Friday, September 13, 2019

On the Heels of Our Hearing - Footsteps of the Messiah



        There is something delicious in following hints from one holy text to another, like breadcrumbs along the way until coming to a long sought source, a spring of living waters. The search itself is sustaining, entering the gates of holy books as a wanderer in their courtyards, journeying from one to another, intimations of joy in the anticipation of ultimate arrival. It is the way of justice and peace unfolding, each accomplishment a blossom of hope toward the next.

There is much Chassidic teaching on the first two words of the weekly Torah portion called Ekev (Deut. 7:12). I have loved the Chassidic teachings, drawing sustenance from them year after year, but always feeling that they in turn are drawing sustenance from earlier rabbinic sources that I hadn’t seen. Each year I have meant to go out on the trail and search until I came to the source. This year I did, searching well into the wee hours of night become morning, following the light of Torah, picking up hints from those I met along the trail.

The two words, and adding the third, with which the portion of Ekev opens are v’haya|ekev tish’m’un/it will come to pass | on the heals of your hearing. The small vertical line, one of the ta’amim or trop signs is very important, called a p’sik, serving the function of a rest in music. Placed immediately after the first word, v’haya, we pause and consider, what will come to pass? The Chassidic teachers emphasize that the word v’haya indicates simcha/joy. Holding that for a moment, we take another step along the trail. Ekev means “heel,” and suggests something that comes as a consequence or result of an action, thus whatever shall come to pass will come on the “heels of our hearing.” From the same root comes ikvot/footsteps. The Chassidic teachers speak of ikvot m’shichah/footsteps of the messiah.

The portion Ekev brings us through some rough terrain, bringing us face to face with several harsh passages. I have found through the years a sense of hope and support from the teachings that emerge from the opening of the portion, as though giving us provisions of spirit for the journey. Somehow, if we can bravely engage with all the harshness to come we shall yet find joy in hearing the footsteps of Mashiach/Messiah along the way. Seeking the way of joy in spite of all, I found my way back to a midrash (B’reishit Rabba, 42:2) on the portion of Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), the quintessential portion of journeys, about seeking our way come what may, Avram and Sarai’s journey into the unknown become our own. There in the dark become light, I found the source that the Chassidic teachers draw on. A simple word of grammar, a word of being in time, v’haya/it will come to pass is indeed taken as a portent of joy.  Of the examples given to make the point, several look toward Messianic time, of swords turned to plowshares, as from Isaiah (7:21), v’haya ba’yom ha’hu yetz’u mayyim chayyim mi’y’rushalayim/and in that day living waters shall go forth from Jerusalem.

        My soul’s thirst quenched by the living waters I imagined drinking in that day, I continued on the way, seeking the footsteps of Mashiach. As the Chassidic teachers draw on the word ekev as messianic allusion, so I found the rabbinic source I had been seeking. It is in the Mishna, starting point of the vast sea of Talmud, at the end of Mishna Sotah (9:15) in a disturbing passage of some length. I made my way, treading through the brush and brambles, wishing for light and living waters. In the midst of so much pain, descriptions of a world filled with brokenness, I came to the source from which the Chassidic teachers draw. “On whom shall we lean,” the rabbis ask over and over again, continuing to remind themselves and us, “on God who is in heaven….” As they know and we know, though, that is not enough. As they make their way in a world that seems so familiar for its brokenness, it is there and then, as for us here and now, that they tell of the approaching footsteps of Mashiach/ b’ikvot m’shicha. It is an allusion drawn from Psalms (89:52), human yearning for wholeness, for an end to violence, joining generations through time, each one listening for the echo of footsteps.

As I made my way through some of the sorrows the Mishna describes as preceding the coming of the Messiah, struggling through thickets of pain, I gasped as I encountered one that was for the rabbis an indication of this utter brokenness: and the people of the border shall wander from town to town and none will show them compassion/v’anshei ha’g’vul y’so’v’vu me’ir l’ir v’lo y’chonanu. These unfortunate ones were people who lived in remote border communities where they were easy prey for marauding bandits. And so they wandered, seeking shelter and safety. I thought of people fleeing their homes today for fear of violence, fleeing drug lords and gangs, social systems so broken that they leave everything behind for the sake of their lives, and, most of all, the lives of their children. In the tread of these children is the echo of the footsteps, the Messiah waiting. God forbid and protect us that none will show them compassion.

And so we make our way, then and now, along trails of tears and time. In that place of pause where the ancient scribes placed a p’sik, a place of rest in which to consider a simple word, v’haya/it shall be, and then to ask “what shall be?” What is it that shall follow on the “heels of our hearing?” Is it the cry of the people of the border, those who wander from town to town, that we are to hear? And following on our hearing, truly hearing, then to respond with compassion, is that what will bring the footsteps of the Messiah?
           Further on in this portion whose opening echoes with the footsteps of the Messiah, of connections made and remembered, we are told of the way, and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt/va’ahavtem et ha’ger ki gerim he’yitem b’eretz mitz’rayim (Deut. 10:19). In the way of our response is the possibility of hope. And perhaps that is the joy to which that simple word points, the joy that we can indeed bring the footsteps of Mashiach. On the heels of our hearing, footsteps of a night journey, so may we come to the source together and greet the light of a new dawn.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 6, 2019

Labor Day Thoughts While Reading Howard Zinn


             I have been re-reading Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, in which he recounts “fugitive moments of compassion” that give us hope and remind us that the future need not be defined by history’s “solid centuries of warfare.” The admittedly checkered history of organized labor has played a vital role in shaping these “fugitive moments” and continues to do so. Organized labor helped our nation enact child labor laws, establish the eight hour work day, strengthen workplace safety and bring about other changes that have improved the lives of all of us. It is important that we remember this history.
In Chapter Ten, Zinn shares stories of those years in the nineteenth century when trade unions were forming. Tellingly this chapter is entitled: “The Other Civil War.” Here we learn that in 1835 there were fifty different trade unions in Philadelphia. These unions formed a solid front and successfully fought for a ten hour day. But, Zinn reports, by 1844 antagonisms developed between Irish Catholic weavers and native-born Protestant skilled workers over issues of religion. Nativist, anti-immigrant rioters destroyed the weavers’ neighborhoods. Unions divided and soon party politics and religion replaced class conflict, “creating the illusion of a society lacking in class conflict.” “In reality,” Zinn writes, “the class conflicts of nineteenth century America were as fierce as any known to the industrial world.”
Class consciousness was displaced in part by religious conflict and then overwhelmed by the Civil War. But, Zinn points out, there were strikes “all over the country during the war.” He contends that in response to this situation, federal, state and local governments enacted laws and regulations that benefited commerce, businesses and landlords. Then, in the 1870s, an economic crisis devastated the nation. Workers and the unemployed took to the streets. In the centennial year of 1876, the Workingmen’s Party in Illinois wrote a new Declaration of Independence. The following year, in the depths of the Depression, the Great Railroad Strike began. It was, in Zinn’s words, a strike that “shook the nation as no labor conflict in its history had done.” Zinn ends his account of this strike on a somber note: “Blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality . . . working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power.” Ending on a more hopeful note he adds: “But there was more to come.”
Zinn’s book is worth re-reading, or reading for the first time if you have not read it, because it teaches us that while going into the voting booth is important, we must not forget or under estimate “the enormous capacity of apparently helpless people to resist . . .  to demand change.” Each of us can do our part.
           Individually and together we create new expressions of what is possible in the places where we live and work. Joining demonstrations, marches, and boycotts are ways of strengthening our democracy. Writing letters, visiting the offices of our elected representatives, and demanding action on issues like banning the sale of assault weapons are important actions. We can work with our neighbors to transform our communities, make our schools safer, and protect our environment. The lesson to be learned from A People's History, is that each and every one of us can help create our own “fugitive moments of grace” by acting on our values in concert with others. Taking such action is both validating and satisfying. And, importantly, it is our way of showing future generations that we share a commitment to leave for them a culture of sharing and respect for human dignity and for the dignity of the earth.
 Rev. David Hansen

Friday, August 30, 2019

Holding Firmly to Truth

In early August I was in the Black Hills for an eight day training program in the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi. Twenty of us gathered for the fifth training in the U.S. of the Satyagraha Institute. Gandhi coined the word Satyagraha as his term to describe an alternative to violence. He had earlier considered love as the alternative but discarded it as it had so many variations of meaning. Loosely translated from the Sanskrit, Satyagraha means "holding firmly to Truth," with a capital T. 

Although it's a difficult word to pronounce, I prefer Satyagraha to the English translation of "nonviolence." For me, that's a double negative. You take the word violence and give it a negative prefix. Linguistically, there needs to be a positive alternative.

For most Americans, we have been culturally conditioned to believe there is no alternative to violence. Dialogue is sacrificed on the altar of partisanship. Difference is resolved at the point of a gun. Violence has become an easy alternative in our language, our speech, our games, our interactions with others and the world around us. Everyone votes for larger and larger war budgets, to fight our perpetual and pervasive enemies around the globe. 

Those who are discerning should realize, we are quickly approaching that time in human history when we must make the choice, first suggested by Martin Luther King, Jr., between nonviolence and nonexistence.
After all, violence is learned behavior. So is the alternative. For the purposes of this column, I'm suggesting "harmony" as an alternative term for nonviolence.

One of the hallmarks of this fifth Black Hills gathering was the sense of camaraderie and harmony that developed over the eight days. Although people came from different backgrounds, countries, races and cultures, with time and effort misunderstandings were clarified and relationships forged. We were able to not only learn conflict resolution skills but practice them; not only hear about speaking truth in love but actually do it.

There will never be another basketball team like the 1990's Chicago Bulls. Watching them play as a team was magical. Sometimes one sees the same magic in a college team. You can see it occasionally at SDSU. You understand what I mean! It's that perfect pass at the perfect time that leads to an amazing basket. It's as if the team members are connected to each other by this invisible thread.  I'm certain those moments of harmony don't happen in a vacuum. It takes practice. It takes knowing the habits and tendencies of the other. It takes meditation practice before a game with the likes of a coach like Phil Jackson. It takes a deeper knowing, like when a husband and wife of fifty years start to say the same thing at the same time.

I had my first experience of the Rick Holm choir some weeks ago. What a disparate group of volunteers and what wonderful harmony. I'm sure they practice their music. But active and busy folks that they are, there was obviously something else that united them in song; a sense of purpose and service. What they brought to our gathering helped unite us all. There's something magic, something healing, something beautiful in the offering of harmony in music.

My parents had an agreement that they would never argue or fight in front of us children. As best I can remember, they kept that agreement. It made for a certain degree of harmony in the home. It didn't mean we were never in difficulty for our childish mistakes but our parents modeled a relationship of harmony that had an important effect on our family life. 

In the same way we can identify with harmony or disharmony in the classroom or the workplace. So many seem to tolerate months, even years of unhappiness, in the place where they spend most of their time. On the other hand, where people have learned to mesh their talents and liabilities for the good of the whole, work can be a joyful endeavor. 

           What I'm suggesting is that harmony is not just possible in human relationships but it is the way of the universe. Harmony is the music of the spheres. Harmony is the inheritance of creation and the Creator. Harmony is our inner intention and identity. Satyagraha is being in relationship with this capital T truth. 

Violence is an aberration, a special problem of our species that with time and effort, with practice and a sense of purpose, we can eradicate. Let's get to it!

Carl Kline

Friday, August 23, 2019

Little Girl With a Sprig of Lavender



       A comforting image comes to me on that Shabbat each year, a tune forming in my heart, words rising to my lips to sing of a moment. Many years ago on the Shabbat of Comfort, Shabbos Nachamu, I asked my congregation in Victoria, British Columbia, as I would ask you now, a simple and elusive question, where do you find comfort? As the question hovered in the air of the sanctuary, rising up to the high vaulted domes above, my then two year-old daughter Noa, now a mother of three, toddled down the center aisle and without a word reached up her little arm and handed me a single sprig of lavender.

I weep for the loss of innocence that somewhere seeks to abide. I weep for the loss of compassion in the collective expression of who we are as a nation. I weep for the hate and violence that tears us asunder, for the bigotry and bravado that shouts to the world the worst of who we are. I cry out, screaming through tears, “how dare you!” to those who would steal away the fragile sources of our comfort, who would stomp as with jackboots on little sprigs of lavender, and even on the tiny hands that hold them, those who would put children in cages.

For all the horrors that have come to beset us, afraid each day in waking of what the news will bring, I found myself reeling, feeling personally assaulted, unable to breathe, “how dare you, how dare you,” words that have come to me again and again. In the week following the horrors remembered on Tisha B’Av, day of mourning and fasting, laments and dirges for our own sufferings, of exile and wandering; Jews gathering around the country to speak from our own experience as refugees to the pain of those suffering today at our southern border, so the insult that twisted the words of a Jewish poet. Tempest-tossed in the sea of my own emotions, the gall of one more who would tear the shreds of our decency with Orwellian inversion of the precious words of Emma Lazarus. I thought of the opening of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” a young man standing at the rail of a ship entering New York Harbor, gazing out, “…as though in an intenser sunlight. The sword in her hand seemed only just to have been raised aloft, and the unchained winds blew about her form…” (Amerika, p. 3).

        I felt insulted and kicked as a Jew with this brazen attack on a Jewish poet whose words have offered hope to so many millions, that have proclaimed the best of who we are, of what America is meant to be, words that have offered a sacred challenge and reminder in the face of all that would deny them. As though taking a hammer and chisel to the base of this towering woman, the statue and the poet, who in her presence speaks truth to power, an obscenity in the words of the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge….” I thought of my grandparents, poor, unskilled, uneducated, seeking a new life in the goldene medina/the golden land.

In the poem, “The New Colossus,” the statue is also called “Mother of Exiles,” her lamp clearly raised to those who wander in search of shelter, those fleeing hunger and persecution. They are not the well off who can stand on their own two feet, not yet, but in time. Emma Lazarus wrote her poem in part in response to the horror she felt for the suffering of fellow Jews in the Russian pogroms of the late nineteen-century. From the suffering of her own people, she reached out to all people, kindling with her words the light of hope that would shine from the “beacon-hand” of the Mother of Exiles.”

In is the Torah portion of that week, Va’etchanan (Deut. 4:23-7:11), Moses pours out his heart as he recalls to the people how he beseeched God to let him enter the Land, which alas was not to be. That others might enter this, our American land, the word va’etchanan tells of prayer as supplication, prayer that pleads from a shattered heart, prayer that purifies the land on a torrent of tears. Please God, help us to find comfort, to restore decency, to dry the tears upon the face of the Mother of Exiles and upon the faces of all the children for whom she weeps. The Shabbos of Comfort begins a seven-week journey that brings us to the edge of a new year and its renewal. These seven weeks are called the Sheva d’N’chemta/the Seven of Comfort, so describing each of the seven prophetic readings from the Prophet Isaiah that offer comfort after the horrors recalled on Tisha B’Av. On the Shabbos of Comfort that begins the seven, an answer is given to our seeking of comfort, a hint of the source from which it comes. 

       We are to be the comforters. As God inspires us to do likewise in kissing away our tears, it is ultimately for each of us to be the comforter, God calling to us through the Prophet Isaiah: nachamu nachamu ami yomar elokeychem/”comfort, comfort My people,” says your God (Isaiah 40:1). One who would comfort is one who can love, who offers the hope of wholeness from out of the midst of brokenness. Of those who suffer most, the innocence of children in its discomforting impels us to act, and in acting for their sake a measure of comfort to find.

As its own offering of comfort, of prayer and protest, please read the poem of Emma Lazarus, speaking her words as supplication, words to know in their truth, words to hold and protect that they not be abused, nor the people to whom the lamp is raised. As did a little child so long ago, so it is for each of us, ever so gently, to offer to each other a sprig of lavender. A tune forming in my heart, words fluttering on my lips, the memory of a moment still brings comfort: Little girl with a sprig of lavender, gentle be, gentle she, comfort ye my people; comfort ye, comfort ye with a sprig of lavender.

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, August 16, 2019

"Jesus said..."


Jesus Said . . .
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
When he spoke these words either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he was telling his followers something very important, something that we need to know in this time of crisis, when the earth itself is weeping for us. The ice caps and glaciers are melting and the seas are rising and fires are burning and scientists are warning that the time is short. Either we will change the way we life, or change will be forced upon us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. We have been told too often and for too long that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It’s a simply-minded half-truth. Guns are frequently the means of choice, especially when the killers intend to inflict maximum pain in the shortest time possible. Nine people were killed in Dayton in 30 seconds, half a minute. Today we grieve for the people of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, knowing that next week it is very likely that we will have a new cities and new communities to pray for. There have been 255 mass shootings in the United States already this year--in the first 8 months--and we have four more months to go.
        Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. Bullet proof backpacks are the newest item for parents to buy as they prepare to send their children back to school, where they will learn active shooter drills.
We don’t want to remember, but I cannot forget that Stokely Carmichael once observed that “violence is as American as apple pie.” As if to memorialize this quote, the governor of Tennessee recently honored the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacist groups have been encouraged by our political climate, changing demographics, and economic stress.
Economist Paul Krugman says that the central story of US politics today is the rise of economic radicalism championed by the wealthy who want to reduce their taxes and shred the social safety net. Privatization is the name of their game. Think of this, the newly appointed acting head of the Bureau of Land Management is the poster child for privatization of federal land. He was a leader in the “Sagebrush Revolution.” The goal of that revolution was to privatize all the national parks and other federal land. The very man who led that effort is now the head of the Bureau of Land Management. He has responsibility for overseeing our national parks.
 I recite these events because, as Wendell Berry has said, we need to be clear-eyed. The news is not so good. The Center for Disease Control tells us that life-expectancy is a snapshot of our nation’s mental, spiritual and physical health and well-being. Over the last few years there has been a decline in our average life expectancy. According to the CDC suicide and drug overdose are two of the leading causes contributing to this decline.
In this toxic environment of fear and intimidation, let us hear and heed the words of our leader. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he knew something really important. Or, maybe it is because he had his head in the clouds he was able to see the world not only as it, but also as it might be for in the next breath, Jesus tells his followers, “Be dressed and ready for action.” These are not the words of someone who is willing to settle for the status quo, or accept the counsel of those who tell us: There is no alternative. Jesus’ words are a call to action.
Howard Thurman, a famous teacher and preacher and author wrote, Jesus and the Disinherited: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [Jesus of Nazareth] appears as a technique for survival for the oppressed.” Let us declare with the author of the gospel of John: “In him was life, and his life was a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
        Let us admit that the weight of the Christian movement is often on the side of the strong and the powerful. Establishment Christians have fallen in line with the politics and policies of racism and division. Let’s admit it. If you have not already done so, in the future you will hear establishment Christians talking about “public religion.” What they mean is that they want a Christian theocracy to replace our liberal democracy. The problem, as they see it, is that we have too much democracy. They contend that what we need is public religion, a puritanical code of conduct. Do not be fooled. Those who speak of “public religion” are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
 When Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your mother/father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Take no thought of your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; not for your body and what you shall put on. Your life is more than meat and your body more than raiment.” he was casting a vision of a new society; a society that is inclusive and open.
We live in a retributive society that believes in an eye for an eye. As a nation we want to reserve the worst forms of punishment for people whom we believe have committed the worst forms of crime--- those whom we label terrorists. Historically and in the present too often we, white people, are inclined, consciously or otherwise, to equate whiteness with goodness, and terrorism with everyone else. I will give you an example of how this works.
        Today in Louisiana and North Dakota and elsewhere people like Water Protectors, who organize to block pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline, are legally classified as “domestic terrorists.” Protesters, water protectors, are labeled terrorists subject to arrest, fines and in some cases jail. Meanwhile, according to the Brennen Center for Justice, only 10 percent of our states report any hate crime persecutions.
We need legal reforms, but even more we need more public discussion, not public religion. We need to break down religious, racial and gender barriers. The good news is, we are. Our nation is becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and more open.
When hatred and fear stalk the land, when the logic of the strong replaces moral judgment, when those who walk the corridors of power and occupy seats of privilege are eager to declare open season on any person or group or city that they perceive as weak or vulnerable--be it immigrant communities, cities like Baltimore, or people of color, or women, or children, we need to know two things.
First, we have to recognize that the most effective way that those who have power can hold on to power is to inject fear into the body politic. This was Machiavelli’s advice in his political manifesto, The Prince, a book that is often regarded as one of the first books on statecraft in the modern era. Machiavelli famously counseled the prince that it is better to be feared than loved.
Once this disease of fear has infected the body politic there is no simple way to eradicate it. There is no easy way to regain health. But there is a way. And this is the second thing that we must remember. There is a way. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” A kingdom founded not on fear, but on love. Love is a strategy for defeating fear.
Such love requires building relationships, confessing wrongs of the past and mapping out plans and pathways leading toward the restoration of justice--right relationships. Only in this way can we create a society in which people can live without shame or humiliation. Together we can build a society that is beyond thick walls of intimidation.
       Simply put to love one another means that we value and respect each other enough to look for strategies that will remove deprivations and emphasize human capabilities and capacities. Sitting Bull, a great leader of the Sioux nation, said to his assassins shortly before he was killed, “Come, let us put our minds together and see how we can make the world a better place for our children.” Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is a kingdom and a kin-dom strategy.
I submit that love is the strategy chosen by members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who were recently attending a church-wide assembly in Milwaukee, Wis. In the spirit of Martin Luther, who posted 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, five hundred members of ELCA assembly marched into the ICE office in Milwaukee and posted 9.5 theses to the office door declaring the ELCA is now a sanctuary church. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created a national agency called the Accompanying Migrant Minors and Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities ministry. When these church delegates marched into to the ICE office they declared: “This is what love looks like.” It looks like a ministry to protect, advocate for, and represent the most vulnerable members of our community.
           Jesus said: “Your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is the key to this kingdom. Love is the strategy used by a group of Roman Catholic peace activists known as the Kings Bay 7, who one year ago, in August 2018, broke into the US Navy Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base to protest war. They were arrested, as they knew they would be. Some have been in jail for a year waiting for their case to come to trial, which it recently did. What is particularly interesting about this case is that in their defense the Kings Bay 7 cited the same law that Hobby Lobby successfully cited in their challenged to the government’s contraception mandate. The Kings Bay 7 argued that they acted on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs. The judge who heard this case has yet to issue a verdict.
Love is a strategy for change and transformation, this is what we need to know. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe gained notoriety two years ago when Water Protectors led the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Now they have opened up a new front line of struggle and hope. Today the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has the largest solar farm in North Dakota, demonstrating their commitment to renewable energy based on an ethic of respect for the earth. Other indigenous communities in New Mexico, Nevada and elsewhere are also investing in renewable energy.
Friends, now is the time to believe that it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Now is the time to proclaim release to the people held captive by fear. Now is the time to set at liberty all people oppressed by poverty and discrimination. Now is the time to proclaim this is the year of the Lord’s favor. To borrow a phrase from Habitat for Humanity, now is the time, “to put love in the mortar joints” of our communities.
   When Jesus told his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother has been pleased to give you the kingdom,” he may have had his head in the clouds, but he also had his eyes on prize, which was to create a community that would embody love and create strategies that would build on everyone’s capacities and capabilities, so that together we might see how we can make this world a better place for all children. So be it. Amen.
Rev. David Hansen, Ph.D.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Living with the Change

         I used to think our island was a place of relative immunity when it came to the many and stressful social ills that are so abundant on the mainland.  Neighbors care about neighbors.  We can still leave our homes unlocked.  It is not unusual to stop by to visit someone and find no one at home, doors and windows wide open, a vestige of an era long disappeared from so much of our country and culture.  It used to be the same with the various churches and the synagogue too.  Open doors, easy access for a moment of quiet reflection in a sanctuary, office personnel ready to welcome and provide assistance.

But we are living with change.  As the local Congregational Church prepares for a guest preacher from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the deacons meet to learn how to evacuate the sanctuary in the event of a crisis.  Police presence is considered. With rare exception, church doors in the community are locked with entry codes provided to church members.

There is police presence in the synagogue for Shabbat services now.   The doors are locked when services begin.  Latecomers must be admitted by an armed officer.  We are living with change - change initiated by fear as assaults on civilians by individuals armed with devastating weapons  happen with increasing regularity.  As happens with every unspeakable event, the outcry against gun violence and the urgency to "do something!" surges across the nation...and very little effective action is taken at the highest levels of government to insure the safety of human beings in this country.

Our pastor challenged us with her passionate preaching last week.  She spoke about privilege, economic and white: The problem with privilege, particularly economic privilege, is that it gives us a false sense of accomplishment.  It disregards whose shoulders we stand upon, and obscures the labor and struggle of those who have paved the way. Privilege inches us further and further away from our vulnerability , and our vulnerability is a key ingredient to our humanity...privilege inches us further and further into isolation and away from God, the Creator and Provider.

There is another type of privilege that requires just as much, perhaps even more, self examination, internal monologue and prayer, and that is the privilege of being born white, or  identifying as white.  The great sins of our nation, slavery and segregation, are painful and powerful and they remain unaddressed.   Since we dare not discuss such sins in public, they get twisted up inside of us in the form of racial prejudice and racial bias.  We all carry bias, the burden of our nation's sinful past, within us.  It's our societal inheritance, and it's a barrier to realizing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  (Rev. Cathlin Baker)

I sit with her words and realize once again that the gun violence that we experience across the country is but one symptom of a national and collective "soul sickness" arising out of the failure to address the sin's of the past. This is an enormous work, clearly not yet undertaken.  It is hard to hear "I'm not a racist" being shouted thru the national bull horn when the confession needs to be "Yes - I am a racist. Confession and repentance and truth and justice are part of the healing that I will work for across this nation."   This is the subtle melody I yearn for as the election rhetoric ramps up. Will we be able to identify and elect a leader who understands the sick soul of this country - one who can bear the pain of consciousness, who can confess, and repent and seek justice - one who will "lead us in the paths of righteousness", one who will inspire rigorous self examination and humility in us in the face of the enormity of the task of truth telling and healing and reconciliation? 

       Our pastor's closing prayer was this: May we be vigilant in our self examination, allowing God to illuminate the privileges that escape us.  May self-awareness disarm our prejudice and draw us into consciousness.  May we each reflect the virtues and values required for peace and justice -generosity over greed, compassion over coarseness, decency over denigration, humility over hubris.  AMEN 

Vicky Hanjian








 

Friday, August 2, 2019

As a Great Chorus of Inclusion



              In the video and sound recordings of the rally in Greenville, North Carolina, it was hard not to hear echoes of “sieg heil” in the frenzied chant of the crowd. It was hard not to imagine raised arms in Nazi salute; not to feel the psychic fear carried within us as Jews when venomous hatred is directed at one who is deemed different, regarded as other, and therefore unwelcome. I do not know the legal definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense. I do know when a moral line has been crossed in a leader’s cynically conscious effort to divide people from each other.

In the way of the Torah’s search for wholeness amidst its own narratives of brokenness, a poignant affirmation of diversity follows the violence of zealotry in whose grip the weekly Torah portion Pinchas (Numb. 25:10-30:1) opens. 
At the end of the preceding portion, Balak, Pinchas has slain two human beings, an Israelite prince and a Midianite princess. Now given names, Zimri and Cozbi are made real and become known to us as people. All victims of violence have names. However fraught the context of their killing, as though polemics and politics can justify, the dead are real people who loved and were beloved.

Tasting the bitter residue of violence throughout the portion, violence is challenged in ways both subtle and direct. At the outset of Pinchas, just after the zealot has done his murderous deed, in what seems to be an absurd act, God says, Lo! I shall give to him My covenant: Peace/hi’n’ni noten lo et b’riti shalom (Numb. 25:12). When translated correctly, we hear God’s prayerful hope that Pinchas shall rise to the challenge of peace. God has not given him a “covenant of peace,” as commonly translated, but simply “My covenant,” adding the word shalom, as though to say, “so may it be, peace…!” It is a covenant that is meant, in the view of one commentator, the Ha’emek Davar, to redirect the residue of violence that remains within Pinchas. In the word shalom that carries God’s hope, the vertical letter vav is traditionally written in two halves, upper and lower with a space or a line in between, the only place in the Torah of such orthographic teaching, a broken letter that becomes its own prayer for wholeness.

           Not with weapons, but with words, it is women in the portion who offer the most direct challenge to injustice. The daughters of Tzelophchad challenge Moses for the right to inherit following the death of their father, who had no sons. Engaging with God, Moses accedes to the rightness of their claim. This “squad” of women bravely stood forward and spoke truth to power. Perhaps moved more deeply than he realized, just after the claim of the daughters is made, Moses appeals to God with a name that is used only twice in the Torah.

Told of his impending death, Moses is reminded that he had struck the rock to bring forth water, rather than having used words as instructed. In a moment of selfless nobility, Moses does not argue for himself, as he does at other times, but pleads with God only that the people be given a leader who will, in effect, do justice to the holy calling of the people: yifkod ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/Let God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint one over the community who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will lead them in, so that the community of God shall not be like sheep that have no shepherd… (Numb. 27:17).

The poignant power of Moses’ plea is in the way he addresses God, ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/God, the God of the spirits of all flesh…. It is a name that melts the heart in the fullness of its embrace of all, in its universal import, in its affirmation of diversity. It sings of the importance of each one, uttering a sacred call for leadership that recognizes both collective and individual needs as two parts of one whole. In the appearance in one verse of ru’ach/spirit and basar/flesh, expression is given to the essence of what it means to be human, each of us a physical vessel containing God’s spirit as refracted through the uniqueness of who we each are. A link is made between each person and the breath of God that hovered over the face of the waters in the very beginning, ru’ach elokim m’rachefet al p’nei ha’mayyim (Gen. 1:2). Moses reminds God of the gentle essence that is God’s own breath that is breathed into each one at the beginning, our own beginning and that of the world.

God as the God of the spirits of all flesh is the name by which Moses addresses God only twice in the Torah. The other place is in the portion called Korach, (Numb. 16:22). Each of these contexts is a moment of transition, even of danger, concern for what will be going forward. In Korach, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces when God threatens to destroy the whole people. Pleading for God's mercy, they appeal to God with this most inclusive name, reminding God, as it were, of God's connection to all the people, to all people.

               Seen through the lens of Midrash, Moses’ way of addressing God at a point of transition following the violence of Pinchas becomes an affirmation of diversity, an urgent call to see all the people as part of one whole. None are to be sent away, home is right there, and all belong. A classical Midrashic work called Tanchumah draws from the diversity in God’s name as God of the spirits of all flesh an opportunity to reflect on a blessing for diversity, considering when we should say a powerfully beautiful blessing, Blessed are you God, our God, Sovereign of the Universe/m’shaneh ha’bri’yot/who makes all creatures differently.

In that spirit, the midrash goes on to suggest the nature of the leader Moses seeks to succeed him, the rabbis speaking then for Moses: appoint for them one who will bear each and every one according to who they are…. Continuing in that way, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the leader of a generation is one who is able to raise up all the words and the stories of the people of the generation/l’ha’a lot kol ha’dibburim v’ha’sippurim shel anshei doro…. Reflecting the tensions in the portion between the way of weapons and of words, of Moses’ call for a leader who will go out before them and who will come in before them, Rashi imagines a military leader going into battle at the head of the troops. Many centuries later, in the way of the Torah’s seeking its own corrective to violence, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch nearly screams out, going out and coming in by no means designates only the leading of armies in war…, [but] is accordingly the term for the general activity of one set at the head of a nation…, who is at the forefront going about as an example for public and private life…, as the activity of a shepherd is devoted to the thriving and welfare of the flock.

In the face of the violence from which this portion flows, so in the face of all the violence of those who would shout “send her back,” may new leadership emerge that begins with each of us. Calling on God as the God of the spirits of all flesh, may we bless our diversity, enriched in our hearing and holding the stories of each one. As a great chorus of inclusion that would sing away zealotry, violence, and hate, may we yet witness the gathered crowd calling out to the leader and the leader to the people, Blessed is the One who makes all creatures differently.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 26, 2019

God-n-Country


I offered this meditation on Romans 13:1-7 on July 21, 2019. It is undoubtedly the most personal sermon I have ever shared. It started when my younger sister reminded me that when we were children our father would often ask us, “What have you done today for God and Country?” What he meant was, “What have you done today to make the world a better place?” In our childhood minds we hyphenated God and Country. The two words went together like love and marriage and a horse and carriage. God-N-Country, the words belonged together.
It was much later that I read Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I discovered what seemed to be biblical injunction that justified the combining of these words. In the 13th chapter of this letter, Paul urges Christians, “be subject to the governing authorities,” because “all authority is from God.” To rebel against the authorities, the Paul says in this letter, is to rebel against God.
I grew up in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, and we lived in a white Anglo-Saxon culture, and we were very comfortable in our own skin. My father was a judge. I can’t say that I was always obedient, but I was subject to the governing authorities. The text did not require interpretation.
         I later learned that Paul’s admonishment for Christians to be subject to the governing authorities for fear of punishment and out of conscience because they are agents of God is a favorite text of what I now call “establishment Christians.” I do not think it is helpful to make a distinction between “liberal” and “conservative,” or “evangelical” and progressive,” Christians. I think it more useful to make a distinction between establishment Christians and transformative Christians. Establishment Christians love the first seven verses of Romans 13, especially when their candidate or party is in power. Even today you can hear some establishment Christians citing this text or making reference to it.
This text, which once upon a time, was not problematic for me, became a stumbling block. The 1960s erased the “N.” The turmoil of that decade makes it impossible for me to speak of a hyphenated “God-N-Country.” I am a child of that decade. The movement to stop the war in Viet Nam was in full swing. Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta led the United Farm Workers, the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party.  Malcom X and Mohamed Ali were towering personalities. Our bumper sticker said, “Question Authority.” We believed that we could change the world. The assassinations of many of leaders, the bombing of churches and other events of that period changed forever the way I have understood Romans 13: 1-7.
       Some of my friends said that if submitting to the authorities was the message of the Christian church, then they did not want to be part of it, and they left. Some biblical scholars started questioning the authorship of the opening verses of Chapter 13. They noted that Paul was both a Christian and a Roman citizen, and he was always in trouble with the authorities. If he wasn’t in jail, he was hustling to get out of town before the authorities could put him there. When he wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome, he was under arrest. He was going to Rome to stand trial, and it was very likely that he would be killed. Moreover, the heart of Paul’s preaching was Christ crucified. Could Paul really have counseled Christians to “submit” to the authorities?
Other scholars suggest that Paul was addressing a particular situation. Rather than interpreting these verses in Chapter 13 as Paul's theory of the state, these scholars remind us that Emperor Claudius had recently imposed a tax on Jews in Rome. When they resisted and refused to pay it, he simply sent them into exile and confiscated all of their property. When Nero became emperor, after his mother engineered the murder of Claudius and before he arranged for the murder of his own mother, Nero allowed Jews to re-enter the city. Nero used the presence of Jews and Christians, religious minorities, as scapegoats. It was useful to have such groups around every time anything went awry, or he needed to appeal to his base. Perhaps, these scholars suggest, Paul was simply telling his readers to go along in order to get along.
There is a third way to understand this passage. In Romans Chapter 12, Paul encourages his readers to make their bodies a living sacrifice. He tells them to resist the authorities. He tells them, “Do not let the world press you into its mold, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” He tells them to have the mind of Christ. Maybe he is remembering Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Do not underestimate the power of the state to create internment camps on the southern border, or institute a policy of perpetual war, or enact legislation that benefits the very rich at the expense of everyone else. People in positions of authority can and will and do use violent language to create a social and political landscape of fear. We are witness to this.
Thus, it is all the more necessary for transformative Christians to interpret this text not as a summons to submit to political authorities, but rather to see it as a reminder that even emperors and presidents are accountable to God. Therefore, as Paul says in Romans 13: 8, we are to owe no one anything but love. “Love your neighbor,” Paul says, because love does not harm.
I think, therefore, that there is common ground to be found in these words of Paul and Dr. King’s last speech as President of the Southern Leadership Conference. He told those gathered: “There is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action.” Rejecting calls for violence, he said, “I’ve decided to stick to love . . . . And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go” (from: “Where Do We Go from Here.”)
In the name of love Dr. King asked radical questions about our society and the economy. He asked: Who owns the oil? Who owns the ore? Who owns the water? Why do some people have so much, and others have so little? And he laid out a plan of action. He said we need four things: communities that will stick together, leaders who will not sell out, churches that are militant, and people who are trained in nonviolence.
       In another speech, “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” Dr. King said; “There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each [person] has a job and a house and where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is to be created . . . . It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by suffering themselves rather than inflicting suffering upon others. It will be done by rejecting racism, materialism, and violence . . . and by working toward a world of . . . [community], cooperation, and peace.”
Let the people say, “Amen,” and “So be it.”

David Hansen