Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Softening Our Hearts, Learning to Love God

The oppression is deep, the chains of slavery heavy on our feet. There are glimmers of hope in the air, Moses coming before Pharaoh, a drama unfolding toward freedom. A dramatic tension turns on the beginning of the Ten Plagues. It is troubling, suffering brought to one people on behalf of another. That we are troubled is good, worrisome when we are not. The other is our oppressor; to be troubled for the oppressor’s suffering is a sign of our ability to look deeper toward a common humanity, however buried beneath hubris. Knowing that we are joined even to the oppressor, we yet strive and struggle to overcome, deep in our hearts believing that we shall, many to suffer along the way, our own and of the oppressor. 

The setting of the story is long ago, in the ancient land of Egypt. It is easy to read the account of Israel’s enslavement and liberation as a story about another time and place. The great danger is to forget that it is about us. The Torah speaks the language of an eternal present, yearning for a flowering of hope that depends on us. The Torah is not a history book, but a guide for life, a map through time, pointing to a path upon which all are meant to walk. The Slonimer Rebbe always asks of particular accounts in the Torah, mah ha’nitzchiyut/what is eternal, what is the eternal message, how is it about us? At the beginning of a teaching concerning the Ten Plagues, the Slonimer says, The Holy Torah is a Torah of life, to teach the way in which we shall go/l’horot et ha’derech asher yelchun ba. He then says of the Exodus from Egypt, it is an eternal matter, and is not simply a story of the past/eyn zeh rak sippur ha’avar…. This comes to be the meaning of the timeless challenge given voice at the Passover seder, b’chol dor va’dor/in every generation a person is obligated to see themself as having coming out from Egypt. It is a story ever renewed in our own quest for freedom.

The Ten Plagues are not simply about suffering brought upon Pharaoh and his people for the sake of Israel’s redemption. They are meant to train us to identify with the pain of others, even of the oppressor. We are to feel the pain of the victim from deep within ourselves, knowing what it is like. Of oppressor and victim, we then look more closely at the unfolding of the plagues and we see how easily we too can become the oppressor, how easily our own hearts can harden. The plagues teach us about the way we direct our steps and our hearts in life, whether we come to incline our selves toward good or toward evil. The path toward one or the other is shaped ever so gradually, formed of incremental steps, from our faltering first steps as children to the sure strides of the adults we become.

Through the Ten Plagues, we see a hard heart become calcified. Arrogant in his own power, Pharaoh becomes stuck in his ways, unable to change. That is the danger that we are to see and take note of, to be wary of rigid ways that enslave. A dynamic lost in translation and clouded by popular assumption, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart until the end. Through the first five plagues, the verb for hardening of the heart is either passive, va’yechezak lev Paroh/and Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, or it is active in relation to Pharaoh hardening his own heart, va’y’chabed Paroh et libo/and Pharaoh hardened his heart. In the sixth plague, a transition begins to occur, with God hardening Pharaoh’s heart for the first time. In the seventh plague there is a return to the passive tense, his hardened heart a reflection of the callous way to which he himself has become enslaved. The shift happens gradually, in the back and forth a shimmering of conscience, of insight, perhaps ready to let go, to release the slaves, to release himself, but so hard to change. In the end, Pharaoh is not able to let go, habituated to the ways of power, to greed, his steps too firmly set on the path he established long ago.

Among the messages of the plagues that calls out to us, if we would soften our hearts to hear, is a teaching to be heeded by each one and all together, don’t become stuck in ways that hurt. Given to Israel while still in Egypt, while still enslaved, a commandment for the future, free the enslaved, do not oppress. In matters of both national policy and personal practice, for individuals and nations, the plagues offer teaching that comes with great urgency, whether we incline toward good or evil is up to us, so the way shall be set, a “tipping point” to come. When hearts are softened to hear the cries of others, goodness welling up, all the plagues of human making shall be washed away in a torrent of tears. As the Torah is meant to guide, the humble author of the “Sefer Ha’Chinuch, the Book of Instruction,” an anonymous medieval work, points to the purpose of the commandments, to the doing of holy deeds: to teach our souls to love the good. Softening our hearts, learning to love the good, may that be our way in the world.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mama Earth Mojo on the Move

What a day at the Forward on Climate rally in DC! A determined, passionate crowd estimated at 50,000 strong. 150 bus-loads of citizens from 30 states. 170 partner organizations. Wow. Mama Earth mojo is revving up!

If you'd like to see some photos I took in DC, check out this link (you don't have to be a Facebooker to view them):http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.582339675128411.147063.434151056613941&type=1&l=7be601df27

Now allow me to share some quick thoughts....

On Saturday, the day before the rally, I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. My most vivid memory: A room full of shoes that once belonged to Jewish people who were killed in one of the death camps. A faint smell hung in the room, an exhaust fan in the ceiling unable to completely remove it--the smell of old leather, and dust, and earth, and smoke....

Now fast forward from that museum to the rally and related events in DC. Listen to the strong women of the First Nations of Canada describing how their peoples are suffering because of tar sands mining projects. And hear me when I say this: What is happening to them is a holocaust of a different sort, and just as evil. What ever happened to the cry, "Never again!"?

And the First Nations are not alone. Think of how many other people and creatures are already suffering due to climate change. They are "expendable," and therefore "killable"--because of humanity's addiction to fossil fuels. Mother Earth herself is being made a gigantic sacrifice zone, where greed trumps life. Some call this ecocide. We could just as easily call it Earth holocaust.

We dare not accept that, my friends.

What I know now that I didn't know yesterday is that tar sands mining is even more devastating than I thought. The depth of my moral outrage at this point seems bottomless. But my commitment to defending the Earth and her inhabitants, and my ability to do just that, are also bottomless--not because of any special gifts I have, but because like you, I AM SOMEBODY. And because I am Somebody, I can do Something. And I am not alone. The numbers of people wanting to protect the Earth are surging, and we've got tremendous power. We may not have money, but we've got the truth, and we've got to wield the truth like a sword. The truth can overcome anything, but we've got to pick it up and use it.

Are you ready? Pick up the sword. Put your fist in the air. Keep love in your heart. Be strong in your spirit--

And let's go!

Phyllis Cole Dai

Saturday, February 16, 2013

There Is No One Else

From the very beginning of the Torah a tension is set forth, a thread begins to unfold that defines human existence. Creation itself becomes the paradigm, the emergence of purpose and meaning out of nothingness. Even before there are people, there is modeled an inexorable journey toward hope. Encompassing the realities of life and the vicissitudes of history, it is the journey from chaos to harmony, from destructiveness to wholeness, from oppression to freedom, from God’s spirit all alone to the flowering of the human spirit. It is all contained in the second line of the Torah, v’ha’aretz hay’ta tohu va’vohu v’choshech al p’nei t’hom/And the earth was tangled and confused, and darkness was over the face of the deep, v’ru’ach Elokim m’rachefet al p’nei ha’mayyim/and a breath of God hovered over the face of the waters.

In the two parts of this verse that sing the birth pangs of creation, the rabbis rooted the entire drama of human history, the tension that plays out, as they see it, from exile to redemption. Peering through the lens of one people’s story, the rabbis see in the first part of the verse, in the earth all tangled and confused, Israel’s experience of exile and oppression: tohu/tangled – this is the Babylonian exile, and vohu/confused – this is the Persian exile, and choshech/darkness – this is the Greek exile, al p’nei t’hom/over the face of the deep – this is the Roman exile…, and the Egyptian exile encompasses them all. In the second part of the verse, in the gentle stirrings of creation, God’s breath upon the water, the rabbis see the ultimate redemption in universal terms, the time of swords turned to plowshares. God’s breath is to be the breath of the Messiah and is described as the fluttering of a dove above her nest/k’yonah ha’m’rachefet al ha’ken, an image of peace from the very beginning.

In the beginning of the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus we encounter the journey in real time, the playing out of human history through the experience of Israel. All of what has come before is the backdrop, having set the stage for the inevitable, and now the exile and slavery begin. The narrative begins in the present tense, These are the names of the children of Israel who are coming to Egypt/ha’ba’im Mitzrayma (Ex. 1:1). Not to be read as history, the Torah in all of its parts is about us, in the present tense. That we are to feel the exile as our own, the Slonimer Rebbe says, each and every word of the holy Torah is meant to teach us paths of life, that we might ask, what does this teach us? As at Passover, we are to see ourselves as having come out of Egypt, as the oppressed slaves, striving to overcome. 

Each of us is entrusted with the sacred task to bring redemption. Each of us is the liberator, each in our own way, according to our own gifts. Called to his mission in this portion, to the task to which he is uniquely suited, Moses pleads with God to find someone else. Struggling to evade the destiny that is his, Moses says, mi anochi/who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the children of Israel out from Egypt? Through the telling of the rabbis, God responds with exasperation, im eyn atah go’alam eyn acher go’alam/if you do not redeem them, there is no one else who will redeem them

These words to Moses are meant for each of us, a call to each one to step forward and take our place in the unfolding of history. We are each as midwives called to birth the promise of creation from the very beginning. In the unfolding from chaos to harmony, exile to redemption, the entire Torah is the telling of a journey from slavery to freedom. All of the details that are given are given along the way of the journey. Now enslaved to all that binds humanity, brutalized by the violence done to earth and people, it is for each one of us to lead the way out and let the journey to freedom begin. If we do not do our part, there is no one else.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rivers and Dams

"Think more like a river and less like a dam." This is a sentence that caught my attention in an article I saw in an issue of National Geographic. The article was about some of the great protected rivers in the United States. I don't remember the author of the article but I quickly memorized the line.

Still, as much as I like the line, I'm not always sure how to implement it. The flow of my mind can be filled with dams. 

Take lutefisk, for instance; dam. I can't get my mind around that one. Or how about sardines out of a can, or oysters, or even shrimp. I mean, I can't imagine how some people actually chew oysters. It's bad enough to imagine them slithering down my throat in a single swallow. And how can people eat shrimp when they still have that funny tail thing, on or off. I think like a dam when it comes to eating some of those creatures from the ocean, including octopus.

Since my father was a minister, I grew up in the forties and fifties in a fairly conservative Christian home. We kept the sabbath (Sunday) holy. We read the Bible in a literal way. I had never heard of biblical scholarship and didn't know you could read Scripture contextually. There was a huge dam holding my religious thought in place. I remember feeling guilty, because the day we arrived in New York City to start Seminary, was a Sunday. Here we were, unloading the car and "working" on the sabbath.

Seminary blew a hole in my dam of fundamentalist piety. I learned how asking a few simple questions, like Who, When, Where, What and Why about the Bible, revealed all of this astounding and interesting information about an ancient yet modern way of understanding the world. My mind started flowing more freely over unknown terrain, all along the riverside, often spilling over the surrounding floodplain. What can one say except that it was a great release. That's how my mind felt.

That brings me to dams on the Missouri River here in South Dakota. I don't know what's happening in Montana. But if our mild winter weather in South Dakota is any indication, people may be wishing we had some of that water from previous flood years in the system this year. Maybe folks will just blame the Corps of Engineers again. But one of the dams in our thinking we need to remove is floodplain development. Why in heavens name would you build a nuclear power plant on a Missouri River floodplain, except you'd have a cheaper and closer water source; but at what risk? I suppose you can come up with the same cost-benefit rationale for building them on earthquake faults? Or why do people insist on building homes on a floodplain?

A Lakota friend once told me we have too little respect for what he called "the water people." He personified water. Water had rights, just like human beings. One of the rights of water was to flow freely, just like we humans want to be able to travel without restrictions. What would you think about roadblocks between your hometown and the next. Dams! No travel allowed.

A friend was showing me an article the other day about the partnership that's beginning to emerge between Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin, Ohio. They are experimenting with a new venture that promises to break down some dams in the way people think about town and gown, as well as the way they understand development. The project is about development from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. It promises bottom up development as distinct from top down. 

We need lots of holes in those old dams of development. Often, for communities like Oberlin and my own, always looking to outside entities ultimately results in de-development. There is so much clean water that can flow from releasing the waters of community and college creativity behind those dams of "it can be done better by someone else."

Thinking about this project in Oberlin, I couldn't help but think about the dam I've heard in local decision making, "we've never done it that way before." It kept the City Council from considering glass pave, or grass pave, or a permeable concrete, when my neighborhood decided to pave our alley. So we have asphalt, that cost an arm and a leg when oil was at its' highest peak, and all our neighborhood water flows into a waste water system that pollutes local creeks and has to be rebuilt since it can't accommodate all the water flowing from newly paved alleys, parking lots, etc. What a dam it can be, (especially in churches), "we've never done it that way before."

And likely the biggest dam has been built around warfare and violence. People find it so hard to imagine any other way of being in the world, even with examples like Gandhi and King and Thich Nhat Hanh and Jesus and so many unknown to the larger consciousness.

There's a form of meditation where you let the mind flow freely, like a river. You don't pass judgment on where it goes. You recognize that your thoughts can come and go, jumping here and there, like a monkey in a tree. You just gently bring your thoughts back to the center of your mind. Gradually, with practice, it takes you to unexpected places and uncharted depths.

Meditation helps me when my mind is cluttered and damned. It's a useful and healthy practice for anyone. It can help us think more like a river and less like a dam.

Carl Kline

Monday, February 4, 2013

Starting the Day

I awoke with a question trying to form itself at 5:30 this morning.  Before even making it to breakfast I was impacted by the headlines telling of an armed man who has kidnapped a five year- old little boy from his school bus and is holding him hostage in an underground bunker in a backyard somewhere in Alabama.

With the issue of gun control in the foreground of so many conversations, it seems that the universe actively conspires to keep it from sliding into the inner pages of the newspapers.  The forces in favor of instituting a variety of measures aimed at limiting access to a range of weapons organize their strategies. The pro-gun elements re- trench and dig in to resist any limitation on their freedom to be armed.

The question that has been trying to form is one about the mindset of the most vocal and vociferous proponents of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.  What I find myself wanting to ask is “What is the unnamed terror that resides in the collective unconscious of a population that needs to have unencumbered personal access to weapons of the kind that caused the Newtown devastation?”

As I listen to the rhetoric of the leadership of the NRA and other equally strident voices in favor of gun freedom, something inside me wants to ask, “What are they afraid of?”   “What is it in their spirits that makes the world so dangerous for them that they must be armed for any eventuality?”

As I keep nattering about with the question, I realize that it will probably not be answered.  There is something about great fear that seems to get expressed in anger. The anger precludes any insightful conversation about the hidden foundation beneath the anger and the literal defense of that subterranean foundation that requires being heavily armed.

The issue of gun control is a fertile playground for self -examination.  In recent weeks I have been struggling to discern the middle way between a soft and, perhaps, unrealistic compassion on the one hand and a fear based anger response on the other.  I want to be able to respond to my perceived enemy (symbolized by the angry proponent of gun ownership) in a compassionate way – to understand the suffering that motivates him but I do not wish to be lazily complacent in the face of a very difficult and dangerous conundrum.  

Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance for managing personal anger is, through mindfulness, to accept and embrace and cradle my own anger as I would a hurt child, to attend to it with compassion. If I can learn to do this perhaps I can extend the same comfort to another angry and fearful person.  Sadly, on any given day, I would rather they just undergo a complete transformation and give up their gun-wielding ways without my having to interact at all.  Still – that seems to be the first level of engagement – cradling and comforting my own anger –my own fear - - coming into intimate and compassionate relationship with the same fear that resides in me as resides in the pro-gun human being.

In my morning reading two brief statements are so conveniently juxtaposed as to both challenge and support my questing today.  First, I encounter Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: “The burning flames of anger have parched the stream of my being.”  In the presence of this teaching, I am reminded that this is the nature of the spiritual dilemma I encounter in my own question and it prompts another: “Who am I in the face of the parched stream of being who faces me behind the defense of gun-ownership?”  

The second statement I encounter is from Ian McClaren: Be compassionate, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

And so my day begins…..

Vicky Hanjian