Thursday, October 31, 2013

To Be a Blessing in the Journey of Our Lives

A few times a year I travel by Skype to a college classroom in rural South Dakota. A friend of mine who is a retired minister teaches a religion class there. Most of his students have never met a Jew and without a Jewish community in any feasible distance, there is no rabbi whom they could invite to visit in person. As technology facilitates the diminishing of distance between people, itself a beautiful metaphor, I have become the nearest rabbi with whom there is a connection. I enjoy these visits to my friend’s classroom and I respect his efforts to help his students travel beyond the boundaries of their own lives. In truth, I am often challenged as much as they are, learning from their questions, hoping that they value our exchanges as much as I do. 

Having made one of my virtual visits to South Dakota this week, I was struck by the depth of the students’ questions. It was a small group, all women studying to be teachers. The quality and depth of their questions suggests that they too will help their young students travel beyond the boundaries of their own lives. Even the frequently asked questions on these visits were asked this week with a refreshing sensitivity and genuine curiosity, questions about Jesus and how Jews view him, questions of Jewish belief and practice, of how I decided to become a rabbi, views about Muslims and other faiths. Reflecting knowledge of Bible and of challenges to faith, I was asked what I thought of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Drawing on a countervailing thread in Jewish tradition, I shared my view that Abraham failed God’s test, meant to see if he would defend his own as readily as he would soon defend the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, so too whether he would control the passion of his own faith. I was asked about violence in Scripture and in life, even when intended for good. I shared my view that the entire Torah is meant to turn us away from violence, giving us a context in which to wrestle with all that violates life in the sacredness of text, then going out from the Book to challenge all that violates life in the sacredness of the world around us. Tested as Abraham was, God waits to see our response, whether we will take up the knife or lay it down, and the angels hold their breath.

The very last question came as a gift, challenging me to be truly present with myself as well as with the students whom I now saw patiently waiting through the window of a computer screen; “how has your religion shaped your life?” I had to pause, not a matter of searching out text and sharing information, but of looking within. Yet the texts that transmit wisdom as gathered through the generations inform the personal journey, offering a starting point from which to move forward into the journey of our own life. “It is not so much,” I explained, “that Judaism shapes my life, but it gives me the means and the encouragement by which to shape my life.” Through the cadence of daily prayer, a structure is indeed given to each day. Pausing in the flow of daily time, I am reminded to go out and see the miracles of each day, even as the days of each week come home to Shabbos and offer a vision of a world at peace. And then too, from the respite of one day, I am bidden to go out and see the world with a new sense of possibility for what might be. The ways of Jewish life offer a context for living and for striving, helping us to shape a path for the journey whose end we do not know. Bidden to wake in the morning with gratitude, the act of lifting our feet to take each new step along the way is an expression of faith.

It is the story of that week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech L’cha (Gen. 12-17), in which Avram and Sarai, are told to go forth, Lech l’cha mey’artz’cha, u’mi’molad’itcha, u’mi’beyt avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’eka/go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your parents’ home to the land that I will show you. The words Lech l’cha literally mean “go to your self.” These are the first steps in the journey of the Jewish people. It is a journey that is recapitulated in each of our lives, and is at the same time a reflection of the archetypal human journey. It is the journey of every person toward self-discovery and awareness, the ever unfolding process to discover the meaning of our own lives in relation to the needs of the world around us, the very reason for which we have been brought into the world.

In going forth, Avram and Sarai are told ve’hiyeh b’racha/be a blessing. That is the goal and challenge in the journey of our lives. On the words Lech L’cha, the Slonimer Rebbe offers for the first time his signature teaching, l’chol adam yesh yi’udo v’tafkido/each person has their own unique task and purpose. I encouraged the students with whom I spoke to find their task and their unique purpose as they become teachers, encouraging their students in turn to discover their task and purpose in life, knowing that they are each indeed a blessing. In the sincerity of a student’s question, I was reminded of the beauty in sharing with others the meaning of who we are. To seek and celebrate that meaning of self is the beginning of knowing and fulfilling our task and purpose in the world, of being a blessing in the journey of our lives.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 25, 2013


The first time I ever saw a mediation take place was on the internet. It was an amazing experience. Here were two people who are usually adversaries in a courtroom, separated from each other's stories by legal teams and a cultural paradigm. But in the mediation, they were sitting in the same room with a mediator, listening to the story of the other.

The one party to the conflict had already been arrested and was awaiting sentencing for driving while intoxicated. She had run into the vehicle of the second person and caused some severe injuries. So the accused had to sit there in the presence of her victim and hear the pain and trauma she had caused, not only to the injured but to her family as well. And then the injured sat and heard the story of the other, her history of childhood abuse and her problems with alcohol and her regret about the pain she had caused. 

The mediation didn't change the facts of the case. It didn't diminish the injury. It didn't change the eventual outcome of the case or the charges against the accused. But it did change the context of the process and set the stage for some healing for the future.

There's an organization in our area of the U.S. that provides this kind of service to those who have experienced crime and conflict and would like to be restored to some degree of wholeness. It's called "Restore" and is based in Sioux Falls, S.D.. Their mission statement reads: "Acknowledging that crime and conflict cause injuries to people and communities, Restore helps those who have experienced harm to return to wholeness. Based on a justice that heals, Restore programs enable victim, offender and affected members of the community to be directly involved in responding to crime and conflict. Restore provides safe and appropriate opportunities for harmed and harm-doer to discuss directly the human consequences of the injury, address issues of safety and accountability and to begin the process of moving forward."

One expects that such efforts at restoration go a long way toward alleviating the demons of hate and guilt, freeing both parties from some of the devils to a good nights sleep. It's always so disheartening to hear those who have suffered from a crime carrying their hatred of the perpetrator with them to the grave. All of that psychic energy over a lifetime devoted to hatred, with no place to go, no relief, no vacation. 

Hate and guilt both diminish the spirit, the soul, sometimes to the point where vital life stops altogether.

There are several Universities involved in looking at the effects of anger and hatred on the physiology of the body. It's a well known fact that anger and hatred impact the one feeling those emotions. Blood pressure goes up with all the additional danger and fight/flight symptoms. But there have also been some new developments in the study of forgiveness. Forgiveness, on the other hand, moderates those fight/flight behaviors. The forgiving personality can talk about the experience of being wronged without having to relive it. They don't forget but they are able to forgive. Sometimes they are able to understand the suffering of the other as well as their own.

Suffering is the point! Suffering is universal. The Buddha says, "life is suffering." You may think you suffer alone, but it's only because you haven't taken the time, and been vulnerable enough with others, to discover what's under the surface of the lives of your friends and neighbors. And when we come face to face with the suffering of the other, it calls on the compassion we have in us, the generosity and love, and we're able to see ourselves in the other.

Carl Jung concluded that it wasn't the elemental forces of nature that were most threatening to human beings. It wasn't what was outside us, but inside us. "The Age of Enlightenment, which stripped nature and human institutions of Gods, overlooked the God of Terror who dwells in the human soul." That God needs to meet the God of Love face to face.

There are some states where mediation as an option for resolving conflicts is taken seriously. Colorado, for instance, requires mediation before any divorce cases can go to court. If the dispute can  be resolved in a more amicable way than an adversarial proceeding in a busy court system, why not try it. Certainly mediation promises to be better for the long term well being of any children who might be involved in a divorce.

We have given Martin Luther King, Jr. a holiday and a memorial. But we still don't take his ideas and words to heart. King reminds us, "Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate … Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Carl Kline

Sunday, October 20, 2013

It's All About the Way We See Each Other

I have become adept over the years at finding space in which to pray in the traditional times and ways of Jewish prayer while travelling. So it was at Logan Airport early on a Sunday morning that I searched out the right place while waiting for a flight to Washington for the JStreet conference. At a gate near to my own, with only a few sleepy people waiting for flights not yet posted, I set my pack down in a corner and took out my talis (prayer shawl) and t’filin (prayer boxes), purposefully putting on the garb of prayer. Prayer book in hand, I began to pray, realizing quickly, however, from the growing buzz around me, that people were arriving sooner than I had anticipated. As I tried to focus, the sounds of distraction in fact helping me, urging me to concentrate, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of a child, as clearly, I’m sure, as did everyone else in the waiting area, “look daddy, he’s Jewish!” Uncertain whether the child was Jewish, her exclamation an expression of pride, or precocious, aware at a tender age of the human faith mosaic, her words stayed with me and became part of my prayerful intention. Here, where paths and journeys intersect, travelers from so many diverse starting points merge as one. As people on the way and on the wing, travelers all, there is an awareness of common purpose to be carried as a gift from an airport waiting-lounge. Going and coming and throughout my time away, I kept hearing the little girl’s words. I mused about appearance beyond the intimate garb of prayer, and about what conveys to others and to our selves the essence of who we are.

As travelers who set out from their own homes and so return at journey’s end, we learn and, perhaps, come even to share something of each other’s uniqueness. As travelers, we learn of all those others with whom we share the journey and the path along the way. It is the lesson in the first two portions of the Torah, the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Entirely universal, the portions of B’reishit and No’ach are about all people, of creation and the beginnings of the human story, all setting the backdrop for the particular story of the Jewish people. So we learn what it means to be Jewish in relation to others, being of the human family, yet returning home at night. Called by the uninhibited delight of a child to consider who we are, the early chapters of the Torah remind us of human moral calling and the way of its expression in our own lives.

Culminating in the rainbow that appears after the flood in the Torah portion for the week of my travels, the portion of No’ach, Noah of the ark and the flood, we learn of moral development and the ability to change perspective toward greater embrace of others. As violence swelled in the world, itself the flood that ultimately destroyed, God saw the evil and brought the flood of water upon the earth. When No’ach emerged from the ark and saw the destruction, a poignant midrash says he began to cry. As No’ach was moved by the sight of such destruction, so too was God. At that moment, God says, “Never again will I curse the ground…; nor will I ever again destroy every living thing as I have done…” (Gen. 8:21). Recognizing the failure of violence as a way of change, another way is set in the clouds, a reversed bow that becomes a sign of peace, its string facing toward the other, assurance that no arrows shall fly. 

The rainbow becomes an external sign of something even more important, the internal change that allows the rainbow to appear in the first place, that allows the bow in the hand of the warrior to be reversed, turned around as a sign of peace. Commentators point toward the change within God as a model for change within our selves. The Slonimer Rebbe notes that in the portion of B’reishit (Gen. 1:1-6:8), it is human violence that moves God to bring the flood, and in the portion of No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32), it is human violence that brings God to promise never again to destroy. On that shift in Divine perspective is a challenge for the way that people should view each other, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “God has implanted into every human being the drive for independence so that eventually he will become persistent and steadfast in doing good.” Our own perspective of the other can be a key in allowing change to happen.

In regard to the Middle East, as in all the states of our own being, change in perspective, in how we see the other, will eventually allow the bow to be reversed in the hand of the warrior. There is change in finding another way than military might to challenge the evil of chemical weapons in Syria. It was an opportunity missed, hopefully to come again, in turning away rather than toward an Iranian leader who offered different words than before. So to shift perspective and see the Palestinian partner as real and present in the quest for two states, each reaching out to the other as equals, peace and justice joining. Offering a moment of levity, a Palestinian speaker looked to the Red Sox as a model of accomplishment for Palestinians to aspire to. There too, it is about perspective, how we see ourselves in relation to the other, how we work and travel together through the long season of life, nurturing and celebrating a new attitude and way of being.

Throughout the JStreet conference I continued to hear the little girl’s words, “look daddy, he’s Jewish.” Whether the startling image of a man in talis and t’filin at an airport gate, whether of leaders or common folk, of k’fiah or kufi, of the same root and purpose as kippah, expressions of humility upon the head, it is all about the way we see each other.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, October 17, 2013


In the first church I served there was a young man who was born in Germany shortly after World War II. He lost his father during the war and his mother was the sole provider. She did everything she could to give her children what they needed but everything was in short supply. Milk simply wasn't available. As the young man grew up his teeth gave him problems. Sometimes the pain was unbearable.

One evening toward dusk, he was driving to an emergency appointment with a dentist when he hit a boy on a bicycle and killed him. Witnesses said the boy swerved into the car. Still, the young man was overcome with guilt and grief. He knew he was distracted by the pain in his mouth. He approached his trial with a combination of fear and relief. 

I saw his story as an example of those invisible connections that put lives together and sometimes tear them apart. I also heard it as a story of the continuing ramifications of war; how the sins of one generation get passed on in myriad forms to the next generation, and the next, until we lose any sense of that invisible connecting thread.

In our culture, so enamored of speed, so focused on the immediate, so impatient for more, so ready to mortgage the future, the connections in life can get lost forever.

Only recently have I become aware of ocean acidification. We are hearing more each day about carbon  in the atmosphere and how it has a greenhouse effect on the planet. But we haven't heard much about acidification of the oceans. Each day around 22 million tons of carbon goes into the oceans. In too large quantities, it turns the water acidic.

Most of us have never encountered pteropods. These are small creatures, about the size of a thumbnail, sometimes called sea "butterflies." They exist  at the bottom of the ocean food chain and they're losing their shells in the acidic seas. Scientists watching these pteropods worry they are the canary in the mine, and the days of coral reefs and shellfish are numbered.

We don't see the connections! In the restaurant, we want the fish served fresh, on time, well prepared and inexpensive. We don't think about the ocean food chain. We don't hear the action of the waves as we attack the dish. We don't feel the sand under our feet. We certainly don't think about sea butterflies.

Even when I question the waitress about the "Atlantic" salmon, I'm aware she can't confirm that's where it originated. The chef probably can't confirm it either. Maybe they can show me a package with an Atlantic label but somehow I've become suspicious. Where it's harvested has become important to me. I know there are now salmon farms. And since the west coast tuna have shown a connection to the continuing nuclear problem at Fukushima, one wonders about Pacific salmon.

When it comes to water, it amazes me that we don't see the connections. We are water! So how we can mix it with toxic chemicals and bury it in the earth; how we can endanger aquifers with tar sands pipelines; how we think we can use it to cool damaged nuclear reactors and store it for thousands of years; how we are willing to change the chemical makeup of the seas; mystifies me.

There are connections between people and people, people and animals, animals and animals, inert life and all the rest. The wind blows where it will. Water moves according to natural laws. If we think we can erect gated communities where we don't have to be connected to anything or anybody, we're in serious denial and serious trouble.

Teilhard de Chardin tells the story of sitting in a cathedral in Europe. As he sat meditating in one of the pews he glanced at a painting of Jesus of the Sacred Heart  on the  wall. As he watched, he said the heart began to melt. It melted out into the wall, into the cathedral, out the door and into the world around. For him it was not only a visionary experience but a metaphorical one. The heart of divinity is pervasive. It's all around us. It's in us through and through. It's the glue, the connection that ties it all together. We deny and disregard it at our peril.

Carl Kline

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I lost a dear friend four days ago - - a sudden death - - a cerebral aneurism suffered in her own driveway as she was getting into her car.  Her death leaves a huge tear in the fabric of my life.  She was friend, teacher, spiritual mentor and guide.  Her death is the sixth personal loss in as many months - - all people whom I loved and cared for deeply and who loved and cared for me.  Integrating the meaning of so many significant deaths in such a short period of time is a strenuous process.  There have been days when I have just wanted to shut down and fall asleep.  On other days I have questioned the “why” of so many losses and on still other days I have wondered “who is next?”  And I have wondered when it will be my turn.

This morning as I awoke, I had the experience of feeling supremely connected with my friend by golden strands that reached from her heart to mine and I realized that  in some way her death is part of a greater whole and that while we are no longer in each other’s physical presence, we are still in relationship - -and I felt my heart being opened and healed.

This deeply personal experience of loss and then re-connectedness led me to wonder about the experience of loss as it continues so inexorably and universally in this world of all things temporary.  I wondered how the thousands of human souls who have lost loved ones to war, starvation, slavery, drug crimes - - how do they make meaning of the losses?   A sweet death, peacefully anticipated in old age is hard enough to bear.  A sudden death ravages the spirit, throws everything out of balance, sends the soul scurrying in search of meaning.

I have support systems.  I dwell in a variety of circles of spiritual awareness.  My friends bathe me in a rich array of spiritual metaphors and share with me the ways they have made sense and meaning of the tremendous losses in their own lives. They hold me when I cry.  They wait with me while I heal. How dare I whine????  

Where does a parent whose child has died of nerve gas poisoning turn for comfort and understanding when the whole community has been affected by similar losses?  How does a community recover when large numbers of its inhabitants die quickly and violently under enemy fire?  Where does the soul turn when home and loved ones and community and all that makes life meaningful are swept away in the floodwaters?  Does the spirit ever truly recover?

When I am at my lowest, I can feel the temptation to let my heart close against any more loss or pain, to build barriers against entrusting myself to anyone  because they too might disappear from my life.  But this is not a viable life path for me.  There are too many people playing Jesus to my Lazarus, calling me out of any self-selected tomb.  But I do not live in a world where violence and fear rule every waking breath.  The losses I suffer become part of what makes me more whole, more compassionate.  This is not a luxury afforded to the multitudes who must carry on without comfort for or respite from their suffering.

So, just for today, I sit in the autumn quiet and focus on the golden strands connecting my heart with the heart of my friend and I feel myself called to expand my vision, to let those golden strands enfold my heart and then flow out to all who suffer loss and sorrow - - unrelieved pain and suffering.   Just for today, this is what I give to the wounded-ness of the world.   

Vicky Hanjian
Photo by Don Jergler for Insurance Journal

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Seeing the Stars

Years ago I was on the Rosebud reservation with a group of around twenty people from all over the country. We were camping on the property of a local artist, who was hosting us as we learned about traditional and contemporary Lakota culture. His home was about a mile off the blacktop in a rather remote location. In the distance you could see He Dog Lake. There were no street lights or city glow to obscure the stars at night.

One night there was a particularly beautiful evening. The whole sky was filled with stars from one horizon to the other. The group walked together to the top of a nearby hill and we all turned our gazes upward. Someone asked if anyone knew the constellations. One of the group did and started pointing them out and naming those he knew. 

As he spoke, I noticed our Lakota host with one person from the group, a short distance away, also pointing at the stars. I went over to discover that our host was describing and naming Lakota constellations.

This was a revelation for me! Only then did I realize that not everyone looked at the sky the way I did. Some people saw the cosmos differently. And when I really thought about it, his view of the stars was more relevant to where we were standing than the view the larger group was experiencing. 

Most of the group were looking at the stars through the eyes of Europeans, Greeks and Romans. At least our host  was looking at them  from the point of view of people from this continent. And I, until that revelatory moment, was still seeing through the eyes and from the view point of a European American.

A lot of our children still look at the world through European eyes. Lots of schools still use the Mercator projection maps, produced by a cartographer in 1569 for nautical purposes during the age of colonial exploration. Since the equator in the Mercator projection is not in the middle of the map but only one third of the way from the bottom, the whole southern hemisphere is squashed and everything to the north is enlarged.

So Greenland takes as much space on the Mercator map as Africa and in reality Africa's land mass is 14 times greater. Europe is pictured as larger than South America, whereas in reality the European land mass is half the southern continent.

There's an alternative map available. It's called the Peters projection. Flat maps all have problems and most maps are developed from a particular point of view, say with Europe in the center or whatever country the mapmaker prefers. But at least the Peters projection doesn't distort land mass and give our kids a distorted, essentially European view of reality.

We have a special problem in this country, perhaps inherited from colonizing Europeans. There's this thing called American Exceptionalism. It's where we believe the whole world needs to see things through our eyes, have our point of view and do things the way we do them; since, after all, we have it right. And when you couple that with the stubbornness of closed minds, hands and hearts; the mantra of "my way or the highway;" the threat of the world's largest military or economy; our world becomes more troubled than it already is.

Our political system is a model for threat and stubbornness. In my ideal world, democrats and republicans would listen to each other and compromise. NRA members would see through the eyes of grieving families and pressure their leadership to support reasonable regulations on firearms, like background checks. Wall street financiers would look through the eyes of middle class people left without work and struggling to survive and actually get money into people's hands again. And couldn't those Congress members, who just voted to send 1 in 5 children in this country to bed hungrier, look at life through the eyes of a child again?

There are stories that go with the stars. People integrate something of their culture and identity from learning about the constellations. I imagine there might be as many stories about human identity, origins and meaning in life as there are stars in the sky. 

Take your choice: are all those star stories threat or marvel? I'll celebrate the awesomeness of the diversity, the absolute brilliance of the night sky!

Carl Kline