Author: Vicky

That Was Then, This Is Now

              The atmosphere in two of our island faith communities has been charged with challenge and hope and reconciliation and renewal.  Two weeks ago, Christians and Jews, folk…

The Trek to Freedom that Is the March for Our Lives

The symmetry is staggering. The Exodus begins tomorrow. And so it did and so does. It was the Sabbath that is called in the Jewish calendar Shabbat Ha’Gadol/the Great Sabbath, the Sabbath before Passover. It is the portal, the starting point of the Exo…

The people who walked in darkness….

The latest storm to hit our island has passed into history, leaving many without electrical power. For many, this also meant living without heat and running water.  We were fortunate on our lane.  The power was restored within eight hou…

Fantasy

            Ever since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Valentine’s Day massacre, I have been entertaining a fantasy.  I keep trying to discern the level of violence that still f…

Truth Matters

Truth matters! In a time of increasing propaganda, the deliberate repetition of misinformation and outright and blatant lying, we need to reaffirm the value of truth telling.Most people learn the value of telling the truth early in life. Parents …

“Last Gasp of a Dying Past

After the most recent degrading remarks by our President, I concluded he would have wondered how someone born in such a shithole as a manger, along with all those animals, could be an object of worship. His foul mouthed remarks about Haiti and Af…

“What Would You Do?”

What would you do? That is the question that lingers long after the last scene in a Belgian film, “Two Days, One Night,” that my wife and I watched recently. So too it is the question that is meant to follow us through Torah, lingering in the spaces that give rise to midrashic searching, to questioning and wrestling. I am hardly a film critic and am wary of watching if I don’t know a film’s “V” rating, the “Victor factor,” whether too violent or too sad, preferring to watch movies mostly to find respite from life’s harsher realities. Drawn to a Belgian film initially as a connection with Mieke’s roots and family, it offered a powerful reflection on life, pushing at times the limits of the “V” rating, but no more difficult than engaging with parts of Torah. The film became for me a commentary on Torah and life, as the two are joined in the context of living life with people, bringing us to ask, “what would you do?”
In the film, which unfolds in the course of one weekend, the main character, Sandra, is away from her factory job on a health leave as she struggles with depression.         
Highlighting the stigma of mental illness as a subplot, the owner of the factory where she works is wary of Sandra’s return. Duplicitously setting the stage for the moral drama that we are meant to become part of, the owner of the factory offers a choice to the other workers.
      They can each receive a 1000 Euro bonus or Sandra can return to work. It can’t be both. With the devoted support of one co-worker who has told Sandra of the insidious choice, labor rights now another subplot, Sandra spends one weekend, thus “two days, one night,” searching out each of the other workers. Gathering courage from out of her despair, she goes to each one to put a human face, hers, on the choice that they and we are faced with. What would you do?
Through the lens of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), that question becomes the test of what it means to truly live. Our response to “what would you do?” becomes the moral measure of life, our own and of life itself, of what it means to live with wholeness, integrity, and truth. The question becomes more pointed when made real in given moments of our lives, those times when we need to answer in real terms, not “what would you do?”, but “what are you going to do?”
The Torah portion begins with a setting of the stage, with words that on the surface seem simple, even pedestrian, telling of Yaakov’s living in Egypt for the last seventeen years of his life. Now on his deathbed, we are told, Vayechi Yaakov/and Jacob lived…. That phrase offers its own teaching, a question pulsating beneath its apparent simplicity, “what does it mean to truly live?” About to be gathered to his people, Yaakov’s life swirls before him in all of its days and nights, all of its highs and lows, a life filled with so much struggle and strife, so much pain. Finally finding some solace in the dimming light of harsh truth, a dysfunctional family whose torment he is largely responsible for, there is a certain comfort in the questions that emerge. The questions that begin on one person’s deathbed become for us questions of life that are comforting in their way of encouraging us to live. Yaakov as Yisrael is calling us as his children, b’nei yisra’el/children of Israel to rise up each day to engage life and people with integrity.
The moral choice in whether to think only of oneself and one’s own follows Sandra through the film as she visits through one weekend each of her co-workers. The question put to each person she visits increasingly becomes our own, will they/would we forgo a sizeable bonus to still include among us one whose need for work is equal to our own? So too, Yaakov’s life in flashing before him also flashes before us. As he sees, perhaps through tears, those moments in which he lied and cheated, twisting the bonds of love with his father and brother, colluding in untruths with his mother, favoring one wife and one child to the detriment of all, does it matter that seamy decisions might have been shrouded in the assumption of a greater good, as his mother believed, that he and not his brother was the more worthy progenitor? The question remains, in film, in Torah, in life, “what would you do?” As Yaakov wrestled in the night, so do we and seek our way.
     As his deathbed wrestling plays out, even now more urgently than his wrestling with the angel long ago, Yaakov calls for his beloved son, Yosef, and asks him, even pleads, v’asita imadi chesed vemes/deal with me in loving-kindness and truth (Gen. 47:29). Still in this world, the father asks his son to try to hold him in both kindness and truth. It is only after death that we speak in Jewish tradition of all that we do on behalf of the dead as acts of chesed shel emes/kindness of truth, or true loving-kindness. The frailties and failures of a life do not disappear with death, but are then held as part of one whole, an ideal with which we may struggle at times, yet to be wrapped up in kindness that allows the dead to be more fully gathered to their people. So Yaakov pleads, that he not  be buried in Egypt, but brought home to Canaan to sleep in the ancestral grave in the Cave of the Machpelah.
That Yaakov sought to fully live in Egypt in the latter years of his life gives reality to his lasting teaching for us. It was here, in exile, away from home, away from all he had hoped would be, that he wrestles more deeply and earnestly than he had before. It is here that he finally finds at least an approximation of wholeness, even if yet imperfect, with and within his family. The holy RIM, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Rothenberg reminds us of Egypt as the narrow places in our own lives, Mitzrayim, from meytzar/strait, the places in which we are challenged to yet live with truth and integrity, to make our way without losing who we are. Ironically, it is Yaakov in Jewish tradition who is associated with truth, not as representing the ideal of truth, but as a frail human being who struggles, like all of us, toward the truth. Needing the blessing of truth to help him on the way of truth, we say in words of prayer each morning, thereby making the gift our own, titen emet l’Yaakov/give truth to Yaakov (Micah 7:20). Helping us to see Yaakov’s very human struggles as our own, however they may differ in degree, the RIM teaches, in this way we are also able to live in every Mitzrayim that is each one’s/al y’dei zeh y’cholin l’chi’yot b’chol ha’mitzrayim she’yesh l’chol….
Whether in the day-to-day kindnesses we do for others, even at our own expense, or in allowing for the inconvenient presence of social programming in our own back yards, or in paying taxes with a sense of prideful purpose for the sake of the common good, or in recognizing that “me first-ism” is not the way of truth in either interpersonal or international relations, these are the real life situations in which we are called to act with integrity. These are the “narrow places” in which we wrestle, not in the gathering of our days, but all along the way, in the real moments of life, as in “Two days, One Night.” Holding all of the tensions between kindness and truth, with compassion for our selves and others, the question from film, from Torah, from life becomes our own, “what are you going to do?” emerging from “what would you do?”

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

From Resistance to Renewal

         I had been looking through a box of old political, peace, and social justice pins, reminders of long ago demonstrations and projects for the sake of a greater good. I was looking for one pin in particular, one that I had thought about as I read and reflected on the Torah portion called Lech L’cha/go forth, or, as read literally, go to yourself (Gen. 12:1-17:27). I had seen the pin not too long ago, but now it seems to have disappeared, at least for the moment. Perhaps that is part of its teaching, to tell of a time when the way it represents will no longer be needed, when we shall no longer be called to stand up to unjust power and so to speak our truth. Perhaps also, the disappearance of this pin is to remind that what it represents is not enough by itself.
The missing pin is of a black symbol emblazoned starkly on a white background. The symbol is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the Omega. Perhaps as the final letter it points also to when it shall no longer be needed, to a time beyond which there shall no longer be need to respond to its call. The Omega – Ω –became the symbol of draft resistance during the Vietnam War era, and thereby a general symbol of resistance. I can see that missing symbol so clearly, wearing it on my jacket wherever I went over a good number of years. I wore it when I went to the YMCA where I worked with kids while going to college, and when I served breakfast to many of the same kids early in the morning before school as part of a free breakfast program. So many of the issues are sadly the same today, so many human needs left unmet in the face of inhuman policies and a burgeoning military budget.
Throughout the land there is a movement of resistance rising today. In great gatherings of commitment, in vigils and walks, rallies and meetings, arrests and fasts, we are refusing to cooperate with evil, with brutality, with hate. Raising voices and signs, wearing old and new pins to remind, we are challenging in ways both great and small all that demeans and denies a common humanity that joins all people as one. In the midst of resistance, we still need to pause and to consider that resistance is not enough by itself. Resistance is a necessity of the moment, but even from within the moment and movement of resistance, we need to look beyond, to what it is that will follow when  morning finally comes.
            If a new day will dawn, we need to create its ways now and nurture them into being from in the very midst of resistance, modeling what it is with which we would replace the ways of hate and injustice, of violence and brutality. Children need breakfast, now as then, and our acts of public resistance later in the day will not feed them. The very feeding of children, of doing what is right in public and in private, of refusing to demean another, of standing up for those who are put down and mistreated, of loving in the face of hate that proliferates, all of this is the way of resistance. 
Living lives of goodness and decency, smiling at strangers, helping those in danger of deportation who need sanctuary, all of this represents sacred resistance; the way of the future lived now. Gandhi spoke of the need to create new structures in the midst of the freedom struggle, the meeting of human needs all along the way, as “constructive program.” While essential, it is not enough to challenge what we know is so wrong. Resistance is the starting point, the necessary beginning right from within which we nurture the new world into being.
The critical and creative tension between resistance to evil and the creation of an alternative reality is held between the end of the Torah portion No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32) and the unfolding of new possibility as it begins in the portion, Lech L’cha. Indeed, our calling is in those words, go forth, and in its literal meaning, go to your self, find your calling, find your place in the struggle and in the journey. It is here that the Slonimer Rebbe (a teacher of our time) introduces his signature theme, that every person has their own unique task and purpose in this world, their own unique way of bringing tikun/repair. In the midst of resistance to evil, we are each called in our own way to bring goodness and healing with every step of our going forth, to replace evil with good.
The journey of Avram and Sarai, not yet Abraham and Sarah, began before they are told to go forth, before God says for the first time, Lech L’cha. At the end of the portion No’ach, there is a cryptic statement, five simple words, va’yikach terach et avram b’no/and Terach took Avram his son. Where did he take him, and why? From a young age, Avram had seen through the shallowness and cruelty of his society. Both literally and figuratively he smashed his society’s idols and called for a new way, a way that recognized the creator God and the equality of all people created in the image of one God. Resistance had become dangerous and Nimrod as tyrannical ruler of the land sought to kill Avram. His father took him to save his life.
Resisting tyranny, Avram and Sarai pitch their tent along the way. It is a tent whose sides are open in every direction, that from wherever they have come, all who appear might find safety and sanctuary, welcomed without question. On their journey from resistance to renewal, they teach the way of kindness, washing the feet of wayfarers, feeding them, and offering shelter. As our legacy, their way of kindness becomes the constructive program that is at the heart of resistance, creating a new way from within the midst of challenging all that is wrong in the world around us. In the disappearance of a small pin that calls us to resist, a black Omega on a white backdrop is the hope that someday resistance will be unnecessary, 
that we will have arrived in a time of vision fulfilled, of peace and justice, of harmony and hope, the day that is all Shabbat shalom/Sabbath peace. Sowing seeds along the way, deeds of kindness to soften the ground, then shall encircling flowers blossom around the tent of open sides and all shall see the beauty that from resistance has arisen.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Living The Nightmare – Living The Vision


            I walked into our bedroom in the midst of the evening news.  The TV screen was filled with the warning of an imminent nuclear attack with the emphatic statement “This is NOT a drill!”   In the split second of seeing the announcement on the screen, I felt the terrible adrenalin surge of fear.  A sense of unreality filled my field of vision – along with an “O God – It is happening!”  And then in a fraction of a second, the newscast continued with the story of the  mistaken alarm that had terrified the people of Hawaii – warning of an incoming ballistic missile aimed at that lush, beautiful, often dreamed of corner of the world.
 
           I had trouble falling asleep that night and when I finally did, my sleep was broken and restless.  At around 3 AM I laid there and asked myself “What’s going on – What is disturbing my rest?”  In an instant the answer came clear.  On a physical level, my body was still processing the adrenaline surge that came with the fear associated with those few seconds of partial truth as I responded to the notice on the TV screen.   But beyond that realization, I also knew that old, deeply seated anxieties were being activated again – memories going back more than 60 years.
            I do not recall there ever being much conversation in our home about the possibility of nuclear attack during the cold war.  But what I do recall is the purchase of a gas powered generator – just in case.  I remember the collection of gallon jugs of water that were frequently refreshed and refilled – sitting on the floor in our basement.  I remember the appearance of multiple cans of different kinds of food appearing on the pantry storage shelves at the foot of the basement stairs -this in a time when frozen foods had become the modern suburban housewife’s blessing.  I remember the construction of a rudimentary extra bathroom in the basement.
            More vividly, I remember the air raid drills at school, the huddling under my coat in an underground hallway away from windows.  I remember strategizing in my head about getting to the school bus that would take me home to the safety of my family if there was an attack.  I remember wondering what would happen if the bus had to stop and we had to get out and seek cover.  Would it stop next to a ditch where I could find protection?  I remember wondering what to do about wearing light colored clothing and wrapping myself in a white sheet to protect myself from radiation if it was winter and I was wearing dark colored clothing and  a white sheet wasn’t available.  I remember waking from dreams in a sweat because the bombs had come.   I was 9 years old.
            As I listened to the follow up reporting on the news, I heard a father telling how he had gathered his family in an inside bathroom without windows – huddling in a bathtub  for protection.              I heard of families running from home to the mountains for safety. I saw people frantically running in the streets, uncertain how to make themselves safe.   I heard of  human beings desperately trying to reach their love ones to say  “I love you.”  A nightmare revisited.
            I realized that so little has changed since the nuclear threat trauma of  my childhood.  We seem to still live with the mentality that there will be a safe place to hide – that we can protect ourselves by retreating to a room without windows, that the mountains away from a city will provide safe haven.  I am just waiting for the government’s instructions to keep a supply of white sheets handy to wrap ourselves in as protection from radiation.
            At the highest levels of government, nuclear sword rattling seems to be a fun game between bullies who have no grounding in the history of the reality of what nuclear weapons do.   They do not see thousands of human beings being killed instantly.   They do not acknowledge the desecration of the earth, the destruction of the environment, the radiation poisoning and cancer that will kill survivors.  They do not acknowledge the possibility of a nuclear winter in which  humans, animals, crops, and, quite possibly, the planet itself will die.  At times I wonder if the bullies with the power have any inkling that they themselves might be incinerated – or are they so certain that their bunkers will allow them to live on as they always have.
            It takes a lot of will and energy and prayer to draw myself back from the edge of the abyss of fear and anger and resentment engendered by the willful lack of consciousness and empathy and compassion that seem to order the days of our supreme leaders.   I want my grandchildren to sleep through peaceful, nightmare free nights.  I want to hold on to the vision of  the Biblical prophets of a time when creation will be at peace with itself.  The best I can do today is turn to beloved thinkers and writers and prophets who continue to hold forth the vision when I am temporarily unable to hold it  myself.   Today, I turn to Howard Zinn:
            To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic.  It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, at least the possibility of sending this top of a world spinning in a different direction.  And if we do act, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.   The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
            I have today to live in a way that human beings should live – – in defiance of all that engenders fear and anger and disgust.  I have today in which to honor the holiness of creation.  I have today in which  to reach out in kindness and compassion to the beleaguered checker at the Stop and Shop.  I have today in which to join my companions in the prayerful rest of Shabbat – re-committing ourselves to the repair of the world.  I have today in which to claim a marvelous victory.