Friday, August 10, 2018

God's Formless Presence is Crystallized in the Form of Every Human Being

       It is a truism, yet one whose truth and its implications is most often forgotten. Not a matter of remote theological musing, but of urgent and immediate challenge, Jews sing of it in prayerful song, in Yigdal, as drawn from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, eyn lo d’mut ha’guf v’eyno guf, lo na’aroch elav k’dushato/God has neither bodily form nor substance, holiness beyond compare. It is deeply held in Jewish thought and tradition that God has no body, no physical form. It is for that reason that iconography finds no place in artistic expressions of Jewish faith. And yet…, a small word in whose balance so much hangs, the human being is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elokim (Gen. 1:27). The human being is told to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), God, whose holiness is beyond compare. It is the human being who carries God’s unformed image in the world and gives it form. That is in part why we are not to create images by which to depict God. God already has an image to represent the Godly in this world, and that is the human being, mortal adam..

        In caring for other human beings, we care not only for God’s representatives in this world, but so too for God’s very likeness, and so we become holy, as God is holy. Beyond perception in itself, God’s likeness is, nevertheless, ever before our eyes. Meant to be cared for, every person carries the precious image of God. Every act that harms another human being is a failure of moral perception, a failure to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in this world. God has no form or image, and yet over and over and over again, we destroy God’s image, and God weeps with pain. Every word that cuts to the quick of another’s soul cuts to the quick of God’s soul. Every act of callous disregard for the depth of feeling that makes us human is an act of disregard for God’s pleading presence in the world. Every act that harms the body, soul, and psyche of another human being fills the world with cosmic weeping from beyond the world itself.

       Created in the image of God, the human being carries the divine likeness, reflecting God’s image in all the ways of human diversity, refracting God’s light through deeds of holiness. As a focal point of veneration, therefore, images are not to be fashioned either of God or of people. It would be as though to replace, or displace, the human, and so to displace God. It would be to replace who we are as vessels and means of holiness, in all of our eternal essence, with finite images of stone, or metal, or wood. As a thread that runs through the weekly Torah portion Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), we are both cautioned and commanded not to make images. There are some thirteen direct or indirect references to images and to the way of our perceiving things in the portion. There are four specific prohibitions to the making of images, culminating in the second of the Ten Commandments as carried in Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:6-18), You shall not have another God before My Presence. Do not make yourself a representation/lo ta’aseh l’cha pesel, in the form of an image, nor in the form of any other likeness….

It is not only God who is not to be replaced by an image, but the human being. As its own teaching on care for others as rooted in care for ourselves as bearers of God’s image, introducing the Torah’s several warnings not to create images there is a preface with some form of the word shamor/watch over: as in rak hi’shamer l’cha u’sh’mor naf’sh’cha m’od/only take heed and guard your soul exceedingly Deut. 4:9); v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’teychem/so take heed exceedingly for the sake of your souls… (4:15); hi’sham’ru l’chem/therefore take heed to yourselves (4:23). It is in the various forms of this phrase as a call to watch over ourselves that the rabbis rooted a sacred obligation, a mitzvah, to look after and care for our bodies, to regard the body as holy, a sacred vessel worthy of respect and care.

In its joining of respect and care for the human body as a reflection of God’s image and the prohibition against creating what we might call replacement images, so the Torah roots the moral power of that prohibition. Every single human being is irreplaceable, each one unique and precious in their humanness. Of that moral import, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in a powerfully moving essay in his book, “Man’s Quest for God” (p. 125), “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.” Heschel goes on to write (p. 126-127), “What is necessary is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol…. The divine symbolism of man is not in what he has—such as reason or the power of speech—but in what he is potentially…: to be holy as God is holy….” The likeness of God, Heschel writes, “may be defiled, distorted, and forfeited…. The goal of man is to recognize and preserve his likeness or at least to prevent its distortion….”
     As Rabbi Heschel teaches, evil finds its root in our failure to recognize God’s image in every human being. In fierce tension, such is the potential for human goodness and the potential for evil. In our failure to live in accord with who we are and are meant to be, in our failure to recognize ourselves and others as bearers of God’s image, the potential for evil is realized. In a nation, a world, a time of so much violence, of so much disregard for each person’s humanity, God’s image is cut down as though it was so much stone, or metal, or wood.
We are the flesh and blood representation of the Holy One. It is that all-inclusive we of humanity that underscores the barbarity of tearing children from their parents’ arms, of hounding human beings as though they were so much vermin, of speaking in ways to demean and belittle, of wars, of nuclear imaginings, of disregard for the very earth on which we live and strive. And God weeps and mourns for the image-bearers, groaning with the pain of God’s flesh and blood children.

At the end of a day while in Prague recently, a day when I had traveled to Terezin, one of so many hells on earth where human beings were burned as though wood, or stone, or metal, I prayed at the Alt Neue Shul, most famous of Prague’s synagogues. It is the synagogue where the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, prayed, the place where so long ago he learned and taught and wrote his books. I stood directly across from the seat that had once been his, no longer used since the 15th century in deference to him, still his seat.     It was my father’s sh’loshim, the thirtieth day since his funeral. As I rose to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead that speaks only of life, so too did the one member of the local community, saying Kaddish as a matter of course for all of those for whom there is no one to say Kaddish. When the man realized that I was a mourner, he lowered his voice and motioned to me in deference. I was overcome with emotion, trying mightily to stem the flow of tears as they rose with the sacred words carried on my voice. As well as for my dad, I realized that I was saying Kaddish for all those nameless souls, there in the synagogue of the Maharal, across from his seat, words rising to the vaulted ceilings and then beyond.
       On portion Va’etchanan, the Maharal wrote on the matter of images, a teaching to remind of what is ultimate, of the human being who is not to be displaced: ki v’tzelem elokim bara et ha’adam/for in the image of God did God create the human, and since the human was created in the image of God, hinei/behold, k’mo she’ha’shem yisborach hu/the human is like the holy blessed one…, she’ha’adam she’hu nivra b’tzalmo hu kolel kol olamo/for as the human is created in God’s image, the human contains all of God’s world… (Gur Aryeh, vol. 5., p. 31).
         Of urgent and ultimate truth, of challenge as immediate as the day’s wrenching news, God’s formless presence is crystallized in the form of every human being. Such is our potential to be vessels of holiness, our choice through deeds of goodness to be reminders of God’s presence. 
Beyond the work of human hands in stone, or metal, or wood, of imperishable essence before the edicts of pharaohs, fuehrers, or presidents, before the fires of hell on earth in which Jewish bodies were burned, every human being is of ultimate meaning. Caring for and honoring the flesh and blood reality of each one’s being, tending to the needs of each one’s soul, so we honor the formless Holy One, source of all life in whose image we are created.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Skunk

At least twice a week I take a walk with a friend.  We pass a school and often hear laughing children at recess.  We enter a wood that lets out onto a clearing, and the children’s voices fade away.   Occasionally a red tailed hawk is perched on a branch over our heads or soars hunting over the field.        The crows caucus loudly, and I hope for a flock of bluebirds that turn iridescent in the morning light.  Back in the woods there are some houses.  One has an impressive garden in which an orange fruit, perhaps a persimmon, clings to its branches even as the temperatures drop.  Another’s breezeway gives us a glimpse of the ocean we’ll encounter full on a little ways ahead.  Sometimes the waves come over the seawall, the spray chilling our faces with 30 mile an hour winds.  Sometimes we see all the way to the mainland. We walk along a road that winds along a pond. Once we stood there for half an hour routing traffic around a box turtle making its daily pilgrimage from the wetlands on one side of the road to the pond on the other.  But these last few months we’ve been marking the decay of a skunk. 
         At first it shocked us, its blood staining the ground.  The blood seemed still to be running, so freshly dead it was on those first sightings.  Hungry crows eventually carried its viscera and part of its carcass down into the swamp.  But they’d left the skunk’s head, tufts of fur, skeletal detritus and the depression it had made in the ground.  Then the snow covered it all, but we still stopped to talk about the skunk, because there is always a lesson for us.  The snow has since melted, yet we still see the skunk, the pieces, the whole, its shadow.  Three yards on we stand at the edge of the pond counting geese or mallards, marveling at the light, watching a swan feed, looking across to the sea.   

“When you grasp the edge, you grasp the whole,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov.
One lesson of the decaying skunk and the pond beyond:  I can get both into my field of vision at once, or I can focus on only one or the other.  When I focus on just the decaying skunk, I am overwhelmed by sadness, by ugliness and by the pain of seeing another being tortured, even in death.  Sometimes I can see the ecological whole cloth:  the carrion nourishing the crows, the minerals of its bones leeching into and enriching the earth, the fur providing nesting material for birds and small rodents.  This is beautiful, if I can get there.  If I can’t, I am just in pain in the World of Separation. When I am able to capture the picture of the decaying skunk in the same field of vision as the pond beyond, I can begin to fathom the World of Unity. If I can glimpse the world of unity, if I can accept that all sides of the contradictions—the ugliness and the beauty, the pain and the love, the suffering and the relief—are all God-given, I can glimpse the goodness that runs through everything in this world. 

Why do both the World of Separation and the World of Unity exist? 
 The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century and is attributed with founding the Hasidic movement of Judaism, teaches that both good and evil are parts of the unity.  He explains through the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that the goodness of Israel’s redemption from slavery was only made possible by the evil of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  This and This are both true.   
The question for us is: can we see the goodness in the evil?  Can we discern the unity in the separation?  Can we “find sweetness in the heart of the judgment” so as to “find the loving-kindness within”?

We walk along, back into the woods.  Today the snow hangs on the cedar branches.  We have to walk single-file and duck under the branches to stay on the path.  I go first.  When I look back, I see my friend in a sparkling green and white world.  I have been telling her my hurt at feeling slighted by another, my guilt for speaking about another, but now I see her beautiful smile reflecting my own back at me, the hurt having melted into sheer joy and wonder at seeing the beauty of the snow glisten in the sun. I am grateful for the connection between us that deepens and widens every walk we take.    
We are in both worlds, the world of division and the world of unity.  We experience pain and suffering and we have the power to ameliorate them.  Our exile from Eden, from ourselves, from others and from God is the source of the pain we feel.  If we accept that the pain is part of our existence, if we understand in our hearts that God gave us both the pain and the love, we can then perhaps open our hearts to discover the sparks of the Divine within ourselves that can act to ameliorate the pain and suffering.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the meaning of the verse “’you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,’ wherever you are and whatever is going on, counters the pain and suffering.”  Accepting the daily troubles is accessing and connecting with the “spirit soul.” The teaching continues:  “You shall love your God with your God, taking the loving side of God to love the judging side.” By accepting with love the daily challenges we face, the harsh, judging side is cancelled out. 

      She teaches me what it means to sit with people in pain, to receive and hold the pain.  The skunk teaches this to me, as well.  In the early stages of its decay, its odor dominated the air like murder dominates the Metro section of the daily paper.  Walk after walk, I seemed to become more connected with the skunk.  I looked forward to seeing it after a while, because I felt I was seeing a part of me now and how I will become in time.  I have stopped being repulsed and the separation between the skunk and me has begun to dissolve.
Our job is to end the separation between the Realm of Unity and the Realm of Division, within ourselves and within the world.  To do this, we need to “channel the love and the unity consciousness that we have experienced into our daily actions, consciousness and relationships.”  One way we do this is through prayer.  

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our degradation is from a loss of faith.  Yet everyone has access to Divine grace.   This comes from sincere prayer, because “God wants to kiss the lips of the man who speaks Torah, [God’s instruction], from trembling and awe.”  Focused, sincere prayer touches God, which leads to repair of the brokenness of this world. 

Today on our walk I had the sensation of absorbing  the shadow of the skunk.  My eyes were doing this funny thing of independently—without my willing it—zooming in and out on the piece of ground on which the skunk had died, like you can make your digital camera zoom in and out of a scene on which you are focusing.  As my eyes were in this process, it seemed to me that I was absorbing the essence of the skunk, along with the essence of the pond beyond, the essence of the phragmites and of the crows that had devoured the carrion.  It seemed as if my eyes were the first part of my consciousness of the absorption, but that the absorption was taking place on many levels and that I, too, was being absorbed.

How do we serve the Divine in this world?  There are some actions in which this is more easily achievable for me, and perhaps you, than others.  In the garden and at my CSA I have no trouble seeing the unity; God is everywhere abundantly.  But it is much harder for me to maintain mystical mindfulness in the mundane and in the momentary annoyances, such as when the phone line is not working at intervals and having to replace the burner on the stove. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that “God hides behind many barriers and is veiled in many garments.  But what is true is that ‘the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.’  Every thought, every movement comes from God.  Everything is made of God’s own essence.  Those who truly understand this know that the walls, towers, gates, gold and castle are only God in hiding, ‘for there is no place devoid of the Divine.’” 

       What keeps coming back into view for me is that I live in both worlds, the world of skunk-Oneness and the world of skunk-Division.  In truth, I’m not sure I want only to be in the Realm of Unity, not yet.  In truth, I’m earthy and lusty.  I know that about myself.  Just watch me eat some time.  The Ba’al Shem Tov honored this.  This is why I think he would honor my belief about where I am right now:  that I can do what it takes to help heal the brokenness, to help bring about repair in the universe, to be with people where they are and help them move closer to God, to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to see the goodness in the evil,  AND also to struggle with the dis-integration, the ugliness, the desire, the brokenness as one who experiences that and feels that and yearns for the Unity of the One but isn’t there yet all the time.  I sit with being in the “both/and” place, the This and This place, and try to be both content with where I am in the World of Separation as I strive to be in the World of Unity.

Rabbi Lori Shaller, guest blogger


Elior, Rachel.  The Mystical Origins of Hasidism.  Portland, Oregon:  the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.
Jacobson, Burt.  Teachings on the Ba’al Shem Tov:
            The Four Core Truths of the Ba’al Shem Tov with texts of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
                        A Perennial Kabbalist, June, 2009.
                        The Four Core Truths, Shorter Version, sent via email, October, 2009.
                        The Quest for the Divine:  a parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Do No Harm

         About 2000 years ago, a gentile came to Rabbi Shammai, one of the great teachers of Israel.  The gentile said he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot.  Rabbi Shammai was an engineer and he was known for the strictness of his views.  He drove the man away with his builder’s measuring stick.  Then the gentile went to Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge.  "I will convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.Rabbi Hillel converted the gentile by telling him  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.  That is the whole of Torah.  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.”
         For some reason, reading this classic Jewish story brought  John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to mind.  He was a prolific writer.  There are volumes and volumes of his writings, his prayers, and his theology.   It is highly  unlikely, however, that multitudes will ever come to salvation through reading his collected works - - just as most of us will not ever come to salvation by trying to commit to memory the entirety of all the wisdom in the Bible.  But, like Rabbi Hillel, Wesley also had a genius for creating a briefer version of what was central to his teaching and theology, something that his early followers could easily remember and relate to.  His “General Rules”  encapsulated his theology and his guidance for newly forming societies of believers who would come to be called “Methodists.”  The General Rules were to be used as a way of guiding those early groups in how to conduct their lives individually and in community. 
         John Wesley’s body of theological thought is complex and extensive.  It is  challenging – and it is foundational to understanding the depth of the General Rules.  But the rules represent the essence.  And the first of the rules encapsulates the rest. Wesley taught:  “First – do no harm.”  Rabbi Hillel's words echo in the background:  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study.”
         “Do no harm.”   What might that mean for us today?  If Wesley were here, what might he include in his notion of not harming?  Would he think about the care of the planet?  I wonder if he would stand on the rocks at a threatened and vulnerable beach on the coast of Maine or on the crest of Bear Butte in South Dakota and shout to whoever would listen “Do No Harm!”  to this fragile environment.  Maybe he would stake out a spot at a major city intersection – cautioning frustrated, frazzled drivers with cell phones in hand to “Do No Harm!”  Perhaps he would see a child being shamed in public and take the parent aside and whisper “do no harm!” 
         I like to think he would have a voice in congress when our lawmakers are considering massive cuts to social welfare programs, or punitive solutions to immigration issues, or discriminatory laws affecting women and LGBTQ folks. Perhaps he would stride up and down the aisles shouting  “Do no harm!” 
         Those simple words are a great challenge in a complex and  frustrating world.  What would our days be like if “Do no harm” was the first thing in our minds when we woke up in the morning. Might our lives become more holy if our days were structured by the intention to do no harm?  Would we temper our speech?  Would the words remind us never to do or say something to another person that we would not want them to do or say to us?  Would Wesley’s rule encourage us to speak out when, indeed, we see the potential harm in any debate or law or action going on around us?
         The Book of Exodus contains more than a few notions of what it means to “do no harm”: “Do not spread false report.”  (It might mean biting off the ends of our tongues before passing on a choice comment or bit of gossip.)   
 Do not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.  (Just because most people are in favor of something doesn’t make it right.) Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not judge - - do not condemn” -    First – do no harm.  It’s pretty comprehensive.

The General Rules don’t stop  with the prohibition against doing harm.  Wesley includes a second general rule.  A little wordier, but pithy, nonetheless: “It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, secondly, by doing good - - by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people.”  

The second general rule echoes the words of  Jesus: ”Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Once again in Exodus there is an illustration of the combined principles of “do no harm - -do good”: 
the wisdom of Exodus 23:5: “When you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying on the ground under its load, and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”  What on earth does helping an over-laden donkey have to do with anything?  Well - - To whom does the donkey belong?   Why – lo and behold!  - - It belongs to someone who hates you.  You feel absolutely justified in leaving it alone.  But the command is to help set it free.  Who do you have to help in order to set the donkey free?  Well – of course - -the owner who hates you!  What does this accomplish?  It fulfills the command to “do no harm”    It fulfills the teaching to refrain from doing something hateful to another being – even if it is a donkey.  And – it fulfills the command to do good.  By helping an enemy, the possibility for a positive relationship is set in motion. The dynamics of a relationship are changed.  A certain kind of redemption is set in motion.  It is amazing how more than 3000 years of wisdom and religious teaching interweave.  Jewish law says help your enemy set his loaded donkey upright.   
Jesus says do good to those who hate you.  Wesley says do no harm – do good.
         All of these challenges are intended to wake us up to living our lives with the highest possible intention for good. Rabbi Art Green sums it all up this way: “Our faith awakens us from the sleep of unawareness and calls us to release the bound, to raise up the fallen, to uplift those who are bent over.  In this we are doing godly work, serving as the limbs of the divine presence in this world.  It is only through our acting in this way that God’s work is done in the human community.  And it is only by recognizing such acts as God’s work that we transcend ourselves and our own needs in fulfilling them.”
         First – do no harm.  This is a great starting place.  We can all refrain from harming ourselves, others, the world, by creating our intention each day.  It is within the power of every one of us to do no harm. If we got no farther than that, our lives would be of service to God.  But we are also called to be pro-active – to do good whenever there is opportunity to do so.  Wesley took this seriously as he constructed his own life and the religious community that became the Methodists.  His famous dictum is:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”   So – there it is:  Do no harm.  Do good.  All the rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.  Go and live it.  

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 20, 2018


In most areas of our lives, if something isn't working right, we try to discover the cause. So if I'm feeling a lot of pressure in my chest and upper torso, I might be moved to consider the reason. In fact, if it's something new and powerful enough, I might want to hurry to the emergency room and make sure it's not a heart attack.

One morning last winter, I went to start the car. To my surprise, nothing happened. Since I had recently purchased a new battery, I was puzzled about the cause. I had the car towed to our mechanic. To my surprise, one of our local rabbit population chewed through several wires under the hood. Apparently the manufacturer soaks them in peanut oil to keep them pliable. 

Sometimes it's easy for us to understand the cause of why people are refugees. They lose their home to a natural disaster. I'm thinking of all those homes burned to the ground by wildfires or flooded by ten to twelve inches of rain in a short period of time. The disaster that was Katrina sent many to temporary or permanent locations all over the country, just as Maria chased so many Puerto Ricans from their homes to the mainland.

If we can attribute a disaster and the resulting refugees to an act of God, it is simpler and more acceptable to name the cause. It leaves us free from complicity and guilt. Our hands are clean; no blood there. But then there are those causes we'd just as soon ignore.

You would think as a country we would want to understand the cause, the reason, why there are so many people seeking asylum on our southern border. Tens of hundreds of desperate people, risking lives and limbs, even with small infants, to seek asylum in a country miles and months away. Why? Isn't that the way one usually resolves a problem, looking for the origin of the situation and correcting it?

      Hungary recently passed a law making it illegal to help a refugee. It was aimed at those churches and non-profits that have been aiding refugees from the wars in the Middle East. Now if you want to feed, clothe or shelter the homeless, tempest tossed in that land, you risk arrest. There have been similar threats in the U.S. on our southern border. Water left by aid organizations in the desert for thirsty travelers is regularly destroyed by the border patrol. Some seem to prefer dead bodies on the desert floor to live ones they have to detain.

Hungary is not the only country in Europe plagued by refugees. Every other country in the European Union has been trying to respond as best they are able without outlawing the helpers. But few are talking about the cause for record numbers of refugees. Do these countries, like the U.S., contribute to the wars that destroy the homes of these desperate people? What are they doing to bring violence to a halt in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Afghanistan? Do they spend more money on military aid that fuels the conflicts or on peacemaking and peacekeeping?

And what about climate refugees? Southern Texas has now experienced three 500 year floods in three years. Island nations that once were home to many for generations are gradually being covered by rising seas. Kiribati dikes will not hold the water back much longer and young people there wonder if we in the U.S. could lower our carbon footprint.

There are some causes we would rather ignore. As the only country on the planet to reject the Paris Climate Accord, our government doesn't want to confront the fact we have some responsibility for climate refugees. As the leading purveyor of weaponry in the world, our government prefers to ignore what our weapons are doing in Yemen, or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. And as the most pervasive military and fossil fuel presence on the globe, we hide our responsibility for authoritarian and corrupt governments, especially in the global south. As long as exploitation on behalf of a consumer society and the 1% is secure, the government feels comfortable hiding the reality of our complicity in producing the world's refugees.

       Jeb Johnson was interviewed on TV the other evening. He was a former head of Homeland Security under President Obama.  He was asked about the situation on the border with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He rejected the idea of the wall as a politically symbolic but ineffective solution. He suggested we might want to go to the source of the problem, the violence so prevalent in those countries. People are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. Much of the violence stems from the drug trade, dependent on users in this country.

Why do we have a drug problem? What's that cause? Why do we have an opioid epidemic? Why are the Central American cartels getting rich off American dollars? Why is the suicide rate among 18-34 year olds at epidemic levels? Why are more middle aged, middle class males killing themselves? Why is racism raising its ugly head with new and growing ferocity? Why are we separating families on the border like when we took Indian children to boarding schools and children of slaves to other masters? What is the cause?

       The simple answer is we have lost our soul. We have set in the seats of government those who say, "me first." That has become the mantra foisted on the country to the exclusion of all "outsiders," including "insiders" of the wrong color. Mexico and Canada be damned. Traditional allies be damned. China be damned. Muslims and their nations be damned. Refugees be damned.

The problem is when we say "me first," and damn all the others, we destroy the foundation of meaning underlying all human life. Relationship is what makes life meaningful. The new neighbor is what makes life interesting. The boredom of self seeking selfishness is a sickness unto death.

Carl Kline

Friday, July 13, 2018

The "Yoga of clean-up"

       For years I studied with a yoga teacher who delighted in finding ways to make difficult yoga postures restorative for me.  She  would encourage me to use every bit of equipment available to support my body so that I could assume a posture and rest in it.  By the end of a session the space would be cluttered with bolsters, mats, blocks, straps, cushions and blankets - all used in the service of my practice.    And then, at the end of a gloriously restful “final relaxation”   she would sweetly bring me back into the present moment and whisper “and now for the yoga of clean-up.”    
          It took me quite a few sessions to  integrate the cleaning up of the yoga space into my practice as a continuation of all that I had learned in the sessions.   Leaving the yoga space in an orderly condition is part of my yoga practice.

I probably would not be described as  fanatical housekeeper.  I can live with a bit of dust for awhile.  I don’t have to empty the dish drainer before company comes.   OK -so I am a bit fussy about the bathroom.  But lately, I have taken to doing a lot of yard work, going after weeds with a vengeance, brooming cobwebs off the exterior logs of our home, scraping and painting the foundations, cleaning out flower beds, trimming back bushes and raking the yard smooth - - trying to bring a sense of order and serenity to the space that surrounds our home.   Curiously, I have had a lot of energy for this endeavor. 
The pay-off has been  my enjoyment of a sense of pleasure as I walk about our simple yard.  We have an “island” landscape and lawn- which means no beautiful green grass to be mowed,  no manicured gardens,  no sculpted shrubberies.  Basically we just keep the “jungle” from encroaching too much.  And yet, there is still this inner urge to create an orderly, serene space around our home.

I have been reflecting on my need to create order.  I could become compulsive about it.  I realized that my tolerance for chaos has been and continues to be severely tested by the relentless assault on my sense of order - whether it is the terrible chaos at our southern border, and the human suffering it has unleashed, or the great uncertainty of the anticipation of full blown trade wars.  The orderliness of civility and common decency staggers under the daily beatings.  As summer unfolds on our lovely island and the multitudes come to enjoy the sun and sand, the level of aggression and in-civility is noticeably worse than last year during the first two weeks of July. 

        We come to expect that this will be the case in August as weariness and over crowding take their toll, but I have heard many people say with a bit of  dismay that “the August people are here early this year.”   It is metaphorical language pointing  to the increased stress  we are somehow expected to live with while coping with a world of chaotic and unpredictable behavior that affects us all at some level.   Our island home is a microcosm.   And we struggle to maintain our balance, to choose a higher way in the face of enormous incursions on our sense of  community, our sense of  civility and decency and self respect, of respect for one another.   

Alan Morinis in his book “Every Day Holiness”  writes that “....disorder inevitably involves some sort of dishonor.  The only question is, what or who is the target of dishonor?”   He says “It’s interesting that we use the phrase “unholy mess” to describe a situation that has really been trashed, because to be disorderly dishonors  [not only human beings, but] inanimate things that are also part of our lives and may also be our responsibility....The real “unholy mess,” of course, is the disorder we bring to divine service, in whatever ways we might serve God, which dishonors HaShem....All of us are, after all, made in the divine image, and so when we dishonor people we dishonor God...”

Morinis’ reflection on how disorder dishonors human beings and creation, and ultimately dishonors the Source of all life  brought my unnamed stress into focus.The “Trump Era” has  elevated disorder to the level of an art and with this nurturing of disorder comes the most fundamental disrespect and dishonoring of  human beings, of the environment, of hard won (even though imperfect) working relationships between both allies and adversaries, and ultimately the disrespect of the  Source of life - - however we might name it.   

There are days when it is so hard to live joyfully in the face of such disorder and disrespect of the holiness of Life.   “Hegemony” isn’t a word I use every day.  It came into my vocabulary years ago in seminary.  I had to look it up again to be sure I was understanding it correctly.   It means “a preponderant influence or authority.”    We are living under the hegemony of the “Trump Era” - - a time when chaos and disorder, disrespect and dishonoring color so much of life around us.   It creates stress in every corner of life.  As I age, I find it difficult to do the big actions that might effect change.  It is easy to get lost in feeling so small.    There is a danger inherent in allowing myself to sink into that smallness though.

So, a bit of yoga practice helps.   The simple act of organizing the space around me in a harmonious way makes a difference. Filling  a few flower pots with bright blue lobelia creates a moment of beauty on the  way into the house.   Scraping off flaking paint to create a smooth surface for fresh color fills a need to bring  something new and clean into being.  Creating an orderly space honors and respects the lovely humans who cross my threshold.   Small bits of color and beauty sooth the spirit and restore a sense of harmony in a disordered world.   I’m grateful to my yoga teacher who so gently awakened me to the “yoga of clean-up.”

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 6, 2018

Things Not to Divide, but to Join and Celebrate

We can probably safely say that we all have too many things, too much stuff. There are those things, though, that are different, that are not about money or intrinsic value, that when we see them, even out of the corner of an eye, bring a smile to our lips or a welling to our eyes. These things are "the sacred stuff of memory." Pause for a moment, even to close your eyes if you wish, and call to mind some of those things that for you are the sacred stuff of memory. Perhaps for some, it is a table cloth that comes to mind, one that graced a table around which family sat at special times of gathering, and even now when set upon the table of your heart, here they are again, if but for a moment, a smile of pride, a word of encouragement, as long ago, but now to say, "keep going, you'll be okay, set the old cloth upon a new table and place upon it the sacred stuff of future memories." 
           Perhaps it is a pair of candlesticks passed through generations, telling of a family's migrations, children whose faces were once illumined by the dancing flames, now grown with children of their own; or of brand new little ones whose eyes are just starting to open wide to the wonder of light. Or a book with fading margin notes, as though just written for you today; a string of pearls that was your mother's, or a tool, or ritual item, a ball or a bat, an article of clothing perhaps, a sweater worn when a hug is needed from the one who wore it once, her or his warmth forever inhering in the warp and woof of life's threads.

There is stuff and there is stuff. The challenge is to distinguish and to weigh, not merely to acquire, not to hold and hoard.   When ultimate meaning is given even to the most precious of things, it becomes idolatry. Judaism is not an ascetic tradition, not a religion in its normative strand that devalues the physical, but offers a framework through which to envelope the physical in a weave of holiness. Drink is not in principle to be eschewed, but to be held in a kiddush cup, blessing offered prior to partaking. Sex is holy when held in the embrace of love and respect, as a bridge and song between equal partners. Money is not inherently evil when kept in perspective, when not allowed to be the measure of a person’s worth, when seen not as a source of privilege, but of obligation, of mitzvah, as in the way of tzedakah.

A thread runs the Torah portion Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89) that interweaves people and possessions as part of one whole. As a delicate embroidery thread, it offers subtle teaching and warning on the nature of our relationship to things and to each other, to the physical and material realm. It is all part of life, the question only as to how we use the things we are given and how equal we are in our ability to acquire. Through the lens of Torah, the ideal society that shimmers in the distance is one with little discrepancy between ideal and real, with little need for terms of social dichotomy, such as rich and poor. Along the way and even once we are there, the challenge of things is in how they mediate relationships, meant to join, not to divide, to attune us to the needs of others, to inculcate sensitivity.

The word naso is formed of a root meaning to lift, to carry, to take, to bear, to raise. The prince of each tribe is the Nasi. The word tells of a very different way of leadership than is most often manifest. A leader is one who is meant to raise up, to lift the people, not in the way of carrying and doing for them, but to raise them up to be of equal stature, reminding the people that each one is meant to be a leader, a bearer of the people. Each one is needed to help carry the collective hopes of the people and to engage in the work needed for the fulfillment and flowering of hope. Celebrating this manner of leadership, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) writes, They were the n’si’ei yisra’el, Israel’s ‘bearers who had been raised,’ those who by their position stood at the height of the national mission and from that position were to elevate the nation to equal height…. The responsibility of leadership was not to be rooted in what one possessed, but in one’s ability to insure that none would be dispossessed of their sacred calling as a human being and member of human society.

    As we lift and carry each other as part of a collective mission to create a society in which all are equal, in which none bask in abundance while others starve, God’s blessing is called down upon us in equal measure. The beloved words of the Birkat Kohanim/the Pristly Blessing (Num. 6:24-27) are found in the portion Naso. In the familiar first phrase, y’vare’ch’cha ha’shem v’yish’m’recha/may God bless you and protect you, commentators see the tension between the blessing of things and what can become the unwitting curse of the same things. In this way, we ask God to bless us in the material realm, and so too, to protect us from those very things with which we are blessed.

The role and attendant vow of the Nazir/the Nazirite is given in the same portion, the opportunity for each person to separate himself or herself at times in holy retreat from the ordinary flow of life. Taking on a temporary way of abstinence, the Nazir is to refrain from products of the grape, to let their hair grow wild, to refrain from contact with the dead. At the end of the period of the Nazarite’s vow, a sin offering is to be brought, a reminder that abstinence from the ways and pleasures of life is not our way. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches, for the essence of creation and the essence of serving God is to engage in all realms of the material world and to raise them up to the Holy One. The goal is not to avoid this world, but to engage and raise up the ways of this world to God.

            As Parashat Naso begins with teaching on the way of leadership as service so it ends. Raising each other up, the princes of Israel teach by example, modeling a way of things used to join and not divide. In a lengthy passage that might be quickly passed over for its abundance of repetitive details, with careful reading deep meaning emerges. On each day of the sanctuary’s dedication a different prince is to bring their tribe’s gift for the sake of the commonweal. We are told at the outset, nasi echad la’yom nasi echad la’yom/one prince to the day one prince to the day. Each one is to have their moment, emphasized in the double saying of the phrase. As the long list unfolds of what each prince brings, we quickly come to realize that each prince has brought exactly the same gifts, no difference whatsoever in substance, weight, or measure. The lesson becomes clear, no one is to be raised up higher than another, no one more important or of greater value or honor than another. Brought in a spirit of caring and cooperation rather than competition, the gifts are meant to join and uplift, not to separate and bring down. As each day turns to the next, though the gifts of each prince are described with exactly the same words, there is not a single letter vav, not a single conjunction between them. A collective celebration of each one’s uniqueness, each tribe stands on its own, each with its own place and time, their own day in the sun.

The challenge is to raise up our things to serve a greater purpose than acquisition, things as the “sacred stuff of memory” to tell of people that came before and of those who shall come after. And simply of the stuff in our lives, putting things in perspective, we are all to be as the n’si’ei yisra’el/the bearers of Israel, and so as part of the human family.     Our common task is to raise each other up, things not to divide, but to join and celebrate, each one’s presence and each one’s gifts to be  honored in equal measure if we would dwell together in the sanctuary of humanity.

Rabbi Victor  H. Reinstein

Friday, June 29, 2018


Former President Carter is interviewed in a recent article on the publication of a new book. The book, Faith: A Journey for All, is number forty seven that has come from his pen. In the interview he shares the kind of optimism that has probably helped his longevity. The man is ninety three years old and still going strong.

When asked about the current divisiveness in our society, he reminds us of our history and the struggles of the past we have survived as a people. Then he states, "the resilience of our country and the principles of our Constitution have always prevailed." That kind of optimism is sorely needed when all around are those who are despairing and depressed, lamenting the possibility of a promising national future.

His optimism is not grounded in naivete. Carter understands the nature of our challenges as a country. He places race front and center. He recognizes the new dimensions of our challenges that include a soaring prison industry, extension of racial discrimination against immigrants, and the growing inequality of economic opportunity and resources.

The optimism, moral stature and faith of Carter, is a balm in a time when those qualities seem in short supply. He represents the best of what we know as evangelical Christianity. For him, an evangelical is "someone who has faith and tries to put that faith into practice and tries to convince other people to share that faith by setting an example." His example of service to others is more than evident in his work with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center and his institutional relationships with church and academy. He still teaches classes at Emory University and adult Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church.

      The part of the interview that was of most significance to me was the comments he made about the U.S. as a superpower. It's clear to him we want to be a superpower. But Carter contends there are other ways to exercise power than through military might. "The United States of America ought to be seen by the rest of the world as a champion of peace, not war, a champion of human rights, a champion of equality, and a champion of generosity to help people in need." Those are the values implicit in Carter's faith, and at our best, implicit in the values of our country. 

One of the enduring memories of the Carter Presidency for me was his emphasis on human rights. In one of my cynical moments at the time, I bemoaned what I saw as window dressing on human rights in the presence of a friend from Latin America. He was quick to correct me. What I couldn't see from my vantage point he was able to clearly witness. The emphasis Carter placed on human rights was making a daily difference in his country and the activities of governments in the whole region.

A few weeks ago a friend gave me a children's book titled "America Will Be Great." It's a good book for big children as well. The first page begins with, "America will be great when all people feel safe, no matter the color of their skin, no matter where they were born, no matter who they love, and no matter where they do or do not worship." We might add, "no matter where they go to school." People ought to feel safe there too.

Page two and three read, "America will be great when every person has a safe place to sleep at night and enough food to eat each day. America will be great when every person can go to the doctor and get the medicine and care they need when they get  sick." You see where this is going? The book raises some fundamental national values. What does it mean in our time to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare?" How is it that greatness in this country has become synonymous with global military extravagance, nativism and economic dominance? How is it that while we blow up homes in foreign lands the number of homeless in this country grows in leaps and bounds? How can we have so many hungry children in the richest country on earth?

    Former President Carter believes Christianity is wrongly understood when it is seen as a box, like a telephone booth, that is so confining. One is surrounded by rules and regulations to the point where you can hardly move. In contrast, he sees faith as liberating. Faith opens one up to the world and to other people. Faith helps one approach life thankful for the day's blessings instead of always looking for more. Faith gives you the confidence and passion to move out and care about others. Faith gives you the vision to structure sound social systems. Faith is, as Scripture says, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." 

We could all use a bit more of the faith of a Jimmy Carter. As he says, it's a journey for all. 

Rev. Carl Kline