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