Friday, January 26, 2018

From Resistance to Renewal

         I had been looking through a box of old political, peace, and social justice pins, reminders of long ago demonstrations and projects for the sake of a greater good. I was looking for one pin in particular, one that I had thought about as I read and reflected on the Torah portion called Lech L’cha/go forth, or, as read literally, go to yourself (Gen. 12:1-17:27). I had seen the pin not too long ago, but now it seems to have disappeared, at least for the moment. Perhaps that is part of its teaching, to tell of a time when the way it represents will no longer be needed, when we shall no longer be called to stand up to unjust power and so to speak our truth. Perhaps also, the disappearance of this pin is to remind that what it represents is not enough by itself.

The missing pin is of a black symbol emblazoned starkly on a white background. The symbol is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the Omega. Perhaps as the final letter it points also to when it shall no longer be needed, to a time beyond which there shall no longer be need to respond to its call. The Omega - Ω –became the symbol of draft resistance during the Vietnam War era, and thereby a general symbol of resistance. I can see that missing symbol so clearly, wearing it on my jacket wherever I went over a good number of years. I wore it when I went to the YMCA where I worked with kids while going to college, and when I served breakfast to many of the same kids early in the morning before school as part of a free breakfast program. So many of the issues are sadly the same today, so many human needs left unmet in the face of inhuman policies and a burgeoning military budget.

Throughout the land there is a movement of resistance rising today. In great gatherings of commitment, in vigils and walks, rallies and meetings, arrests and fasts, we are refusing to cooperate with evil, with brutality, with hate. Raising voices and signs, wearing old and new pins to remind, we are challenging in ways both great and small all that demeans and denies a common humanity that joins all people as one. In the midst of resistance, we still need to pause and to consider that resistance is not enough by itself. Resistance is a necessity of the moment, but even from within the moment and movement of resistance, we need to look beyond, to what it is that will follow when  morning finally comes.

            If a new day will dawn, we need to create its ways now and nurture them into being from in the very midst of resistance, modeling what it is with which we would replace the ways of hate and injustice, of violence and brutality. Children need breakfast, now as then, and our acts of public resistance later in the day will not feed them. The very feeding of children, of doing what is right in public and in private, of refusing to demean another, of standing up for those who are put down and mistreated, of loving in the face of hate that proliferates, all of this is the way of resistance. 
Living lives of goodness and decency, smiling at strangers, helping those in danger of deportation who need sanctuary, all of this represents sacred resistance; the way of the future lived now. Gandhi spoke of the need to create new structures in the midst of the freedom struggle, the meeting of human needs all along the way, as “constructive program.” While essential, it is not enough to challenge what we know is so wrong. Resistance is the starting point, the necessary beginning right from within which we nurture the new world into being.

The critical and creative tension between resistance to evil and the creation of an alternative reality is held between the end of the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32) and the unfolding of new possibility as it begins in the portion, Lech L’cha. Indeed, our calling is in those words, go forth, and in its literal meaning, go to your self, find your calling, find your place in the struggle and in the journey. It is here that the Slonimer Rebbe (a teacher of our time) introduces his signature theme, that every person has their own unique task and purpose in this world, their own unique way of bringing tikun/repair. In the midst of resistance to evil, we are each called in our own way to bring goodness and healing with every step of our going forth, to replace evil with good.

The journey of Avram and Sarai, not yet Abraham and Sarah, began before they are told to go forth, before God says for the first time, Lech L’cha. At the end of the portion No’ach, there is a cryptic statement, five simple words, va’yikach terach et avram b’no/and Terach took Avram his son. Where did he take him, and why? From a young age, Avram had seen through the shallowness and cruelty of his society. Both literally and figuratively he smashed his society’s idols and called for a new way, a way that recognized the creator God and the equality of all people created in the image of one God. Resistance had become dangerous and Nimrod as tyrannical ruler of the land sought to kill Avram. His father took him to save his life.

Resisting tyranny, Avram and Sarai pitch their tent along the way. It is a tent whose sides are open in every direction, that from wherever they have come, all who appear might find safety and sanctuary, welcomed without question. On their journey from resistance to renewal, they teach the way of kindness, washing the feet of wayfarers, feeding them, and offering shelter. As our legacy, their way of kindness becomes the constructive program that is at the heart of resistance, creating a new way from within the midst of challenging all that is wrong in the world around us. In the disappearance of a small pin that calls us to resist, a black Omega on a white backdrop is the hope that someday resistance will be unnecessary, 
that we will have arrived in a time of vision fulfilled, of peace and justice, of harmony and hope, the day that is all Shabbat shalom/Sabbath peace. Sowing seeds along the way, deeds of kindness to soften the ground, then shall encircling flowers blossom around the tent of open sides and all shall see the beauty that from resistance has arisen.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, January 19, 2018

Living The Nightmare - Living The Vision

            I walked into our bedroom in the midst of the evening news.  The TV screen was filled with the warning of an imminent nuclear attack with the emphatic statement “This is NOT a drill!”   In the split second of seeing the announcement on the screen, I felt the terrible adrenalin surge of fear.  A sense of unreality filled my field of vision - along with an “O God - It is happening!”  And then in a fraction of a second, the newscast continued with the story of the  mistaken alarm that had terrified the people of Hawaii - warning of an incoming ballistic missile aimed at that lush, beautiful, often dreamed of corner of the world.
           I had trouble falling asleep that night and when I finally did, my sleep was broken and restless.  At around 3 AM I laid there and asked myself “What’s going on - What is disturbing my rest?”  In an instant the answer came clear.  On a physical level, my body was still processing the adrenaline surge that came with the fear associated with those few seconds of partial truth as I responded to the notice on the TV screen.   But beyond that realization, I also knew that old, deeply seated anxieties were being activated again - memories going back more than 60 years.
            I do not recall there ever being much conversation in our home about the possibility of nuclear attack during the cold war.  But what I do recall is the purchase of a gas powered generator - just in case.  I remember the collection of gallon jugs of water that were frequently refreshed and refilled - sitting on the floor in our basement.  I remember the appearance of multiple cans of different kinds of food appearing on the pantry storage shelves at the foot of the basement stairs -this in a time when frozen foods had become the modern suburban housewife’s blessing.  I remember the construction of a rudimentary extra bathroom in the basement.
            More vividly, I remember the air raid drills at school, the huddling under my coat in an underground hallway away from windows.  I remember strategizing in my head about getting to the school bus that would take me home to the safety of my family if there was an attack.  I remember wondering what would happen if the bus had to stop and we had to get out and seek cover.  Would it stop next to a ditch where I could find protection?  I remember wondering what to do about wearing light colored clothing and wrapping myself in a white sheet to protect myself from radiation if it was winter and I was wearing dark colored clothing and  a white sheet wasn’t available.  I remember waking from dreams in a sweat because the bombs had come.   I was 9 years old.
            As I listened to the follow up reporting on the news, I heard a father telling how he had gathered his family in an inside bathroom without windows - huddling in a bathtub  for protection.              I heard of families running from home to the mountains for safety. I saw people frantically running in the streets, uncertain how to make themselves safe.   I heard of  human beings desperately trying to reach their love ones to say  “I love you.”  A nightmare revisited.
            I realized that so little has changed since the nuclear threat trauma of  my childhood.  We seem to still live with the mentality that there will be a safe place to hide - that we can protect ourselves by retreating to a room without windows, that the mountains away from a city will provide safe haven.  I am just waiting for the government’s instructions to keep a supply of white sheets handy to wrap ourselves in as protection from radiation.
            At the highest levels of government, nuclear sword rattling seems to be a fun game between bullies who have no grounding in the history of the reality of what nuclear weapons do.   They do not see thousands of human beings being killed instantly.   They do not acknowledge the desecration of the earth, the destruction of the environment, the radiation poisoning and cancer that will kill survivors.  They do not acknowledge the possibility of a nuclear winter in which  humans, animals, crops, and, quite possibly, the planet itself will die.  At times I wonder if the bullies with the power have any inkling that they themselves might be incinerated - or are they so certain that their bunkers will allow them to live on as they always have.
            It takes a lot of will and energy and prayer to draw myself back from the edge of the abyss of fear and anger and resentment engendered by the willful lack of consciousness and empathy and compassion that seem to order the days of our supreme leaders.   I want my grandchildren to sleep through peaceful, nightmare free nights.  I want to hold on to the vision of  the Biblical prophets of a time when creation will be at peace with itself.  The best I can do today is turn to beloved thinkers and writers and prophets who continue to hold forth the vision when I am temporarily unable to hold it  myself.   Today, I turn to Howard Zinn:

            To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic.  It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places - and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, at least the possibility of sending this top of a world spinning in a different direction.  And if we do act, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.   The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

            I have today to live in a way that human beings should live - - in defiance of all that engenders fear and anger and disgust.  I have today in which to honor the holiness of creation.  I have today in which  to reach out in kindness and compassion to the beleaguered checker at the Stop and Shop.  I have today in which to join my companions in the prayerful rest of Shabbat - re-committing ourselves to the repair of the world.  I have today in which to claim a marvelous victory.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values

Encountering NIMROD, Clarifying Values

During the years of my childhood, my family went camping every summer, sometimes on Cape Cod, most often in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We began with one tent, and as the family grew a second tent was added, our campsite becoming a veritable encampment. My parents were purists, only tents, never any thought of a trailer or even one of the pop-up varieties, a “tent-camper,” as we called them with some scorn. Nevertheless, the tent-campers fascinated me, always eager to befriend the kids of such families in order to get to see their home in the woods up close. Accepting my parents’ good-humored dogma that real campers slept on the ground, I think what really fascinated me, beyond the technology of a tent folded neatly into a metal container on wheels, was the brand name on most, if not all, of the tent-campers. I can still see the letters that fascinated me then, big letters that spelled the word, NIMROD.
I didn’t realize for some time, that the name of the camper was actually the name of a person. At some point I picked up a general sense that this was a famous hunter. Shrouded in mystery, I assumed this Nimrod was a quite a camper, surely sleeping on the ground, probably not very happy to be associated with those who didn’t.

To my surprise, I next encountered Nimrod one year in Hebrew school. Seeing his name in Hebrew letters, I immediately saw the large English letters of his name on those pop-up tent-campers. Suddenly day dreaming of the past summer’s camping trip, enough information filtered through from the page and the teacher’s voice to bring me back to the moment. I started to realize with consternation that this Nimrod for whom the campers were named was not such a nice guy. Maybe he had been a great woodsman, a great hunter, but he was also quite a tyrant,
the one who wanted to throw the young Avram into a fiery furnace for rejecting his countries dogmas, for daring to be an iconoclast, literally smashing his father’s idols on his way to following one creator God in whose image all people are created equally.  I worried for Avram, seeing something of myself in his familiar stubbornness and insistence on following what he believed to be right.

          I thought of those long ago campers as I read the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32). Year after year I am drawn to the earlier parts of the portion, to the enticing and familiar stories of No’ach and the ark, of the violence that filled the earth, of God’s promise following the flood never to destroy the earth again, yet waiting desperately for us to make the same promise. I am always drawn to what seems to be the more exciting campsites and the more compelling stories to be told around the campfire. Yet every year as I come to the end of the portion I pause with amazement when I encounter Nimrod. This is the source of the hunter and woodsman who I first encountered, fittingly, in the woods.

In reading of Nimrod this year, I thought of a teaching of the Slonimer Rebbe, that all of the Book of Genesis is meant to help us clarify values, to purify qualities and ways of being and behaving in the world. It is all about taharat ha’middot/clarifying of values. I began to wonder about Nimrod, about the values we are to learn, remembering what he tried to do to the young Avram, feeling the tension between the evil I sensed of him and the trailblazer in the woods who beckoned to me, the young camper who wanted to swing an axe and handle a knife and be a hero.

It begins simply enough, and yet there is something mysterious, as though pushing us to ask, but who is he really? The Torah says simply, Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a hero upon the earth/hechel li’hi’yot gibor ba’aretz (Gen. 10:8). Just what is a gibor, what is the nature of his being a hero? Gibor can be a hero, a mighty one, someone of strength. But what is the nature of that strength? Much of the latter part of the portion of No’ach offers a lens through which to consider how we use our gifts, our strength, how we use technology and intelligence, whether to build a tower of Babel to storm the heavens or to create an ark in which to ride out the storm, offering a model of harmony, lion and lamb together, a way yet to be realized after the flood.

We are told next that Nimrod is a gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/a crafty hero before God. Most translations translate tzayid in its more usual meaning as a hunter. In translating gibor tzayid as “crafty hero,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) is drawing on a root meaning of tzayid as deceit and deceiver, tzad. The hunter needs to be secretive and quiet, to utilize stealth and wiles.
               As much as I disdain hunting, except by those for whom it is truly for the sake of sustenance, I can respect those who respect the animals, even in the course of hunting them. This is not the way of Nimrod as seen through the lens of a tradition that saw the mistreatment of animals as a precursor to the mistreatment of people. Establishing himself as a great hunter, Nimrod sowed fear with his prowess, gradually turning to people as his pray.

Yitzchak Abravanel, a fifteenth century commentator of both Portugal and Italy, writes that until Nimrod all people were equal, hayu b’nei ha’adam kulam shavim. Abravanel goes on to say that the statement “he became a mighty man in the land,” means he became a tyrant. In a conversation across centuries, that all of this was “before God,” becomes the source of a powerful warning from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “Nimrod began to oppress his fellow ‘men’ in the name of God. He was the first to misuse the name of God, to surround brute force with the halo of Divine approval…. Nimrod became the prototype for all those dynastic rulers who craftily crowned themselves with the halo of pseudo-sanctity and whose power, politics and hypocrisy were characterized by the saying, k’nimrod gibor tzayid lifnei ha’shem/like Nimrod, a crafty hero before God.”

In a time when truth flows into the ground like the blood of slain animals, when hubris and hate proliferate, Nimrod appears as an archetype to remind us of danger along the path of life, of danger on the trail, of whom not to follow. He becomes a lens through which to clarify values and qualities, to remind of the treacherous divide between truth and falsehood. Turning from the ways of Nimrod, we strive to restore human equality as it was in the beginning, harmony between people and animals, as within the ark upon the flood, and so with earth, a dove alighting with an olive branch. In a place of peaceful encampment in the woods, lion and lamb together, Nimrod becomes again but the name of a simple dwelling that once so intrigued a young child.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 5, 2018


     "Our Ascent of the Everest" is the account of Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay, became the first humans to set foot on that mountain peak. The book includes the initial climb in 1951 that established the possibility of an approach from the south and the climb in 1953 that brought them to the summit.
      The book is well written with significant detail about the challenges and the natural geography. The ice falls, the crevices, the sheer cliffs, the blizzard winds and bitter cold make for suspenseful reading. And the sheer stamina of the climbers in such rare air is amazing.
     Mountain climbing stories are always an attraction for me. Maybe it has something to do with the ancient ideas of how mountains reach into the heavens and if you climb high enough you get closer to God. Or maybe it's the physical challenge of doing something that truly tests your physical, mental and emotional capacities. Or perhaps it's just the sense of pride and satisfaction you feel when you finish a task well done. Whatever, when I read Hillary's account, it's as if I'm right there as well, all the way to the top as they survey the scene from the summit.
     I first learned to love mountains in New Hampshire. Granted, they are nothing like Everest and the challenges are far more modest. But there can be similar satisfaction and sometimes the view from the summit can be just as otherworldly.
      Once, climbing in the White Mountains, we walked through crusted snow for several hundred yards. It wasn't a strong crust. Every third or fourth step we would fall through thigh high. Pulling your leg out of the snow without going through the crust with the other was far from easy and I could identify with what it was like for Hillary as he described that kind of experience on Everest.
     On the same climb in New Hampshire, when we reached the summit, the clouds were below us. You don't have to be at 28,000 feet in the Himalayas to have that experience. It can happen at 4,000 feet as well. And there's an awesome quality to it, where even with knowledge of airplanes and space exploration, one can still feel like you are invading the heavens. 
     It was instructive to me how Tenzing Norgay offered gifts to the Gods in gratitude when he reached the summit of Everest. As a Buddhist, he believed the Gods of those mountains were responsible for safe passage. And Hillary buried a small plastic cross given him by John Hunt, leader of the expedition. Reverence in the face of such a trying experience and successful conclusion seems natural.
     My appreciation for the Everest expedition is tempered by a recognition that we humans always seem to be striving to overcome nature and leaving our waste behind, not always working in harmony with nature and respecting the pristine quality of her beauty. It's certainly understandable why after a terrible struggle to simply survive the elements, the expedition would abandon oxygen bottles, tents and all manner of trash, as they tried to descend alive. Still, some of the most inaccessible places on the planet now have their trash heaps. As Gerard Manley Hopkins would say in his poem God's Grandeur, "all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell."
      Saint Bonaventure is considered one of the earliest ecologists. He believed that even the smallest things in creation were significant. If we lost even one species of God's creation, that would diminish the glory of God and our appreciation of that glory. For those of us living in the 21st. century, when wilderness is disappearing rapidly as we invade woods and mountains, Bonaventure's conviction becomes instructive. As some 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every 24 hours, the rate of extinction is 1,000 times the norm. Biologists say we haven't seen anything like it since the age of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
          Bonaventure believed, "The universe is like a book reflecting, representing and describing its Maker.   He, therefore, who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things, is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the first principle from such great signs is foolish." 

Perhaps the essence of wisdom is seeing utter foolishness in the face of great achievement.

Carl Kline