Friday, September 18, 2020

Leaving The Baggage Behind

           
Peace Brigades International (PBI) was started in 1981 as a new experiment from an older idea implemented by Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle. In response to Hindu - Muslim conflict, Gandhi developed groups of unarmed peacekeepers, who would go into situations of violence to temper and calm both sides. The volunteers were non-partisan in their approach, wore clothing that identified them as peacekeepers, searched out facts to scotch rumors and misinformation and identified points of common resolution.

PBI began its efforts in the early 80's in Guatemala, accompanying the Mutual Support Group for Families of the Disappeared (GAM), as they became politically active for the cause of their loved ones, and in turn, began receiving death threats. PBI volunteers would accompany the leaders of the group and their family members wherever they went, as an unarmed international presence, prepared to report back to an international audience that would send telegrams and assert international political pressure on the appropriate persons and parties.
        Gradually, as human rights workers and organizations requested help, the work expanded. Presently PBI is organized in 13 country groups for recruitment of volunteers and fundraising. Since 1981 the organization has been active in a total of 16 field projects and is currently working in 7 different country locations.
       Several years ago I was serving on the International Council of PBI. As an International Council member, I had the opportunity to attend a General Assembly meeting of PBI in Switzerland. It brought together representatives from all of the different country groups and the various field projects. We were a group of about sixty, speaking several languages and using three in our sessions. Some of the issues before us were highly contested.  As a group that was committed to operating by consensus, I couldn't imagine resolving those deeply felt issues in the limited time frame we had. I thought, perhaps, they could never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
 Early on in the gathering, a decision was made to start a working group that would focus on the most contentious issue before us. The group included the most vociferous adherents on both sides with a few others and a trained facilitator and mediator. They devoted themselves to the task, using every spare moment. At the end of the gathering they presented their resolution, which to my utter amazement, was adopted by consensus of the whole group.


I've thought about this PBI event many times since. It has loomed large these days as I watch a deeply partisan Congress and divided society struggle to do what's best for the country. Where are our facilitators and mediators? Where are those committed to building consensus?

In the same way, I wonder why we haven't yet learned that there are alternative ways to resolve conflict than war and violence? PBI has been in operation for almost forty years without loss of life to any of those they accompany. The Nonviolent Peace Force is active around the globe offering nonviolent alternatives. Yet, my country continues building an arsenal that can destroy the world several times over while the forever rising defense budget is the only item to get overwhelming bi-partisan support. Where is the vision and support for nonviolent alternatives?

Whenever we enter into any kind of disagreement, we all carry some baggage. It might be the baggage of personal ego. We all like to be "right." It might be the baggage of responsibility to others. Maybe we are representing our family, our workplace, our community, or Congressional constituency. Or it could be the baggage of "belief." It's when my religion tells me this is wrong, so you must be wrong to believe differently. Sometimes it's the baggage of fear, for my own or others personal safety or welfare. Sometimes it's the baggage of money; losing it!

As I ponder the "miracle" of that gathering in Switzerland, I have come to recognize that the baggage people brought was modest. No one was paying them or lobbying them with threats or money. Their fundamental belief in nonviolent conflict resolution had been formed and tempered by personal experience in the fields of conflict. That belief rose above all others. Those they represented were committed to the value of consensus, so they weren't too worried about those back home. And with good facilitation and mediation, ego is exposed and vulnerability is affirmed.
It's possible to travel lightly, leaving the baggage behind. This experience in Switzerland and the promise of groups like PBI continue to give one some modest hope for the future.



Carl Kline











 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Through the Harsh Passages of Torah and LIfe



     
In the still heat of mid-summer, despair and hope vie in the shimmering haze. It is a season of struggle in the world around us and in the cycle of Torah and Jewish liturgical time. For three weeks before Tisha B'Av, day of mourning and fasting for the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, we chant prophetic words of warning. For  seven weeks after Tisha B'Av, we chant prophetic words of comfort. We try to hold both as we make our way in a world convulsed by the pandemics of a virus, of racism, of so much brutality among people and nations, all separating us from each other when we most need each other. In the Torah portions from the end of the Book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, into the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, Sefer D'varim, we encounter the violence of conquest, painfully brutal passages among those that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes so helpfully as the "harsh passages." Learning to navigate the harsh passages of Torah, we gain training and skills in the way of confronting violence in the world around us, while learning through sacred confrontation the ways of nonviolence.

I would not presume to say that it is the Torah's explicit intent that in our encounter with its own violence we are to wrestle and struggle toward another way, toward transcending and transforming such violence. In the Jewish way of engagement with text, wrestling, crying, arguing, that dynamic becomes so inevitable, however, that we cannot miss it as implicit intent. In the way of a quiet plea, as hearing God in the "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:12), implicit becomes more powerful than explicit.
 
On the mystery of its opening words, given human voice through Rashi and rabbinic tradition, the Torah says, dorsheni/interpret me, search me. And so we do. That the harsh passages do not represent the ultimate concerns and lasting values of Torah, in the way that Rabbenu Heschel teaches, is clear: "the standards by which those passages are criticized are impressed upon us by the Bible, which is the main factor in ennobling our conscience and in endowing us with the sensitivity that rebels agains all cruelty...; [the harsh passages] stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times" (God in Search of Man, p. 268). The values with which we confront the violence are from yet deeper wellsprings within the Torah itself, page and parchment the context in which human struggles play out. It is also clear that from the very beginning of our people's encounter with Torah, and onward through the ages, that our teachers have not backed away from wrestling with the violence. They have planted seeds in furrows that run with blood, seeds of very different fruit, right there in the context of violence, there in the midst of the harsh passages. Facing down the violence, they have offered teachings of peace and nonviolence.

With enough similar occurrences, it seems no accident, then, that from out of the brutal slaughter of Sichon, king of the Emorites, recounted by Moses at the beginning of the fifth book, D'varim/Deuteronomy (2:26), midrashic emphasis is given to the unique nature of pursuing peace as a mitzvah.  It is a familiar midrash that occurs in various sources, such as in the minor Talmudic tractate called Perek Shalom/the chapter of Peace, here emerging in Midrash Tanchuma (22) to Parashat Chukkat (on Numb. 21:21). Acting on his own initiative, Moses has sent messengers of peace to Sichon. The midrash immediately draws a proof text from Psalms (34:15), emphasizing the rightness of Moses' action and the evil of war, sur me'ra v'aseh tov/turn from evil and do good.

 We ask, as we always need to ask, why does the midrash draw support from that verse, toward what purpose? The point is then made that the Torah does not direct us to seek out mitzvot, telling us, rather, to fulfill a particular mitzvah when it is at hand, its doing dependent on time and circumstance. We remove a mother bird from the nest before taking fledglings or eggs only when happening upon such a moment of encounter, even then remembering the urging of Maimonides that it is preferable not to take the young in any case (Moreh N'vuchim 3:48). We are commanded to help our enemy raise up their fallen ox only when encountering such an opportunity to make a friend of an enemy. Giving more examples, the midrash then says of them all, if they come to your hand, you are commanded concerning them, but do not pursue after them. Only in regard to the pursuit of peace, the midrash makes clear, are we not to sit back and wait for the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah, v'ha'shalom/and regarding peace, seek peace from your place, and pursue it in another place/bakesh shalom mim'kom'cha, v'rodfei'hu b'makom acher. Wrestling with violence, bravely entering the harsh passages, we become part of a noble tradition of those who are horrified by brutality and seek another way. Engaging with violence in the controlled context of Torah, so we are meant to learn to engage with violence in the worlds around us.

Encountering Sichon, Moses appears to have learned, though only partially, the lesson that is ultimately meant for us to learn in all of its fullness, to be a seeker of peace. Earlier, God has told Moses not to do battle with Seir, the people descended from Esav, using the phrase, al titgaru bam/do not let yourselves come into strife with them (Deut. 2:5). A short while later, in regard to Sichon, the same phrase is used, here in the singular, adding a word for emphasis, horrifying us now, as God tells Moses to engage in battle with Sichon, v'hitgar bo milchama/and let yourself come into war with him (Deut. 2:24). At first it seems that Moses has learned the earlier lesson, do not fight. Disobeying God, in the way of holy disobedience, that, perhaps, God waited for, hoped for, Moses sent words of peace/divrei shalom to Sichon. It is the moment celebrated in the midrash, Moses becoming a rodef shalom/a pursuer of peace.

Something went wrong, though, Sichon refusing to allow Israel's passage through his land. The stakes are raised higher, Moses saying that God had hardened Sichon's spirit. Is that it, and what does that mean? Peace-making is hard and the stakes are always high. The painful passage in all of its harshness brings home just how high the stakes are as we become the slaughterers of so many innocents, of women and children.  Screaming out, we find ourselves as Moses. It is not there and then to which the text points, but to here and now, so many flash points ready to explode in our world, or to be defused with new and courageous thinking. What else might have been done to defuse, to find ways to accommodate and diminish the fear in the adversary, to find another way? What would we have done? What will we do? Weeping for Moses' failure and raging at his deeds, the shimmering text becomes a mirror in which we see ourselves. It is not about them and then, but about us and now.

Others have seen themselves in the mirror of Torah before us. From an ancient midrash and onward, the tears of the peace-makers flow as waters of life, our own tears added to a river of peace, yet to fructify the land and cleanse it of violence. Approaching the land of Seir and told not to fight, Moses is warned, they will be afraid of you, watch over yourselves well/v'nishmartem m'od (Deut. 2:4). What is this great care to be taken in regard to ourselves? It is the question that Rashi asks, And what is this watching/ma'hu ha'sh'mira? The answer has already been given, do not fight with them/al titgaru bam. From nineteenth century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, "The fact that Israel is reminded of these things when it is about to receive its land from the hand of God would seem to have far-reaching implications. For it gives the Jewish people to understand that God's providence also reigns over the destinies of nations other than the Jewish people, and that Israel is to take its place among the nations with a God-fearing respect for their possessions. Israel must not see itself as a nation of conquerors from whom no nation on earth will henceforth be safe...." Of a time that Rabbi Hirsch could only imagine, when the warning of Torah, amplified by Rashi, had become operative in the land, blurring there and then with here and now, Nehama Leibowitz wrote from her time and place in the early years of the state of Israel, "The new generation, full of their own strength and vigor had to learn to practice self-control and curb their own aggressiveness aroused by the very fear displayed by the weaker neighbor..." (Studies in Devarim, p. 29).

In the interplay of despair and hope as held in the shimmering haze of mid-summer heat, it is a season of struggle in the world around us and in the cycle of Torah and Jewish liturgical time. Making our way through the harsh passages of Torah and life, we find our own voice in the voices of those who have cried out before. Crying out first in horror, then to learn another way, it begins with our answer to the Torah's own plea, dorsheni/interpret me, search me. Searching ever more deeply, we come to read Torah as a context in which to confront violence and learn the ways of nonviolence. Getting up from the learning table, the challenge is to learn to do the same in the world around us, going forward into the weeks of comfort, allowing hope to rise.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 4, 2020

Majors and Minors


Psalm 138 is about majors and minors and knowing the difference. The major theme, introduced in verses 1-3, is thanksgiving and praise. “I will give thee thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . l will bow down toward thy holy temple.” (V.1a, 2a, RSV). The word “heart” comes from the Latin, cor, from which we also get the word courage. We live in a time that calls for people who are centered, and who have courage. The next verse spells it out clearly, “On the day I called, thou didst answer me” (3 RSV). God listens us into being, thereby establishing the rhythm of life as one of call and response.

I think it is an African proverb that says, “We listen each other into being.” Translation: God’s temple is that place where people have the courage to listen each other into being.
In verses 4-6, the psalmist expands the image of the temple to include the whole of society. “Kings of the earth” (v.4), bear a special responsibility to ensure the welfare and the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society: “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he knows from afar” (v.6). Then the psalmist bring the message home. “Though I walk in the midst of trouble . . . . The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” (vs.7a, 8a). Translation: in the memorable words of Representative John Lewis, we are all called get into “good trouble.”
I have been thinking about Psalm 138 as I reflect on the Democratic National Convention. There are many good things to say about it. One highlight for me was Ady Barkan.      Using a wheelchair and an electronic device Barkan said, “We live in the richest country in history and yet we do not guarantee this most basic human right.” Before his public appearance he hold the press, “I support Medicare for All and Joe Biden obviously doesn’t . . . . The pandemic and depression have proven how dangerous it is to tie insurance to employment.”
Another highlight for me Gerald Walker, a worker in a Nebraska meatpacking plant. She said: “They call us essential workers, but we get treated like we’re expendable.”
Best of all, I learned how much a person can pack into 97 seconds, the amount of time the DNC gave to AOC. Representative Ocasio-Cortez said: “In fidelity and gratitude to a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st-century social, economic and human rights, including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages and labor rights for all people in the United States; a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny and homophobia . . . that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few . . . . In a time when millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crises of mass evictions, unemployment and lack of health care, and espiritu del pueblo and out of love for all people, I hereby second the nomination of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America.”
These three people, Barkan, Walker, and AOC, embodied the words of Psalm 138. They spoke from the heart and they spoke with courage in the temple of the Democratic Party. They were not and are not unwilling to get into good trouble.
I want to close with what I think is a contemporary translation of Psalm 138. It is a poem titled “Union.”

Union
Not me alone--
I know now--
But all the whole oppressed
Poor world,
White and black,
Must put their hands with mine
To shake the pillars of these temples
Wherein the false gods dwell
And worn-out altars stand
Too well defended,
And the rule of greed’s upheld
That must be ended
            --Langston Hughes

Rev. David Hansen     

Friday, August 28, 2020

Each to Soar Like the Swallow, But in their Own Way



    
Thoughts come unbidden, not always clear from where, like a bird on the wing, only to delight in their willingness to alight. Words of Torah danced before me, seeming to have a life of their own, which they do, finding it difficult to focus, to take them in, to make sense beyond the surface, beyond the familiar. A tune began to emerge, and then words coming to consciousness, Dona, dona, dona, dona…; and then more, as I found myself singing softly and crying, on a wagon bound for market, there’s a calf with a mournful eye, high above him flies the swallow winging swiftly through the sky…. As in a time warp, long years gone, I was sitting in a camp circle of a summer’s night around the campfire. We were singing a song that has become part of the Jewish folk canon, and beyond, through the early singing of Joan Baez. It is a song filled with contradictions, tensions that did not touch me then, only the yearning and the beauty, the unfairness and the irony. The flames danced before us, the sound of a guitar; many voices as one, wholeness in the circle.

My eyes opened, as I alighted back at my desk, blinking, wondering still how it is that I had taken such flight. Through prism tears drying, I began to focus on the verse before me, u’kratem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveha/and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10). There, in the weekly Torah portion, a double portion called B’har-B’chukotai (Lev. 25:1-27:34), a verse familiar to all as holy words incised into the Liberty Bell, I saw the still quivering branch from which I had taken flight. The word for liberty, dror, is a word of layered meaning. It means “liberty,” as in the freedom to take flight, to be free like a bird. And that is its other meaning, dror, a sparrow, a swallow…. I began to understand the thought that had come to me, carried through time on the word for liberty that can mean bird, as in sparrow or swallow; swallow, that was it, as in a long ago camp song and a circle of wholeness.

The refrain in the song is not one of wholeness, words that disturbed me long ago: How the winds are laughing, They laugh with all their might, Laugh and laugh the whole day through, And half the summer’s night…; Dona, dona, dona, dona…. “How cruel,” I thought, “why would the winds be laughing so, rather than crying?” The tears that I had cried in flight through time were for both the wholeness and the brokenness, each remembered and felt again; warmth beyond the fire that touched an impressionable soul, the injustice of inequity, a bird so free, a calf bound on an altar as wagon bumping along through time; a later image of cattle cars unmistakable in the weeping mists of time. The song was originally published as a Yiddish theatre song in 1941, though I don’t know if there was a conscious association with our people then as calves bound for the slaughter.

So it has ever been, wholeness and brokenness in painful dance, the swallow above, the bound and fettered below, the swallow calling us to sing its song of liberty. That is the call that we are meant to hear, that the Torah calls us to hear, proclaim liberty throughout the land…. It is a song of health, of wholeness, of justice. Whether heard through the song of Torah, or as the peal of a great wounded bell with a crack in it from the very beginning, the call to justice is heard more often than not in the breach. The context of the Torah’s call is one of wholeness, brokenness too in the portion, but not to laugh, only to sing for each one’s freedom, not mine alone, nor yours, but freedom for all together. The Torah sets out a plan to remind for whom the bell tolls, that it tolls for all of us, whether all shall be broken or all shall be whole, in the sacred cycle of seven, “free at last, free at last, thank God a'mighty, we are free at last….”

The call to proclaim liberty throughout the land follows immediately on the commandments for marking the seven-year cycle that brings us to the Sh’mita/Sabbatical year, when the land is to lie fallow, given its rest from all human use and abuse. In the seventh year, people, too, given rest from use and abuse, all to be free at last. There is to be no planting and no harvesting for gain, only to gather from the fields what grows of itself to sustain; landowner and stranger gathering together, rubbing shoulders as equals, aware now that the earth is the Lord’s. And in the fiftieth year, to the sound of a great shofar, seven cycles of seven complete, land to return to original owners, debts released with release of the land, each one to return to family and home, at peace, a great circle by the fire.

In the tension between the whole and the broken, the free and the bound, neither we, nor the farmer understands. It is not to be one or the other, nor of blaming the bound; “Stop complaining,” said the farmer, “Who told you a calf to be? Why don’t you have wings to fly with, Like the swallow so proud and free?” Dona, dona, dona, dona…. The Torah’s call is expansive, in proclaiming liberty each of us is to feel the burden of the other’s chains, to cry and then to fly: Calves are easily bound and slaughtered, Never knowing the reason why, But whoever treasures freedom, Like the swallow must learn to fly…; Dona, dona, dona, dona….

The message of Torah, for this time and always, is that we must learn to fly together if all are to be free. On our verse, Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants, the essence is brought home, brokenness merging into wholeness, in a remarkable teaching of Rabbi Ya’akov Yehoshua Falk, the P’nei Yehoshua (1680-1756): It does not say for all of its slaves, but “for all of its inhabitants,” for in a state in which there is no freedom even for the least of its inhabitants, all its inhabitants are enslaved. We experience freedom only when there is no slavery at all in the state. Slavery is a plague that afflicts both the slave and the master as one…. Thus, “and you shall proclaim liberty to all its inhabitants,” for through the liberation of the bound, all inhabitants of the state shall become free. The Torah’s call for freedom as shuttled forth by the P’nei Yehoshua is a universal call carried through time on wings of the human spirit. It echoes through the Civil Rights movement, giving voice to other calls for liberation, words of Fannie Lou Hammer, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free;” and similarly of Rev. Martin Luther King; and so the earlier call of Emma Lazarus, as though commentary on the broken chains upon Lady Liberty’s feet,
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

It is that of which the sacred cycles of seven are meant to remind, freedom cannot be for one, but only for all, rubbing shoulders as equals in the fields of life. Through the lens of this time, in the harsh light of plague and pandemic, we see in stark relief the inequities that belie the verse upon the liberty bell. We see clearly now that all are not equal throughout the land and all are not free, and so none of us are. To proclaim liberty is to tear down the walls of injustice that block the vulnerable and disenfranchised from entering the fields, the migrant, the poor, peoples of color, the undocumented, the Bible’s orphan, widow, and stranger. In the prophetic reading paired with the portions of B’har B’chukotai, the prophet Jeremiah (17:11, 14) offers challenge to those who think by their privilege they are free, one who gathers riches but not by right shall leave them in the midst of their days…. For the sickness that plagues society as it does the human body, Jeremiah then pleads, r’fa’eni hashem v’eyra’fey/heal me, O God, then I shall be healed; help me, then I shall be helped, for You are my praise!

May healing come to all of us, healing of body and spirit, of individual and society. When this plague finally lifts, may we all have a place in the circle, all to be warmed equally by the fire, each one celebrated for their own being and attributes, each to soar like the swallow, but in their own way. How mightily the winds will laugh then, only for joy.


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

No graven images...

Years ago I learned what I call the onionskin theory of racism. The theory says that when one grows up in a culture that has its roots in racism (stealing the land and killing the first people as "savages"; enslaving black & brown people as less than human), even if you come out of a home that was accepting and respecting of everyone no matter the color of their skin, you still need to peel back the layers of the onion of racism, one by one.

People often have trouble distinguishing between racism and racial prejudice. You can be accepting of everyone, be non judgmental no matter their color, and still be a racist. Racism is an "ism." Racism is structural. Its embedded in our history and in our culture. It often lurks below the surface of white awareness. It appears in myriad ways, sometimes in what are called micro-aggressions. "Why is your hair like that? May I touch it?"

Then of course there are so many major-aggressions. Why are so many native persons incarcerated beyond their percentage in the population? According to the CDC, they are more likely to be killed by police than any other minority group. For every 1 million native americans, an average of 2.9 died annually from "legal intervention." That rate is 12% higher than for black folks and 3 times the rate for whites. Then again, why  are so many black men stopped by police because they "fit the description" given by a white woman? Why do so many end up dead for minor infractions?

          The demonstrations around the country, and most recently on the road to Mount Rushmore, are an attempt to wake us up to the racism entrenched in our society, especially in our history. Seriously, folks! How many knew that Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was friendly with the KKK and received some funding from them for his work. How many knew that this immigrant was concerned about a "mongrel horde" replacing people of "Nordic" purity?
 What about President Thomas Jefferson? If he's going to be a graven image in the mountains of South Dakota, shouldn't we at least recognize that he was a slave holder and an adulterer? History records that he had a long term sexual relationship with one of his slave women, Sally Hemings, and fathered her six children.

The indigenous of this area often remind us that for them Abraham Lincoln was not just the great emancipator. He also oversaw the largest mass hanging in our history the day after Christmas in1862. That was the day he ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men at Mankato, Minnesota.

We are being asked to remove another skin from the onion, a piece of our racist history. Some communities are deciding to remove confederate monuments. The military is prepared to re-name some of their facilities. South Dakota saw the wisdom in changing Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills and named after a General responsible for a massacre of indigenous women and children at Blue Water Creek, to Black Elk Peak, after a celebrated Lakota holy man. We are being asked to recognize the failings of our past, confess our sins, seek forgiveness, and where necessary, enact some kind of restorative justice. For a nation that considers itself a "Christian" nation, what's so hard about that? I was under the impression that was a commonplace process, recommended in Scripture and the larger Christian community.

The point is, people see different realities when they look at those faces in stone on Mount Rushmore. Ditto when it comes to our present "leaders." When President Clinton was in the oval office, some believed his sexual misadventures were enough to remove him. Many of those same folks have given the current occupant a mulligan, even though he was quite explicit about how he objectifies and treats women. One wonders if political ideology isn't influencing one's religion, rather than the other way around.

           Some religious communities were quite explicit at Standing Rock of dis-owning the "Doctrine of Discovery." That was the religious manifesto issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. it was the spiritual, legal and political justification for seizing land and colonizing inhabitants who were not "Christians." It's a racist layer of the onion many others who call themselves Christians have failed to peel away. They still feel called by God, if not the Pope, to colonize the globe for Christ and the historical, American way of life. They want to make America great again, like in the times of those figures on Mount Rushmore.

We need to heed the second commandment. We don't need to worship the past or make graven images of our heroes. They all fall short of the glory of God, found just for the looking in those sacred Hills. We need not be afraid to peel back the layers of racism. Each layer lost helps us get to the deeper, inner source of life, at the center of the onion and us.

Carl Kline

Friday, August 21, 2020

See The Haloes

A poem jumped out at me as I was reading my latest issue of The Sun. It was titled "The Pandemic Halo" by Jim Moore. In the poem, the narrator sees a halo around the head of a dog, a nurse and a depressed young man. A halo is a sign of holiness, even amidst great suffering and grief. We see it so often in paintings over the heads of the saints and angels, over Mary and the Christ child.

In a pandemic, according to the poem, halos become commonplace. They hover, appear and reappear, over many lives and life forms, as the ills and tragedies of this world are made holy: as grief is immersed in holiness and this immersion turns the darkness into light.

         The logo of the Catholic Worker Movement is a contemporary example of the halo. It uses an illustration of a line-up of the poor in the midst of the great depression. They are all waiting to enter the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in New York City to receive a free meal. In the line is one figure with a halo, meant to represent Jesus Christ. It reminds the workers that as they serve the hungry, Jesus is in their midst. Each person must be treated as they would treat Jesus. It might be a good logo for those long lines of people in this country waiting for a box of food or a COVID-19 test. Those serving them seem to me the new and multiplying Catholic Workers of the great depression of this age.

In our family we have taken social distancing seriously. We wear a mask in public out of respect for those who are doing their best to turn grief and suffering into holiness; turn darkness into light. There are so many serving us and others. Many of those servers seem to have halos and I sometimes wonder if Jesus is in their midst.  Although we can not control the virus, we can control how we respond to it. Maybe Mother Earth or the God who created us all, simply wants us to slow down and smell the flowers. Maybe we are meant to learn anew how grief and suffering, and the invisible but deadly, can bring us to a new understanding of the holy.

I'm troubled by those who refuse to wear a mask in public, but I'm also trying to understand it. I wonder if it isn't a way of asserting control in a situation where people don't believe they have any. Rather than wear a mask, admitting that the pandemic is real and death could be imminent, they control their destiny by refusing its reality, at least for them. Often there's a naive trust in divinity to protect them, that lies behind the rage they express to government and health authorities for limiting their "freedom." 

I've yet to actually see a pandemic halo but I'm looking. I'm aware of auras. I've experienced auras. We all have an energy field that surrounds us. Check it out with a friend. Simply stand facing each other with your palms toward the other, but not touching. Wait till you feel it. Sometimes you can even feel the pulsing and push the other back with your aura. Some say the aura has colors. I don't know about that. But I do know I had a massage once in India for a body in pain, where the masseuse never touched me. He simply worked on my energy field, my aura, and told me he manipulated my energy field back into place. It was amazing to me (miraculous really), how good I felt afterward.

        As the pandemic continues, there's a tendency to see things we haven't seen for a long time, or perhaps never. We have fireflies in our garden. That's new for us here in Brookings. We've enjoyed watching and getting to know two new young doves, siblings with sibling behaviors. Then there are the five starling children that have to go everyplace together. One strayed once but it wasn't long before the lost was found and they all flew in their usual noisy cloud. 

They've been here all along but I'm only seeing our trees now that we have a pandemic. Each has character all its own. Each has an aura. Each is making a contribution to the breeze we feel late in the afternoon in the back yard and the song of the wind when it blows strong through the garden. 

As the pandemic days continue to merge into each other; as Mother Earth and the Creator seem to be working at a great cleansing; perhaps we humans will discern the writing on the wall, see the halos and auras of the age, watch the invisible hand at work telling us to slow down and look. Observe the holiness. Observe the humility of the saints. Observe the Creation. Observe the pandemic halos. Try to be holy!

Carl Kline

Friday, August 14, 2020

Dreams

 

          Psalm 85 is introduced in the Revised Standard Version as “A prayer for deliverance from national adversity.” This is a national lament. I think the psalmist is calling upon us to strength our wings and dream.

The ascription says that it is a Psalm of the sons of Korah. The story of Korah is a strange one indeed. You find the story in the 16th Chapter of the book of Numbers, which in the Hebrew Bible is called, “In the Wilderness.” In the wilderness people are uneasy with the leadership that Moses is providing. Korah leads an uprising against Moses. He has a following of 250 people. Moses tells Korah to come to the Tent of Meeting where they will settle their differences. Moses appeals to God to decide who should be the leader. So they meet and each leader states his case, and then Moses tells his people to back away because God is about to make a decision. At that moment the ground opens up beneath Korah and swallows him up and all his followers with him. But now, centuries later, the sons of Korah are worship leaders in the Temple in Jerusalem. I can’t explain that story, but there it is.

 Psalm 85 was written after the people of Israel returned from exile. The Babylonians conquered Israel in 587 BCE and led the members of Israel's political class and the economic elite into exile. They were there for about 50 years. This was their time in the wilderness. While in exile the elders talked to their children and grandchildren about what it would be like when they returned home. That is what verse 1-3 are about. In the good old days: “You were favorable to the land, O Lord. You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the sins of the people. You covered all their sins. You set aside your wrath and turned aside your fierce anger.” You did all that, Lord. It will be like that again when we go home. It will be the way our parents and grandparents told us it would be, only better.

When the exiles got home they thought they would be welcomed with open arms. They thought there would be happy family reunions. Old friends and neighbors would kill the fatted calf. Life would go back to the way it was. Once the pandemic is over, life will be normal again.

 

But what they discovered was that life had moved on for the people who were there. The people who had been left behind were not particularly happy to see the returnees who tried to reclaim the family farm, and reassert their authority and reclaim their wealth.

And so the returnees began to complain: Reading verses 4 -7: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.” Restore us again. That is more than a figure of speech. They wanted their land back. They wanted their old jobs back. They wanted their money back. They wanted their lives back. “Lord, put away your indignation. Will you be angry with us forever?” Read between the lines. What they are saying is: “We spent all this time in exile. We lost everything. Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” One translation for verse five says: “Lord, your nostrils are flaring. How long will your nose be out of joint?” Show us your steadfast love.

The psalmist is getting real here. There are things in this world that we hope for, and there are things we are stuck with. Verses 1-3 are about the things we hope for. Verses 4-7 are about we are stuck with. The things we are stuck with cause us pain, create insecurity, and make us mad. That is what the psalmist is dealing with. The returnees thought they would go back to the Promised Land. Instead what greeted them was a new kind of exile: the loss of financial security--the homestead is gone and it is not coming back; there is no saving account; friends and family members have died.

Here in the US the official count says that more than 161,000 people have died from covid-19, and before the end of the year it might be closer to 300,000. Schools are reopening and we are afraid. The Senate wants to enact legislation to hold employers harmless for any work-related health problems, and workers have reason to worry. If your inbox is like mine, you get multiple reminders every day about our endangered postal service and social security. In the wilderness dreams die. That is what the psalmist is telling us.

Placebo prayers just don’t cut it any more. The comforters of Job did not bring him comfort. Experts tell us that perhaps as many as 40 million people may be unemployed by the end of this year. Job loss will quickly translate into a loss of housing and health care. We are not acting like a nation that not long ago prided itself as being the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

The Psalm begins to turn in verse 6: “Will you revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Then in verse 8 the psalmist declares: “I will listen to what God, the Lord, will say, God promises peace.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem entitled “Dreams” that I think captures the meaning of these verses. He wrote: “Hold fast to dreams/If dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”

People of faith are called to be nurturers and encourages of dreams. Now is not the time to despair. Now is the time to strengthen the sinews and structures of hope. “I will listen to what God, the Lord, will say, God promises peace . . . . “Surely salvation is at hand . . . that glory may dwell in our land.” Augustine said that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” There is a parallelism here. Salvation refers to healing and health and wholeness. The glory of God is a healthy planet and people who are fully alive. Hold fast to that dream.

Then jump down to verse 10 and 11: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.” And verse 13: “The Lord indeed will give what is good.” The psalmist has moved away from privilege and loss to a vision of the common good.

The Psalm ends with a call for restorative justice -- a theme that resonates deeply with our time. Verses 12 and 13 read: “Yea the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before God, and make God’s footsteps the way.”

Whose footsteps will you follow? Whose voice will you listen to? Let me share the voices I listen to these days and invite you to name the voices that you are hearing.

The motto of the State of Hawaii reads: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” When we are right in our relationship with the land, there will be peace. For the Indigenous people of Hawaii the motto refers to the sovereignty of the land, when the land of Hawaii is returned to the people of Hawaii, there will be peace. Native Americans tell us, when stolen property is returned to its rightful owners, then there will be peace. Black Lives Matter is telling us it is time to take down monuments to “the Lost Cause” and start enacting laws for “a Just Cause.” I see moms on the front line in Portland and on the front line in marches to end gun violence. Just yesterday I received an email telling me that 335 institutional investors who manage more than $9.5 trillion have released a statement, made a pledge, a commitment to a five point plan for covid-19 that calls for prioritizing worker health and safety and promises to keep supplier and customer relationships intact. Putting people’s health over short-term profits.

 

            The psalmist is telling us that restorative justice is the path peace. That’s the dream. I want to close with another poem from Langston Hughes:

 

Let America be America Again

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed.

Let it be that great strong land of love.

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man [one] be crushed by one above.

[Where] opportunity is real, and life is free.

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

May it be so. Amen.

 

Rev. David Hansen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, August 7, 2020

And it Came to Pass After the Plague

  It would be such a simple and familiar story, but for the place of its telling. It is a story of two young women dreamily imagining the future in a place in which there was no future, in a place in which dreams were snuffed out along with those who dreamed them. Nevertheless, my friend Gerda, and her friend Eva, dared to dream, and to imagine a future that included them, a future in which they counted as human beings, in which their lives mattered. A friendship formed in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, two girls become young women, sustaining each other with stories in the absence of food, stories that helped them to look beyond the plague, beyond the narrow straits of their confinement. Each would survive, they promised each other, and each would marry, one giving birth to a son and one to a daughter; and these children would grow and marry, and the two friends would become family; eventually, even, to become grandmothers together. From the narrow place, they would dream and imagine what would be, of what life would be like after the plague. Gazing across the expanse of time, they sowed seeds of hope in the empty space between, and so it came to be.

From that time and place, we learn a lesson of what it means to look ahead, to look beyond the harsh realities of a given moment in time. Whether of personal liberation or collective, the two intrinsically entwined, the courage to survive is expressed not only in grand heroic deeds, but in daring to imagine life’s mundane details triumphant. Even from in the midst of struggle, when life is narrowed to its essence, only to survive, or in the first moments of emerging from the straits, that is when we need to pause and to imagine what can be, not simply to go on in the ways that have always been. The imaginings of two young women looking beyond the horrors of the Holocaust were not mere stories to amuse, but shared tellings to inspire the will to survive. In the way of a fairy tale to tell of deeper meaning, a reminder in their story that each is needed for the other’s survival, that each one counts in relation to the other, that the future can only be for all of us.

I have thought about Gerda recently, her story coming to mind as I have reflected on what it means to look ahead from in the midst of a difficult time. For all of the differences in history and context, and the nature of suffering, between Gerda’s experience and ours, there are important parallels, and therefore lessons, to be drawn from one time of extremis to another. In our time of pandemics colliding, the pandemic of a virus and the social pandemic of racism, the greatest danger as individuals and as a society is at the end to simply emerge without taking time to reflect and to be counted on for the sake of change. As Gerda imagined her own survival, for those today who have suffered both directly and indirectly through breath-taking illness and breath-taking violence, the extreme realities of this time have been personal in ways that not all of us have felt. In its disparate impact on communities of color, the Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the ugly strand of racism that is woven into the fabric of American life, as antisemitism had festered through centuries in Europe, exploding finally in the Holocaust.

   
Of racism endemic to the pandemic, I thought about the signs that Gerda describes in her book, “THESE I DO REMEMBER,” the signs that she passed as a child on her way to school, signs that shrieked with blood-curdling hate, “The Jews are Our Misfortune.” I closed my eyes and paused in reading her painful words, and I wondered “what if,” among all the myriad other “what ifs;” what if there had been enough brave people to have placed a very different sign in the windows and gardens of every house in Gerda’s hometown of Ansbach, and throughout that bloody land, a sign that cried out to remind, “Jewish Lives Matter.” It is a fundamental truth that all lives matter, but sometimes we forget what that means, that it really means all lives. Then we need to remind of those who have been forgotten, marginalized and brutalized, as though their lives really don’t matter, that they don’t count in the same way as others. And so we remind that Black Lives Matter.

In the space between now and then, when we shall have emerged from the plague, is the time for a national reckoning. It is a time for a true census taking of people and values, a time to remind that each one counts and each one is counted upon, a time in which to affirm beyond words that every life matters. It is a time in which to insure that we do not simply slip back to the way we were. Such is the reckoning we are called to do, to realize that we can indeed reduce our carbon footprint; that we can live more simply, for the sake of earth and each other, now and for generations to come. We can channel the energy and commitment of alliances formed in horror to be a great movement for constructive change, reaching out even to those who would oppose until they realize it is for them too. Of inequities brought into painful focus by the pandemic, lives not mattering in realms of health care, of housing, of education, of criminal-justice, we can no longer say we didn’t know. Now is the time to consider what life will be like after the plague.

These are the lessons held in the Jewish liturgical cycle as we follow it in the present moment, and in the turning of Torah and its marking of time. In the midst of summer’s beauty and bounty, when life should be embraced in all its fullness, as in the coming of a pandemic with spring’s first blossoms, we enter a time called beyn ham’tzarim/between the straits. For three weeks we make our way through a period of semi-mourning as the fitting approach to Tisha B’Av/the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, day of mourning and fasting for the destruction of the Temples that represented the world, the beginning of exile, of lives not mattering among the nations. These weeks begin with the Torah portion called Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1), named for a violent zealot who saw the need to act, but in taking up the spear could not see a new way of acting.

Pinchas had sought to stem the dying, already at twenty-four thousand, in the face of what was as much a social as a biological plague, death brought on by the moral unraveling of a society. Taking a breath after the dying and the killing, not simply to go on, the words of Torah are stunning as read through the lens of this time, va’y’hi acharei ha’mageifa/and it came to pass after the plague… (Num. 26:1).
The lesson is brought home with anomaly, the stark setting of contrast between the way assumed to always be and what is called for now, bidding us then to look ahead. Immediately after the sentence begins with the words that stop us, and it came to pass after the plague, we are stopped in earnest, a wide swath of blank space opening before us on page and parchment.
Underscoring the anomaly, scribal notes emphasize that a space is to be left right there in the middle of the sentence. Shaken from complacency, stopped in the way of reading and living, we pause in the silent space to consider how to go on after the plague. When next we take up the telling, it is with a commandment to conduct a census, to take a count of the entire community, counting each one to underscore that each one counts, to know who has been lost to the plague and who will lead the way on a new journey.

The Or Ha’chaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar (18th century Morocco and Jerusalem), teaches that in the space of pause that comes after the plague is the tikkun/repair that joins what has been and what will be, repair enacted through the counting of each one. Of the collective formed of individuals, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom No’ach Berzovsky (20th century Poland and Jerusalem) emphasizes the significance of the census following the plague, poetically teaching that each of us is as one grain of dust, all joined together in the way of dust that forms earth that is filled with the potential to sprout new life: particles joining, cleaving, nursing/nurturing one from another/ha’gargarim m’chubarim u’d’vukim v’yonkim zeh mi’zeh, and in this way there is to the dust become earth the potential of sprouting new life/v’al’y’dei zeh yesh l’afar ko’ach ha’tzmi’chah.

          
In the garden of days and generations, it is the way of Gerda’s story, a dream to sprout new life, personal survival intrinsic to the survival of the people, each one needed, each one counted. As the opening to a new story, and it came to pass after the plague, it is for each of us now to fill in the blank space beyond with the quill of our deeds. A story once told in extremis of young people daring to dream, time and details changing, but in its dreams for a future equally promised, a story still meant to be simple and familiar, then to say, after the plague, and so it came to be.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 31, 2020

Like leaven in the loaf...


It is the season in Jewish tradition when the  Haftarot of Admonition are read - those texts from the prophetic voice that express warning and Divine displeasure with human behavior characterized by injustice, greed, and neglect of the needs of the poor, the orphan and the widow.

  
This morning, as our rabbi led us in thinking about the nature of prophecy and the prophet, she posed two different notions of what a prophet might be: one who “hears” the voice of God in an ecstatic state, such that what the prophet speaks are the word of God and not his or her own.  Such a person does not personally own the words given to him or her to speak but attributes them to the Holy One.

     A second notion posits that a prophet is one who engages with HaShem -perhaps even wrestles with the Holy One, so that the prophetic word that emerges is a collaborative effort between prophet and HaShem.  Isaiah and Jeremiah, classical prophets, might exemplify the former.  Moses, who interacted and engaged with HaShem as he sought divine inspiration for his leadership might be considered an example of the latter.


Following her  teaching, our rabbi invited us to think together about who we might recognize as a prophet in our time.  As might be expected, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first mentioned.  Others such as Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela were also lifted up.  Even the often prophetic voice of Bob Dylan made the cut.

What seemed very clear to me as the discussion unfolded is that we seem to always look for the “BIG” voices - the ones that move multitudes with their clear seeing and their vibrantly amplified messages calling for  justice and speaking truth to power.  And yet, as I listened to our rabbi and her rabbi husband speak, I saw even more clearly that the prophetic voice is not always or necessarily the booming one.   Both rabbis embody the prophetic voice as they faithfully draw our attention to the ancient texts that are so pertinent for us today.  They consistently focus our minds and our attention on the call of HaShem to live lives of holiness, committed to justice, to equity for all, and especially for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate health care and those most vulnerable to abuses in a systemically racist culture and criminal justice system.  They invite and help us to stand with the prophets of old.

What struck me even more powerfully was that in their faithful commitment to focusing our attention on the sacred texts, our rabbis are in the process of cultivating a “prophetic consciousness” in each one of us in the congregation, empowering each one of us to live prophetic lives in our own spheres of influence.
This is, of course, a much slower and less dramatic way of bringing human consciousness around to the place where it embodies the command to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”   But it is an inexorable force.  

Like the slow and hidden work of the yeast in a beautiful challah,  the steady focus on the prophetic words from the voices from our history shapes and guides our thinking and action in a world that might conclude that the age of prophecy is long gone.

 As the day progresses, I find myself wondering how much more quickly the age of “prophetic consciousness” might expand if we each listened with sharper minds and ears to what our rabbis and ministers and imams and priests might be trying to do as they fulfill their own prophetic calling to expose the words of the prophets, inviting us to fill ourselves up with them so that we, too, feel ourselves in that great rushing movement where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Vicky Hanjian