Friday, June 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, June 19, 2020

One Body...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 12, 2020

Confederate Monuments,Pandemics, and Possibilities

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

Friday, June 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Victor. H. Reinstein