I delayed for one more moment the mission for which I had been sent out into the fields, I heard Leo say to Ruby, “okay, now you be the farmer and I will be the flower.” Spellbound, I asked these two farmers and flowers if they thought they could just use the watering can now that they had softened and furrowed the earth. Gently putting the rake back on its hook, I returned to the coming winter and the task at hand, ever so grateful for the gift of childhood’s season and for the opportunity to pause and go, if but for a moment, at the pace of the children.

           On the car ride home, I thought about the weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43), one verse shimmering in the rear view mirror as I looked at Leo and Ruby in the back seat. Jacob is returning to Canaan, dreaming his great dream of wrestling in the night (Gen. 32:23-30), fear and hope entwined on the eve of encountering his brother after twenty years apart. Having fled from home after twice tricking his brother, fleeing from Esau’s threat to kill him, Jacob is now told that Esau is coming with four hundred armed men. With an elaborate plan set in place to assuage his brother’s anger, all is put aside at the moment of encounter as Jacob rushes toward Esau and the two brothers fall into each other’s arms weeping. After their tearful reunion, both parties prepare to go on. Esau suggests that they travel together, but Jacob demurs. A moment of tangled emotions and possibilities, we are left to wonder what if, what if they had gone on together. However much it may have been an unfortunate matter of avoidance, the reason that Jacob gives for not going on together is one that I have always treasured and found great meaning in, and now even more so. Jacob says to Esau, My lord knows that the children are tender/ha’y’ladim rakim…; 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 children/l’regel ha’y’ladim…(Gen. 33:13-14).

While Jacob has also said that he will go at the pace of the animals, that they not be overdriven, the emphasis is on the children. It is the children who are called rakim/tender. It is a word most often sorely mistranslated later on in the Torah (Deut. 20:8). Among those who are to be sent home from battle is the young recruit who is described as ha’yarei v’rach ha’levav, generally translated as afraid and fainthearted. Drawing from father Jacob’s words, hardly to be seen as suggesting cowardice, we might better understand this would be soldier as “one who is of reverential and tender heart.” As was every soldier once, and all who would raise a fist or weapon to harm, this one too was once a tender child, counted among those at whose pace we would do well to go.
  So too, it is said of mother Leah, that she was of tender eyes/v’eyney Leah rakot. In learning to go at the pace of the children perhaps we shall our selves retain as adults some of that tenderness that Jacob saw and sought to protect in the little ones. Perhaps, as well, if we could see through the tender eyes of Leah, we might also see within and discover our own place of tenderness. The pace of the children is not only about physical pace, but about a way of thinking and feeling, of mind and heart and imagination.

If we can learn to go in accordance with the pace of the children/l’regel ha’y’ladim, learning to pause in the midst of life’s transactions, we may be blessed to enter a garden in which seasons merge in time. In the face of winter’s portent, to go at Jacob’s quiet pace, yet to plant seeds of spring and summer flowers, Leo and Ruby called their game “Farmers and Flowers.” The snow blower was purchased, and before even the first snow had fallen we had already learned of its deeper use and purpose, magically shaping a path to the garden, the little children leading. Through drifts in time and of seasons juxtaposed, we shall get to Eden yet if we would but learn to go in accordance with the pace of the children/l’regel ha’y’ladim.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein




Friday, December 7, 2018

Gratitude

We have a tradition of going to the home of my wife's brother for Thanksgiving. This year we went up the night before and stayed till mid afternoon of the holiday.  Since they are both still working and don't have nine to five jobs, we work around their schedules and still manage to get in plenty of catch up conversations and meaningful memories.  

As usual, clergy that I am, they asked me to say grace as we sat down for our Thanksgiving meal. This time I informed them I wanted to share an informal grace. It was actually more of a homily. 

I spoke about the cartoon I had posted on my Facebook page a day earlier. An inter-generational family is sitting down for their Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey in the center of the table. The little girl asks her parents and grandparents, who have stunned looks on their faces, "Why aren't we this thankful every day?"

        Then I mentioned Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a couple of wonderful videos on You Tube I show my students every semester on "gratitude." One of them is called "A Good Day." It has some beautiful still photographs of all the things we generally take for granted but make every day "a good day" for us, like clean running water and the amazing variety and subtlety of the natural world. He reminds us that each day is a gift. If we treat each day like the first or last day of our lives, we can do nothing but be grateful and open our eyes to all the beauty around us.

Then I recalled a conversation my wife and I had earlier in the week about smiling. How others, as we went about our day, seemed to brighten when we smiled at them, whether they were known to us or unknown. I was reminded how smiles work some of the muscles in our faces that effect the rest of our body and our mind as well.

The informal grace concluded with my confession that I sometimes found it hard to be grateful. There was so much suffering and evil abroad that the darkness could invade my mind and thoughts. I confessed that two people had admonished me recently about being too negative, especially in my written words. I admitted that the prophetic task of naming the negative, of striving to speak truth to power, was too much with me. I felt the need to balance the words of both judgment and mercy. 

The informal prayer ended as a petition, for the grace to smile and be grateful persons, every day. That was our Thanksgiving prayer.

After dinner they brought out a game that has also become a tradition. It brings with it a barrel of laughs. Without fail, we all succumb to the laughter that brings tears and by the time we stop the endorphins have permeated our systems and provided day long satisfaction.

The sun was beautiful in a blue sky on the drive home, reflecting off the snowy fields. Pheasants littered the ditches and occasionally flew in front of us. We watched a continuous Steindl-Rast still photo. Even when we entered a fog bank that enfolded us for several miles the good feeling of the day kept anxiety and worry away. There was the complete conviction the fog would disappear at the appropriate height or twist in the highway. It did.

    We arrived home in high spirits, till we turned on the evening news. We watched the troops eating their Thanksgiving meal in tents on the southern border and putting razor wire on top of fences already built. The President, with troops in Florida near Mar a Lago, said he had authorized the use of deadly force for anyone crossing the border illegally. We heard the President strike out at Justice Roberts and "Obama judges" and voice continued support for Saudi Arabia in the face of the Khashoggi murder. We heard the wildfire death toll go higher in California.
       It's hard to be grateful for every day, when each day features acts of aggression, of fighting and bullying, of hate and division. It's hard to be grateful when you have a President who believes every slight or every disagreement is a provocation to war and a media that joins in the fray with relish.

I give thanks for a friend who ended my day, after the evening news, with this Thanksgiving prayer.
"Giving thanks today for the compassionate people: the lovers, helpers, givers and healers, who see more than just themselves, who move through the world with open hands and not closed fists. Thank you. Keep going. It matters."

Carl Kline