Friday, October 23, 2020

Integrity

          Psalm 26 is about keeping and defending one’s integrity in the face of adversity. It bristles with issues that speak to us.The opening verses set the tone: “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.”(vs.1, RSV throughout). Integrity comes from the Latin, integer. Among the several meanings supplied by Webster’s Dictionary, the three that I think are most fitting are: incorruptible, adherence to a moral code, unity. Integrity is a personal virtue, and a public trust. The psalmist understands that integrity needs to be demonstrated, “walked in.” People who have integrity can be trusted because their words and deeds walk together. 

    


The psalmist demands vindication. Vindicate is a powerful word that comes from the Latin, vindicare. Among the meanings Webster’s Dictionary offers are: avenge, deliver, exonerate, justify, defend. Try to imagine the scenario. Does the plaintiff want to be avenged? Delivered from an injustice? exonerated? Maybe the psalmist has written “BLM” on a public street and been charged with defacing public property. Perhaps she or has been victimized in some way, and is demanding justice?
“Prove me, O Lord, test my heart and my mind” (vs.2). Translation: I know right from wrong. I have walked the walk, and talked the talk. I have the courage of my convictions, and the credentials to prove it.
     The psalmist then moves from the personal to the social: “I do not sit with false men, I do not consult with dissemblers; I hate the company of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked” (vs.4-5). We cannot tell if the psalmist is addressing political enemies, or perhaps there is corruption in high places, or maybe the courts have been swayed by the influence of wealth and power.
     Religious institutions and leadership have been compromised as we read in the next verses: “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about thy altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving . . . telling all thy wondrous deeds. O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory

dwells”(vs.6-8). Narrowly construed, “thy house,” is the temple. We could interpret this psalm as a religious feud between church leaders.Think of Martin Luther declaring to church authorities at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “I cannot and will not recant anything.” But, if “thy house” is the whole inhabited earth, then “where thy glory dwells,”(vs.8) means “thy  will be done on earth.” The psalm is calling for environmental and social justice. 

     The next two verses make me inclined to favor the latter possibility. They read; “Sweep me not away with sinners, nor my life with bloodthristy men, men in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes”(vs.9-10). Who are these men? I think Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, “Masters of War,” gives us a fair idea.You can read the words or listen to the whole song online. One phrase gives a sense of the song:

I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

         


Maybe the psalmist is facing time in jail because she or he is a member of the War Resisters League, or is a Conscientious Objector. We do not know.
  The psalmist returns to the theme of integrity in the closing verses: “But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the Lord” (vs.11-12). The image of level ground implies openness, transparency, and mutual accountability. When will people get equal pay for equal work?
     The psalmist is teaching us that integrity is the antidote to cynicism. Consider the following example.The government has pumped trillions of dollars into the economy and increased the budget of the Department of Defense (once upon a time called the Department of War), but the political class would have us believe that we cannot afford public healthcare for all when more than 170,000 people have died from COVID-19. Or think about this. As recently as August 7, 2020, the Aspen Institute warned that in the next few months 30-40 million people could face eviction from their homes unless the federal government takes action to prevent it, but  politicians think $200 a week will give people an incentive not to work. Cynicism is devouring dreams. Integrity is the antidote to cynicism. Restored health begins with personal integrity, and demands integrity on the part of people who hold the public trust.
    

In our social contract, integrity in government is defined as government of the people, for the people, and by the people. “People” in this instance means flesh-and-blood human beings who live and die, not, as the US Supreme Court and later laws misconstrued people to mean corporations with charters that can never be revoked. Integrity is government for the people. That means a government that directly or indirectly provides for peoples’ basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and a safe environment. Government by the people means every vote counts, and it is the government’s responsibility to secure these votes.

     Integrity is the way out of personal and social conflict and chaos. However, there are cautionary notes to add to this psalm. Integrity is a double-edged sword. It is the antidote for cynicism and corruption. But integrity has also come to mean “purity,” in which case it can become a code word for racism, classism and phobias of many kinds. Crimes against humanity have been committed and are being committed to defend the integrity of “our” borders, “our” race, “our” way of life. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice should be required reading to accompany Psalm 26.
     Lastly, and in a timely way, the psalmist forces us to examine our prejudices. We all want a fair chance and a fair trial, a level playing field. Like the psalmist, we want to stand on “level ground.” The following is a poem by Langston Hughes that sheds light on the meaning of “level ground”:
 

Park Bench

I live on a park bench
You, Park Avenue.
Hell of a distance
Between us two.

I beg a dime for  dinner--
You got a butler and maid.
But I’m wak’n up!
Say, ain’t you afraid
 
That I might, just maybe,
In a year or two,
Move on over
To Park Avenue?
       

 Langston Hughes
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Arnold Rampersad, ed. (NY: Vintage Books,1994)

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, October 16, 2020

Plastic

 Every now and then we make an excursion after dinner for a hot fudge sundae. We get the small size, which has gotten smaller as the plastic cup gets squeezed and shaped toward the bottom. It makes no sense to me unless they want to give you less ice cream. It's a pain to try and get the hot fudge off the serrated sides and extra work to clean the cups if you want to recycle the plastic.

Last night we also got a plastic cup on top of the sundae. I wanted them to turn it upside down because the top had a regular bottom and would have held more ice cream. I'm not sure why we deserved the extra plastic. Maybe they wanted us to believe it protected us from the waiter coughing or sneezing on our ice cream as he handed it out the window.

The experience made me think of that 1967 film "The Graduate." Remember Mr. Maguires' advice to young Benjamin Braddock?

Mr. Maguire: I want to say one word to you, Benjamin. Just one word.
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.
Mr. Maguire: Are you listening?
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, I am.
Mr. Maguire: Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, I will.
Mr. Maguire: Okay. Enough said. That's a deal.

All of which brings me to a recent article in the Audubon magazine by Zoe Schlanger on "nurdles." Nurdles are little pellets of pre-production plastic. They will become: the cups that hold and cover the hot fudge sundae; the plastic bags from the grocery store; the container for my new toothbrush; the straw, fork and spoon that come with the take out meal. Not to mention the kayak you might purchase.


Nurdles are proliferating all around a Charleston, S.C. shipping facility that sends them around the globe. Nurdles are one of the steps in the plastic pollution process beginning to circle the planet. It starts with the fracking that produces the natural gas, includes the air pollution from the pellet production process, and then plastic pellets end up in Charleston harbor, in plastic islands in the oceans and plastic fragments falling in the snow.



Apparently Mr. Maguire was right. It's just taken a while and a cheap supply of natural gas to really get the plastic industry off the ground. It's full speed ahead today. More than half of all plastic has been produced in the last 15 years and there are 343 new plastic production or expansion facilities presently in the works in the U.S. With the natural gas glut we have now, new plastic was so cheap last year it competed favorably with recycled plastic (only 9% of all plastic gets recycled). The fossil fuel industry hopes to triple plastic production by 2050 and by then expect plastic to account for 50% of demand growth for fossil fuels.


One could hope that reason would sometimes rule decision making. One could hope that people and planet would take priority over profit. But the fossil fuel industry, the most powerful and profitable industry in history, is bound and determined to find an outlet for its investments in the depths of the earth. If wind turbines, solar installations and electric cars threaten their profits, make more plastic. Never mind that their continued production of fossil fuels (and plastic) threatens all life on earth.

Why do I need the tough plastic covering on my new toothbrush I have to cut with a hack saw? Cookies and doughnuts were just fine in a bag or a box. Why must they be packaged in plastic? The virus can live up to 3 days on plastic bags so why can't we continue taking our canvas bags to the grocery store? And why can't communities decide to ban single use plastic?

The answer to these questions is the fossil fuel industry has a powerful lobbying arm and a cheap alternative. The industry has tried to make the case during the pandemic that plastic bags are more hygienic. They have also succeeded in convincing states to pre-empt local communities from banning single use plastics. They succeeded in S.D.. Twice as many states have pre-empted local bans as have instituted sate wide bans on single use plastics. The market drives decisions, not reason, people's needs or the needs of the planet.

If we are to survive corporate control of the economy, with the attendant destruction of the environment, we will need to much more dramatically assert local and individual control. We can ask establishments to skip the plastic packaging and forget the plastic straws. If it costs us a few cents more, so be it.

We can invite people to divest from fossil fuels and those financial institutions that support them. They are taking us straight to a hotter hell than humans have ever known. Heat records are happening every year everywhere. As plastic production increases, so do emissions that heat the planet. Right now, those production emissions are 1% of the planets' total. By 2050, they are projected to be 15% of the total.

Don't worry about the afterlife. Plastics will help make it hell on earth!
Carl Kline

Friday, October 9, 2020

Choosing Life in Learning and Living Torah



          


Reflections on life and death in time of a pandemic emerged in a precious gathering of seekers and sages, a weekly Torah class that has met with me for many years in a local coffee shop early every Thursday morning, now seeing each other’s faces as squares on the quilted screen. Yearning to hear our own Torah of the pandemic, I asked recently as prelude to the portion of Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9-30:20) and its exhortation to choose life: “What have we learned of life, of ourselves, of choices during this time of the pandemic…?” 

Responses emerged un-muted, as commentary on each one’s page in the Book of Life: “There is so much that I used to do naturally that now requires conscious choice;” “With so much curtailed, the blessings in our lives are reinforced;” “The realities of this time are stripping away superficialities, revealing my basic core, my essence, making it easier to connect with my inner self;” “Walking by the same places as before fills me with appreciation for what was and for what will be;” “I have found a well of patience and resourcefulness, doing things that help me feel more tolerant of others;” “Negotiating the feelings and needs of others, as in the wearing of a mask, makes me question my own assumptions regarding risk, and, so too, regarding diversity of opinion;” “I have realized that I was blaming on life what I was not getting to, coming to know the importance of just doing things and living patiently;” “I am finding strength in my own practice, building strength, learning to depend on myself and manage time;” “I am taking personal responsibility for others, in my house and in the world around me;” “Affirming the positives that have come out of this time, I am looking forward and wondering how to carry on what we have learned….”


We paused to take in the beauty of what had been said. It becomes a sacred challenge as we make our way forward; how shall we carry on what we have learned, making real the Torah of the pandemic? In soil newly softened, how shall we plant seeds of new understanding of self and others? How shall we nurture tender blossoms of change as they sprout within and around us? Coming now through these Days of Awe, taking stock, giving an accounting, will this time of physical remove from each other come to be seen simply as time lost, or shall it be affirmed in days to come as having been a time of fecund possibility? Of our own lives and those of others, of justice and peace seeming so far off, of wholeness envisioned through shards of brokenness as placed upon the eyes of our holy dead, how shall we draw near and lift up our days as offerings toward a greater good? The act of offering is itself a blessing waiting to flow through each of us while our eyes are still open to see the world as it is and as it could be, all of its beauty and all of its pain. So we came on that Thursday morning to the poignant words of Torah that stop us in the best of times, bringing tears, even more so now in this time of the pandemic and the festivals of Tishrei, the Book of Life open before us.
 

        With so much death in the land, so much suffering, how shall we read and hear the Torah’s exhortation: I have called heaven and earth today to witness through you; I have set life and death before you, blessing and curse. Choose life/u’vacharta ba’chaim, so that you may live—you and your children… (Deut. 30:19). Something of the verse feels at times almost cruel in the face of lives cut short, words seeming to mock the magnificent vulnerability of what it is to be human. Would that we could choose the length of our days and those of our loved ones, most of all of our children. All the more so, in this time of plague, disaster, and cruelty, we yearn to promise and protect from the virus, from police bullets, from fire and flood. The words of the Machzor, the holiday prayer book, haunt in their chilling reflection of the world in which we live: who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by earthquake, u’mi va’mageifa/and who by plague…, the last words lingering, sticking in our throats, emerging through trembling lips.

         


The Holy One knows our pain, crying with us, affirming our grandeur and fragility in the face of life’s mystery, the miracle that life comes to be at all, taking our hand at the point beyond which others can no longer accompany. God’s response to our inevitable human struggle is in the next verse, not removing our pain, but giving it greater context, soothing, reassuring, kissing away our tears: to love God, your God; to hearken to God’s voice and to cling firmly to God; for that is your life and the length of your days/ki hu cha’yecha v’orech yamecha… (Deut. 30:20). To choose life is to choose a way of life, that is the blessing and the length of our days, to choose a way that affirms all life, that recognizes the image of God in each one, the sacredness of creation, each of us as partners in its daily renewal, protectors, shomrei adamah/keepers of Earth, as God asked us to be even in the Garden, l’ovdah u’l’shomrah/to work it and to protect it (Gen. 2:15).

There has been much turning during this time to the Torah of other pandemics, to teachers whose words speak from their distress to ours. One of those teachers whose words have come to greater awareness is Rabbi Chaim ben B’tzalel (1525-1588) of Worms and Friedberg.  In a slender volume called Sefer Ha’Chaim/the Book of Life written while in quarantine during the plague of 1578, Rabbi Chaim tells of his tribulations and of Torah as a source of life and sustenance.

With words that are strikingly familiar to us, Rabbi Chaim describes being closed off from the world, and of the fearsome intrusion of sickness and death even in his own home: for death has then risen through the windows of my house/ki alah az ha’mavet ba’chalonei beyti… within this great upheaval/b’toch ha’hafeicha ha’g’dolah…, and the doors of my house are shut upon me…. In the midst of all this, at the thought of not being able to learn Torah, Rabbi Chaim says, challilah/God forbid, ki hi chayenu v’orech yameinu/for it is our life and the length of our days…. He then draws on the very distress he is feeling, reminding us, as well, to draw new insight, new Torah, from our experience of the pandemic, as he draws succor from the Torah to be learned in his time of disease and distress. That such a time as this can be a time of Torah and creativity, he writes, kach ha’z’man ha’m’yuchad l’limud ha’aggadah/so it is that this is a unique time for the learning of the aggadah, the rich tellings and tales of the rabbis, and so for us in our weaving of tales that tell of the experience of this time…; divrei ha’aggadah ba’makom ha’da’aggah/words of aggadah in a place of d’aggah/anxiety, ki’otiot dayn k’dayn/for the letters of this are as this…. Arranged in five sections according to the five books referred to in the beloved prayer of this season, Avinu Malkenu, so Rabbi Chaim draws on the heightened awareness of life’s fragility as felt so keenly during the Days of Awe, all the more so as felt in their confluence with a season of plague and pandemic. 

Naming his book after his own propitious name, it is also more than that, reflecting his deep sense of responsibility and purpose “to save our souls from death” through the wisdom gained of his learning in this time of “wrath and worry/b’af u’v’da’aggah.” On the name of his book, he then says very simply, poignantly and prayerfully, I have therefore called the name of the words of this letter Sefer Ha’chaim/the Book of Life.



In learning the Torah of the pandemic we nourish our selves and others, the Torah of Moses as the seedbed from which our own Torah, our own teaching rises, now, as always. As among the Thursday morning Torah seekers with whom I learn of Torah and life, there is delight, nachas ru’ach/soul pleasure, in the richness of wrestling together with life in all of its moods in the context of Torah, our own experience and its insights become as commentary. Such learning is the balm that Rabbi Chaim sought to draw from as healing for his own soul, then to share with others, joining souls beyond the solitudes and separations of the plague. As in the way of holy days, perhaps even, in its own way, in the days of the pandemic, solitudes and separations bridged in ways Rabbi Chaim could not have imagined, there is restorative pause now in the closing portions of this year’s Torah cycle. Beyond the tumult and strife of Torah and life, learning to navigate the harsh passages of both, nearing journey’s end there is revealed the universal essence that joins us all. 

      


Accompanying Moses in his last hours, we face our own mortality, and are yet reminded of the ever-present opportunity to choose life, even to the end. Sharing the aggadah, the tellings of our learnings and yearnings born of the d’aggah of this time, all the accumulated worry that has so touched our souls, distance is bridged, virtual made real. Choosing the way of life and blessing in the face of death, the learning of Torah itself emblematic of life and continuity, we learn not to give up on what is important and precious no matter the difficulties that surround. So we give strength and meaning to each other, and even beauty and sweetness, helping us all to go on, for it is our life and the length of our days. Standing in the gate of possibility at the turning of the year, we ask in the face of all that besets us of where we are going and to what purpose. If before the witness of heaven and earth we would choose life so that we, and our children may live, then we are called to account for the state of the world and its future. Learning the Torah of the pandemic and living it for the sake of a greater good, that all might be able equally to choose life, so we write ourselves into the Book of Life, Sefer Ha’chaim.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 2, 2020

Finding Hope

       


We had just finished our Zoom yoga class and following the closing “OM”, our yoga teacher asked what we were doing to stay hopeful.  There were perhaps a dozen of us onscreen.  For 30 seconds or so the silence was deafening until one woman spoke of her despair and sense of helplessness.  We were sitting together, separately, feeling the overwhelming effects of PDDT (post debate debacle trauma).  Due to a storm, the newspapers that usually arrive on an early boat  had not been delivered. We had only watched about 7-8 minutes of the debate before acknowledging  that it would be too toxic to watch just before bedtime. So I was not yet as devastated as some of my “classmates.”

I reflected briefly on my response to our yoga teacher’s question - - what do I do to generate a feeling of hope in the midst of the trauma?  A couple of things came immediately to mind - - mostly longstanding disciplines that suddenly seem fresh and utterly life sustaining in a way that I have long taken for granted.  Things like consistent gathering (via Zoom) with my faith communities - - showing up for Shabbat services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, for worship on Sunday morning, for meditation with a more Buddhist emphasis three mornings a week, for a prayer circle on Friday mornings, Torah study on Thursdays, a bi-weekly meeting with the church’s Care Team and, of course, the yoga class.

I began to think about why these “practices” are what help to keep me from bottoming out in despair.  Central to each one are two things: gathering regularly with people of spirit who are no less vulnerable to despair than I am - - yet when we are together we strengthen and support each other; frequent connection with ancient texts - Torah, the Christian texts, the wisdom of the Buddha.

For me,  the connection with persons and texts is deeply grounding and centering.  Meeting with the Care Team helps me to focus on the needs of the church community.  Church and synagogue receive my anxieties and sorrows and then turn me outward into the needs of the larger world again.

I am not pollyanna hopeful by any means - but all the above practices broaden my scope by reminding me that this current darkness is not all there is.  There is a vast network of generous, loving, compassionate, intelligent humanity working like rhizomes beneath the surface, just out of sight - - bringing order and light and healing where they happen to be engaged.  We lose sight of this at our peril.

My husband and I had some time between appointments this morning so we took a short walk along the beach that borders the ferry terminal.  We noticed four sleek black cormorants, in a well choreographed ballet, taking turns, one after another, diving for fish and then resurfacing at precise intervals to repeat their performance.  An experience of captivating order - - not chaos.
 

Along the beach, several gentle men of a certain age gathered to race their remote controlled sail boats around the buoys located not far off shore.   A young father and his son were fishing off the dock.  He stopped at a safely masked 6 feet from me to explain that each of these men had built his own sail boat to a prescribed blueprint used by the whole group.  The boats were not motorized.  Somehow they were constructed so that they functioned as actual sail boats by remote control.  The men gathered several mornings a week to enjoy one another’s company and race their boats.  When the young father finished our conversation he said to his son, “C’mon buddy, time to get back to school.”   He was on a 30 minute break from home schooling - and took the time for a quick fishing trip to the harbor with his little boy.

        


It was all so brilliantly mundane - - normal - - peaceful - - a reminder that order is never very far from the chaos that seems to pervade everything - - maybe even existing at the center of it all.

I write from an admittedly very white, privileged background and milieu.  It is the world I live in.  It is what I know.  It is hard to escape that.  And yet, in the midst of all that white privilege, there is heartache, a despair, a sense of helplessness and a yearning to make things right in the face of what appears to be an overwhelming and crushing negative force.  Privilege comes with responsibilities.   Hopelessness and despair are luxuries none of us can afford in the face of all that assaults us these days.  An itinerant preacher from Nazareth once taught “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48 NRSV) To me it sounds like a rallying cry not unlike a verse we often hear on Shabbat to “get up” -  to get out of the devastating malaise that often accompanies  hopelessness, to recognize that while privilege is a heavy weight on the neck of so much of white America, it is also a call to responsibility and action.

An hour with good friends, an hour spent re-connecting with the prophetic teachings of the ancients, a short walk in the sunshine after a storm, a few sleek, black water birds doing their thing - - bits of life that restore hope - - fragile, elusive, sustaining hope.  And then…to work!

 Vicky Hanjian