Friday, July 10, 2020

The Flag and the Sign to Remind, and a Simple Flower of Hope

Soft light plays on the rainbow flag that hangs in the porch window. Just beneath the flag is a Black Lives Matter sign, the one we take to demonstrations, the one without a wire stand. The dramatic interplay of color tells of Torah, the Torah of justice, Torat Chayyim/Torah of Life, of letters and parchment, Black fire on White fire, here in reverse. I hear the voice of Pete Seeger (of blessed memory) singing through time a children’s song, “Oh the ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write….” I hadn’t planned to put the flag and the sign together, but it seems so right. Coming home from a demonstration, I set the sign down on the windowsill beneath the flag. It happened to be just the right amount of space and it didn’t seem fitting to put the sign out of sight, even if there is another in the garden, the one whose wire base is set in the warm earth, justice waiting to flower. I had earlier taken a photograph of the sign in the garden, one single pink tulip in front of it bravely rising toward the light, the flag and the sign.

I gazed and reflected upon the flag and the sign on the fourth yahrzeit of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Forty-nine people, mostly LGBTQ people of color, were slaughtered by the gunfire of one so filled with hate he could not see their humanity, nor his own. Forty-nine souls, each one counting and counted, as in the counting of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuous, counting days to remind that each one counts. All the more so, to remind that every person counts, that every person is of infinite value and meaning. Why is that so hard for us to understand and so to live? In the confluence of days, in the midst of so much pain, remembering them on their fourth yahrzeit came in the midst of the shiva days for George Floyd, the flag and the sign. And the flower reaches toward the light.

As we nurture flowers in the garden, helping each one to grow and become in its rising toward the light, so the flowering of each person’s light as we help each other to grow and become. It is a simple message conveyed through carefully calibrated language at the beginning of the weekly Torah portion called B’ha’alotcha (Num. 8:1-12:16). Moses is to instruct Aaron regarding the lighting of the menorah in the sanctuary. The common word to light, l’hadlik, is not used. The Torah’s language tells, rather, of much more than the ancient menorah, in your causing the lights to go up/b’ha’alotcha et ha’nerot, the seven lights shall shine toward the [center of] the menorah/el mul p’nei ha’menorah. Causing light to go up is the way of helping the light of another soul to shine, holding the light of our own soul’s caring near enough to encourage the other to rise and become, as in the way of teacher and student. It is the way of lighting Chanukkah candles; one flame held to another until the second ignites, two flames bursting into brightness, each rising together higher than one alone. Helping each other to shine, our light shines together toward the center, toward our common source, toward the Holy One in whose image all are created.

Forbear of all Torah commentators, Rashi asks from eleventh century France why the juxtaposition of lighting the menorah at the beginning of this portion with the bringing of gifts by the princes of each tribe at the end of the preceding portion (Num. 7). Rashi explains that it is God’s way of soothing Aaron as he is told how to enkindle the lights of the menorah, causing light to go up. As the kohen gadol/high priest, neither Aaron nor his priestly tribe was among those bringing gifts for the dedication of the sanctuary. These were the gifts that down to the smallest details were exactly the same from each tribe, no one wanting to outshine another, each seeking to uplift and celebrate the other. Downcast for his absence in this pageantry of equality, Aaron needs reassurance. Concerned for Aaron’s feelings, God tells Aaron to see the importance of his role, to see the importance of causing light to go up, even more precious than the bringing of physical gifts for the sanctuary.

As the physical is impermanent, light is eternal, a reminder of the human soul that is God’s candle in the world. The rabbis teach that the light of the menorah represents the primordial light of creation, the light of the first day that was called into being before the physical sources of light had been created, the sun, the moon, and the stars. That light could not be destroyed by hate and violence, not by the Babylonians nor the Romans. It is the light that is stored up for the future whose coming depends on us, on our turning of swords into plowshares, of enemies into friends, of hate into love. It is the light of peace and wholeness, the light of justice and fairness that will fill the world when we have learned to live together and help each other to grow and become. The instructions are not for Aaron now, but for all of us to become lifters of light.

It is hard to imagine such a time, and yet in the way of our coming together in these days perhaps an intimation, hope in the passion for justice rising. It was hard for Moses, too, to imagine such unity. The menorah was to be hammered out of one piece of gold, from its root-stock, to its flower, it is beaten work (Num. 8:4). There were to be three almond blossoms along each branch, flowers rising toward the light, all hammered out of one piece of gold. Seeing Moses’ confusion, God points and says ZEH/this is how to do it. Though challenging enough, it was not the physical challenge of fashioning the menorah from one piece of gold that so confounded Moses. It was the symbolic expression of unity represented by one unbroken piece of gold that offered the greater challenge, the implication of a common source from which all is formed. That remains the symbolic challenge of the menorah, one piece of gold meant to represent unity, all of us joined as branches, each offering of their light back to the common source, the trunk, all as branches on a great tree of light. In a powerful midrash, God shows Moses a vision of that menorah of unity; the Holy One showed him white fire, red fire, black fire, green fire, and from these God made the menorah…; God incised that image upon Moses’ hand, and said to him, ‘go down and make it according to the image on your hand…’ (Torah Sh’laymah, Midrash Tanchuma).

As we look through our fingers at the end of Shabbos toward the dancing light of interwoven wicks that form the Havdalah candle, may we see reflected upon our hands the menorah formed of fire, many hues to remind of each one’s light. As it was for Moses a sign of unity, so for us the menorah lights of a rainbow flag of fiery colors joined as one. Lifting up each other’s light on the menorah of life that is formed from one holy source, may we illumine the path toward the day that is all Shabbos, toward that time of harmony, of peace and justice flowering. So may we make of their memories the blessing of their lives, remembering on their yahrzeit the forty-nine who were killed at the Pulse nightclub, and George Floyd in this week of his shiva. As a blossom placed upon each branch of the menorah, tender, fragile, and beautiful, each of us is needed to raise up the light of another, the flag and the sign to remind, and a simple flower of hope rising toward the light.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 3, 2020

Power Over...Power With

There have been some rather stark and divergent responses on the part of police in recent days. In some places, you have seen police chiefs joining crowds of justice seekers as they presented their concerns at police stations and city halls. In others. police were kneeling as the throngs approached. In these instances, there were no face shields, no padded vests, no billy clubs, no tear gas. The police stood ready to hear, negotiate and support whatever changes were necessary to improve their community. It's called sharing "power with" the community, rather than exercising "power over" the community.

The other "power over" responses of police we have seen are always presented as more exciting and I guess "newsworthy." We've seen them day after day. Lines of militarized police, sometimes flanked by national guard, meeting the crowds with equipment that makes them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, with the rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and paintball guns. It's what the President calls "domination."

This distinction between "power over" and "power with" seems especially critical in our time. There are so many areas of our life where we can see this conflict in approach at work.

We see it in the home, where one party has to exercise power and control "over" all the others. As the pandemic has spread, so has domestic violence. When the world seems out of control, some seek even more control over the little world they inhabit.

Looking back on my childhood, I'm aware of how sharing was built into everyday life. I grew up wearing and sharing hand-me-down clothes and passing them on to my younger brother. Whatever toys and play things we had were shared, or should a fight break out, shelved. We all sat down to eat together as a family, sharing a common meal. We shared our home with my grandmother. I shared a bedroom with my brother. There was a household system in place where you learned to exercise "power with" others. If families today are broken, perhaps it's because we now have a closet full of clothes, a phone, a car, a bedroom, and a bank account for every child in the family. Where do we learn to share, to exercise "power with?"
     Power sharing is not always learned in our educational systems! There was a time when I tried to do "course contracting" with my college students. I happen to believe that everyone learns best in a system where there is little coercion, whether from a grade or an ideology. Someone once suggested educational institutions should be run like a public library. If you check out the book and don't read it, that's your loss. No one is going to test you on it. Maybe you will want to discuss it in a book club, but that will just help you in your understanding, not earn you a grade.

Course contracting didn't work very well. Students would contract for an A, recognizing the criteria and what they would need to do to earn it, then signing the contract. Consistently, because all of their other classes were grade centered and more demanding at any given time, my students would put off and/or neglect their contract. It was hard to compete in a "power over" system with a "power with" grading plan.

      It can be difficult to find power sharing in our economy. I have a young friend who has been quite specific about the kind of business model he prefers. It's one with as little hierarchy as possible, where decisions are made on the basis of consensus with those who work there. His belief, and mine, is that when you have a diverse group of people operating with a common purpose, the result of your work will be optimal. Shared power produces! There are entrepreneurs these days working on a "power with" model, but too few and far between.

Perhaps the most obvious and most destructive to the body politic is the "power over" in government. Most people in the federal government will likely admit that our two-party system is not working very well. Blame is the name of the game. One tires of hearing how the "other" party is making it impossible to do the people's business. Who would you nominate, from either party, as the most successful in Congress at reaching across the aisle? It's an understatement to say that antipathy to sharing power is not healthy in a democracy.

I'm aware there are many who have a conception of God as a domineering and sometimes violent parent. He is not beyond striking you dead for an unforgivable sin. If ever there was a "power over." for them, God is it! To those folks I'd like to suggest the definition in 1 John of God as love. See love at work in the natural world around you. See love at work in your family and larger community. See love at work in your church. See love at work in the stories in the Gospels. It's all about being "with," not "over." Get with it!


Carl Kline

Friday, June 26, 2020

Searching Out the Land, Each of Us Become A Different Spirit

It began as a journey to study the American penal system, yet the more famous book that emerged from that far-flung voyage across the Atlantic was his work that came to be a classic, “Democracy in America.” Count Alexis de Tocqueville left France for America in 1831. Arriving on the young country’s shores, he set forth to search out the land. He saw the possibility of America and also its failings, its ideals and their miserable inconsistencies. He saw the brutal irony in the nation’s celebration of freedom as its founding ideal, while building its nascent economy on the backs of human beings stolen from Africa. He had to have seen the stirrings of the entitled sense of manifest destiny that would become the genocide of indigenous peoples to make way for America. The irony remains to this day in the tension between the primary purpose of his journey, to study the American penal system, and the primary focus that emerged regarding the nature of American democracy.

In the mirror of Juneteenth this year, a day that many of us of white skin would not be talking about were it not for the unresolved legacy of slavery pulsating in the immediate realities of today, de Tocqueville’s ironies are particularly painful in our inability to stare fully into the face of their truths. The very fact that the thirteenth amendment was needed to abolish slavery stands as a stark reminder of one of America’s original sins. Emerging after that June 19th day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were finally told they were free, two additional years having been stolen from their lives since the Emancipation Proclamation, the thirteenth Amendment reminds of a past we hardly consider in trying to understand the depth of racism’s hold on the soul of this country and the enduring torment of a people.

Searching out the land, de Tocqueville beheld the spirit of equality, celebrating the promise of representative democracy. It was a promise in its making of severely limited parameters, its call to be heard both then and now in lofty declarations and in echoes from the breach. With a striking immediacy of language, perhaps as warning and aspiration, de Tocqueville spoke of the tenuous nature of America’s greatness: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Not someone who often comes to mind, I thought of the French Count as I engaged with the weekly Torah portion called Sh’lach L’cha (Num. 8:1-15:41) as it came this year in the week of Juneteenth. Scouts are sent to search out the land, entrusted to bring back report of what awaits the people. They see the fullness and the beauty, and they see the challenges. There is a painful reality in all of this; the greatest challenge acknowledged in the scout’s report is that there are other peoples living in the land. As Israel had once lived in that land, cycles of exile and return begging for humane resolution, so for other peoples living in the land then and now; an endless cycle of claiming land through power that insures that no one will ever be secure in the land. Engaging with Torah on all of its levels and layers, I am often comforted by the Chassidic reading that sees in this narrative, as in other instances of violence and struggle, a mirror in which to see our selves, a lens through which to look within and search out our own inner landscape.

The scouts return and bring back an “evil report,” telling the people there is no way to go ahead, that a leader should be appointed to take them back to Egypt, back, alas, to slavery. Emphasizing a way of perception that quickly lends itself to inner exploration, the scouts reveal a self-image that reflects a slave’s mentality even among free people: We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so, too, were we in their eyes/v’chen hayinu b’eyneyhem (Num. 13:33). As the people weep and clamor to return to Egypt, two of the scouts, Calev and Yehoshua, plead with them not to lose faith, not to throw their national mission to the desert winds. In mourning for the despair that surrounds them, these two tear their garments as a public expression of grief. Through the eyes of midrash, we see Calev leap onto a bench, taking the role of organizer, speaking words of challenge and solace to the people, expressing a common bond of concern with them, lifting up the good that he knows is among them, that still resides in their hearts. Among the people there are some who respond as an angry mob, threatening to stone these two to death, these few who would challenge the many. Speaking to the fears of the people, there is a change that comes subtly at first. Fearless, Calev continues to speak, to soothe and to challenge until the mood begins to shift. Of this brave servant of God and the people, it is God who says, perhaps in time to come to be said by the people too, ru’ach acheret imo/there is a different spirit with him (Num. 14:24).

Searching out the land both of self and nation, a challenge from Parashat Korach to search within our selves and allow a different spirit to emerge. It is the spirit of Calev, as we might embody it today, a spirit that is bravely able to see the beauty in the ideals and landscape of this nation, and also to see the way in which that beauty has been so cruelly defaced. Atoning for the original sins of both slavery and genocide, we can yet create wholeness from out of brokenness. In worlds so far apart in both time and context, perhaps never before cited together, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw the fierce tensions at play in early nineteenth century America, the Slonimer Rebbe sees powerfully conflicting forces in the very character of the Land of Israel. Of fierce historic tensions desperately seeking resolution, the Slonimer writes in his probing teaching on the scouts and their report: the holiness of the Land of Israel is of the highest level/k’dushat eretz yisrael hi g’vo’hah b’yoter; and in contrast to this, the forces of the sitra achra/the demonic side are greatest, centered, so too, in the Land of Israel/ha’yu m’ruchazim az b’eretz yisrael….

These are the tensions of which Juneteenth should remind. These are the tensions to be kept in mind when standing in vigil and taking to the streets. It is easy to make of a Holy Day a simple holiday. It is harder to raise up the reason for a day’s being set apart and to accept its challenge going forward. It is easy to go out on occasion to the streets, much harder to make active in the day to day the reasons for our making the long walk. As throughout the land a call for justice rises, along the streets and in the village squares, even with the remove of time the American spirit manifest for both good and ill as de Tocqueville might have experienced it. So too, as for the scouts, the challenge remains for us to search out the land and see its beauty, and the cruel inconsistencies that bar the way to a promise fulfilled. As good and evil swirl together in life and death struggle, it is our challenge to insure no more death through the brutalities of a system’s failure. Searching out the land, may we raise up the best of what we see in village, town, and city, each of us become of a different spirit, and so the nation.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, June 19, 2020

One Body...

            On Monday, my daughter Pickle and I drove down to Five Corners so that we could put our knees on the gritty pavement for eight long minutes. Afterwards, Pickle remarked quietly to me, “My knees hurt.”
The symbolic action still made a physical impression on her, even if it was an easy way to lay our bodies down for justice.
As we made our initial drive, Pickle expressed some concern about our mission. She was aware that protests across the country had become scenes of violence. And she remembered the last time she stood at Five Corners, on the fifth anniversary of the Newtown shootings, when someone driving by shouted expletives at the gathering, the angry words landing right in her eight-year-old face. I explained to her that I would keep her safe, that we were choosing the safest way to put our bodies on the line.

         Participating in a demonstration in the midst of a pandemic, after months of social distancing, made me even more aware of my body and the bodies around me. Staying masked and keeping a distance was such an unusual way to gather, but also another way to honor the human body.   Standing out in public with other bodies brings to mind the fragility of our physical bodies. How easily they are injured. How quickly life is taken out of them. Even watching the bodies come and go out of the Cumberland Farms store, I saw the bodies of people I know on this Island who live close to the gritty pavement, or piney floor of the state forest, the homeless of Martha’s Vineyard. More precious bodies, out in public, exposed, vulnerable.

          Say his name. George Floyd. Say his name. We say the names of those killed under the shroud of racism to honor them as children of God and to pull back the covers and reveal the racism at work in our society. Say their names. He or she was a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, a brother or a sister. A human being. A sacred body.

       For me, my shock, my outrage, my fear, my grief and my exhaustion at this moment in time, is rooted in the way black and brown bodies have been denigrated and discarded for centuries. Bodies extinguished by blatant racist acts or worn down by the micro-aggressions of systemic racism and white privilege. Black and brown bodies dying at a disproportionate rate even from the coronavirus, reveal other dynamics of racism in our country. At times, I muffle my mouth, and try to just listen and feel what my black and brown siblings are experiencing. I know that I, too, am part of this racist system, shaped by bias, oblivious to how I may come across. Complicit. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, and so I act.

     Throughout my life, I have chosen to place my vulnerable body before power, as I was shown by Gandhi and Dr. King, by clergy and moral leaders, and so many others. When words fail to express our feelings or make change, we use our bodies to demonstrate and practice civil disobedience. Here on Martha’s Vineyard there are few opportunities for this form of expression, but I have watched my clergy colleagues across the country engage their bodies in marches and demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience. I am grateful to them. I honor them.
 I have been especially attuned to the ministry of the Rev. Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, who has turned her church into a mess hall and medic center. And we have all witnessed how the clergy of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., have been thrust into the center of the conflict. On Monday, after offering hospitality to the demonstrators on their patio, sharing granola bars and juice with them, they were hit by tear gas and rubber bullets. I bow to all the leaders who are emerging in this moment.

I am out of words for now. I don’t know if I have words of wisdom to offer. But as a person of faith, I trust that God is present in this moment and I know that if I want to join Jesus at this time, I need to follow him into the places of pain and vulnerability, the places aching for healing and justice. That is where my Lord is found. I cling to resurrection hope.    For Monday’s demonstration, the youth who organized it asked white people to think about what they would do to confront their privilege from this day forward. In my mind, the poster I raised said, “I will raise my kids to be anti-racist.” But I held another one as well, “I will lead an anti-racist church.”       Won’t you join me?

Guest blogger Rev. Cathlin Baker is pastor of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, MA
Her essay first appeared in the Vineyard Gazette and is printed with permission .

Friday, June 12, 2020

Confederate Monuments,Pandemics, and Possibilities

            The murder of George Floyd sparked demonstrations around the world and prompted Governor Ralph Northam of the State of Virginia to announce that the statue of General Robert E. Lee, which since 1890 has stood at the head of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate South, will be taken down, removed, and placed in storage until a new location is determined. That twinning the governor’s action with the global corona virus pandemic presents us with an important opportunity to create a new society through nonviolent social change.
Explaining his action, the governor said that the Lee statue is, “the biggest thing around. It sends a clear message: This is what we value the most.” He went on to say, “That’s not true anymore.” Soon after the governor made his announcement, Richmond Mayor, Levar Stoney, and members of the city council approved removing Confederate monuments standing on city property. In his announcement Mayor Stoney said, “It is time to put an end to the Lost Cause and fully embrace the righteous cause.” In contrast, Republican State Senator Amanda Chase, who is running for governor in 2021, said that the removal of Confederate statues is an “overt effort to erase white history.”
What does it mean to “erase white history?” How can we contribute to “the righteous cause?”  The times demand action.
The iconic 21 foot high bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee weighs 12 tons and stands atop a 40 foot granite pedestal. It is surrounded by a grassy circle that is 200 feet in diameter.  Planning for the statue began soon after Lee’s death in October 1870, but it took 20 years to come to fruition. Members of the Lee Monument Association commissioned a lithograph of a painting of Lee by Albert Voick. This lithograph of Lee astride a horse became the basis of the statue, which was created by French sculptor Antonin Mercié. Newspaper accounts indicate 10,000 people helped pull four wagons loaded with pieces of the monument to its present location. The statue was unveiled on May 29, 1890 before a crowd of about 150,000 people--more than the city’s population at the time. It was the largest gathering in the city since the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1862.
Today there are more than 1,500 public monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, at least 223 of them are in Virginia--more than in any other state. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, formed in 1894, has been described by historians as a leading national organization involved in building monuments and memorials to commemorate the Confederate States of America, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacy. The Sons of the Confederacy, formed in 1896, describes the Civil War as “the Second American Revolution,” on its website. It identifies itself as “a historical, patriotic, non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.”
         Monuments memorialize. People erect monuments to preserve history and to pay tribute to people who have done honorable things. Monuments tell one story and obscure other stories. They keep our memory of the past alive. They are meant to demonstrate the enduring legitimacy of certain values and cultural ways, and by extension impose those values and ways on the present, thereby shaping hopes for the future. The statue of General Robert E. Lee was created and placed in its present location to serve all of these purposes.
       As noted above, both the governor and the mayor are eager to create a new narrative. But the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, and several other people who have been victims of white racism and violence witness to the truth that change will come only with struggle and sacrifice. The goal of efforts to remove statues that pay tribute to “heroes” of the Confederate States of America is not to “erase white history,” but rather to create a new inclusive narrative that empowers us to move toward a future that fulfills the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
I believe that lessons we can learn from the corona virus pandemic can help us in our work to create this “more perfect union.” Indeed, French intellectual Bruno Latour argues that the corona virus gives us a model for change. The rapid social transmission of this disease reminds us that we are not autonomous individuals motivated only by self-interest, but rather, we are embedded in ecological networks of life. We rely on each other. During the pandemic we are learning also that it is possible to put the entire economic system on hold everywhere in the world. As a result residents in urban centers once shrouded in pollution and smog can once again breathe clean air and see blue skies. While we practice social distancing, we discover that we have the power to decide what is useful, necessary, and important. Thinking globally and acting locally is becoming much more than a catchy slogan. It is a way of life.
Removing monuments that enshrine a racist history from the public square marks a sea change in our social conversation. It shows us what is possible when people come together for a common purpose. Changing consciousness coupled with changes in institutional leadership and community control of public spaces is the foundation for a new commonwealth.
David Hansen

Friday, June 5, 2020

Love is Never Virtual; Life is Real in all of its Moments

         Living in diverse realities, we try to make sense of each. Seeking the wisdom that each one offers, to know the unique teaching of each journey and place along the way, we yet try to identify that which is constant from journey to journey. The constants offer a strand to hold from one reality to another, from one journey to another, one world to another. In the constants we recognize ourselves, soothed by the familiar, by that which doesn’t change. We are challenged by what does change, that which is new and different, that which defines a reality we haven’t known before. Knowing that all is part of the greater reality of life and its seasons, perhaps we can draw comfort even from that which is different, from that which represents change from one reality to another. Even when unsettling, change is part of a greater whole, a greater reality, itself a constant. Each subsequent reality is no less real than what came before, its own virtues there for us to discover in time, and so to wrestle with its challenges. One way or another, each new reality becomes home, for however long we may abide there.

There is one word that I have come to resent, to rail against, in our current reality. It is perhaps the most frequently used word other than “Zoom.” It is the word “virtual.” I find myself beginning to decry this word, even impolitely interrupting its almost being said. I find myself suggesting, at times too forcefully, that there is no such thing as “virtual,” only different ways of being real. From a dictionary search, the word to be avoided is from the Latin “virtus,” meaning strength, virtue. Already, the word has denied itself in the way we use it to suggest that something is not real. Every moment has its own strength, its own virtue, therefore its own reality. Defined as “being so in effect or essence, although not in actual fact or name,” that which is virtual is real in its own way, having its own essence.

When we meet on the screen, for instance, whether to learn, to pray, to work, our words are real, even if occasionally distorted. The words we say to each other carry the same emotional content; hold the same concerns, as if said in physical proximity. However much we wish we could be in the same place, our words still express who we are and the reality from which we speak, seeking to bridge the distance to another, hoping to elicit words that tell of the other’s reality. We can be in the same place and still be distant, even made further apart if the needed words are not spoken, or hurtful ones instead. An online class is still a class, a gathering to comfort mourners still a vessel in which to hold tears in the interplay of words and silence. As much as I yearn to be back together, whether in the synagogue to pray, whether around the learning table of a weekly class, I have been touched by a depth of connection among us in these days that is palpable and real.

Every reality, every place and moment in time and space, offers its own Torah/teaching, that which we can only learn in that particular moment. As much as we may wish to be free of a painful reality, it too has its own Torah to teach. In searching out a given moment’s Torah, we become active shapers of the reality in which we find ourselves. We become seekers and makers of meaning, activists, rather than those passively buffeted by that over which we appear to have little control. That over which we have control is within us. So too, we have control in the way we apply the constants, the knowledge and truths that we have carried and that have carried us from one reality to the next, one journey to the next, in the shaping of our lives. As our ancestors made their way from Egypt, the desert trek is never described as one journey, but is always referred to in the plural, teaching of life as a series of journeys. There are constants that we carry through the journeys of our lives, the journeys that have formed who we are and that have brought us to the journey of this time and place.

      Learning the Torah of this time and of our journey through it, seeing Torah through the lens of life, our experiences offer a window into Torah itself, revealing new teachings about ourselves and about the world in which we live with others. Seeing life through the lens of Torah, long familiar teachings now turn in new ways, opening to new depths and applications. I have been startled before the breadth of teaching that emerges from Torah to guide us on the journey through this time of the pandemic. I have come to appreciate more deeply a beautiful teaching of the rabbis about Torah itself and our relationship with Torah and life, hafoch ba hafoch ba d’kula ba/turn it, turn it, all is within it. So we ask, what is the Torah that we are learning in this time? What are we learning about ourselves, about the world, about Torah and life in the turning of time?

I find myself continuing to wonder what it means to live in the moment and yet to look beyond it. In our physical isolation we come easily to feel trapped in this moment, so hard to look beyond, and yet that is what the experience of previous hard realities teaches us to do. There is nothing virtual in that, requiring strength and virtue to face and shape the reality of this time. It is all held in the tension between the names and realities of two Torah portions that become one in the turning of Torah and life, the weekly portion of Acharei Mot-K’doshim (Lev. 16:1-20:27). Beginning with a looking back to a moment of great pain, the sudden death of the two sons of Aaron, aharei mot means “after the death….” In the word acharei/after, there is hope and encouragement, lifting our eyes and hearts to look ahead. Yes, we are in a hard reality, but we are bidden to look ahead to after this time.

Parashat K’doshim speaks both to the vision and the way, of the time to come and how to get there. The portion begins with one of the Torah’s greatest challenges: Be holy/k’doshim ti’h’yu/for I God your God am holy. The way then opens before us, what seems to be an impossible challenge made real in human terms. Toward realizing the vision, mitzvot become as sign posts along the way. The commandments that follow the challenge to be holy bear almost entirely on our relationships in the human realm. In the way that we treat each other, so we come to affirm our relationship with God. After the shattering of life as we know it, whether for Aaron in facing the deaths of his sons, or for us yet held in the grip of the pandemic, we are still to look beyond and still to do justly. In good times and hard, from within the midst of harsh reality and after its passing, we are to leave the corners of our fields for the poor and landless, to leave the gleanings that fall from the plow, to pay workers on time, not to oppress, but indeed to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The way to the vision fulfilled, from within this moment and beyond, unfolds through this portion in the way of love as Rabbi Akiva’s great principle of Torah, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself/v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha.

Love is never virtual, nor the caring of one for another. Life is real in all of its moments, abiding values joining us across distance and uncertainty. The values that we live and their ways of expression during this time are real, helping to soften the isolation and the worry. They are real now because they are always real, a bridge between now and then, the vision and the way. Love and caring are the constant that we know to be true, the strand we hold, if not each other’s hand, in making our way from one reality to another, from this moment in time to the next. From journey to journey, each one real, in the way of our living in this moment, we learn to look beyond.

Rabbi Victor. H. Reinstein

Friday, May 29, 2020

Words Both Written and Spoken, from Heart -to-Heart and House-to-House

           I delight in interfaith conversations, in words both written and spoken that bridge from heart to heart and house-to-house. I was fascinated recently as I read a particularly timely Fatwa, in effect what is called in Jewish tradition a T’shuva, a legal response to a question of religious practice. As I read the response entitled, “Fatwa Regarding Eid Prayer in Light of COVID,” I recognized in the response to the question on the minds of Muslims the dialectical way of question and answer so similar to Jewish legal process. As Jews faced at Pesach the unthinkable inability to gather for Seders and services, and so again seven weeks later with the inability to symbolically gather in person at Sinai to mark Shavuous, the Feast of Weeks that celebrates the giving of Torah, so our Muslim neighbors have wrestled with how to mark Ramadan, and now its closing celebration of Eid al-Fitr.

Ramadan ends this Sunday with the “festival of the breaking of the fast,” which is what Eid al-Fitr means. Communal prayer is always central to Muslim observance, but especially so on Jumma, the Friday Sabbath, and on festivals. The Fatwa that I read was in response to the question of how to mark Eid at home. It felt deeply familiar, the same questions that we are asking, how to mark yontev, Shabbos, how to say the Mourner’s Kaddish in the absence of an in-person minyan. As we work through the dialectical balancing of values we weigh all matters of ritual and observance on the scale of life, life itself offering counterbalance to all else.

In the first paragraph of the Fatwa, there is a central focus on one element of communal worship that appears impossible to observe on one’s own. So the Fatwa begins: “In light of the masjid being shut down due the COVID-19 crisis and the upcoming Eid prayers, the Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) Council encourages that Muslims pray Salat al-Eid (daily prayers of Eid) in their homes with their own families (or individually in case one is living by oneself), and there is no need for a khutbah….” After reviewing various precedents in the way of case law, as in Jewish legal process, so the Fatwa ends: “All our four schools of law state that attending the khutbah of Eid is not obligatory, nor is the khutbah a requirement of the Eid prayer, it is not required to give khutbah in every home. The Fiqh Council encourages masjids to live broadcast Eid khutbahs, and all families pray their individual congregational prayers at a given time, and then, after they finish their own Eid prayers, they can listen to the live khutbah as a general reminder. And Allah knows best….”

        I have generally associated khutbah with the talk of the Imam on Jumma/Friday, much in the way of a D’var Torah or a D’rasha on Shabbos and other holy days by a rabbi or other member of the community. I have on occasion gone to the mosque where my friend and partner in dialogue Ismail is the imam. I had never had a sense, however, of the centrality of the khutbah in the way it is emphasized in the Fatwa addressing Muslim observance of Eid al-Fitr. As I looked at the word that tells of the words spoken by the imam, I saw a familiar root shining through the unfamiliar, a bridge forming. The root of KhuTBah clearly seemed to have written all over it, if you will, the same meaning as the Hebrew root KaTaV, the root of the word to write.

So I wrote a letter to Ismail and to another Muslim friend asking of the underlying meaning of khutbah, receiving insight, as well, into another word for the Imam’s talk, khatira. After asking about my wellbeing and that of my family, Ismail humbly offered a gift of wisdom, itself seeming to come to me as the imam’s khutbah: “Indeed, Ramadan this year has been quite different from years past, to say the least. But very good still. There is always a silver lining in what we may perceive as undesirable or unwelcome, even if it is a pandemic. If only we had the wisdom to be patient long enough to see it....” Saying Ameen, Ameen to my friend’s khutbah, I read with delight his response to my questions of a Hebrew-Arabic cognate, and so I share with you:

“The Arabic word "Khutba" comes from "khataba" which means to have a formal conversation or a formal discussion. A "mukhataba" is the act of having some formal discussion. Hence the Friday Khutba or "address" from the imam to the community. A "khatira" comes from the word "khatara" which means to think of, ponder upon or to stumble upon an insight concerning a subject matter.
 It is also used to mean the sharing of a thought or an insight. So a "khatira" can be a pondering upon any subject, or an insight, that might be of interest to a person. Their sharing it with others is also called a "khatira". A "khatira" can grow into a "khutba", and conversely, a "khutba" can be reduced to a "khatira". Incidentally, a "kitab" is a book but can mean a letter as well. It is taken from "kataba", to write.”

I thought of a phrase that often comes to me in the gathering of imams and rabbis to learn together that Ismail and I help to coordinate, ahl al-kitab/people of the book. Clearly, the link is obvious between the Arabic and Hebrew root meaning to write. As I shared with Ismail, it may be most obvious in the word for the marriage contract, the Ketubah. While I have not made a cognate connection with the word khatira, I find a meaningful symbolic connection. It would seem to be parallel, as a talk emerging from one’s own thinking and wrestling about a matter of importance, to the meaning of d’rasha. The English word “sermon” does not convey the depth of meaning held in either khatira or d’rasha. D’rasha derives from lidrosh/to search, to seek. In truth, one can only give a d’rasha, and so a khatira, if they have done their own seeking, then to share with others the fruit of their seeking, the living words distilled from their own encounter with God’s word, with the words of others, with life.

That is the challenge Jews face as we approach Shavuous, the holiday that celebrates the giving of Torah, to engage, to search, to seek, to receive and renew the Word. So it is that the weekly Torah portion that always precedes Shavuous is the portion called Bamidbar (Numb. 1:1-4:20). The word that gives its name to the entire fourth book of Torah and to its first portion means in the wilderness or in the desert. Staring out from the word, as in the way a root stared out at me from khutbah, is the root DaVaR, the root that forms word/davar or speak/m’daber. In the desert/midbar, God speaks with us, m’daber. At the end of forty years, the letter mem, whose numerical value is forty, falls away and we are left with the word/davar. Whether as khutbah or as d’var Torah, meaning emerges, then to be shared from heart to heart, whether in person or across video links that join us from the sacred spaces of each one’s home, each one’s mikdash m’at/little sanctuary of home masjid or home synagogue.

In our shared way of seeking to balance the challenges of this time, of law and spirit, health and holiness, yet striving to see the good in the challenge, the “silver lining” of which Ismail warmly suggested awaits us, so we come to places of deeper meaning. In the way of our seeking, meaning emerges as new fruit blossoming; new understanding distilled in the holy words of a khutbah or khatira, a d’var Torah or a d’rasha. Offered in the approach to the holy week that comes with the moon’s turning for both Jews and Muslims, Ismail’s good wishes still speak as words of blessing for all of us: “Hope this clarifies the distinction between the three words. Be well and Eid Mubarak to you too and to all your family! And looking forward to meeting in person again at some point in time in the near future.”

In the way of good wishes for a blessed Eid and a good yontev, may all of us be together in person again in the near future, always connected, though, in words both written and spoken that bridge from heart to heart and house-to-house.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, May 22, 2020

"...that others might simply live"

This mother's day I decided to share my artistic talents (LOL) and make a card, rather than buy one. As I put the card together, I realized I would need some glue. There used to be a glue stick in a drawer of my desk organizer so I went to retrieve it. To my surprise, the drawer was so full I had a hard time getting it open.

           This is what I found from forty years of collecting clutter in one small drawer of what we call an "organizer:" pencils, pens, business cards (some are mine from the 90's and dozens are from other people), piles of membership cards (three from one organization for 2020; two sent me before I joined), clamps, batteries, old Ford stamps, souvenir golden shoes in a pan (writing on the package in Hindi), random telephone numbers, cough drops, typewriter correction tape,  I-Slice (CD Opener),  Liquid Paper, matches, staple remover, thumb tacks, magnifying glass, random buckle, masking tape, pin back buttons ("Create a Department of Peace", "No Food Tax" and "Do Justice, Seek Peace, Build Community")), beaded key chain, broken beaded necklace, beaded pen holder, letter opener, gummed labels, ruler, highlighters, magic markers, Scripto leads, broken stapler, staples, instructions for the telephone, paper clips. There was no glue stick!

Looking at all that stuff reminded me of an experience with a young friend. We were at a camp together and occupied separate rooms a few doors away from each other. Going to his room, I was upset by the mess I encountered. Clothes were strewn all over the room, the bed was unmade; it looked like a tornado had been there. I said to him, "You know, a cluttered room is a sign of a cluttered mind." I'm sure if he were to see my office today, and the drawers of my organizer, he would remind me of my remark.

I've been reading Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Eudora Kohl. It tells the story of two young women homesteaders settling on the South Dakota prairie between Pierre and Presho. It's helping me remember some of the challenges and difficulties the settlers faced, simply to put down roots; to satisfy the basics of food, water and shelter. At the same time, one wonders if it would have been easier if these early homesteaders had approached the challenge with a different attitude and mind set, similar to that of the original inhabitants. Why one can't learn to exist in harmony with the natural world, instead of insisting on dominating it, is a question we European immigrants still need to answer, should we wish to survive the present and future environmental crisis.

Native Americans give us clues about how to live in harmony with the natural world, without a lot of "stuff.". But they are not alone. I marveled at my friends in India, when I first watched them brush their teeth in the morning with twigs. None of them had toothbrushes that came packaged in throw away plastic. Little did I know then the twigs had an element that acted like aspirin, so they cleaned their teeth as well as got an added medication. Or how refreshing it was to eat off of a banana leaf, with one's hand. No dishes or silverware to buy or wash. Just put the used leaf where the cow or the goat will find it.

One of the characteristics of those early days in South Dakota, retained to a large extent in many of our rural communities, was the idea of mutual aid. If you needed to move to a new tar paper shack, someone with a wagon would come and help. If you were caught in a snowstorm, the nearest home would welcome you and provide hospitality. If there was only one piano for miles around, it could be transported to where it was needed. It was a concept, "sharing," that increasingly got lost in a materialistic, consumer society, Back then, not everyone needed everything.

          There was a person by the name of Vinoba Bhave who started a movement in India after the death of Gandhi. It was called the Bhoodan or "land gift" movement. It was a voluntary effort where those who had land were asked to contribute one tenth of the land they owned for the landless people in the country. If you had one hundred acres, you were asked to contribute ten. If you had ten, you were asked for one. Over the course of twenty years, four million acres were collected by Vinoba and his followers and distributed to the landless.

I was present when two of those followers, Krishnamal and Jaganathan, convinced an exceedingly rich landowner to sell several acres of his property to the area landless at a price they could afford. The landowner had pictures of his grown children on the mantle in his palatial home, standing by their Mercedes and Rolls Royce vehicles in Europe. The palace area was surrounded by a high stone wall with glass embedded at the top. 

The owner had left some of his far-away land fallow the year before. The homeless had planted it and just as they were to harvest it the owner had it plowed under. Sometimes goons were sent to harass and beat the landless. Krishnamal and Jaganathan approached this wealthy man on the poverty or wealth of his soul. When the agreement was concluded, we celebrated with the landless that evening, with singing and dancing and shared joy.

What is useful in my organizer drawer I'm going to share. What is clutter, I'm going to recycle or remove. What I'll try to remember better is the phrase, "Live Simply that Others Might Simply Live." It seems an especially appropriate mantra for our time.

Carl Kline