Monday, October 25, 2010
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
There has been so much violence in the news of recent weeks that has been wrenching, unbearable. The Torah’s sad reflection on the state of the world at the beginning of the portion called after its main character, Noah, No’ach in Hebrew, describes our world, and the earth was filled with violence. What went wrong? How did the beauty and promise of Creation come to be so twisted? How does the image of God in self and others come to be so hidden to eyes and hearts blinded by fear and hate, callous to the preciousness of every life? And the earth was filled with violence..., the flood, the ark, the rainbow. Floodwaters of violence churn around us, near and far, all so close, sweeping away the innocent and the pure. Despair and hope vie within
our souls, as we ache to see the rainbow.
On Boston streets close by to where we live, our neighbors live in a war zone, the sound of gunfire as much a part of every day, even more, than the song of birds or the rustling of leaves in the autumn winds. So close, and yet a land unknown to most of us. How deeply we feel the horror, and yet not deeply enough. Four young people gunned down, the image of a young mother and her two-year old son, their murders searing our souls and psyches, but not deeply enough. They are all real people with faces that shined with the image of God, with names we can say, names we need to say: Simba Martin, Levaughn Washum-Garrison, Eyanna Flonory, and her little one, Amanihotep Smith.
And in anguish, we have witnessed in one month’s time, the hounding to death of five boys, only one of whom might even yet have been called a young man, five young people who did not conform to sexual and gender identities deemed “normal.” We are torn apart, but especially for those of us who are straight, how much more we need to try to understand and feel the torment experienced by a young person struggling alone with their own sexual and gender identity. Driven to suicide, these five young people are all real people with faces that shined with the image of God, with names we can say, names we need to say: Justin Aaberg, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh.
All of these whose names we remember challenge us to act, to search together for ways of response. Rooted in such deep social sickness, it can feel overwhelming. The violence of our society is horrifying, as is the ability of people to destroy other people, whether through guns or bullying, shattering lives in an instant, or mercilessly over time. At what point will we find the will
and the way to make gun control a reality as one response to the horror? So long ago the Talmud recognized what we as a society are unable to, that diminishing the availability of weapons makes killing more difficult. The rabbis not only prohibited the selling of weapons to those who would misuse them, but also the selling of materials that could be turned into weapons.
In this time of tragedy that has come as the bitter consequence of homophobic bullying, we remember too, as we say their names, that each of us is needed to protect and preserve the lives of our children, for they are all our own, in all the varied ways that they reflect the image of God. We are each needed to come out and help insure that every GLBTQ young person, and the not so young as well, finds embrace among us and is inoculated against hate with the knowledge that each one is beloved and that each one belongs and has their own precious place in our communities and in our lives.
As the floodwaters receded, Noah/No’ach and all who were with him, came out from the ark. It is time for all of us to come out, and to stand together in the light of a new day. While the sky was still heavy with cloud, God showed Noah the rainbow sign, God’s covenant with all people upon this earth. Whether in the sky or upon a flag that flutters proudly, it is also a sign of our covenant with each other. Through the prism of our tears, light refracted, we are the rainbow.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The colors of September and October in the northern half of the United States blaze in the sun. The leaves turn magenta, burnt orange, burgundy, golden yellow, delicious apple reds and other colors so extraordinary they defy description. When it rains, it deepens and enhances the russets, the umbers, the golds, and the natural drying browns of the grasses and the crops maturing in the fields. How wonderful to behold.
Living in the rural area of a Northern Plains state gives me an advantage of watching the skies. Each season brings it’s own versions of wildly varied cloud formations, sunsets and sunrises, and Fall is no exemption. The October sky is clear most nights and the stars glitter and twinkle as they announce their place in the universe. A big orange full moon smiles mischievously and peeks over
the horizon, changing several weeks later to a thin, lovely, white new moon that enhances its neighborhood of beaming stars. How wonderful to behold.
My garden is on the downhill and the harvest wraps up this time of year. I have been able to eat salads and vegetables from my “organic market” 20 feet from my kitchen door, throughout the spring, summer and fall. Now, the sparse dill heads tell me they have reseeded for next year, the onions, winter squash, potatoes, and carrots are awaiting their trip to the basement for future meals. The late season flowers are brilliant next to their fading earlier counterparts.
Fall is busy preparing the earth for the cold and snow that will soon appear. How wise. How beautiful. How wonderful to behold. Thank you, God.
Friday, October 8, 2010
During the waning hours of one day’s Ramadan fast, I attended a meeting at the new Roxbury mosque. As pink and gray streaked the dusky sky, a call from the minaret announced the breaking of the fast. Symbolic first foods of the fast’s end were brought to the table of our meeting. Each day’s fast ends with the sharing of milk and dates, as would be the desert bounty of Bedouin shepherds, and so we shared, Jews and Muslims. A second calling from the minaret came a short while later, as a gathering call for prayer.
Hundreds gathered to pray, little children lifted up on parents’ arms and carried on waves of excitement, Ramadan nights so different from all other nights. I stood back and to the side, thinking to pray my own prayers of evening, a small siddur/prayer book in my pocket. Instead, I was touched by the excitement of a young mother, a first grade teacher in a Muslim school, wearing hijjab and a “snugly,” baby smiling and cooing as she delighted in sharing the meaning of Ramadan. Her husband approached, in long white robe, and smile as radiant as his wife’s, asking me, “are you taken care of.” I knew exactly what he meant, had heard the same words in Hebrew, the same question, a shared expression of Abrahamic hospitality. A flashback to a time long ago, to a Jerusalem synagogue on a Shabbat evening, approached by a man with a radiant smile as prayers finished, “are you taken care of, do you have a place to go?” I was a stranger, but alone no longer, bathed in the warmth of a home and family, a Shabbat evening I have never forgotten, not even the tunes that family sang. “Yes,” I said, returning to the moment, to a mosque during Ramadan, “but I am so touched by your asking,” our hands clasped as I thanked the man of warm smile and gracious concern. I would share iftar, the meal ending the fast, with the group I was meeting with.
The meeting was of the planning committee of “Building Bridges through Learning,” a program to bring imams and rabbis together to learn each other’s sacred texts. The real goal is to come to know and learn about each other as people. Our next study gathering is in December and the thematic focus will be “Love of Neighbor.” We came to the topic fairly easily, through our own painful discussion as a committee of the tensions that flared once again this summer around the presence of the mosque. In the face of fear and misunderstanding, and of stereotypes that calcify so easily, we sought to respond from the depths of our own faith. As precursor and preparation for study in the larger context, we would share with each other the sources of faith that inspire us to pursue a more hopeful and affirming reality.
During this week in which the Torah portion is Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), we shared texts concerning love of neighbor and of stranger. We wrestled with difficult questions, who is the neighbor I am to love, and who the stranger -- from among my own people or of another, interpretations narrow or broad, to sweetly tune the tension between the universal and the particular, or to be left with the grating sound of dissonance. Parashat Ki Tetze opens with laws of warfare and the taking of captives. It rises then to the noble exhortation, you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, you know what it is like to be abused as a people. Several times in the portion we are reminded of the justice due the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, emblematic of society’s most vulnerable. And as we shared, of Jewish emphasis on doing good for the sake of peace/mipnei darchei shalom, in Quran we read: Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him, and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer, and what your right hands possess. For Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.
As we make our way through the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah reading cycle at this time of year, we encounter some of the most violent passages of Torah, of brutality done to others. I look to a nonviolent stream that flows beneath the words of Torah and speaks of its source in Eden. It wells up through words of commentary, discomfort with the surface meaning that does not accord with the ultimate call of Torah to choose life, with the knowledge of every human created in the image of God. As with so many passages in Torah that concern warfare, particularly in Chassidic tradition, so the beginning of Ki Tetze, Ki Tetze lamilchamah al oyvecha/when you go forth to war against your enemies, is spiritualized to refer to our own inner battles. Commenting on this verse, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, there is hinted in this the eternal war we are to wage with our own enemy, that within the soul which is the evil inclination/…oyvo banefesh hu ha’yetzer hara.
Sitting at the study table in the mosque, I was struck by another text that seemed also to spiritualize war and warrior. This one from Hadith, the teachings of the Prophet that become Islamic “Oral Torah,” if you will: One who looks after the widowed and the poor is like the warrior who struggles in the way of Allah, or like one who prays all night and fasts all day. A Muslim friend once spoke to me of his own inner conflicts at the time, of the ijtihad with which he was engaged, self-struggle toward new understanding and renewal, a battle waged within.
The good and the noble that is in Quran and in Torah rises up through our deeds, loving each other as neighbor even when we are strangers, transforming in practice the violence that is in Torah and in Quran. We are worthy heirs of Avraham/Ibrahim when from house to house we are able to say, “Are you taken care of, do you have a place?” Seated then at one great table, may we break the fast together and nourish the deepest hunger that is for peace.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
There are some images that seem to stick in your mind forever. If they're sweet, they are like honey or jam on your finger, after fixing some tea or toast. You are grateful for the small surprise, and you savor it.
If the image is ugly, it's more likely to stick like pine sap, or old masking tape on glass. You'd just like to find a way to shorten it's endurance or remove it.
I have both images, sweet and ugly, residing in my image memory. The sweet one is old; the ugly one is new. The old image is of a small girl, probably five or six years old.
India was hosting the Asian games and Delhi was getting a cleaning. All of the poor living on the streets were herded onto buses and transported several kilometers outside the city, where they were dumped with nothing but the clothes on their backs and some broken brick. Here they were to construct a shelter and find a way to survive, at least till the games were finished. (Actually, there were three or four houses already built when people were dumped. They were made from cement block by the government. They were to be raffled off to these homeless people. To apply, of course, one had to be sterilized.)
My small girl was part of this homeless population. She was one of a crowd of homeless children who gathered around us, as we toured new made shelters, marvelous works of broken-brick art. Our eyes met for perhaps twenty seconds, long enough to burn her image in my cells. The next time her image appeared, like honey, was at a spiritual retreat. We were to imagine walking with Jesus through a garden. I couldn't picture Jesus. Then, surprise! She appeared, slipping out of a hazy past at a telling time.
Last week I saw a film from Burma. It was filmed by undercover video journalists. They documented some of the events of the 2007 revolt against the military dictatorship. The journalists were risking their lives to keep some knowledge flowing of what was transpiring in their closed society.
The most inspiring footage is of the Buddhist monks marching through the streets with the cheering crowds applauding. The sense of hope and joy is palpable. One is humbled as they kneel in front of the military blocking the street, to chant prayers of compassion, that all might be freed from fear, from distress, from poverty. It's clear the soldiers are included in the prayers. And then comes the ugly image, a bloated, purple robed body, floating in the river.
At first, I focused on those who committed the atrocities in Burma. How could they do this? What sort of demons possessed them? But now, I'm focused on who inhabited that body in the river. What discipline, what conviction, what training, allowed him to be part of a nonviolent and compassionate movement, in the face of probable murder?
I'm beginning to think the ugly image, so hard to remove, is hard for a reason. Buddhist monks meditate on their own skeleton in recognition of the temporality of life and to be fearless about letting it go. It's a good learning for folks committed to nonviolence. M. L. King said, if there isn't something in our life worth dying for, we're not fit to live.
Increasingly, as I admit the integral relationship of death and life, the power of the ugly image fades. For me, like the sweet image, it also becomes a portrait of Jesus, ... or Buddha.