Friday, November 17, 2017


Perhaps it was a Hint of Hope
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein


          There was something different to me in the tone of a recent Black Lives Matter vigil. Something seemed different in the surrounding atmosphere, in the collective air that we all breathe, even as we gather to remember such as the choking cry of Eric Garner, pleading while held in a police chokehold, “I can’t breathe.” As we approach the two-year anniversary since the vigil first gathered, I try to be there on the first Thursday of each month whenever I can, making it on most months. The difference I felt was not in the warm connection among those who stand with each other. It was not a difference in direction or sense of purpose. The crowd seemed somewhat smaller than at other times, though not small, equally vibrant and committed regardless of numbers. I closed my eyes, often quietly praying the mincha prayer while standing in line, conveniently facing east. Offering the prayers of afternoon, I join my own way of prayer with the prayerful spirit surrounding all who are there. So too, connection is made with all the passersby, smiles, waves, and simple words, God’s image carried before us in so many different ways, a reminder of why we are there, of the common humanity that joins us all.

The difference this time seemed to be in the connection and interaction with passersby. There is always the supportive honking of a horn as cars pass, a wave and a smile from drivers, from cyclists, from pedestrians, people stepping from the bus, hurrying on home from school and work. Last night there was an uncharacteristic shout from the driver of a pick up truck, fist punching the air beyond his open window, yelling, “go Trump.” A collective sigh went up from the otherwise silent vigil, an expression of dignity. That seemed to be part of the difference I felt in tone, a dignified weariness. We are in it for the long haul now, and it is hard. The hate, the brutality, the coarseness even come to Jamaica Plain.
               In standing together, we find strength, singing and sighing together, reminding our selves and passersby that we are all on this journey together.

And so too, passersby reminded us last night of our purpose in being there, reminding of the larger picture and of the human connection that joins us all. Yes, the driver of the truck who shouted at us offers one type of reminder, and a challenge. Perhaps some day he will appreciate our perseverance and even stop by to talk, even to stand. That happened to me once as part of another vigil, one seeking peace and an end to militarism, of US testing of submarines in Canadian waters. Every week a heckler came by, sometimes drawn to my kippah, often stopping right in front of me, shouting, too close for comfort. It was a weekly vigil, and every week I spoke calmly to the man as he leaned in, crossing boundaries of comfort and respect. I came to know well the markings on his face and the East European accent in his voice. Over time, I asked him of his story, of his family, from where he had come, gradually sensing a softening as he offered short answers to my questions. One week I was not able to make it to the vigil. During that week of my absence, I was told that the man had come by as usual, but he was quiet, asking the others, “where is my rabbi?” From then on, it was different, a connection made. The man never joined the vigil, but he no longer came by to harangue, only to talk and affirm the human connection that inheres among us all, affirming that we were indeed a peace vigil.

There was something more at the recent Black Lives Matter vigil that I continue to reflect on, to feel tearful and hopeful about.  There seemed to be a different way of interaction with African American passersby. Perhaps I have missed such interactions in the past, but I was struck last night by the number of African Americans of all ages who stopped at various points along the line to say “thank you.” There was something deeply moving in these simple words, but something that also made me feel awkward, even embarrassed. Standing up for justice, standing up in the face of our neighbor’s oppression and our own is what we are called to do because it is right, not as an act worthy of gratitude. It is an act of tz’dakah in its most basic meaning of acting for the sake of justice, for the sake of making things right, as called to action by the Torah (Deut. 16:20), tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue. In the whiteness of most of the vigil standers, it is an obligation to stand for those without white privilege, precisely the reason and the need to cry out that “Black Lives Matter,” that those facing injustice most directly not be left to cry out alone. In my discomfort with expressions of appreciation, perhaps I am also being too critical, failing to see an expression of the very connection we seek among us. The simple words of thank you can be heard as an expression of solidarity, that we walk hand in hand even as we stand. It is not that there are more white people standing in the vigil on behalf of black people. We are standing, black and white together, whether some are standing in the silent line, some passing by, some smiling, some praying, some knowing the scourge of racism all to close to home, together seeking justice, offering love and hope along a busy street as life goes by.

              Most of all, I was moved to tears by a mother and son. She stopped right by the end of the vigil line, right by where I most often stand. The woman smiled and offered those two beautiful words, “thank you.” I simply smiled, wanting to hug her, but refraining. I have thought since that I might have said, “We are all in this together.” Perhaps that was conveyed in my smile.
            She then stood nearby, bending down to speak earnestly to her son of about seven or eight years old. She spoke into his ear, turning to point to the signs that said she mattered, that her son mattered. The two came closer again to the line of vigil and still with the same warm smile nodded her head, holding her son so close, and then to both him and to us sang out in prayerful cadence, “yes, Black Lives Matter!” Of love and justice joined, mother and child affirmed, so were we. As the two turned then to leave, I said to her the same two words, heartfelt and true, “thank you.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24), God weighs whether to tell Avraham of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities so filled with violence, with hate for the stranger, for the poor, for the wayfarer that soon all shall crumble and be no more, unable to be sustained. The world is founded on love and kindness, not on hate, olam chesed yibaneh/the world is built on loving kindness (Psalm 89), and only in our so building each day as God’s partners shall the world be sustained.
 In telling Avraham, it is with the hope that we shall keep the way of God--to do righteousness and justice/v’shamru derech ha’shem—la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat (Gen. 18:19) Mishpat refers simply to justice. Tzedakah, as we are commanded to pursue it, is justice infused with love, with a quest to do good, to right what is wrong. Often joined together as a phrase, mishpat usually precedes tzedakah in the language of the Torah. Not here, in the face of such violence and social breakdown, love needs to infuse justice if we would rebuild the world and our society as it is meant to be.

Each of us is touched by the love and kindness that brings us to stand in a vigil, to bear witness that Black Lives Matter, our weariness transformed into faith and perseverance. Of passersby who shout from fear and hate, and of those who smile and say thank you, we are all joined as one. Pursuing justice with love in the way of ancient command, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue, reminding that every child matters, every life, so we shall build this world with love.
We cry louder, greater witness needed, when one person’s mattering is forgotten, a mother passing by and explaining to her son, grateful for the opportunity, a moment of gratitude that joins us all. There was something different in the tone, in the fall air filled with our silence and our song. With gratitude for the breath of life and for each one’s presence, touched by simple words of thank you, hand in hand we stand that no one should ever have to plead for the next breath that doesn’t come. Something different in the air, perhaps it was a hint of hope.




Thursday, November 9, 2017


Stilling The Sound of the Ruthless       

        It is mid- November.  The weather has turned seasonably cooler after a prolonged departure of summer.  At least two human beings refuse to acknowledge that “the season” has ended - - still taking a leisurely swim in the waters of the Sound - even though there is a brisk breeze and the thermometer reads 43 degrees!  Rusty oak and sage-y green-brown blueberry leaves carpet our lane and the night sky is more visible at an even earlier hour.  The vacationing crowds of summer are gone. Fall has finally made an appearance.  Winter is not far off.
            An even more gritty sign of the demise of summer is the increased level of activity as the island prepares to serve and care for the segment of the year-round population that is hardest hit by the onset of autumn and winter - women and men who depend on seasonal employment,  our elders, and our homeless population.  During the summer when the summer resort wealth seems to abound and there are jobs that go begging,  it is easy to forget that the summer bounty does not last, nor does it benefit everyone.
            And so the organizational meetings  gear up again.  The call goes out to the community for  hygiene packs - soap, toothpaste, tooth brushes, deodorant, packages of warm tube socks, winter clothing - for distribution to the souls who will utilize the Houses of Grace - winter shelter organized by the island churches. Volunteers gather for training  - - people willing to  spend the night sleeping on an air mattress on the floor to help staff the shelters.
        Back packs with  necessary school supplies are organized and distributed. Soups are  made and frozen for later distribution. Nightly community meals are planned. The Island Food Pantry hours  expand.    Volunteers make the food pick-ups at the local supermarkets and libraries and churches to keep the Pantry shelves well stocked. “Clothes To Go”  welcomes folks to come and “shop” for needed items while they await their turn in line at the Food Pantry.  No money changes hands.   Thanksgiving Dinners will “pop up” at various churches, at the VFW, and the American Legion Hall.  The Committee On Hunger will distribute baskets with turkey and all the trimmings to families in need.  All this in the service of being sure that no one goes hungry or without shelter for lack of attention on the part of the community. 
            Even with all this activity on the part of this island  in the service of people in need, no one believes or is fooled into thinking this is how the need SHOULD be answered.  The work and concern and loving service is indispensable - -  but in a “land of plenty” it should not be so.  In a true “land of plenty” there would be adequate affordable housing for all.   There would be functioning systems in place to assure affordable fuel.  Families would not be making the choice between feeding  themselves and keeping the house warm. 
            Our community is one of hundreds around the country who keep expanding our “band-aid” capabilities to care for the most vulnerable among us as the highest law making body in the land tries to figure out how to limit the funds and resources available to address these same issues nationally.  We do a pretty good job. Fortunately, we know we can carry on this way for awhile, seeking to gain some balance here between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”   There is enough consciousness and enough conscience to keep the community motivated.  
           But what about Puerto Rico?  What about Gulf Coast communities still struggling to regain “normal”?  Where is the “balm in Gilead” in communities where the lines between “haves” and “have-nots”  are obliterated by natural disaster that destroys without discrimination, leaving an entire population without adequate resources for recovery?   Where is a generous sense of accountability on the part of our national government?  Why is the well being of so much of the population of this land not the top priority of our national leaders? 
            I take hope and direction from the words of the prophet Isaiah’s  psalm of thanksgiving (Isaiah 25:1,4-5), verses that follow on the almost apocalyptic judgments of God against those have ignored and transgressed against the Holy Vision for humanity:

O Lord, you are my God’
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have been a refuge to the poor;
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and
a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was
like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.

            In no time at all, the airwaves will be filled with the sounds of Christmas.  What we hear, depending on the day and the choice of music, will either re-enforce our national predilection for ignoring the most basic needs of the human community in favor of rank consumerism, militarism, and partisanship or it will inspire us to embrace the vision of wholeness expounded in Isaiah’s words - - a wholeness where the “song of the ruthless is stilled”.  May there be a profound silence........

                       

 .......and after an appropriate pause, may we fill the silence with the music of the sounds of  “plans formed of old, faithful and sure...”, plans that embody justice and compassion, kindness and generosity, well being and hospitality.  May it be so.

Vicky Hanjian
             

Friday, November 3, 2017


Of Tracks in Time
For Leo and Ruby

The sweet sounds of my grandchildren surround me as they play on the floor of my study. Though they have come into my space, I feel as though I am in theirs, feeling as a voyeur listening, peering over my desk or even bending to look under it as they engage with each other. Drawing on a recent trip to Belgium, I had planned to write a very different piece, a deeper, reflective one on journeys and delays along the way of getting to where we are going, and of what we learn in between. I had taken notes and had even begun to write, stealing away to my study as the little ones slept in, thinking I had a few hours to work as they woke into the day and had breakfast. Truth to tell, I was feeling untrue to myself and to them in not spending every possible moment together, especially such simple, unscripted moments as of a day’s beginning. Seeming to sense my longing, they soon found their way to my study and have now made it quite their own.

Together, we are weaving the thread of generations into a tapestry of memories, journeys unfolding. Yesterday, we visited with my father, Noa’s grandfather, Leo and Ruby’s great grandfather. When I exclaimed to my dad, “they are your great grandchildren,” he responded with one of his ever sincere stock phrases, “all of my children and grandchildren are great.” Each time my father says that, whether he realizes it or not, he helps us all to feel important. As Mister Rogers used to say, “you are a very important person,” something that we all need to feel and know in our hearts at every stage of our lives. 

Leo is standing up now on the arm of the sofa in my study and playing with the train cars from so long ago that sit on a few remaining pieces of track on top of the old wooden file cabinet. I tell him of the electric train set given to me when I was not much older than him, describing the ever-circling journeys that played out on the table my dad built, lights shining along the track, a distant whistle sounding through time, days of glory.

Ruby calls to Leo, “Yea’o,” as she pronounces his name, “don’t you want to play with me?” As big brother comes down to the floor, the two begin to put together the old wooden train tracks of another train set, one that their mother and her brother and sister once played with. Of journeys and generations, tracks joining from one generation to another, the two reach into the firm, blue and white cardboard box that waits for them between visits. They take out the wooden tracks, setting them on the floor, and with a sense of wonder they hold up the still brightly colored wooden train cars, as though musing on the distance traveled, a moment of time and conveyance suspended.

There are moments of tension along the tracks, the way of journeys, part of life. The challenge is in how we resolve them. Older says to younger, “I’m going to set up all the tracks.” “No, I want to,” says the younger.” “Well, I’m not going to be done for a long time,” says the older. In the back and forth dance between my desk and the floor, I suggest that they can work together, that if they both help to assemble the tracks they will both feel happy and have more fun. Seeking a way of resolution, younger says to older, “can I use it after you?” And older responds, “Okay, thank you.” It is all part of the journey toward wholeness.

The weekly Torah portion that framed this wonderful visit is about journeys and their uncertainties, the comings and goings of life, struggle and strife, tragedy and triumph, ever seeking home as we make our way in time and space. The Torah portion Mattot-Massei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) is a double portion, separated from each other in a Jewish leap year to insure enough portions to go around in accommodating the extra month, its own teaching on life and sharing. The two together offer framing for the way, telling in their very names of times we are settled in spirit and place, and of times in motion when we set out along the way. Mattot means tribes, the gathering of families into a greater whole, a prayer that the human family should become as one. In the singular, mateh is a staff, a walking stick to give support along the way, and a branch, as each one of a family and tribe are part of a greater whole, each one a branch on the tree of life.
 A reminder that we all need a place to call home, however transient, sanctuary and shelter along the way, from the same root, natah ohel means to pitch a tent, to put down stakes. And at the turning of night to day, when taking up the journey again, the root nasah/linso’a/to journey means literally to pull out or up, as in the pulling up of tent pegs to begin the journey again, eleh massei b’nei Yisra’el/these are the journeys of the children of Israel.

Telling of journeys and generations, the Slonimer Rebbe reaches all the way back along the track to the holy Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, who taught, all the journeys of Israel were forty-two and they correspond to (the journeys) of each person from the day of their birth until they return to their world, so from the day of one’s birth and going forth from their mother’s womb, it is in the aspect of the Exodus from Egypt, as is known, and afterwards journeying from journey to journey until one returns to the land of the living above…. The journeys in the Torah are to teach the upright way/l’horot ha’derech ha’yashar…, to know the way in which one should go all the days of one’s life, to journey from journey to journey//lesah me’masah l’masah. The Slonimer then adds words of his own, telling of time and timelessness, this parasha is speaking to each and every generation and to each and every individual/l’chol dor va’dor u’l’chol yachid v’yachid, that as one passes through all the days of one’s life it is in the aspect of the forty-two journeys (of Israel)….

            Leo had gone back up to stand on the arm of the sofa and play with my old trains. With a voice that was his, but which might have been mine as an echo in time, he said so quietly but emphatically, “Zayde, say something nice about me and look at me….” His words took my breath away, “you are so wonderful, Leo, so gentle and strong and beautiful, and I love you.” And I see you, Ruby, sitting on the floor playing with the wooden trains, your joyful sense of self emerging, easily delighted and so delightful, and I love you. Yes, we all need to feel important and to know that we are seen for who we are. In the way of Chassidic teaching, it is in the aspect of “all of my children and grandchildren are great.”

It is time to go and to give undivided attention now, in the way of Shabbos, of journeys and generations, of tracks in time, of homecoming.

Victor Reinstein

Friday, October 27, 2017

Children



Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, has an article I'd like to spread far and wide called "Standing Up for Children." She reminds us that when God wants something done on earth, it doesn't happen through "battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts" but God "simply has a tiny baby born, perhaps of a very humble home, perhaps of a very humble mother."

I still recall going to Cuernavaca, Mexico in the early days of Liberation Theology. I met several mothers living in dire poverty. They could intimately identify with the infancy story of Jesus. They were some of the most humble people I have ever met. Their children were born in humble surroundings, not exactly a stable; more like a cardboard shack. 

          Marian makes clear that the problems we visit on our children are adult problems: war; poverty and unequal economic opportunity; physical and sexual abuse; childhood neglect; racial, ethnic, religious and class division. If we really endeavored to solve these adult problems, one way of starting would be with loving, respecting and protecting children. If we were to do that, we would have a great beginning to solving all of our adult problems.

Wright-Edelman believes the litmus test of our humanity in today's world, is whether we will protect the world's children, all of them, from our adult problems.

Some people are trying. David Deutchman is a "baby buddy." He visits the hospital on a regular basis to hold and cuddle premature infants. Some of them have parents who live far away. Other parents are trying desperately to keep working and earning so they can pay the hospital bills and can only be present occasionally. But Deutchman doesn't just do it for the parents. He does it for the babies. You can watch this Georgia grandfather on You Tube as he sings "You Are My Sunshine" to an infant. He says some of his buddies don't understand why he does this, especially as he sometimes gets puked and peed on. "They just don't get it."

There's the rub! Too many men don't know what it's like to hold an infant in their arms. Some men, who make decisions about war and peace, who have a lack of confidence in their own masculinity, should have to hold an infant at least twice a day (under supervision, of course). This might help us avoid so much fire and fury in our world, as we realize children are the ultimate victims of all of our violence.

Then there's the Witchita public school teacher who greets her students each day with an individual handshake. Although it's not just a handshake. Each student has a unique set of fist pumps, foot movements, etc. All of them end with a hug. The last student in line and the teacher actually do a quick dance. How the teacher remembers all those movements with each student is beyond me, as it often takes me several class sessions to just remember names. This video has gone viral on face book with over 32 million views. It's a wonderful sample of how one might recognize and respect each child in a school setting.

Maybe you've heard of the children and young people suing the U.S. government for a stable climate. They include nine year old Levi Draheim. He expects his barrier island on Florida's Atlantic coast to be submerged by rising seas. He started an environmental club as a fourth grader and gives talks about climate change for adults.

Then there's the lead lawyer in the case, Julia Olson. She first became involved in issues of climate change when she was eight months pregnant with her youngest child. "There is something about carrying life inside your body that is transformative and gives you a different kind of perspective on the world," she says. That's when she founded Our Children's Trust. The organization is dedicated to protecting children from the effects of climate change. The Trust helped the 21 young plaintiffs bring their case against the federal government. 

        Marian Wright-Edelman closes her "Standing Up for Children" with a prayer. It's called "A Prayer to the God of All Children." All is the defining word here. It includes the children of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Chicago and Sandy Hook, It includes the children of every color and language. It includes children who are healthy and in pain; children who are wealthy and in poverty; children of war and children of peace.

I shared the prayer at the end of my sermon last Sunday. But reading it out loud I stumbled and stammered because it was hard to read the printed page through my tears. The last line of the first stanza touched me deeply. "Help me to love and respect and act now to protect them all." The tears came because I realized I had just mentioned the children of Sandy Hook, and they were gone. We did not protect them and so many others. And one has to wonder whether we will act to protect children now; from the next school shooting, from fire and fury, from the violence of an adult world.

Carl Kline



Friday, October 20, 2017


Contrary to the Gospel?

        In a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe (Wednesday October 18, 2017), Jeff Jacoby asks the question: “If the death penalty is in the Bible, how can it be ‘contrary to the Gospel?’”  Jacoby took issue with Pope Francis’ statement that capital punishment is “contrary to the Gospel...” arguing that “To nonbelievers and non-Catholics, the whole subject may seem little more than Vatican shop talk. Legislators, not popes, write our criminal codes. If Francis wants to change church doctrine, why should outsiders care?  This is why: Because the death penalty is a tool of justice that no decent society should unequivocally renounce, and because more innocents die when the worst murderers face only prison. The Catholic church at its best has been a mighty upholder of human dignity. But when remorseless killers have a greater right to life than their victims, human dignity is trampled into the mud.”

Our Torah study group took up the discussion at our mid-week meeting, examining  Genesis 9:6 where, indeed, there seems to be a divine directive about capital punishment: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.  One only has to read a few commentaries to discover that there is so much more to this verse than meets the eye - - far more than can be offered in a brief blog.  Both Jewish and Christian  traditions  have  produced volumes  over the last 3000 years arguing both the sanctity of human life and the issue of when it is permissible to take a human life as punishment for a crime.    

There are two parts of the same verse that are in  tension with one each other.  The first part suggests retributive justice - an eye for an eye, tit for tat justice.  Capital punishment is the uttermost expression of this kind of justice - a justice that requires retribution - a life in payment for a life : Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  The tension mounts when the second part of the verse impinges on the first, echoing earlier verses in Genesis that affirm that humans, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God: For in the image of God, God made man.” The juxtaposition of the two statements brings a heart wrenching moral and spiritual, religious and political dilemma into focus.    When a human life is taken - whether by criminal intent or through state sanctioned execution, we are challenged to grapple with the idea that the image of The Divine is defaced.

Historically,  in Jewish tradition, there were so many “stringencies” in place regarding a death penalty that it was said that a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one.  Prominent 1st century rabbinic scholars seemed to agree: Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah said 'Or even once in 70 years.' Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said, 'If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed.'

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that there is One God, experienced in different ways and named by different names in the traditions of the People of The Book: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  In The Trace of God/Noach, Covenant and Conversation 5778 on Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha he writes: “If there were only one human being, he or she might live at peace in the world.  But we know that this could not be the case because it is not good for man to be alone. We are social animals. And when one human being thinks he or she has god-like power vis-a-vis  another human being , the result is violence.  Therefore, thinking yourself god-like, if you are human, all too human, is very dangerous indeed.  That is why, with one simple move, God transformed the terms of the equation.  After the flood, God taught Noah (and through him all humanity), that we should think not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God.  That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self destruction.  This is a really life changing idea.  It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image - whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?”

I would push the challenge even further.  Can I see God’s image in the perpetrator of a heinous crime?  Can I see enough of the Divine Image in the mass murderer or the rapist or the abuser of a child that I can  say “No” to state sanctioned murder in my name as the retribution required by the law? 

Is capital punishment contrary to the Gospel?  I am not a Roman Catholic.  I confess there are some days when even calling myself a believer would put me on shaky ground.   But I stand with Pope Francis on this one.  It defies imagination to ever think of a person like Jesus, upon whose life the Gospel is based, standing in judgment over another human being and condemning that person to death.
That would, indeed, be contrary to the Gospel.

 Vicky Hanjian




















Friday, October 13, 2017


Closing our Eyes to See More Clearly


        What do we see when we really look deeply, perhaps when we squint and try to see beyond the present place and time in which we stand? Reflecting on the way we close our eyes as a natural human response to pain, Rebbe Nachman offers a beautiful insight on what it means to see the world from within: 

So it is when we want to look at the ultimate goal of Creation, which is all good, all unity. One has to close one's eyes and focus on one's vision -- i.e. the inner vision of the soul -- on the goal. For the light of this ultimate goal is very far away. The only way to see it is by closing one's eyes. One has to close them completely and keep them firmly shut. One may even have to press on them with one's finger to keep them shut tight. Then one can gaze on this ultimate goal... (Likkutei Moharan 65:3).

During the past week and weeks, as in hard times always, it can be very tempting to close our eyes, as though to block out the images and the hate. There are times, indeed, when we need to do that, when we know we can’t take in any more. It is the nature of Shabbos, to step back and renew, to look beyond. On this Shabbos, whether one is praying on the streets or in the synagogue, may we all take note of a different sense of time and being, pausing in some way in order to renew. If on the streets, pause if even for a moment along the way and offer a prayer, saying to another, singing out, Shabbat shalom, not simply a greeting, but a prayer for peace expressed in the essence of a day. And if in synagogue, hold the same kavannah in saying these two simple words, and be aware in the same way of the depth of our prayerful words and song, closing eyes and imaging walking feet, legs that are praying as well as words, all moved by an inner vision of wholeness, joined together as one. When we have had enough, though, and we close our eyes in pain, may it not be to block out, but to bring in, to see ever more deeply, to envision from within.

        What do we see when we look into ourselves and into the eyes of others? Do we see the love as well as the fear, the strength and nobility as well as the weakness and vulnerability? Do we see the fear even in the eyes of the haters, wondering how the love that surrounds and joins us in resistance might surround them as well, until there is no place for their hate to go but to dissipate? It is the way of nonviolence to allow for that possibility, not to allow their hate to infect us, but in fierce opposition that in its core is nevertheless gentle, yet to love. It is the lesson and the way of making Shabbos each week, to create the change we wish to see all along the way, to live the future now.

It was the way in Charlottesville, so much fear and so much terror, the flags and chants that sickened, love and hate in fateful dance. In the coming together of so many people across so many lines, joined in love and horror, seeking good and goodness, daring to hope. Speaking truth to power, people unimagined, governors and mayors, we are challenged to imagine new coalitions and partners, young and old leading the march together, weeping and praying in synagogues, and churches and mosques, a great call and cry throughout the land. The fear is real, even as we try to look beyond. I felt panic, nausea, in seeing the images of Nazi flags, and the Confederate too, realizing the same sickness felt by African Americans, trying to see what they see, to imagine the psychic memories called forth for them. The hate makes us all as one, and so too shall love.
       I pause and pick up a small piece of glass   sitting on my desk, turning it in my fingers, feeling tears rise. I picked it up out of the grass alongside the New England Holocaust Memorial, a small fragment of shattered glass, glass that remembered shattered lives, glass etched with the numbers that were etched in the skin of so many dead. It was the second time the Memorial had been desecrated this summer, a glass panel smashed with a rock. People gathered in beautiful diversity across all lines, there to support, to stand with the Jewish community. I cried when Izzy Arbeiter spoke, telling of the horrors, a ninety-two year old survivor, instrumental in bringing the Memorial to be. I felt fear, imagining Jews in Germany, in that time and place. I closed my eyes and then opened them. I looked out across the crowd and saw the difference from then to now. We were not alone.
There among the gathered people, I saw Ralf Horlemann, the German Consul General who led our group of twelve Boston area rabbis to Germany last summer on a Journey of Remembrance and Hope. His face reflected pain, pain that he shared later after the ceremony, the pain of his own psychic memories. How can it be to see that flag? I remembered something he said to me when we visited a refugee center near Berlin. I asked him of the meaning of a postcard with the words, “Wir sind viele. Berlin gegen Nazis/We are many. Berlin against Nazis.” I wanted to know if it meant “neo-Nazis.” He looked at me and quietly asked, “does it matter?” I have since preferred not to speak of neo-Nazis, but simply of Nazis.

I had closed my eyes tightly to see beyond. Opening them again, I saw the crowd that had come to embrace our Jewish pain, Christians and Muslims and so many others, a rainbow gathering of diversity, all there together. We are challenged to see, to really see, to see ourselves in all our differences gathered as one. It is the quiet challenge of the weekly Torah portion called Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17); Re’eh/See! anochi noten lifnei’chem ha’yom b’racha u’kla’lah/I am setting before you today blessing and curse. If hate is the curse, then love is the blessing. It is so easy in these days to be sucked down by the hate, to feel the pain and cry. The blessing is not only the love that flows from so many hearts. The blessing is the seeing itself. It is to close our eyes in pain and see the vision within of what might be, to open then and project the vision outward and onto the world.

There has been so much pain and sorrow so much cause for anger and lament. If we really try to see, to close our eyes and open them again, there is an equal measure of good, of hope and love in the way of our response. With eyes both open and closed, may we see the reality of both, as we make our way toward Shabbos, as it comes now and as it shall be in the future when the world is filled with Shabbat shalom. In whatever way you make Shabbos this week, may all be safe and well, joined together with each other and so many others, love surrounding, enveloped by Sabbath peace.

Victor Reinstein

Friday, October 6, 2017

Climate Change




I wrote to my friend in India yesterday asking about the welfare of relatives and friends he has in Houston. He replied that they were scattered but safe. Then I realized he probably also had friends if not relatives threatened by the flooding in South Asia, where thousands have died and millions have been made homeless. The latest reports say 1,000 have died in India alone. India's Prime Minister has been quoted as saying, "climate change and new weather patterns are having 'a big negative effect.'"

I remembered walking in Mumbai during monsoon on one visit there. I was walking in the street in knee deep water. Fortunately, I was with a friend who kept me away from the holes in the road where the rushing water was draining into the catchment systems below. Many, especially children, lost their lives that way. The undertow was strong and sometimes undetected till it was too late.

The reality is that climate change is upon us and affecting the lives and well being of people all over the globe. As we watch the unfolding events in Houston, we might be able to envision what is meant by environmental refugees. We might be able to begin to understand why the U.S. Defense Department has declared climate change a national security concern.

It's interesting to look at climate change through the eyes of the Defense Department. Everyone, at least in politics, seems to find this agency the most credible, given the enormous slice of the pie they are awarded year after year. Public perceptions of their interest in climate change are limited. But military planners have been concerned about the impacts of climate change at least since the George W. Bush administration. Some institutions, like the Naval War College, have been issuing warnings since 1990. And members of the intelligence community have had an ongoing relationship with climate scientists to assess the security implications since 2008.

In 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee requested a report from the Defense Department about the most serious climate related security risks and what they were doing to minimize those risks in their planning processes. The subsequent report mentioned impacts of climate change were already being observed in the U.S., the Arctic, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. The observable impacts included aggravation of problems like poverty; homelessness and large refugee populations; environmental degradation leading to water shortages and famine; and ineffective, weakened and unstable governments.

The largest naval base in the world is at Norfolk, Virginia. It floods about ten times a year. When this happens, the entry road to the base is underwater. Other roads on base are impassable. The concrete piers for the ships are flooded, shorting out power hookups. This all happens today simply because of a full moon that raises higher tides. Sea level at the base has risen 14.5 inches since WW1 when the station was built. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts the naval station will flood 280 times a year by 2100.

             After his confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated how important it was for the military to consider environmental changes like open water routes in a thawing Arctic and drought in trouble spots around the world. For him, these were present day concerns and needed to be included in defense planning and implementation.

But as recently as last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to block any new emphasis in the Defense Department on planning for responding to climate change. The same voices blocking new efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change are often the same voices refusing to help restore the livelihoods of those most affected by it. We saw the lame response of some politicians to Katrina and Sandy, and the non response to many of the most vulnerable, often the poor and people of color. We should insist they open their eyes to the reasons for, and ramifications of, Harvey.


Claiming climate change is "fake news" or "in the hands of God" or somehow irrelevant to our future is now not only immoral but bordering on the criminal. Decision makers who continue to hold hands with the fossil fuel and other corporate interests that keep us on a path to climate catastrophe need to be held accountable. And we need to celebrate those good neighbors who always seem to wade through the waters with a helping hand; who spend 24/7 in the kitchen turning out hot meals; who treat an emergency like an emergency and leave their own lives and well being to turn up with healing and comfort and compassion for the afflicted.

Carl Kline

Friday, September 29, 2017


“By three things is the world sustained...”

          This morning while anticipating commitments in the month of October, I turned the page of my beautiful Jewish art calendar to peruse the coming month and fill in the necessary appointments.  On the art page facing October, beautifully and mystically wrapped by a 12 pointed star (created by superimposing 3 Stars of David) are these words: By three things is the world sustained: by justice, by truth and by peace.
The words come from the Pirkei Avot, a work that is  often translated  as “Ethics of Our Fathers”.
         I don’t have a lot of familiarity with Pirkei Avot, but I have heard these familiar lines from the same body of wisdom:

“If I am only for myself, who am I?”

“Say little and do much”

“You are not obligated to complete the work, 
but neither are you free to desist from it.”
           
           The daily headlines in The Boston Globe are disheartening and frightening, filled with immature name calling, treacherous threats, post  hurricane anguish, NFL protests, more name calling and on and on.
            As I it sit with the ancient words in front of me - meditating on them, if you will, I find them by turns, challenging, condemning, and filled with hope.
            If indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth and by peace, then we are on very shaky ground in this, what used to be considered a shining, democracy.   In too many spheres, justice seems owned by the white and the wealthy.   Truth suddenly has many “alternatives.”  Peace seems more fragile than a spider web in a storm.
            From a highly placed UN podium, the word is declared: every nation for itself!  And  I feel  a profound loss - a shrinking of the expansive boundaries of generosity, of international commitment to one another’s  wellbeing, of dependable friendships that help to keep this planet viable for human existence.   If I am only for myself, who am I ?” 
            So many words - - too many words - -  swords rattling and rampant rumors of war as destructive wordiness fills the headlines.   Ineffective wordiness in the houses of Congress; hyperbolic wordiness and juvenile insults on Twitter and in public rallies - but no positive and creative action on health care or tax reform; no humane development of a sane immigration policy; no life embracing action toward preserving the life of the earth.  I wonder what “the Fathers” encountered as they concluded it was wise to ”Say little and do much.”  
            Still, I am encouraged by the faithful energy of this small island community.  Together we  meet for interfaith study about how to instill in our young people an ethic of concern for “the other” as we read “ACTS OF FAITH” by Eboo Patel.  The book plainly lets us know that even as young people can be taught to hate and fear, they can also be taught to embrace and care for the stranger - - faith communities and  and schools need to be more proactive.  I am encouraged by the annual “Living Local” festival at the Agricultural Hall, with booths and displays drawn from every corner of island life in an attempt to educate us all about our role in sustaining the holy life of this planet.  
            A premier island grocer is figuring out how to sustain his profits while providing steep discounts for islanders to be sure that our elders and our immigrant population can afford to shop in his markets.  These modest efforts are thousands of miles from the centers of power. We are in a place where we might be tempted to throw up our hands in helpless despair at things over which we have little control.  But the ancient wisdom dictates otherwise. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
            If, indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth, and by peace, then even a small island in the Atlantic is both judged and challenged...and blessed by the “Ethics of Our Fathers.”   We dare not lose sight of the power of simple actions that keep faith with the care and concern for others and for the earth in focus.  And even though we may have cause to wonder if the grass roots actions we take have any effect on the whole in the end, we are never free to simply slack off and hope that someone else will do the job. 

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 22, 2017


The Prayer of a Small Folding Challah Knife
September 22, 2017

One of my treasured ritual items is a small folding challah knife that came to me a few years ago when my wife and I were in Israel. It feels that indeed it did come to me. I had searched for one through many decades since first seeing such a knife for cutting the Sabbath bread when I was a young student in Jerusalem just starting out on my journey. At some point I found a contemporary one, made with a plastic handle and a blade of stainless steel. It did not have a story and never moved me, eventually disappearing during one move or another. During that more recent visit to Israel I made it a point to go into every little store where I might find antique Judaica. I asked many store keepers if they had one, if they had ever seen one. Here and there, one would nod, “no,” they did not have one but had seen one once. Sometimes a friendly storekeeper would direct me to another store, and perhaps from there I would be directed to another. Whether offered a friendly and sympathetic smile or a brusque and dismissive wave of the hand, as though such a thing did not exist, the end result was the same, no folding challah knife.

On our last Friday in Jerusalem during that visit, as we made our way home late in the day to get ready for Shabbos, we went into one more store. It was the week of the Torah portion called Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1). The store was next to the car rental office from which we would leave for the north on Sunday. As I asked my question, the storekeeper pointed to a display case in which there were two folding challah knives. One had a pearl handle and the word “Marienbad” engraved on a section of metal between two sections of pearl. This begins to explain one of the reasons for a folding challah knife. Jewish tourists would take one with them when traveling, easier to carry than a larger challah knife. Marienbad was a tourist destination that was popular with Jews. The other knife is the one that eventually became mine. We held our breath as we asked the cost, releasing our breath with sorrow, knowing it was too expensive. When we came to pick up the rental car on Sunday morning, my wife said she was going to go back into the antique store. Time passed as I waited in the car. When I saw her in the rear view mirror, I realized that she had a small paper bag in her hand. It was the knife, an agreement having been made. I wanted to believe that the meaning I attached to the knife had touched the storekeeper, as I hoped it would now touch others through my sharing.

         The handle of my small folding challah knife is of old ivory, somewhat yellowed with age. Not quite six inches in length when folded, the knife was probably made in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. There is no place name engraved in the center of the handle. Rather, on both sides of the center plate, there is a word. Beautifully etched in black ink, as though by a fine scribal hand, are the words, Shabbos Kodesh/the Holy Sabbath. The blade, which opens in the way of a jackknife, is dark and stained. I imagine the many hands that have opened it over the years of its life, imagining what it would say if it could speak and tell its story. The fact that it does not have a place name engraved on it, suggests the other reason for such a challah knife, the reason that inspired my search over so many years.

There is a custom that I follow with care, to remove knives from the table before singing Birkat Ha’Mazon, the series of blessings that are said following a meal in which bread has been eaten. A folding knife does not need to be removed, the blade remaining hidden throughout the meal, opened only as needed for cutting bread. The removal of knives is based on the commandment in the Torah portion called Yitro, Exodus 20:22, concerning the building of an altar. There we are told that an altar must be built only of un-hewn stones, so that no steel tool shall come upon them. Later in the Torah (Deut. 27:6), such uncut stones are called avanim sh’laymot/whole stones or, quite literally, peaceful stones. The word for steel tool is charb’cha/your sword; ki charb’cha haynafta aleyha va’t’cha’l’leha/for if you have wielded your sword over one (of the stones), you will have desecrated it. In a beautiful midrash, the rabbis teach that the altar is made to prolong the years of a person and iron is made to shorten the years of a person. It is not right for that which shortens life to be lifted up against that which prolongs life…. How much the more then should one who establishes peace between one person and another, between spouse and spouse, between city and city, between nation and nation, between family and family, between government and government, be protected so that no harm should come upon them.” The human being is the ultimate altar, every person a potential peacemaker against whom the sword should not be raised.

Crying for peace in the midst of war, far more than swords unsheathed now, I found the small folding challah knife in the week of Torah portion Pinchas, the week in which the Gaza war of 2014 had begun. As we drove north, we passed many columns of armored vehicles making their way south. My small knife, carefully carried now in my pack, became a prayerful symbol for me. As it came to me in a context of violence, so its connection to Pinchas, a portion whose name tells of a violent zealot who took the law into his own hands in the face of Israel’s seduction into Midianite idolatry. From out of that context, as is often the case, the rabbis weave a teaching of nonviolence, drawing from within the text itself a challenge to the violence on the surface. At the end of the previous Torah reading, called Balak, we are told that Pinchas rose up/va’yakam and took/va’yikach a spear, the spear with which he then killed two people, Zimri, an Israelite prince, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess.

Beyond the context of the killing and the moral challenges with which the rabbis wrestle and which torment us, the rabbis offer a remarkable teaching that becomes codified into Jewish law. It is assumed that as part of a meeting of elders Pinchas was in the Beit Midrash/House of Study. Because he had to get up and go to get his spear it is deduced that he did not have it with him. From that, a commandment evolves that one is forbidden to bring a weapon into a synagogue or house of study. In a beautifully sensitive commentary that draws on the ancient teaching concerning steel upon the altar, the Mishna B’rurah, an early twentieth century legal work by the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, teaches, the synagogue, which is uniquely intended for prayer, increases the days of a person, while a knife shortens the days of a person/l’fi she’beyt ha’k’nesset she’hu m’yuchad la’t’fillah ma’arechet yamav shel adam v’ha’sakin m’katzer y’mei adam. In an earthy legal discussion of practical import, the question is asked about students who spend all of their time in the Beit Midrash, what should they do if they need a knife to cut their food? The answer is that they may use a knife so that they do not have to leave their studies for too long, but they should cover the blade when it is not in use and when they say the blessings after the meal.

In approaching Shabbos each week, I think of this teaching and of how a small folding challah knife represents the ultimate removal of the sword. On this Shabbos of Parashat Pinchas, named for a man of violence whose blade cut down human altars, I draw hope from the rabbis’ way of teaching nonviolence in the midst of violence. It is a way of transformation that calls for us to do the same, challenging and transforming violence in text and in life. As the altar of un-hewn stones was meant to bring people together for the sharing of a sacred meal, so for us the Shabbos table, the sword not to be raised upon it, even blades for cutting bread to be covered in order to remind. Toward the day that is all Shabbos, of lessons learned in simple ways, swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, that is my prayer and the prayer of a small folding challah knife.

 Victor Reinstein