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

Friday, July 24, 2020

To Bravely Enter the Silence

What shall we make of these days? What are the lessons that we shall learn? To realize that we have the opportunity to make something of our experience and to learn from what we are going through is empowering. In the midst of a reality over which we have so little control, there are choices that are ours to make. The way that we choose to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves becomes its own way of giving personal shape to a collective experience that at times threatens to overwhelm. Are these days of isolation and separation simply an interruption in the flow of our lives? Or can this time be a bridge that joins our days, the days as they were before and the days that shall come after? In the silent space of solitary experience, and yet of common pause, how shall we each search out the lessons and insights that are ours to scribe on the parchment of our lives?

It is a teaching that comes not with words of Torah, but in the silence that lies between words, a silence lovingly held in the portion called Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1-11:47). So in love with Torah down to its smallest details, the ancient scribes counted every letter and every word of Torah. So it is that in the portion of Sh’mini we know that we have come to the very middle of the Torah as marked by both letters and words. Of the middle in letters, the very middle of Torah is the letter vav in Vayikra 11:42, the letter vav, a letter of joining one to another, the conjunction and, here writ large, standing out from the midst of a word. And soon before that, marking the middle of the Torah in words, two words taken together. Moses is searching. It is a painful search, angry, disjointed, space opening in which to calm.

        Moses has been searching, even frantically, for the goat of a sin offering, the goat meant to be ceremonially eaten by Aaron and his priestly sons as part of the rite of atonement on behalf of the people. Grieving for two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, struck down on a day of glory, killed before the altar for bringing “strange fire,” the very words suggesting mystery, the incomprehensibility of human tragedy, Aaron is not in a state of mind and heart to consider eating a sacred meal. Dispensing with ritual in the absence of intention, he consigns the entire offering to the fire instead. To his brother’s effort to explain the unexplainable, to give greater context as though to justify the unjustifiable, Aaron remains silent, va’yidom aharon/and Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3). Aaron’s silence points the way to a greater silence, the silence of the heart, the silence that is at the heart, that is the heart, silence that speaks louder than words.

As the scribes count the Torah’s words, we come to the very middle, to the heart of Torah. The middle is formed of two words that tell of Moses’ searching,
 darosh || darash/searching || he searched. Clearly, two words cannot form the middle of the Torah in words. The rabbis teach that darosh marks the end of the first half of the Torah, while darash marks the beginning of the second half of the Torah. The very middle of the Torah, therefore, is the silent space between the two words of searching. From that silent space, the very heart of Torah, we look back to search out all that has been, seeking to make sense, to distill wisdom; and we look ahead, searching out glimmers of the future as it disappears into the unknown, sparks of faith dancing on the edge of uncertainty.

From the silent space that lies between, whether experienced as a pause in the journey or as a part of the journey, how to be in that place is a matter of choice. It is unsettling, if not frightening, to be in a place of pause, a place in which there are no words to guide, only words to encourage us to search, to really search, darosh || darash. It is the place from which faith emerges if we tend its seed, watching over it, delighting in the gentle, joyful strength it gives. Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, 1855-1926, Rebbe of Sochatchov, known as the Shem Mi’sh’muel, teaches on the silence of this parsha, the silence of the silent spaces of Torah and life, d’mimah sh’murah al chizuk ha’emunah/silence protected is the strength of faith. In silence, faith is nurtured if we allow it to be. From generations earlier in the Chassidic line, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Rebbe Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilikov, grandson of the holy Baal Shem Tov, taught of the creative possibilities that might emerge from silence, teaching that from that silent place of seeking emerges great insights of torah she’b’al peh/Oral Torah, the teachings of human struggle and engagement with Torah and life. Similarly did his nephew teach, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, opening us up to the depths of Torah to be found in the challal ha’panu’i/the hollowed out space of time set apart, when we can either sink into the depths, or make music as from a hollowed reed that becomes a challil/recorder.

That is where we are in these days, choices offered as gifts, choices become a living line to grasp as we journey into the music of silence. Of silence framed by words of searching, these days can be of meaning if we allow them to be. For all of the pain and worry, the loss and fear, endeavoring to do all that we can to help each other, it is yet for each of us to bravely enter the silence of our own hearts, as the Torah beckons us to enter its own innermost heart and there to be with the silence. This is not a time apart, but rather it is part of the journey of life, a time that bridges what came before and what shall come after. As words of Torah, each one lovingly counted, the days that came before are precious, and so shall be the days yet to come, even more so when touched by faith freshly nurtured in silence.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, July 17, 2020

Earth's crammed with heaven...

The pandemic has led to a quieter life style in my little corner of the world. Sitting in the back yard I'm aware of the wind in the trees, the singing of the birds, even the buzz of a dragonfly or bee. Although there is more traffic noise a block away because of sixth street repairs, it doesn't normally drown out the more subtle sounds of the world of nature. That is, unless it's a passing motorcycle or a truck with a noisy exhaust. Those noises demand your full attention and leave little room for the subtle sounds of nature.     Given all the noises of normal life in our society, one wonders if we haven't deliberately increased our noise level to drown out the sounds of nature, providing us one more example of our dominance over it. Leaf blowers drive me crazy. Our lawn mower is much worse than the battery powered mower of our neighbor. Even our older air conditioner drowns out conversation near it.

Then too I think of the overwhelming sound of those B1-Bombers at Ellsworth Air Force Base. You will have to lip read the words of the person standing next to you. There's no way you can hear them with that overpowering noise. I suppose it's simply another way of emphasizing the nuclear load in the hold.


 I'm beginning to wonder the same thing about our night lights. Just try seeing the night sky amidst the street lights of the city. One could easily go their whole life in city streets without seeing the milky way in all it's glory; maybe seeing the moon occasionally, when the moon is full and the smog level is low.   I was reading where astronomers at the University of British Columbia are saying the milky way is made up of as many as 600 billion stars. They have concluded there may be as many as 6 billion earth like planets in our milky way galaxy. In order to be considered earth-like, the planet would need to orbit a sun, be about the same size as earth and be rocky. Maybe there are 6 billion earths!

 We may have a good, but unconscious reason, for fogging the night atmosphere. How small is earth! How insignificant humans are in the larger scheme of things! This "pale blue dot" is minuscule! It's hard for us to dominate a galaxy. Better to turn on the night lights and impair our vision.

 With each passing day, I become more convinced there is no "normal" to return to after this pandemic. It is sim[ply one of an ever increasing series of messages from the earth, that we need to change our ways. We are called to some revolutionary, some evolutionary changes, in our behavior.. Either we learn to live in harmony with some degree of humility with the natural world and each other, or we won't live at all. Dominance in relationships has never worked, whether between human beings or with nature. It is short-sighted and short-lived, at best.

 Many are beginning to "get it". We are part of nature. We are related in an intricate web with all other life. We aren't meant to be alone, separate individuals. Nor are we meant to rule over nature but rather relate to it. We are natural (nature) beings. We are social beings. We are part of larger relationships.     Look how younger people can't stay away from each other. They fill the beaches, the restaurants and the bars. Older people sit in forced isolation and depression, missing contact with friends and family. Children want to be back in the classroom, not to sit six feet from each other but to interact and have recess together. Teachers express exhaustion at teaching on line and organize drive-bys to have even modest contact with their students. Business people want to see their customers. Shoppers are anxious to hit the malls. Churches want to open and congregations are anxious to be together. Everyone seems anxious to be "outside," for a walk, a bike, a ride in the country or a hike in the woods.

 We are at a turning point in human history. Check it out at the WHO web site. This pandemic and its message is global! We can choose a socially constructive alternative to our rugged individualism (everyone and every nation is on their own) of the past. We can choose environmental consciousness and respect instead of the dominance and exploitation of the past.

 Elizabeth Barrett Browning says it well in her poem "For Those Who See." Take off your shoes!

 “Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Carl Kline

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Flag and the Sign to Remind, and a Simple Flower of Hope

Soft light plays on the rainbow flag that hangs in the porch window. Just beneath the flag is a Black Lives Matter sign, the one we take to demonstrations, the one without a wire stand. The dramatic interplay of color tells of Torah, the Torah of justice, Torat Chayyim/Torah of Life, of letters and parchment, Black fire on White fire, here in reverse. I hear the voice of Pete Seeger (of blessed memory) singing through time a children’s song, “Oh the ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write….” I hadn’t planned to put the flag and the sign together, but it seems so right. Coming home from a demonstration, I set the sign down on the windowsill beneath the flag. It happened to be just the right amount of space and it didn’t seem fitting to put the sign out of sight, even if there is another in the garden, the one whose wire base is set in the warm earth, justice waiting to flower. I had earlier taken a photograph of the sign in the garden, one single pink tulip in front of it bravely rising toward the light, the flag and the sign.

I gazed and reflected upon the flag and the sign on the fourth yahrzeit of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. Forty-nine people, mostly LGBTQ people of color, were slaughtered by the gunfire of one so filled with hate he could not see their humanity, nor his own. Forty-nine souls, each one counting and counted, as in the counting of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuous, counting days to remind that each one counts. All the more so, to remind that every person counts, that every person is of infinite value and meaning. Why is that so hard for us to understand and so to live? In the confluence of days, in the midst of so much pain, remembering them on their fourth yahrzeit came in the midst of the shiva days for George Floyd, the flag and the sign. And the flower reaches toward the light.

As we nurture flowers in the garden, helping each one to grow and become in its rising toward the light, so the flowering of each person’s light as we help each other to grow and become. It is a simple message conveyed through carefully calibrated language at the beginning of the weekly Torah portion called B’ha’alotcha (Num. 8:1-12:16). Moses is to instruct Aaron regarding the lighting of the menorah in the sanctuary. The common word to light, l’hadlik, is not used. The Torah’s language tells, rather, of much more than the ancient menorah, in your causing the lights to go up/b’ha’alotcha et ha’nerot, the seven lights shall shine toward the [center of] the menorah/el mul p’nei ha’menorah. Causing light to go up is the way of helping the light of another soul to shine, holding the light of our own soul’s caring near enough to encourage the other to rise and become, as in the way of teacher and student. It is the way of lighting Chanukkah candles; one flame held to another until the second ignites, two flames bursting into brightness, each rising together higher than one alone. Helping each other to shine, our light shines together toward the center, toward our common source, toward the Holy One in whose image all are created.

Forbear of all Torah commentators, Rashi asks from eleventh century France why the juxtaposition of lighting the menorah at the beginning of this portion with the bringing of gifts by the princes of each tribe at the end of the preceding portion (Num. 7). Rashi explains that it is God’s way of soothing Aaron as he is told how to enkindle the lights of the menorah, causing light to go up. As the kohen gadol/high priest, neither Aaron nor his priestly tribe was among those bringing gifts for the dedication of the sanctuary. These were the gifts that down to the smallest details were exactly the same from each tribe, no one wanting to outshine another, each seeking to uplift and celebrate the other. Downcast for his absence in this pageantry of equality, Aaron needs reassurance. Concerned for Aaron’s feelings, God tells Aaron to see the importance of his role, to see the importance of causing light to go up, even more precious than the bringing of physical gifts for the sanctuary.

As the physical is impermanent, light is eternal, a reminder of the human soul that is God’s candle in the world. The rabbis teach that the light of the menorah represents the primordial light of creation, the light of the first day that was called into being before the physical sources of light had been created, the sun, the moon, and the stars. That light could not be destroyed by hate and violence, not by the Babylonians nor the Romans. It is the light that is stored up for the future whose coming depends on us, on our turning of swords into plowshares, of enemies into friends, of hate into love. It is the light of peace and wholeness, the light of justice and fairness that will fill the world when we have learned to live together and help each other to grow and become. The instructions are not for Aaron now, but for all of us to become lifters of light.

It is hard to imagine such a time, and yet in the way of our coming together in these days perhaps an intimation, hope in the passion for justice rising. It was hard for Moses, too, to imagine such unity. The menorah was to be hammered out of one piece of gold, from its root-stock, to its flower, it is beaten work (Num. 8:4). There were to be three almond blossoms along each branch, flowers rising toward the light, all hammered out of one piece of gold. Seeing Moses’ confusion, God points and says ZEH/this is how to do it. Though challenging enough, it was not the physical challenge of fashioning the menorah from one piece of gold that so confounded Moses. It was the symbolic expression of unity represented by one unbroken piece of gold that offered the greater challenge, the implication of a common source from which all is formed. That remains the symbolic challenge of the menorah, one piece of gold meant to represent unity, all of us joined as branches, each offering of their light back to the common source, the trunk, all as branches on a great tree of light. In a powerful midrash, God shows Moses a vision of that menorah of unity; the Holy One showed him white fire, red fire, black fire, green fire, and from these God made the menorah…; God incised that image upon Moses’ hand, and said to him, ‘go down and make it according to the image on your hand…’ (Torah Sh’laymah, Midrash Tanchuma).

As we look through our fingers at the end of Shabbos toward the dancing light of interwoven wicks that form the Havdalah candle, may we see reflected upon our hands the menorah formed of fire, many hues to remind of each one’s light. As it was for Moses a sign of unity, so for us the menorah lights of a rainbow flag of fiery colors joined as one. Lifting up each other’s light on the menorah of life that is formed from one holy source, may we illumine the path toward the day that is all Shabbos, toward that time of harmony, of peace and justice flowering. So may we make of their memories the blessing of their lives, remembering on their yahrzeit the forty-nine who were killed at the Pulse nightclub, and George Floyd in this week of his shiva. As a blossom placed upon each branch of the menorah, tender, fragile, and beautiful, each of us is needed to raise up the light of another, the flag and the sign to remind, and a simple flower of hope rising toward the light.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 3, 2020

Power Over...Power With

There have been some rather stark and divergent responses on the part of police in recent days. In some places, you have seen police chiefs joining crowds of justice seekers as they presented their concerns at police stations and city halls. In others. police were kneeling as the throngs approached. In these instances, there were no face shields, no padded vests, no billy clubs, no tear gas. The police stood ready to hear, negotiate and support whatever changes were necessary to improve their community. It's called sharing "power with" the community, rather than exercising "power over" the community.

The other "power over" responses of police we have seen are always presented as more exciting and I guess "newsworthy." We've seen them day after day. Lines of militarized police, sometimes flanked by national guard, meeting the crowds with equipment that makes them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, with the rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and paintball guns. It's what the President calls "domination."

This distinction between "power over" and "power with" seems especially critical in our time. There are so many areas of our life where we can see this conflict in approach at work.

We see it in the home, where one party has to exercise power and control "over" all the others. As the pandemic has spread, so has domestic violence. When the world seems out of control, some seek even more control over the little world they inhabit.

Looking back on my childhood, I'm aware of how sharing was built into everyday life. I grew up wearing and sharing hand-me-down clothes and passing them on to my younger brother. Whatever toys and play things we had were shared, or should a fight break out, shelved. We all sat down to eat together as a family, sharing a common meal. We shared our home with my grandmother. I shared a bedroom with my brother. There was a household system in place where you learned to exercise "power with" others. If families today are broken, perhaps it's because we now have a closet full of clothes, a phone, a car, a bedroom, and a bank account for every child in the family. Where do we learn to share, to exercise "power with?"
     Power sharing is not always learned in our educational systems! There was a time when I tried to do "course contracting" with my college students. I happen to believe that everyone learns best in a system where there is little coercion, whether from a grade or an ideology. Someone once suggested educational institutions should be run like a public library. If you check out the book and don't read it, that's your loss. No one is going to test you on it. Maybe you will want to discuss it in a book club, but that will just help you in your understanding, not earn you a grade.

Course contracting didn't work very well. Students would contract for an A, recognizing the criteria and what they would need to do to earn it, then signing the contract. Consistently, because all of their other classes were grade centered and more demanding at any given time, my students would put off and/or neglect their contract. It was hard to compete in a "power over" system with a "power with" grading plan.

      It can be difficult to find power sharing in our economy. I have a young friend who has been quite specific about the kind of business model he prefers. It's one with as little hierarchy as possible, where decisions are made on the basis of consensus with those who work there. His belief, and mine, is that when you have a diverse group of people operating with a common purpose, the result of your work will be optimal. Shared power produces! There are entrepreneurs these days working on a "power with" model, but too few and far between.

Perhaps the most obvious and most destructive to the body politic is the "power over" in government. Most people in the federal government will likely admit that our two-party system is not working very well. Blame is the name of the game. One tires of hearing how the "other" party is making it impossible to do the people's business. Who would you nominate, from either party, as the most successful in Congress at reaching across the aisle? It's an understatement to say that antipathy to sharing power is not healthy in a democracy.

I'm aware there are many who have a conception of God as a domineering and sometimes violent parent. He is not beyond striking you dead for an unforgivable sin. If ever there was a "power over." for them, God is it! To those folks I'd like to suggest the definition in 1 John of God as love. See love at work in the natural world around you. See love at work in your family and larger community. See love at work in your church. See love at work in the stories in the Gospels. It's all about being "with," not "over." Get with it!


Carl Kline