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