Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Mindfulness Opening

I spent today at a Mindfulness Retreat at the home of a dear friend.  She had invited a young Thai monk to come and spend the day giving us guidance in mindfulness meditation, both walking and sitting, mindful eating, and mindful thought and action.

We spent a lot of time together pondering skillful ways to be in the world without contributing to the world’s suffering or getting caught up in it.  As we sat and listened and walked and meditated together the question of how to skillfully “encounter” the violence of ISIS and the remarkable disrespect of political candidates for each other, their constituencies and for the “other” kept emerging in my mind.  These two manifestations of violence seem related on a continuum.

After a silent lunch together it was time for Q & A.  Most of the questions had to do with how to engage skillfully in conflicted personal relationships.  The consistent bottom line seemed to be “non-attachment” - - not having attachment to specific outcomes; not having attachment to the emotions that arise in conflict; not having attachment to our own need to be right and on and on.  While I assent to the wisdom of non-attachment, the answers still did not satisfy my need to understand how to skillfully BE with the tumult of emotion, fear, anger, resistance, dis-belief, mistrust, hopelessness, helplessness and cynicism that seems to swirl through life these days.

Some tiny splinter of truth worked its way into my consciousness as the afternoon unfolded - - perhaps some fragment of a half-heard sentence from the young monk’s dharma talk.  It had to do with understanding the others' suffering.  Splinters are annoying and pesky things – demanding attention until they are removed and cared for.    So I had to at least give this some attention.  If I am not to contribute to the sum total of the world’s suffering, it seems that I am challenged to understand the suffering that manifests as ISIS or as the outrageous and destructive political rhetoric that characterizes the current election cycle.  I am challenged to understand it and not contribute further to it.

 Since I am not given any first hand, intimate personal glimpses into the lives of people who kill and bomb and verbally excoriate and humiliate other human beings, I find I am having to look deeply into myself for understanding.  When I acknowledge the energies within that manifest in me as disrespect of the other and try to get “underneath” them, I find that these feelings arise when my own identity, my sense of who I am, my humanity, is threatened or at risk in some very fundamental way.  It is as though my being is under attack. This causes suffering and the potential for a violent response. 

I puzzle about the suffering of individuals caught up in ISIS – about the possibility of some assault on their collective identity as human beings that contributes to a violent response against the perceived enemy - - the perceived collective  “one” who is responsible for the terrible, disrespectful insult to their identity and humanity at some level.   I puzzle even more about the suffering of privileged politicians who need to attack and slander one another in the service of their own advancement.
As I am pondering the question of why there is so much observable and intractable hatred that results in either physical acts of violence or equally destructive verbal violence my eyes fall on an epigraph at the beginning of  Chapter 14 in Not In God’s Name: Countering Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  He quotes James Arthur Baldwin: "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain."

This opens a little window for me – just enough to understand that if I can know deeply that the destruction of human life and dignity that manifest in the violent acts of ISIS and the vitriol of American politicians has its roots in pain, the avoidance of which depends on holding on to hatred, I can open my heart – or at least not keep it closed quite so tightly – perhaps soften just a bit –to allow  a compassionate space for a pain so difficult that it requires a firm hold on hatred in order not to suffer so much from the pain.  Compassion can respond to pain.  This feels like a small awakening to me.

Vicki Hanjian

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Truth too Often Forgotten

The heavy swath of blue, color meant to tell of the heavens above embracing us all, came instead to divide, roughly applied from a bucket of confusion quickly turned to an expression of hate. The email that came yesterday from the clergy of Hope Central Church on Seaverns Avenue was deeply disturbing. The Black Lives Matter banner in front of the church was defaced during the night, the night following Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian journey to Easter. The word “Black” had been blotted out, leaving only the words “Lives Matter.” Earlier in the day, we had been together at a JP Interfaith Clergy meeting. We talked about the Black Lives Matter vigil to take place that evening. We were all together, feeling the warm connection among us, neighbors and friends tending fields without fences, whatever our differences, all as one, able to knock on each other’s door.

I could feel tears welling as I read the letter. The same thing had happened earlier in the year, more than once, defaced and stolen, to the Black Lives Matter banner in front of the Baptist church where the vigil takes place. I felt sick and ashamed for the pain caused to others, to Black people as though erased. The subject line of the email spoke of resilience and love: “Black Lives Matter banner defaced, but we are not.” Addressing their clergy colleagues, Rev. Laura Ruth and Rev. Courtney explained what had happened and of the path they are seeking to walk: “We're figuring out how to respond pastorally and prophetically, creatively, and educationally, lovingly.” They wrote a beautiful letter to their congregation from which I draw in sharing with you, in its essence a love letter:

Every Sunday morning during the announcements, we say that we are a congregation doing Racial Justice because our lives depend on it. And we ask you to pray for our People of Color, especially our people of African descent.

Here is why. Overnight, after our Ash Wednesday service, someone defaced our Black Lives Matter banner. You can see, someone painted over the word "Black." This is how common racism works, a thousand tiny cuts, an erasure of existence, a not seeing, a not hearing, a not believing, a not allowing another's life and reality to be central, insisting on one's own place at center. This is why I'm asking you to pray for our people of color today and always - for encouragement and support. But also so we may identify the strength and resilience inside us all, for the living through everyday racism.

We're also asking you to pray for our congregation as we gather wisdom about how to respond to such defacement and erasure….

Here is what feels important, at least today. The sign is only a sign and a symbol of our divine commitment to be beloved community, the body of Christ. It feels so important to preserve our energy, see after and care for our people of African descent, and then to begin to know how we as individuals and as a congregation will interrupt the systems of racism that ensnare us all. We will not repay evil for evil, nor praise the devil. We will seek to love, educate, interrupt.

Love from your pastors,
Courtney and Laura Ruth

A moment of pain can become a moment of learning, a teachable moment, a moment of connection and love deepened. It is an essential truth that all lives matter. It is also a painful historical truth that all lives have not mattered equally in our society from the very first steps of white people on these shores. The brutal backdrop of this nation’s founding has yet to be fully acknowledged and the repentant turning of t’shuva done; the decimation of native peoples; the bringing of African people in chains to suffer in bondage to the Pharaoh of this emerging nation…. All lives matter…, but that truth is too often forgotten in regard to some lives, some people and peoples, black people…, immigrants, at times it has been Jews. All lives matter, but at times we forget and need to be reminded. The suffering of some requires that we be reminded that their lives matter among all lives. We are called then to highlight their need to be recognized, not blotted out…, reminding them and us that among all lives their lives matter too.

The weekly Torah portion called T’rumah opens with God’s call to build the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary, v’asu li mikdash/they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them/v’shochanti b’tocham (Ex. 25:8). Each of our bodies is meant to be a place of God’s dwelling. It is for us to make it habitable and hospitable in the way of our living and respecting all of God’s other dwelling places. Every human is meant to be a sanctuary of God, each one mattering infinitely to God, none forgotten as can happen so easily among people. The rabbis make the link between the Mishkan and us very clear, comparing the Mishkan to the human body and to the heavens, the upper worlds that call us to reach and strive in godly ways. Comparing the Mishkan to the body, the rabbis say so simply, ha’mishkan k’neged gufo shel adam/the Sanctuary corresponds to the human body. Of each and every human, they explain: zahav zu ha’nefesh/gold – this is the soul, kesef zeh ha’guf/silver – this is the body…, and onward in great and loving detail. Rabbi Sh’muel then picks up the brush to paint with love of Creator and creation in all of its expanse: mishkan k’neged hal’elyonim/the Sanctuary corresponds to the upper worlds, zahav zu chamah/gold – this is the sun, kesef zu l’vanah/silver – this is the moon…, t’cheylet zeh ha’rakiya/blue – this is the sky….

Of creation’s grandeur and human majesty, none forgotten in their mattering, even of those who would hate and hurt, may that be the blue we see, gentle brush strokes of love to include, our eyes opened to the sky above that embraces us all, every single one a sanctuary of God.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, February 12, 2016


Some years ago, I took a group of twenty from the U.S. to India. Our place of residence was the Kasturbagram Rural Institute in Madhya Pradesh. It was a teacher training institution for women named after the wife of Mahatma Gandhi. 

We stayed there while the school was on holiday. It was simple living. Our bed was a mat on the floor. One's personal space was a foot or two on each side of the bed. There were simple bucket showers. You filled a bucket half full and used a plastic measuring cup to pour water over your body, soap up, then use the plastic cup to rinse off.

Many in the group didn't respect the Indian bathing tradition. They bathed like they did at home, pouring buckets full throughout the process. Two days after we arrived, the well went dry. For the rest of our stay we traveled several kilometers with a bullock cart to fill a fifty gallon barrel with water at a neighboring well. Suffering through a third year of draught, the neighboring well was in danger too. That barrel had to last us for a day, for drinking, cooking, bathing, however it was needed.

My India bathing habits changed. Now I tried using a quarter of a bucket, or less, for the rest of our stay. And when I arrived home, there was a new found respect for that essential element in our lives, water. For a good year I continued the bucket and measuring cup tradition, standing in the shower, without turning it on.

These days the news is full of the water disaster in Flint, Michigan. People have been drinking poisoned water for years, with the apparent knowledge of public officials. As in most cases, this suffering hits the poor the hardest. Forty percent of the population of Flint live in poverty, many of them African American. Given the effects of lead poisoning, one can only guess what their children will encounter to keep them from making a better life.

But this isn't the first or only community to suffer from poisoned water. There are some reports that many cities in this country have a similar problem. Infrastructure is old. Pipes are corroding. And levels of allowable lead can be gamed by testers, simply by following official instructions to flush before testing.

That's not to mention what has happened to water in Native American communities. Here's a culture that has traditionally had the utmost respect for the indispensable elements of life and they are suffering the most from poisoned water.

Navajo water has long been contaminated by coal mining and uranium spills. The situation there is as bad or worse than Flint. It's been happening since the 1950's. There has been no potable water on the reservation for decades. Peabody Coal drained the wells to slurry coal 256 miles into Nevada. Toxic holding ponds leak and end up in waterways. And the uranium industry, now long gone, left a water supply contaminated and draining into the Colorado River. 

Louise Benally, a spokesperson for Navajo Black Mesa lamented in Washington, D.C. recently, "that no one's talking about their water situation."

We don't have to go to the Southwest to find poisoned water. We could go to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where testing from several sites reveals a number of metals above EPA recommended safe levels for drinking water. They include: antimony, arsenic, bismuth, copper, lead and uranium. (There are 272 abandoned uranium mines in South Dakota, many on tribal lands). Statistically, with more than one metal with high concentrations in drinking water, 46% of the population is at risk for developing multiple cancers. Pine Ridge has one of the highest cancer clusters in the U.S.

Nor should we forget the Canadian indigenous communities near and downstream the tar sands operations in Alberta. The mining has polluted the water so badly wildlife is becoming scarce and the people are getting sick and dying in astonishing numbers. 

But these big operators: mines, fracking operations, fossil fuel companies (and in our state, CAFOs - Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) use and threaten water at will; and states and the federal government let them leave the little people to suffer the consequences. It's not a surprise that the poor and politically powerless are the first to suffer. And the new Indians, small farmers and ranchers, are the next group in line.

It might be wise for all of us to know, who determines how water is used and how much is used? How often is water tested for toxic substances? Who tests it? How transparent and public is the process? How careful are we of our shallow aquifers? Are our underground sources being drained by industrial agriculture, as is happening all over the mid western U.S.? What are we doing to prepare for climate change and the draught and floods it may bring? How secure and sustainable is our clean water future?

They say the human body is up to 60% water. For some living things it's 90%. You would think we would respect water and want to keep it pure.

Carl Kline

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Homes Worthy of God's Dwelling

As the presidential campaign season unfolds, I have found myself thinking that the candidates’ debates should have a rating system. I am not speaking about viewer ratings for the benefit of advertisers or for gauging political interest. I am thinking about ratings as for shows and movies that offer guidance in regard to content, warnings about violence and language that may not be appropriate for children. It seems that a helpful judge of a candidate’s suitability for office should be whether or not we would want our children to hear them speak or be exposed to their language and manner. There is real impact to coarse language, to speech that demeans and puts down others, to subtle and not so subtle seeds of hate that are cast to the winds of bigotry and bluster, the modeling of arrogance rather than humility. The prophet Micah offers such a rating standard, It has been told to you, Oh mortal/higid l’cha adam, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

In the end, such a rating system would not only be about protecting children, it is about protecting ourselves as adults from becoming inured to commonplace brutishness. When bad behavior becomes commonplace as part of the political process, there is a danger that its corrosive sludge will eat away at common discourse and social interaction. While such a rating system might be problematic in real terms, the question of perception and a standard that judges manner, tone, and attitude beyond the realm of reasonable political difference can be helpful. Children can be that standard. Through the perception of children and by gauging our concern for what they perceive, we are able to see a deeper, purer truth. Without artifice or agenda, children see through all that hides the essence.

Of children seeing the essence, there is a powerful and poignant midrash on the Torah portion B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16). We are standing on the seashore as the waters part and a furrow of dry land appears. The midrash jumps back in time, back to slavery, back to the terrible edict of Pharaoh that the baby boys of Israel are to be killed. Becoming pregnant as an act of civil disobedience, of heroism and hope, mothers would go out into the fields to give birth. We can only imagine the wrenching moment described in the ancient words, when they would leave their precious new-born babies there in the field and cry out to God: Ribon Ha’olam/Master of the Universe, I have done mine, and now You do Yours/ani asiti et sheli, v’atah aseh et shelach (Bereishit Rabbah 23:8). In such warm human terms, the midrash then describes God as coming down to these children to care for them, first cutting the umbilical cords, then placing a stone in each one’s hands, from one stone to suckle oil and from the other honey. Through the sweep of time, we then come to the sea, the entire people about to be birthed through the parted waters. The children born in the fields of Egypt were there with their parents. In the windy rush of God’s mothering presence, breathing and birthing a people into being, the children cried out to their parents, zehu oto/that’s the one, that’s the one who did all of these things for us when we were in Egypt.

The Torah then describes God at the Sea as ish milchama/a man of war. But it is the children who have seen God’s essence, the children who remind of God as nurturer, as a caring nurse of little children. Beneath the violence, the tensions, and contradictions of this Torah portion, torn between joy for our own deliverance and horror for the destruction of others, children remind of the essence, without artifice or agenda. As truth’s essence is revealed through children, it is for us to offer them that place in the field and by the sea where they come to know the truth of love and of compassion for others. In that moment by the sea, when the children proclaim the true essence of God, the midrash concludes with words the people sang when first standing upon freedom’s shore, zeh Keli v’anveihu/this is my God Whom I shall praise, or as understood by the rabbis, for Whom I shall be a dwelling place. Doing justly, loving kindness, walking humbly, we fashion homes that are worthy of God’s dwelling.

It all comes home to the place and way in which we dwell, to the place where our children first learn the ways of being and behaving, ways of speaking and responding, the use of language and tone, whether to affirm or demean. In rating the speech and way of candidates and of our selves the scale is of love and caring, the well being of children affirmed in homes that are worthy of God’s dwelling as their nurturer.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein