Friday, February 26, 2010

A Different Kind of Hero

The story of Isaac is the complicated story of a complex person. The second of Israel’s male ancestors, son of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac is the most misunderstood of our ancestors. He is often portrayed as weak, as rather unremarkable in relation to his father Abraham, and his son Jacob. That he is misunderstood is less a reflection on him, than on the inability of the generations since, including our own, to see beyond a narrow mold of how we expect our heroes to be. In trying to understand Isaac, we have to try to understand our selves, (in spite of all that we want to believe has changed), in relation to still dominant social norms that measure power in relation to physical strength. Isaac is a quiet hero, a man of deep spirit, of nonviolent strength, a lover who is romantic and emotional. A tragic hero, he is also a survivor. Like all heroes, he is flawed, and therefore real. In the Book of Genesis, chapters 25-28, we encounter Isaac at the moment of transition from child and descendant to becoming also a parent and an ancestor in the unfolding of the Jewish people.

Born to elderly parents long unable to have children, Isaac is burdened with great expectations from even before he is born. He is born amidst laughter, his name Yitzchak deriving from his mother’s incredulous laughter; God has prepared laughter/’tz’chok’ for me, all who hear of this will laugh with me/’yitzchak li.’

Beyond his birth, there is not to be much laughter in Isaac’s life. While yet a child, his brother Yishma’el with mother Hagar are sent away. Whatever elaborate reasons are given for this, reasons always beyond the simple meaning of the text, how could this not have affected Isaac throughout his life?

The signature event that defines Isaac’s life is the Akedah, his being bound on the altar intended as a sacrifice in response to his father’s hearing of God’s call. It is the trauma that defines and haunts his life. In relation to Isaac, God is called by the name Pachad Yitzchak/Fear of Isaac. And how is a son to call his father, having seen the knife poised above him? Perhaps the charge of passivity that follows Isaac through the generations is rooted here. Why doesn’t he flee from his father’s zeal? In “Story of Isaac,” plaintive poem and song, Leonard Cohen sets the scene in which to ask, faith or fear, dumbstruck or awestruck, or something deeper that we cannot know? “Then my father built an altar, he looked once behind his shoulder, he knew I would not hide.” Strength rising from a well deep within, Isaac gently stands his ground and faces down through the generations all who would raise a hand to kill in God’s name.

Isaac does not return from the mountain with his father. Not seeing her son, some say that Sarah died from shock, overcome by a parent’s worst nightmare. We are told that Isaac went to the south, to the Well of The-Living-One-Who-Sees-Me/B’er Lachai Ro’i, it is the well where Hagar and Yishma’el encountered God in their time of desperation and despair. If Isaac sought healing in going to the well and to the south, he also brought healing. Coming to the place where Hagar and Yishma’el dwelled, Isaac follows a path of reconciliation. Reaching beyond estrangement and transcending his own trauma, it seems that Isaac sought to reweave the torn fabric of his family. Soon after he returns from the south, perhaps having acted as marriage-maker, his father Abraham marries Ketura, whom the rabbis say is none other than Hagar. And while Isaac is in the south, Abraham seeks to arrange a marriage for his son, living now with the hope of Isaac’s return. Each hopes that the other will know love’s healing for all that has been.

Seeking solace in nature, as was his wont commentary suggests, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field at dusk.” In that moment, so full with spiritual and romantic possibility, Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees his bashert/intended one coming toward him upon a camel. With sensitivity befitting Isaac’s gentle soul, the Torah says, And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah. He married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her, and only then was Isaac comforted for his mother.

Whether from the experience of grief and trauma, or the inherent nature of his soul, Isaac is a man of peace. In his response to conflict, we see the underpinnings of nonviolence. Seeking water in the desert, Isaac’s herdsmen dug a well. We are told that the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen over the well. Naming that well Essek/Contention, Isaac told his herdsmen to move on and to dig another well. The herdsmen of Gerar also quarreled about that well, which Isaac named Sitnah/Obstruction. Moving on yet again, Isaac dug another well, and there was no quarreling. He named that well Rechovot/Spaciousness. Was Isaac passive, or was he determined? The Torah suggests the latter in saying of yet another well that Isaac dug that it continues ad hayom hazeh/until this day. While the fruits of violence are fleeting, there is longevity in the way of Isaac.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev speaks of Isaac as being of the sitra d’nukvah/the feminine aspect. Beyond gender, it is the way of Isaac’s gentleness to which the Berditchever refers, to that commingling of qualities that are the masculine and feminine within each of us. The way that we see Isaac reflects the way that we see our selves. As Isaac found wholeness beyond the tragedy and trauma of his life, so may we seek the way of this noble ancestor and bring greater wholeness to ourselves and to the world around us.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hearing the Hurt

Grass Dancers photo by Joe Mann

This week end is the annual wacipi at South Dakota State University. Sponsored by the campus Native American Club, the event has grown over the years. Yesterday, I counted eighteen drum groups.

This year the wacipi was preceded by an American Indian History and Culture Conference. The focus was storytelling and included several presentations, including one by Susan Power, the author of "Grass Dancer." I was in the audience Friday afternoon to hear a friend, Dr. Edward Valandra, Chair of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of South Dakota, speak about the history of Native Studies programs.

After his remarks, the schedule called for a student panel. Their task was to share their experiences of storytelling to illustrate the depth and complexity of this cultural tradition. The students took the stage and the audience waited for the session to begin. The faculty member facilitating the program seemed engrossed in a conversation with two men in the back of the hall. Eventually, they all came to the stage and the elder was introduced to offer a prayer. The elder was praying for the third mans' son, who had called his father at three o'clock that morning, with helicopter blades clapping the air in the background, to say he was leaving for Afghanistan. The elder proceeded with the prayer, in Lakota and English, for strength, for clear vision, for safety, for comfort. He said when he saw a man cry, he knew he was in serious need of prayer.

Then the father took the microphone. We learned he was a veteran of three tours in Iraq and one in Bosnia with UN forces. He said he had hardly been home from Iraq when he discovered his son was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan. And now, his son was on his way, earlier than scheduled. His father hadn't had an opportunity to do the rituals his grandfather had done with him, to make sure his son would be strong, and safe.

He talked for twenty minutes. The students sat patiently. The program facilitator sat patiently. The Native Americans in the audience sat patiently. There was some restlessness among the others, but the story was powerful and ultimately, ironic. The speaker was wearing his service jacket, with his name tag. His last name was "Wounded Knee."

I'm aware that historically Native American communities have been culturally prepared to receive wounded warriors back into the culture. There are ceremonies that can help. There is honor given and received. And they are heard! Even when they aren't on the program. Even when they interrupt. Even when they keep others waiting, Native people patiently listen and hear the hurt.

Carl Kline

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

I’ve been thinking about how perception shapes reality, perhaps more to the point, how perception can create a reality. A few nights ago as we pulled into the driveway at the home where we are house sitting, we were greeted by two dogs as we got out of the car. The house is in an isolated setting on the moors overlooking one of the island’s great ponds and the ocean beyond. There are no occupied houses in the immediate area. So the dogs were strangely out of place. The absence of barking and growling and bared teeth assured us that they were friendly and their wagging tails confirmed it. They were clearly out for an evening romp out of sight of their owners for awhile.

We shooed them off and went into the house, watched a DVD, showered, and went to bed. At about 1:30 AM, I awoke to the sound of dogs barking. This is where my perceptions began to construct a reality. The barking was intermittent and sounded like only one dog at first. Then a second sound, almost human - - almost crying. The adrenalin started pumping. Was there a human being prowling around outside the house? The night was darker than dark as there was a thick cloud cover over the moon. I lay rigid for awhile, trying to discern from the perceived safety of my bed exactly what the sounds meant.

The intermittent barking of the first dog was soon joined by the high pitched “yipping” of the second dog. A shift in perception again. More benign this time. Perhaps one of the dogs was caught or injured in some way and its courageous and faithful companion was barking for help. But once again I could not summon the guts to get out of bed and head out into the darkness to find out what was really going on. An injured dog could be dangerous, after all.

All night long, the barking continued, abating for a few minutes here and there and then resuming again in an increasingly familiar cadence. Finally, at 6 AM, my body yearning for sleep, it was light enough to see out into the yard. The same two dogs who greeted us on our arrival at night were still there, circling a large bush next to the driveway. A medium size yellow Lab and a smaller black one. They would stop periodically and bark up into the bush where what appeared to be a nest clung to the topmost branches, frustratingly out of reach.

At 7:30AM my husband and I decided that it was late enough in the morning to call the local dog warden. As soon as the conversation was finished, the phone rang again. A rather sheepish neighbor….”I think my dogs are at your house.” They had wandered off around noon the previous day and the neighbor feared they had fallen through the ice on the partially frozen pond. He had been out searching for them at daybreak and heard them barking. He came to retrieve them and as he and my husband escorted the dogs into the waiting car, they checked out the bush and found that the dogs had treed a large rat and had kept it in the top branches of the bush all night long. So much for our perception of the nest we were sure we had seen from the kitchen window.

I learned a few things about my self that night. I had met the dogs before the nocturnal vigil began and I liked them. So I was able to tolerate the barking until I heard a different sound which struck fear in me and suddenly there was malevolent threat just outside the bedroom window. When I could identify that sound as the bark of the second dog, my fear level dropped way down again. When I imagined there was an injured animal out there, compassion began to rise but the feeling that I should take action was tempered with fear for my safety.

Mercifully, with the sunrise and greater visibility, the absolute humor of the night’s adventure became obvious. I wondered how often I create fearful scenarios from my perceptions, generate violent inner responses to perceived danger, remain passive in my response because of the fear I activate. In a rather benign event, my perceptions of it caused discomfort, emotional distress, fear, compassion, and then fear again. A little investigation would have relieved almost all of that and perhaps allowed me to sleep through the night.

As I listen to the news, the opinions voiced about the news, the opinions that follow the opinions, the continual narratives of negative scenarios from local crime scenes to disturbing elections to suicide bombings, I am increasingly aware that I need to be very selective about the weight I give to the perceptions of others as they tell the stories to which they are committed. It is incumbent upon me to develop a “screen” for filtering out the commentary that is shaped by someone else’s fear based perceptions. Fear often generates anger and anger often generates a violent response and a violent response is inevitably destructive. As the “powers and principalities” become increasingly skilled at manipulating the fears of human beings in order to affect election results and public policy, the cultivation of a skilled and subtle nonviolent consciousness becomes increasingly significant. My daily challenge is learning to be more mindful of how perceptions may construct a reality that is quite unreal.

After all, the frightening sounds of a malevolent trespasser or the cries of an injured animal, in reality, may only be a couple of dogs enjoying the adventure of keeping a rat trapped high in the branches of a windblown bush on the moors of a beautiful ocean wrapped island off the coast of New England.

Vicki Hanjian

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Several years ago we experienced a difficult winter here on the high plains of South Dakota. I remember reading about all the thousands of cattle, west of the Missouri River, that had been lost. There were also news reports of bison herds roaming the prairie. The snow drifts went over the fences and allowed the bison to roam free.

The following summer I was on the Cheyenne River Reservation. You approach reservation land as you cross the bridge over the Missouri River on South Dakota highway 212. Shortly after the bridge, you see high fences that trace the boundary of the tribal bison herd. I met and talked with the person who managed the herd. I asked about the winter storms, about all the cattle that had died, and about tribal bison losses to the snow and cold. He smiled and said they lost one animal from their herd. The bison walked over the drifted fence out onto the bridge, fell onto the frozen river, and died. Even so, they were able to take the meat and hide.

I was awed as this manager of the herd talked about the animals. His knowledge came from observation. It wasn't unusual for him to spend hours watching the animals, the interaction between them, the dynamics of family life, the patterns of communication. He knew bison, intimately and up close. It's one of the reasons the tribe had purchased a slaughterhouse, contained in an extended trailer. When the herd needed to be culled to meet tribal needs, a process was in place. With the trailer in the pasture, and an animal selected for slaughter, the bison was killed with one shot and dressed on the spot. There was no opportunity for the spirit of the creature and its meat to be poisoned by pain and suffering. The taking was quick and efficient.

I'm thinking about that experience having read an article in The Sun on the ethics of hunting. David Petersen is being interviewed on the ethics of killing animals for food. He castigates the Outdoor Channel and similar TV fare for what he calls "horn porn." He has no use for cheater technologies, for baiting and penning your prey, for ATVs, for trophy hunting, for the NRA. He believes that hunters (not killers) respect the creature they hunt. It's best to use a bow as you have to be within several yards of the animal. You need to be observant and knowledgeable about what you are hunting and its environment. He sounds a lot like the bison manager of the Cheyenne River herd.

I struggle to be a practicing vegetarian. When I do eat fish or fowl, I know the ethical course of action is taking the life respectfully, myself. I'm grateful for teachers like tribal members and David Petersen, who extend the rationale for hunting and the challenge of doing it well.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 5, 2010

Death Distance

My brother and I were present when the hearse arrived to take my mothers' body. She had decided on cremation. The day before we sat with the funeral home director while I asked lots of questions about the cremation process. Although he didn't say so, I sensed that he didn't often get questions. How was the body prepared? What was the fuel? How hot was the fire? How did we know the ashes we received were those of my mother? And so forth.

As they wheeled her body out of her apartment, I remarked to my brother that if we were in India, we would be taking her body ourselves and preparing it for cremation on the banks of the Ganges. He nodded. I think we both felt to do it ourselves would be an adventure in relationship, and in living and dying, that would deepen our understanding of being human.

Alas, in U.S. society, to be close to death is to be somehow unclean, and afraid.

Watching the film "Food, Inc." this past week, I was reminded of three things I first observed in the Meat Lab at South Dakota State University. Slaughtering animals is methodical and efficient in the killing. It is clinical and scientifically engineered in the processing. And it is usually done by people on the fringes of the culture.

In the film, we saw a plant processing chickens from those long low chicken houses where the chickens seldom see the light of day and grow breasts so fat they can't walk. This scenario was contrasted with a farmer who processed his own chickens, free roamers on the farm, in a home made operation. Unlike the cultural norm, his closeness to death didn't detract from the desirability of the finished product. On the contrary. The mechanized, industrialized, robotized process of Tyson seemed distasteful. It required every chicken to be the same size! (I forgot to ask that question about modern day crematoriums. Do big people fit OK? Does a big body require more fuel, like it might on the banks of the Ganges? Is the cremation of a child cheaper?)

Perhaps you can tell I'm thinking these days about "distance" from death. It's not just funeral customs and our treatment of animals. I'm also thinking of the growing use by the U.S. military of drones. If you want to kill someone, anywhere in the world, just rain death on them from the skies. It's efficient. It's immediate. It's clinical and scientifically engineered. You don't have to touch it or risk anything. You can be sitting manipulating a tool half a world away.

I think living nonviolently means accepting the reality of death. Living nonviolently means appreciating the intimate connection between life and death and approaching all of it fearlessly. Living nonviolently ignores the cultural norm and closes the distance between life and death. Like the Buddhist monastic who meditates on his skeleton, or the Ash Wednesday adherent who is reminded she comes from the dust, we are humbled by death with the Force of Truth.

Carl Kline

Monday, February 1, 2010

"No More Trouble"

It's time for another powerful video produced by Playing for Change. This five-minute performance joins the songs "War" and "No More Trouble," both made famous by Bob Marley. The video features musicians and singers from around the world who have witnessed conflict and hatred, and who seek to transform and overcome it with love and perseverance. Their collaboration is made possible through the wonders of technology. Among them are--

Ireland: Bono, Cathy Jordan, the Omagh Community Youth Choir
Israel/Palestine: David Broza, Radwin Nizar, Ramzi Bishara
Congo: Jason Tamba Matondo, Biziko, Mermans Kenkosenki, Tshotsho Fikisi
India: Punya Srinivas, the Oneness Choir, Saroja, Venkat
Ghana: Rocky Dawuni
South Africa: Jimi Indi Phiri, Louis Mhlanga, the Abonwabisi Choir
USA: Kevin Moore II
Jamaica: Bob Marley (archival footage)

Here are the lyrics as performed:

Until the philosophy which holds one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, say war

Congo sees war
Children are dying

Until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of man's skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
Everywhere is war
Everywhere is war

Killing the brother
Destroying the country
For nothing
For nothing

They gonna take care of another brother
(? lyrics unclear)
I know we don't need no more war

Some winning, some losing
Some dying, some crying
Some singing

We don't need no more trouble
We don't need no more trouble....

What we need is love
To guide and protect us on
If you hope good down from above
Help the weak to get strong

You got to stop the war

We don't need no more trouble....

May the words and melody and rhythm and images of this piece inspire you toward the resolution of conflicts, at home and around the world.

If for some reason you can't see the viewer, click here to watch the video.

Phyllis Cole Dai