Friday, April 24, 2020

Trouble In Paradise

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the controversy over when to re-open the economy that is unfolding across the country would surface here in our small community as well.  We are a bit of a microcosm sitting in the often choppy Atlantic waters off the mainland coast.    Businesses here are shuttered and suffering.  The usual spring sounds of pneumatic nail guns and power saws, the smells of paint and lacquer, the traffic of pick-up trucks that all signal the onset of the pre-season spruce-up are missing.  The re-opening of shops on Main Street and Circuit Ave. is not happening.  As in so many cities around the world the streets look like a scene from “On The Beach”, a long ago post-apocalypse movie that portrayed a planet devoid of human life, even though all the buildings remained intact.

As patience wears thin and uncertainty about whether there will be a summer “season” looms, it is hard to know what the best wisdom is for moving ahead.  The exchanges in the local paper, pro and con, relative to the planning of an "open the economy" rally at a major intersection have been heated and often mean-spirited on both sides of the arguments.

Curiously, as frequently happens, the text our little Torah study group is reading seems highly pertinent after nearly 3000 years.  The 13th chapter of Leviticus is full of conversation about how to deal with various skin afflictions, diagnosis, treatment, quarantine - - it’s all there.  Not pleasant reading, it requires a bit of discipline to revisit this book year after year.   And each year, we are reminded again by rabbinic commentators that the tradition holds that skin afflictions are a manifestation of “the evil tongue” - lashon hara.   A proof text appears in Numbers 12 in the story of Miriam speaking unkindly of Moses to her brother Aaron and subsequently developing a skin condition which results in her being quarantined  outside the camp for 7 days.  Her failure to address her brother, Moses, directly, rather than airing her complaints to another person about him is identified as lashon hara and the connection is  made between her words and her skin condition.

It is small wonder then that the rabbinic commentators had strong opinions about the issue of the use of the tongue in negative ways.  In his essay titled “Words That Heal” * Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The Rabbis said some severe things about lashon hara.  It is worse than the three cardinal sins -idolatry, adultery, and bloodshed -combined.  It kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one of whom it is spoken, and the one who receives it.

          We are inundated with the “evil tongue.”  It seems to be the predominant way in which we communicate our fears, our dissatisfactions, our needs to be right, our need for power when we feel helpless.  It is most demonstrable and visible at the highest levels of government.  It is fascinating to observe how leaders at the state level, governors in particular, struggle to soften, perhaps antidote, and compensate, for the conflict laden effects of  lashon hara that makes their jobs even more difficult as we try to find our way through the murky complexity of an envisioned return to “normal.”  It is no wonder that it has been said that  “do not bear false witness” is the commandment most frequently broken and most difficult to keep.

Rabbi Sacks passionately argues: “I believe we need the laws of lashon hara now more than almost ever before. Social media is awash with hate.  The language of politics is ad hominem and vile.  We seem to have forgotten that (the ancient texts) are here to remind us that: evil speech is a plague.  It destroys relationships, rides roughshod over peoples’ feelings, debases the public square, turns politics into a jousting match between competing egos and defiles all that is sacred about our common life. It need not be like this.”

Sacks invites his readers to view  “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, the film that offers a glimpse into the life and influence of Fred Rogers, for a real life portrayal of how good speech can heal where evil speech harms.  Surely good viewing during a weekend (at least in southern New England) that promises to be gray and rainy. 

May we enter each day with a commitment to offer words that heal in a world desperately in need of healing and wholeness.

Vicky Hanjian

*The full text of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks essay "Words that Heal" may be found at

Friday, April 17, 2020

Calling to One Another Across Time and Distance

There is much calling out these days, calling to neighbors and friends from afar, picking up the phone and checking in with people we may not have been in touch with for a while. There are people I find myself speaking with through one medium or another with whom I would probably not be in touch if it weren’t for the situation we find ourselves in during this time of the Coronavirus. Calling out across time and distance, we are making connections, nurturing connection as an antidote to the loneliness of isolation. Hearing another’s voice and feeling touched by a call, we are able to find pause from our own ruminations and feel grounded in the caring concern of another.

            When our own hearts are heavy, it can be hard to give voice to hope, to find our own voice at all. In going through a hard time collectively, a time that is universally difficult, we know that we are not alone in moments of fear and worry. As in the steps of a sacred dance, the dance of life, one person steps in and another steps out, part of a grand design, the lesson in the turning of generations, each one with a time to give, each one with a time to receive. In a time of shared distress, we can know with certainty that we are not alone with our worry, the calling of another to remind and open up the way of sharing. In the turning of the circle, days and weeks unfolding, we alternate, times when we are feeling stronger and able to reach out to another, asking of how they are, giving strength. And there are times when we feel weaker, needing to be lifted up by another, so the nature of giving and receiving, steps in the dance. It is always true, but now even more, calling to one another across time and distance, connecting.

It is the dynamic with which the third book of the Torah begins, Vayikra/Leviticus, opening with the portion that is also called Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), its very first word, vayikra, setting the tone for the entire book. Through the lens in time of this year’s reading, it becomes the Book of Calling: Vayikra el Moshe/And (God) called to Moses. Circling through this portion, interweaving through the entire book, as in the dance of life itself, an ebb and flow of distance and nearness, yearning ever seeking resolution in return to each other. Expressed in ways both foreign and familiar, offerings of animals as a means to draw people near, the sharing of a sacred meal, that is the goal and the hope, that we be near to each other and to God, near even in distance, ever striving. The motif of Vayikra as the Book of Calling is expressed in the word for offering/korban. It is formed of the root karov/near, close. It is what we need, what we seek, especially in times as this when even for a greater good we need to be physically distant from one another.

          Of time and Torah turning, Moses is downcast at the outset of the Book of Calling, feeling distant and apart. At the end of the Torah’s second book, Sh’mot/Exodus, God’s presence has filled the Tent of Meeting upon its completion and Moses is no longer able to enter at will: Moses was no longer able to enter the Tent of Appointed Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Dwelling Place (Ex. 40:35). Even as God needs comforting at times, now it was for God to call out to Moses, faithful friend of God and people. Seeking to give strength and comfort, to reassure, God calls out, VAYIKRa el Moshe/and God called to Moses. By tradition, the aleph that is the last letter of the word is written small, an expression of how Moses feels in this moment, downcast and small in spirit. God calls, and then God speaks and then God says, three verbs of connection, of reaching out, all in one short verse. Most often, God speaks and Moses hears, and then Moses conveys to the people what God has asked. In this moment something more is needed, connection first and then content.

As Rashi (10th century) explains, drawing from the deep well of earlier teaching, in the way of God’s calling, Moses is given space in which to pause and to reflect, liten revach l’moshe l’hit’bonen/to give Moses space in which to discern. Only then does God speak, and then say, helping Moses to realize that in truth he is not alone. It begins in calling out, in forming connection, the calling itself meant to open the heart of one who is cast down, reminding of another’s caring presence. It begins with making connection. Such is the gentle teaching in a commentary called Siftei Chachamim/Lips of the Wise (a 17th to 18th century commentary by R. Shabbtai Bass that builds on Rashi): God does not speak with him suddenly, but rather at first calls him, Moshe, Moshe, and says hineni/I am here.

Interwoven with cycles of nearness and distance, the third book begins with a calling out, an expression of presence, the Book of Calling, to say to another, I am here/hineni. Such calling, Rashi teaches, is the language of love/lashon chibah. The Apta Rov, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, ancestor and namesake of our Rabbi Heschel, known as the Ohev Yisroel, teaches on God’s calling to Moses, ki al’y’dei k’ri’ah na’aseh shiluv/for through calling is formed connection.

Of connection formed between Heaven and earth, that very possibility affirming human worth and the holiness of our relationships with each other, the dynamics sing out in chorus from the title itself of our Rabbi Heschel’s book, “God in Search of Man.” In God’s need for us, no less than our need for God, there is dramatic reminder of the reciprocal and reciprocating role between the caller and the called. If God needs us, then surely we need each other. In the way of Martin Buber’s teaching of I-Thou, each one is a precious partner, each one needed.

              During this time of physical distance from one another, we need not be separate. We need each other all the more. We can yet be very close, karov, if we would but call out to one another, reminding of our presence. Across time and distance, connection is a way of comfort and reassurance. Each one of us shall at times feel down and distressed, the one needing to be called. Each one vulnerable, without fear or shame, there is only to smile at being human. And at other times, each of us shall be the one to call out to another, our own voice the balm to soothe away loneliness and despair. In the blurring of the holy and mundane, in the way of that old artifact called a phone book, the way of the third book of Torah as the Book of Calling to remind, the Rabbi of Apta teaching across time, through calling is formed connection. As God called out to Moses, so may we call out to each other, saying in the way of love, hineni/I am here….

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, April 10, 2020

Healing in progress???

        This morning I decided to take a retreat day after a rich immersion in Zoom meetings yesterday.  It all began with a time of Mindfulness Meditation at 7:30 AM, continued with a 1PM virtual Torah study group, enjoyed with friends from Cambridge and Israel in attendance and then on to a 5PM second night seder celebrating Pesach virtually with our Jewish community from all over the world, winding down with a  7:30PM Tenebrae service with our church community as we entered the contemplative vigil of Good Friday.   It was an exhausting abundance of good things.

So today is a  quiet day.    I spent some time ordering my desk and my “plague” workspace where so much communication and connecting is taking place via phone and computer.  Gave a bit of attention to cleaning up the kitchen.  I set the compost bucket near the back door before taking it out to the bin.  As  I turned away from it, the sun burst through the clouds, illuminating it in an almost ethereal way.   Decaying melon rinds and orange peels, the remains of a teabag,  some withered salad greens - and suddenly I was contemplating a holy process in action.

There has been so much time and energy and concern and fear and frustration and anger in the airways drawing my attention to the COVID 19 phenomenon that it is extremely easy to forget that there are other natural processes at work, restoring order and healing just outside my conscious awareness.

I emptied the compost into the bin and, thanks to the recent film documentary, Fantastic Fungi,  took time to peer into the process going on there.  An orange peel semi-wrapped in a furry blue and white jacket; some shriveling branches of forsythia that had brought their sunny beauty indoors a week or so ago;  something else green and slimy -no longer recognizable, all more visible thanks to that film  that calls attention to the work of the mycelium that are continually in action, breaking down matter, renewing the soil, healing the earth - - how they are networked and interconnected and working silently in our behalf all the time.

On my way back from the compost bin,  the wind drew my attention - a soft roar in the pine branches overhead and I became aware of the trees surrounding me as witnesses - strong, flexible, undeterred in their silent way,  as they reassure me that  storms can be weathered if I can maintain a bit of my own flexibility.  Their resilience in the wind inspires a bit more confidence as I continue on the path to my back door.  Even the stump of a long deceased tree stands as a mute witness to the continual process of change and decay and transformation that is going on all the time all around me.  

So I draw on the traditions that nourish me.  I feed on the sacred texts, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist,  that connect me with history, with hope and with the reminder of the impermanence of all things.  I am a very small part of the massive ongoing process of creation - - and creation continues!

I have also drawn some perspective from these all too contemporary thoughts  attributed to  Kathleen O’Meara, writing post famine in Ireland in 1869, that are now circulating in the ethers:
“and the people stayed home
and read books and listened
and rested and exercised
and made art and played
and learned new ways of being
and stopped
and listened deeper
someone meditated
someone prayed
someone danced
someone met their shadow
and people began to think differently
and people healed
and in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways,
dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
even the earth began to heal
and when the danger ended
and people found each other
grieved for dead people
and they made new choices
and dreamed of new visions
and created new ways of life
and healed the earth completely
 they were healed themselves.

May we each find the reminders we need to keep us resilient.  May we notice the hidden mercies that abound in creation.  May we be healed.  May we be the wounded healers the world needs to heal herself.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 3, 2020

Toward Healing and Wholeness

Toward Healing and Wholeness
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

           From out of brokenness, there can emerge a great light. As through cracks in the sidewalk, tree roots rising toward the light, and as little flowers breaking through hard ground, we too can rise through cracks in the certainty of how we assumed life would simply be. Rising toward the light of new insight, we can embrace new strengths, fear softened by the blessing of newfound humility. These are hard times and we are unsure, afraid before the unknown. So much has come to a standstill, so much has been cancelled, our lives rearranged and turned upside down, all beyond our power to determine even the details of day to day.

For ourselves and for children in our lives, it seems to me important to take agency for that which we can do in these days of the Coronavirus. First of all to take care and be careful in all the ways we are told will help in reducing susceptibility to disease. How shall we give shape to the new insights that emerge? First of all, what are the insights that come to us? Perhaps it would be helpful to write them down and make of them meditations in shaping our days. What are the strengths we find within ourselves, and creative ways of filling time, imagining with our children things to do to bring joy to ourselves and to others? If working from home, perhaps to envision a better way of work-life balance than we are often able to act upon.

One of the greatest ways of healing and responding to stress and danger is to reach out to others and to act for a greater wellbeing. That is at the root of all activism for the sake of a better world, how to act on behalf of others, to look beyond ourselves. As we seek and share ways to respond to the needs of those more vulnerable in our own community, reaching out is a way of connecting from house to house and heart to heart. We can all become weavers of invisible threads of connection, gossamer strands that in their fragility join us with all the strength of soul and spirit. We can just call someone and say hello, how are you? It is so simple, but we rarely do it. Now is the time to act on new insights and needs.

In terminology that many of us are hearing for the first time, there are great teachings and lessons. I shudder at the thought of “social distancing,” even as I understand what it means and why it is important, keeping enough physical distance among us now in an effort to prevent unwitting spread of the virus from one to another. In social distancing, which happens in negative ways all the time, the challenge is to think of deeper ways to be close to each other. Social distance between one group and another, whether in matters of race, of power, of gender, and all the ways that divide, needs to be bridged if we will come to a great healing as a society. So we can imagine in this time of separation for the sake of a greater good, how shall we come together and bridge the social distance that is always there but not spoken of? So it is in hearing of ways to spread out the timing of the virus striking, the importance of “flattening the curve.” With a new term by which to speak of a quest for greater health and protection for the vulnerable, so for all the disparities which cause some to be more vulnerable all the time. The challenge beyond the moment is to “flatten the curve,” even as we strive to bend the arc toward justice.

There are lessons to be learned now from the unique reality of a disease that threatens the human family. We are all threatened, susceptible across all borders and differences, reminding us that in the most basic ways of human biology we are all one. The Coronavirus does not distinguish based on race, or religion, or place of national origin. It does not distinguish between rich and poor or the folk and the famous. It does not respect borders, nor distinguish between migrant and citizen, vulnerable human beings all. An invisible virus is joining nations one to another in common concern, collective danger begging for a collective response and sharing of resources. All are equally vulnerable, neither military might nor economic power offering protection. In the way of the Biblical sabbatical year, when rich and poor, land owner and migrant, foraged for food shoulder to shoulder in ownerless fields, so too we are all in the field together foraging for a cure, seeking the way of health and healing. It is our challenge now, if ever it was, to learn and apply in positive ways the ultimate lesson of the Coronavirus, that humanity truly is one.

From house to house and heart to heart, beginning with our own community, we seek ways to bridge the distance and to remember that we are one. In being responsible for each other, we affirm the way of health and healing, of wholeness that emerges through the brokenness of this time. Though we are not meeting together in our communal homes of worship, we can be joined with each other through the personal prayers of each one that surround us all. In whatever way our words form, or in silent meditations of the heart, in teardrops that tell of the inner places from which they’ve come, in praying for one for another we are joined even more deeply than when present in the same holy space. As needs among us become clear, and requests for volunteers are made, we respond to help in whatever ways we can. In the new reality of “social distancing,” we can learn new ways to diminish social distance and become a greater whole, each one needed and each one valued as part of a holy community that lives beyond walls.

That is the message at the beginning of the weekly Torah portion Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:11-34:35). The portion begins with the law of the half-shekel/machatzit ha’shekel. Every person is to give but a half-shekel, a very small amount so that every one can give and be counted, thus, the rich shall not give more and the poor not less…. The Torah speaks of the half-shekel as a way to prevent the plague/negef from striking among us, negef as plague or disease. So it becomes real in teaching a deeper truth in the way the giving of a half-shekel evolves over time. It becomes in effect a communal tax in which all are obligated to give for the sake of the community. That each one is but a half becomes a teaching on the deeper truth of the original purpose in the giving of but half a shekel. We are each only a half and we need each other to be whole. We cannot ward off disease in a magical way, but as a community supported by each of its members, we can protect each other from the loneliness and fear that becomes its own plague in the face of the unknown.

          Each one’s prayers are needed, as each one’s presence. When we help each other, presence is never virtual. A reminder that we need each other, in our incompleteness is our beauty and our strength. In the brokenness of this time, may great light emerge and illumine a new path toward healing and wholeness.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein