Friday, February 28, 2020

"Whatever you did not do for the least of these..."

I was reminded of Martin Buber the other evening as I was reading The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Discovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India. The book is about a delegation of Jewish Rabbis who make their way to Dharamshala, India to meet with the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. In both the Jewish and Buddhist delegations there are those who have serious reservations about meeting with these "others". Their understanding of their tradition and their past experience has taught them to be suspicious and cautious about relationships with those of other faiths.
       Eventually, because of the generous nature and hospitality of their host and the hard work of their Jewish organizer, genuine dialogue and mutual sharing begins to happen. They discover their shared stories, especially the common experience of their people in exile and suffering. They see the similarity of China's destruction of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and Jewish synagogues in Germany, or even the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans so many years earlier. They begin to discard the "I-It" stereotype that divided them at the beginning and start developing the "I-Thou" relationships of a Martin Buber.
       Buber was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times. I nominate him for one of the important writers I read in Seminary. Along with the likes of Reuel Howe, Eric Fromm, Paul Tournier, Paul Tillich and Victor Frankl, he helped me see my relationship to the other as a "thou," rather than as an "it."

And Phil Slater, especially in The Pursuit of Loneliness, helped me understand what it looked like when a society focused on the other as "it," subservient to privilege and power. Written in 1970, the following polarities describe the old and new cultures for Slater. "The old culture, when forced to choose, tends to give preference to property rights over personal rights, technological requirements over human needs, competition over cooperation, violence over sexuality, concentration over distribution, the producer over the consumer, means over ends, secrecy over openness, social forms over personal expression, striving over gratification, Oedipal love over communal love, and so on."
        One might say MAGA (Make American Great Again) is doing a good job of resurrecting many of Slater's old cultural values, and in the meantime making us all lonely in our cocoon of "it," safe and secure from those "others." 
        My most significant experiences of being treated like a "thou" have been in other lands, among the poorest of the poor. Once in India, I was an honored guest in a hut where I was served the evening's ration of family food, as my hosts watched with obvious pleasure. That evening the whole community celebrated our presence under the one light bulb in the center of the village square, with speeches and songs and prayers.     On another occasion in Nicaragua, I was given my own bed in one room, as the rest of the family of five shared the other bed and room in their two room home. My beans had the last of the meat, scraped from the one remaining bone. I was a "thou" with this family, even though my government was responsible for making them refugees in their own country.
        There's a new film out about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, a movement dedicated to making "thou's" out of those normally treated as "it's." Dorothy was someone who took the passage in the Gospel of Matthew seriously: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." The logo for the CW newspaper still includes the human line outside the soup kitchen, waiting to be fed, and the obvious aura above one person's head. In other words, when you serve others they should be treated as you would treat Christ, as a "thou," for that they are.
       Like reading the Beatitudes without the woes in the Gospel of Luke, Christians too often ignore the following verses in Matthew. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

I-It is about using. I-Thou is about Being. If we have the courage and the wisdom to practice hospitality for the "other," we may be surprised by our common stories and shared situations. We may even experience the God of love in our midst.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 21, 2020

To Build Connection in the Places of Our Common Vunerability

As I said goodbye to a visitor, a question was left with me, and so it has lingered. In a voice both perplexed and pained, I was asked, “Why is there such a negative view of Esau in our tradition, so much more negative than the Torah itself would suggest?” Esau, of course, is the brother of Ya’akov, the one from whom Ya’akov wrests both the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn. Long through the shimmerings of time and history, Esau, as Edom, comes to be associated with Rome, fierce oppressor of Jacob’s descendants. As in regard to so much strife in Torah, particularly in B’reishit, beginning with Cain’s killing of Abel as the first murder, much of the interpersonal strife and violence we encounter plays out in the family context, among those who are siblings. The first murder is fratricide, as every killing of one human by another has been ever since. The allusion becomes clear, all humanity are siblings, all children of a common Creator in whose image we are created, whose tears dampen the soil wherever we live in conflict with each other on this earth.

          A parent struggling to be lovingly present for each of his children, whether in fact blind near the end of his days or only willfully so, we are told of Isaac’s horror upon realizing that he has blessed his younger son with the blessing meant for the elder. Having returned from the hunt and having prepared a meal for his father, Esau weeps and cries out, the Torah telling of a broken soul, When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly loud and bitter cry, and then he said to his father: “Bless me also, O my father!” (Gen. 27:34). Of bitter tears and the cry of a wounded heart, we have already encountered the same pain in the father’s generation, the divide then between Isaac and his brother Yishma’el. As migrants cast out and wandering in the desert, the water carried by Hagar and her son is spent. The forlorn mother places her son in the shade of some desert brush.

       We are told that God heard the voice of the child and that an angel called out to his mother, saying, Do not be afraid, for God has already heard the voice of the child, there where he is/ba’asher hu sham (Gen. 21:17). Drawing on midrash, on the words there where he is, Rashi teaches that a person is to be judged by the deeds they do in the moment, v’lo l’fi mah she’hu atid la’asot/and not according to what they may do in the future. The place of that moment was and remains a place of human vulnerability, and therefore a place that offers the greatest potential for human connection. It is a place that reminds of the times when we are each in greatest need of human connection, times when we are parched in body and soul, times when we each thirst for love and compassion and can recognize such need in the other.

Holding up a mirror in which to see ourselves, the Torah now brings us to the weekly Torah portion called Vayetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3), along with Yaakov, to encounter Lavan, uncle of Jacob. Having already witnessed human vulnerability, we are reminded of our own as we come to see it in those we meet in the turning of Torah. Yaakov has fled his brother’s anger, arriving in Charan, there among his mother’s family falling in love at first encounter with Rachel.

He agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in order to marry Rachel. In the familiar story, on the wedding night Lavan presents the undoubtedly well-veiled bride, who in the morning Yaakov discovers is the elder sister, Leah. Yaakov confronts Lavan and says, What have you done to me…? Why have you deceived me…? Responding to the one who has also deceived, Lavan’s words drip with irony, It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder. We wonder how Lavan’s words touch Yaakov, whether they do in the moment of his own vulnerability, when he is the one deceived. The uncle’s words become a mirror in which Yaakov can see himself if he is willing to look, to gaze and reflect in all of his pain and vulnerability. Lavan’s words can also become a mirror for us if we are willing to look, to bravely accept an opportunity in which to gaze at aspects of ourselves that we may prefer not to see.

Through the years, Yaakov has grown abundantly, with his two wives, both Leah and Rachel, and with their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, becoming the father of eleven children, rich in herds and flocks. Twenty years having passed, he now seeks to return home to his family in Canaan. Well aware of Lavan’s jealousy and that of Lavan’s sons, Yaakov sets out a plan, coordinated with his wives in defiance of their father, to secretly flee. When the time comes and the great procession makes its way into the unknown, distance is put between them and the sure to follow retinue of Lavan. Eventually the distance is bridged, if not the hearts of fleer and pursuer, an encounter that is hard to imagine, wondering who would speak first and what to say to the other.

The Torah sets the stage for us, telling us of human vulnerability as the place of the encounter, a place beyond time and space, a place carried in each of our hearts. We are simply told, And Yaakov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramean in that he did not tell him, because he fled (Gen. 31:20). That is exactly what Lavan says just a few verses later, you have robbed my heart…; and you did not permit me to kiss my sons and daughters…! As with Yishma’el earlier, and then with Esav, the Torah brings us to a place of human encounter, holding before us emotions that we can understand because they are our own. In the context of Jewish law, beginning in the Talmud ((Tractate Chulin 94a), Jacob is wrong to deceive Lavan, however much we may understand his actions. Such deception is called g'neivat da'at/stealing of mind, accomplished when outer actions and spoken words belie inner feeling and intent. We are meant to ask, to wonder, what else might he have done; how differently might he have responded to the situation; how might he have directly engaged with Lavan to open the possibility of understanding and a different way of departure?

As we consider why such a negative view of Esau has developed in the tradition, so too with Lavan. We can surely draw negative inferences about both of them from the Torah text, but not at all to the extent of evil later ascribed to them. There is surely as much fault to find with Yaakov and others of our ancestors. My visitor’s question lingers, so why such a negative view as it plays out through time? Perhaps it emerges from our own vulnerability and pain, from our own experience as a people. That we might learn to break such destructive dynamics, Torah challenges us to think of our own lives and their contexts, of our own experiences with people. We are meant to ask what we might do to help foster reconciliation and the possibility of wholeness in all the varied ways of our own relationships with people as they occur in the living of our lives. The challenge for us then becomes how to avoid weaving new enmities and enemies from what are often scant threads of conflict as encountered in the texts of our lives.

        The Torah is meant to be a context in which to wrestle with life and its encounters, and so we are meant to wrestle here, as indeed Jacob will soon do. As we encounter people at their most vulnerable, however much they may seem to us to be “other,” we are able to see ourselves reflected in their pain. The negative portrayal of the other emerges, perhaps, through our own inability to look at what is most difficult to behold in our selves. Torah offers a context in which to wrestle, a place in which to ask hard questions of our selves and of each other as we seek to understand the Esaus and Lavans whom we encounter along the way of our lives. We come to ask how and why we create enemies, why we foster images of the other that allow us to continue seeing them as an enemy.

While my visitor’s question still lingers, in considering the negative images ascribed to others, may we bravely seek to build connection in the places of our common vulnerability. From the place of shared human pain, may we come to know the heart that would be shattered if that which was most precious to it was stolen, and in protecting from such sorrow may know shared human joy. So the rabbis asked, who is a hero of heroes/aizehu gibor she’b’giborim? And they answered, one who makes of their enemy their friend (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23).

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Go down Moses..."


                A couple of weeks ago, I had surgery to replace a faulty part of my right knee.  All went as expected and the recovery process is remarkably smooth and remarkably fast.   My first real  outings were to attend services at our local synagogue and church.  I was unimaginably touched by the tender care  and concern I received in both places.  Much prayer for a full and complete healing, offers of meals (which I readily accepted), tender visits from members of both congregations, lots of emails and phone calls with good wishes.  (This “double belonging “ really pays off in a crisis!)😁   At the synagogue there was sensitive “accompaniment” into and out of the building lest I stumble and fall.  My food appeared in front of me at the table during the Kiddush lunch that follows the service.

When I entered the church on Sunday morning, the pastor greeted me and suggested that I sit in the front pew so that I would have more room for my less than flexible leg.   My husband located a chair to place in front of me so that I could “elevate.”  Another church member walked by and glanced at the chair and commented “that’s way too high  and uncomfortable” and she quickly brought another chair that was a much better fit.  She looked again and said “you need a cushion under your leg” and promptly disappeared, returning a few minutes later to place a  wonderfully soft cushion under my leg.  Ahhhhh!   Just right.

I reflected on the caring I had received across the weekend services.  Some verses from Exodus (3:7&8) kept reverberating in my mind, words spoken by G-d to Moses in the conversation where G-d is  about to commission Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.   Robert Alter in THE HEBREW BIBLE: A Translation With Commentary renders the words this way: “ I indeed have seen the abuse of My people and its outcry because of  its taskmasters.  I have heard, for I know its pain.  And I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt and bring it up to a goodly and spacious land…” The Message  translation reads: “I’ve taken a good long look.  I’ve heard their cries.  I know all about their pain.  I have come down to help them, to pry them loose from the grip of Egypt.”   And one further variation from the New International Version: “I have seen their misery.  I have heard them crying out.  I am concerned.  I have come down to rescue…”

       The micro inevitably leads to the macro.  Pharaoh rules with a harsh and unkind fist gloved in the desire to limit Medicaid, requiring people to work in order to receive government health benefits, to reduce Social Security benefits, to cut food stamp programs, to maintain unconscionable wealth in the hands of the few while infrastructure deteriorates, white supremacy flourishes and  anti-semitism slithers openly once again like a toxic basilisk permeating the land with its foul, fatal breath.

And G-d says to Moses: “I have taken a good long look and seen their misery. I have heard their cries.  I have come down to help them - to pry them loose from the grip of Pharaoh.”  The action words have seemed to me to be a kind of formula for pastoral care - to see and hear and understand the pain of another - - and then to take action in the other’s behalf.  This is certainly what I experienced in my encounters in my beloved faith communities  where  people care for one another and observe each other’s vulnerabilities - - pay attention  - - and act to relieve sadness, pain, discomfort where they can - - where I was seen and attended to.

The election year is unfolding at a rapid pace.  In a still wide field of candidates, there is much uncertainty yet about who is most likely to unseat Pharaoh. The divine model provides a good gauge of character for figuring it all out - - can we elect a winning candidate who clearly sees the devastating pain of this country?  Is there one among the many who can hear the cries that surface among people too long denied justice and full participation in American life and government?  Is there one strong enough, attentive enough, compassionate and empathetic and savvy enough to pry us loose from the grip of Egypt?

Perhaps a more important question is “Are there enough of us who will listen to the challenge that is placed  before Moses to become the means through which the seeing, the hearing, the concern and the action are made manifest in the service of a greater wholeness for all?”  Time is short.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 7, 2020

Traveling Together Toward Wholeness

         I participated in a meeting recently in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston where many of my relatives lived and that I would often visit as a child, not far from where I live now in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The gathering was part of an ongoing effort to connect older and younger activists. Regardless of age, a greater bridging happened around the table, all of us coming to be joined across differences of race, neighborhood, faith, economics and all else that serves so often to divide. We talked about the very divides that at least for the moment seemed to be bridged among us. Reflecting on the neighborhoods of Boston and the surrounding communities, voice was given to the “avoidance of contact” that fosters implicit racism. Before long, as painful stories were shared by African American partners, what is often referred to as implicit racism seemed pretty explicit, the very terms of reference we use serving to paper over the deeper brutality of racism.

Fostering ongoing, day-to-day, meaningful contact among diverse communities remains one of the great challenges in the quest for racial and economic justice and equity. Laws mandating equality do not in themselves insure equity, and surely not contact with each other. The invidious politics of avoidance and separation run deep. The tragic and shameful legacy of redlining and blockbusting in the once Jewish neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan insured the separation of Blacks and Jews. At a conference I attended last June, an elder African American woman who had lived in these neighborhoods since that time cried as she lamented all these years later the separation of our communities.

          These are painful and personal realities for Jews. We have known so deeply what it is to be avoided, to be the other. We have known ghettos and we have known restrictions quietly practiced and kept in place to subtly insure that contact would be avoided. I remember as a child growing up in nearby Winthrop hearing the word “restricted” in regard to both Blacks and Jews. Sadly, at times, we have helped to facilitate such avoidance of others, as in the Jewish flight from the three neighborhoods. At times, our pejorative use of the word goyyim, a perfectly fine word meaning “nation” or “people,” has reflected a cathartic lashing out; and at times a reflection of racism imbibed and made our own from the ways of the society in which we sought to “make it.” At times our avoidance of others, however sad, has been understandable. Separation has been a way of keeping protective distance between our selves and those who would and did harm us. So too, as for many minorities, separation insured a way of maintaining our own distinctive ways and identity, offering a hedge against assimilation.

Prior to the meeting in Dorchester, at which these were all such real questions, I had already been thinking about “avoidance of contact,” of what it means and how and why it happens. It is a question that plays out with painful and poignant consequences in that week’s Torah portion that is called Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43). As Yaakov makes his way home to his family, he knows that he will need to encounter his brother Esav, that one way or another a reunion will happen. After twenty years away, having fled his brother’s anger and threat to kill him for stealing the elder brother’s birthright, he now approaches the fateful encounter. Wrestling through the night, whether with an angel, with God, with the spirit of Esav, with himself, he struggles with all that has been and all that shall be. Refusing to let go of his adversary, he is struck on the hip and wounded, limping now toward wholeness. He is told that Esav is approaching with four hundred men, clearly armed, the danger seeming clear. Yaakov prepares a plan, arranging his family into cohorts, each to approach Esav ahead of him, each bearing gifts meant to appease. As the plan unfolds, suddenly Yaakov runs as fast as his limp will allow, making his way past the cohorts into which he has divided his family, making his way to the front, there to face Esav alone, no longer avoiding contact. The two brothers fall into each other’s arms and weep, and Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, fell upon his neck and kissed him; and they wept (Gen. 33:4).

It is a powerful and beautiful moment, the past carried away on a stream of tears, the brothers bathed as though in a mikveh/ritual bath of hope. That poignant moment in the text of Torah is not allowed simply to be, and nor are the brothers allowed to remain in their embrace. The word for kissed/va’yishakehu is dotted in the Torah text, a small dot above each letter, even on the parchment of the holy scroll itself. Some interpret the dots to mean that Esav’s kiss was insincere, while others take it at face value, joining his kiss with his tears, weeping seen as more assuredly genuine and harder to effect. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes from nineteenth century Germany, “Tears emanate from the inmost depths of the human soul. By this kiss and these tears we recognize that Esau is still a descendant of Abraham.”

For all that should join the two brothers, when the time comes to move on from the moment of reunion, Yaakov declines Esav’s suggestion that they travel together. It is for me a deeply sad moment in Torah, one whose consequences continue to reverberate as we seek our way in a world torn with divisions. Yaakov says, Let my Lord, please, pass on before his servant, and I will continue to move at my own quiet pace, in accordance with the pace of the herds… and the pace of the children (Gen. 33:14). It is a beautiful thought and image to travel at the pace of the children, but it becomes clear as Esav suggests at least leaving some of his men for protection that Yaakov is seeking to avoid further contact with the other. In this case, the other is part of himself, his twin brother. Perhaps that is precisely the message that we are meant to learn here, that whenever we avoid the other, we are avoiding part of our self.

In a beautiful teaching from nineteenth century Poland, the Ha’emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, appears to share my sadness with Yaakov’s response to his brother, offering a gentle challenge and reminder that we can yet take another approach. Addressing us, he writes, and so for the generations, in a time when the seed of Esav awakens in pure spirit to recognize the seed of Israel…, then we too awaken to recognize Esav, for he is our brother…. Across time and neighborhoods, no longer avoiding contact, may we recognize each other as the siblings we are, traveling together then toward wholeness.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein