Friday, September 20, 2019

...to be a blessing


Later this afternoon I will co-celebrate the marriage of a beautiful young couple. The groom, a United Methodist, the bride, a Jew.  Over the last year, my co-celebrant, a rabbi, and I have met numerous times and exchanged numerous emails with the couple as we have, together, crafted a ceremony that will give expression to who they are and what they intend for their marriage as an interfaith couple.  In a blend of traditional words and rituals from both Jewish and Christian traditions, the couple will make their promises to one another under a rustic wooden chuppah.

In the process my rabbi friend and I have come to love this couple dearly and, indeed, our own friendship has deepened as we have learned from each other.  Our understandings about what is significant in our traditions relative to the marriage covenant are not dissimilar, a delightful discovery in and of itself.  We have had the time to explore questions we have had about our individual traditions in an open and loving way.  As our friendship deepens, it nourishes the young couple with whom we are working.

Central to the couple’s ceremony will be their ketubah, their written marriage contract.  In it they express the desire for their marriage to be not only a witness to their love for each other, but also to be an instrument of healing in the world.

I have had good reason to reflect on this desire having recently celebrated 58 years of marriage myself and having, perhaps, an experiential understanding of what it means to conceive of one’s marriage as an instrument of repair and healing in the world.  Long before the term “open marriage” was coined back in the ‘80s, our marriage was just that - an open and welcoming place for family, friends, parishioners, new acquaintances, even strangers - - anyone who needed a safe place in which to feel cared for and respected, and, perhaps, in which to heal.  This was possible because of the deep and abiding friendship that exists between my husband and me.

Strong and generous friendships, like healthy marriages, become a gift to those around us who are lonely, without family near-by when crises happen - people who are widowed, estranged, suffering with chronic illness, in the middle of divorcing, struggling with kids who are substance abusers, experiencing the fear of aging.

In Genesis, God calls Abraham and Sarah  to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make  your name great, so that  you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

        Tradition says that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides - an image of hospitality and welcome.   No one would have to search for the entrance or the way in.  This aging couple becomes a metaphor for welcome and hospitality. A beautiful story from a commentary called Bereshit Raba reflects on the Biblical text this way: When the Holy One said to Abraham "Leave your birthplace and your Father's house..." What did Abraham resemble?  A jar of perfume with a tightly fitting lid put away in a corner so that its fragrance could not go forth.  As soon as it was moved from that place and opened, its fragrance began to spread.  So the Holy One said to Abraham "Many good deeds are in you. Travel about from place to place so that the greatness of my name will go forth in the world."

Abraham and Sarah are blessed in order to be a blessing.  I have great hope for the future if it is the dwelling place of young couples who dedicate themselves to being a blessing in the world.  In the social and political climate in which we find ourselves at the moment, led by people who “lower the tent flaps” in order to keep others out, who deny the sacred task of caring for the planet, who prefer engendering fear and distrust to building strong functional alliances, we need more and more models of blessing, more of the fragrance of holiness spread abroad in the world. 

For human beings to commit their marriages and their deep friendships to the well-being and healing and repair of the world is not a bad place to start. When this happens between marriage partners  and friends of different faiths it is a witness to the possibilities for the wholeness so missing in the world today.

       So, with the traditional breaking of the glass at the end of the ceremony we will remember that while  under the chuppah all is perfection and abundant love is flowing through and in and around the young couple and their guests, that in the world beyond this sacred space there is also brokenness, violence and injustice.  We will let the broken glass be for us a reminder that "many good deeds are in us."  We will become more mindful of the sacred responsibility to bring the power of love into the world, to repair the world so that it, too, reflects the love and joy and beauty that exist under the open sided chuppah - -  and we will shout Mazel tov! And we will bless the couple, who by their commitment to one another and the world, already blesses us with strength and hope for the future.  May we each become a trace of the fragrance of Holiness in the repair of the world.   Amen and Amen

Vicky Hanjian




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