Friday, July 13, 2018

The "Yoga of clean-up"



       For years I studied with a yoga teacher who delighted in finding ways to make difficult yoga postures restorative for me.  She  would encourage me to use every bit of equipment available to support my body so that I could assume a posture and rest in it.  By the end of a session the space would be cluttered with bolsters, mats, blocks, straps, cushions and blankets - all used in the service of my practice.    And then, at the end of a gloriously restful “final relaxation”   she would sweetly bring me back into the present moment and whisper “and now for the yoga of clean-up.”    
          It took me quite a few sessions to  integrate the cleaning up of the yoga space into my practice as a continuation of all that I had learned in the sessions.   Leaving the yoga space in an orderly condition is part of my yoga practice.

I probably would not be described as  fanatical housekeeper.  I can live with a bit of dust for awhile.  I don’t have to empty the dish drainer before company comes.   OK -so I am a bit fussy about the bathroom.  But lately, I have taken to doing a lot of yard work, going after weeds with a vengeance, brooming cobwebs off the exterior logs of our home, scraping and painting the foundations, cleaning out flower beds, trimming back bushes and raking the yard smooth - - trying to bring a sense of order and serenity to the space that surrounds our home.   Curiously, I have had a lot of energy for this endeavor. 
The pay-off has been  my enjoyment of a sense of pleasure as I walk about our simple yard.  We have an “island” landscape and lawn- which means no beautiful green grass to be mowed,  no manicured gardens,  no sculpted shrubberies.  Basically we just keep the “jungle” from encroaching too much.  And yet, there is still this inner urge to create an orderly, serene space around our home.

I have been reflecting on my need to create order.  I could become compulsive about it.  I realized that my tolerance for chaos has been and continues to be severely tested by the relentless assault on my sense of order - whether it is the terrible chaos at our southern border, and the human suffering it has unleashed, or the great uncertainty of the anticipation of full blown trade wars.  The orderliness of civility and common decency staggers under the daily beatings.  As summer unfolds on our lovely island and the multitudes come to enjoy the sun and sand, the level of aggression and in-civility is noticeably worse than last year during the first two weeks of July. 

        We come to expect that this will be the case in August as weariness and over crowding take their toll, but I have heard many people say with a bit of  dismay that “the August people are here early this year.”   It is metaphorical language pointing  to the increased stress  we are somehow expected to live with while coping with a world of chaotic and unpredictable behavior that affects us all at some level.   Our island home is a microcosm.   And we struggle to maintain our balance, to choose a higher way in the face of enormous incursions on our sense of  community, our sense of  civility and decency and self respect, of respect for one another.   

Alan Morinis in his book “Every Day Holiness”  writes that “....disorder inevitably involves some sort of dishonor.  The only question is, what or who is the target of dishonor?”   He says “It’s interesting that we use the phrase “unholy mess” to describe a situation that has really been trashed, because to be disorderly dishonors  [not only human beings, but] inanimate things that are also part of our lives and may also be our responsibility....The real “unholy mess,” of course, is the disorder we bring to divine service, in whatever ways we might serve God, which dishonors HaShem....All of us are, after all, made in the divine image, and so when we dishonor people we dishonor God...”

Morinis’ reflection on how disorder dishonors human beings and creation, and ultimately dishonors the Source of all life  brought my unnamed stress into focus.The “Trump Era” has  elevated disorder to the level of an art and with this nurturing of disorder comes the most fundamental disrespect and dishonoring of  human beings, of the environment, of hard won (even though imperfect) working relationships between both allies and adversaries, and ultimately the disrespect of the  Source of life - - however we might name it.   

There are days when it is so hard to live joyfully in the face of such disorder and disrespect of the holiness of Life.   “Hegemony” isn’t a word I use every day.  It came into my vocabulary years ago in seminary.  I had to look it up again to be sure I was understanding it correctly.   It means “a preponderant influence or authority.”    We are living under the hegemony of the “Trump Era” - - a time when chaos and disorder, disrespect and dishonoring color so much of life around us.   It creates stress in every corner of life.  As I age, I find it difficult to do the big actions that might effect change.  It is easy to get lost in feeling so small.    There is a danger inherent in allowing myself to sink into that smallness though.

So, a bit of yoga practice helps.   The simple act of organizing the space around me in a harmonious way makes a difference. Filling  a few flower pots with bright blue lobelia creates a moment of beauty on the  way into the house.   Scraping off flaking paint to create a smooth surface for fresh color fills a need to bring  something new and clean into being.  Creating an orderly space honors and respects the lovely humans who cross my threshold.   Small bits of color and beauty sooth the spirit and restore a sense of harmony in a disordered world.   I’m grateful to my yoga teacher who so gently awakened me to the “yoga of clean-up.”

Rev. Vicky Hanjian


Friday, July 6, 2018

Things Not to Divide, but to Join and Celebrate



We can probably safely say that we all have too many things, too much stuff. There are those things, though, that are different, that are not about money or intrinsic value, that when we see them, even out of the corner of an eye, bring a smile to our lips or a welling to our eyes. These things are "the sacred stuff of memory." Pause for a moment, even to close your eyes if you wish, and call to mind some of those things that for you are the sacred stuff of memory. Perhaps for some, it is a table cloth that comes to mind, one that graced a table around which family sat at special times of gathering, and even now when set upon the table of your heart, here they are again, if but for a moment, a smile of pride, a word of encouragement, as long ago, but now to say, "keep going, you'll be okay, set the old cloth upon a new table and place upon it the sacred stuff of future memories." 
           Perhaps it is a pair of candlesticks passed through generations, telling of a family's migrations, children whose faces were once illumined by the dancing flames, now grown with children of their own; or of brand new little ones whose eyes are just starting to open wide to the wonder of light. Or a book with fading margin notes, as though just written for you today; a string of pearls that was your mother's, or a tool, or ritual item, a ball or a bat, an article of clothing perhaps, a sweater worn when a hug is needed from the one who wore it once, her or his warmth forever inhering in the warp and woof of life's threads.

There is stuff and there is stuff. The challenge is to distinguish and to weigh, not merely to acquire, not to hold and hoard.   When ultimate meaning is given even to the most precious of things, it becomes idolatry. Judaism is not an ascetic tradition, not a religion in its normative strand that devalues the physical, but offers a framework through which to envelope the physical in a weave of holiness. Drink is not in principle to be eschewed, but to be held in a kiddush cup, blessing offered prior to partaking. Sex is holy when held in the embrace of love and respect, as a bridge and song between equal partners. Money is not inherently evil when kept in perspective, when not allowed to be the measure of a person’s worth, when seen not as a source of privilege, but of obligation, of mitzvah, as in the way of tzedakah.

A thread runs the Torah portion Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89) that interweaves people and possessions as part of one whole. As a delicate embroidery thread, it offers subtle teaching and warning on the nature of our relationship to things and to each other, to the physical and material realm. It is all part of life, the question only as to how we use the things we are given and how equal we are in our ability to acquire. Through the lens of Torah, the ideal society that shimmers in the distance is one with little discrepancy between ideal and real, with little need for terms of social dichotomy, such as rich and poor. Along the way and even once we are there, the challenge of things is in how they mediate relationships, meant to join, not to divide, to attune us to the needs of others, to inculcate sensitivity.

The word naso is formed of a root meaning to lift, to carry, to take, to bear, to raise. The prince of each tribe is the Nasi. The word tells of a very different way of leadership than is most often manifest. A leader is one who is meant to raise up, to lift the people, not in the way of carrying and doing for them, but to raise them up to be of equal stature, reminding the people that each one is meant to be a leader, a bearer of the people. Each one is needed to help carry the collective hopes of the people and to engage in the work needed for the fulfillment and flowering of hope. Celebrating this manner of leadership, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) writes, They were the n’si’ei yisra’el, Israel’s ‘bearers who had been raised,’ those who by their position stood at the height of the national mission and from that position were to elevate the nation to equal height…. The responsibility of leadership was not to be rooted in what one possessed, but in one’s ability to insure that none would be dispossessed of their sacred calling as a human being and member of human society.

    As we lift and carry each other as part of a collective mission to create a society in which all are equal, in which none bask in abundance while others starve, God’s blessing is called down upon us in equal measure. The beloved words of the Birkat Kohanim/the Pristly Blessing (Num. 6:24-27) are found in the portion Naso. In the familiar first phrase, y’vare’ch’cha ha’shem v’yish’m’recha/may God bless you and protect you, commentators see the tension between the blessing of things and what can become the unwitting curse of the same things. In this way, we ask God to bless us in the material realm, and so too, to protect us from those very things with which we are blessed.

The role and attendant vow of the Nazir/the Nazirite is given in the same portion, the opportunity for each person to separate himself or herself at times in holy retreat from the ordinary flow of life. Taking on a temporary way of abstinence, the Nazir is to refrain from products of the grape, to let their hair grow wild, to refrain from contact with the dead. At the end of the period of the Nazarite’s vow, a sin offering is to be brought, a reminder that abstinence from the ways and pleasures of life is not our way. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches, for the essence of creation and the essence of serving God is to engage in all realms of the material world and to raise them up to the Holy One. The goal is not to avoid this world, but to engage and raise up the ways of this world to God.

            As Parashat Naso begins with teaching on the way of leadership as service so it ends. Raising each other up, the princes of Israel teach by example, modeling a way of things used to join and not divide. In a lengthy passage that might be quickly passed over for its abundance of repetitive details, with careful reading deep meaning emerges. On each day of the sanctuary’s dedication a different prince is to bring their tribe’s gift for the sake of the commonweal. We are told at the outset, nasi echad la’yom nasi echad la’yom/one prince to the day one prince to the day. Each one is to have their moment, emphasized in the double saying of the phrase. As the long list unfolds of what each prince brings, we quickly come to realize that each prince has brought exactly the same gifts, no difference whatsoever in substance, weight, or measure. The lesson becomes clear, no one is to be raised up higher than another, no one more important or of greater value or honor than another. Brought in a spirit of caring and cooperation rather than competition, the gifts are meant to join and uplift, not to separate and bring down. As each day turns to the next, though the gifts of each prince are described with exactly the same words, there is not a single letter vav, not a single conjunction between them. A collective celebration of each one’s uniqueness, each tribe stands on its own, each with its own place and time, their own day in the sun.

The challenge is to raise up our things to serve a greater purpose than acquisition, things as the “sacred stuff of memory” to tell of people that came before and of those who shall come after. And simply of the stuff in our lives, putting things in perspective, we are all to be as the n’si’ei yisra’el/the bearers of Israel, and so as part of the human family.     Our common task is to raise each other up, things not to divide, but to join and celebrate, each one’s presence and each one’s gifts to be  honored in equal measure if we would dwell together in the sanctuary of humanity.


Rabbi Victor  H. Reinstein