Friday, December 27, 2019

At the Street Corners and Subway Stations of Life

       Journeys in the world become journeys in Torah, and journeys in Torah become journeys in the world, the way of sacred literature. It is thus that Torah is called Torat Chayyim/Torah of Life, or Living Torah. On my way to downtown Boston, entering the subway station I stopped at the automated kiosk to put more money on my “Charlie Card.” As I stood there, following the machine’s prompts, trying to offer pleasantries even if they weren’t returned, a man clearly in need came up to me and asked if I could spare a few dollars. I offered some pleasantries to him as well, though after a brief exchange I’m not sure if I didn’t prefer the non-response of the machine, a thought that itself makes me sad. I realized that I didn’t have any small bills, just two larger ones. I apologized to the man, explaining that I didn’t have anything that I could give him. I was awkwardly holding my wallet in one hand and my Charlie Card and a credit card in the other. He became rather agitated and abusive, raising his voice, pointing to my wallet and saying he could see that I had money. After a short time, he snarled at me and stormed away cursing at what in that moment, I am pained to think he must have felt as my lack of kindness.

Later that evening, as I made my way to the T for the trip home, a man approached me as I stood at a busy downtown street corner waiting to cross. He too was clearly in need, making me wonder of what lessons I was meant to learn on this journey of street corner and subway station Torah. A large, bearded man, his voice almost jovial, he extended his hand as he asked, “can you help me out brother?” I sighed, feeling particularly pained, knowing nothing had changed in my wallet, offering apology and good wishes as the light changed. He smiled and wished me well. Suddenly I stopped as I stepped into the street, turning and running after the man as he stepped from the other corner. I asked him if he could wait a moment and I would run into a store right there on the corner. He smiled and said, “sure, brother.” I went into the store and waited a few minutes in line until I could ask the cashier to change one of the bills in my wallet. It wasn’t as big as I had thought it was, making me wonder if I should just have given it to the first man, or at least to the jovial man waiting outside. Having already gotten change, I came out and gave a few dollars to the man. We shook hands and again he wished me well, not much difference in his jovial demeanor or warmth from what were his blessings for me when I had not given him anything. We had indeed each given something to the other, though I felt that I had received more.

As I continued on my way to the subway station, lost in thought, I tried to understand the two different responses, really the four different responses that had played out in my interactions with the two messengers of God I had encountered that evening. There were two very different responses to me from each of them, and there were two very different responses from me to each of the two men. I wondered if I had failed to find some way beyond words to have shown kindness to the first man. So too, I wondered how much his gruff and abrasive manner had affected me, causing me to shut down the flow of chesed/loving-kindness from me to him. To the degree, sadly, that the manner of the first man may have influenced my response in a negative way, the manner of the second man may have influenced my response in a positive way. Taken together, a teaching on the way of encounter emerges, the way of words and manner to touch the heart of another.

    As I walked, comforted in knowing that at least now there were smaller bills in my wallet, I reflected on the weekly Torah portion called Chayyei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18). The name of the portion means the Life of Sarah, yet it opens telling of her death. Death becomes the ultimate lens through which we learn about kindness. As Avraham looked after the needs of his beloved wife, bringing words of eulogy and tears, purchasing and preparing a burial place, we see enacted the greatest love, that for which there can be no words of appreciation, deeds therefore described as chesed shel emes/deeds of loving-kindness and truth. The words chesed/loving-kindness and emes/truth appear a number of times in the portion, underscoring the nature of our deeds as the true measure of life, deeds of kindness as markers of truth along the path formed of our days. This is how we are to understand the poignant phrase in the portion, Avraham was old, he had come through the days/Avraham zaken, ba ba’yamim (Gen. 24:1).

Of kindness as the light upon our path, that which makes our days truly count, the Slonimer Rebbe offers a beautiful and challenging teaching on these words that describe Avraham as coming through the days. Reminding us that Avraham is associated with the attribute of chesed/loving-kindness, the Slonimer teaches that to come through the days means to do an act of kindness every day, she’b’chol yom tzarich la’asot ma’aseh chesed/for in each day one needs to do an act of loving-kindness…. Bringing home the point by way of warning and challenge, the Rebbe says, d’yom she’eyno oseh bo chesed, lo nech’shav k’yom b’chayav/a day in which one does not do an act of kindness is not considered as a day in one’s life….  In relation to ahavah as love between people in relationship with one another, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes such chesed/loving-kindness as love translated into action. In that way, chesed can be expressed and activated in relation to those whom we love in our lives as family and friends and in relation to those whom we love as fellow human beings, all of those who teach us living Torah on street corners and in subway stations.

    As I sat on the train coming home, quietly reflecting on unexpected teachers in unexpected places, as in “The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel continuing to remind, “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” I opened my phone to learn Daf Yomi/the Daily Page of Talmud. Following a seven year cycle, now in its thirteenth cycle, Jews throughout the world learn the same page on the same day, joined across time and space by ancient words as new as the light-emitting device held in my hand. I smiled with delight as I encountered the beautiful teaching that a child in utero knows the entire Torah, all of which is forgotten when an angel taps upon the upper lip as we emerge into life (Masechet Niddah 30b). In the warmth of rabbinic telling, the small cleft above the upper lip known as the “philtrum,” a word I learned from my dad the scientist (of blessed memory) long ago, reminds of learning left behind, womb wisdom meant to become world wisdom. As the train rumbled along, I then read of the oath that a child is made to swear before leaving the womb, an admonition from the beginning, from before we can know its import, that is meant to follow us through life: t’hi tzadik v’al t’hi rasha/become a righteous person and not a wicked one….

As journeys in the world become journeys in Torah, and journeys in Torah become journeys in the world, street corner wisdom and subway station Torah, so I made my way and wondered of my interactions that night. I wondered of kindness shown to one and not to another, if somehow each was part of a greater whole meant to help me learn the Torah of life. As each person’s soul is admonished to be righteous upon entering this world, our deeds of loving-kindness become fulfillment of the promise. Expanding our own self-righteous sense of what it means to be righteous, we learn to embrace others who also promised, and in their own way fulfill, teachers we might otherwise fail to meet at the street corners and subway stations of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 20, 2019

In the Nexus of the Written and Received - Words that Hurt and Words That Heal

           Written and received, words that hurt and words that heal, flowing through time as part of one conversation, joining generations, challenging. It is the relationship of Written Torah and Oral Torah, the place of their nexus providing a context of relationship between people and people, and people and God. The Written Torah, Torah She’bichtav, is the word of God, whether one understands it to emanate directly from the Holy One or as flowing through the minds and hearts of divinely inspired human authors. The Written Torah as the Five Books of Moses is complete as lovingly transmitted through the ages. The Oral Torah, Torah She’b’al Peh, literally the Torah of the mouth, is the word of human beings engaged with the text of the Written Torah. Open-ended, the Oral Torah is an ever-unfolding conversation through the generations. By tradition, the Written Torah begins at Mount Sinai, God’s gift to the Jewish people through Moses, our teacher. In one of the most radically bold acts of the rabbis, the Oral Torah is also rooted at Sinai, its flow beginning concurrently with the Written Torah. So the rabbis empowered human engagement with the Written Torah, setting forth a dynamic and dialectic by which we learn to probe deeply, eschewing fundamentalism, learning to lovingly debate and challenge, learning the way with dignity of speaking truth to power.  Written Torah and Oral Torah are two parts of one whole, inseparable from each other in the way of Jewish life and learning if we are to fully engage with the Torat Chayyim/the Torah of Life.

           In a boldly trenchant analogy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) compares the Written Torah to the notes of a lecture, while Oral Torah represents the fullness of the lecture itself in all of its richness and varied texture (Commentary to Torah portion Mishpatim, Ex. 21:2). The “notes” are enough to awaken awareness, to jog the memory only if one was at the “lecture,” only if one immerses in the living waters of Oral Torah, reading Written Torah and Oral Torah as one, concurrently, as given at Sinai. In regard to the harsh passages of Torah, to remain stuck in places of violence, or to slam the holy book shut in our pain, or, God forbid, if we accept such brutality as the intent of Torah, then we are not hearing the fullness of the lecture, its voice at times stern, at times pleading. Representing human engagement with God and with people, the Oral Torah is a model for human response and responsibility. Learning how to respond to textual violence becomes a metaphor and training ground for responding to violence in the world.

Encountering the harsh passages of Torah, we cringe, we cry, we scream out, speaking our tearful truth to power, be it the power of God, or of people who would simply read, or rationalize, or, worst of all, callously justify and say that is the tradition. There is such a passage in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim/Judges (Deut. 16:18-21:9). It is a portion whose violence is framed by teachings of nonviolence, as though to warn away from the ways of violence, as though to contain the harsh passages, to underscore that these do not represent the way of Torah. Torah becomes a context of struggle, of seeking the way.

Near the beginning, the Torah offers its classic challenge, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20). Just before the place of the portion’s greatest burst of violence is a series of military deferments, as though to say no to the sword and to those who would wield it, no, no a thousand times no, even God crying out. Immediately after the place of violence, framing and containing the harsh passage, is the command to spare fruit trees in times of war. Particularly in Chassidic teaching, the tree to be spared is seen to represent the ultimate tree, the human being, ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh/for the human is the tree of the field (Deut. 20:19).

And then we come to the harsh passage (Deut. 20:16-18), its words so hard to read, to share, to speak, chanting them in synagogue in a mournful undertone. In regard to the Canaanite nations who dwell in the land we are about to enter, the Torah says, lo t’chayeh kol n’shammah/you shall not allow a soul to remain alive…. We bravely step into the breach, ready to confront the violence, to speak truth to power in the way that we have learned to do from Torah itself. If we do not have the courage to confront violence in Torah, how shall we have the courage to confront violence in the world around us? So we are meant to learn and to transcend.

In the way of Oral Torah we bring teachings to bear that counter the violence, that offer another way, that set up a dynamic that is meant to teach us the way that heeds the Torah’s own call in this very same portion, justice, justice shall you pursue. I am drawn in this portion particularly to the teaching of Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenberg, chief rabbi of Koenegsburg in the mid to later 19th century. In the name of his commentary, the name by which he is known, we find ourselves in that nexus of Written Torah and Oral Torah, the place of our empowerment. Known as the K’tav V’ha’kabbalah/the Written and the Received, referring to the Written and the Oral Torah, Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi seeks through his commentary to show the essential link between these two facets of Torah. So he empowers us to engage with all that is painful in the Written Torah, seeing the importance of our own place in the ever-unfolding tradition. This is exactly the nature of our own learning. It is exactly what calls us to engage with and challenge the harsh passages, drawing from the pained wrestlings of others who came before. Oral Torah is Torah. It is all one Torah with which and through which we engage with life in all of its facets.

In a commentary of overwhelming moral power, staggering in its challenge to the Written Torah and to most other commentators, himself speaking truth to power, the Ha’k’tav V’ha’kabbalah affirms the process of bringing Oral Torah, including our own voices, to challenge the Written Torah. In regard to the harsh passage of our portion, as usually translated, you shall not allow a soul to remain alive, he virtually screams out at the cruelty and then proceeds to show how it cannot possibly be as it would appear, that the Torah, that God, God forbid, would call for the extermination of innocents, d’nireh k’ach’zari’ut g’dolah lish’foch dam naf’shot n’ki’yim/so it appears as great cruelty to spill the blood of innocent souls. He reviews the common views that rationalize the slaughter, offering implicit critique to commentators who would appear to simply shrug. He then goes on to offer his own view. He suggests that t’chayeh/to allow to live has a technical meaning, referring to sustaining a life, in this case enemy captives in order to enslave them. He brings various examples to show how this is the meaning. The negative formulation, as lo t’chayeh/you shall not allow to live is not meant to suggest that we shouldn't sustain captives, but that we should not sustain them for the sake of enslaving them. He then says boldly that instead of either killing them or enslaving them, the verse teaches that we should simply allow them to flee and to settle wherever they like, even in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi then draws together his commentary with great power and conviction, saying that even if you don't agree with his interpretation, you must acknowledge that the verse is not about killing innocents, you are bound to acknowledge/al kor’cha’cha tzarich l’hodot/that the intent in it (the verse) is not to kill all of the people who are found in the city without distinction/bilti havchanah…. He speaks powerfully about citizens -- men, women, and children -- who cry out for peace, but they have no power in the face of their own soldiers. He sees the innocents as m’vakshei ha’shalom/seekers of peace, an amazing phrase by which to describe one’s presumed enemies. 

Empowered in our own wrestling with Torah as Torat Chayyim/the Torah of life, drawn to confront and transcend violence in the text, so we are meant to in life. The approach of the Ha'ketav V'hakabbalah points to the importance of Oral Torah as the key to drawing out a stream of nonviolence that flows through Torah. Oral Torah represents our human struggle with challenges presented by the written word of Torah and in life itself. At times, the Oral Torah fills in blanks and offers the way by which to fulfill a cryptically framed mitzvah, and at times it offers moral direction and a call to question and wrestle with the written word. 

So Torah becomes a "laboratory," a context, in which we are meant to struggle with all realms of life. Oral Torah represents the human will to engage with all of our being, learning to challenge and redirect all that would undermine the beauty of creation and the holiness of life, learning to challenge with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our might. Learning to speak truth to power, we learn to lovingly engage with each other and with God in the nexus of the written and the received.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 13, 2019

Give me your tired, your poor...

          I'm remembering him as my first and quite personal experience of a refugee fleeing his own country in a time of war. Russia invaded Estonia in 1940 and the country became a pawn of the Soviet Union. Mr. Napp and his family fled. 

We live in a time when some 30 million people have fled their homes because of persecution and violence. They fear for their lives should they return. The United Nations Refugee Agency terms it the greatest refugee crisis on record.

At the same time, the United States, historically a welcoming country for those tired and poor streaming toward our shores, has turned it's back and closed the doors. In the early 1980's, we took in more than 200,000 refugees a year. In later years we averaged some 67,000 a year. The present administration capped the number at 30,000 refugees in 2019 and has cut that back to 18,000 for 2020.

        We have the infrastructure, perhaps the best on the planet, for incorporating refugees into our midst. Most of this is provided by private faith based agencies in partnership with the federal government. These include Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, World Relief, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The latter is the agency at work in South Dakota to settle and support those residing in our area. In 2018, LSS in Sioux Falls settled 400 refugees. This year the numbers are down to 103. As this administration continues to close the door, the faith based infrastructure weakens and the light of the lady in the New York harbor goes dark. If the administration doesn't want refugees coming to this country, they should at least get out of the way of private faith based agencies who welcome them. How do we practice our faith of loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger when we are blocked by the government from serving them? Perhaps the government should be sued for denying us our religious rights and our religious freedom to practice the gospel?

I first met Joe at a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the Einstein Institute. Founded by Gene Sharp, foremost scholar of alternatives to war in the U.S., the Institute brought together a diverse group of people, from Generals in the military to activists from Tiananmen Square. During one break, Joe and I found each other, perhaps because we were the only ones wearing jeans among the participants.

Joe was born in Germany. His father worked there for an American corporation. Fortunately for them as a Jewish family, that corporate relationship enabled them to leave the country on the last train before the Nazis began the final solution. They came to this country as refugees. Perhaps because of that history, Joe went on to teach Peace Studies at a leading University. He was also one of the most generous persons I've ever known. Contrary to the usual wisdom, those who have experienced violence are often the most knowledgeable and committed advocates for its alternative. And they demonstrate that alternative in their lives.

This is the season when many will hear the story of a family fleeing to another country, because of their fear for the life of their child. A King, informed of a threat to his power and position by a new born infant, goes on a rampage of killing the innocent children of the land. It's known in the Christian faith as the Massacre of the Innocents. Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees and fled to Egypt. Jesus is saved.

As the story suggests, even welcoming one refugee can make a difference. Even better would be if we took His life and teachings seriously, and lived in a way that massacres of the innocent ceased.

Carl Kline

Friday, December 6, 2019

Better to light just one little candle...


        It is midweek as I write, still reflecting on Sunday morning’s service of worship.  It was the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the ancient rituals of anticipating the renewal and rebirth that comes with the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.  The service was abundant with the full range of human emotion and aspiration.  

    The Pietro Yon organ prelude set the tone with its steady bass beats, like ever advancing footsteps under the clear high notes of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” - - evoking the image of an ever advancing movement toward justice and peace. 

     The diverse congregation gathered.   Children to be baptized;  a brand new nonagenarian celebrating her 90th birthday; the deacons and church school teachers a mix of skin colors; LGBTQ members fully embraced; a terrified family whose mentally compromised son is among the missing in New York City; an equally terrified and grieving woman whose husband is showing signs of dementia; a young man who cares for a sister who has had a debilitating stroke.

     There was the chaos of young children wiggling, struggling to be free of parental constraints, vocalizing lustily as the baptism unfolded.  All this playing out against the ordered and measured background of an incredible  solo offering of  Handel’s “Comfort Ye, My People”, framing perhaps a dozen children gathered with the pastor around the font for the blessing of the baptismal water.

       Three sets of parents, three children, three sets of godparents, one of whom is a Jewish father faithfully bringing his own sons to Jewish services each week in preparation for their  being called to the Torah,  all vowing to resist the forces of evil in the world, to work for justice against oppression and to raise these young souls in the paths of righteousness - the congregation promising to support them all.

     The prayers of the people brought forth the joys and concerns of the congregation to be offered to The Holy One, to be cared for and ministered to by the community gathered.

     An invitation was given to meet one another around an open table for communion to renew and refresh the memory of the life and teachings of Jesus, to renew together the commitment to life in community based on the hope for a new age when “justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

     And then the “bookend” as the congregation hummed together “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the pastor gave the benediction and sending forth.

     As people moved toward the coffee hour, small knots of human-kindness gathered around the young man who has been caring for his sister,  offering loving support in the form of visits and homemade soups; around the woman whose grief at her husband’s decline left her without words, but welcoming the solid embrace of support around her.  The coffee hour simply continued the worship in another room, under another guise, as individuals connected with each other, as strangers were welcomed and fed, as calendars were produced and appointments made to carry the caring, the feeding, the work of justice out into the world.

     The service was a swirl of chaos and order,  rejoicing and pain,  sorrow and hope, all playing out in the midst of an extravagant hospitality that welcomes every part of our humanness into the sacred precincts of worship. 

     As I have continued to reflect on just what exactly happened during that  brief couple of hours I have come to see that it was a momentary peek into the reign of The Holy One, the divine unity for which we yearn in our immense and often challenging diversity.  We call it by so many names - The Second Coming, The Kingdom of God, the coming of the Messiah - - that time when every tear shall be dried, every injustice set right, every broken heart healed.  

     At the beginning of the service, we lighted the first of the four candles in the Advent wreath and claimed it as a symbol of hope.  And then, for a brief space in time we entered into the dynamic unfolding of “the kingdom” in our midst - - shared in a glimpse of what it might look like if we each simply do what is required of us - to “do justice, to love mercy and kindness, to walk humbly with our God.”  

     The  sacred texts affirm that the kingdom is within us and among us, moving inexorably, with slow and steady footsteps toward fulfillment.  This is the hope of Advent.  There is great power in lighting that one little candle.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, November 29, 2019

A time for rapprochement between religion and economics?

          A few centuries ago the Dismal Science of Economics and the Divine Science of Theology  went to court seeking a divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Economists claimed that theologians had their heads in the clouds. Theologians countered that economists had a cold and calculating hearts. The court of public opinion granted the divorce. The two parties drifted further and further apart with the passage of time, and their distrust of each other deepened. Then in 1759, Adam Smith, a leading economist, wrote, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it seemed like there might be an opportunity for rapprochement. Yet, as markets became more firmly established and theories of market economics became more sophisticated, the chasm of distrust between economists and theologians remained as deep as ever. Recently, however, there appears to be renewed interest in both camps to start a new conversation. There is simply too much at stake to allow the status quo to continue. 

Let me cite two examples: the World Council of Churches has identified global capitalism as an idolatry, and a number of economists have argued that the defense of self-interest as a cardinal virtue of the marketplace is, at best, myopic.

The rapacious nature of global capitalism and its tendency to commodify everything has raised alarms not only among members of faith communities, but also among climate scientists, economists, and the general public. The chorus of prophetic voices decrying this situation is growing louder and stronger. At the same time members of faith communities are making significant contributions in shaping market sectors. Organizations of Habitat for Humanity are redefining the meaning of affordable housing. Faith communities are major providers of healthcare. Many educational institutions are related to faith communities. In classic language, faith organizations have both a prophetic and a priestly/pastoral presence in the marketplace. Pension funds, of course, are one of linchpins creating a tight bond between faith organizations and markets. 

In the balance of this essay I want to introduce three possible places of rapprochement between economics and religion that people in a democratic society must have: the mental capacity to make meaningful choices; the material means to act on and implement their choices; and, authentic political communities of choice. I will call these capacity-building vectors that must be present and coordinated in a healthy democracy. From an economic perspective rather than limiting legitimate interest to shareholders, we are beginning to hear new conversations that recognize the valid interests of all stakeholders. Conversations in faith communities tend to center around themes related to the common good. Stakeholders have a shared interest in the common good, albeit at times these interests may be in conflict.

           In a vibrant democracy people must have the mental capacity to make meaningful choices. Public education is one of the battle grounds or meeting places for faith communities and economics. The push to privatize and further commodify education through charter schools, vouchers, and the like while at the same time curtailing or cutting funds for public education poses a threat to the future of a democratic society. The recent Chicago teachers strike serves as a case in point. Educators in Chicago created a union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), in 1937. The union did not gain collective bargaining rights until 1966. In 1987, the CTU went on strike for pay, reduced class size, and resources for the classroom. The CTU strike in 2012 focused on smaller class sizes, increased funding for music, art, physical education, reduced emphasis on standard tests, and paid time for teachers to prepare for classes. Once the Chicago teachers went back to work their message spread across the country. Teacher strikes in New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Tampa, and points in between emphasized a community approach to achieve educational reform. Lessons learned in these struggles continue to be applied. According to US Department of Labor more than 485,000 workers went on strike in 2018. The 2019 CTU strike was not just about long overdue pay increases, but also for better resources to improve students lives, such as increasing the number of counselors, nurses, and social social workers. The focus on the need for these resource specialists is explained by changes in the community such as increases in gun violence, domestic violence, and drug use. Clearly many of the problems and challenges teachers confront in the classroom have their origin outside the classroom. To address these issues requires broad based community mobilization.

In a democracy people need the mental capacity to make informed and meaningful choices. They also need the material means that allows them to act on their choices. Using a Quality of Life Index (QLI) economists and political leaders are able to track and assess the well-being of communities at a very refined level. QLI measures include such things as access to affordable and adequate health care, education, food security, housing, public safety, and environmental sustainability. Rather than focusing exclusively on the wealth gap and the wage gap, as seems to be the current obsession of the public media, our society would make more progress toward creating a stronger democracy if we focused on ways to improve the QLI of those members of society who are most a risk. A shared commitment to a better QLI for the most vulnerable members of society could be a point of rapprochement for economists and theologians, and provide a road map for the future.

Thirdly, in a vibrant democracy people need to be able to participate in meaningful ways in political communities that are transparent and accountable. Faith communities can be places where people learn basic skills such as sharing resources and responsibilities that are needed to create and sustain such communities. Lessons learned in these communities can be put to use in the public square. Faith communities can also become educational centers where people learn how to do community analysis. 

Economists trained in schools of economics that teach in primacy of self-interest and who sanctify the bottom line may dismiss the foregoing as being unrealistic and just another example of head-in-the-clouds theology. But I believe that we live in a time when a rapprochement between theologians and economists is not only possible; it is necessary. 

Rev. David Hansen, Ph.D.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Affirming With Our Presence That We Have Not Given Up

I met recently with an elder friend at his home. At ninety-five years, he is still an indefatigable activist for peace and justice. As I was about to leave, we stood at the door for a moment. Looking at me intently, my friend asked, “Have you given up?” I was a bit startled by the question, the very thought of giving up anathema to me. Somewhere between tears and a shout, I said with unexpected passion, “No, of course not, we have no right to give up!” Then, with equal conviction, my friend said, “That’s good, anyone who has given up is not welcome here.”

I have been thinking about that parting question, both so troubling and inspiring to me. I could not imagine giving up the struggle for a better world, a more just and peaceful society. It has been a struggle that has called me for what seems to be my whole life, a call to engage for as long as I can remember. However engaged we are in the world and its needs, there are times for all of us when we need to step back, times when we feel soul-tired, times when we need a place to cry as we look out upon so much destruction in the world. There are times when we need the support of others, times when we need the support of our own convictions, times when we need God’s support, to take God’s hand and walk quietly together.

It was the week of the Torah portion Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24). I continue to filter my friend’s question through this packed and beautiful, this devastating and powerfully challenging and uplifting Torah portion. It is filled with life in all of its raw beauty and complexity, people in conflict, people in love, people struggling toward wholeness, at times reaching great heights, at times failing miserably. At the outset, Avraham and Sarah teach the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim/welcoming of guests, becoming a model for all time of graciousness to the stranger, the passerby, the one in need. 
The absurdly improbable flowering of love comes to be with Sarah’s pregnancy at ninety years, her husband at one hundred. The jealousy of Sarah for Hagar plays out in bitter tones that still reverberate through time, the sending away of a mother and child, the separating of brothers. God debates in poignant soliloquy whether to tell Avraham of the thought to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities so filled with violence and cruelty they cannot stand. God does tell Avraham, part of setting forth the mission to be given to Avraham’s descendants. Our task shall therefore be to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice/la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat (Gen. 18:19). 

      And so Avraham rises to God’s challenge and argues on behalf of the people of these violent cities. From the heights to the depths, we rise and fall with our ancestor as he fails to say a word on behalf of his own son, putting a knife to the throat of his own flesh. By what right do we think our children are ours to do with whatever we would? We scream and cry and try to keep going. The portion continues, from heights to depths, ways of war and ways of peace, domestic tensions and modeling of sholom bayis/peace in the home.

The journey through Vayera is wearing, exhausting us by its end. And yet we stay with it because that is what Torah trains us to do. A scroll of life unfolding through time, we are challenged to think, to feel, to wrestle and struggle with Torah as with life, with life as with Torah. In the way of reading and wrestling with Torah we are trained to never give up. We make mistakes, we triumph in the way of moral accomplishment, we fall and fail, we grieve and we celebrate, and we keep going because that is the way and nature of life. It is anathema to give up. The challenge of Torah at its end is there from the beginning, Choose life, so that you may live, you and your children… (Deut. 30:19). We keep going, we keep walking, we keep on keeping on, as Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, encouraged us with song and a smile, and in the way of the old freedom song, “gonna keep on walkin’, gonna keep on talkin’ on to the freedom land.”

It is the way of our walking that plays out in two models of Torah, the way of No’ach and the way of Avraham. Of No’ach, we are told before the great flood, et ha’elo’him hithalech No’ach/No’ach walked with God (Gen. 6:9). To Avraham, God says, hithalech l’fanei ve’h’yeh tamim/walk before Me and become whole… (Gen. 17:1). From these ways of walking, with God and before God, No’ach comes often to be seen as the more passive one and Avraham as the more active one. No’ach is seen to do what he is told, not arguing or trying to reason.
             Avraham is seen as the activist, going out in front, arguing. And yet there are times when Avraham doesn’t argue, times when he fails to act, as on behalf of his own son, Isaac, unthinkingly and unthinkably taking him up the mountain to offer him there upon an altar.      And there are times when No’ach steps forward, quiet passion welling up, as imagined by rabbis not satisfied with paradigmatic dichotomies, whether those limiting Avraham and No’ach or those limiting ourselves. A powerful midrashic telling in the Zohar is set in the moment that No’ach emerges from the ark, eyes blinking, bewildered by what he sees, overwhelmed with emotion: when No’ach went out from the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world destroyed/kol ha’olam kulo charav, he began to weep for the world/hit’chil bocheh al ha’olam; he said, ‘Master of the Universe, if on account of sin or on account of those who stray You would destroy Your world, why did You create them? Either this or this, is it for You to destroy? O d’lo tavri enash, o d’lo tavri alma/either do not create the human or do not create the world… (Torah Sh’laymah, Midrash Ha’ne’e’lam, Noach 22b).

If we would not give up, is it enough at times simply to weep and then to cry out? Is it enough at times to walk with God and tell of our weariness and ask for strength? Is it enough at times simply to keep speaking, even to the wind, in order to remind ourselves why we can’t give up? There is a powerful midrash said to have been told by Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory:

            A person came to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to plead with the people to turn from their violence, to stop their killing. This person walked the streets of the city day after day talking and pleading, but alas to no avail; the people continued in their violent ways. One day, as the person walked through the streets of the city, a child came up and asked, ‘why do you continue to talk to them, you see that they don’t listen to you?’ And the answer came gently to the child, ‘When I came here, I talked to them in order to change them, now I continue to talk to prevent them from changing me.’

There are times when our activism may be just to “keep on talkin’” in order to remind ourselves of what we believe, a way to insure that we do not give up, that we shall yet overcome and someday reach the freedom land. We need both ways, the way of Avraham and the way of No’ach, each part of one whole. Continuing to do righteousness and justice as a way of life, we keep going, walking at times with God and at times before God, needing each other. We keep on walkin’ and we keep on talkin’, at times even to ourselves. At times it may be the challenging question of an elder, at times the innocent question of a child, at times a “voice within me talkin’,” each to remind that we are morally bound to never give up; that in my friend’s home become the world, we shall all be welcome, affirming with our presence that we have not given up.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein


Friday, November 8, 2019

" a dog..."

            Near the end of August, just before our grandkids left for college, it became a reality that Flash, our beloved  “grand-dog” was rapidly failing and that the most loving and compassionate thing to do would be to “put him down.” We went with our son and daughter-in-law and our grandkids to witness and attend to the end of Flash’s life. I was awed by the amount of grief I experienced, both anticipating it  and then going through the actual process at the vet’s that morning - -the same place where my daughter-in-law and I had picked him out 13 years ago.  Back then he was a sad, unhealthy puppy from a litter that had apparently been “mis-bred” - - not a full Gordon Setter - maybe a mix of Gordon Setter and Irish Setter.  Scrawny, malnourished, wormy - neglected by the breeder due in part to her own mental illness.  But he was the one that appealed!  With love and attention and stability in the family, he grew into a goofy adult dog with the peculiar habit of eating poop and tissues whenever he had the opportunity.  When we arrived at the vet’s office our son lifted Flash out of the back of the station wagon. He was able to walk on his own on the leash.  The place was familiar to him so he was not stressed.  The vet explained that she would give him some anesthesia to relax him and settle him and then would give him the overdose that would ease him out of this life.
            It was a sweet, gently awesome thing to be there and understand how quickly the spirit vacates the physical container -how gently it happens - how complete and final it is.  One second, the heaving, straining breathing signaled life still present - and the next -peaceful quiet absence -and yet Presence- as we sat there and said our good byes and cried our tears.  We mourned the passing of this goofy, loveable dog who had given us all so much love and enjoyment and laughter over the years of his life in our family.
            I was only partly tuned in to the story of Abu Bagr Al Baghdadi’s death when it was announced on the morning news.  As the day’s story unfolded, I was stunned to hear from the president’s mouth that Baghdadi “…died like a dog, like a coward…”  I felt disturbed and sad and not a little nettled by the lack of dignity of these words coming from his mouth, as though, even if an enemy, Al Baghdadi had no value as a human being.   Somewhere, someone, a mother or father, a wife or son or daughter is mourning  the of death of this man.  His life was, without a doubt, committed to a level of violence and terrorism and to the flagrant waste of human life that is beyond me to imagine, and yet he was a human being. 
            Several traditional teachings from Judaism and Christianity keep riffling through my mind.   Jesus, while being tortured  and crucified by Roman soldiers, the occupying terrorist power in Judea at the time, prayed as he was dying: “Father forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”   A teaching that aspires to give us hope that compassion toward an enemy is possible under the most extreme circumstances and that the behavior of the enemy may be a manifestation of the grossest lack of conscious awareness of what he or she is doing.
            Right at the beginning of Genesis, the ancient creation story affirms that humankind is created in the image of God.  Nowhere does it say only “good” humans are created in God’s image, nor does it exclude racist humans or terrorist humans, or female humans or disabled humans - - - it simply affirms that God created humankind - - ALL of us - - in God’s image.  To harm or kill another human being is to deface the image of God.
            In the midst of the kind of polarization that seems to rule the day in this country at the moment, this represents a radical theology of humankind, I think.  How can it be that all human beings, without regard to status, race, gender orientation, without consideration for  a person’s orientation to compassion or to terrorism and cruelty - - how can it be that all human beings are created in the image of God?
            Over the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to a body of Hasidic wisdom called Tanya.  One of the most powerful concepts in the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman is the concept of the beinoni - a term for the individual who straddles somewhere between  tzaddik (a saint) and  rasha (a wicked or evil person). An absolute tzaddik is one who has absolutely no inclination toward evil residing in him or her.  There is no longer any conflict between good and evil within a tzaddik.  A rasha, on the other hand, is one who is totally directed by the governance of the body drives and emotional whims and there is no awareness of any manifestation of Divine Soul.
Then there is the beinoni  who has not sinned in his or her behavior but who has not completely purged him or herself from evil either - but rather lives in a state of needing to be continually aware of the deliberate, conscious decision never to draw life energy from any source other than God. [1]  Perhaps this is similar to the teachings of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.
            This is a gross over simplification of a very beautiful and complex spiritual psychology but it is helping me to build a frame of reference for venturing toward compassion and understanding of the density of such a one as Al Baghdadi from whom virtually no light could shine.
            At some point the Tanya goes on to teach that a complete tzaddik (in whom there is no inclination toward evil) or a complete rasha  (in whom there is no inclination to good) are extremely rare.  More often there is almost total “goodness” with a touch of “evil” or almost total “evil” with a touch of “goodness” - - something like the Yin/Yang symbol where opposite halves are intertwined with a tiny spot of the one appearing in its opposite half and vice versa.
            So, perhaps it is possible that somewhere in the recesses of the person called Al Baghdadi, a well hidden spark of light might have permitted him to love a child or an aging parent, while the rest of him found it easy enough to mindlessly obliterate human life, to generate hatred and terror on a much larger scale.   Even the tiniest spark of light, no matter how dim, marks him as a human being.  He died like a human being, running from pursuers, alone, afraid, terrified enough that he chose to end it all himself before being captured.   The rest of us lose our own human dignity when we speak of his death with glee and triumph.  His life and his death are part of a human tragedy. 
            Our beloved Flash died like a dog, a beloved member of a human family, attended to with care and compassion, with tears and mourning, with dignity and grace.  There is a huge difference.  

[1] Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom, trans. By Rabbi Rami Shapiro, SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010. p.xi

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, November 1, 2019

"...ends in the making"

              As you read this, the library has had their semi-annual book sale. There were 200 boxes unpacked on Tuesday morning and I'm sure there were plenty of books left Sunday afternoon when you could get them for $2 a bag. I went three times, filling five canvas bags.    I've been complaining for months about how we need to downsize. There are enough books in our house to start a bookstore. In years past, we've had book giveaways. We invite folks for refreshments and books. The books are arranged attractively on tables. No one is allowed to leave the house with empty hands. If my goal is downsizing, then the means to get there is giveaways and curing my addiction at book sales. That's easier said than done. In my case, the means are not always in harmony with the end one seeks.
In the summer of 1959, a friend and I hitchhiked from Aberdeen, S.D. to New Orleans, LA. We had been told that if we showed up at the office of the Scandinavian Shipping Lines in New Orleans, we could get jobs working on cargo ships for the summer. They didn't tell us we couldn't work on the same boat when we first contacted them. My friend left on an oiler bound for Venezuela. I left on a banana boat headed for Honduras.

         Honduras was what was called a "banana republic." Bananas were the economic lifeblood of the country. United Fruit Company owned the plantations and was the political and economic power in the country. In those days it appeared to me that most of the economic activity in La Ceiba, where we docked for bananas, was centered in the harbor and the banana industry. Shoe shine boys appeared on the docks as soon as the boats arrived, prepared to shine your shoes or sell their sister. Almost every street had an armed soldier on patrol and the bars did a brisk business with banana boat crews. Poverty was rife and most work seemed to consist of tending and hauling bananas.
       That early experience has led me to try and understand better the way corporations can exploit countries to the detriment of all of their citizens. Honduras was poor and there was no way a small farmer was going to be able to grow bananas for export. The land and business was owned and operated by a foreign multinational with political clout.   Add to this history the political and military influence our country has exerted there, it's no wonder the Honduran people are fleeing in droves. The overthrow of an elected President in 2009 in a military coup drew a weak response from Washington and has insured a corrupt, even criminal administration, in power.   In short, if you want people to stay in their own country and not approach the U.S. border as migrants, exploitation and violence in their home country needs to end.
 The means to  the  end of avoiding border wars is economic and political freedom and stability at home.

         It appears there is bipartisan support against the decision of the President to hastily withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. On the one hand, I couldn't agree more with the desire to bring the troops home from these pervasive and seemingly permanent deployments all over the globe. The end goal is a worthy one. But the means is in question. Shouldn't such foreign policy questions be a matter of consultation, where all of the ramifications are carefully considered? Apparently there was little consultation with anyone, including the military and Congress, certainly not with the allies on the ground, the Kurds. The means this President uses to reach his ends are increasingly autocratic and questionable. This is typical of authoritarian thinkers, who can't be bothered with the interplay of various opinions, data and possible outcomes.

            The President might argue the ends justify any means necessary. Others have made the same argument. 45 wouldn't be alone. But if one looks at the historical record, one discovers that it leaves much to be desired. Seeking the end of racial purity left millions dead in gas chambers and concentration camps. Believing one has the exclusive ownership of religious righteousness left whole continents of people designated as savages.

Ends and means must be in harmony. In fact, Gandhi is likely right when he says that, “For me it is enough to know the means. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life. We have always control over the means but not over the end. I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means. They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.”

It's obvious that if we plant a weed we won't get a rose. It should also be obvious we reap what we sow. We make a serious error, if we fail to see the moral connections and interrelationships between the ends and the means. Great crimes and grievous mistakes can follow. Gandhi said, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”

Carl Kline

Friday, October 25, 2019

To Walk in God's Ways - Knowing for Whom and When to Cheer

      My seven-year-old grandson is a passionate lover of sports. Depending on the season, his wardrobe becomes rather limited, oversized jerseys, caps, and full uniforms. Whether for the teams on which he plays or watching professional sports, game days are a veritable yontev/holiday. Like most athletes, Leo is committed to winning, sometimes fiercely so. Even more than when his own teams lose, he is crushed when the professional teams he supports lose, often feeling personally let down, angry and despondent. Even from far off Los Angeles, he remains faithful to his Boston roots as an ardent fan of Boston teams, all of whom have provided much to talk about in the way of sports and life. We have had many conversations about winning and losing. Until now, our conversations have focused primarily on winning and losing as representing the ups and downs of life, two parts of one whole. We have not talked yet about moral character and how the quality of one’s character fits into the calculus of winning and losing. What does it mean to be worthy of winning? Perhaps it is not surprising that Leo and I have not had that conversation yet, given that as a society we have barely begun to have it, that we barely know how to have it.

          Beyond winning and losing and how we incorporate each one in its turn, important lessons for life are learned on the sports field and in the arena. Whether played on a grassy field, on a wooden floor, or on well-groomed ice, athletic competitions play out in the larger arena of life. Games become greater than themselves for the lessons they teach and the values they convey. Referees and umpires are essential to the internal order of a game, but they are secondary to the One in whose ways we are meant to walk. Life is not a game, but games are played in relation to, often in the shadow of, what most religions would describe as the rules of life. There are consequences for those who cheat on the field, though primarily in regard to winning and losing. The consequences are more tepid in response to the moral errors of athletes that occur off the field in the arena of life.

I acknowledge the hard ethical and legal questions of when and how we judge a person based on allegations, and how and when we make room for compassion and the repentant turning of t’shuva. It would seem at the very least that a “time out” is called for in the face of serious allegations, a time in which to give as much credence to the pain of the accuser as to the protestations of the accused, to acknowledge the importance of moral conduct in the win/loss column of a team and in the larger standings of life that include all of us.

Though I enjoy following baseball, I have never been a football fan. I am drawn to human-interest stories as they emerge from all sports, lessons to be learned and shared with Leo and the other children in my life. Whether it be the dignity of Serena Williams in her loss at the US Open;
or the champion spirit of Mookie Betts in going out to anonymously distribute food to the homeless, discovered to his chagrin, after one of last year’s Red Sox championship games; or the chesed/kindness of athletes in all sports who truly befriend and help sick children and their families in the quiet beyond the headlines, these are athletes as life heroes.

Boston sports news recently has focused on a different dimension of an athlete’s behavior as a person, and a different kind of human-interest story becomes a mirror in which to see the seamier side of sports and our own place in the picture. Almost immediately after the Patriots signed a player named Antonio Brown, sexual assault allegations emerged, including rape. Brown’s star quality and his ability to help his new team win is clear, and so is the moral pass that is thrown to the Patriots and to all of us. The question is whether or not we will catch it. What is the moral price of winning and are we willing to pay it? That is the conversation I haven’t had with Leo yet, and that the Patriots haven’t had as a team yet, and that we haven’t had as a society yet.

       I cringe when I think about Leo cheering when Brown catches a touchdown pass from Brady. And what about all the other little boys, and the not-so-little ones who model for their sons? And what are they telling their daughters, perhaps some of whom are watching too? It is not that these little boys are aware that their heroes are so morally sullied. It is that collectively their innocent cheers become part of our society’s emphasis on winning at all costs, including the abuse of women as we cheer on the abuser.

A question emerges as a lens from the weekly Torah portion called Ki Tavo (Deut. 26:1-29:8) through which to consider our behavior in all realms of life. What does it mean to walk – or to play – in God’s ways? The 611th of 613 commandments appears in Ki Tavo. In some ways it is an all-encompassing mitzvah, what one of those around our weekly Thursday morning learning table at a local coffee shop called a “meta-mitzvah.” It is a call to emulate God, lalechet bid’rachav/to walk in God’s ways (Deut. 26:17). It is hard to know just what that means. Without details given in the Torah, the rabbis explain that fulfilling the mitzvah means to follow the truly godly ways of God, to visit the sick, to clothe the naked, to bury the dead. Such ways are all specific commandments in them selves. The question becomes, but what about when facing situations for which there isn’t a specific commandment, how do we know what to do then?

There is a cumulative effect to the following of mitzvot that guide our relations with others of God’s creatures. As our souls become sensitized, so we are meant to act in all situations. The Slonimer Rebbe offers a powerful teaching in this regard: one should do the will of God even in matters upon which there is not an explicit command/she’ayn alayhem tzivu’i m’forash…. For we should always do the will of God and in all of our deeds we should consider, what is the will of God in this/ma’hu ratzon Hashem ba’zeh…? And a person is able to attain and to know this within themself because a person’s soul will teach them/nishmat adam t’lamdenu (N’tivot Shalom to Parashat Mishpatim, p. 183-4).

For our souls to be able to teach us right from wrong, we need to be athletes of the soul, working out regularly in order to strengthen our moral muscles. When moral behavior is given that degree of importance and moral heroes receive the same accolades in the arena of life that athletes do on the field, then we shall have come to a new place on God’s path. There is a beautiful linguistic teaching that a dear friend and study partner reminded me of, that in Hebrew the word for conscience, matzpun, and for compass, matzpen, are virtually one and the same. So we learn the importance of a moral compass.

As I think of Leo and of difficult conversations that I hope we will have, I am reminded that his little league team this year was the Mariners, with uniforms modeled after the Seattle Mariners. The logo of the Mariners is a compass rose, the needle pointing north. As we seek our way, players all, on the field of life, may we have the courage to engage with the hard questions that ultimately define who we are and what it means to win or lose. With souls sensitized through the ways of loving-kindness, knowing for whom and when to cheer, may our inner compass guide us on the path of life, always seeking to walk in God’s ways.

Note: The Patriots have since released Antonio Brown, offering the following empty statement without any reference to moral or ethical concerns:

“The New England Patriots are releasing Antonio Brown. We appreciate the hard work of many people over the past 11 days, but we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein