Friday, December 28, 2018

Of Dread and Hope and the Quest for Wholeness - The Covenant Between the Pieces

On a long ago Shabbos in the week of reading the Torah portion Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), while a rabbinical student in Jerusalem,  I participated in a retreat just outside of the city. The retreat was held at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Ha’chamisha, on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The entrance to the kibbutz is near where relics of the 1948 war litter the roadside, the remains of military vehicles, of trucks that carried soldiers to battle, of tanks that tell of the deadly “progress” of weaponry when compared to the killing machines of today. The relics are preserved for posterity, whether to remind or to warn. If to warn, then of what they warn is left to passersby on the highway, whether the path of time shall lead to never ending war, or to a time when all weapons shall be as rusting relics by the roadside.

The Jerusalem to Tel Aviv highway passes through the broken pieces of military hardware, a reminder of our failure to find other ways to resolve conflict and create wholeness. That is the image that I still remember bringing to the retreat, having passed through the pieces just before arriving. On that Shabbos of Lech L’cha, the focus of our learning was not on the compelling opening of the parsha, not on the words themselves, Lech L’cha, and the start of the journey of the Jewish people. We did not look at the rich Chassidic reading, though drawn from ancient insight, that understands the two words not as a strong imperative, you shall surely go!,  but as a call to go to yourself. While that did not seem to be the focus, perhaps it really was, but approached from another vantage point.

I still remember vividly that the study focus of that Lech L’cha retreat was from a bit further on in the parsha, on chapter 15. I still remember being mesmerized by the imagery in that chapter, left with questions and wrestling that remain until today, questions that come to me year after year as we arrive at this stopping point, this place of retreat in the turning of Torah. Not yet called Abraham, Avram is afraid, feeling broken, feeling as though there is no future. Desperately wanting children, he and Sarai, not yet called Sarah, have despaired of that ever coming to be. God has in fact already told Avram to look up into the heavens and count the stars, promising that so shall their seed be for multitude. But Avram could not hear the promise from the midst of his own despair.

Perhaps as therapist now, God realizes that Avram needs to do something, to move, to create symbolically a new reality, one that emerges from the broken pieces of the reality in which he stands. In a strange and eerie ritual, God tells Avram to take several animals, three calves, and three goats, and three rams, and then a turtle-dove and a young pigeon. He is to cut the larger animals in half, placing the halves opposite each other, leaving a path between them.  All unfolding in the context of a vision, Avram does as he is told and then falls into a deep sleep. He is overcome by dread, a great darkness/ayma cha’shay’cha g’dolah.   When the sun sets in the vision-dream, a smoking furnace and a flaming torch pass between the pieces. God has told Avram of both the trials and tribulations that shall befall his descendants, an ironic affirmation that indeed he and Sarai shall have children, and also of the wholeness that he shall know. He is told that he shall go to his ancestors in peace, to be buried in a good old age. That is understood by tradition to mean that the two children yet to be born, Yishmael son of Avram and Hagar, and Yitzchak, son of Avram and Sarai, driven apart by the jealousies of adults, shall find wholeness in the turning of generations. God then makes a covenant with Avram, offering a promise of future. That covenant is called B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim/The Covenant Between the Pieces.

      Ever since that long ago Shabbos spent at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hachamisha, I have been fascinated by the B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim. I have at times felt haunted by the image of the “smoking furnace” and “flaming torch” that passed between the pieces, by the unmistakable Holocaust images that rise unbidden, the smoky stench of burning flesh almost palpable. As I recall, that was part of the focus of our learning on that Shabbos. Themselves touched by the haunting imagery, the rabbis read into the text. From the slavery in Egypt, of which the Torah tells, Avram is then told of the trials his children will face, of later oppressions and exiles, the oppressions of Babylon, of Persia, of Greece, and Rome. It is hard from our place in time not to add the ultimate trial of the Sh’oah, dread, a great darkness/ayma cha’shay’cha g’dolah.

From the very first time I traveled from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and saw the wreckage of war along the roadside, associations that came to be made with Parashat Lech L’cha, I have felt the vision of Avram to be as a wrestling toward wholeness in the struggle for peace among people. I have felt his dread and his hope to be a legacy for all of his children and theirs, for the whole human family, siblings all. It is a legacy of dread that each generation shall continue to litter the roadside with its tools of war. Avram’s dread becomes our hope when the dread is felt strongly enough as our own to shake us free, impelling us to change. It is Avram’s legacy of hope that we shall heed the warning and put an end to the strife that divides us all along the path of life.

           Of divisions within our selves, for the first time in all the turnings of Torah since that long ago Shabbos of Parashat Lech L’cha, I have encountered the Covenant Between the Pieces in a different way this year. Perhaps a new understanding has emerged in relation to stories of people’s lives I have heard in these times. Perhaps it comes of brokenness encountered in the quiet weeping of people among us, perhaps in the face of all the pain for all the wreckage left along the roadside by the hubris, the belligerence, and violence of these times. In my reading of Parashat Lech L’cha this year, I have found in the B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim a covenant that emerges from brokenness, a covenant and its promise made with all of those who make their way through the broken pieces of the world and of their lives. As God says to Abraham, so to us, do not be afraid/al tira.

The Covenant Between the Pieces/B’rit Beyn Hab’tarim is the covenant that speaks to me in these days. It is a covenant made from in the midst of brokenness, one that calls us to see the broken pieces, even of our own making, that litter the way forward. And yet, it calls us to go forward, to see the light ahead that shines beyond the trials of the journey. As God promises to be with us, so we promise to be there with and for each other, in common cause hope already instilled. The Covenant Between the Pieces offers the hope of healing in the midst of brokenness. Walking on the way between all the broken pieces, whether the relics of war or the struggles of our own lives, we affirm the very human covenant of what it means to walk with hope through the brokenness of our lives and of the world, and so to live.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 21, 2018

Eyes Remade For Wonder*

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner ‘s book *Eyes Remade For Wonder begins this way: Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, author of one of the great works of Eastern European mystical theology, the Sefas Emes, commented that when Jacob dreamed about a ladder joining heaven and earth, he had attained a level of spiritual awareness that would have filled most people with pride.  God had spoken to him personally and assured him of a successful future.  Instead, however, Jacob was overcome with reverence. “And Jacob awoke from his sleep....Shaken, he said ‘How awesome is this place!’” To our surprise, however, Jacob’s ego does not get bigger, it gets smaller! Such reverence, says the Gerer Rebbe, is a sure sign that someone is on to a great truth.  Indeed, every event that occasions reverence also participates in ultimate truth. “Reverence is the beginning and the end of everything.”[1]

                About five days ago, I had my left eye “done” - - cataract surgery.  I had heard all kinds of stories about the various improvements in vision that I might expect.   None of them prepared me for the experience of waking up on the day following the surgery.   I came down stairs to breakfast and as I looked out at the birthing sunrise,  my first response was that “Oh my, I have lost a certain quality of color” - it was as thought some parts of the spectrum were missing.   I experimented with closing first one eye and then the other and it was only a matter of moments before I realized that I was having an  experience  of a clarity of vision I had been missing for the last few years. Rather than losing color,  I was seeing more of the spectrum than I have seen in a long time.  I stood in awe as I watched the sun rise - - witnessing shades of purest blue in the pink and orange and lavender light array that I had not seen before. 

I moved to our south facing kitchen window where I enjoy the daily ritual of watching the morning sun illuminate a tall, silvery, skeletal oak tree - long dead but refusing to truly die.  With each sunrise it seems as though the glory of God is revealed when the light softly moves up its branches.  With my new eye, the light reflected in its familiar structure took my breath away - - literally breath-taking!  The difference between what I saw as glory with my right eye (the “undone” eye) and what I am now able to see with my left eye left me feeling weak-kneed with free flowing tears tracking down my face.  With Jacob, I felt the truth vibrating within me: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

        For the rest of the day I moved about my world closing first my left eye and viewing life through the mist of the remaining cataract in my right eye and then closing my right eye and viewing the world through the clarity of my new lense.   How many times can one say “WOW!” in the course of one day?  The title of Kushner’s book came to mind - - my eye has been “remade for wonder”  and the effect is one of awe and reverence for the profound beauty I encounter in each moment.

I have been contemplating this experience - knowing that it is transitory.  When I have the second surgery in a few weeks, the contrast will disappear.  Both eyes will soon see the same array of color. All will soon become “normal.”  Something in me wants to extract every drop of meaning from what I experience in this “in between” time - to delight in the contrast for as long as possible - - to stay in this awesome place that is the gateway to heaven, to dwell in the glory from moment to moment.

But then a second sacred story comes to mind.   Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a mountain top where his glory is revealed to them.  They offer to create three dwellings there - perhaps a way to contain the glory, to preserve the moment for themselves.  But the master teacher leads them back down the mountain, informed and inspired - -  transformed by what they have known, but forbidden to speak of it as they go back to the work of servant-hood in the valley. (Matthew 17:1-9) He guards against their ego needs.

How easy it would be to get caught up in “the ego” that would keep things as they are for the ongoing enjoyment of the bliss, the constant return to the light and the glory and the beauty - - and yet, I find it is also becoming a distraction in its own way.  In mid-moment, I find myself being drawn to blinking my eyes to enjoy the contrast, forgetting that I may be engaged in conversation with another person -leaving the present momentarily to enjoy what only I can see.  So easy to fall into the subtlety of  attachment to the fleeting knowledge of the holy - - grasping - - holding on - - thus creating an un-holiness, an un-wholeness out of a holy but transitory gift.

Baruch Hashem!!  Blessed is the One who inspires teachers like the Gerer Rebbe, teachers like Jesus, who remind and correct and re-direct us with their knowledge and awareness that glimpses of holiness are not meant to be grasped.  They are  instances of transformation.  They are brilliance to light us on our paths in awe and reverence,  gifts that challenge our attachments even to the revelation of the Holy.

So - the second appointment is made.  In a few weeks my eyes will “normalize.”    Even so, I like to think that my eyes have, indeed, been remade for wonder - that my vision will be clearer - - that clarity of vision will indeed lead to a state of reverence that is the beginning and the end of everything.

          From time to time, we humans need “eyes remade for wonder” and especially in these dark and confusing times when reverence for life, for the planet, for order,
for each other and even for ourselves, seems gone missing.   May we be blessed in the New Year with clarity of vision - - with eyes remade for wonder.

Vicky Hanjian

[1] Rabbi Lawrence Kushner  Eyes Remade For Wonder Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT.   1998.   p.3

Friday, December 14, 2018

In Accordance With the Pace of Children - For Leo and Ruby

            Of seasons dancing out of time and sequence, joined and juxtaposed in imaginary play, and if we are lucky, willing and wise, then to follow according to the pace of the children. So it happened on a late fall day that in looking ahead to winter, seeds of spring were planted and flowers of summer grew.

Ever since seeing a video of his zayde pushing a snow blower through the aftermath of a blizzard, our oldest grandchild, six-year old Leo, has wanted a snow blower of his own. I tell him each time he asks that I have spoken to his parents and they promise that when it snows in Los Angeles they will get him one. Rather than wait for that unlikely event, I took Leo and four-year old sister Ruby to shop for a snow blower this week. For a number of years, we have owned a snow blower together with several of our neighbors, adding a communal dimension to snow removal that feels right, needing to be in touch with each other in the face of every storm, warmed by the need to communicate and coordinate, to know that all are well. Our old machine wore out by the end of last winter and we needed to get a new one before the snows of this winter. I offered to do some research and to go look at a new machine.

On the very morning that Leo, Ruby, six-month old Wolfie, and their parents arrived this week, I asked the two elder siblings if they would like to come with me to look at and maybe even buy a snow blower. Though a bit bleary from an all night flight from Los Angeles, they were thrilled to finally get a snow blower, agreeing that it would stay here in Boston for us to use. Meeting one of our neighbors at the store, the kids delighted in reaching up to the handgrips of different machines, checking the tires, turning cranks and pressing buttons. There was some consternation concerning color. Leo wanted a blue snow blower, and, yes, Ruby wanted a pink one. They finally agreed that because the only choices were red or orange, orange would be okay because that is the color Oma wanted. After some discussion with a salesperson, we decided it would be the nice big orange one. We then went inside to do the paperwork and actually purchase Leo and Ruby’s brand new snow blower.

As I stood at the counter, I realized that the salesperson was looking over my shoulder. I had been oblivious to the sounds of children coming from somewhere in the store behind me. “Are they yours?” the man asked. At first I was flattered, wondering if he really thought I could be their father. Hesitating for a moment, not wishing to dispel my own sweet illusion, I said, “Well, they’re my grandchildren.” I quickly realized that he was not concerned about my ego, or with generational niceties. Putting his pen down, the man leaned toward me and with measured tone as cold as the flying snow said with a rather loud, feigned whisper, “could you ask them to put the rake back?”

         Walking over to Leo and Ruby, I was mesmerized by their impromptu game. As we were planning for the coming New England snow, these two foreigners from southern California were in the midst of sunny gardens of spring and summer. I paused for a moment to watch, realizing that the storekeeper’s eyes were fixed on me, a snow blower sale waiting to be completed. There was that rake to be removed in Leo’s right hand. In his left hand, poised above Ruby’s head, was a large watering can, apparently unseen by the storekeeper. As Leo poured imaginary water over his sister’s head, he said, “okay, you’re the flower and now you are growing.” As I delayed for one more moment the mission for which I had been sent out into the fields, I heard Leo say to Ruby, “okay, now you be the farmer and I will be the flower.” Spellbound, I asked these two farmers and flowers if they thought they could just use the watering can now that they had softened and furrowed the earth. Gently putting the rake back on its hook, I returned to the coming winter and the task at hand, ever so grateful for the gift of childhood’s season and for the opportunity to pause and go, if but for a moment, at the pace of the children.

           On the car ride home, I thought about the weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43), one verse shimmering in the rear view mirror as I looked at Leo and Ruby in the back seat. Jacob is returning to Canaan, dreaming his great dream of wrestling in the night (Gen. 32:23-30), fear and hope entwined on the eve of encountering his brother after twenty years apart. Having fled from home after twice tricking his brother, fleeing from Esau’s threat to kill him, Jacob is now told that Esau is coming with four hundred armed men. With an elaborate plan set in place to assuage his brother’s anger, all is put aside at the moment of encounter as Jacob rushes toward Esau and the two brothers fall into each other’s arms weeping. After their tearful reunion, both parties prepare to go on. Esau suggests that they travel together, but Jacob demurs. A moment of tangled emotions and possibilities, we are left to wonder what if, what if they had gone on together. However much it may have been an unfortunate matter of avoidance, the reason that Jacob gives for not going on together is one that I have always treasured and found great meaning in, and now even more so. Jacob says to Esau, My lord knows that the children are tender/ha’y’ladim rakim…; Let my lord, please, pass on before his servant, and I will continue to move at my own quiet pace…, in accordance with the pace of the children/l’regel ha’y’ladim…(Gen. 33:13-14).

While Jacob has also said that he will go at the pace of the animals, that they not be overdriven, the emphasis is on the children. It is the children who are called rakim/tender. It is a word most often sorely mistranslated later on in the Torah (Deut. 20:8). Among those who are to be sent home from battle is the young recruit who is described as ha’yarei v’rach ha’levav, generally translated as afraid and fainthearted. Drawing from father Jacob’s words, hardly to be seen as suggesting cowardice, we might better understand this would be soldier as “one who is of reverential and tender heart.” As was every soldier once, and all who would raise a fist or weapon to harm, this one too was once a tender child, counted among those at whose pace we would do well to go.
  So too, it is said of mother Leah, that she was of tender eyes/v’eyney Leah rakot. In learning to go at the pace of the children perhaps we shall our selves retain as adults some of that tenderness that Jacob saw and sought to protect in the little ones. Perhaps, as well, if we could see through the tender eyes of Leah, we might also see within and discover our own place of tenderness. The pace of the children is not only about physical pace, but about a way of thinking and feeling, of mind and heart and imagination.

If we can learn to go in accordance with the pace of the children/l’regel ha’y’ladim, learning to pause in the midst of life’s transactions, we may be blessed to enter a garden in which seasons merge in time. In the face of winter’s portent, to go at Jacob’s quiet pace, yet to plant seeds of spring and summer flowers, Leo and Ruby called their game “Farmers and Flowers.” The snow blower was purchased, and before even the first snow had fallen we had already learned of its deeper use and purpose, magically shaping a path to the garden, the little children leading. Through drifts in time and of seasons juxtaposed, we shall get to Eden yet if we would but learn to go in accordance with the pace of the children/l’regel ha’y’ladim.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 7, 2018


We have a tradition of going to the home of my wife's brother for Thanksgiving. This year we went up the night before and stayed till mid afternoon of the holiday.  Since they are both still working and don't have nine to five jobs, we work around their schedules and still manage to get in plenty of catch up conversations and meaningful memories.  

As usual, clergy that I am, they asked me to say grace as we sat down for our Thanksgiving meal. This time I informed them I wanted to share an informal grace. It was actually more of a homily. 

I spoke about the cartoon I had posted on my Facebook page a day earlier. An inter-generational family is sitting down for their Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey in the center of the table. The little girl asks her parents and grandparents, who have stunned looks on their faces, "Why aren't we this thankful every day?"

        Then I mentioned Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a couple of wonderful videos on You Tube I show my students every semester on "gratitude." One of them is called "A Good Day." It has some beautiful still photographs of all the things we generally take for granted but make every day "a good day" for us, like clean running water and the amazing variety and subtlety of the natural world. He reminds us that each day is a gift. If we treat each day like the first or last day of our lives, we can do nothing but be grateful and open our eyes to all the beauty around us.

Then I recalled a conversation my wife and I had earlier in the week about smiling. How others, as we went about our day, seemed to brighten when we smiled at them, whether they were known to us or unknown. I was reminded how smiles work some of the muscles in our faces that effect the rest of our body and our mind as well.

The informal grace concluded with my confession that I sometimes found it hard to be grateful. There was so much suffering and evil abroad that the darkness could invade my mind and thoughts. I confessed that two people had admonished me recently about being too negative, especially in my written words. I admitted that the prophetic task of naming the negative, of striving to speak truth to power, was too much with me. I felt the need to balance the words of both judgment and mercy. 

The informal prayer ended as a petition, for the grace to smile and be grateful persons, every day. That was our Thanksgiving prayer.

After dinner they brought out a game that has also become a tradition. It brings with it a barrel of laughs. Without fail, we all succumb to the laughter that brings tears and by the time we stop the endorphins have permeated our systems and provided day long satisfaction.

The sun was beautiful in a blue sky on the drive home, reflecting off the snowy fields. Pheasants littered the ditches and occasionally flew in front of us. We watched a continuous Steindl-Rast still photo. Even when we entered a fog bank that enfolded us for several miles the good feeling of the day kept anxiety and worry away. There was the complete conviction the fog would disappear at the appropriate height or twist in the highway. It did.

    We arrived home in high spirits, till we turned on the evening news. We watched the troops eating their Thanksgiving meal in tents on the southern border and putting razor wire on top of fences already built. The President, with troops in Florida near Mar a Lago, said he had authorized the use of deadly force for anyone crossing the border illegally. We heard the President strike out at Justice Roberts and "Obama judges" and voice continued support for Saudi Arabia in the face of the Khashoggi murder. We heard the wildfire death toll go higher in California.
       It's hard to be grateful for every day, when each day features acts of aggression, of fighting and bullying, of hate and division. It's hard to be grateful when you have a President who believes every slight or every disagreement is a provocation to war and a media that joins in the fray with relish.

I give thanks for a friend who ended my day, after the evening news, with this Thanksgiving prayer.
"Giving thanks today for the compassionate people: the lovers, helpers, givers and healers, who see more than just themselves, who move through the world with open hands and not closed fists. Thank you. Keep going. It matters."

Carl Kline

Friday, November 30, 2018

Infusing the Gifts of Human Hand and Mind With Gifts of Heart

Somewhere back in hoary antiquity, at least in the realm of modern technology, perhaps in the late ‘80’s or early 90’s, I was at a meeting of rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia. Cell phones were still a curiosity, and turning the pages of books still more common in the quest for knowledge and information than online searches. Keeping in mind how far we have moved since that time, and holding the excitement and trepidation that comes with standing at the cusp of change, it is not surprising that I vividly remember the program that provided the learning content of that meeting.

While I don’t remember the technological details of set-up, one of our colleagues projected images of Talmud pages on a screen. With great excitement he spoke of how before long we won’t need the actual books, all that we want will be available online. As I wondered just what that meant and just how a rabbi, a teacher among the People of the Book, could imagine a time without actual books, I raised my hand. My question was snarky and I still regret the impolite way with which I asked it. In the face of his excitement, though, I asked, “but can you smell the page, can you feel the print, can you discover margin notes from a long ago hand that caressed the page…?”

I have never forgotten that moment, often reflecting on where the question came from and of its deeper meaning beyond the way of its delivery. I was really asking about connection and of engagement, of the book as something precious beyond the words on its pages. It is not at all that I am against technological advancement. An important challenge is whether there is really advancement, or if in advancing in one realm we take a step backward in another.

             Once having fancied myself as a Luddite, I fully acknowledge that I am no longer part of that club. I use a smart phone, delighting in texts of another sort, which at times are also holy, my Shabbos text messages to my children remaining my phone’s most important weekly use. I certainly use online searches for both Jewish texts and general information. The concerns raised by my younger self’s insensitively asked question, are concerns that need to be asked in regard to all technology. For every technological advancement, so many of great benefit, but not all, we need to ask what steps are we are going to inadvertently take in the other direction, remembering to ask what will be lost?

It is well recognized that as a society we have become far more solitary in our constant use of electronic devices. Staring at a screen for so many of our waking hours, dare we ask how much direct contact with people is lost? While Skype and FaceTime are miraculous in allowing us to see people far away, we also quickly realize their limitations, as in seeing grandchildren in Los Angeles, yet remaining unable to touch them. I cried with that realization a few years ago when we helped my dad (of blessed memory) to Skype with his great grandchildren. At one point, without any sense of irony, he reached his hand to the screen and began to caress the little ones brought to him on beams of light, their images refracted now through crystal tears.

I had not thought to go in this direction as I reflected on the nature of technology. More sinister questions had been on my mind in reading the weekly Torah portion of No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32). The portion begins with a very familiar story, earth so filled with violence that it could not be sustained, a great flood destroying all that was and had been, No’ach told to build an ark, then riding out the storm, preserving life and the possibility of its future. By the end of the portion, violence and arrogance have again filled the earth. God has promised never again to destroy the earth, yet waiting for us to make the same promise. At the end of the portion people come together to build a mighty city with a great tower whose top shall reach to the heaven… (Gen. 11:4).
The defining purpose of their endeavor is carried in the words that come next, and let us make a name for ourselves…. Of their seeking to storm the heavens, the great commentator Rashi (10th century France) speaks of this as a war with God, interpreting their words to suggest, let us go up above and make a war with God…. This is in stark contrast to Avram’s intention in the next portion when in building an altar he then proclaimed in the name of God.

The question for the most part is how we use our creative gifts, whether for good or ill. Speaking of those who built the Tower of Babel, the rabbis teach, their arrogance came from the good that had been given to them…. The question becomes how we use that which our minds and hands are able to create. Of the clay that is used to make the bricks for the tower, a Chassidic teaching looks at the word for clay, chomer, a word that is used to refer to all material substance. So we learn that the material realm needs to serve as a mediating influence, helping to strengthen the spiritual realm…. And yet, there is that which we have created that is a technological monstrosity, that which is evil in its essence, which threatens all life in its ability to undo all of creation in a nuclear flash.

            From the technology of online books and the search for knowledge to the technology of nuclear destruction is a long stretch, a reach across a chasm of diverse realities. The common denominator is to be aware and wary in our use and celebration of technology, to recognize the limits of devices and what is lost in their use. Even in using an online book, we can still sit with a learning partner and share in the joy of learning, words still to be as a bridge that joins. At times to take an old book and smell the page and feel the old print, inspired in the quest for knowledge whether with new medium or old. Neither at war with God nor with people, may we receive with humility the gifts of human hand and mind and infuse them with gifts of heart.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, November 23, 2018

In The Echo of the Shattering

In the echo of the shattering, amidst all the brokenness of today, we pause to take stock and to remember. It is hard to imagine the terror felt by German and Austrian Jews on that autumn day eighty years ago, November 9, 1938. It is the day that has come to be known as Kristallnach, the Night of Broken Glass. In Germany’s own reckoning with its legacy of guilt, this day has come be known more aptly as the Reichspogromnacht, the Reich’s pogrom night. It is stronger and more descriptive of what happened and how than Night of Glass, Night of crystal.

 Beyond a name, this was the beginning of the Shoah in earnest. The figures that tell of the destruction that happened in little more than a twenty-four hour period are staggering. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Thirty-six were murdered, some sources saying as many as ninety-one. Seven thousand five hundred Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized and/or set ablaze. Two hundred and sixty-seven synagogues were burned, seventy-six completely destroyed. Neighbors turned their backs, firefighters stood aside and watched the flames rise, prevented by the Nazi hoodlums from acting to quench the fires, even if they would.

In the echo of the shattering, the questions that weren’t asked that night pulsate across time and space, calling us to bear witness in our time, not to turn our backs as others did to us. What happens when neighbors become strangers and strangers become other? What happens when strangers are treated as other rather than as the neighbor who is to be loved? Thirty-six times the Torah reminds not to wrong or oppress a stranger, bringing it home personally, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt/ki gerim he’yitem b’eretz mitzrayim. The needs of the other are to be felt deep within our selves, felt as our own, felt in our bones, in our kishkes (innards), in our souls, for you know the soul of the stranger/v’atem y’datem et nefesh ha’ger (Ex. 23:9). It is about human connection. We are joined soul to soul with all who are oppressed. Our caring is held in the web of life as woven from the very beginning. The rabbis asked why the first human was created as one. And they answered, so that no one could say, “My ancestor was greater than yours.”

In the echo of the shattering, the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch were prescient in nineteenth century Germany, calling us to account today: “The treatment accorded by a state to the aliens living within its jurisdiction is the most accurate indication of the extent to which justice and harmony prevail in that state.” Long before it would ever be a reality, his words were meant as a challenge to his own people for when there would be a Jewish state, and as a standard of decency to every nation that presumes a collective conscience. In the irony of that presumption, we weep today with the statue of liberty who speaks with the Jewish voice of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free….”

 In the echo of the shattering, we remember what it means when all lives don’t matter equally. In Germany, two years ago, I could hear the echo, and I wondered then as I stood on a Berlin street corner, what if people had screamed out on that day eighty years ago, “Jewish Lives Matter?” Instead, we were blamed for Germany’s troubles. Jewish neighbors, long trusted and respected, became other, became strangers. Carefully calibrated and planned by the government, the violence that day was attributed to the passions of ordinary people, citizens lashing out with patriotic fervor in defense of the “fatherland.” The timing was not an accident, twenty years nearly to the day of the end of World War I, Jews blamed for Germany’s defeat and humiliation.

In the echo of the shattering, a reminder that blame is a dangerous game. In the weekly Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9), the Philistine king, Avimelech, turned on Yitzchak and those who had settled in the land with him. Long respected as sojourners and neighbors among the Philistines, Avimelech becomes jealous and fearful as he sees Yitzchak’s success. In the span of just a few words, so simple, so sudden, envy takes root among the people, and we are told: the Philistines became envious of him (Gen. 26:14). And then, Yitzchak and his people are sent away. Would that eighty years ago it had only been a matter of exile.

        In the echo of the shattering, there is also something else, something that could not have been imagined in 1938, or in other times of jealousy and hate, of xenophobia and bigotry. There is a call to conscience in the air today, a call to repair, a throbbing challenge and reminder not to turn our backs on anyone. Neighbors all, no one is other, no one a stranger. Unlike then, we know today that as we stand with others, others are standing with us, that we are not alone as we stand with and for each other. Eighty years later, in the echo of the shattering, there is a song of hope.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, November 16, 2018

Suffering and Transformation

                  When I have quiet time or am engaged in some activity that doesn’t require my whole attention, like  washing windows or doing the dinner dishes or scrubbing the bathroom shower, my mind wanders to thoughts about how to live in this world of conflict and division and violence and suffering and disrespect.   Sometimes it is hard to hold a spacious mind and heart and pull back far enough to glimpse the Big Picture - - to actually see if there is meaning in what I experience as a kind of insult or assault on my sensibilities with each day’s headlines or news reports.  I wonder if we are on some irreparable path of destruction from which we will not recover or are we on a long and tortuous path to some kind of wholeness, the end point of which we cannot yet see.

As if in dialogue with my inner musings, the daily meditation that I receive in my morning email from Richard Rohr (Center for Contemplation and Action) gave me some more verbal tools for the inner wrestling:

Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (see Luke 11:29; Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead us  into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.   Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. The separate and sufficient self has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is (but does not recognize yet): the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use whatever words you want. It is who we fundamentally are in God and who God is dwelling in us. Once we are transplanted to this solid place, we are largely indestructible! But then we must learn to rest there, and not just make occasional forays into momentary union. That is the work of our whole lifetime.

Whew!!  Maybe that thought expands the picture too much and too quickly!  Just getting my head around the notion that we may be in the “belly of the beast” - or in the “refiner’s fire” (to use a different metaphor from Malachi 3:2), part of a grand process of cleansing and redemption that will take us to a deeper level of “humanity aware of its divinity” is a bit mind altering to say the least.

I went with a friend to see a one woman performance titled “ETTY” last night.  An hour long glimpse into the life and thought and spirit of Etty Hillesum, taken from her diaries while awaiting her fate as a Jewish woman during WWII in Holland in 1941.  

       This is how Etty describes the indestructible nature of the True Self in the midst of all the horrors of the Westerbork transit camp, a staging ground for the deportation of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust:

This morning, while I stood at the tub with a colleague, I said with great emotion something like this: “The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering doesn’t really matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.” [1]

Another mind bending take on the transformational possibilities of immense suffering. 

Each week as I return home from Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday and then from Sunday morning worship, I feel gratitude for the communities in which I find grounding and strength for living through the coming week and healing for my spirit of the spiritual wounds encountered in the prior week.   The morning meditations from Richard Rohr are another resource for each day.  Buddhist reflections on simplicity and loving kindness from Christina Feldman are an ongoing source of inspiration. 

I am  seeing that my hunger for community and for spiritual strength and wisdom are part of a transformational process that is going on in me in response to the daily unfolding of events in the headlines.  Maybe my ego is truly undergoing a gradual process of “dismantling” as I recognize “the teacher” veiled in the grubbiness of the social and political milieu. 

Now, if I could only stand back far enough to be able to see and know whether the vast social, political, ecological, economic and spiritual suffering on this planet is indeed working a collective transformational process that “destabilizes the imperial ego”  of systems and politicians in the service of the human spirit.  I am impatient for some reassurance that this is so.  But maybe witnessing and acknowledging  my own process will have to be enough for now.

Vicky Hanjian

[1] Etty Hillesum, Letter (June 29, 1943). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 287-288  cited in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center For Action and Contemplation, October 21, 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018

Getting, Doing, Being

Although I wrote about this experience some years ago, I believe it bears repeating. While I was Chaplain at a college in Maryland, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the graduation speaker.  The Swiss psychiatrist had recently published her book "On Death and Dying," based on near death experiences with her patients. I was moved by her speech and impressed by the wisdom I found in her book. One idea stood out above all the rest. According to Kubler-Ross, the dying value the opportunity to talk about their death with someone who is able to listen.

As my father lay dying after a long illness, I mentioned this to my mother. She responded with, "don't look at me. You're the minister in the family." Since my siblings were not present and I didn't think any of them would relish the task, I took a deep breath and decided I would do the deed.

          I went into my father's room where he lay quietly on the bed. After a few minutes of meaningless conversation I said something like, "Dad, it seems like you are OK with dying, if that's what happens, as well as  with pulling through this illness alive." There was silence. I may have been holding my breath. Then he said the wisest and most value laden statement I ever heard him make. He said, "I've always believed it doesn't matter what you get or what you do. What matters is who you are. If that's what you believe, there's nothing more you have to get or do and you can die anytime having fulfilled your purpose." Then there was the kicker. "And I've tried to teach my children this. What do you think?"

At that point I realized I was the one who needed him to talk with me about death, not the other way around. He had it together. I was still learning.

The reason I'm recalling this experience is because of the implicit values. We live in a time where we need to re-examine the fundamental values that guide our behavior and communicate who we are. Is life about getting and doing, or about being? For many of us, that means looking again at the life of Jesus and the values of the Christian faith, where my father was schooled.

       We were talking about values in my religion class the other day. One of the first mentioned was humility. Reference was made to the parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the tax collector. It ends, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." Also mentioned was the passage in Philippians where we are encouraged to "do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." I couldn't help but think about our current political situation as I read that passage.

Another value mentioned was forgiveness. We had seen the film "The Power of Forgiveness" the week before. In several different scenarios from cold blooded murder to the terror of 9/11 and the holocaust, the film explores the possibility and potential consequences of acts of forgiveness. The film makes clear that the act of forgiveness is often more helpful to the one forgiving than to the forgiven. Carrying bitterness and hate around for weeks or years is not healthy. And sometimes the one most in need of forgiveness is one's self!  Jesus said forgive seventy times seven. He even forgave those who crucified him.

A third value we discussed was inclusion. Jesus was inclusive! No one was turned away! He touched and healed those the culture had rejected. He stopped the stoning of sinners. He spoke with the despised Samaritans. He welcomed into his presence all those the religious authorities of the day discarded. His disciples represented the common people, not celebrities. 

If one reads the story of the eunuch and Philip in the book of Acts, one finds the model for Christian inclusion of others rejected by institutional barriers and religious requirements. The eunuch who would never be allowed in the temple because he wasn't "whole," is baptized at his request, into the inclusive community following Jesus. Once again, our present political situation stood in stark contrast to the inclusiveness of the Scriptures.

Finally, the class discussed the big three Christian values: faith, hope and love. 

The students I see are not optimistic about the changing climate. To a person they do not believe the human community will act to prevent climate catastrophe. When I ask if they are depressed or in despair, many admit they are. But one student said she was hopeful. That's different from being optimistic. Hope is one of the most significant values the tradition provides for our time, where the demons of greed, war, famine and extinction continually rear their ugly heads. 

The second of the big three, faith, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," is essential, if hope is to have life. And love underlies them both. 

Values are useless unless they are integrated into human lives and into the societies people inhabit. We encourage individuals to learn values from early childhood. Those who do we soon identify as persons of integrity. But we aren't as adept at cultivating and adapting those values into our social and cultural institutions. 

Wake up America! It doesn't matter what we get or what we do. It's who we are!

Carl Kline

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Rabbis' Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of LIfe Synagogue in pittsburgh

A Rabbi’s Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

Dear Chavraya,
With heavy hearts we hold each other, reaching out and encircling with love. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not the Shabbos hope for a world of peace. I only heard toward the end of Shabbos, from someone knocking on the door, of the horrific shooting today at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We joyfully celebrated a Bas Mitzvah this morning, oblivious to the terror that engulfed others of our extended Jewish family. We are joined with them in pain and sorrow, sending with so many others our grief filled prayers that might somehow offer comfort, if simply to know that we are one.

          At the start of this evening's long-planned Jewish Arts program, we made Havdallah together, a large circle taking in the sweetness, the bitter-sweetness now, even more so than the usual touch of melancholy as Shabbos leaves. Havdallah marks the transition from Shabbos peace, its wholeness and sweetness, to the days of the week. Today that wholeness was shattered and with Havdallah we seek transition from the violence and hate of this world, of this country, of this time. The hope of Shabbos for a better time, its yearning for the day that is all Shabbos, is forever intact, inspiring and urging us to go out from Shabbos and help to bring that time. As this week begins, we go out as mourners determined to say with our deeds a great amen to the blessing held in the memory of each precious life that was taken today.

      Near the end of Shabbos my office phone rang. I didn't answer because it was still Shabbos. Then immediately my cell phone rang and I knew I needed to get it. It was the minister of Bethel AME calling with condolences and to offer a prayer. It was three years ago that we gathered in his church to mourn with the African American community in response to the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. As we have reached out and stood with the African American community, as we have reached out and stood with immigrants, as we have reached out and stood with all of those who are hunted and hounded and hated in this country today, they now reach out and stand with us. Racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and all other hatreds are part of the same web of hate that poisons our country, a hatred that we have known as Jews throughout our history and to which we continue to respond proudly as Jews. 

Many text messages and emails have been coming in tonight from the interfaith community of which we are so much a part. There was a police car parked outside tonight during our program. Though its presence did not make me feel less vulnerable, when I went out to thank the officers, I was touched by their offer of condolence. Similarly, just now as I write, a call came from a police liaison officer to remind us of their presence and partnership.

As we come together as Jews, joined from one holy community to another, we are encircled by the love of all of those who now reach out to us. We hold their love as part of one circle of light, together becoming the wine, the spices, the light of Havdallah. Going into this week of sadness, knowing that so many of our people in Pittsburgh will begin to sit shiva in the coming days, we will strive nevertheless to infuse the days ahead with the essence of Shabbos. 
              We will be its gentle joy, its sweetness, its light, a light that shines brighter because we are joined together with so many good people, joined as the many wicks of the braided Havdallah candle. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not its hope for the world.    In spite of all, Shavua tov, a week that is good because we fill it with goodness,

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 26, 2018



Every semester I show my students clips from a film called "Walking the Bible." In it, the narrator tries to walk in those places that one reads about in Scripture. It's a way for me to introduce my students to the idea of context. Those events recorded in Scripture have a geographical context. They didn't happen on the plains of South Dakota in the twenty first century. They have their own time and place. I believe it's important for my students to know the origins of the text.

In the same way, each of us as individuals has a context, an origin story. I remember one of my mentors, an African American minister, telling me the origin of his name. He didn't learn about it till his early thirties when he made a trip home. His name is Polk, after President Polk, as his forebears were slaves on the Polk plantation. As one of the President's slaves, you always took his last name. President Polk had plenty of slaves, even while in office. He tried to keep that knowledge from the public at the time, as anti-slavery ferment was slowly rising during his tenure.

Hearing this story from my mentor made me more curious about my own family history. So I drilled my parents. My father's parents came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania in what was commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch territory. His was a large family, with nine brothers. My mother's national origins are unknown, as she was adopted as an infant. When I first learned this I was frustrated. So I began to do some research. But adoption in those days was a very secretive operation and I had limited success. I was angry that here was a side of my family history I would never know. In later years I've considered it a blessing, as I claim anything and everything; Irish on St. Patrick's day and maybe even some Erie tribal blood.

     I was reading the other day about a Tunisian fisherman, Chamseddine Marzoug. He regularly finds bodies washing up on the beach near where he lives and works. People are desperate, fleeing war torn and economically chaotic places like Syria and braving the Mediterranean waters trying to reach Europe. Many don't make it. In 2017 alone, Chamseddine buried 81 corpses, believing every human deserves a decent burial. In one instance, he buried a mother and child side by side, believing they might be related, and placed a toy car and flowers on the mound. His graveyard has a sign in six languages, "Cemetery for Unknown."

There are 68 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, with over 25 million of them refugees. More than half of those are children. It's not uncommon for children fleeing violence and famine to wind up in watery graves, in cemeteries or detention camps, in one country or another. All this as the U.S. administration reduces the level of those admitted to this country to historic lows. Whereas the refugee resettlement agency has in place the infrastructure to care for 75,000 refugees, the ceiling was set at 45,000 for 2018, with less than half that number admitted so far. The ceiling for 2019 has been reduced even lower to 30,000. Why we would allow successful resettlement programs, like the one offered by Lutheran Social Services in South Dakota, to falter for want of refugees is shameful. 

     We are beginning to see the signs of displacement from climate change and environmental refugees in our own country. Hurricane Maria sent more than 100,000 fleeing their homes in Puerto Rico. One wonders if Mexico Beach, Florida will be rebuilt. Clearly, real estate on many beach fronts is beginning to take a climate hit. Realtors are looking to work with higher ground in Miami and insurance companies are finding many places un-insurable. Those seeking refuge around the globe are on the rise, along with the seas and human violence.

Those who profess Christianity should recognize that the faith is transparent. We are to welcome the stranger and the alien. The Hebrew Scriptures couldn't be clearer. Jesus also has a simple but explicit response to the question of, "who is my neighbor?" Think of the one most despised by some of your countrymen; that's the Good Samaritan. The way our neighbors to the south have been stereotyped, they might well be the Good Samaritan in a contemporary context.

So are we going to remember our context, our historical and national origins as refugees and immigrants? Can we move into a promising future without remembering who we are and where we have been and welcoming those we have often helped displace? Are we going to love and welcome the neighbor?

Carl Kline