Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Searching for a Heart of Gold

My grandmother would shake her head when hearing of tzoros/sorrows come to one she loved. As though to underscore the unfairness of bad things happening to good people, she would then say, “she has a heart of gold.” In her simple pained reflection was an awareness of goodness so deep that it should trump the vagaries of life. We know that such is not the case, and yet it is. Acts of kindness that make a difference in the lives of others, the golden hue of a heart so full touching the world like a summer sunset, these challenge the vagaries of life and cast them in another light. It is a light that shines through and beyond the difficulties of life.

A heart of gold is that which is deepest within. It conveys the same sense as the Yiddish phrase, a gitte n’shomah/a good soul. It is about a way of being in the world. We know such a heart, such a soul when we stand in its presence. The inner light shines out and is no less bright on the outside. Of such clarity, the heart of gold, I am puzzled by the lyrics of Neil Young’s song of that name; “I want to live, I want to give, I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. It’s these expressions I never give that keep me searching for a heart of gold and I’m getting old.” With life going by, I am not clear if the quest is to discover after all a heart of gold within oneself, or if it is a sad song of seeking and not finding of goodness in the world. It is not for us to identify the nature of our own inner being, but to live in the way we know will bring good to the world. We know what good is and the golden glow it gives when we encounter it. It does not require a great search, but only to open our eyes and hearts to be touched by the simple acts of kindness to be witnessed every day.

To live with optimism, to have faith in the power of goodness to make a difference, to live without disconnect between the values we know within to be right and the values we express in the world, this is the way of Torah as it is meant to be lived. It is the way of Torah as a Tree of Life whose paths are peace, a way that is taught in the simple ways of simple gifts, as simple as the ordinary deeds we are blessed to receive and know to be a gift. In the Torah portion called T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), instructions are given for the building of the desert sanctuary, the mishkan, and for all of the holy furnishings to be within it. Of the holy ark itself, that is to be made of shittim/acacia wood, Moses is told, v’tzipita oto zahav tahor/and you shall cover it with pure gold; you shall cover it inside and outside….

The wooden ark becomes in effect three boxes contained one within the other, and yet they are all one, a seamless whole. A heart of gold, indestructible, surrounded by a body of wood, organic matter, one day to decompose. And on the outside, a golden exterior is one with the innermost. Of wood, eytz, that is destructible and does not shine, that which gives bodily form to the container of Torah, the rabbis ask why is it at the center? It is because the Torah is called eytz Chayim/a Tree of Life. Of the gold that is to overlay the wood within and without, the Torah says, mibayit u’michutz, literally, “from the home and from outside.” The way we are at home and the way we are in the world outside is to be one. The rabbis offer the nature of the holy ark’s construction as a teaching on the importance of personal integrity, that we be the same on the inside as on the outside, that our deeds be consistent with our expressed values.

Among the questions that the rabbis imagine we shall be asked when we come on high in the gathering of our days, there is this one: tzipita lishua/did you expect/anticipate salvation? It seems at first a strange question, until we consider it in the context of the living of our days now, hearing it as a challenge to live with optimism and not succumb to despair. A question that we need to hear now, in this world, in this life, it is a reminder to live with hope, with faith in the possibility of repair and wholeness. The word tzipita as “to expect, to anticipate,” is the same word as v’tzipita, “and you shall cover/overlay” the wood of the ark with pure gold. The golden glow of kindness that emanates from within is its own promise of salvation. Whatever sorrows are encountered in the living of life, the heart of gold shines through and leaves a lasting glow.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nature Deficit Disorder

One of the things I remember most fondly about my childhood home in Randolph, New York, is the open spaces outside. To the north was a long lot where my father usually planted the garden. To the West was a large empty field big enough for a ball game.

Part of my responsibility as a family member was working in the garden. It's where I cultivated my love of tomatoes, ripe and freshly picked off the vine in the backyard. And even though I complained about the weed pulling and hoeing, the time spent outside with the vegetables is now a pleasant memory.

In the same way, I would often rush through my dinner to get out of the house to play ball. Every evening when there was enough light to see and there were enough kids from the neighborhood to make teams, we played in the big field. I'm sure I spent far more time playing outside than inside. If no one was in the field, you could often find a game of kickball at the playground, two blocks away. It was always dark when I heard my name called to come home.

I read an interview today with Richard Louv. He's the author of a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He attributes several of childhood ills these days to little time spent outside in the natural world, including psychological disorders, childhood obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to Louv, parents and educators from all over the U.S. have communicated with him about how behavior changes in ADHD kids after they've had an experience in nature.

Children don't have to have Yellowstone National Park or the Badlands of South Dakota next door, although one would hope they might experience them as something other than an "in and out of the car" tourist. Certainly we need to do all we can to protect these wonderful natural environments from those who would exploit or damage them for private profit.

But all children can have some outside play space nearby. It may be more difficult in the city but planners can plan for it and developers can include it and homeowners can demand it. And we can get kids out of the city into natural environments. The Sierra club has a whole host of outings available, led by members and available to all. There are groups like "The Children and Nature Network," founded by Louv: that can help.

Nature deficit disorder need not be a legacy we leave our children. Our relationship to the creation around us is a significant component of a nonviolent lifestyle. If there's no opportunity for relationship we do violence to our children and grandchildren. Let's make sure they have spaces to be outside, to hear the birds, inspect the insects, climb the trees, and gather the flowers, the shells and the stones. They're gathering something even more precious in the process.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Joy of the Little

Several years ago a group of twenty from the U.S. went to India in a program on Gandhian nonviolence. We met up with some folks from India and began the program at a teacher training institute named after Gandhis' wife, Kasturbai. We were only there a few days when we were told the well had gone dry. Although the school normally had many more residing there, in a few short days, western water users managed to drain all the water available.

In order to supply even more modest needs, forced by the circumstances, we took a bullock cart each morning some five kilometers to another well, where we filled a fifty gallon drum. This had to meet our needs, as the whole area was in the midst of a severe draught. It meant each person had a little more than a gallon a day for drinking, cooking, bathing and flushing.

I discovered and appreciated water in a new way. I had always found joy in swimming, in being immersed in a lake or the ocean. But here I found joy in a cup of water, poured slowly and carefully over a hot and sweaty body. Each drop offered profound refreshment as I realized this was all there was.

This experience with water so invaded my consciousness that when I returned home, I continued my Indian bucket bath tradition. Next to the shower I placed my gallon bucket and plastic measuring cup. Each day I'd get half a bucket of water, squat in the shower and appreciate the pleasure of a little. This went on for about a year before the convenience and ready access of a warm shower overcame my consciousness of the worlds' lack. I'm convinced westerners need an experience of the needs of others at least once a year, or the materialistic nature of our culture begins to cut us off from any experience of solidarity.

Fasting has had similar results. The first time I did a serious fast of three days, I realized why people said the poor were lazy. It wasn't laziness. It was lethargy, the result of being nutrition poor. When you don't eat, you don't have energy. When you don't have energy, you appear lethargic. So rather than understand the dynamic, as often happens, the victim is blamed.

A longer fast, of nine days, helped me understand the joy of the little. Starting to eat again, I was advised to start slowly. It never tasted as good! It hasn't since.

I call it the joy of the little. A little water, appreciated. A little food, not taken for granted. A little kindness, unexpected. A little love, in that most vulnerable moment.

Nonviolence is about the little, the everyday, done in solidarity with all the sentient beings. I have to keep reminding myself of this in a world of bigness, where big and important people do big things, and miss the joy of the little.

Carl Kline

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When Equality & Justice Shall Be the Fruit of Peace

There was an opinion piece in the Boston Globe recently entitled, “War’s glass ceiling.” Perhaps it would make your own conflicting emotions churn as mine did. The subtitle read, “Pentagon moves closer to allowing women to fight.” Above the article was printed a large photograph of a young woman in full battle gear in Iraq, her finger on the trigger of her rifle as she runs for cover. The article begins by pointing out that “over 130 women have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq…,” adding wryly, “and yet they were not in combat.” The article goes on to address the paradox that women in the armed forces are not officially assigned to combat, but due to increasingly blurry role distinctions often find themselves fighting alongside male comrades. Urging an end to the paradox, and looking beyond the hypocrisy, the author writes, “Ladies, get your guns. And grenades. And possibly your gut-slitting knives.”

The sexism in regard to women in the military is as blatant as in so many other facets of life, as homophobia was on full display in the recently repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” In the long road to equality and justice, however, these are both struggles that do not excite me. While my head says, “of course there should be equal opportunity in the military,” my heart and soul cry out against the myth of might, the perpetuation of war and weaponry as the way of conflict resolution. I cry out at the largest context of institutionalized violence the world has known, the young of nations arrayed against each other to kill and to be killed. War, and preparation for its presumed inevitability, is the backdrop for all the violence that tears societies apart, youth killing each other on urban streets, domestic violence, bullying. Mothers, fathers, and children look out of windows that will never frame the missing one, only to wonder at the slaughter. And there is cold comfort in the mechanical words of praise that come so easily from generals and politicians.

My thoughts turned round and round while reading the Torah portion called B’shallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) during the week that I read the article about women in the military. These chapters in the Torah tell of Israel’s crossing through the parted waters of the sea, told to be silent as they look back upon the drowning of the Egyptians. It is a portion of both violence and hope, of teaching meant to counter the violence and help us look beyond. The Sabbath on which this portion is read is called Shabbos Shira/the Sabbath of Song. It is so called because of the song that Moses and then Miriam sing in awed response to what has just happened. In the traditional way of chanting the “Song at the Sea,” joy is diminished in the interplay of sprightly tune when singing of Israel’s redemption, and mournful undertone when singing of the drowning of the Egyptians. As in pouring off drops of wine at the Passover Seder when reciting the Ten Plagues, ritual comes to teach us that we are not to celebrate the destruction even of those who would harm us.

The Prophetic reading, called the Haftorah, for “the Sabbath of Song” is from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31) and contains the song of Deborah, creating a parallel with the song in the Torah reading. Rising to a crescendo of violence, it is a song of dissonance. A judge in Israel, Deborah seems to look beyond the din of battle, as it rages in the moment, to a time of peace, “My heart is toward the lawgivers of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people…. Instead of the noise of adversaries, between the places of drawing water, there they will tell the righteous acts of God, the righteous acts of restoring open cities in Israel.” Fleeing the field of battle the enemy general, Sisera, is taken in by Ya’el. As he sleeps, she pierces his head with a tent peg.

Of women representing all who wait, we come to the end of the reading and cross a threshold. The Haftorah ends as we enter the home of Sisera’s mother and encounter the ubiquitous grip of palpable grief before the unavoidable truth that there shall be no homecoming. In the universal plaint of the one who waits, perhaps the end is meant as counterpoint to the violence, “Through the window the mother of Sisera looked forth, and peered through the window; why is his chariot late in coming? Why tarry the strides of his chariot?” The question lingers, asked twice, why, why?

As the Song at the Sea begins, it too looks ahead beyond the violence, az yashir Moshe/then Moses sang. Commentators are quick to point out that literally the words mean, then Moses will sing. It is a song of the future, a song to be sung in the time of the Messiah, the time of the ultimate redemption, when swords shall be turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. The song of Moses, the song of Miriam, the song of Deborah are all one song. Of pain that gives rise to hope, it is also our song. It is the hope for a time when valor shall not be sought on the battlefield, when equality and justice shall be the fruit of peace.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Other America Turns 50

2012 is the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America: Poverty in the United State, originally published by the Macmillan Company. My well-worn copy was printed by Penguin Books, Inc. The impact of the book can be judged in a small way by the frequency of reprints: 1964 (three times); 1965 (twice); 1966 (once); 1967 (twice). My 1967 Penguin Special Edition cost $.95, new.

The opening paragraph reads, “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known.” Then Harrington turns his attention to the 40,000,000 to 50,000,000 citizens in America who are poor. They live in “the other America.” He identifies those who live in this America as “the unskilled workers, the migrant farm worker, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life.” Households with an annual income of less than $3,000 were officially poor in 1962. He describes “the other America [as] an invisible land.”

Thanks largely to Harrington’s book the invisible became visible. President Kennedy began thinking about poverty in new ways. Following Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson pledged in his State of the Union Address in January 1964 to wage “an unconditional war on poverty.” He picked Sargent Shriver to be in charge. But in Johnson’s “guns and butter” approach, the Vietnam War siphoned funds from the Poverty War, which was never adequately funded. Nevertheless, poverty was now out of the closet to stay. Or is it? The U.S. Census Bureau Study “Child Poverty in the United States: 2009-2010” is anything but encouraging. According to this report in 2010, 21.6 percent of America’s children live in poverty—the highest percentage since 2001. In 10 states the poverty rate was above 25 percent in 2010. Rates were higher for ethnic and racial minorities. Between 2009 and 2011, the percent of children living in poverty increased in 27 states and decreased in none.

In 2012, one Republican candidate for president has been heavily criticized in the media for saying that he doesn’t care about the poor. But is he alone? Are any presidential candidates talking about poverty in America? Ask yourself how many leading news stories have you seen in print or heard on television in the last year that focused on poverty in America that were not at the same time appeals for charity. When Tavis Smiley and Cornel West took their poverty tour in 2011 they tried to create a new national debate, but who listened?

An article by Maurice Isserman in the Winter 2012 issue of Dissent magazine suggests that one reason why we hear so little about poverty in America today may be due to Harrington’s book. Isserman points out that when Harrington described poverty, he talked about “the culture of poverty.” Harrington meant that the cause of poverty was a lack of money. But Shriver and the Johnson administration focused on ways to change the culture. This meant creating pre-school enrichment programs, job-training programs, and community action agencies. It was war on the cheap. Whereas the New Deal invested $5,000,000,000 in public works, the War on Poverty programs were less than $1,000,000,000. Given thirty years of inflation the real comparison is more like one-tenth rather than one-fifth of the sum. Some programs like Head Start have been very successful, but many lacked funding and adequate support.

Isserman says that Harrington was drawn to the concept of the culture of poverty because he thought it would prod the government to invest in better housing, better health care, better education, and jobs. But in the 1970s “neoconservatives” (a term coined by Harrington) turned the concept upside down and blamed the victims. Now it was not the lack of money that caused poverty, but the attitudes and behavior of the poor. The Reagan administration embraced the neoconservatives. And later, in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” The War on Poverty was now a war on welfare.

I never met Michael Harrington, but I have to think that this crusader who joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement before joining the Young People’s Socialist League and later becoming a leader of the Socialist Part in America would be with the Occupy Movement today. And he would be hopeful for our future. Isserman calls The Other America, “Harrington’s love letter to the United States.” At the end of the letter, Harrington penned these words, “What is needed if poverty is to be abolished is a return of political debate, a restructuring of the party system so that there can be clear choices, a new mood of social idealism.” And he asked, “How long shall we ignore the underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?”

David Hansen