Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rough Waters

We were on the island of La Gonave, Haiti. We were there for several days. The work consisted of carrying cement block up a hill from the water front to the site of a new school. It  was a project developed by the United Methodist  Church in South Dakota and I was part of a small group that signed on. Many came from my community of Brookings and the surrounding area and there were several students from our campus ministry group at South Dakota State University.

The day we left for La Gonave from the big island was one of those blue sky, puffy cloud days. The ride over in the boat, home made and wood hulled, with a small 50 horse power outboard motor, was a little choppy but nevertheless pleasant. The spray from the water was cool, the air was fresh and it was the start of a new adventure.

When we arrived, what we found was poverty. If Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, La Gonave is the poorest part of Haiti. The island is about 10 miles by 30 miles and home to around 120,000 people. Much of the food (and everything else) comes from the mainland.

We'd been told to bring everything we needed, including food and water, because there wouldn't be anything we could purchase where we were going. It was hard unloading groceries at the dock. We would be eating them over the next few days when it was obvious the folks in our island community had little or nothing. It  became harder still to have a meal together with the eyes of many looking at us in the background. We needed someone to multiply the loaves and fishes. There was never enough to go around.

I was fascinated by one element of the local infrastructure. The folks in the community had developed an elaborate catchment area for rainwater, mostly with roofing materials, so they could catch and use what little rainwater came their way. It was one of a very few sources of fresh water. Many possible well sites were made useless by the encroachment of the sea. It was another amazing display of how difficult it is for some people on the planet to get the most basic requirement for life, clean water. And it becomes more problematic with each passing day.

Another example of uncommon hardship happened the day before we were to leave. One of the students came to me in tears. One of the women of the community had approached her to take her infant child with her. The mother was hopeless about the infant's future. Likely, she expected the child to starve to death.

So we worked, we worshipped, we lived with the people of this island community for a few days. Then it was time to leave, to say our good byes, to return to the big island. 

We would return in the same boat that brought us over. And we were told we should leave early in the morning, before the water got rough. So we reported to the one small dock at 4:30 in the morning, with all our belongings. Little did we know that what seemed like half the community would be going to the big island with us. As the boat began to fill I wondered how many it could safely hold. That's when several men came down the hill with a huge generator that also needed a ride. It was all they could do to lift it into the boat. After a few more people got on with whatever they were taking to market, we set out.

Our captain, who had his hand on the motor, was skin and bones. He was the most unlikely person I could imagine to handle a water craft, with what I considered huge tonnage and a tiny motor. 

If the sea was supposed to be calm early in the morning, I can't imagine what it was like later. Almost immediately we hit huge swells. It seemed as if we were going to be swallowed up at any moment. Any deviation from the path  through the  swells and we could be swamped. Some of our group were sick. All were holding on for dear life. And many of the Haitians were enjoying the ride. When the motor ran out of fuel, several of the men lifted a barrel of gasoline with a hose on it to fill the motor again, all as the boat pitched and fell with the sea.

My prayers were to the one who was able to calm  the seas. They might have been prayers of praise for our unlikely captain, who steered us through the rough waters with a steady hand. We  arrived at the big island, safe, soaked in salt water, relieved and alive.

I'm thinking about that captain today and I'm thinking about rough waters. 

We're in rough waters! There are lots of folks in our boat and we're beginning to get tossed around. Some are sick! Many are afraid! Some are praying. Others are cursing. All are affected. And our cultural assumptions and stereotypes keep us from recognizing the unlikely captains in our midst, who could steer us safely through the rough waters of climate change and earth desecration, failed economies, pervasive violence, purchased and dysfunctional governments. We ignore at our peril the wisdom keepers of First Nations, the elders, the young and innocent, the nonviolent, the morally rooted, the poor, the exemplars of our religious traditions.

They are all unlikely captains in our capitalist cultures but their wisdom and values could guide us safely to shore. They are all as unlikely a captain as the one who said, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." And, "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation."

Carl Kline

Friday, July 26, 2013

To Reverence the Altar, for Reverend Anne Fowler

A precious time in each week’s turning, I left the quiet embrace of a recent Shabbos afternoon. After services, after lunch, after all the treasured interactions with people, within the Sabbath itself the afternoon is a time of dwelling apart, away from the bustle. It is a time of retreat, a time with family, with books, with nature, a time of renewal that I love dearly. I left to go to the Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain to participate with other clergy in a service honoring the Episcopal priest upon her retirement. I had met with Anne soon after arriving in the neighborhood and we have remained friends and colleagues over the years. As hard as it is to step out of the solitary place of Shabbos afternoon, there was no question in my mind that of course I would go, so I left the familiarity of my own house and went to another’s house.

There is always something both exciting and awkward when participating in another’s religious rites in their own house, not in the careful choreography of an interfaith context but in the lived way of another’s tradition. It is a wonderful opportunity, in some ways much deeper than the interfaith balancing of traditions, when we need to negotiate a foreign landscape, remaining respectful both to oneself and to one’s host. In the instructions that came to the participating clergy, we were told that each one would be referred to as the Rev’d, and Rabbi Victor Reinstein. As much as I stood out in the program, I felt respected in my differentness. Among the instructions was one that caused me to wonder and muse, as we each approached the altar two-by-two, we were to “reverence the altar” and then turn to enter our row to be seated. While not exactly sure what was meant, it was not hard to surmise, realizing of course that this was not something I could do in ritual fashion, even as I offered reverence and respect through my presence.

The altar, once the place in tent and Temple upon whose un-hewn stones offerings were to be made, was meant to bring people together, to facilitate coming near to each other and to God. The word for offering in Hebrew is korban, formed from the root karov/near, close. Most offerings were to become a shared meal, a public and collective act, the one making the offering inviting others to join in a meal of thanksgiving or joy, or a meal of peace-making. An offering was also part of the process of t’shuvah/repentant turning, of repairing a breach caused by sin and wrongdoing, the first step taken by making public declaration of one’s need and commitment to make amends. The altar was to be made of whole stones, un-hewn, stones upon which no iron tool had come for shaping. The word the Torah uses for steel tool is cherev/sword (Ex. 20:22). All of these thoughts were turning in my head as I approached the altar in the Episcopal Church. I stood respectfully, offering my thoughts as an expression of reverence, as my clergy partner leaned in and bowed slightly toward the altar, each of us then turning to the side to our respective seats.

I thought about the meaning of the altar and of my experience on that Shabbos afternoon as I read the following week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Balak is the Moabite king who calls on the Midianite prophet Bilaam to come and curse Israel as Israel approaches the land of Moav along the way of the desert journey out of Egypt. Several times throughout the portion Balak constructs altars for offerings, seven altars each time, upon which Bilaam will make offerings of “seven bulls and seven rams.” Violating the very essence of an altar’s purpose, Balak’s quest to see Israel cursed cannot succeed. An altar is meant to bring people together, not to divide, to be a source of blessing, not of curse.

In a midrash on the Torah’s instruction to build an altar of whole stones, a play is made on the word for whole, shalem, the root of shalom. The altar is to be made of peaceful stones. As no iron tool is to come upon the altar, the rabbis taught, how much the more then should one who establishes peace between person and person, between spouse and spouse, between city and city, between nation and nation, between family and family, between government and government, be protected from all harm. As the sword is not to come upon an altar of stone, all the more so should a sword not come upon a human being, each one a potential peacemaker, each the ultimate altar to be reverenced.

Going out from my own place to that of another, approaching the altar that is the other, there is a tension in Parashat Balak contained in a verse both troubling and challenging. Beginning to recognize the failure of his mission, following upon yet another misuse of an altar, Bilaam describes Israel to Balak as a people that will dwell apart and not count itself among the nations/am l’vadad yishkon u’va’goyim lo yit’chashav (Numbers 23:9). The verse can be read either negatively or positively, as referring to complete withdrawal from engagement with others, emphasizing insularity as its own value, a reading that in part emerges out of the experience of Jewish history; or it can refer to a creative timely or cyclical withdrawal for the sake of introspection and renewal. Jews have read it both ways, as justification for remaining apart, for separating ourselves and not engaging with others, eschewing interfaith dialogue and cooperation. And we have read it in the way of Shabbos, as creative, introspective withdrawal, from which to return to the world and engage with others. 

As though to underscore the irony of their own disengagement, one of the places that Balak and Bilaam go to build their false altars is Kir’yat Chutzot/the City of Thoroughfares. It is the place to which we need to return from our places of retreat, to the thoroughfares of life, where paths cross and people engage, and there build altars of truth that join us all together, seekers and travelers from wherever we have come. There are times when we need to be separate, to turn into and be among ourselves, to learn and practice our own ways, to deepen the roots of Jewish identity, to learn to define ourselves for who we are, not as others might define us. That is the challenge for all people, to define ourselves in a way that allows us to be who we are, and then, so strengthened, to respectfully reach out to others for who they are. And so I left the quiet embrace of a Shabbos afternoon, the place in which I dwell as a Jew, and I went to my neighbor’s house to give honor, surely to reverence the altar.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Point of View

Some years ago in South Dakota we were able to receive a special cable television channel. If my memory is accurate, I think it was called the Rural Telecommunications Network. It was a channel where someone in Rapid City could watch a conference being held across the state at South Dakota State University or someone in Aberdeen could watch an official state government function happening in Pierre. You didn't have to travel across the state and take a whole day doing it. You could participate in events long distance by television from your own home or school.

Since every day wasn't scheduled with a special event, in off hours the network offered televised operations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I remember watching as NASA workers sat at their desks. They might get up and go talk with a colleague, get a cup of coffee, come back to their desk and continue whatever it was they were doing. All of this might happen in the time it takes to watch the evening news. It wasn't the most gripping TV fare. Even so, I still considered it better than a lot of the stuff on TV. 

But the really important content was when you saw the planet from the point of view of a NASA satellite. Several times when I was playing with the remote, I happened on video from space on this channel. Once the satellite was moving slowly over the Alps. I'd never seen these amazing mountains from the air. It was slow motion gorgeous.

Another time the satellite was traveling South to North up the West Coast of North America. You could see the ocean, the land, the mountains. The geographic features were clear and awesome. 

It reminded me of some of those first pictures of earth from the early space explorations. From  the point of view of space, things look different. You don't see the man made borders and barriers. You don't see fences and check points. You don't see wars and armaments. You don't see all those things humans have constructed to make pieces of the planet "theirs" and off limits to "them."

Because of the satellite imagery, I returned to this channel again and again. I began to check it out on a regular basis. I was always curious to find out where we were traveling this time. And then it happened! A letter came from the cable company notifying us they were removing the channel from their line up. They claimed it was too little accessed. I called, immediately. "Please don't do this," I said. "It's one of my favorite channels." To no avail! I was probably the only one who objected and it disappeared.

Honestly, I wanted film from a NASA satellite beamed into every homeroom in every school in America, every morning. It was a very different point of view from our norm. I wanted children to see our home from space, as astronauts might see it. Perhaps in doing so, we might be more apt to treat the planet as the beautiful and precious home it is, for all of us.

The ancient Hebrews celebrated a Year of Jubilee every fifty years. In the year of Jubilee slaves went free, property returned to its rightful owners, the people tried to make right the sins of the past. And they tried to look at their society as if through the eyes of God, healing the brokenness, binding up wounds and preparing to start afresh. 

Instead of a limited point of view common to earth bound humans, they tried to see their existence from a higher frame of reference. For them it was a life changing vision and an opportunity to renew their society. 

Recognizing that  we all have a little different point of view can be helpful in learning to live together in community. An exercise I often use in class or workshops is to stand in the middle of a circle of students and ask them to say what they see; only what they see. The question is, how many eyes do I have. My back is to some in  the circle. They say none. Some on  the side say I have one eye and those in the front say two. We talk about point of view and what's necessary to get the fullest and best understanding possible.

Or sometimes the Turnabout Map comes in handy. In this map, South America is on top, North America on the bottom. The direction signs are right there on the map, pointing the right way, it's just that the placement of the continents have been reversed so north is toward the bottom. I ask "what's wrong with this picture?" Gradually, we recognize that from space no country is "up," or "down," "on top" or "under." As the map says,  "This turnabout map of the Americas … is geographically correct. Only the perspective has been changed."

As we grow older, some of us encounter imperfections in the vitreous humor of the eye called "floaters." They are those little dark spots, strings, or cobwebs that come floating into one's vision. The Latin name was "flying flies." It's an appropriate and descriptive title for the one in my field of vision on awakening this morning. It  reminded me there is often something unique in the eye of every beholder. We may not see eye to eye here on earth, even if our vision is clear and unclouded. But if we are able to occasionally look at our surroundings as if from the heavens, perhaps we can still make a home with each other. 

Carl Kline

Monday, July 15, 2013

Walking the Walk

First Posted: 12 Jul 2013 03:01 PM PDT on Fast for the Earth
The Fourth Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk was held on July 6, 2013, on the site of tar sands development by Syncrude and Suncor near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada. At least 500 people from across North America took part in the Walk, which was not a protest march but a ceremony of spiritual resistance on behalf of Mother Earth. I drove 24 hours from my home in South Dakota to participate as a representative of Fast for the Earth. What follows are just some of my reflections on the event, which brought me as close to the Arctic Circle as I'm ever apt to get. “Masi cho” to the First Nations people who were my hosts. My photo diary can be seenhere. 

In the early morning before the Tar Sands Healing Walk, I’m torn from sleep in my tent by a leg cramp. Grabbing for my calf, I choke back a howl of pain, not wanting to waken my fellow walkers in the crowded camp, which is still quiet but for drizzling rain.

That cramp, and my urge to howl, turn out to be fitting starts to a grueling, emotional day.

Emotions among us walkers are running strong even as school buses shuttle us from camp to the Walk’s starting point, around 9 am. During our ride, word starts to spread about the horrific oil tanker train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec; at least 50 people are missing, the town’s center destroyed. Soon after that comes more bad news: what appears to be a petrochemical sheen, two and a half miles long, has been spotted by native people on the nearby Athabasca River, the major waterway in the area. By the time our nearly nine-mile walk ends around seven hours later, that sheen will be 25 miles long, and still growing.

In the days after the Walk, authorities will determine that the reported sheen, which eventually extended more than 60 miles and killed many fish, was not a chemical spill after all but a sudden, blue-green algae bloom of unprecedented size, most likely caused by a combination of record-breaking rainfall and unusually warm temperatures. In other words, some observers will say, it was caused by extreme weather caused by climate change. But on the morning of the Walk, all we hear is “petrochemical sheen on the Athabasca.” That grim news sickens us all, especially those of us from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, who so depend on that river and are so desperately trying to protect it. The Athabasca is already a sick river because of tar sands development. It doesn’t need another spill.

The procession on the "Syncrude Loop."

After a lengthy press conference, the Healing Walk begins. First Nations elders lead, followed by drummers, and now the crowd. Our pace is deliberate, and heavy. We walk for the sake of the Athabasca and so many other rivers made sick by tar sands operations. We walk for the sake of the air, so full of hydrocarbons that many of us gag and wheeze through our masks, though we’re told the air quality is much better than usual on this strangely cool, rainy day. We walk for the sake of the land that the oil companies are thoroughly despoiling but promising to “reclaim”—as if anyone believes that to be possible. We walk for the sake of the disappearing boreal forest, trees cut down in the service of oil and piled like billions of matchsticks. We walk for the sake of the animal life—the poisoned ducks; the caribou herds, now decimated and nearly extinct; the buffalo herd that Syncrude is pasturing on some of its “reclaimed” acreage but whose meat is inedible due to ingestion of toxic plants and water…. 

We walk for the sake of tar sands workers honking their horns in apparent sympathy with our procession—they live and work in cramped and disagreeable conditions, often separated by great distances from their loved ones, forced to work for an industry they despise because they are desperate to make a living. We walk for the sake of the First Nations, who are plainly the victims of environmental genocide, their treaty rights being violated, their strong legal claims being dismissed without consideration, their members being poisoned and sent to early graves, their ways of life being wiped away. We walk for the sake of human life around the globe, at risk because of climate change stemming from our heavy use of fossil fuels over the last couple of centuries. Of those fuels, the tar sands oil now being extracted, in this place, is the dirtiest….

A "scarecrow" meant to scare ducks.
We walk the Walk for the sake of so many, and so much. It feels like the world. We walk on.

Four times during the nearly nine-mile Walk around the Syncrude Loop the procession stops for prayer. A throng of hundreds, we turn together as one body to face one of the cardinal directions and stand together in profound silence as First Nations elders do ceremony for the healing of Mother Earth. The first time we do this, we are facing south, toward “reclaimed land.” I flinch in the stillness at the boom of a propane cannon, firing to scare ducks away from a nearby tailings pond, lest they land on the wastewater and die. A cannon sounds somewhere on the immense "pond" every five seconds. It feels like war. One of the elders doing ceremony, overcome by emotion, collapses into sobs, and is surrounded, and held, and comforted.

The longer we walk, the more I withdraw. At one point I ask my companions to forgive me but I need to be alone with my thoughts, and not to talk. They understand, and leave me to my space.

Now I find myself walking Numbers: Eventually these tar sands operations are to cover 142,000 square kilometers, or 20% of this massive province, operations roughly the size of Florida, the biggest industrial project on Earth. To produce a single barrel of tar sands oil, 4 tons of earth must be dug up and moved. Getting that one barrel of oil also requires 2-5 barrels of water. Tar sands operations consume 5 million barrels of water every single day, and 80-90% of that water ends up as toxic waste, unreclaimable, stored in tailings ponds that are already leaching into surrounding soil and waterways. Extracting and producing tar sands oil is 3-5% dirtier in terms of greenhouse gases than regular crude oil. If we allow tar sands “development” to go forward, we doom the climate and ensure that the Earth will soon become largely uninhabitable….

Sometimes I find myself walking Words, feeling in my feet so many things I’ve heard since arriving at camp, a couple of days ago:
“Pace yourself.” (Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe Nation)

“We’re making history right now. We’re in a very humble place.” (Clayton Thomas Muller, Mathias Colomb Cree First Nation)
“`Reclamation’ is about taking back what I am, taking back my voice, taking back my heritage, my way of life, and saying no more.” (Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation)“All places on Earth are sacred, but some are more sacred than others. All battles for the Earth are important, but some battles are more important than others. And this is one of those.” (Bill McKibben, United States)“`Overburden’ is what industry calls whatever’s in the way of extraction and must be removed. It’s the life that gets in the way of money. To these companies, we are all overburden.” (Naomi Klein, Canada) 

“We are going to fight for what we have left.” (Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation)“The oil companies are disconnected from the land, from what it means to be spiritual. To be compassionate for people who have a low spiritual IQ takes a lot of work.” (Francois Paulette, Dene First Nation)
Sometimes too I walk Stories: the native man whose job every day it is to pick up dead ducks...the 18-year-old native boy who has just taken HazMat training and is now, according to his mother, using “giant tampons” to clean up yet another tar sands oil spill for Enbridge, just 17 miles from camp….

Sometimes I walk Pain—the pain of tired legs, the pain of grief over losses both private and shared, the pain of Mother Earth....

Sometimes I walk Skin: How can I, a non-native, be of greater service to native people? How can I better walk alongside them, and work with them? How can I be a more respectful, intentional ally?....

But most of all, perhaps, I walk Hope. We all walk Hope. We walk the Hope that all this rain brings, when we are wise enough to remember (at the urging of the elders) that rain is cleansing, and a reminder of where we all come from: the waters of the womb. We mustn’t resent having the rain come down on us but receive it as a blessing.

The tipi of the birth.
And then, yes, we all walk the Hope that a child brings, when born at the stroke of midnight on the eve of the Walk; born on a buffalo robe in a tipi on the shore of the lake where we walkers have camped—the happy event clearly the fulfillment of a 15-year-old prophecy, the elders say, that such would indeed happen, as a sign that “now is the time to act….” 

Now is the time to act. 

And what is the sign that we are ready to act?

 It is simply and wonderfully this: Together, we're walking the Walk. And finally, in the end, together we are the Walk.

The Walk goes on, and on, and on. Feel the drumbeat, feel the rhythm, feel the steps to be taken in your body, and howl.
Phyllis Cole Dai

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Quiet 4th.

It was a very quiet 4th of July here.  The annual fireworks display went off as scheduled without incident.  The parade happened.  Picnics were held.   Beaches were crowded with vacationers.
Unlike other years, there were no “private” fireworks in our neighborhood after hours.  It all seemed so normal and – quiet.

Further abroad, a president was ousted and a country came under military control again.  A high profile trial of a famous sports figure proceeds.  Health care measures were postponed, wild fires burned out of control, and the UN noted the rapid rate of global warming.  The Voting Rights Act was modified and DOMA was declared unconstitutional.

The Boston Globe gave over its editorial page to the full text of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Two weeks ago, I witnessed an 8th Grade Awards ceremony that preceded the graduation ritual. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not having been to an 8th Grade graduation since my own some 57 years ago.  Sixty young men and women gathered to be honored in the school’ s gymnasium.  Beneath each of their metal folding chairs was a scroll that they were to open and read with their families when they got home.  The scrolls contained positive memories and stories from each of the teachers who taught them from kindergarten through graduation.

Excerpts from the scrolls were shared as part of the awards ceremony and each child’s individual strengths were publicly affirmed and validated.  The other awards were not monetary, but value laden - - the Hypatia Award to a young woman who excelled in Math; the Abigail Adams Award to a young woman with good leadership skills.  Various language, science, and writing awards - - each award affirming a quality or strength in the student who received it.  Not one child left that auditorium without being affirmed and validated by the faculty and staff of the school.  The teachers openly declared their love and affection for these kids and I witnessed the principal and vice-principal hugging these kids with tears in their eyes.  It was high moment.  I found myself thinking that communities can really make a difference when it comes to shaping our kids.

The “Reflection For The Day” that appears regularly in The Globe seemed to have been planted: “If people are treated as special, sacred even, they begin to behave that way.  This creates a different kind of society.” (David Byrne)

I left the auditorium with a renewed hope that in spite of all the difficult stuff in the pages of the newspaper, there is still the possibility of raising a generation of kids who will shape the world with positive values - - because these values have been recognized and affirmed and validated within them.

My soon-to-be-14 year old granddaughter resolutely confirms that a person should be able to marry the one he or she loves.  She reminds us that our re-cycling practice could use some up-dating to be more effective.  She is concerned about climate change and she is preparing to develop an age appropriate literacy program for kids at risk.  AND there were 59 other kids in her class carrying within them similar hopes and dreams and possibilities and gifts and talents.

As I read the Declaration of Independence again, I have hope that we will yet live out the time honored affirmation that all people will know they are equally valued as sacred and that all people, gay and lesbian, resident alien, variously abled and disabled, prisoner and free, child and elder will know life abundantly in freedom and happiness.

I’m thankful for a quiet 4th of July.  In the midst of the tumult of the world, it allowed time for reflection on much that is good in the midst of much that is not.

Vicky Hanjian

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Painfully Elusive Balance

The scene played out many times, my young children clinging to my legs at the front door as I tried to leave the house for yet another evening meeting at the synagogue. Their tearful pleas ringing in my ears, “abba, stay home, don’t go, abba,” I would arrive in a tormented state, torn apart, wondering what I was doing and of what use I would be at the meeting anyway. The irony seemed unbearable when it was a Hebrew school meeting, something concerning the kids of the congregation, my heart breaking for my own children. I was certainly not an absent father, finding time to be with my children in ways that I could. On my days off the children were central. I would meet them after school as they grew, going then to museums, walking along the beaches and messing about around boat yards along the harbors and bays of southern Vancouver Island. I never ceased to struggle with the balance, though, haunted by the scene at the front door, expressed in other ways when the children were older.

At various points in the Torah, specifically as we encounter Moses at different stages in his life and work, I confront that quest for balance and am reminded of how painful the failure to meet it is. It is the balance on one hand between family and work. It is more than that, however, when work also involves people we love, and a commitment that lies at the core of one’s being. In the early days of his career and calling as leader, Moses left his wife and children behind in Midian when he returned to Egypt. We barely know their names, Tzippora, his wife, the children hardly mentioned, Gershom and Eliezer. In the Book of Exodus, in the portion called Yitro/Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, comes to Moses in Egypt and sends word ahead, I, your father-in-law, Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her (Ex. 18:6). It is clear who the primary parent is, and the wise grandfather seeks to reunite the family and bring his son-in-law to see what he is missing. Yitro observes the impossible burden under which Moses labors and he urges him to decentralize, to organize a system of shared leadership that will help to lighten his load. The advice could not have been only for Moses’ sake, or for the community’s sake, but perhaps, for Yitro, most of all for the sake of his daughter and his grandchildren, who did not know their father even enough to cling to his legs at the tent flap.

Yitro appears again in the weekly Torah portion in the Book of Numbers called B’ha’alotcha, and again Moses is overwhelmed, speaking poignant and pleading words to God in a rare display of vulnerability, I am not able to carry this entire people alone because it is too heavy for me/ki chaved mimeni (Numb. 11:14). Similar to Yitro’s earlier plan for decentralized leadership, God spreads Moses’ spirit of prophecy among seventy elders, giving them some of Moses’ authority. Two of those elders, Eldad and Medad, remain in the camp and prophecy in public. In a warm and earthy midrash that conveys the power of sisterhood, almost begging to be acknowledged as written by a woman, Moses’ sister, Miriam, is standing beside Moses’ wife, Tzippora, at the moment that two men, Eldad and Medad, begin to prophesy. The impetus for what appears in the Torah text to be Miriam taking her brother to task, she stands by her sister-in-law in the midrash and hears her lament, oy for the wives of these men, if they are joined to prophecy so they will separate from their wives, in the way that my husband has separated from me/k’derech she’peresh ba’ali mimeni. As he has been an absent father, so Moses is an absent husband.

As we sat around the tables in our weekly coffee shop study group, we struggled with the nature of Moses as a failed husband and father. Fully understanding it, I winced as the word “horrible” was used to describe him in these roles. There was a time when I had a very hard time seeing Moses in any positive light at all because of his domestic failures. Perhaps it was too close to home, easier to discount and disregard rather than to make room for failure. Perhaps I was afraid to pick up the mirror that Torah offers, afraid to see myself.

That all changed in one moment many years ago. I came to identify with and understand Moses in a very personal way when as a young rabbi, husband, and father I was asked to role-play Moses at a rabbinic retreat. As I played Moses as father, becoming Moses in the way of “Biblio-drama,” I felt my own young children clinging to my legs at the front door. I cried. I came to understand Moses as torn between two loves, two sets of responsibilities, unable to fully satisfy either. For the first time, I felt Moses’ pain, even allowing Moses to feel his own pain. I understood him in that moment as a mentor, truly as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi, in a different way than I had before. Without being grandiose, I understood the struggle to find balance in a different way, learning from what I felt as Moses' pain, receiving the teaching that comes through his failures as a parent and husband, as well as from his successes as a leader and teacher. I still struggle to learn those lessons and to find balance. So may we all.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein