Friday, April 3, 2020

Toward Healing and Wholeness

Toward Healing and Wholeness
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

           From out of brokenness, there can emerge a great light. As through cracks in the sidewalk, tree roots rising toward the light, and as little flowers breaking through hard ground, we too can rise through cracks in the certainty of how we assumed life would simply be. Rising toward the light of new insight, we can embrace new strengths, fear softened by the blessing of newfound humility. These are hard times and we are unsure, afraid before the unknown. So much has come to a standstill, so much has been cancelled, our lives rearranged and turned upside down, all beyond our power to determine even the details of day to day.

For ourselves and for children in our lives, it seems to me important to take agency for that which we can do in these days of the Coronavirus. First of all to take care and be careful in all the ways we are told will help in reducing susceptibility to disease. How shall we give shape to the new insights that emerge? First of all, what are the insights that come to us? Perhaps it would be helpful to write them down and make of them meditations in shaping our days. What are the strengths we find within ourselves, and creative ways of filling time, imagining with our children things to do to bring joy to ourselves and to others? If working from home, perhaps to envision a better way of work-life balance than we are often able to act upon.

One of the greatest ways of healing and responding to stress and danger is to reach out to others and to act for a greater wellbeing. That is at the root of all activism for the sake of a better world, how to act on behalf of others, to look beyond ourselves. As we seek and share ways to respond to the needs of those more vulnerable in our own community, reaching out is a way of connecting from house to house and heart to heart. We can all become weavers of invisible threads of connection, gossamer strands that in their fragility join us with all the strength of soul and spirit. We can just call someone and say hello, how are you? It is so simple, but we rarely do it. Now is the time to act on new insights and needs.

In terminology that many of us are hearing for the first time, there are great teachings and lessons. I shudder at the thought of “social distancing,” even as I understand what it means and why it is important, keeping enough physical distance among us now in an effort to prevent unwitting spread of the virus from one to another. In social distancing, which happens in negative ways all the time, the challenge is to think of deeper ways to be close to each other. Social distance between one group and another, whether in matters of race, of power, of gender, and all the ways that divide, needs to be bridged if we will come to a great healing as a society. So we can imagine in this time of separation for the sake of a greater good, how shall we come together and bridge the social distance that is always there but not spoken of? So it is in hearing of ways to spread out the timing of the virus striking, the importance of “flattening the curve.” With a new term by which to speak of a quest for greater health and protection for the vulnerable, so for all the disparities which cause some to be more vulnerable all the time. The challenge beyond the moment is to “flatten the curve,” even as we strive to bend the arc toward justice.

There are lessons to be learned now from the unique reality of a disease that threatens the human family. We are all threatened, susceptible across all borders and differences, reminding us that in the most basic ways of human biology we are all one. The Coronavirus does not distinguish based on race, or religion, or place of national origin. It does not distinguish between rich and poor or the folk and the famous. It does not respect borders, nor distinguish between migrant and citizen, vulnerable human beings all. An invisible virus is joining nations one to another in common concern, collective danger begging for a collective response and sharing of resources. All are equally vulnerable, neither military might nor economic power offering protection. In the way of the Biblical sabbatical year, when rich and poor, land owner and migrant, foraged for food shoulder to shoulder in ownerless fields, so too we are all in the field together foraging for a cure, seeking the way of health and healing. It is our challenge now, if ever it was, to learn and apply in positive ways the ultimate lesson of the Coronavirus, that humanity truly is one.

From house to house and heart to heart, beginning with our own community, we seek ways to bridge the distance and to remember that we are one. In being responsible for each other, we affirm the way of health and healing, of wholeness that emerges through the brokenness of this time. Though we are not meeting together in our communal homes of worship, we can be joined with each other through the personal prayers of each one that surround us all. In whatever way our words form, or in silent meditations of the heart, in teardrops that tell of the inner places from which they’ve come, in praying for one for another we are joined even more deeply than when present in the same holy space. As needs among us become clear, and requests for volunteers are made, we respond to help in whatever ways we can. In the new reality of “social distancing,” we can learn new ways to diminish social distance and become a greater whole, each one needed and each one valued as part of a holy community that lives beyond walls.

That is the message at the beginning of the weekly Torah portion Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:11-34:35). The portion begins with the law of the half-shekel/machatzit ha’shekel. Every person is to give but a half-shekel, a very small amount so that every one can give and be counted, thus, the rich shall not give more and the poor not less…. The Torah speaks of the half-shekel as a way to prevent the plague/negef from striking among us, negef as plague or disease. So it becomes real in teaching a deeper truth in the way the giving of a half-shekel evolves over time. It becomes in effect a communal tax in which all are obligated to give for the sake of the community. That each one is but a half becomes a teaching on the deeper truth of the original purpose in the giving of but half a shekel. We are each only a half and we need each other to be whole. We cannot ward off disease in a magical way, but as a community supported by each of its members, we can protect each other from the loneliness and fear that becomes its own plague in the face of the unknown.

          Each one’s prayers are needed, as each one’s presence. When we help each other, presence is never virtual. A reminder that we need each other, in our incompleteness is our beauty and our strength. In the brokenness of this time, may great light emerge and illumine a new path toward healing and wholeness.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, March 27, 2020

Top Ten To Do At Home

I figure it's only a few days before we are all ordered to stay home because of the pandemic. Just so you don't have to spend 24/7 watching the news and the numbers increase when the lockdown happens, I'm suggesting a top ten list of things to do at home during this time of coronavirus.
1. Clean - If your office is anything like mine, things have been piling up for years. I don't mean just dust particles on the back of the bookshelf. There are magazines and journals only those of the hippie generation would recognize. There are student papers from classes taught twenty years ago. There are old letters from friends long since deceased and yellowing with age. There are enough pens and pencils to outfit a small school. And the address labels from every non profit looking for my monetary support would fill a suitcase. Clean it up! It's spring cleaning! And remember, lots of other things can go on the curb beginning April 1.
2. Do a Puzzle - Jigsaw puzzles are metaphors for life. You want to put all the pieces in the right place. It helps if you are able to assess at the very beginning what pieces you have, by turning them all over. And if you can make an outline of your life first, get the boundaries set, that can help in filling in the middle. Heaven forbid you lose a piece. We want our life to be complete. Or make it a joint project. Others have pieces of our puzzle.
3. Family - Talk to your wife/husband. Seriously! When is the last time you talked about anything but  what you were having for dinner. Talk to your children. Or write them a letter. Seriously! The kind of letter they get from the post office. Something they can treasure and read when they are old like you. If you have grandchildren, send them a crossword puzzle you make up with family history in it. They'll love it, and it will keep them busy bugging their parents with questions.
4. Exercise - Just because you can't go to the gym you can still exercise at home. There are lots of training videos on the internet. Walk up and down the stairs. Do isometrics. Walk at night when the lockdown cops won't see you and nobody will be around to cough on you.
5. Eat - This is important and you have some choices. One alternative is to eat all your favorite foods. Stock up on chips, soda and ice cream to help you deal with your depression. Another option is to eat healthy to build up your immune system and your resistance. Or, you could develop  a fast till the panic is over. It doesn't have to be a complete fast, maybe just juices or soups, or maybe fasting from lunch; just eating breakfast and dinner and slimming down.
6. Read - I haven't heard for sure whether the library is canceling the book sale scheduled for the end of the month. If it isn't cancelled, I will have to ignore the lockdown or social distancing or whatever it is to gather up my normal haul of books. Not that I need any more. Since confining myself more, I'm reading two or three at a time and discovering some wonderful finds on my bookshelves I'd forgotten were there.
7. Nap - Find or make a place to sit and read where you are warmed by the sun on the back of your neck. When you get drowsy, put the book down and fall asleep. Nobody cares, even if you're supposed to be working from home. Naps are good for you.
8. Write Poetry - I'm suggesting poetry because a novel takes a long time and nobody wants the pandemic to go on that long. Try poetry. Anyone can do the rhyming kind. It will keep your mind occupied and keep you away from the TV and computer and watching the news.
9. Smile/Laugh - This is important, probably as important as eating. Make an arrangement with a friend and call each other up once a day with a joke. Search out good jokes. Put a smiley face on the ceiling above your bed so it reminds you to smile when you wake. Stick smiley faces in odd places around the house. Laugh at the absurdities of life. If you don't sing in the shower, practice laughing there!😁
10. Inner Life - In the Institute I coordinate, we have a daily session of what we call "inner life". It's a time when we cultivate and deepen whatever spiritual or religious life we have. It incorporates silence for meditation and prayer, reflection on the wisdom from different traditions and cultures and an opportunity to share ideas and experiences with others. In the midst of a pandemic, we have an opportune moment to practice our own inner life. And instead of looking away or ignoring our reality, perhaps that spiritual discipline will allow us to look deeply into the meaning of this pandemic and what we might learn from it. 

Perhaps instead of number ten to do at home, this should be number one.

Carl Kline

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thoughts amid the corona virus...

     It has not escaped my attention that the event of the corona virus is happening between Purim and Passover. Purim, like Yom Kippur, is when we read a story about chance. The tables get turned for the better --- the Jews are saved, not destroyed. We acknowledge that fate can change at any given moment and we pray it turns in our favor. We are also headed into Passover where it took ten plagues to get us out of Egypt.  People died with each plague. We learn that we don’t sing Hallel because the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, that their lives also belong to the Holy One. Yet that story of liberation has fueled many a tradition and given many hope...
      There is a story I have read on Yom Kippur, it’s a Zen Buddhist story not Jewish one, but at time like this virus it’s offering me some perspective I’d like to share:

          One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he left his horse loose to go the mountains and live out the rest of its life.
Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, "What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. How unfortunate you are! You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?" The farmer replied:" Maybe so, maybe not... who knows, we shall see."
     Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses, which followed the old horse into the corral.
Word got out in the village of the old farmer's good fortune and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. "How fortunate you are!" they exclaimed. "You must be very happy!" Again, the farmer softly said: "Maybe so, maybe not.... Who knows? We shall see."
     At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer's only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer's son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer's latest misfortune. "Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You'll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad," they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, "Maybe so...maybe not ...Who knows? We shall see".
     Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor's men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor's army. As it happened the farmer's son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. In the teahouse, the villagers again commented "What very good fortune you have!!" as their own young sons were marched away. "You must be very happy." "Maybe so, Who knows? We shall see!", replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.
     As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. "Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you"! But the old farmer simply replied; "Maybe so, maybe not...Who knows? We shall see."
     As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: "Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy", to which the old farmer replied, "Maybe...Who knows? We shall see!"
     This is how I’m approaching the virus. Yes, at the moment it seems apocalyptic, people are panicking and buying things in a frenzy, predictions of many people dying; market crashing, and the government doesn’t know what to do, etc, etc. Yet I’m at optimist at heart, and I have let my mind wander to what if:

What if the corona virus:
-Inspires international cooperation between scientists like never before, and we are able to put that to use in the future with other diseases?
-Creates new jobs we don’t yet know about?
- Inspires Israel to find a vaccine and offer it to its enemies and peace breaks out?
-Takes the bullying, warmongering, trolling, and nastiness out of people;  connects people in different ways; catapults us to the future where we see technology as a true gift to keep us safe and connected; perhaps alleviates some souls from suffering who have just not been able to exit life yet?
- Teaches us that we can cooperate across borders and then maybe find cures for plastic overload and environmental issues?
-Allows  our children to see their aging parents with more vulnerability and treat them with more respect and love.
-Permits us to use our time at home to clean our house, catch up on things, learn a new skill, and clean out our inboxes and voicemails? Or better yet, make art and music, meditate, and pray.
 -Inspires us to find new ways to help and care for each other?
- Diminishes our carbon emissions with less travel so that it actually helps the planet and puts us on the right track?
- Helps us find we are more resilient than we knew?
- Pushes billionaires step up and fund more?
-Helps the world find more compassion and solutions for the poor, disabled, elderly, mentally ill and those who need ongoing help?
 - Resets our overwork/overwhelm cycle? 
- Encourages us to learn to enjoy and love more those we are with at home?
-Means we learn how to manage anxiety? 
- Exposes the cracks in our healthcare system and we unite to fix it?
- Forces us try new recipes and waste less food since we don't want to go out and shop? 
         - Moves us to get creative and new ( younger) leadership emerges to take us to the next stage of our evolution?

 Maybe …who knows? we shall see….

Rabbi Rayzel Raphael , guest blogger, is the spiritual leader of Darkaynu In Warrington. She also offers lifecycle events and counseling in the Philadelphia, NJ and Delaware area.   She is an award winning songwriter, and the author of two children’s books- Angels for Dreamtime and New Moon.  For more information- and spiritual resources to get through these times - visit her website:

Friday, March 13, 2020

Weapons of Choice

   Talking with two friends and future teachers the other day, my understanding was deepened about a new and fearful responsibility they assume. One of them told us how she was in her practice teaching situation with her young charges when one of the children slammed a door, hard. It sounded to her like a gun shot. She confessed she had a moment of utter panic.

Of course, part of the training these days is for just such a situation and a school lockdown. You learn where to go in the room to best protect the children. I learned how the magnet on the door frame of the room we were in, when quickly removed, would lock down our room.

I pondered how we do such an unfortunate job of drilling fear into our children with practice runs in school. In my day, it was getting under the desk to be safe from a nuclear bomb (as if that would help). Now it's closer to home, so we cower in a corner to avoid the disturbed school shooter.

The other future teacher said when she starts teaching she's going to have a gun. I was astonished! This is a seemingly calm, patient, intelligent young woman. She set off a long conversation with questions from her fellow teacher friend like: where would she keep a weapon; how would she insure a child didn't find it and accidentally injure another; what was she teaching the children by arming herself? I told her my concern was that anyone who owns a weapon for "security" purposes, should be prepared physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually to kill someone. Was she? Had she done the necessary homework?

We must be the most fearful society on the planet, as well as the most violent. Three pictures brought this home to me this week. The first was an 11 year old girl with her grandfather, appearing before a legislative committee in Idaho with a loaded AR-15 slung over her shoulder. Her grandfather was there supporting conceal-carry for permitted non residents. Ironically he said, "People live in fear, terrified of that which they do not understand. She's been shooting since she was 5 years old. She got her first deer with this weapon at 9. She carries it responsibly. She knows how not to put her finger on the trigger. We live in fear in a society that is fed fear on a daily basis." He said Bailey was an example of someone who could responsibly handle a gun, and lawmakers should extend that to non-residents.

The second picture was two young boys standing in the Nebraska state capital with assault weapons. One had even dressed the part with a helmet and fatigues. Apparently they were there with their weapons just to prove they could be. This in a state where it's against the law to take a protest sign into that same building.

The third picture was of Tess Thompson Talley, a trophy hunter from Kentucky. She posted a picture of herself standing in front of a rare black giraffe apparently looking and pointing to the heavens in thanksgiving. She remarked, "Prayers for my once in a lifetime dream hunt came true today! Spotted this rare black giraffe bull and stalked him for quite a while." Africa Digest called her a "white american savage."

     Let's be clear! There are lots of people who don't need guns to feel safe, or powerful. There are those who practice fearlessness. One such event occurred around the world this past week when Christians celebrated Ash Wednesday. This is a ritual where you wear the sign of your own demise on your forehead. You recognize that you have come from dust and you will return there as well. You're no different in essence than any other living being and your destiny will be the same.

In Buddhism there are monks who meditate on their skeleton, no flesh, just bones. It might be a humbling reality check for all of us. Confronting death, the deepest fear of the human psyche and coming to terms with it, enables one to begin practicing fearlessness in life. And if ritual practice isn't enough, one could take advice from the 1 Letter of John in the New Testament, that "There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear."

The fearless are all around us. They seldom get press. They confront a loved one on their alcoholism or drug use. They save people from fires and floods. They won't let "difference" limit their neighborliness or compassion. They won't let the depressed despair. They counsel the desperate and suicidal. They teach the seemingly unreachable. They face fire hoses and dogs and beatings in the cause of justice. They sometimes lose their lives in school or church shootings, attempting restraint on the shooter. They risk their lives in international situations of conflict. They accompany human rights workers around the globe in organizations like Peace Brigades International. They serve in the Nonviolent Peace Force to help resolve conflicts with creative nonviolent strategies. They join the UN Peacekeepers to deliver supplies to war torn refugees.

There are those who love life so much that they work through their fears, refusing to place them on another. We are a fearful people. But if we will, we can practice fearlessness. We can hold love and compassion in our hands as our weapons of choice.

Carl Kline

Friday, March 6, 2020

Of Narrative and Law - From Vitebsk to Vermont

          Sitting by the fire in the old Vermont inn as the snow swirled outside, I drifted back in time to what might have been a similar scene in late eighteenth century Vitebsk, Belarus. I had come through the swirling snows to visit Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. My time machine was the Rebbe’s own book, P’ri Ha’aretz, Fruit of the Land. I wish I could say that I had taken the holy book with me as part of a greater awareness of what I might encounter. In truth, it is a slim volume that fits easily into my pack, thus a frequent companion when traveling. Like snow settling into intricate patterns upon the windowpanes, as though each flake has been carefully placed, meaning emerges of its own, and I soon knew with deeper insight why I had brought the book.

Finding our way on the journey, vision blocked by the snow at times, windblown across the path, transitions can be hard to follow and to navigate. 
The weekly Torah portion of our time in Vermont was Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18), in which there is one such transition, seeming to appear suddenly as a sharp turn at the base of a wooded hill. It is what I think of as a watershed portion. From the very beginning of Torah, from the first word, B’reishit/In the beginning of…, there has been a continuous flow of narrative, only three commandments, in fact, until just a few weeks and portions earlier. Most of that first large enumeration of commandments is primarily of a ritual nature, concerning the marking of Passover, helping to insure that we remember through the generations that we were slaves in Egypt. Suddenly, with the portion of Mishpatim, we encounter a portion that is almost entirely of law. As the word mishpatim is understood, most of these laws represent social ordinances, laws meant to mediate civil and interpersonal relations.

       The transition can be difficult at first, slipping and sliding a bit as we make our way. It is helpful to remember that such portions of law are also part of the narrative, also part of the journey. Since leaving Egypt, all of Torah unfolds along the way of the desert journey, and so it continues to guide along the way of our journeys as the Torah of Life/Torat Chayyim. Pausing on the trail to catch our breath, we wonder about the relationship between the narrative that has come before and this portion of law. In the way of Torah, there is no introduction or acknowledgement of a shift in tone or approach, its own teaching on the seamlessness of life, all facets as part of one whole. There is a small hint of continuity about which much teaching emerges. On the first word of the portion there is a prefix of one small letter, the conjunctive letter vav/and; v’eleh mishpatim/and these are the social ordinances that you shall set before them. The letter vav/and appears superfluous, unnecessary, and in that appearance is its mystery and teaching, beckoning, asking us to look more carefully. Teachers through time suggest that the vav is to make clear that all that has come before and all that is about to be told are all part of the legacy of Sinai, all given as part of one whole. Drawing on rabbinic teaching to the book of Sh’mot/Exodus, the great commentator Rashi notes very simply, the vav adds to what came before/mosif al ha’rishonim, thus indicating continuity.

         Of that continuity that stretches all the way back, joining us to the very beginning, Rabbi Menachem Mendel then spoke up, offering his thoughts as I sat by the hearth, warmed by two fires. Looking back to creation, with which the human narrative begins, setting the universal backdrop from which the particular Jewish narrative emerges, the Rebbe of Vitebsk teaches that from the first moment of the world’s becoming there begins a flow of chesed/lovingkindness into the world, and so it flows through time. He teaches that God created the world as an act of chesed, drawing on the oft-sung words of Psalm 29, olam chesed yibaneh/the world is founded on lovingkindness. As the narrative unfolds and social constructs become more complex, there comes to be greater need to mediate human relations in all realms of human interaction, whether economic, political, juridical, or familial and interpersonal. Rebbe Menachem Mendel worries about the danger of chesed overflowing its banks, of even lovingkindness becoming dangerous without any way of containment and focus. Torah becomes that container. He suggests that something, however good in its essence, that is entirely unbounded becomes unrecognizable and returns the world to primordial confusion. 
          As I listened, the Rebbe taught further of the role of Torah: it is the bounded container and the vessel that holds the way of blessing and reveals kindness in the world, for if there is no boundary, there is no world/she’im eyn g’vul eyn olam…. Of so much pain caused in the absence of boundaries, and in the failure to honor the emotional and physical space that is each person’s world, the world itself is threatened with return to the chaos of before there was a world, from before there was a human narrative and its laws of justice      and compassion.

As we navigate the transition that comes with the portion of Mishpatim, finding our way from narrative into law, so the Rebbe anticipates our concern, that kindness and compassion may become lost in a thicket of laws. The goal then becomes to join and unite the attribute of compassion to the attribute of justice/m’chaber u’mishtatef midat ha’rachamim l’midat ha’din…. We realize that we have not left the narrative after all. Rather, we have been given signposts along the way, laws and teachings meant to guide us in our going forward together in the ever-unfolding narrative that is ours to shape. 

Of law that is meant to mediate human relations and yet to be infused with something deeper than itself, Rebbe Menachem Mendel teaches, and to every commandment that is in the Torah is a root that is beyond its particular detail/u’l’chol mitzvah she’ba’torah shoresh l’ma’aleh b’f’ratit. As law helps to shape the narrative of human relations, so it needs to reflect the higher ideals of which the narrative tells and toward which it strives.

Flames dancing upon the hearth, I looked out at the snowflakes swirling, the beauty of creation singing to me of God’s kindness. Feeling content as one small part of a greater narrative, I sat back and closed my eyes, closing the holy book and kissing its cover, savoring the teaching that had come through time from Vitebsk to Vermont.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, February 28, 2020

"Whatever you did not do for the least of these..."

I was reminded of Martin Buber the other evening as I was reading The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Discovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India. The book is about a delegation of Jewish Rabbis who make their way to Dharamshala, India to meet with the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. In both the Jewish and Buddhist delegations there are those who have serious reservations about meeting with these "others". Their understanding of their tradition and their past experience has taught them to be suspicious and cautious about relationships with those of other faiths.
       Eventually, because of the generous nature and hospitality of their host and the hard work of their Jewish organizer, genuine dialogue and mutual sharing begins to happen. They discover their shared stories, especially the common experience of their people in exile and suffering. They see the similarity of China's destruction of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and Jewish synagogues in Germany, or even the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans so many years earlier. They begin to discard the "I-It" stereotype that divided them at the beginning and start developing the "I-Thou" relationships of a Martin Buber.
       Buber was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times. I nominate him for one of the important writers I read in Seminary. Along with the likes of Reuel Howe, Eric Fromm, Paul Tournier, Paul Tillich and Victor Frankl, he helped me see my relationship to the other as a "thou," rather than as an "it."

And Phil Slater, especially in The Pursuit of Loneliness, helped me understand what it looked like when a society focused on the other as "it," subservient to privilege and power. Written in 1970, the following polarities describe the old and new cultures for Slater. "The old culture, when forced to choose, tends to give preference to property rights over personal rights, technological requirements over human needs, competition over cooperation, violence over sexuality, concentration over distribution, the producer over the consumer, means over ends, secrecy over openness, social forms over personal expression, striving over gratification, Oedipal love over communal love, and so on."
        One might say MAGA (Make American Great Again) is doing a good job of resurrecting many of Slater's old cultural values, and in the meantime making us all lonely in our cocoon of "it," safe and secure from those "others." 
        My most significant experiences of being treated like a "thou" have been in other lands, among the poorest of the poor. Once in India, I was an honored guest in a hut where I was served the evening's ration of family food, as my hosts watched with obvious pleasure. That evening the whole community celebrated our presence under the one light bulb in the center of the village square, with speeches and songs and prayers.     On another occasion in Nicaragua, I was given my own bed in one room, as the rest of the family of five shared the other bed and room in their two room home. My beans had the last of the meat, scraped from the one remaining bone. I was a "thou" with this family, even though my government was responsible for making them refugees in their own country.
        There's a new film out about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, a movement dedicated to making "thou's" out of those normally treated as "it's." Dorothy was someone who took the passage in the Gospel of Matthew seriously: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." The logo for the CW newspaper still includes the human line outside the soup kitchen, waiting to be fed, and the obvious aura above one person's head. In other words, when you serve others they should be treated as you would treat Christ, as a "thou," for that they are.
       Like reading the Beatitudes without the woes in the Gospel of Luke, Christians too often ignore the following verses in Matthew. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

I-It is about using. I-Thou is about Being. If we have the courage and the wisdom to practice hospitality for the "other," we may be surprised by our common stories and shared situations. We may even experience the God of love in our midst.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 21, 2020

To Build Connection in the Places of Our Common Vunerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein