Personal Reflections

Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried like a Seed –- to Sprout

Reb Zalman w/ Dalai Lama, 1990, w/ Rebbitzen Eve Ilsen between them

As you receive this letter on the morning of July 4th, 2014, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is being buried  in Boulder, Colorado – and in some deep sense, buried and given new life all around the planet.

Does the death and burial of a Great Teacher mean his light has gone out?  We are taught, “Or zarua latzaddik” — the light of a tzaddik is buried in the fertile soil like a seed.” — It sprouts again and again; and in Zalman’s case, has already and will often again give birth to new seeds of light.

No one else in the 20th/ 21st century  brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed.

1st-Borns, ReBirth, & Passing Over: My Own & All of Us

This year I am feeling haunted by one of the lesser-known aspects of Passover: On the morning before the First Seder –- which means this very morning –— First-born sons (or in this generation, first-born children) are supposed to fast from daybreak till the Seder.  

We first-borns are released from this obligation if we study Torah and then conclude with a “seudat mitzvah” – a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, which means a commandment or a connection-making between ourselves and the Holy One of Being, the Breathing-Spirit of the world.

Why should we first-borns fast as we approach Passover? Presumably in grief, relief, and gratitude – grief for all the first-borns of Egypt, Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place, who according to the Exodus story died that night, and in relief and gratitude that our families of the Godwrestling folk were spared the disaster.

So from 1971 or ’72 on, as I found my way through the Freedom Seder deeper and deeper into Passover and Torah, I have fasted –— or studied Torah – during this day, in honor of the ancient story.

But this year I am feeling a more personal grief. In some strange way I am no longer a “first-born” — because my younger brother died two years ago. Indeed, on his deathbed I said to him that he had become for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him. He nodded, using the little breath left to him: “It’s true.”

When I Sued the FBI -- and Won.

 During the last three months, we have been learning a great deal about massive and continuing wiretapping of the phone calls and emails of hundreds of millions of Americans by “our” Government.

For me, this has had a strong personal “kick” to it. To explain why, I have to share with you a story that began 45 years ago.

Beginning in 1968, the FBI undertook an effort called “COINTELPRO” –  short for “counter-intelligence program” –-  that used such  illegal means as warrantless wiretapping,  theft, forgery, agents provocateurs,  and worse –- to disrupt the lawful  civil rights,  Black-liberation, and antiwar movements.

It was directly supervised by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, with orders to keep it totally secret within the FBI.

But in 1975, post-Watergate investigations by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church made COINTELPRO widely known

So in 1976, nine Washingtonians – including me – sued the FBI for violating our First Amendment right “of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Our suit won.

Years later, it became the subject of one chapter of a book by ELLEN ALDERMAN and CAROLINE KENNEDY.  —  Yes, the Caroline Kennedy who as I write has just been appointed Ambassador-designate to Japan.

You can read the whole chapter at

The book is about the real-life importance of various provisions of the Bill of Rights in protecting the rights of grass-roots American citizens. Its title is In Our Defense:  The Bill of Rights in Action (Morrow, 1991).

"In Our Defense": Caroline Kennedy & Ellen Alderman: the Bill of Rights

[Below you will find a chapter from a book on the real-life effects of various provisions of the Bill of Rights in protecting the rights of grass-roots American citizens. This chapter is about the right of free assembly, and it focuses on a court case brought by nine Washingtonians — including me — against the FBI and the DC Police Department.  The book is by ELLEN ALDERMAN and

My First Arrest: Gwynn Oak in Baltimore, 1963

(Written July 7, 2013; Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Waskow. All rights reserved. Write me at  to ask permission to publish.) )

How did I come to be arrested 50 years ago? On July 4, 1963, I was a Senior Fellow at a tiny research center, the Peace Research Institute. As I had done for a number of years on the Fourth, I was rereading the Declaration of Independence. when I got a call from Carol Cohen McEldowney, may her memory be a blessing. She was my research assistant.

Bob Edgar, Presente

 Dear friends,
 This is a letter I never imagined writing, and am deeply grief-stricken to be writing.
Rev. Bob Edgar, a great public servant and my friend, died yesterday.
I last saw him on January 15, when he spoke at a gathering at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House,  sponsored by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, to protest Presidential inaction on the climate crisis.

My brother is dying

My brother Howard  is dying.

Three years younger, healthier all his life than I have been, he is dying of what began as the same cancer that I have in these same last months lived through and lived beyond.

Uncanny that our lives are so intertwined –— and so divergent.

Indeed, twenty years ago we wrote a book together about how our lives have intertwined – and diverged. Becoming Brothers, we called it. And now, after many years in which he became for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him, years in which he taught me how to love, he is dying, leaving me bereft, bereaved.  Profoundly sad.

He lives in Portland, Oregon, a continent away from me in Philadelphia. I have just come from spending four days with him, to tell him what he has meant to me, and that I love him; and in tears to say goodbye.

And at the same time, I am filled with joy and energy at my own deliverance. I have thought about “survivors’ guilt,” but only thought about it. I have not –- at least not yet –- been gripped by guilt that he is dying while I survive. Instead, I am living with a two-fold awareness: grief and joy.

Joy/Heartbreak/Grandchild: That's one word, not three.

Last week (mid-July 2010), I described what I was doing right then, in a note on my FaceBook page. This is what I said:

"In theory I'm on vacation at Cape May, Delaware. [Cape May, I later remembered, is actually in New Jersey, just across the Bay from Delaware.] It has been a delicious time with Phyllis-- my life-partner, favorite rabbi, and co-author -- and other family, including our ten-month old granddaughter, who is a hoot.