Showing posts with label Compassion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Compassion. Show all posts

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Each One a Tree of Life


In the mirror, I saw reflected through the window and overlaid upon my skin the bare branches of a tree. Projected onto my chest and shoulder, the fine network of lines seemed to radiate outward from my heart. In the hazy confusion of a day’s first moments of wakefulness, I did not realize what I was seeing. It seemed as though I was looking within myself and seeing the delicate web of my own veins. I smiled and breathed a breath of gratitude as the image came clear, crystallized yet shimmering. So compelling, I understood now the surface meaning of what I was seeing, as I tried to understand its deeper meaning. It seemed as though the tree of life was within myself, my own veins flowing with all life, sap and blood, human and tree, the world all around and within as one. From Deuteronomy (20:19), I thought of the verse, ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh/for the human is the tree of the field.

The Torah weaves throughout its entire telling a thread of interdependence. That is at the root of what it means to be in covenant, in relationship, as we are with God, with the earth, and with each other. Through midrash, the rabbinic way of story-teaching, the rabbis imagine God telling the first human, and therefore every human of every generation, “do not damage or destroy my world, for if you do there will be none to repair it after you.” The comparison of the human to the tree becomes a commandment against wanton destruction of nature and of all things. If we are not to destroy a tree, then all the more so are we not to destroy a human being. Every person is a tree of life, veins within radiating outward from a heart filled with the blood of life, arms outstretched in prayer as branches of a tree reaching toward heaven. All life is woven together as one.

In the midst of each day, it is so easy to miss the greater whole of which we are each an intrinsic part. At the dawning of a day and at its end, the entire cycle of life in the circle dance of earth and sun and moon, so easy to look in the mirror and see only our selves. Reflected upon our skin and in the delicate skein of veins within is the entire tree of life. So too in reading sacred text, so easy to see only the surface meaning, caught up in details, not seeing beneath the skin to the essence of life within. Often read with spring’s first blossoms upon the trees, the Torah portions Tazria and M’tzora (Lev. 12-15) are perhaps among the most opaque of all portions of Torah, the most difficult from which to enter the garden beneath, from whose shore to draw from the waters of life. On the surface these two portions are about skin ailments, of discoloration and ulceration, of bodily fluids and sores that ooze. As our bodies can be afflicted, so too our homes, mold and mildew upon the walls, a house no longer a home, emptied out of all within. 

Bereft and empty for all to see, our bodies and our homes, so easy for others to point a finger and flee. Suddenly there are ripples of understanding upon the surface, as God’s breath once upon the water, light glinting, luminous. That is precisely the lesson of these portions, not to flee in fear and disgust from those who need us most, to turn toward and not away from those who suffer. A powerful midrash asks, why do tribulations come into the world? As though to disabuse us of the urge to blame, to point a finger and run, the midrash answers its own question, because of those who see and look and say, one who sins is stricken and the one who does not sin is not stricken. The all too common urge to blame the victim is turned on its head. Fearful and facile in our attempt to find order amidst chaos, to isolate all that threatens our ways and wellbeing, we turn away from what most gives meaning to life, the opportunity to help another, to foster human connection. In the midrashic mirror, we suddenly realize what we are seeing, a plea for interconnection. The source of so much pain and tribulation in the world is a lack of compassion that comes of finger pointing and blame, when all around and within there is such yearning for embrace. It is those who blame the victim that bring tribulations into the world by adding to the suffering of the afflicted. The lesson becomes clear; while we cannot remove all pain and suffering, when compassion flows we become a source of solace and strength in the face of suffering. Walking together on the path of life, roles blur and interchange, the afflicted and the comforter, each one a mirror for the other.

Telling of the interconnectedness of all life, compassion flows as a thread through these Torah portions. The way of compassion eases suffering and pain and removes the added tribulation of loneliness and guilt from the world of those who suffer. Branches upon our skin, veins within, we see each other in the mirrored image of our selves, each one a tree of life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, June 1, 2013

For the Sake of the Living


There is great opportunity for growth when our ideals are tested in the crucible of reality. In pausing to reflect on our response, to consider how we did under moral fire, a mirror is held up in which to examine perceptions of self in relation to our behavior. In the midst of our collective grief for the Boston Marathon bombing, a grief that will linger and render us mourners for a long time, the question of where and whether to bury one of the bombers has felt like a cruel distraction. So too the backlash in some quarters against Muslims. I am not sure if these two intrusions are part of one xenophobic response. Given that the Oklahoma City bomber, an American and Christian born terrorist, was buried in American soil with little protest, it would suggest xenophobia, at least in part. I suggest that it is also more and deeper than this, having to do with how we express the rage and pain we feel toward one who has so brutally sundered the fabric of life. It is about how we contain and direct those feelings and see ourselves in the process.
With the practical dilemma of where to bury recently resolved, there is opportunity to pause and ask hard questions, to engage in personal and collective self-examination. Until we do that, the dilemma hasn’t really been resolved at all. We have simply been relieved of an immediate challenge, leaving all the unanswered questions as a moral goad. In this place of pause, we find ourselves in the gap between the ideal and the real. It is a place in which to consider how we would ideally like to respond and what values we would like our response to express in relation to how we did respond, both within ourselves and outwardly.


Instructively, this is where we found ourselves in the Torah reading cycle during that contentious week, standing between the ideal and the real, seeking our way forward. Just completing the third book of the Torah, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus, we prepared to move on to the fourth book, Sefer Bamidbar, Numbers. Fittingly, Bamidbar means in the desert or in the wilderness, and so we seek our way. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch speaks of the third book as representing the ideal in its focus on the desert sanctuary, the Mishkan as sacred dwelling, place of communion with God and each other. Resuming the factual narrative, as he puts it, Hirsch writes that the fourth book “shows us the relationship of the nation of Israel, as it actually is, to the ideal of its calling as outlined in the Third Book.”

The question is -- what is our ideal calling, as Americans and as members of all the overlapping communities that add an immediate sense of belonging to our lives? I truly believe that if asked in a reflective moment of their highest values, most Americans would speak of compassion, of graciousness, of a desire to be of service, and on some level even of feeling a bond with all people. So what happens when faced with moral challenge, when raw emotion takes over, when openness melts into the morass of “us and them.” I want to believe that the protestors in front of the Worcester funeral parlor that received the body were moved by pain and identification with the victims of the bombing. The ugliness in their ways of expression, however, spoke more of xenophobia and hatred than of compassion and love.

Values that emerge under stress reflect the depth of training throughout our lives by which we strive to inculcate in ourselves, our children, our communities, our nation the best values we hope to live by. So we wrestle with the question of our response to the burial of one become so evil. That wrestling can be part of our struggle to come to a place of deeper meaning and connection in the face of tragedy, seeking glimpses of the transcendent and ultimate. The way of our response under stress can become an affirmation of humanity in the face of its most brutal denial. Honoring the miracle of life and creation, we struggle to see through tears the twisted distortion of what is done with the gift of life. The human body is a sacred vessel into which is breathed the breath of life, nishmat chayyim. That breath is the soul, neshama. Part of our pain is in the bewilderment that comes of wondering what went wrong, how did such pure breath, as breathed even into this body, become so befouled, the image of God so contorted, yet physically present in the body of a person become so evil? As distant from the Source of life and its breath the bomber had become, we affirm life in the face of such denial of life by responding in accord with the hope of that first breath, in accord with who we would most like ourselves to be.

A calmer response, more in keeping with our ideal response allows us to hold our feelings of grief in more sacred embrace. Our anger becomes one in the way of its expression with our grief, and there is greater wholeness in relation to who we are and strive to be, and in our relationship with the victims, for whom our compassion and love remain unsullied.
That every person is created in the image of God is at the source of the Torah’s affirmation of life, even in death. That the human body is sacred is the reason for the Jewish, as well as Muslim, funeral practice to bury the dead as soon as possible after death. Remarkably, this practice is derived from the Torah (Deut. 21:23) in regard to the execution of a criminal, whose body is not to remain overnight; you must bury even him on the same day/ki kavor tik’b’renu bayom hahu. Though the rabbis made capital punishment a virtual legal impossibility, they draw great teaching from this instance in the Torah of what they sought to avoid. Respect for the body of the most debased is an affirmation of life, exactly what we seek to do in the face of life’s denial, as in the brutality of the Marathon bombing. For the sake of the living, may this be the ideal toward which we strive. 


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Reaching Out When Logic Says We Shouldn't




It started with a phone call early last Thursday morning, as I was gathering my books before leaving to teach an early morning Torah class. The call troubled me, distracting me even as I tried to teach a little while later. The next day, the original call and several subsequent calls from the same person continued to distract me. The voice was clearly that of an Israeli, speaking in rather gruff Hebrew, shifting back and forth between Hebrew and English. There were expressions of deference, saying in Hebrew, lichvod ha’rav/with honor for the rabbi, if not a tone of deference. The words came with urgency, a medical emergency, used to live in Boston, recently moved to New York, only health insurance is in Massachusetts. He had returned to Boston, therefore, for a diagnosis and, presumably, treatment of a growth in his mouth. He was convinced it was cancer. He had an appointment later that morning. Taking in as much as I could while standing on one foot – the Talmudic sage Hillel said to love your neighbor as yourself while standing on one foot -- trying to stuff books into my bag, I said I would call him at 9:00 o’clock after my class.

I called him when I returned, at first trying to calm his agitation. He said he was on his way to the hospital. Then the request came for money. Could I wire him money through Western Union? That should have been enough to end the conversation, the connection, but connections don’t necessarily end because we see through them. I told him I would not do that, even though I admit to briefly considering it. I told him I wanted to hear from someone at the hospital. A little while later he called and put someone on the phone whom he said was his doctor. Suspicious, I called the department he said he was calling from, no such doctor. I told him I couldn’t help him. He then left a scathing phone message, aren’t Jews supposed to help each other, you don’ want to help, don’t help, it was between me and the Kaddosh Borechu/the Holy Blessed One. I struggled with myself, what if after all I was wrong, wouldn’t I prefer to err on the side of helping, of compassion, what if it wasn’t a scam, what if he really was sick? I called him back and told him I would pay for a couple of nights in the hostel he was staying in, which I then took care of with a credit card.

That night, feeling uneasy, I did a Google search of the man’s name, arrested twice for fraud, time in prison. There were some others of the same name; perhaps I had the wrong one. The next morning I called the hostel and asked to cancel the reservations I had paid for. The clerk took the information and said she would take care of it even though she shouldn’t on such short notice, telling me to give more notice next time I needed to cancel. All day I struggled with conflicting feelings. On one hand I felt relieved, on the other I felt concerned and guilty, still wondering if perhaps he really was sick, thinking about how he would feel when he returned to the hostel and found he had no place to stay, even if he was a scoundrel. I kept waiting for an angry phone call. Just before Shabbos, the phone rang. Seeing it was him, I didn’t pick it up. A little while later, taking a deep breath, I listened to the message, words of profound apology, so grateful that I had paid for a place to stay, thanking me for all of my help, wishing me a Shabbat shalom and joyful Purim. For all of my consternation, for all of my certainty that it was a scam, I felt a wave of relief that the clerk had not come through with my request to cancel. Most of all, I felt relief that a human being had not experienced a moment of shock and betrayal on my account, however malicious his own intent may have been. 

It was the week whose Torah portion opens with the law of the half-shekel, a tax for the upkeep of the holy Temple (Ex. 30:11-16). A minimal amount of money with maximum symbolic import, the poor are not to give less and the rich are not to give more. All are equal in God’s house, each one but a half, the presence of each needed to create wholeness. We had read the same words a few weeks earlier on Shabbat Sh’kalim/the Sabbath of the Shekels, the first of four special Sabbaths that precede the month of Nisan, each helping us in a different way of preparation for Passover and the journey to freedom.

That week was the third of the four special weeks, Shabbat Parah/the Sabbath of the heifer. The ritual of the red heifer as described in the Torah is a mysterious rite (Numbers 19:1-22). A red heifer is slaughtered and burned, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool dipped into the blood, the priest then to bathe in mayyim chayyim/living waters. Of those involved in the ritual, the pure become impure and the impure are made pure, an intermingling of states, perhaps of identities and perceptions of self. It is a rite to be utilized following contact with death, a way of purification and transition. Marking a way of ritual purification, it comes also to be a way of moral purification, of starting again, reminding us of what it means to be alive, to truly choose life. That is the intent of the prophet Ezekiel’s words as read on that Sabbath, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:16-38).

The Sabbath of the Heifer offers a teaching about the rough edges of life. In its themes and contradictions, this Sabbath confronts our being with our not being, death in the grand scheme and in the small ways of life diminished. There is a dying moment when the rough edges of two half-shekels don’t fit neatly together to bring wholeness. As we reach out to help another, the purity of ideals and intentions can come to feel sullied. The pure may come to feel as impure, all seeming uncertain, confused, the ways of the Holy One mysterious, like the ancient purification ritual itself. Is it possible then, that here too the reverse can be true, that the impure may become pure, touched at least in some small way by its opposite? In reaching out or responding to one whom logic says we shouldn’t, perhaps our ideals and intentions serve a higher purpose and remain unsullied after all. Perhaps on some level his heart was touched, in some small way his spirit made new as it once had been, touched, if but for a moment, by intimations of the holiness underlying the words he spoke, Shabbat shalom, Purim same’ach (a joyful Purim), the name of the Holy One. 

Seeking God’s forgiveness of the people for the sin of the golden calf and renewal for his own flagging faith, Moses asks to see God. Instead, God reveals the essential attributes of compassion by which we are able to see God’s presence in the world and which we are to emulate: Holy One of Being, Holy One of Being, God merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…. Striving toward wholeness amidst life’s contradictions, confident in the judgment of the Holy One, I entered last Shabbos with a sense of inner peace, grateful for a clerk’s error. 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Monday, February 4, 2013

Starting the Day



I awoke with a question trying to form itself at 5:30 this morning.  Before even making it to breakfast I was impacted by the headlines telling of an armed man who has kidnapped a five year- old little boy from his school bus and is holding him hostage in an underground bunker in a backyard somewhere in Alabama.

With the issue of gun control in the foreground of so many conversations, it seems that the universe actively conspires to keep it from sliding into the inner pages of the newspapers.  The forces in favor of instituting a variety of measures aimed at limiting access to a range of weapons organize their strategies. The pro-gun elements re- trench and dig in to resist any limitation on their freedom to be armed.

The question that has been trying to form is one about the mindset of the most vocal and vociferous proponents of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.  What I find myself wanting to ask is “What is the unnamed terror that resides in the collective unconscious of a population that needs to have unencumbered personal access to weapons of the kind that caused the Newtown devastation?”

As I listen to the rhetoric of the leadership of the NRA and other equally strident voices in favor of gun freedom, something inside me wants to ask, “What are they afraid of?”   “What is it in their spirits that makes the world so dangerous for them that they must be armed for any eventuality?”

As I keep nattering about with the question, I realize that it will probably not be answered.  There is something about great fear that seems to get expressed in anger. The anger precludes any insightful conversation about the hidden foundation beneath the anger and the literal defense of that subterranean foundation that requires being heavily armed.

The issue of gun control is a fertile playground for self -examination.  In recent weeks I have been struggling to discern the middle way between a soft and, perhaps, unrealistic compassion on the one hand and a fear based anger response on the other.  I want to be able to respond to my perceived enemy (symbolized by the angry proponent of gun ownership) in a compassionate way – to understand the suffering that motivates him but I do not wish to be lazily complacent in the face of a very difficult and dangerous conundrum.  

Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance for managing personal anger is, through mindfulness, to accept and embrace and cradle my own anger as I would a hurt child, to attend to it with compassion. If I can learn to do this perhaps I can extend the same comfort to another angry and fearful person.  Sadly, on any given day, I would rather they just undergo a complete transformation and give up their gun-wielding ways without my having to interact at all.  Still – that seems to be the first level of engagement – cradling and comforting my own anger –my own fear - - coming into intimate and compassionate relationship with the same fear that resides in me as resides in the pro-gun human being.

In my morning reading two brief statements are so conveniently juxtaposed as to both challenge and support my questing today.  First, I encounter Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: “The burning flames of anger have parched the stream of my being.”  In the presence of this teaching, I am reminded that this is the nature of the spiritual dilemma I encounter in my own question and it prompts another: “Who am I in the face of the parched stream of being who faces me behind the defense of gun-ownership?”  

The second statement I encounter is from Ian McClaren: Be compassionate, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

And so my day begins…..

Vicky Hanjian

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Holding the Heart


Is it possible to love others when one is unloving to one’s self? Is it possible to truly have compassion if one does not allow for self-compassion? Can we truly seek to change the world making it more loving, just, and nonviolent if many people do not take the time to question the relationship we have within ourselves or with ourselves? 

Each day I encounter more and more people who truly desire to be more loving toward others and who truly believe that helping is the basis of their faith and yet, the working out of these actions are done in aggression and through methods of power and control. There appears to be a gap, a large gap that is leading me to believe that without holding one’s self gently one is not able to hold others or the world gently.

But this leads to another societal problem, at least for some in the Christian faith. Taking the time to understand the inner heart. We in America are always doing, always consuming, always working toward achieving, or attaining. Its what we are told we must do in order to be the great America! We consume and in many ways, our desire to “help” is one more method of consumption. Its how we measure who we are, by what we accomplish. Even the faith tradition of which I am apart measures and promotes its success by how much we do: Are we missional enough, are we giving enough, do we have enough programs and offerings to attract the younger generation? And yet I wonder are those the right questions or are they just one more way to distract us from digging deep within and discovering the violence that lives within our hearts? If doing more and doing better is the answer, why is so much such a mess? Why are so many lives with so much so empty? Why are so many people still so uncompassionate? 

While I do not want to entirely stop “doing.” I no longer want to do without knowing who I am. I want to go deep within and discover the hidden recesses of my heart learning to hold myself gently, learning from my heart what is there, seeing myself with eyes of compassion and maybe if I do this, the manner in which I move among my world will gradually change.

I suppose what I am trying to say is until I learn to hold my own heart gently, I may struggle with how I hold the heart of another. 

Kristi McLaughlin

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beyond Conflict to Compassion

I spoke recently as part of a panel at an interfaith gathering. Our challenge for the evening and beyond, until the world and its people is healed and whole, was to share the wisdom of each tradition, seeking together the will and the way to move “Beyond Conflict to Compassion.” We were asked to share from our own faith the sources of compassion from which we draw in reaching out to others. We were asked how we respond to those of our own who would hijack our traditions, who would stop up the wellsprings of compassion, and how with our own, as well, we foster cooperation, building bridges of peace. Thoughts interweave now, of interfaith sharing and of the Sabbath coming.


Inspiration came through an open window, bird song on the breeze, small green shoots breaking through the softening ground….


Such beauty amid so much horror…, of nature’s other side, of human brutality.


To each of my Bar and Bas Mitzvah students I give a small folding magnifying glass to carry with them. Given in memory of my mother, science teacher and naturalist, a magnifying glass has become for me a ritual object, helping to see the small miracles of Creation.


To see and be touched by the beauty of the world around us is to soften the soul…


I do not know that I could ever change an extremist’s view of the world and of others, though I have tried and will continue to try in whatever context I might have such encounter. Dialogue with my own has proven the most difficult of engagements, face to face with the other who is me.


My greater concern is to reach young people and to plant within them seeds of beauty and understanding and hope, to create gardens of the soul in which nonviolence flourishes; in which twisted vines will not choke out the tender shoots of hope bravely rising toward the sun; in which the sweet song of small birds shall not be drowned out by the dissonant din of triumphal shouting. That is my goal as a teacher of Torah.


It takes courage to look at our selves…; (perhaps I should also give out small mirrors, to be held for oneself and then to be turned toward another), to see the image of God as it shines within each one.


There are texts that serve to be the mirror, some known by every Jew, others that are barely known that need to be brought out and learned and lived deeply. And there are ways of reading familiar texts that open them up along with our selves, to deeper meaning and possibility.


Sh’ma Yisra’el, Hashem Elokeynu, Hashem Echad/Hear O Israel, God Our God, God is One. The words are widely known, but more often than not their radical essence fails to be grasped. An affirmation of God’s oneness, the Sh’ma is also an affirmation of the inherent oneness of humanity. If God is one, and all people are created in God’s image of oneness, then all people are one. Bearing witness through the Sh’ma to the fullness of its truth, we shall not be false witnesses.


The Sabbath of the week of the interfaith gathering was Shabbat Zachor/Sabbath of Remembrance, themes bearing directly on our selves in relation to others, memories of pain and hope, leading to the holiday of Purim, complex holiday of joy and salvation, brutality and violence, blood on our hands as well as theirs. Reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, Remember what Amalek did to you…, the warrior chieftain swept down upon us, a massacre, the desert journey just begun, newly freed slaves attacked at our weakest.


We need to remember hurt done to us in order that we not visit such hurt on others. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught of the Sabbath of Remembrance: Every person needs to blot out that portion of evil called through the name Amalek that is hidden in her or his heart…, for the potential for evil is in every person.


Also reading from the book of Leviticus on that Sabbath, of offerings enumerated in all of their details, the rabbis find unlikely locus for teachings of peace. Flowing associatively from instructions for the peace offering, the sh’lamim, of the same root as shalem/shalom, wholeness/peace, we find the surest way to challenge the ways of Amalek. We are to go out and create a different reality, replacing evil with good, “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu/Seek peace and pursue it” -- seek it in your own place and pursue it in another place.


I spend a lot of time following what I see as a stream of nonviolence that flows through the Torah just beneath the surface, at times bubbling up, at times a wellspring waiting to be tapped….


In their desert journey the Israelites come to the stream of the Arnon, to Vahev b'Sufah/Vahev at the Red Sea, a very strange verse that refers to the “Book of the Wars of God” (Numbers 21:14-15). The rabbis create a nonviolent transformation of a seemingly violent reference, Vahev becomes ahava/love; sufa becomes sofa/end. Then the rabbis tell of people engaged in conflict, differing opinions in learning, in life, but they do not move from out of each other's presence until in the end there is love.


So it is for us, we are to engage with each other and not move until we come to love each other. If we would counter our own extremism and triumphalism, and those who cannot extend a hand to the other, feeling their pain and their joy, these are the texts and ways of reading them that Jews need to know. So may we move beyond conflict to compassion, nurturing with love the gentle shoots of spring that rise toward hope.


Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein