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