Friday, August 28, 2020

Each to Soar Like the Swallow, But in their Own Way

Thoughts come unbidden, not always clear from where, like a bird on the wing, only to delight in their willingness to alight. Words of Torah danced before me, seeming to have a life of their own, which they do, finding it difficult to focus, to take them in, to make sense beyond the surface, beyond the familiar. A tune began to emerge, and then words coming to consciousness, Dona, dona, dona, dona…; and then more, as I found myself singing softly and crying, on a wagon bound for market, there’s a calf with a mournful eye, high above him flies the swallow winging swiftly through the sky…. As in a time warp, long years gone, I was sitting in a camp circle of a summer’s night around the campfire. We were singing a song that has become part of the Jewish folk canon, and beyond, through the early singing of Joan Baez. It is a song filled with contradictions, tensions that did not touch me then, only the yearning and the beauty, the unfairness and the irony. The flames danced before us, the sound of a guitar; many voices as one, wholeness in the circle.

My eyes opened, as I alighted back at my desk, blinking, wondering still how it is that I had taken such flight. Through prism tears drying, I began to focus on the verse before me, u’kratem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveha/and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10). There, in the weekly Torah portion, a double portion called B’har-B’chukotai (Lev. 25:1-27:34), a verse familiar to all as holy words incised into the Liberty Bell, I saw the still quivering branch from which I had taken flight. The word for liberty, dror, is a word of layered meaning. It means “liberty,” as in the freedom to take flight, to be free like a bird. And that is its other meaning, dror, a sparrow, a swallow…. I began to understand the thought that had come to me, carried through time on the word for liberty that can mean bird, as in sparrow or swallow; swallow, that was it, as in a long ago camp song and a circle of wholeness.

The refrain in the song is not one of wholeness, words that disturbed me long ago: How the winds are laughing, They laugh with all their might, Laugh and laugh the whole day through, And half the summer’s night…; Dona, dona, dona, dona…. “How cruel,” I thought, “why would the winds be laughing so, rather than crying?” The tears that I had cried in flight through time were for both the wholeness and the brokenness, each remembered and felt again; warmth beyond the fire that touched an impressionable soul, the injustice of inequity, a bird so free, a calf bound on an altar as wagon bumping along through time; a later image of cattle cars unmistakable in the weeping mists of time. The song was originally published as a Yiddish theatre song in 1941, though I don’t know if there was a conscious association with our people then as calves bound for the slaughter.

So it has ever been, wholeness and brokenness in painful dance, the swallow above, the bound and fettered below, the swallow calling us to sing its song of liberty. That is the call that we are meant to hear, that the Torah calls us to hear, proclaim liberty throughout the land…. It is a song of health, of wholeness, of justice. Whether heard through the song of Torah, or as the peal of a great wounded bell with a crack in it from the very beginning, the call to justice is heard more often than not in the breach. The context of the Torah’s call is one of wholeness, brokenness too in the portion, but not to laugh, only to sing for each one’s freedom, not mine alone, nor yours, but freedom for all together. The Torah sets out a plan to remind for whom the bell tolls, that it tolls for all of us, whether all shall be broken or all shall be whole, in the sacred cycle of seven, “free at last, free at last, thank God a'mighty, we are free at last….”

The call to proclaim liberty throughout the land follows immediately on the commandments for marking the seven-year cycle that brings us to the Sh’mita/Sabbatical year, when the land is to lie fallow, given its rest from all human use and abuse. In the seventh year, people, too, given rest from use and abuse, all to be free at last. There is to be no planting and no harvesting for gain, only to gather from the fields what grows of itself to sustain; landowner and stranger gathering together, rubbing shoulders as equals, aware now that the earth is the Lord’s. And in the fiftieth year, to the sound of a great shofar, seven cycles of seven complete, land to return to original owners, debts released with release of the land, each one to return to family and home, at peace, a great circle by the fire.

In the tension between the whole and the broken, the free and the bound, neither we, nor the farmer understands. It is not to be one or the other, nor of blaming the bound; “Stop complaining,” said the farmer, “Who told you a calf to be? Why don’t you have wings to fly with, Like the swallow so proud and free?” Dona, dona, dona, dona…. The Torah’s call is expansive, in proclaiming liberty each of us is to feel the burden of the other’s chains, to cry and then to fly: Calves are easily bound and slaughtered, Never knowing the reason why, But whoever treasures freedom, Like the swallow must learn to fly…; Dona, dona, dona, dona….

The message of Torah, for this time and always, is that we must learn to fly together if all are to be free. On our verse, Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants, the essence is brought home, brokenness merging into wholeness, in a remarkable teaching of Rabbi Ya’akov Yehoshua Falk, the P’nei Yehoshua (1680-1756): It does not say for all of its slaves, but “for all of its inhabitants,” for in a state in which there is no freedom even for the least of its inhabitants, all its inhabitants are enslaved. We experience freedom only when there is no slavery at all in the state. Slavery is a plague that afflicts both the slave and the master as one…. Thus, “and you shall proclaim liberty to all its inhabitants,” for through the liberation of the bound, all inhabitants of the state shall become free. The Torah’s call for freedom as shuttled forth by the P’nei Yehoshua is a universal call carried through time on wings of the human spirit. It echoes through the Civil Rights movement, giving voice to other calls for liberation, words of Fannie Lou Hammer, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free;” and similarly of Rev. Martin Luther King; and so the earlier call of Emma Lazarus, as though commentary on the broken chains upon Lady Liberty’s feet,
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

It is that of which the sacred cycles of seven are meant to remind, freedom cannot be for one, but only for all, rubbing shoulders as equals in the fields of life. Through the lens of this time, in the harsh light of plague and pandemic, we see in stark relief the inequities that belie the verse upon the liberty bell. We see clearly now that all are not equal throughout the land and all are not free, and so none of us are. To proclaim liberty is to tear down the walls of injustice that block the vulnerable and disenfranchised from entering the fields, the migrant, the poor, peoples of color, the undocumented, the Bible’s orphan, widow, and stranger. In the prophetic reading paired with the portions of B’har B’chukotai, the prophet Jeremiah (17:11, 14) offers challenge to those who think by their privilege they are free, one who gathers riches but not by right shall leave them in the midst of their days…. For the sickness that plagues society as it does the human body, Jeremiah then pleads, r’fa’eni hashem v’eyra’fey/heal me, O God, then I shall be healed; help me, then I shall be helped, for You are my praise!

May healing come to all of us, healing of body and spirit, of individual and society. When this plague finally lifts, may we all have a place in the circle, all to be warmed equally by the fire, each one celebrated for their own being and attributes, each to soar like the swallow, but in their own way. How mightily the winds will laugh then, only for joy.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

No graven images...

Years ago I learned what I call the onionskin theory of racism. The theory says that when one grows up in a culture that has its roots in racism (stealing the land and killing the first people as "savages"; enslaving black & brown people as less than human), even if you come out of a home that was accepting and respecting of everyone no matter the color of their skin, you still need to peel back the layers of the onion of racism, one by one.

People often have trouble distinguishing between racism and racial prejudice. You can be accepting of everyone, be non judgmental no matter their color, and still be a racist. Racism is an "ism." Racism is structural. Its embedded in our history and in our culture. It often lurks below the surface of white awareness. It appears in myriad ways, sometimes in what are called micro-aggressions. "Why is your hair like that? May I touch it?"

Then of course there are so many major-aggressions. Why are so many native persons incarcerated beyond their percentage in the population? According to the CDC, they are more likely to be killed by police than any other minority group. For every 1 million native americans, an average of 2.9 died annually from "legal intervention." That rate is 12% higher than for black folks and 3 times the rate for whites. Then again, why  are so many black men stopped by police because they "fit the description" given by a white woman? Why do so many end up dead for minor infractions?

          The demonstrations around the country, and most recently on the road to Mount Rushmore, are an attempt to wake us up to the racism entrenched in our society, especially in our history. Seriously, folks! How many knew that Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was friendly with the KKK and received some funding from them for his work. How many knew that this immigrant was concerned about a "mongrel horde" replacing people of "Nordic" purity?
 What about President Thomas Jefferson? If he's going to be a graven image in the mountains of South Dakota, shouldn't we at least recognize that he was a slave holder and an adulterer? History records that he had a long term sexual relationship with one of his slave women, Sally Hemings, and fathered her six children.

The indigenous of this area often remind us that for them Abraham Lincoln was not just the great emancipator. He also oversaw the largest mass hanging in our history the day after Christmas in1862. That was the day he ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men at Mankato, Minnesota.

We are being asked to remove another skin from the onion, a piece of our racist history. Some communities are deciding to remove confederate monuments. The military is prepared to re-name some of their facilities. South Dakota saw the wisdom in changing Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills and named after a General responsible for a massacre of indigenous women and children at Blue Water Creek, to Black Elk Peak, after a celebrated Lakota holy man. We are being asked to recognize the failings of our past, confess our sins, seek forgiveness, and where necessary, enact some kind of restorative justice. For a nation that considers itself a "Christian" nation, what's so hard about that? I was under the impression that was a commonplace process, recommended in Scripture and the larger Christian community.

The point is, people see different realities when they look at those faces in stone on Mount Rushmore. Ditto when it comes to our present "leaders." When President Clinton was in the oval office, some believed his sexual misadventures were enough to remove him. Many of those same folks have given the current occupant a mulligan, even though he was quite explicit about how he objectifies and treats women. One wonders if political ideology isn't influencing one's religion, rather than the other way around.

           Some religious communities were quite explicit at Standing Rock of dis-owning the "Doctrine of Discovery." That was the religious manifesto issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. it was the spiritual, legal and political justification for seizing land and colonizing inhabitants who were not "Christians." It's a racist layer of the onion many others who call themselves Christians have failed to peel away. They still feel called by God, if not the Pope, to colonize the globe for Christ and the historical, American way of life. They want to make America great again, like in the times of those figures on Mount Rushmore.

We need to heed the second commandment. We don't need to worship the past or make graven images of our heroes. They all fall short of the glory of God, found just for the looking in those sacred Hills. We need not be afraid to peel back the layers of racism. Each layer lost helps us get to the deeper, inner source of life, at the center of the onion and us.

Carl Kline

Friday, August 21, 2020

See The Haloes

A poem jumped out at me as I was reading my latest issue of The Sun. It was titled "The Pandemic Halo" by Jim Moore. In the poem, the narrator sees a halo around the head of a dog, a nurse and a depressed young man. A halo is a sign of holiness, even amidst great suffering and grief. We see it so often in paintings over the heads of the saints and angels, over Mary and the Christ child.

In a pandemic, according to the poem, halos become commonplace. They hover, appear and reappear, over many lives and life forms, as the ills and tragedies of this world are made holy: as grief is immersed in holiness and this immersion turns the darkness into light.

         The logo of the Catholic Worker Movement is a contemporary example of the halo. It uses an illustration of a line-up of the poor in the midst of the great depression. They are all waiting to enter the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in New York City to receive a free meal. In the line is one figure with a halo, meant to represent Jesus Christ. It reminds the workers that as they serve the hungry, Jesus is in their midst. Each person must be treated as they would treat Jesus. It might be a good logo for those long lines of people in this country waiting for a box of food or a COVID-19 test. Those serving them seem to me the new and multiplying Catholic Workers of the great depression of this age.

In our family we have taken social distancing seriously. We wear a mask in public out of respect for those who are doing their best to turn grief and suffering into holiness; turn darkness into light. There are so many serving us and others. Many of those servers seem to have halos and I sometimes wonder if Jesus is in their midst.  Although we can not control the virus, we can control how we respond to it. Maybe Mother Earth or the God who created us all, simply wants us to slow down and smell the flowers. Maybe we are meant to learn anew how grief and suffering, and the invisible but deadly, can bring us to a new understanding of the holy.

I'm troubled by those who refuse to wear a mask in public, but I'm also trying to understand it. I wonder if it isn't a way of asserting control in a situation where people don't believe they have any. Rather than wear a mask, admitting that the pandemic is real and death could be imminent, they control their destiny by refusing its reality, at least for them. Often there's a naive trust in divinity to protect them, that lies behind the rage they express to government and health authorities for limiting their "freedom." 

I've yet to actually see a pandemic halo but I'm looking. I'm aware of auras. I've experienced auras. We all have an energy field that surrounds us. Check it out with a friend. Simply stand facing each other with your palms toward the other, but not touching. Wait till you feel it. Sometimes you can even feel the pulsing and push the other back with your aura. Some say the aura has colors. I don't know about that. But I do know I had a massage once in India for a body in pain, where the masseuse never touched me. He simply worked on my energy field, my aura, and told me he manipulated my energy field back into place. It was amazing to me (miraculous really), how good I felt afterward.

        As the pandemic continues, there's a tendency to see things we haven't seen for a long time, or perhaps never. We have fireflies in our garden. That's new for us here in Brookings. We've enjoyed watching and getting to know two new young doves, siblings with sibling behaviors. Then there are the five starling children that have to go everyplace together. One strayed once but it wasn't long before the lost was found and they all flew in their usual noisy cloud. 

They've been here all along but I'm only seeing our trees now that we have a pandemic. Each has character all its own. Each has an aura. Each is making a contribution to the breeze we feel late in the afternoon in the back yard and the song of the wind when it blows strong through the garden. 

As the pandemic days continue to merge into each other; as Mother Earth and the Creator seem to be working at a great cleansing; perhaps we humans will discern the writing on the wall, see the halos and auras of the age, watch the invisible hand at work telling us to slow down and look. Observe the holiness. Observe the humility of the saints. Observe the Creation. Observe the pandemic halos. Try to be holy!

Carl Kline

Friday, August 14, 2020



          Psalm 85 is introduced in the Revised Standard Version as “A prayer for deliverance from national adversity.” This is a national lament. I think the psalmist is calling upon us to strength our wings and dream.

The ascription says that it is a Psalm of the sons of Korah. The story of Korah is a strange one indeed. You find the story in the 16th Chapter of the book of Numbers, which in the Hebrew Bible is called, “In the Wilderness.” In the wilderness people are uneasy with the leadership that Moses is providing. Korah leads an uprising against Moses. He has a following of 250 people. Moses tells Korah to come to the Tent of Meeting where they will settle their differences. Moses appeals to God to decide who should be the leader. So they meet and each leader states his case, and then Moses tells his people to back away because God is about to make a decision. At that moment the ground opens up beneath Korah and swallows him up and all his followers with him. But now, centuries later, the sons of Korah are worship leaders in the Temple in Jerusalem. I can’t explain that story, but there it is.

 Psalm 85 was written after the people of Israel returned from exile. The Babylonians conquered Israel in 587 BCE and led the members of Israel's political class and the economic elite into exile. They were there for about 50 years. This was their time in the wilderness. While in exile the elders talked to their children and grandchildren about what it would be like when they returned home. That is what verse 1-3 are about. In the good old days: “You were favorable to the land, O Lord. You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the sins of the people. You covered all their sins. You set aside your wrath and turned aside your fierce anger.” You did all that, Lord. It will be like that again when we go home. It will be the way our parents and grandparents told us it would be, only better.

When the exiles got home they thought they would be welcomed with open arms. They thought there would be happy family reunions. Old friends and neighbors would kill the fatted calf. Life would go back to the way it was. Once the pandemic is over, life will be normal again.


But what they discovered was that life had moved on for the people who were there. The people who had been left behind were not particularly happy to see the returnees who tried to reclaim the family farm, and reassert their authority and reclaim their wealth.

And so the returnees began to complain: Reading verses 4 -7: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.” Restore us again. That is more than a figure of speech. They wanted their land back. They wanted their old jobs back. They wanted their money back. They wanted their lives back. “Lord, put away your indignation. Will you be angry with us forever?” Read between the lines. What they are saying is: “We spent all this time in exile. We lost everything. Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” One translation for verse five says: “Lord, your nostrils are flaring. How long will your nose be out of joint?” Show us your steadfast love.

The psalmist is getting real here. There are things in this world that we hope for, and there are things we are stuck with. Verses 1-3 are about the things we hope for. Verses 4-7 are about we are stuck with. The things we are stuck with cause us pain, create insecurity, and make us mad. That is what the psalmist is dealing with. The returnees thought they would go back to the Promised Land. Instead what greeted them was a new kind of exile: the loss of financial security--the homestead is gone and it is not coming back; there is no saving account; friends and family members have died.

Here in the US the official count says that more than 161,000 people have died from covid-19, and before the end of the year it might be closer to 300,000. Schools are reopening and we are afraid. The Senate wants to enact legislation to hold employers harmless for any work-related health problems, and workers have reason to worry. If your inbox is like mine, you get multiple reminders every day about our endangered postal service and social security. In the wilderness dreams die. That is what the psalmist is telling us.

Placebo prayers just don’t cut it any more. The comforters of Job did not bring him comfort. Experts tell us that perhaps as many as 40 million people may be unemployed by the end of this year. Job loss will quickly translate into a loss of housing and health care. We are not acting like a nation that not long ago prided itself as being the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

The Psalm begins to turn in verse 6: “Will you revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Then in verse 8 the psalmist declares: “I will listen to what God, the Lord, will say, God promises peace.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem entitled “Dreams” that I think captures the meaning of these verses. He wrote: “Hold fast to dreams/If dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”

People of faith are called to be nurturers and encourages of dreams. Now is not the time to despair. Now is the time to strengthen the sinews and structures of hope. “I will listen to what God, the Lord, will say, God promises peace . . . . “Surely salvation is at hand . . . that glory may dwell in our land.” Augustine said that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” There is a parallelism here. Salvation refers to healing and health and wholeness. The glory of God is a healthy planet and people who are fully alive. Hold fast to that dream.

Then jump down to verse 10 and 11: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.” And verse 13: “The Lord indeed will give what is good.” The psalmist has moved away from privilege and loss to a vision of the common good.

The Psalm ends with a call for restorative justice -- a theme that resonates deeply with our time. Verses 12 and 13 read: “Yea the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before God, and make God’s footsteps the way.”

Whose footsteps will you follow? Whose voice will you listen to? Let me share the voices I listen to these days and invite you to name the voices that you are hearing.

The motto of the State of Hawaii reads: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” When we are right in our relationship with the land, there will be peace. For the Indigenous people of Hawaii the motto refers to the sovereignty of the land, when the land of Hawaii is returned to the people of Hawaii, there will be peace. Native Americans tell us, when stolen property is returned to its rightful owners, then there will be peace. Black Lives Matter is telling us it is time to take down monuments to “the Lost Cause” and start enacting laws for “a Just Cause.” I see moms on the front line in Portland and on the front line in marches to end gun violence. Just yesterday I received an email telling me that 335 institutional investors who manage more than $9.5 trillion have released a statement, made a pledge, a commitment to a five point plan for covid-19 that calls for prioritizing worker health and safety and promises to keep supplier and customer relationships intact. Putting people’s health over short-term profits.


            The psalmist is telling us that restorative justice is the path peace. That’s the dream. I want to close with another poem from Langston Hughes:


Let America be America Again

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed.

Let it be that great strong land of love.

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man [one] be crushed by one above.

[Where] opportunity is real, and life is free.

Equality is in the air we breathe.


May it be so. Amen.


Rev. David Hansen








Friday, August 7, 2020

And it Came to Pass After the Plague

  It would be such a simple and familiar story, but for the place of its telling. It is a story of two young women dreamily imagining the future in a place in which there was no future, in a place in which dreams were snuffed out along with those who dreamed them. Nevertheless, my friend Gerda, and her friend Eva, dared to dream, and to imagine a future that included them, a future in which they counted as human beings, in which their lives mattered. A friendship formed in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, two girls become young women, sustaining each other with stories in the absence of food, stories that helped them to look beyond the plague, beyond the narrow straits of their confinement. Each would survive, they promised each other, and each would marry, one giving birth to a son and one to a daughter; and these children would grow and marry, and the two friends would become family; eventually, even, to become grandmothers together. From the narrow place, they would dream and imagine what would be, of what life would be like after the plague. Gazing across the expanse of time, they sowed seeds of hope in the empty space between, and so it came to be.

From that time and place, we learn a lesson of what it means to look ahead, to look beyond the harsh realities of a given moment in time. Whether of personal liberation or collective, the two intrinsically entwined, the courage to survive is expressed not only in grand heroic deeds, but in daring to imagine life’s mundane details triumphant. Even from in the midst of struggle, when life is narrowed to its essence, only to survive, or in the first moments of emerging from the straits, that is when we need to pause and to imagine what can be, not simply to go on in the ways that have always been. The imaginings of two young women looking beyond the horrors of the Holocaust were not mere stories to amuse, but shared tellings to inspire the will to survive. In the way of a fairy tale to tell of deeper meaning, a reminder in their story that each is needed for the other’s survival, that each one counts in relation to the other, that the future can only be for all of us.

I have thought about Gerda recently, her story coming to mind as I have reflected on what it means to look ahead from in the midst of a difficult time. For all of the differences in history and context, and the nature of suffering, between Gerda’s experience and ours, there are important parallels, and therefore lessons, to be drawn from one time of extremis to another. In our time of pandemics colliding, the pandemic of a virus and the social pandemic of racism, the greatest danger as individuals and as a society is at the end to simply emerge without taking time to reflect and to be counted on for the sake of change. As Gerda imagined her own survival, for those today who have suffered both directly and indirectly through breath-taking illness and breath-taking violence, the extreme realities of this time have been personal in ways that not all of us have felt. In its disparate impact on communities of color, the Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the ugly strand of racism that is woven into the fabric of American life, as antisemitism had festered through centuries in Europe, exploding finally in the Holocaust.

Of racism endemic to the pandemic, I thought about the signs that Gerda describes in her book, “THESE I DO REMEMBER,” the signs that she passed as a child on her way to school, signs that shrieked with blood-curdling hate, “The Jews are Our Misfortune.” I closed my eyes and paused in reading her painful words, and I wondered “what if,” among all the myriad other “what ifs;” what if there had been enough brave people to have placed a very different sign in the windows and gardens of every house in Gerda’s hometown of Ansbach, and throughout that bloody land, a sign that cried out to remind, “Jewish Lives Matter.” It is a fundamental truth that all lives matter, but sometimes we forget what that means, that it really means all lives. Then we need to remind of those who have been forgotten, marginalized and brutalized, as though their lives really don’t matter, that they don’t count in the same way as others. And so we remind that Black Lives Matter.

In the space between now and then, when we shall have emerged from the plague, is the time for a national reckoning. It is a time for a true census taking of people and values, a time to remind that each one counts and each one is counted upon, a time in which to affirm beyond words that every life matters. It is a time in which to insure that we do not simply slip back to the way we were. Such is the reckoning we are called to do, to realize that we can indeed reduce our carbon footprint; that we can live more simply, for the sake of earth and each other, now and for generations to come. We can channel the energy and commitment of alliances formed in horror to be a great movement for constructive change, reaching out even to those who would oppose until they realize it is for them too. Of inequities brought into painful focus by the pandemic, lives not mattering in realms of health care, of housing, of education, of criminal-justice, we can no longer say we didn’t know. Now is the time to consider what life will be like after the plague.

These are the lessons held in the Jewish liturgical cycle as we follow it in the present moment, and in the turning of Torah and its marking of time. In the midst of summer’s beauty and bounty, when life should be embraced in all its fullness, as in the coming of a pandemic with spring’s first blossoms, we enter a time called beyn ham’tzarim/between the straits. For three weeks we make our way through a period of semi-mourning as the fitting approach to Tisha B’Av/the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, day of mourning and fasting for the destruction of the Temples that represented the world, the beginning of exile, of lives not mattering among the nations. These weeks begin with the Torah portion called Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1), named for a violent zealot who saw the need to act, but in taking up the spear could not see a new way of acting.

Pinchas had sought to stem the dying, already at twenty-four thousand, in the face of what was as much a social as a biological plague, death brought on by the moral unraveling of a society. Taking a breath after the dying and the killing, not simply to go on, the words of Torah are stunning as read through the lens of this time, va’y’hi acharei ha’mageifa/and it came to pass after the plague… (Num. 26:1).
The lesson is brought home with anomaly, the stark setting of contrast between the way assumed to always be and what is called for now, bidding us then to look ahead. Immediately after the sentence begins with the words that stop us, and it came to pass after the plague, we are stopped in earnest, a wide swath of blank space opening before us on page and parchment.
Underscoring the anomaly, scribal notes emphasize that a space is to be left right there in the middle of the sentence. Shaken from complacency, stopped in the way of reading and living, we pause in the silent space to consider how to go on after the plague. When next we take up the telling, it is with a commandment to conduct a census, to take a count of the entire community, counting each one to underscore that each one counts, to know who has been lost to the plague and who will lead the way on a new journey.

The Or Ha’chaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar (18th century Morocco and Jerusalem), teaches that in the space of pause that comes after the plague is the tikkun/repair that joins what has been and what will be, repair enacted through the counting of each one. Of the collective formed of individuals, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom No’ach Berzovsky (20th century Poland and Jerusalem) emphasizes the significance of the census following the plague, poetically teaching that each of us is as one grain of dust, all joined together in the way of dust that forms earth that is filled with the potential to sprout new life: particles joining, cleaving, nursing/nurturing one from another/ha’gargarim m’chubarim u’d’vukim v’yonkim zeh mi’zeh, and in this way there is to the dust become earth the potential of sprouting new life/v’al’y’dei zeh yesh l’afar ko’ach ha’tzmi’chah.

In the garden of days and generations, it is the way of Gerda’s story, a dream to sprout new life, personal survival intrinsic to the survival of the people, each one needed, each one counted. As the opening to a new story, and it came to pass after the plague, it is for each of us now to fill in the blank space beyond with the quill of our deeds. A story once told in extremis of young people daring to dream, time and details changing, but in its dreams for a future equally promised, a story still meant to be simple and familiar, then to say, after the plague, and so it came to be.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein