Friday, August 12, 2022

Transition

 It’s that time of year again.  Cars are packed to the roof with clothing, bedding, electronics, books, favorite belongings to replicate something like home.  Parents keep asking “have you packed…?”  Young adults roll their eyes.  The scenario is playing itself out a few blocks from our home as our granddaughter prepares to leave the nest yet one more time, this time for graduate school.  Next week the drama will play again as our grandson returns to college after a long Covid induced hiatus.  

As grandparents, we will experience the phenomenon of  “empty - nesting” again.  One would think, having been through it before, we would be used to the comings and goings of our grandchildren.  But it is new every time.  In the enforced interruption of their studies due to Covid, we have gotten to know them as emerging adults.  We have enjoyed witnessing their evolving sense of responsibility and their increasing ease in moving about in the various worlds they encounter.  In some ways this makes the next leave-taking a little easier on us.  We don’t worry about them as much as we did when they were younger - - and yet, we still wait for news of their safe arrival at a new destination; we still sort of hold our breath when they are driving unfamiliar roads; we are conscious of holding them more closely in our hearts as they exit the nest again - each leave taking bringing them closer to the final one - - where they leave the nest and don’t return except for long awaited holiday visits.

Change is an accepted fact of life, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging or strenuous each time we go through it again.  We are gradually learning that the transitions set in motion by change  are constant and unsettling while at the same time offering opportunities for growth and transformation. 

Somehow, no matter how much we think we are prepared for the physical change that is about to take place, ie the scouting out of second hand pots and pans and dishes and linens for our granddaughter’s new apartment, all the physical preparation for a change does not prepare us for the necessary transition that will attend the change.   

Transition is an emotional, spiritual and psychological work and somehow we are never quite prepared for it. Transition means an ending is happening or is about to happen.  As I recall the first “empty-nesting” process, we witnessed our grandchildren leaving the nest as young, just out of high school, late adolescents.  Between the beginning of September and the beginning of the winter holiday break, they became different people in so many ways - had their own opinions;  were capable of making more decisions on their own; were ever more appreciative of the nest from which they had sprung.

Childhood had pretty much ended. They had done the strenuous work of transitioning to young adults.  We, as the adults left behind, experienced that ending of their childhood and had our own transition to go through.  Letting go of the precious life of “hands-on” grand-parenting of young children meant we needed to grow up a bit ourselves.  Now there were new young adults in our lives and that meant learning new ways of loving without condition; new ways of witnessing their lives in the present; new ways of being present to our grandchildren as they become adults.

I find myself feeling grateful for what William Bridges, in his book Transitions:Making Sense of Life’s Changes, labeled “the neutral zone,” that time between what was and what is to come, a sort of “gap in the continuity of life”  where we might take time to process the change and gradually get re-oriented to the new way of being on the other side of the transition.  Making use of this “dead zone” seems to be the key to making a successful transition  to what life will be like when the familiarity of the old is stripped away by change.  It made see me appreciate more the common sense of the advice to newly widowed people not to make any big decisions in the first year after the death of a spouse, but rather allow for the time required to adapt and adjust to the loss and to being a single person again.  I also have a new appreciation for the meaning of a “gap year” that so many students wisely take whether after high school or between college and graduate school.  Far from “wasting time,”  spending that period in a sort of “neutral zone” allows for a successful transition from one way of being to another.

Change is constant and inevitable.  Transition is strenuous.  But the potential for the joy of transformation awaits as the process unfolds.  So I try to put a lid on my sense of anxiety, my reluctance to let go, my fear of the unknown that accompanies every change - - and pack a few more necessary snacks and odds and ends that  may come in handy when setting up a new apartment.  I hug my granddaughter and tell her I’ll see her at Christmas.  And she is off again!!

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, August 5, 2022

"You Shall Be..."


 For some reason, I awoke from a dream this morning with the jeweled breastplate of the high priest in ancient Israel on my mind.  Go figure.  Since the image kept nagging in consciousness, I decided to follow it back into the description of the breastplate in Exodus 28.  In the midst of a lot of detailed description of the garments that the high priest of Israel was to wear for ritual purposes is the colorful detail of the chosen mishpat (the “ch” is pronounced with a sort of ‘clearing the throat’ sound), the breast plate of decision or judgement.  It was a ritual garment crafted from gold and blue and purple and crimson yarns, and “fine twisted linen” embellished with 4 rows of precious stones.  In my imagination it appears rich with the deep jewel tones of carnelian and emerald, turquoise and sapphire and amethyst  - 12 stones in all - each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Upon it were also constructed the Urim and Thummim which were items that constituted a device for determining the will of the Holy One in matters that were beyond human ability to judge.


What impressed me most after all the glorious and colorful description of this ritual part of the high priest’s garments were the instructions for the intention with which it was to be worn by the high priest: “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of decision over his heart when he enters the sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times.”   

I have often thought about how life might be different if we human beings were to wear some kind of beautiful ritual garment over the heart that would keep us always mindful of the sanctity of each human life we encounter in our daily wanderings.
I wonder if such a garment might give us pause before giving silent permission for more prisons to be built?  Would it help us to see people without homes as precious lives huddled in alley ways and under bridges? Might wearing a beautifully woven garment of decision and judgement make us more alert to laws that dehumanize and dis-empower some of the most vulnerable among us?  How might a Supreme Court make decisions guided by a just mercy well tempered with compassion rather than power politics if the justices were required to wear an elaborate jeweled garment representing all the people over their collective heart - - reminding them?

Another ancient command comes to mind: “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  Even taken out of context, it is a reminder to humankind of a high calling; a reminder that we have the capacity to be whole -  - wholly whole - - not just as individuals, but as a collective expression of the very highest levels of creativity and generosity and hospitality and compassion.  We have written within us the capacity to be priests to one another in the highest and best sense of the word.  We have within us the ability to recognize one another’s wholeness - - one another’s holiness. Not only that, but we are also capable of being on the receiving end of the priesthood of another when we are in need of wisdom, comfort, guidance, strength, or compassion.


The high priest’s breastplate was to be worn by Aaron “over his heart when he enters the sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times.”  The BaalShemTov (Master Of The Good Name) wrote: Remembering is the source of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile.)

Living as we do, in an unrelentingly stressful world, it is easy to live in a state of forgetfulness - or absence of mindfulness.  In remembering who we are, who we are in relationship with  one another, there is our redemption - our “return” as it were, to wholeness and holiness - - our return from exile.  

The ritual garment, the jeweled breastplate with the Urim and Thummin reminded Aaron of his high calling.  When putting on the ritual garment he was to carry the names of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders “like a father carrying a child on his shoulders to keep the child safe.” (B’er Mayim Hayyim).  Aaron was  told to carry the names of the tribes over his heart so that when making judgements, he would consult not only the rules, but his heart as well.   It is a heavy priesthood.  We need to take up the garments together.

As we enter this day:
May we be peaceful.
May we be happy.
May we embody love and understanding.
May lovingkindness manifest through our lives.
May we receive the priesthood of all whom we meet.
May we offer our priesthood to others.
May we dwell in peace.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 29, 2022

Lament

 

You never know what you might find in those old file folders, lying in the bottom of a box, hidden in the cubbyhole under the eaves. I was surprised to find a Lamentation I wrote years earlier, lost to my memory.

People may be aware of the book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. It’s not a long book, only five chapters. Still, it sets the standard for the definition of a lament. I remember studying the three primary characteristics. Every good lament has a complaint, a request for help and the certainty that God will hear and respond.

The story begins some 35 years ago. In January of 1987, I was part of a Witness for Peace delegation in Nicaragua. We were there to express support and solidarity with the Nicaraguan people as they suffered from the violence of the U.S. supported counter-revolutionaries (contras). Afraid of the Sandinistas who had come to power there and what the U.S. government saw as their communist tendencies, our government was supporting counter revolutionary forces based in neighboring Honduras. They would slip across the border to murder and terrorize the population. Symbolically, our purpose in Witness for Peace was to stand between the contras and the people of Nicaragua, putting our lives in jeopardy with theirs. It didn’t take long to realize that aim. 

Shortly after our arrival in Nicaragua, as we headed toward a border town where our presence might discourage some of the violence, we got our first taste of the situation. We were traveling in the back of a truck with Nicaraguans heading in the same direction, some forty of us altogether, driving over a dusty rural road. Before long, we heard an explosion some distance off in the direction we were moving. Several minutes later we came on a small battered pick-up truck, lying on the side of the road, next to a crater. The people nearby informed us the truck had hit a contra land mine and the two dead farmers had been removed from the scene. If we had arrived ten minutes earlier, it’s hard to know if I would be telling this story.

Our immediate destination was a rural community close enough to the border to experience regular incursions from the contra. We accompanied farmers to their fields, walked the rural roads, sat and talked with the townspeople. Mainly, we wanted their adversaries to understand there were North Americans in their midst and any violence might risk U.S. support. 

 

Part of our time later was spent in a refugee resettlement camp called La Posolera, a community of 83 families who once lived closer to the Honduran border, but had moved several times seeking shelter from the terror of the contras. Even here, they had armed guards patrolling their perimeter day and night, with good reason. We visited several sites around their community in pouring rain where their residents had been killed, to offer prayers of repentance and peace.


The day before I wrote my Lamentation, we visited the nearby Waslala hospital and watched as medical personnel amputated what remained of a 15 year old girls’ arm, the result of a grenade accident that killed her boyfriend. After the amputation, the doctor told us the only game children in the area were able to play was “war”! It was ever present in their consciousness!

At the end of our visit and before returning to the states, we went to the American Embassy to meet with our Ambassador. When I asked to close our time with the Ambassador with a reading of my Lamentation, it was denied. He didn’t want to hear it. As we left, it was read with only our delegation listening, outside the gates of the Embassy.


                                   God! Where is my arm?
                                   Who will carry my family’s water?
                                       and shape the tortillas?
                                   How will I hold a child to suck
                                       at my breast?
                                   What man will want only half
                                       of a hug?

                                   Have you taken it to heaven to
                                       comfort my lover?
                                   Or is it lost in the blood on
                                        the hospital floor?

                                   Make my arm busy in the Spirit world.
                                   Help me bear my share of life’s work.

                                   For you are the God who takes children
                                        into your arms,
                                   and makes all of our arms strong for
                                        filling a cross.

                                   I will sing praises to God, for
                                        she has left me a voice.
                                   I will run after her will, for
                                        she has left me with feet.

                                   Praise God in the heavens. Praise God
                                        on the earth. Praise the name of
                                        God.

 




My continuing complaint, my continuing lament is, that all of the world’s children are too conscious of war. Every day they lose arms and legs and lives. Why is the alternative vision so hard to realize? When, if ever, will I be able to conclude my lament?

Carl Kline













Friday, July 22, 2022

Sitting In the Fire

 With the reports of searing temperatures and fires in Europe mirroring the ongoing threat of forest fires and record breaking temperatures and drought conditions here in the U.S. the metaphors of heat and fire have been on my mind a lot.  Boston has been enduring days of 90 degree weather with debilitating humidity.  While not as hot on the island, the weather has been unusually dry and and the parched grass in our yard crunches underfoot.  We keep an eye on the sign at the edge of the state forest that lets us know the level of danger for fires there.  It is high.

The heat  of war in Ukraine continues unabated as the military machine burns and obliterates home and hospitals and schools, melting an entire culture in front of our eyes.

 

In the midst of the “high season” here, the beaches draw the multitudes who find relief in the cooling waters of Nantucket sound.  There is the brief ease of forgetfulness at the water’s edge in the midst of colorful beach umbrellas and coolers stocked with cold drinks.

But the title of James Baldwin’s book “The Fire Next Time”  flutters around in the back of my mind.  It seems an apt allusion to the heat and fire of our times.

Alongside that title, the sonorous tones of “for he is like a refiner’s fire” from Handel’s “Messiah”  keep replaying in my head - - persistent.  The words are from the prophet Malachi: See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears…for he is like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…and he will purify.

The metaphor of “fire” will not leave me alone.  It disturbs - - but it also opens a window for other ways of thinking about this burning process we seem to be in, quite literally, but also figuratively, as a species on this planet.   And I wonder…are we in the midst of “the fire that purifies?”   Is it OK to entertain that question?

My Buddhist teacher sends out an invitation to “tea and conversation,”  inviting the sangha to engage in a thoughtful discussion of the thinking of 13th century Buddhist sage, Eihei Dogen, the founder of  Soto-Zen in Japan.  The  conversation starter is an article on a work titled Kuge - “The Flowers of Emptiness.”   (The article he shared can be found at https://www.lionsroar.com/steadfast-in-the-midst -of -samsara).  I was hooked by some words in the first paragraph: “The time and place that the blue lotus flowers open and spread are in the midst of the fire and in the time of fire.”  According to the article, “Dogen lived in a time of political uncertainty, violent weather, and cultural change. Perhaps these difficulties inspired Dogen to take up the poetic image of a blue lotus - associated with practice - realization - blooming within the fire of samsara.”     In order to bloom, the blue lotus requires the heat of the fire.


So -from two major religious traditions comes the metaphor of fire as part of a process of transformation.  The passage from Malachi evokes the image of a powerful process of refinement. In refining silver, one needs to hold the metal in the middle of the fire where the flames are hottest so as to burn away all the impurities. The high temperatures volatize the impurities that form on the surface as dross. The dross is discarded and only the beauty of the silver remains.

So, I wonder.   Is it OK to entertain the notion of the possibility that this grand human experiment may be in the process of transformation?  Is it possible that in order for humanity to become whole, compassionate, and the embodiment of lovingkindness, we must endure a purification process not unlike that of a refiner’s fire?  

The prophet Malachi addressed a corrupt culture where even the religious leaders had lost their sense of vocation.  The sacrificial system was breaking down as people brought blemished and unfit animals for sacrifice - totally against the religious order of the day.  The prophet promised something like a “refiner’s fire” in the face of which no one could stand.  It is as though he could see ahead of time the deterioration of society.

The Buddhist tradition affirms that out of the fire of suffering, compassion and wisdom arise with the willingness to practice spiritual discipline in the midst of the fire of life’s difficulties and challenges.  The blue lotus blooms in the heat of the fire.

Since it seems unlikely that we will escape the suffering caused by war, ignorance, conspiratorial thinking, poverty, racism, anti-semitism, various gender prejudices, and on and on, is it possible that we might entertain the  metaphor of the “refiner’s fire?”  Is it possible, by focusing on the inner life, cultivating mindfulness, seeking a consistent compassionate response to what life offers, we might begin to understand that we are in the heat for a reason - - that we must return again and again to the center of the traditions that call us to something higher - to compassion, generosity, hospitality, lovingkindness.  

Buddhism also affirms that “when the student is ready, the teacher will come.”   It seems the teacher is in the room.  The fire is burning white hot.  

“…and who shall stand at the day of [it’s] coming?”    

I take reassurance from a few other prophetic words from Isaiah 43, captured in  the hymn “How Firm A Foundation” - - “When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply;  the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume , and thy gold to refine.”

Sitting in the midst of the refining fire is painful, challenging,  and exhausting.  But major spiritual traditions affirm that if we can hold steady, practicing the high spiritual disciplines of faithfulness, lovingkindness, justice-seeking, and compassion in the midst of the fire, transformation can happen.  

Holding on tight for the ride,

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, July 15, 2022

Grieving

 Once in the Rosebud Reservation, I was privileged to see a Wiping of the Tears Ceremony. In Lakota culture, there are traditional practices for mourning and grief. The Wiping of the Tears is the conclusion of a period where one has stepped back from the usual way of life, into an extended absence from the larger community. Grieving is understood as something that takes time and an important process for both the spirit of the departed and the one left behind.

The special ceremony I witnessed took place in the context of a Wacipi. The mourner sat in the dance circle as members of the community filed by, welcoming him back into their larger circle and symbolically wiping his tears. After some twelve months of honoring, remembering and grieving the lost family member, it was time to put the tears away and step back into the fullness of life.
I was reminded of this Lakota ceremony as I learned of the death of a friend’s mother in Nigeria. She is totally focused on the loss of her mother. In her culture, how one responds to the death of a family member may determine whether that family member becomes one of the ancestors. Funerals and the grieving process are of the utmost importance. Normal life and normal routines cease in the face of this important and momentous process.

In the U.S., we tend to view death and the mourning process as “get on with it and get over it.” Hopefully, the grief can be vacated during the funeral, so a person can get back to work and get back to living life as usual. We have maternity leave for those giving birth, but no grief leave for those experiencing a death.
One of the positive dimensions of the grieving process can be remembering times and events with the loved one. But in our workaday culture, the cultivation of personal memories is not highly valued, unless it has something to contribute to our productivity. Our usual depiction of someone “remembering,” is an elder by the window of the nursing home, lost to the present world and other people in scenes from the past.

A difficulty for a positive grieving process is regret. How do you tell someone you love them after they are gone? How do you ask for forgiveness from someone who dies? Can we be haunted by the spirit of someone wronged or comforted by the spirit of someone loved?
 
At a retreat with others from an Intercultural Education organization, I had a disturbing experience. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a knock on my door and a request from a participant that I join him in the hall. His wife, who was Lakota, had been awakened by an angry spirit in the room they occupied. She was huddled with their children in the hall.

They moved to a different room as I agreed to pray with them for understanding. In the meantime, pipes in the building, seemingly without reason, began banging with increasing ferocity. I prayed to
my father as intercessor, that he help this troubled spirit. As I finished my prayer, the banging slowly ceased, and my Lakota friend informed me she now understood the situation. This man’s spirit was trapped, unable to move on to the spirit world, as he had never expressed his love to anyone. He was never able to say, “I love you.”
In the morning, over breakfast, the Lakota woman said to me, “I wish you white folks would take better care of your dead.” When I looked at the picture on the wall of the room where they were disturbed, dedicated to the person who funded it, I understood. A stoic face; old school; tough minded; don’t show your emotions; saying “I love you” was not part of his vocabulary!

Regret can imprison us!

As can anger! I can’t imagine how the parents grieving the loss of their children at Uvalde, or Sandy Hook, or so many other places in this gun hungry country; how they can heal their grief without enormous reservoirs of anger; anger at the perpetrators, but also at those who allow the killings to continue with their excuses, avoidance and lack of courage.

Sitting with some younger friends the other evening and hearing their stories of melting glaciers in the Northwest and flooding in Yellowstone, I felt their grief for the passing of the natural world as my own. There was a certain level of acceptance in the conversation, as if it were an inevitable process of the human experiment that we would all together be born, live and eventually, die all together. Perhaps it’s pandemic thinking! Perhaps it’s a reality check about climate change! Perhaps it’s prophetic!

I recalled watching “A Life on Our Planet” with David Attenborough, and realized how I would grieve the loss of nature, the created world, more than the loss of humanity; supposedly the most intelligent of life forms.

I expect the Creator will be in deep grief, should we make our home uninhabitable; just as I’m certain the giver of life mourns our taking of other life; and endows us with the ability to heal with and speak our love, if only we will!  

Carl Kline

Friday, July 8, 2022

Wanted: Light For The Others

 

Although the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee (Senator Grassley, from Iowa), is too busy to watch the hearings on the January 6 insurrection; retired as I am and free to watch or not, I’ve chosen to make them part of my patriotic responsibility. Frankly, I believe anyone who is ignoring them by saying they are a “witch-hunt,” or partisan propaganda, has no right to an opinion. It would be like me saying the media is investigating the war crimes in Ukraine, because they don’t like Putin.
Three of the witnesses in the January 6 hearings have had the greatest impact on me. Rusty Bowers, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives in Arizona, was one. He was obviously moved by his faith to reject suggestions for changing the election in his state by convening the legislators to reconsider the vote. He believed those Presidential requests were counter to his oath of office. In moving testimony, he stated what led him to refuse his President and others.

“It is painful to have friends who have been such a help to me turn on me with such rancor. I may in the eyes of men not hold correct opinions or act according to their vision or convictions, but I do not take this current situation in a light manner, a fearful manner, or a vengeful manner. I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to. With any contrived desire towards deflection of my deep foundational desire to follow God's will as I believe He led my conscience to embrace. How else will I ever approach Him in the wilderness of life? Knowing that I ask this guidance only to show myself a coward in defending the course He let me take — He led me to take.”

For his allegiance to his God and country, for his request for “evidence” of foul play that never came, Bowers and his family have suffered. His office was deluged with some 20,000 emails. His home was visited by blaring sound trucks calling him a pedophile, pervert and corrupt politician. This didn’t help the health of their ill, at home daughter, who died a few weeks later. This harassment came after three counts of Arizona ballots, one of them a circus. Still, the pressure from the former President and his followers followed Bowers.

A second pair of witnesses, of obvious integrity, were Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. They were election workers in Georgia, accused by Trump and his allies of inserting 18,000 fake ballots from a suitcase under a table into the voting machines. Investigation revealed it was a bin of legitimate ballots and the Trump team was using a spliced video. Regardless, the picture and names of these election workers circulated widely, including from the former President, and they received similar treatment to   Rusty Bowers.

The harassment “turned my life upside down.” Moss told the committee. “I don’t want anyone knowing my name … I don’t want to go anywhere. I second guess everything that I do. It’s affected my life in a major way, in every way. All because of lies.” “There is nowhere I feel safe,” Moss went on, “I felt horrible for picking this job.”

The third witness I found compelling was Cassidy Hutchinson. Working in the west wing of the White House for Mark Meadows, former White House Chief of Staff, she was privy to a lot of the inner workings before, during and after the 2020 election. Friends and colleagues describe her as studious, hard working and friendly, a committed Republican. She earned a high level position in the White House with hard work and dedication, and found herself sacrificing all of that past in the hearings at the young age of 25.

Apparently, the events of January 6 forced her to reassess her role and loyalties. The inaction of the White House in response to the violence at the Capitol seemed to be the turning point for her. It more clearly revealed plans and plots behind the scenes to overturn the election. Her resistance to that betrayal of democratic governance brought her to the witness table. "I have set a personal goal to pursue a path of civic significance," Hutchinson once told Christopher Newport University, where she was a senior. Little did she know then, what would be required of her.

It is being reported she received veiled threats about testifying. We can only guess what courage she will need to face the present and the future. But it is clear to many of us she will be a historically favored figure, doing her best to save a threatened democracy from dying. In her own words, once again for her alma mater: "I am confident I will be an effective leader in the fight to secure the American dream for future generations, so they too will have the bountiful opportunities and freedoms that make the United States great."

Thank you Cassidy, Shaye and Ruby, and Rusty. In a world where power, wealth and illusion rule, and where violence substitutes for reason, your courage and commitment is laudatory. May you be a light to others and a spur to the Grassleys of this world.

Carl Kline

Friday, July 1, 2022

Dinner and Torah

 Our little Torah study group met last night for a dinner of baked cod, crisp sweet and sour cabbage

slaw, savory rice pilaf, and a  colorful Caprese salad all topped off with a gluten free plum tart for dessert and, the high point of the evening, stimulating conversation around the weekly portion of text.  We got re-acquainted with the Korach -Moses narrative. Thank goodness we had a sustaining meal in our bellies!!

The passage (Numbers 16:1-18:32) is a difficult one. Many layered.  Uncomfortable.  Challenging. Far too complex for analysis here. Definitely worth reading.  What impressed us about the narrative last night was the lack of meaningful  communication between Korach, who questions the legitimacy of Moses' leadership and Moses himself.
The interchange is confrontational.  There is really no effort at dialogue and communication.  It does not go well for Korach and his disgruntled followers.  Divine wrath breaks out against them and “…the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and their possessions…and a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering incense.”

As we pondered the story last night, we wondered how the dynamics might have been different if Korach had come to Moses with a request to sit and talk about what was bothering him. What if there had been a genuine dialogue for the sake of understanding between these two cousins who were so alienated from each other?  What if in his anger, Korach had been able to tell his story of how he felt slighted and wounded - - second best.  What if, from his place of authority and esteem, Moses had been able to exercise compassionate listening?  What if they had sat side by side and placed the issues before them instead of between them? What if, in the listening and hearing, a more creative and inclusive solution might have  been reached?

But, alas, the two men did not listen to or hear each other.  The wrath of the Holy One intervened and there was great loss of life.

The story was troubling for us because there were elements of it that seem so contemporary.  There is so little meaningful communication and willingness to understand one another in our national politics.  It appears that the highest court in the land is free to make onerous decisions without listening to the cries of the human lives affected in an adverse way.  Lying and manipulation have supplanted dialogue around creative ideas and solutions.  The environment is increasingly threatened by a failure to listen to and hear the scientific evidence that is predictive of a declining quality of life both on and for the planet.

 In the story, Korach’s people used their incense burners as symbols of their weapons of protest against the centrality of leadership that rested in Moses.  In the modern conflict, at the instigation of a dissatisfied leader, an angry mob takes up weapons to assault the central symbol of democracy. The use of dialogue and argument in favor of a reasonable solution has failed.  We are left with weapons of choice - bear spray, clubs, long guns, nooses - their use fueled by angry screams and shouts destined to ignite irrational fury.
 
The story of Korach and his rebellion, perhaps 2500 or more years in the past, feels like a cautionary tale.  While it is unlikely that a wrathful deity will intervene in such a decisive way as to swallow up adversaries, or burn them to a crisp, in our current reality, we may end up exercising those same capacities, metaphorically, on ourselves.

Where meaningful listening and dialogue in the service of understanding have gone missing, it is difficult to see how creative, life affirming decisions and processes can begin to ascend into public awareness and consciousness again with sufficient power to subvert the destructive  intentions and movements now afoot.

A bit later in the grand saga of Israel and its relationship with the Holy One these words appear in Deuteronomy 16:19-20. They are given to the magistrates and officials in the tribes of Israel: You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning  and upset the plea of the just.  Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Our elected officials and appointed judges swear oaths with a hand on the Bible.  Do they ever actually read it?  It becomes clearer daily that we will not thrive in this land if they do not have some  deeper and more profound sensibility of their responsibility to humankind such that their justice becomes broader and deeper than the need to retain political power and wealth at all costs.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: The term “pursue” carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice.  We must actively pursue it.

Torah commentator, Simhah Bunem, wrote “This command also means to “pursue justice justly,” for just goals can never be reached by unjust means; the worthiest of goals will be rendered less worthy if we have to compromise justice to achieve them.”

Our study group found the narrative about Korach and Moses challenging, difficult, and unattractive…but we are still thinking about it.

Vicky Hanjian