Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama & Secretary of State Kerry, 

When I started thinking about this letter, the focus was simply the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I'm deeply and passionately opposed to it, as I'm convinced it will dig us farther into a fossil fuel future that means climate catastrophe. But more importantly, I love this good earth we've been given and don't want to see any bit of it lost or destroyed; not the pine trees in the Black Hills; or the golden eagles flying down the canyon; or the bison running down the hill; or the cougar eyeing the deer; or the sweet flowing waters of Rapid Creek. It's all precious and sacred to me.

But as I sat down to write you about the pipeline, I was looking at a picture of our grandchildren. They are at an age in the picture where all five are sitting on or close to our laps. Like all grandparents, we want the very best for them and their future. And I must confess, sometimes I feel sad about the world I'll be departing and they'll be inheriting. I've begun to realize that there's a fundamental issue at stake with the pipeline. It's about violence, about how we understand the world and choose to act in it. Are we at war, or can we live in harmony?

For a long time I've been thinking how when I was born, the world was just giving birth to nuclear weapons. When I was still small, two of them visited absolute horror on civilian populations. That's part of the legacy of my generation to my grandchildren. That man-made hell of nuclear weapons is still very much with us and threatens through accident or hate to visit us again.

More recently, I've become aware of the dangers to human health and the health of all living things by the war we wage against "pests." So we kill the bad bugs with toxic chemicals, only to see them become worse bugs as our children develop more insidious diseases. I'm convinced the pesticide legacy of my generation is a poisoned nest for my grandchildren.

Yesterday reminded me of how much we're at war with each other, as our U.S. Senate was unable to even ask for background checks on gun sales. It's as if people are at war with the government, or the police, or the criminals, or their neighbors and family members, or even school children and marathon runners. It's all fear and war and little harmony, though 90% of the nation desires and deserves it. My grandchildren need it.

And most alarming and most relevant to the decisions you will make about the pipeline, is our war on the earth. Perhaps it's the fundamental war that feeds all the others. Somehow, we've lost our connection to the earth as our home, to "God's Body," as the theologian Sallie McFague puts it; or to Mother Earth, as Indian nations have long understood.

If you will just look at those pictures of the tar sands fields in Canada and the wonderful boreal forest that's being destroyed by that mining; if you would just talk to the Indian nations being decimated by toxic air and water from the mining process; if you will just watch those huge machines, grabbing trees and pulling them out of the earth to clear the pipeline path in Texas; if you could just walk the fields of those stolen by the first Keystone and see the fruitful grasses turned to weeds; if you would just walk through the stench and back yards of the recent spill in Arkansas or canoe the Kalamazoo river in Michigan, even now, years after that spill, or walk the rivers edge in Yellowstone or fish for shrimp in the Gulf or talk to  the shrimpers; if you would do this, then you might have some first hand knowledge of the despoiling of the planet by fossil fuels and the war we're waging on nature and on those living close to the pillage.

But, one fears, you'll instead fly to disaster areas, like after Sandy, and try to comfort the victims.

Sadly, we're beholden to a spirit of war in this country. We're unable to see that we're all related; that what we do to the trees we do to ourselves; what we do to the insects comes home to bite us; what we do to another impacts our own spirit; what we do to the earth we do to our home. 

I agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. We have a choice, between nonviolence and nonexistence. And it's never been more evident and more pressing than now with our war on the earth. As some have remarked, at least with nuclear weapons our war madness is reversible. And we've made some modest strides. But with climate change, what  we're doing to our earth home will be with us, even without the pipeline, for generations to come. The carbon we've already put in the environment is too much with us. And all of this while those more harmonious alternatives are readily available; wind, solar, geo thermal, hydro, wave action.

There's a film being shown in our town Sunday night at the local United Church of Christ. It's called "A Sea Change." It's a great film. It's about a grandfather and his grandson on a search together for the truth about climate change and what's happening to the oceans. We don't hear much about carbon in the oceans, so the film is educational as well as engaging. One learns about pteropods. I had no idea there was such a thing and their importance in the ocean ecosystem. We're connected to them!

So I like the film because it's educational, because it ends with hope and faith in the rationality of the human community, and because it's about a grandfather intent on trying to leave a better planet for his grandchild. 

Thank goodness for all those other grandparents working to do the same, who aren't at war with the world but wanting to live in harmony with it. And my prayer for you is, that you will help your generation leave a more promising and peaceful legacy for your grandchildren, one without the XL pipeline.

Carl Kline, Grandparent

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Path of Life in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Friday following the Boston Marathon bombing, the city is at a standstill, explosive violence during the night in pursuit of the bombers. Amid the mundane details of rising into the day, not quite sure at first what we are hearing and reading, trying to take it all in, bewildered. The chaos of the world immediately outside, all so close, begins to filter through, unfiltered. The word used over and over again since Monday, surreal, how is this happening here?  Describing a way of artistic expression, surrealism draws from the swirling world of dreamscapes, the chaotic and unformed, the place where dreams become nightmares, what we thought we knew shimmering as the ground shifts beneath our feet. The mirage of thinking we know, the moment of its being cruelly wrenched away, itself the story in real time on NPR this morning. Perhaps you were listening too as the reporter realized in a short span of time that she knew the surviving terrorist, a member of her nephew’s high school class, he had even been at a prom party at her home, appearing in pictures she had saved from that happy time, hosting young people coming of age, the world before them. She contacted her nephew on air to ask concerning his classmate, of insights or hints he might offer, but there was nothing, all unfathomable, unreal, surreal, only to console, her nephew and us. Of what it means to be brothers lost on the two who have wreaked such havoc, not only as brothers with each other but with all of flesh and blood. Describing human beings, the same stuff of life, flesh and blood, gore upon the Marathon ground, that until it is wasted gives physical substance to those who do good and those who do evil. In the jagged contrasts, also the sameness, questions that hover in the acrid air between, why is one path taken and not the other? The brother killed in a hail of bullets, a bomb strapped to his chest to kill more, was twenty-six years old. The police officer the brothers killed during the night was twenty-six years old.

It is the fine line between death and life, not of a peaceful end to a life well lived, but of death as a way of life. And it is of death that is not natural, that does not come in the fullness of years, but grabs at tender sprouts and tears them from the ground, challenging us to the core. It is of this death that this week’s Torah portion speaks and in whose face it dares to teach. A double portion, Parashat Acharei Mot/K’doshim (Leviticus 16-20), there is revealed in the space and tension between them a path of life in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Acharei Mot means After Death and K’doshim means Holy. The backdrop is death, untimely and cruel, acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon/after the death of the two sons of Aaron. Right from there the process of t’shuva/repentant turning is laid out, the way of turning toward healing and wholeness with ourselves and with each other. As Acharei Mot turns to K’doshim the way becomes clearer, K’doshim ti’h’yu/you shall be holy, as I, God, your God, am holy. A lengthy list of commandments follows, guideposts along the path of life, most having to do with relations among people. The way of holiness is in the realm of human affairs, not far off, not in the realm of mystery or the mystical, or perhaps it tells of the truly mystical, expressed in the here and now. K’doshim ti’h’yu/you shall be holy…, leave the corners of your field, leave the gleanings of your harvest where they fall, leave the unripe grapes upon the vine and leave berries where they fall, you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger…; the wages earned by a day laborer shall not remain overnight with you until the morning; do not curse one who is deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind…; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor…; you shall love your neighbor as yourself

For all of the emphasis of the portion K’doshim on living life and finding holiness in the social realm, in relation to other people, the word kadosh/holy means in its root, separation. Rashi comments that to be holy means to separate our selves from sin. Concerned that we might come to think that this means to separate ourselves entirely from other people and from human society, the nineteenth century Chassidic rebbe Kalonimus Kalman Epstein, known as the Ma’or Vashemesh, warns against fleeing to the forests, for this will only serve to save a person from the things that impede the service of God, but one will not merit to attain the holiness of Above until joining with others and participating together with them in great service…. Separating from evil, we transcend it only to the degree that we join with others to do good.

As much as we might yearn during times such as these to flee to the forest, our task is to be here among people. However surreal the context in which it is expressed, goodness is always real. The heroism that was manifest amid the horror of Monday, and as it all continues now, is a reminder of how we are meant to respond to the needs of others at all times. That is one of the lessons that we learn from extreme times. In the learning of this lesson, that we are joined flesh and blood with each other and are responsible one for another, we transcend the horror. Holiness is found in the ordinary details of life, in the way of our being in relation to others and in the way that together we nurture a society that reflects the best of who we are and are meant to be. Amid the chaos in the world around us now, small acts of kindness help to keep us grounded. Putting aside anger, speaking a gentle word, thinking good thoughts all help us to walk surely on the path of life even in the Valley of the Shadow of death. In the face of death and destruction, we affirm life in pursuing the holiness of caring for each other. In the glow of the Sabbath candles, may we see illumined the path of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Seeds Of Meaning

Each morning, I watch an amusing ritual through my front kitchen window.  Our “squirrel proof” bird feeder hosts at least two impish squirrels before the bird population begins to feed.  They leap from the nearby tree trunk or skitter down the chain that holds the feeder in place and hang rather whimsically by their back feet to reach the bottom tray of the feeder for their breakfast of black oil sunflower seeds.  One morning, after a north-easter had blown through, the cap from the feeder had disappeared in the wind.  On that particular day, one of my little friends pushed its head and front feet well down into the feeder tube to get at the seeds.  “Squirrel proof” indeed!!

When they first began sharing the feeder with the birds I wondered if there would be any seed left to attract the cardinals and finches and chickadees that we enjoy thorough the winter. I needn’t have worried. They all seem to work out a fairly harmonious feeding pattern and there is enough to go around.

While observing the squirrels, I have also been watching the mourning doves - - ground feeders.  The squirrels are either overly sloppy or overly generous.  Whichever is the case, there are plenty of dropped sunflower seeds on the ground under the feeder to kept the mourning doves well fed and happy.

In the last few days following the bomb explosions  at the Boston Marathon Finish Line, I have felt like a mourning dove.  I have been reading the newspaper accounts of the bombing, of the heroic responses, of the tragic loss of life and of the horrific road that many of the victims will travel on their way to wholeness again as they recover from their injuries.  Much of the commentary has a familiar ring to it.   9/11 is not that far from memory.  I read and read - -  looking - - pecking around perhaps, for that particular word that will help me begin, once again, the process of making meaning of yet one more public and far reaching act of violence.

The seeds are there.  Scattered randomly - - appearing in surprising and sometimes seemingly unrelated places.

On April 17, Scot Lehigh, OpEd columnist for the Boston Globe, called for a “Dream Team” of Boston’s finest minds to create a foundation that would reach into the future to assist victims of the bomb blasts - - and to improve the city of Boston for all its citizens - - a “charitable foundation dream team” – to create something that would “let us channel our concern and sympathy into something large and lasting and let us feel that we’d reclaimed Patriot’s Day and our marathon from the horrific event by responding to unspeakable individual evil with committed collective good.”

So – that was a tasty seed - - respond to unspeakable individual evil with committed collective good.

This morning, a prayer by Rabbi Stanley F. Chyet, dropped from the “feeder” – again on the OpEd page of the Globe: 
We oughtn’t pray for what we’ve 
Never known
Unbroken peace
Unmixed blessing
Better to pray for…
The will to see and touch
The power to do good and make

After breakfast (toast and eggs –not sunflower seeds!) yet another offering appeared to further my quiet quest for meaning and understanding –this time from Rainer Maria Rilke in a collection of daily readings from his works.   Titled “Survival of the Soul”, it pulls me together for another day of reflection:  “What more can we accomplish now than the survival of the soul.  Harm and decay are not more present than before, perhaps, only more apparent, more visible and measurable.  For the harm which humanity has lived daily since the beginning cannot be increased.  But there is increasing insight into humanity’s capacity for unspeakable harm, and perhaps where it leads.  So much in collapse, so much seeking new ways out.  Room for what new can happen.

It was the reading intended for April 15, the day of the bombings.

My seeds keep echoing the same theme - - an ancient one - - that out of chaos comes order and creativity….In the beginning when God was creating….   So a composite prayer takes shape: 

May we see and know how to respond to unspeakable individual evil with committed collective good.

May we seek the will to see and touch the power to do good and make new.

May we, in the midst of collapse and seeking, make room for the new thing that may happen.

My thanks to the “feeder” for nourishing seeds dropped where I might find them.

 A YEAR WITH RILKE Daily Readings from The Best of Rainer Maria Rilke  translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, HarperCollins, 2009  p.105

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Reaching Out When Logic Says We Shouldn't

It started with a phone call early last Thursday morning, as I was gathering my books before leaving to teach an early morning Torah class. The call troubled me, distracting me even as I tried to teach a little while later. The next day, the original call and several subsequent calls from the same person continued to distract me. The voice was clearly that of an Israeli, speaking in rather gruff Hebrew, shifting back and forth between Hebrew and English. There were expressions of deference, saying in Hebrew, lichvod ha’rav/with honor for the rabbi, if not a tone of deference. The words came with urgency, a medical emergency, used to live in Boston, recently moved to New York, only health insurance is in Massachusetts. He had returned to Boston, therefore, for a diagnosis and, presumably, treatment of a growth in his mouth. He was convinced it was cancer. He had an appointment later that morning. Taking in as much as I could while standing on one foot – the Talmudic sage Hillel said to love your neighbor as yourself while standing on one foot -- trying to stuff books into my bag, I said I would call him at 9:00 o’clock after my class.

I called him when I returned, at first trying to calm his agitation. He said he was on his way to the hospital. Then the request came for money. Could I wire him money through Western Union? That should have been enough to end the conversation, the connection, but connections don’t necessarily end because we see through them. I told him I would not do that, even though I admit to briefly considering it. I told him I wanted to hear from someone at the hospital. A little while later he called and put someone on the phone whom he said was his doctor. Suspicious, I called the department he said he was calling from, no such doctor. I told him I couldn’t help him. He then left a scathing phone message, aren’t Jews supposed to help each other, you don’ want to help, don’t help, it was between me and the Kaddosh Borechu/the Holy Blessed One. I struggled with myself, what if after all I was wrong, wouldn’t I prefer to err on the side of helping, of compassion, what if it wasn’t a scam, what if he really was sick? I called him back and told him I would pay for a couple of nights in the hostel he was staying in, which I then took care of with a credit card.

That night, feeling uneasy, I did a Google search of the man’s name, arrested twice for fraud, time in prison. There were some others of the same name; perhaps I had the wrong one. The next morning I called the hostel and asked to cancel the reservations I had paid for. The clerk took the information and said she would take care of it even though she shouldn’t on such short notice, telling me to give more notice next time I needed to cancel. All day I struggled with conflicting feelings. On one hand I felt relieved, on the other I felt concerned and guilty, still wondering if perhaps he really was sick, thinking about how he would feel when he returned to the hostel and found he had no place to stay, even if he was a scoundrel. I kept waiting for an angry phone call. Just before Shabbos, the phone rang. Seeing it was him, I didn’t pick it up. A little while later, taking a deep breath, I listened to the message, words of profound apology, so grateful that I had paid for a place to stay, thanking me for all of my help, wishing me a Shabbat shalom and joyful Purim. For all of my consternation, for all of my certainty that it was a scam, I felt a wave of relief that the clerk had not come through with my request to cancel. Most of all, I felt relief that a human being had not experienced a moment of shock and betrayal on my account, however malicious his own intent may have been. 

It was the week whose Torah portion opens with the law of the half-shekel, a tax for the upkeep of the holy Temple (Ex. 30:11-16). A minimal amount of money with maximum symbolic import, the poor are not to give less and the rich are not to give more. All are equal in God’s house, each one but a half, the presence of each needed to create wholeness. We had read the same words a few weeks earlier on Shabbat Sh’kalim/the Sabbath of the Shekels, the first of four special Sabbaths that precede the month of Nisan, each helping us in a different way of preparation for Passover and the journey to freedom.

That week was the third of the four special weeks, Shabbat Parah/the Sabbath of the heifer. The ritual of the red heifer as described in the Torah is a mysterious rite (Numbers 19:1-22). A red heifer is slaughtered and burned, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool dipped into the blood, the priest then to bathe in mayyim chayyim/living waters. Of those involved in the ritual, the pure become impure and the impure are made pure, an intermingling of states, perhaps of identities and perceptions of self. It is a rite to be utilized following contact with death, a way of purification and transition. Marking a way of ritual purification, it comes also to be a way of moral purification, of starting again, reminding us of what it means to be alive, to truly choose life. That is the intent of the prophet Ezekiel’s words as read on that Sabbath, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:16-38).

The Sabbath of the Heifer offers a teaching about the rough edges of life. In its themes and contradictions, this Sabbath confronts our being with our not being, death in the grand scheme and in the small ways of life diminished. There is a dying moment when the rough edges of two half-shekels don’t fit neatly together to bring wholeness. As we reach out to help another, the purity of ideals and intentions can come to feel sullied. The pure may come to feel as impure, all seeming uncertain, confused, the ways of the Holy One mysterious, like the ancient purification ritual itself. Is it possible then, that here too the reverse can be true, that the impure may become pure, touched at least in some small way by its opposite? In reaching out or responding to one whom logic says we shouldn’t, perhaps our ideals and intentions serve a higher purpose and remain unsullied after all. Perhaps on some level his heart was touched, in some small way his spirit made new as it once had been, touched, if but for a moment, by intimations of the holiness underlying the words he spoke, Shabbat shalom, Purim same’ach (a joyful Purim), the name of the Holy One. 

Seeking God’s forgiveness of the people for the sin of the golden calf and renewal for his own flagging faith, Moses asks to see God. Instead, God reveals the essential attributes of compassion by which we are able to see God’s presence in the world and which we are to emulate: Holy One of Being, Holy One of Being, God merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…. Striving toward wholeness amidst life’s contradictions, confident in the judgment of the Holy One, I entered last Shabbos with a sense of inner peace, grateful for a clerk’s error. 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

No Higher Calling

What is Non-Violence and why is it called NONVIO: No Higher Calling? This idea of non-violence is both a personal and internal, yet also a grand phenomenon occurring as a struggle in society and our own lives. Everyone sees violence as a problem, yet fighting AGAINST violence makes us violent as well. It has turned the greatest leaders into aggressors leaving a wake of sadness behind. Intelligent forces, presidents, leaders of countries are at war fighting a seemingly good fight for peace and freedom in order to eradicate a problem. However, this results in more war and pain, loss of men and women, and suffering to their families, the destruction of countries and the consciousness of its nation. If violence spurs more violence and promotes unending war, then why do we keep doing it? It seems like the only solution but fuels a chain reaction of devastation. Why does this happen?

The best answer I have found is something I learned on a personal experience that caused me a lot of grief and I couldn’t figure out the mechanism. But the lesson came clear only recently, and I often found it difficult to understand given that society seems to frown upon “victims” and applauds bullies. But what finally made sense is that violence happened on the inside. I realized it had little to do with the aggressor. It had much to do with my own decision to take something personally or get offended. I had merely chosen to react to a provocation of violence. Or rather, conceded to the perception that an act committed by someone, outside of myself, relatively important (or not important) could impel influence over my state of mind, mood or succeeding action. This seemingly automatic response assumed that the trigger subject proposed a threat to my ego, hence my self-promoted perception of who I am. It convinced me to defend my perceived image through aggression. But only because I decided that my ego (self-assessment) would somehow suffer or be endangered had I not. Hence, the idea that seems to be overlooked is that anger is a response to a perceived threat arising from an underlying fear, whether real or imagined.

If violence comes from the feeling of hurt and the need to redeem ourselves, anger then is nothing more than a disguised fear positioning itself as a hero in our society and our mind. And it makes sense. Of course, I wouldn’t react angrily towards a house fly who accidentally hit my face on its way to its destination. I would dismiss it as a non-threat occurrence. Likewise, if an apparent insult transgressed between myself and a mentality impaired individual, I would naturally ignore the offender. Thus, the defense mechanism is triggered only by my own self-assessment and the judgment (idea) I hold about the “opponent” in relation to myself.

As highly unpopular as it seems, non-violence is the ultimate resolution of a healthy mind free from fear and a healthy assessment of oneself. Thus, I might resolve that the person attempting to insult me sees me as a threat, and I might even take it as a compliment. I believe fear takes root in the mind of aggressors. After all, they are walking around protecting themselves from perceived enemies in a loud cry of defense. It dawned on me that aggression towards another emerges from an unhealthy or small perception of oneself hoping to receive temporary validation through a violent act. When people stop recognizing life in another and a feeling of compassion is absent, it is a signal that awareness has dulled giving will to violence. Furthermore, I believe persons with a confined self-image are likely to suffer from this kind of overactive defense mechanism or unconscious fear which shows itself through frequent episodes of aggression.

It occurs to me that the same mechanism is responsible for war and affects even whole nations and leaders. Strongest nations become subject to the idea that if they destroy their enemy, they will win honor or peace or power. On an ascending scale these intentions arise as a reactive response towards our loved ones, children, neighbors, men and women, groups, ethnicities, gangs, armies, countries and the whole world becomes a slave to violence--a slave to fear. It occurs that we live in a society fueled by fear instead of love; As advanced and intelligent as we are, why do we still react to these provocations?

Where does the root cause of violence begin? The problem, I reckon, originates in our false ideas about our true nature. It is common to identify ourselves with our ego which is our perceived idea of who we are as we relate to the world around us. However, the more we identify with our egos, the more we form internal prejudice, scales, ideas about good and bad, creating limitations for ourselves and others. Our views become narrow making it harder for us to relate to others and we feel separate adapting a “me against the world” mentality. 
We are so used to this common cycle of behavior that we misunderstand what is happening. We fail to recognize our true nature of oneness beyond the ego and the nature of the world we live in. Since nature loves diversity and accepts all possibilities and people, our conditioned minds explode within us continuously, when our ideas are tested in the real world, forcing us into conflict. As we begin to realize that conflict with others doesn’t resolve the problem but recreates it, why not break down our conditioned minds instead? It is important to take a step back and notice our ego absorbed state of mind when we are faced with a conflict. Exercising our will over violent impulses can help us prevent consequences which activate a vicious cycle. Also, becoming in charge of our emotions helps us avoid the feelings associated with a violent act that stay in our systems long after the event has passed.

Surprisingly enough, every spiritual text points us in the direction of acceptance. Accepting ourselves and one another can heal our feelings of separateness. We don’t need to prove anything or exclude anyone. We don’t have to suffer from the idea that we are only as big as our physical body or accumulations. That is the idea of our ego-dominated mind, ridden with fear, yet it seems to have won the world over. We are told through sacred teachings that LOVE is the greatest power that can transform any problem. And after evaluating the cause of violence, it becomes apparent that expansion is the engine toward peace. Not the individualized ego persona trying to force its undifferentiated ideals. We are together in this, and each one of us breathes, drinks, bleeds, hurts and desires understanding much the same way we do. Nature created us in a multitude of color, culture, opinion, religion, orientation, sex, etc. We are blessed to exercise free will, as human beings, through life affirming acts. There is nothing to lose, but our fears and anxieties. By giving our unconditional love to ourselves and others, we will culture internal freedom and a society free from hate and violence.

I realize this is easier said than done, at first, but I invite you to take your first step right now by joining the Non-Vio movement and create your very own act of non-violence. Contribute your voice to making Non-Violence louder than violence. By coming together as like-minded individuals, we will reach 1 billion acts of non-violence.

What does non-violence look like? It could be actions big or small - from turning the other cheek in the vein of Gandhi and MLK or to simply choose not to use offensive language or reframe from substance, or extend forgiveness to someone you know you hurt. The key fact is that these millions of actions by thousands of people will create a shift in our being and bring awareness to our core human values that, in my opinion, have the greatest ability to shift the fabric of our society. Join the movement:

"I am only one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." - Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Guest Blogger - Ilona Noskova