Friday, January 25, 2019

A DarknessThat Can Be Felt

              Each week a few good friends gather for a potluck supper and a glimpse at the part of the scriptures that will be taught during services at the synagogue on the following Shabbat.  A couple of weeks ago our potluck was pretty luxurious:melt-in-your mouth brisket, kasha varnishkes, savory roasted squash and brussels sprouts, a green salad and a delicate pastry filled with apples and dark cherries   Well fortified with all these treats, we plunged into  “darkness” - - the ninth of the ten plagues that were visited on Egypt.

Using a commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we pondered his question: “What is this plague of darkness doing here (in the order of the ten)?  We discussed the symbolic significance of the various earlier plagues and the notion that while they increased in severity as the narrative progressed some of them were mostly a nuisance.   Darkness might fit into the “nuisance” category.  Apparently there were frequent dust storms in the region where the narrative is set that often created a temporary darkness - a nuisance - to which people became accustomed, knowing it would blow itself out within a day or two. We explored with Rabbi Sacks the difference between “signs and wonders” and drew closer to his conclusion that the plague of a “darkness that can be felt” was less a wonder and more a sign - a “coded communication” as Rabbi Sacks suggests.

The obliteration of the sun, causing a “darkness that can be felt” might be interpreted as a sign that the God of Israel was more powerful than Ra, the sun god of Egypt.   But Rabbi Sacks argues that rather than an expression of Divine power over the sun, the plague represents "...the rejection by God of a civilization that turned one man, Pharaoh, into an absolute ruler (son of the sun god)with the ability to enslave other human beings - and of a culture that could tolerate the murder of children because that is what Ra himself did."

While we try to stay close to the text, it is inevitable that we would also try to see how it informs and addresses, and perhaps, even parallels life today.  With the irresponsible wielding of so much power at the highest levels of government, with the lives of young children at risk on our borders, with the callous disregard for the well being of  hundreds of thousands of federal employees (not to mention the population of the entire country being adversely affected in myriad ways yet to be calculated), it is hard not to see the warnings, the signs, the coded communication in the sacred texts.

           There was a total eclipse of the moon the other night.  The sky here was overcast so the eclipse was not visible, but there was a quality of darkness that night that was almost palpable - a darkness that could be felt.

Rabbi Sacks draws the connections.  Placed elsewhere in the lineup of the 10 plagues, the darkness might be absorbed as one more nuisance plague.  But placed where it is, leading up to the tenth plague that results in Pharaoh’s final acquiescence to the  demand to let Israel go into freedom, the darkness that can be felt does, indeed, become a coded communication for the generations to follow: "The ninth plague was a divine communication that said: there is not only physical darkness, but also moral darkness.  The best test of a civilization is to see how it treats its children, its own and others’.  In an age of broken families, neglected and impoverished children, and worse - the use of children as instruments of war - that is a lesson we still need to learn."

It is hard to escape the truth of the challenge - - we are a people who sit in a moral darkness that can be felt.  The sacred stories hold the coded communication for our liberation.   The prophetic voice from a bit farther along in history champions hope - “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light...”  We do not have the luxury of just sitting in this moral darkness that can be felt.  Elsewhere in the sacred texts there is a call to us to be “light for the world.”

Ever since our observations of MLK Day, an often repeated line keeps echoing in my brain: “The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.”   At the moment, that arc seems shrouded in darkness - - waiting for us to be the light that will illuminate it - the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, January 18, 2019


Let's talk about walls. We might as well. It seems all the rage these days. Grown men and women fighting over why, whether, when and where, how high and how much. All this while thousands of their own suffer new affronts and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free simply huddle, hungry and short of breath.

               Let's talk about walls, like the one in China. Built and rebuilt over centuries, it houses many of it's builders. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction in 221 B.C., the labor force was mostly soldiers and convicts. As many as 400,000 died in the effort and their bones are part of the barrier. At different points in history the wall was breached, rebuilt, extended to as far as 13,000 miles. At one point the same peoples were occupying the land on both sides of the wall. 

Now, of course, The Great Wall of China is primarily a tourist attraction, as we live in an age where people can fly.

Or let's talk about the Berlin Wall. An affront to human decency and democracy, this wall lasted from 1961 to 1989. The wall was built by East Germany to protect their population from "fascist" elements from the West, who were bent on destroying the will of the East German people to build a socialist state. The official name was the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, in German, Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. This wall was a concrete barrier with a death strip, a no man's land, where many fleeing the East for freedom lost their lives. 

     West Germans called it the Wall of Shame and it came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War. It walled people in as much or more than it walled others out. The pictures are still in my memory of the celebration and joy as the wall was torn down, piece by piece, by reunited families and a reunited country. 

Or what about the walls of Jericho? I love that story! It demonstrates the problem with walls. Once you wall others out, you also wall yourself in! "Now Jericho was shut up from within and from without because of the people of Israel; none went out and none came in."
It also demonstrates the fragility of walls. Walk around them seven times, blowing the trumpets on the last pass and they will tumble of their own accord. Watching the story of Jericho on Veggie Tales, my young son was always fascinated when the wall fell. He would want to play that scene over and over again. I'm certain he must have learned the secret of felling a wall, he watched that scene so many times.

Then I think of Robert Frost and his poem "Mending Wall," "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." It's not just the weather that eventually fells the stones, but it's the hunters wanting to out the rabbits for their dogs. And although Frost's neighbor is convinced "good fences make good neighbors," Frost is not convinced. Maybe if there were cows. But his apple trees are not going to eat his neighbor's pines.

"I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old time savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, not of woods only and the shade of trees. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense."

As the debate in our country continues and millions suffer from lack of resolution, we might consider the history and lessons of walls. What is their intention and what is the emotional and political freight they carry?

For Christians who take the Bible seriously, they might consider all of the references to welcoming the stranger in Scripture. And since so much of the emotional energy for building walls is fear, they might consider the passages in first John like, "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear." 

Still, I'm sure we will continue to hear from the likes of Reverend Jeffress who claims, “The Bible says even Heaven itself is gonna have a wall around it. Not everybody is going to be allowed in. So if walls are immoral, then God is immoral.”

             Emperors and autocrats will always want to build walls, to wall their subjects in and their enemies out. It's as true of an autocratic and judgmental God as it is of the human kind. But for me, "there's something that doesn't love a wall." One could simply be rational and recognize that these days, we can climb and tunnel, and we can fly, like the Army Special Forces guy who brought 70 pounds of cocaine into the country on a troop transport. Or, in a more positive frame of mind, perhaps that something that doesn't love a wall is love of neighbor. Or perhaps it's fundamentally a love of freedom.   

Rev. Carl Kline

Friday, January 11, 2019

Created in the Image of God's Name

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

 In the week that we began to read from the second book of Torah, the Book of Exodus in English, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names in Hebrew, I found myself at the Israel Book Shop for the afternoon prayers called Mincha. Davening/praying among the basement stacks of holy books, as I completed my own prayer, I paused to look around and take in the aura cast by the titles that surrounded me. 
There was a box of books at my feet, its volumes arranged horizontally, their front covers facing up. I saw that it was a set of the Mishne Torah, the legal code of Moses’ Maimonides, the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, Moses son of Maimon (1135-1204). I bent down where I stood and quietly picked up the top volume and randomly opened it.

I am not sure if the great sigh I let out was one more of amazement or of comfort, whether it was heard by those still praying as distraction or as amen to their prayers. I had opened the volume called Sefer Hamadah/the Book of Knowledge. I had opened to chapter six in the section called Hilchos Yisodei Hatorah/the Laws of the Foundations of Torah. I began to read at the beginning of chapter six, laws one and two, Rambam’s warning of culpability for anyone who destroys the name of God: kol ha’m’abed shem min ha’shemot/anyone who destroys a name from the holy and pure names through which the Blessed Holy One is called…. Rambam then goes on to enumerate seven such names from among the seventy names by which God is called in Hebrew, seven that are most holy and pure: the most holy name formed of the letters yud hey vav hey, known as the shem ha’m’forash/the ineffable name, the name that is not to be pronounced, known also as the shem ha’vaya/the Name of Being; and so too the names el, and eloha, and elokim, and ehiyeh, and shaddai, and tz’va’ot.

                I found myself trembling there among the books and among the prayers wafting around me. Entering the Book of Names in the cycle of reading Torah, thoughts swirled within me, feeling so deeply for those suffering at our southern border, their names unknown to us except for the dead children; feeling so deeply for the homeless who live and die on our streets, their names unknown to us as too often we quickly pass them by; feeling so deeply for children of war and poverty wherever they are, their names unknown to us, yet neighbors all, each of these with a name lovingly given by their parents. To open to that page in that moment in that week, God’s amen to my prayers, as though offering answer and insight to an unasked question, a gentle touch upon my brow. I realized in that moment, that Rambam’s warning, each one who destroys a name/kol ha’m’abed shem…, is as much about the destroying of human names and the taking of identities as it is about destroying God’s name.

In the first portion of the second book, the first portion in the Book of Names, after Moses has encountered God at the burning bush and is given his life’s mission, told to go back to Egypt and bring God’s word to Pharaoh, let my people go, Moses asks God a simple question. Worried that the people will not believe him, that he has not been given such a task, Moses asks God what he should say when the people ask of God, mah sh’mo/what is his name? At that time, God conveyed a three-word name, ehiyeh asher ehiyeh/I will be that which I will be. Then, as though to make it simpler, God tells Moses to tell the people that he was sent by ehiyeh/I will be. In these profound names is the ever-present possibility of becoming, and so for us who are created in God’s image.

In the very first line of the weekly Torah portion called Va’era (Ex. 6:2-9:35), second in the Book of Names, God shares with Moses another name, God’s most holy name, the name formed of the Hebrew letters yud hey vav hey. They are simply the letters of the verb to be, and yet they are not the word “to be,” simply the letters, not a formal word at all, therefore a word without gender, without time, simply the shem havaya/the Name of Being.

I trembled when I read the words of the Rambam, not for fear of destroying God’s name, something in regard to which I am quite careful. I keep a box in my study in which to place worn out holy books and loose pages that contain God’s holy names, all later to be lovingly buried in the way of those who once held the books and encountered God upon the page. It is easy to take care that we not harm God’s name, and, indeed, if we do, God is forgiving. It is precisely the type of sin between a person and God for which on Yom Kippur we find forgiveness. It was not about God for whom I trembled. I trembled with the thought of what we are to learn about human beings, about people, each one created in the image of God. We are not only created in the image of God, but in the image of God’s most holy name.          

               When arranged vertically, the letters yud hey vav hey represent the human form. The little yud at the top is the head. The first hey, a horizontal line with a vertical line coming down from each of its ends, forms the shoulders and arms. The straight vav forms the spine. The second hey forms the pelvis and legs. To destroy God’s name is to destroy the human form. To destroy a human being is to destroy God’s most holy name as it is carried in the world.

I thought of the very first book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a book of poetry written in Yiddish when he was a young man. The book’s title tells of the fiercely tender love for God and people that would fill all of Rabbi Heschel’s books and all of his ways in the world in the years to come. That slim volume is called, Der Shem Ha’m’forash – Mentsh/The Ineffable Name – Human.

           Every human being has a name, a bond with God and with people. Every human being carries in their human form God’s name of being and becoming. Every human being is holy. There in the bookshop, amidst holy books and holy prayers, I trembled as I read Rambam’s warning not to destroy God’s name. So may we tremble for all of the bearers of God’s name who are denigrated, denied, and, God forbid, destroyed. 

Each person’s own name gives unique expression to the way of their being called in God’s name. With love and with 
compassion, may we ask of all whom we encounter, just as Moses asked of God, how are you called, what is your name?

Friday, January 4, 2019

These are the Names of the Children

First, to pause and say their names, that by their names they be counted among us:
Jakelin Caal Maquin
Felipe Gomez-Alonso


Two children who died at our southern border, two children in the custody of the United States, two children for whom we weep, for whom we are responsible; two children who should have been filled with life, with joy, with curiosity, their days unfolding before them. Two children whose parents could not bear the impossibility of life without hope and so for their children set out into the desert toward the mirage of the promised land and the hope of which they dreamed. Eight-year old Felipe died on Christmas morning, a day that for him should have been filled with magic and delight. As one child of the Holocaust is easier to embrace than all Six Million at once, the tears come so freely for these two children whose names are Jakelin and Felipe, age seven and eight, two children whose names are now known among all the nameless and numberless.

               Dispensing with names and identities, border authorities determined that numbers would suffice. A recent photograph from the border could only make us gasp in disbelief, to scream in horror, numbers written upon the forearms of old and young, human beings reduced to a number. If not a tattoo, the permanent markers to remind of the drawings these children should have been making, of the imaginations that should have been given play and expression. Perhaps, for those who live, these shall be their drawings, images of all they have seen transposed some day from head and heart to hand, all that they have seen to be committed to drawings and childlike poetry and prose, if only artist and their work survive to tell the tale. I think of the children of Terezin, whose art I saw last summer upon the walls of the barracks where they lived and dreamed their dreams, signing their holy work with their names.

       As we begin the second book of the Torah, Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Names, it is in its first portion, Sh’mot/the Portion of Names (Ex. 1:1-6:1), that our enslavement begins. The promise of hope is carried in the book’s English calling, the Book of Exodus. The book and the portion begins with the telling of names, v’eleh sh’mot b’nei yisrael ha’ba’im mitzrayma/these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt. It is in the present tense, not only about them and then, but about us and now, and so for the whole Torah. The portion is filled with names and naming, an emphasis on names when names are about to be taken away by the oppressor. That is the teaching at the outset of this journey into the depths. If we are to survive in order to make the journey into the desert in time to come, we need to hold on to our names, to our identities, to who we are.

Our commentators remind us to hold on to who we are through time, in all of our travels and travails across time and space. Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (15th-16th century Italy) teaches so simply of the link between names and survival: sh’mo shel adam hu atzmi’yuto/a person’s name is their essence. Of the opening verse of the Book of Names, Rashi (11th century France) wonders, as we do, why we had the very same words near the end of the first book, B’reishit/Genesis, when Jacob and his whole family come down into Egypt (Gen. 46:8), these are the names of the children of Israel that are coming to Egypt…. Rashi offers a beautiful insight, teaching that from the earlier verse we learn that they were counted in their lifetimes through their names/she’m’na’en b’chai’ye’hem bish’motam. And then he goes on to tell of what we learn from the later verse, u’m’na’em achar mitatan/and so they are counted after their deaths. Having explained why the repetition of a verse, Rashi poignantly tells of deeper meaning, l’hodi’ah chibatam/to make known that they are beloved, so in death as in life. Our ancestors were numbered by their names and by their names made to count. They are remembered and beloved by their names, as they were in life, so in death. Through our names, and all that our names stand for, we survive.

                 When names are taken away, replaced by numbers, identities are destroyed. It is the way of the oppressor. It is harder to notice unique identities, to notice people as human beings when they are part of an amorphous mass, whether as slaves or as part of a migrant caravan. And then to give them numbers at the border, lest we realize they are real human beings with names and identities. It is what Woody Guthrie sang of so long ago in “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.” He wrote the song in 1948, telling of a plane that crashed in California while carrying twenty-eight migrant farmers back to Mexico. Only in recent years were these fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers identified by name, no longer to be known only as “deportees:”

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”

Helping us to see our own story as a paradigm, helping us to feel the pain of others through our own pain, to honor the preciousness of each one’s name, a powerfully beautiful midrash teaches: A person has three names/sh’losha shemot yesh ba’adam, one that God calls them, adam/human, one by which their mother and father calls them, and one by which they call themself…. It is the name by which God calls us, adam/human, that reminds us that every human is precious in the eyes of God and so should each one be in our eyes. Other namings are added in a beautiful song by the Israeli singer, Chava Albershtein. We are named, she sings, by our deeds, by the natural world around us, by our work, and by those who love us and those who hate us, by the sea, and by the seasons of a year. And in the end, she sings, each person has a name… that is given to them by their death/l’chol ish yesh shem… v’natan lo moto.

 Beloved in life and so in death, we remember them by their names, as given to them by God, by their parents, by themselves, and now by their deaths, their characters only beginning to be shaped. Saying their names, we count them among us and make their memories a blessing:

Jakelin Caal Maquin
  Felipe Gomez-Alonso

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein