Friday, January 28, 2022

Two Sermons - - From Rage to Redemption, Revenge to Reconciliation

A thread of tension wends through the Exodus narrative, for us to weave on the loom of time until its resolution, when swords are turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. We feel the tension in personal ways and collective, how to celebrate our own liberation without gloating over the destruction of those who harm and oppress us, until there are no oppressors and oppressed. Pain runs deep, at times flaring into rage that in extremis would lead some even to revenge. For others, how to find grounding again, to ease the soul's torment in the way of our living now. Seeking the way, from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation, our tradition gently guides toward healing, helping us to keep alive the human spark.

Still enslaved, we had been told to stay in our homes during the tenth plague, each as an individual, none to gloat or participate in the killing of the first born of the oppressor's children. It is the way taught by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares and given voice in English and in spirit by Rabbi Everett Gendler ("A Passionate Pacifist," p. 87, Ben Yehuda Press, 2020). And later, we watch from the far shore, dumbstruck as we see a great camp of humanity cast upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the not [yet] dead...(Sefer Chochmat Ha'matz'pun, vol. 2, p. 200). 

The musar writer has noted a delay in the Torah from the time of our crossing the Sea to the moment of giving voice to our Redemption Song. Only then could we

sing, only after a stunned pause, Az/Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God... (Ex. 15:1). The writer of tender soul notes, for they were greatly pained, and then asks: for all of this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy...? (ibid). These are the tensions we hold, whether to delay our song in deference to God's creatures drowning in the sea, however debased in their own twisting of God's image, or to sing from the first moment in unbridled joy?

These are the tensions held in the space between two remarkable sermons, the tensions each struggles with, or doesn't.... One is a sermon of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, known as the Tzitz Eliezer (with appreciation to Rabbi Claudia Kreiman for her citation of the Tzitz Eliezer's sermon). The sermon is nearly buried in his massive compendium of legal responsa by whose title he is known, "Tzitz Eliezer" (part 22, paragraph 35). The other is a sermon of Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Chein, "Four Kinds of Redemption" (arba'a minim shel g'ulah) that is found in his work, "B'malchut Ha'yahadut" (vol. 2, p. 75).

 Each sermon had been given in the years immediately following the Holocaust, that of Rabbi Waldenberg in 1947, just before the founding of the state of Israel, in Netanya; and that of Rabbi Chein in 1949, just after the founding, in the Beit Ha'kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Each was given on a holiday, the former on Simchas Torah, the latter on Pesach, when we can assume each shul to have been filled with worshippers. Explicit in the sermon of Rabbi Waldenberg, implicit in Rabbi Chein's, each is addressed to communities in which there were undoubtably many survivors present to hear their words. The two d'rashot are as different as could be in the emotions they express. While each of the rabbis is carrying the pain of our people, neither a survivor himself, one gives voice to rage, to hate, to violence against the destroyers, the other struggling to find a path through the sea of hate and revenge toward a deeper healing.

Rabbi Waldenberg (1915-2006) lived his entire life in the Land of Israel. He was primarily a legal scholar, remarkably progressive in many of his rulings, a foremost authority in matters of medicine and Jewish law. His way of healing is sharp and bitter, hoping to build up the broken souls before him, it seems, with a thunderous love of his people and a brutal attack on all who would harm them. He shares the familiar aggadah, a telling, of God telling the angels not to sing, "my handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you would sing a song before me...?" (Megillah 29a, Sanhedrin 39a). His words then scream out, as though denouncing God for silencing the angels, "concerning the destruction of accursed ones such as these, are we still to be pained? And further, to call them by the precious name, 'work of my hands'!?" Calling for revenge, he turns the aggadah on its head, turning the "work of my hands" to refer to Israel, whom the Egyptians drowned in a sea of suffering, even throwing their sons into the river. He then has God, in effect, say to the angels, "and all you can do is sing a song...?" That is God's complaint as given voice by the Tzitz Eliezer, as though to say, "how can you sing a song of words before me, when a song of fire is needed?" Rabbi Waldenberg recalls the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib (701 B.C.E.), as described in Isaiah (37:36-38) and II Kings (19:35) and laments that the angels did not do to the Egyptians what they would later do to the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem, devouring them with holy fire spit from their mouths. It is certainly clear to the congregation where he is going, bringing his words to the moment, "so it is with the 'Hitlerian' people of our generation"/kacha im ha'am ha'hitleri shel dorenu....

It is hard to imagine how these two congregations might have responded had they each heard both of the sermons, hearing one and then the other. So it is for us as we try to take them both in, holding all the rage and pain, trying to find hope in the tension between. Rabbi Chein struggles with the torment of how to go on in a way that will somehow bring healing, essential to him if we shall bring redemption. He is desperately seeking a construct through which to offer a place in the community, reconciliation, if not forgiveness, to those Jews who had been "kapos" in the camps, collaborators who had abetted the slaughter of their own people. 

Rabbi Chein describes what these people live with as the worst slavery: b'emet eyn avdut eleh zu shel ha'mo'ach, v'ha'lev, -- shel ha'nefesh/in truth, there is no slavery such as this, of the mind, of the heart, -- of the soul. To see such debased people as oppressed is its own expression of compassion. 

Rabbi Chein (1880-1957) was born in Russia to a prestigious family in CHaBaD chassidism. He was a teacher and educator, a thinker and writer, a congregational rabbi who served communities in Europe and later in the Land of Israel, emigrating in 1935. He challenged antisemitism with a fearless

eloquence, while constructing a remarkably universal critique of all violence and brutality. His writing conveys a richly consistent pacifism that is rooted in the wellsprings of Jewish tradition. In a pivotal paragraph of the sermon, seeming to reflect the torment in his own soul, he speaks of the inner struggle, the 'frontal battle'/milchemet metzach, of the pacifist, patzifistan, struggling with how to forgive those who have done the unforgivable. Near the end of his sermon he looks ahead, beyond the pain of the present moment, mah yi'hi'yeh l'machar/what will be tomorrow...? Seeming to gently raise the question of means and ends if we would get there, his plaintive question becomes our own, But, how shall we live now/v'ulam, b'mah nich'yeh ach'shav?

It is not for us to judge the way of survivors' response in the now of the late forties, still in the immediacy of their pain. Held in the  space between the two sermons, there is a timeless tension in which Rabbi Chein's question speaks to their now and to ours; how to hold the rage and the pain of what has been done to us and yet to channel it toward the most lasting, liberating healing possible? One of the rabbis is speaking of Germans, the other of Jews. The words of each are graphic, their torment palpable. Each is drawing on different strands of the tradition, on different facets of themselves, touching different parts of our selves. We don't know how the words of these rabbis were received on that Simchas Torah in Netanya and on that Pesach in Beit H'kerem, Jerusalem. Held together, the two sermons reflect tensions that course through the Exodus story, how to respond to our own redemption/liberation and to the accompanying destruction of our oppressors? At what point shall we sing for our liberation, even as it entails the downfall of our enemies, at what point to refrain from singing, as the angels were told to stop, "how can you sing while My handiwork drowns in the sea?" In the timeless unfolding of these tensions, my father, as a young soldier at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington, rejoiced when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

As he struggled through the years with that initial response, weeping at our seder one year as we spilled drops of wine for the plagues, he came to realize that his joy was surely not for the horrific loss of so much life, but for his own liberation. Already having spent several years as a soldier in Europe, all he knew then was that his imminent deployment to the Pacific theatre would be obviated by the war's sudden end.

These are the tensions we hold and that play out through time, rising to the surface when we are under attack or feel set upon as Jews. In the now of given moments, we are drawn to one side of the tension or the other. We struggle, we are human, to rejoice or not to rejoice? The tensions held between the two sermons are given expression in liturgical choreography. 
As Moses and the people sang on the far shore, as Miriam danced with the women a dance of release, the way we sing the Song at the Sea tells of the tensions we are meant to feel. The verses that tell of our liberation are sung in joyful tune, the verses that tell of Egypt's destruction in a quiet undertone. The tensions are held similarly at the Seder table, in the drops of wine spilled for the plagues, my father having found ritual release in the co-mingling of joy and horror, in the mingling of tears. In the salt water, tears gathered together, the tears of our ancestors, and ours, and those of the grieving Egyptians, too, for their firstborn, for their soldier sons not to return. And on the latter days of Pesach, we sing a shorter Hallel, as we learn from the context of the aggadah when the angels are told not to sing...; how can we, then, sing songs of un-muted praise in the days that mark the drowning of the Egyptians? 

Over time, as for my dad, we become as the angels, from a place of remove no longer to sing for the destruction of the oppressor, nor without recognition of the fierce tensions as held between two sermons -- from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation. Weaving a thread in time, then we shall sing.... But, how shall we live now...? 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 21, 2022

I See Your Golden Feathers

In the hardware store, I select a quart of interior paint from the brands on the shelf. Bright white, for household trim.

“My,” the cashier says, as she rings me up, “you’re quite the golden goose!”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Well … you look full of light, ready for whatever the day brings.”

I glance down at my frayed t-shirt and sweatpants, spattered with decades of old paint. This morning, until this moment, I’ve felt more arthritic and weary than “full of light.”

“Thank you,” I tell the cashier, heartened by her cheer. “You’re radiant, too! Why don’t we both lay some golden eggs today?”

“Sure thing!” she grins, with a silly wiggle of her tail feathers.

I walk out of the store with my paint, chuckling when I remember that it has an eggshell finish. Appropriate, don’t you think, for a goose?

* * *

As the story of “The Golden Goose” is traditionally told, the “simpleton”—or, as I’d prefer to call him, the “holy fool”—is cutting wood in the forest when a “little gray man” appears and asks for food. The fool shares with the gnome a portion of his burned biscuit and soured beer. The gnome rewards his generosity by pointing out the tree he should fell next. In that tree’s roots, the fool finds an amazing golden goose.

The fool tucks the goose beneath his arm and heads into town. Everywhere he goes, his fellow villagers see the wondrous creature in his possession, and are filled with envy.

If only I could have one of its feathers, they think, stretching out their hands. But as soon as their skin brushes against the goose (or the fool, or anyone else touching the bird), they stick fast. No matter how hard they try, they can’t get loose.

Soon there’s a whole crowd of people glued together, moving in an unwilling parade through the village: the innkeeper and his daughters, the parson, the sexton, some peasants, a multitude of children ...

The princess in the castle on the hill has never smiled in her life. But, watching this spectacular procession from her window, she breaks into laughter. In true fairy-tale fashion, she eventually weds the holy fool and lives happily ever after.

* * *

The moral of this story is usually interpreted along the lines of “Be generous, not greedy.” But let’s give the tale a different spin, shall we?

Each of us has a golden goose—an infinite source of abundance, generosity, and compassion—hidden deep within us. Sometimes, though, we have trouble recognizing it. The goose might be tired, sore, and wearing old painting clothes. It might have injured a wing. It might have had all its feathers plucked. It might look a lot like a chicken.

No matter its disguise, the fairy tale tells us, the golden goose is alive and waiting “within the roots of our tree.” We just need an axe to set it free.

Where do we get the axe? Why, at the hardware store, of course; that place where we exchange what we have for what we need.

Inside the store we meet the cashier, the maker of change. Her tongue is the blade of truth that frees the goose living within our roots: “You who stand before me,” she declares, “are full of light, ready for whatever life brings.”

We walk away from the change-maker with the goose tucked lightly beneath one arm. Now we’re more aware of our own potential; we’re more prepared to splash our cans of color on the world’s house.

The golden goose beneath our arm can’t help but shine. Do you see its dazzling power? How it attracts the presence of others, not from envy but from gratitude and joy? How it binds us all together? How its radiance grows and grows?

Soon we’re parading through town, united not by force but by choice. Our collective light is so brilliant that even the royals in the castle scurry down the hill to join us “commoners.”

Holy fools carrying the golden goose—that’s what we are. Whatever life brings, we’re ready.

Don’t believe me?

Then what’s that golden plumage I see, sticking out from under your arm?

Deep peace,

Phylis Cole-Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Saturday, January 15, 2022

"Laughing In The Dark" (Again)

Sometimes “once” just isn’t enough.
Last fall, during a socially distanced writing retreat in Oakwood Lakes State Park, my friend Ruby and I took a short night hike around a wooded peninsula. Without flashlights. Without even a sliver of moon to see by.


This past week, as the leaves began to turn red and gold once again, Ruby and I met up for another writing retreat. This time we camped beside a slough, or big pond, in Lake Herman State Park.
An easy trail around the slough ran right past our campsite. It constantly begged for attention. During our four-day stay, Ruby and I hiked that 1.3-mile trail a half-dozen times—twice at night, without flashlights.

(Don’t worry, Mom. No bears. No cliffs. No quicksand. Just a few gopher holes.)

Ruby and I adored our night hikes. Like last year, we found ourselves laughing in the dark, and learning from the dark.
The grassy loop around Herman Slough yielded a pack full of wisdom. Here’s a random list of insights, along with questions for reflection:

1.     How we walk in daylight prepares us to walk in the night. If we try to practice gratitude, wonder, and compassion on our life-path every day, we may be steadier when darkness falls. And every bleak hour we experience, no matter how painful, will become an opportunity to deepen our practice.

Right now, in your life, are you walking through daylight, darkness, or somewhere between?

2.     Once we learn to walk by natural light, such as moonlight, artificial light can feel intrusive. A bobbing flashlight or passing headlight can hurt our eyes, and blind us. The same is true of the different forms of light our spirits encounter in this world.

What provides “natural light” for your spirit? What forms of “artificial light” might you wish to avoid or eliminate?

3.     Trekking poles can help us navigate the darkest dark. Their tips let us know the nature of the ground we walk upon. Their shafts alert us when we’ve wandered into the weeds. Their grips and straps grant a light yet firm handle on our experience.

I christened my poles “Curiosity” and “Trust.” What would you call yours?

4.     A less travelled path isn’t as distinguishable in the dark as a beaten path, but it can be softer on the feet. Let’s not be afraid to      take it.
    How willing are you to walk where few have gone before (or where few might want you to go)? 

5.     The moon and stars are always above us, even when we can’t see them. They will show themselves in their own way, in their own time.

How full is your reservoir of patience?

6.     When (not “if”) we get lost in the dark, a way forward will always present itself, so long as we cultivate calm. Anxiety clouds our vision. Equanimity clarifies and illuminates. 

What helps you maintain or restore your sense of calmness?


7.     At night, we may sometimes feel more lost in wide open spaces than we do in dense woods. Out in a meadow, the path that clearly connects here to over there can disappear. But, in those empty spaces, we can see the sky best. And maybe the sky sees us?  

Do you tend to feel more comfortable in “wide open spaces” or in “dense woods?” 

8.     Mistakes, missteps, and hard falls may catch us by surprise, but they’re a natural part of the path, especially in the dead of night. As we go, let’s be careful, yes, but let’s not expect perfection. Humility and good humor are essential.

How tolerant are you of “mistakes, missteps, and falls?” How might you be gentler with yourself and others?

9.     When hiking in the dark, it’s good to be mindful of the bottoms of our feet and how “grounded” we are. This is especially true if we’re hobbling across an acre of invisible tennis balls—er, walnut husks.

What circumstances throw you off balance? What might help you “keep your feet?”

10.  For some awe-full things in this world, words are inadequate. For instance, what color is a body of water in the glorious dark of night, before Moon has risen? “Silver” is too bright. “Gray” is too dull. The presence of such things stuns us into silence. All we can do is stop and stare.

When was the last time you were awestruck?


Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!


Friday, January 7, 2022

Living With Intention


As I write, the world outside my north facing window is all soft shades of gray and white and ever-green as the first  (and possibly only) snowstorm of the year blankets the island.  The snow feeds the young child yearning in me for the magical gnomes created by the way the snow shapes the new Leyland Cypress trees on the border between the neighbor’s home and ours.  A quiet day that leads to reflection as another calendar year begins.

Sunday’s sermon is taking shape - musings on living with intention.  Somewhat different than creating resolutions for the year or setting goals that draw into an uncertain future.   I reflect on Rabbi Art Green’s explanation of the Hebrew word: kavannah. (in These Are The Words-A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life): Kavannah literally means “direction.”  In Judaism it refers to kavannat ha-lev, “directing the heart to
God: praying, studying, performing mitzvot* in such a way that we are inwardly turning toward God’s presence, offering our words or deeds as gifts upon an inner altar.

Phillip Moffitt, in an article titled “The Heart’s Intention” suggests there is a difference between resolutions and goal setting on the one hand and setting an intention on the other: With goals, the future is always the focus: Am I going to reach the goal?  Will I be happy when I do?”  “What’s next?”   Setting an intention, least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making.  [Setting an intention] is not oriented toward a future outcome.  Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how we are “being” in the present moment.  [When setting an intention] our attention is on the ever-present “now” in the constantly changing flow of life. We set our intention based on what matters most to us and make a commitment to align our world action with our inner values…

We are entering another year that already promises a lot of uncertainty.  As a people, we are nearing exhaustion with concern over COVID, climate change, the state of our democracy, inflation…  On the personal level a health crisis, the death of a loved one, uncertain finances all add to the over arching global concerns.  So many of us experience a sense of fatigue, a strange disconnect from the passage of time, a loss of resilience that  affects how we live together in community.
In a conversation after worship last week, I heard a woman observe that the spiritual discipline that will define our times is that of learning how to live graciously and confidently and authentically in the midst of pervasive uncertainty. Being able to cultivate our intention for healthy, creative living in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is a profound spiritual calling.

“What matters most to me at the level of my spirit?  What are my deepest soul values?  From the depths of my heart, what do I want to bring to the world in my own being?”  No less a figure than Taoist LaoTzu,  author of the Tao Te Ching, sends us inward to find the source of our highest intentions.  He wrote “At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.”   The answer to the questions will be different for all of us, but they have the potential to lead us on the journey to more authentic and intentional living.

 An intention has the power to mold my way of being in the world.  What delight might follow if, on waking in the morning, my intention went like this: “May gratitude for all the beauty and order in nature guide me through the day.”

How might a day unfold differently if I started out with a classic heart centered Buddhist intention based in lovingkindness: May I be filled with lovingkindness.  May I be well in body and mind. May I be happy and at ease. May I be free from danger.   It takes only seconds to offer that same intention for those close to me, for those with whom I am in conflict, and then for those whom I will never meet.  An intention sets positive energy in motion in way that resolutions and goals lack.

One of the most challenging and transforming intentions for me is one that I use regularly.  It jumps off the page of my Jewish prayer book.  It is an intention that sets my day in motion in a particular way: May nothing I do mar the holiness of life by causing any other creature to lose the joy of living.

I like to imagine how the mundane encounters in our lives might be transformed by living “intentionally.”  How might we be transformed?   How might a simple thing like shopping at Stop and Shop be transformed by offering the intention on entering the store:  “May all beings be be happy; well in body and mind; be free from danger…”  

What might budget and ministry meetings at church or synagogue look like if they began with the intention:  “May we and all beings be filled with lovingkindness” or, perhaps, May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

When I am anticipating a challenging interaction with a friend or family member,  an intention like “May I be at ease.  May I be filled with patience, May I be peaceful” has the power to affect the outcome of a potentially difficult conversation.   Setting the same intention for the other  parties  may have the power for creating a more harmonious interaction. May he/she be at ease.  May he be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  May she be peaceful. In a sense, when I have created an intention for myself, I am entering each moment more mindfully, more present to what is rather than creating scenarios that might or might not happen. Setting an intention helps to mitigate anxiety as I enter the next moment. I tend to create less drama when I can locate my intention from the deep desire in my heart to create more harmony and less suffering in the world. When I am more present to any situation or interaction with a clear and simple intention, it is more likely to unfold in a more satisfying  way.

We are still on the threshold of a new year.  With all the negative news that continually bombards us, it is tempting to submit to the “brain fog”, the moments of despair or helplessness that inevitably present their seductive pull on our consciousness - - taking us out of the complete perfection of the present moment.   We have the power of intention to shape a different reality from the one that seeks to impose itself upon us.  The intentions that arise out of our deeply held heart values have the power to change us and to change the world wherever we encounter it.

Setting an intention may begin simply with the question: How do I want to enter this day as I try to live out my highest values arising from the my heart center?

And so a prayer from Howard Thurman as I begin another year:

 Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.  Despite the dullness and barrenness of the days that pass. If I search with due diligence, I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance.  But I had forgotten.  At the time it was full orbed, glorious, resplendent.  I was sure I would never forget.  I had forgotten how easy it is to forget.  There was no intent to betray what was so sure at the time.  My response was whole, clean, authentic.  But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey.  Details, lower level demands, all kinds of cross-currents - nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant - just wear and tear.  If there had been some direct challenge - a clear-cut issue - I would have fought it to the end, and beyond.  In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the foe are nameless or familiar, may I not forget that to which my life is committed.

*Also according to Art Green: A mitzvah (singular) or “commandment” is a deed in which humans are given an opportunity to fulfill the will of God.  That will is inherent in creation itself, as God has created a world that is not yet perfect.  The claim of the mitzvah is that there is work left for us to do, work that will make us partners of God in the world’s creation.

"Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”   L.R. Knost

Vicky Hanjian