Friday, July 27, 2018

Do No Harm

         About 2000 years ago, a gentile came to Rabbi Shammai, one of the great teachers of Israel.  The gentile said he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot.  Rabbi Shammai was an engineer and he was known for the strictness of his views.  He drove the man away with his builder’s measuring stick.  Then the gentile went to Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge.  "I will convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.Rabbi Hillel converted the gentile by telling him  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.  That is the whole of Torah.  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.”
         For some reason, reading this classic Jewish story brought  John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to mind.  He was a prolific writer.  There are volumes and volumes of his writings, his prayers, and his theology.   It is highly  unlikely, however, that multitudes will ever come to salvation through reading his collected works - - just as most of us will not ever come to salvation by trying to commit to memory the entirety of all the wisdom in the Bible.  But, like Rabbi Hillel, Wesley also had a genius for creating a briefer version of what was central to his teaching and theology, something that his early followers could easily remember and relate to.  His “General Rules”  encapsulated his theology and his guidance for newly forming societies of believers who would come to be called “Methodists.”  The General Rules were to be used as a way of guiding those early groups in how to conduct their lives individually and in community. 
         John Wesley’s body of theological thought is complex and extensive.  It is  challenging – and it is foundational to understanding the depth of the General Rules.  But the rules represent the essence.  And the first of the rules encapsulates the rest. Wesley taught:  “First – do no harm.”  Rabbi Hillel's words echo in the background:  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study.”
         “Do no harm.”   What might that mean for us today?  If Wesley were here, what might he include in his notion of not harming?  Would he think about the care of the planet?  I wonder if he would stand on the rocks at a threatened and vulnerable beach on the coast of Maine or on the crest of Bear Butte in South Dakota and shout to whoever would listen “Do No Harm!”  to this fragile environment.  Maybe he would stake out a spot at a major city intersection – cautioning frustrated, frazzled drivers with cell phones in hand to “Do No Harm!”  Perhaps he would see a child being shamed in public and take the parent aside and whisper “do no harm!” 
         I like to think he would have a voice in congress when our lawmakers are considering massive cuts to social welfare programs, or punitive solutions to immigration issues, or discriminatory laws affecting women and LGBTQ folks. Perhaps he would stride up and down the aisles shouting  “Do no harm!” 
         Those simple words are a great challenge in a complex and  frustrating world.  What would our days be like if “Do no harm” was the first thing in our minds when we woke up in the morning. Might our lives become more holy if our days were structured by the intention to do no harm?  Would we temper our speech?  Would the words remind us never to do or say something to another person that we would not want them to do or say to us?  Would Wesley’s rule encourage us to speak out when, indeed, we see the potential harm in any debate or law or action going on around us?
         The Book of Exodus contains more than a few notions of what it means to “do no harm”: “Do not spread false report.”  (It might mean biting off the ends of our tongues before passing on a choice comment or bit of gossip.)   
 Do not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.  (Just because most people are in favor of something doesn’t make it right.) Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not judge - - do not condemn” -    First – do no harm.  It’s pretty comprehensive.

The General Rules don’t stop  with the prohibition against doing harm.  Wesley includes a second general rule.  A little wordier, but pithy, nonetheless: “It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, secondly, by doing good - - by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people.”  

The second general rule echoes the words of  Jesus: ”Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Once again in Exodus there is an illustration of the combined principles of “do no harm - -do good”: 
the wisdom of Exodus 23:5: “When you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying on the ground under its load, and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”  What on earth does helping an over-laden donkey have to do with anything?  Well - - To whom does the donkey belong?   Why – lo and behold!  - - It belongs to someone who hates you.  You feel absolutely justified in leaving it alone.  But the command is to help set it free.  Who do you have to help in order to set the donkey free?  Well – of course - -the owner who hates you!  What does this accomplish?  It fulfills the command to “do no harm”    It fulfills the teaching to refrain from doing something hateful to another being – even if it is a donkey.  And – it fulfills the command to do good.  By helping an enemy, the possibility for a positive relationship is set in motion. The dynamics of a relationship are changed.  A certain kind of redemption is set in motion.  It is amazing how more than 3000 years of wisdom and religious teaching interweave.  Jewish law says help your enemy set his loaded donkey upright.   
Jesus says do good to those who hate you.  Wesley says do no harm – do good.
         All of these challenges are intended to wake us up to living our lives with the highest possible intention for good. Rabbi Art Green sums it all up this way: “Our faith awakens us from the sleep of unawareness and calls us to release the bound, to raise up the fallen, to uplift those who are bent over.  In this we are doing godly work, serving as the limbs of the divine presence in this world.  It is only through our acting in this way that God’s work is done in the human community.  And it is only by recognizing such acts as God’s work that we transcend ourselves and our own needs in fulfilling them.”
         First – do no harm.  This is a great starting place.  We can all refrain from harming ourselves, others, the world, by creating our intention each day.  It is within the power of every one of us to do no harm. If we got no farther than that, our lives would be of service to God.  But we are also called to be pro-active – to do good whenever there is opportunity to do so.  Wesley took this seriously as he constructed his own life and the religious community that became the Methodists.  His famous dictum is:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”   So – there it is:  Do no harm.  Do good.  All the rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.  Go and live it.  

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 20, 2018


In most areas of our lives, if something isn't working right, we try to discover the cause. So if I'm feeling a lot of pressure in my chest and upper torso, I might be moved to consider the reason. In fact, if it's something new and powerful enough, I might want to hurry to the emergency room and make sure it's not a heart attack.

One morning last winter, I went to start the car. To my surprise, nothing happened. Since I had recently purchased a new battery, I was puzzled about the cause. I had the car towed to our mechanic. To my surprise, one of our local rabbit population chewed through several wires under the hood. Apparently the manufacturer soaks them in peanut oil to keep them pliable. 

Sometimes it's easy for us to understand the cause of why people are refugees. They lose their home to a natural disaster. I'm thinking of all those homes burned to the ground by wildfires or flooded by ten to twelve inches of rain in a short period of time. The disaster that was Katrina sent many to temporary or permanent locations all over the country, just as Maria chased so many Puerto Ricans from their homes to the mainland.

If we can attribute a disaster and the resulting refugees to an act of God, it is simpler and more acceptable to name the cause. It leaves us free from complicity and guilt. Our hands are clean; no blood there. But then there are those causes we'd just as soon ignore.

You would think as a country we would want to understand the cause, the reason, why there are so many people seeking asylum on our southern border. Tens of hundreds of desperate people, risking lives and limbs, even with small infants, to seek asylum in a country miles and months away. Why? Isn't that the way one usually resolves a problem, looking for the origin of the situation and correcting it?

      Hungary recently passed a law making it illegal to help a refugee. It was aimed at those churches and non-profits that have been aiding refugees from the wars in the Middle East. Now if you want to feed, clothe or shelter the homeless, tempest tossed in that land, you risk arrest. There have been similar threats in the U.S. on our southern border. Water left by aid organizations in the desert for thirsty travelers is regularly destroyed by the border patrol. Some seem to prefer dead bodies on the desert floor to live ones they have to detain.

Hungary is not the only country in Europe plagued by refugees. Every other country in the European Union has been trying to respond as best they are able without outlawing the helpers. But few are talking about the cause for record numbers of refugees. Do these countries, like the U.S., contribute to the wars that destroy the homes of these desperate people? What are they doing to bring violence to a halt in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Afghanistan? Do they spend more money on military aid that fuels the conflicts or on peacemaking and peacekeeping?

And what about climate refugees? Southern Texas has now experienced three 500 year floods in three years. Island nations that once were home to many for generations are gradually being covered by rising seas. Kiribati dikes will not hold the water back much longer and young people there wonder if we in the U.S. could lower our carbon footprint.

There are some causes we would rather ignore. As the only country on the planet to reject the Paris Climate Accord, our government doesn't want to confront the fact we have some responsibility for climate refugees. As the leading purveyor of weaponry in the world, our government prefers to ignore what our weapons are doing in Yemen, or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. And as the most pervasive military and fossil fuel presence on the globe, we hide our responsibility for authoritarian and corrupt governments, especially in the global south. As long as exploitation on behalf of a consumer society and the 1% is secure, the government feels comfortable hiding the reality of our complicity in producing the world's refugees.

       Jeb Johnson was interviewed on TV the other evening. He was a former head of Homeland Security under President Obama.  He was asked about the situation on the border with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He rejected the idea of the wall as a politically symbolic but ineffective solution. He suggested we might want to go to the source of the problem, the violence so prevalent in those countries. People are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. Much of the violence stems from the drug trade, dependent on users in this country.

Why do we have a drug problem? What's that cause? Why do we have an opioid epidemic? Why are the Central American cartels getting rich off American dollars? Why is the suicide rate among 18-34 year olds at epidemic levels? Why are more middle aged, middle class males killing themselves? Why is racism raising its ugly head with new and growing ferocity? Why are we separating families on the border like when we took Indian children to boarding schools and children of slaves to other masters? What is the cause?

       The simple answer is we have lost our soul. We have set in the seats of government those who say, "me first." That has become the mantra foisted on the country to the exclusion of all "outsiders," including "insiders" of the wrong color. Mexico and Canada be damned. Traditional allies be damned. China be damned. Muslims and their nations be damned. Refugees be damned.

The problem is when we say "me first," and damn all the others, we destroy the foundation of meaning underlying all human life. Relationship is what makes life meaningful. The new neighbor is what makes life interesting. The boredom of self seeking selfishness is a sickness unto death.

Carl Kline

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