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