Letter from a Birmingham Jail – for MLK Tu B’Shevat 5782

This year Tu B’Shevat coincides with Martin Luther King weekend. From that spiritual confluence comes this setting of excerpts from Letter from a Birmingham Jail, set to haftarah trope by Bayit board chair R. David Evan Markus. Following the four-part structure of the traditional Tu B’Shevat seder in which we journey through the four seasons and the four worlds, these four excerpts are keyed to each of those four worlds. Here is a slide show of the four excerpts, a link to the four slides on google drive, and a downloadable PDF of the text marked-up for your own chanting.


Letter from a Birmingham Jail for MLK Tu BiShvat [Google Slides]

MLK – Birmingham Jail – in trope [PDF]



By Rabbi David Evan Markus, a founding builder at Bayit.

A New Digital Kapparot Before Yom Kippur


The custom of kapparot dates back to the Talmud. According to this tradition, on the day before Yom Kippur, people take a chicken, swing it three times above their head, symbolically transferring their sins to it before the chicken is slaughtered and then donated to charity. 

There is something powerful about observing the ritual slaughter, something that few do nowadays. While there is little doubt that partaking in such a ritual can be a humbling reminder of humanity’s place in creation, it is also a barbaric ritual. This does not even mention the trauma it can create, especially in children. 

Just because something has been practiced for thousands of years does not mean it must continue as it has been. This is especially timely as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced our community to redo many of our rituals anyway. 

A New Kind of Giving

It is not a new idea to suggest that money can take place of chickens in the kapparot ritual. What I am proposing takes the tzedakah piece of this ritual and embodies it with additional meaning, adding a more personal and more meaningful touch into something many people would be doing anyway.  

At High Holidays, many synagogues hold food drives. It is far more efficient for food pantries to receive monetary contributions which do not have to be sorted, do not expire, and the food pantry can stretch the dollars to purchase even more than what the individual donations can. 

Eliminating the food drive and giving people the opportunity to donate through a modernized kapparot would provide for an enhanced experience. Ironically, with some people moving to an online format for worship, this ritual has even more potential and a greater reach.


The ritual of kapparot is actually quite simple. One takes the money (check or the intended amount written on a piece of paper), places it in a handkerchief or pouch, waves it above the head three times and says: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This money will go to tzedakah and I will enter and proceed to a good, long life and to peace.”

So how would this work as a digital ritual? Here are seven proposed steps:


    1. A short explanation of kapparot and this event will be advertised through various channels. Participants will register and receive a Zoom link.
    2. The program will begin with soft music, introductions and then participants sharing what they are hoping to get out of this experience. The enclosed texts could be used as a guide:The facilitator can adjust this opening text study according to the backgrounds and needs of the participants.
    3. The chat should be utilized in addition to people just speaking aloud.
    4. The facilitator will then ask the participants to place their “offering” in an envelope, handkerchief, sock, etc. This can be done creatively. They could even a hold a phone to represent an online donation! The facilitator will provide the information (i.e. website, mailing address) for the food bank. 
    5. Swing the pouch or handkerchief over your head three times as you recite the following blessing:
    6. Participants will then be asked to prepare their donation to be sent to the food pantry.
    7. The ritual will end with the group offering each other blessings for the new year.

This digital ritual gives everyone a chance to get “in the mood” for High Holidays, and it provides everyone the joy of doing a mitzvah for others, even those who do not typically lead services and/or read Torah. This online kapparot is qualitatively different from an onsite kapparot because Zoom allows for people to connect with each other face-to-face and heart-to-heart even as we also focus inward on the work of the season.

The silver lining to this digital / hybrid / multi-access moment is that it allows us to experience an intimacy we might not otherwise. Ironically, we are now in smaller groups online, we have the chat feature, and instead of being at a large service where we are passively listening to prayers which may or may not speak to us (and some people may opt out because of it), we have the newfound opportunity to explore these prayers, discuss their meaning, and also reinvent what we do… including the ancient ritual of kapparot. We can productively raise money for the food pantry, include everyone whether they can physically be in the same place or not, and give new ownership to an ancient ritual. The chickens will thank us!


Lisa Rothstein Goldberg, MSW, MAJCS is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY). She has a love of Jewish learning and making ritual meaningful to the modern world. She earned her MSW from University of Maryland at Baltimore and her MA in Jewish Communal Service from Baltimore Hebrew University. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and their two daughters.

Digital Afikomen: Building the “Seek and Find” Online

Here’s a stellar example of adapting the physical to the digital, right in time for home Passover rituals online.

From R. Lex Rofeberg (Bayit’s newest Sounding Board member, of Judaism Unbound fame) and his mom, Ruth Lebed, comes this digital Afikoman hunt. Of particular note is its inherent interactivity and easy use in collective contexts. Not only does it invite folks to “find” things, but it also asks them to use what they found to create a weblink to a hidden website – multiple layers of seek and find.

Notice the “meta” feel of this digital “fractal.” This spiritual technology asks seder-goers to seek something without assurance that we’ll find it.  From what we find (perhaps together, just like a physical afikoman hunt), we must seek a second time by making order (in Hebrew, literally seder) of what we found.  Then we must use what we found to seek a third time by going online.

Here too, we see a terrific example of not suffering the digital medium but instead using its potential.  One might imagine putting young (at heart) folks on Candid web-Camera as they search for a physical afikoman, but that’s not necessarily interactive and doesn’t map cleanly to the digital medium.  Rather than use the digital medium as a second-best way to depict the more familiar physical ritual, Judaism Unbound re-creates the ritual in a digital context, not only translating but also deepening the essential feel of a search.

Kudos to Lex, Ruth and the Judaism Unbound team. Chag sameach!

For JU’s afikoman search, visit its webpage for Passover 2021.

By Rabbi David Markus.

Color the Omer is here!

Mazal tov to Bayit builders Dr. Shari Berkowitz and Steve Silbert, whose collaboration brought Color The Omer to life and into print this week.

Here’s an awesome piece about the book at Sketchnote Army.

And here’s a blog post about the behind-the-scenes of how the book came into being, from founding builder R. Rachel Barenblat: Labor of love.

Read more about the book, glimpse a few interior images, and order a copy for just $13 USD on Amazon and its global affiliates!


Announcing Holy at Home

Many communities face Days of Awe this year that will be streamed / Zoom-based, rather than in person. This will be a High Holiday season like no other we’ve known.

Bayit: Building Jewish creates, refines, and uplifts meaningful tools for “building Jewish.” In this pandemic time, when so many are confined to home, we heard that many communities need a set of editable machzor slide decks, designed for meaningful and interactive Zoom services.

Enter Holy at Home, an editable set of machzor slide decks available in return for a donation to Bayit. (Information on that below — or you can jump directly to How To Receive The Editable Slides.) We titled the slide decks Holy at Home because that’s the work of this time: sanctifying the place where we are, wherever we are. They are adapted from Days of Awe, a curated machzor text designed for use across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

About Holy at Home

This is the first slide in the first slide deck.

Holy at Home is a set of six powerpoint slide decks:

  • Erev Rosh Hashanah (interweaving Ma’ariv / the evening service with the Sefardic custom of a seder for Rosh Hashanah),
  • Rosh Hashanah morning,
  • Kol Nidre,
  • Yom Kippur morning with Yizkor,
  • Yom Kippur afternoon (Avodah and Mincha), and
  • Ne’ilah.

All are editable, so each community can customize in ways that will meet their needs.

Much of what’s in these six slide decks comes from Days of Awe, the machzor that I curated and released some years ago via my blog Velveteen Rabbi. If you’ve been using Days of Awe, you’ll recognize a lot of what’s here — Hebrew and English, readings and prayers, tradition and creative riffs on tradition, poetry and artwork, translations and transliterations. That said, the original material from Days of Awe has also been adapted and improved for these slide decks in a variety of ways:

  • We’ve made many typo fixes;
  • Every word of Hebrew is now transliterated and translated;
  • There are full-color images adorning most slides, because that’s possible via slides in a way it was not possible in print;
  • I’ve steered away from prayer variations or settings that are rounds, or that work primarily because of harmony (given that it’s not possible to sing simultaneously over Zoom);
  • And there are also a lot of new things added to these slide decks — new liturgies, new poems, new illustrations, new approaches to Haftarah — that aren’t in the book.

Our team is continuing to proofread for misplaced nekudot, and if we find errors, we commit to fixing them by August 15 and will share updated slides as needed. We’re releasing the slide decks now to give you maximum time for dreaming and adapting. (We’ve also released a few “expansion packs” / updates  — for instance, version 1.0 didn’t include a a shofar service for second day Rosh Hashanah, but we added that among other things in version 1.2; we’re now up to version 1.5.)

The slide decks offer multiple choices to those who lead prayer. For some prayers, there are multiple options — e.g. three versions of Ahavat Olam, two variations on the Amidah, three versions of Aleinu. Once you donate and receive a download link for the slide decks, you can copy the slide decks, choose which option you want to use for any given prayer, and delete the other slides. And because every word of the Hebrew, English, and transliteration is editable, you can adapt or change the slides as needed.

How to Preview

Here’s a link to a folder on google drive that contains six PDF files of the slides. This is so you can page through them and see what’s in them. (Edited to add: we are aware that some of the slides in the PDF decks display lines of Hebrew as though they run over / appear on top of English words. This is a problem with the PDFs only and is not the case with the powerpoint decks, we promise!)

How to Receive the Editable Slides

If what’s here meets your needs, then we ask for a donation. Suggested donation is $360; if you serve a community of more than 200 families, we suggest $720; donations of up to $1000 are welcome; and if you truly can’t afford the $360, let us know.

Donations can be made here. (Please indicate that the donation is for the machzor.)

Once we receive your donation, we’ll send you a link to a different folder on google drive from which you can copy the six slide decks (in .pptx / PowerPoint format) and then adapt them as needed. Please bear with us; this process is not automated, and there may be delays if our bookkeeper is away from their desk or if I am away from mine. We will get the slides to you as quickly as we can.

The PowerPoint slide decks can be opened and edited in PowerPoint, in Keynote, or in Google Slides.

For those who want more information about what’s in the slide decks, read on!

More About What’s Inside

  • The erev Rosh Hashanah slide deck interweaves Ma’ariv with the Sefardic custom of a Rosh Hashanah seder. We’re doing a Ma’ariv + seder in my community because seder is an experience we’re accustomed to having at home, and that felt to us like a good doorway into this high holiday season which we’ll be celebrating from home. If that feature doesn’t suit you, you can delete those slides from your copy of the slides. 
  • The erev Rosh Hashanah slide deck also includes more of Kabbalat Shabbat than is in most machzorim. (Again, if this doesn’t meet your needs, you can delete those slides.)
  • There are creative versions of the Haftarah readings for each holiday. 
  • The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning Torah readings are not there — there’s a slide that says “Torah TBD” — because we are all grappling with how best to manage Torah service from home. (Will we do a full Torah reading? Will we do a discussion? Will we engage with the text in some other way?) I trust each community top make their own choices about Torah.
  • I know that some communities may do an abbreviated Amidah, or something silent / contemplative. Others may want or need full-text. I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to page through silent Amidah prayers at the right pace for everyone. Therefore, for the silent evening Amidah on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there’s a single slide that lists the themes of the prayer, as a guide to silent contemplation, and there is a downloadable file in google drive contains the full text so that those who wish can daven at their own pace silently.
  • For the morning Amidah, there is a one-slide meditative option (a list of the prayer’s themes, for silent contemplation) and also a 20-slide full-text Amidah option for davening aloud. If you prefer, you can delete the Amidah slides and just use the downloadable PDF — or do something entirely different that works for your kahal.
  • For the silent Yizkor memorial prayers there is also a downloadable google doc so that people can move through those silent prayers at their own pace. 
  • The slide decks include work from Yehuda Amchai z”l, R’ Rachel Barenblat, R’ Leila Gal Berner, Leah Goldberg z”l, R’ Jeff Goldwasser, Sandy Haight,  R’ Burt Jacobson, Rodger Kamenetz, Jane Kenyon z”l, R’ Riqi Kosovske adapting R’ Joseph Meszler, R’ Evan Krame, Anna Kronick, R’ David Markus, Stephen Mitchell, R’ David de Sola Pool z”l, Rick Recht,  Len Radin, R’ Jack Riemer, R’ Rami Shapiro, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, Rav Kohenet Taya Ma Shere, Steve Silbert, Herman Taube, and R’ Shohama Wiener.

If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We hope these tools will be useful to you.

ADDENDUM: If there are things missing that you’d like to see in these slides, let us know. As of July 15, Rosh Hashanah morning has been updated (to version 1.2) as follows:

  • added a full shofar service for second day Rosh Hashanah
  • added an aleinu after shofar service
  • added a Hineni
  • added a short ashrei to psukei d’zimrah
  • added a long ashrei in English to psukei d’zimrah
  • added full Hebrew and transliteration to Yishtabach
  • added Yotzer Or in Hebrew, English, and transliteration
  • added full birchot hashachar

As of July 30, the slide decks have been updated again (to version 1.3) as follows:

  •  updated the Rosh Hashanah candle blessing
  • added HaYom Ta’amtzeinu to Yom Kippur morning
  • added We Are As Clay / Ki Hineh KaChomer to Kol Nidre
  • added Ahavah Rabbah in full to Rosh Hashanah morning (can also be used on Yom Kippur morning)
  • added a creative haftarah (Mary Oliver poem) to Rosh Hashanah morning for second day
  • added Janowski Avinu Malkeinu to Rosh Hashanah morning for second day

As of August 3, we are now sharing version 1.4. In this update:

Update 1.4:

  • added a full alphabetical acrostic Al Chet to Kol Nidre (slides can be copied and used in other YK services also)
  • added full Torah service on R”H morning (slides can be copied and used on YK also)
  • added Ps 148 to RH morning
  • added a verse of America the Beautiful as a Prayer For Our Country on RH morning
  • added Healer of the Broken Hearted as an alternate Mi Sheberach on RH morning
  • added Pure Heart / Psalm 51:12 to Psukei on R”H morning
  • added Lulei He’emanti to RH eve
  • added Vayechulu to RH eve
  • added Mikolot Mayim Rabim to R”H eve
  • added full text of El Adon to R”H morning
  • added V’hasheivota as an additional Aleinu option in R”H evening (can easily be used elsewhere also)
  • added Min HaMeitzar to Kol Nidre

As of August 9, 2020, we are now sharing version 1.5. In this update:

Update 1.5:

  • added Torah service materials to YK morning
  • added We Are Opening before Shema in KN
  • added Lemaancha / For Your Sake to YK morning
  • added prayer for Israel and prayer for our country to YK morning
  • added a new three-part Al Chet in English with Hebrew refrain (one slide each dedicated to inner work, pandemic, racism)
  • added a bit of Ps 27 after birchot ha-shachar
  • added If It Be Your Will to Y”K morning
  • added a new “Who will choose…” reading to Unetaneh Tokef for YK morning



By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Seeking Submissions for Jewish Doorways

A contest for heart, spirit, and mind. We are expanding JewishDoorways, with more entryways to making life events meaningful. We’d love for you to be a part of this project. Each “doorway” for a life event includes several elements: texts, psalms, poems, prayers and songs.  We welcome contributions of a poem, a song, a text, a prayer, or a psalm for any of the 12 life events on Doorways (e.g. “Welcoming Children,” “Growing Up,” “B. Mitzvah,” etc — see the whole list here.)

Gather or create the elements of a ritual to make this time memorable. Give source attribution if what you’re sharing is not original work. Remember, our audience varies. Some might not be proficient in Hebrew while others are scholars.  Yet, everyone needs rituals to sanctify their life’s journey. Submit your new “doorway.” If we add it to the website, we’ll uplift and promote your work on social media and we’ll send you a check for $180.

Email submissions to evan.krame@gmail.com. We look forward to reading your work!



Rabbi Evan Krame

Mah Nora HaMakom Hazeh – a chant for (digital) sacred space

One of the challenges of convening a group for prayer over Zoom is shifting gears into sacred space.

How can we sanctify the space where each of us is planted, knowing that as we shelter-in-place during the pandemic, our desks or dining tables or coffee tables serve purposes both secular and sacred? The table from which I’m joining the Zoom call might be the same table where I paid bills an hour ago, or folded laundry, or homeschooled my kid. How can we skillfully make that space feel holy when it’s time for prayer?

And how can we sanctify the placeless place of the Zoom room itself? A Zoom room doesn’t have the comfort or majesty or familiarity of a synagogue. We may associate Zoom spaces with committee meetings and other secular activities, not the sacred purpose of prayer. And a Zoom room isn’t a “place,” exactly, any more than the internet is a “place.” How can we make that “place” holy and fitting to hold a community gathering in prayer?

At a recent digital Shabbaton convened to explore these questions, we used this chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere for both of these purposes. We sang it as a call-and-response. (Participants were muted, but the two of us sang the back-and-forth, inviting the community to sing along with the response half of the chant.) We sang it explicitly to sanctify the physical place from which each of us was calling in and to sanctify the Zoom space.

We used this chant as our melodic and thematic throughline. We sang it at the start of services, during the d’var Torah (The Mishkan’s Next Digital R/Evolution, on this very theme), and again to close the service and seal our time together. The call-and-response linked us together across nine different states and two different countries. And the words reminded us that where we are is holy — where we are in the world and in our homes and in our bodies, and where we are in the space of the internet and our hearts’ interconnection.


מה נורא המקום הזה/ Mah nora hamakom hazeh

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.


(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, try going to this post directly at yourbayit.org/makom/.)


Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere. Her albums include Wild Earth Shebrew, Halleluyah All Night, Torah Tantrika and This Bliss; find her music at her website.



Post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus.

Ashrei á la the Dalai Lama

This variation on the Ashrei uses quotations from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to articulate the themes of the Ashrei. Like the classical Ashrei, it is an alphabetical acrostic, and it’s singable to the same melodies as the Hebrew. When you reach the “R” line, pause and listen for a few moments during the ellipses. 


If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.


Account for the fact that great love /and great achievements involve great risk.

But when you lose at something you attempted / don’t lose the lesson.

Chart by the three R’s: / Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility.

Don’t forget that not getting what you want / is sometimes a stroke of luck.

Each time you realize you’ve made a mistake / take immediate steps to correct it.  

Friendships include differences / don’t let a dispute injure a relationship.

Genuine friends will stand by you / whether you are successful or unlucky. 

Happiness is not something ready made. / It comes from your own actions.

In disagreements deal only with the current situation. / Don’t bring up the past.

Judge success by what you gave up / in order to get what you wanted.

Keep an open heart / everyone needs to be loved.

Love and compassion are necessities. / Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Maintain a sincere attitude / be concerned that outcomes are fair

Nurture a loving atmosphere in your home / it is the foundation for your life.

Open your arms to change /  but don’t let go of your values.

Please be gentle with the earth / it’s the only planet we have.

Quit complaining about others / and spend more time making yourself better.

Remember that silence . . . / . . . is sometimes the best answer.

Share your knowledge wisely. / It is a way to achieve immortality.

Twice or even once a year / go someplace you’ve never been before.

Understanding for others / brings the tranquility and happiness we seek.

Verify your understanding /  but don’t forget to believe and have faith.

We all need some time alone / make room for you each and every day.

X-ray vision doesn’t exist / but seeking the truth is a good start.

You are not alone / God made all of us unique but not special.

Zero in on what matters / and start each day with loving yourself.


וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ, מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, הַלְלוּיָהּ. / Vaanachnu n’vareich Yah me’atah v’ad olam, hal’lu-Yah!

(And we will bless the Name of God now and forever, hallelujah!)

Edited / curated by Rabbi Evan Krame.

Being Real, Digital Edition

Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn’t Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text — which, as you probably know, is a children’s book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name — the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved… and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video… If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we’re learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me — and R’ David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn’t “as-if” — it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn’t matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one’s face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and “RL,” real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection — with another; with community; with our Source — can be real no matter what tools we’re using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real when someone is suffering. It’s hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means “feeling-with” or “suffering-with.” Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn’t want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I’m not sure anyone’s picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren’t just words on a page, they’re pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart — to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source — and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I’ve learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they’re real. It’s my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what’s real in a way that’s safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there’s risk — and there’s also reward. As we read in Mishlei, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person.” (Proverbs 27:19) When I’m willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z”l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. “To log on to God,” he said in 2004, “we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.” That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren’t “virtual reality.” They’re as real as we allow ourselves to be.


Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon — designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d’var, given by R’ David Markus, on The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution. Reprinted from Velveteen Rabbi.


By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution

Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton 2020

June 13, 2020 • 21 Sivan 5780

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

(Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere.)

Shabbat shalom to all of us together במקום נורא הזה / in this awesome place, to honor Reb Zalman’s living legacy.  Wherever you are, our Zoom spiritual link is part of what Zalman imagined decades ago.  This spiritual space is what today is about.  We’re coming to know digital not as a mere filler for what’s real, but as a real vibrant מקום of its own.  Today is about what that might mean, and what it may ask of us.

Zalman might start us with a paradox about what we know and how we know it.  Zalman famously put it this way:

I start looking ahead … and suddenly I find [that] I am looking through the rearview mirror.  When you ask, “What would the future look like?,” I go into a nostalgic past, a romanticized past, and then go into a tribal thing, and think for a moment, “It would look like that.”  But it’s not going to look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.

Zalman’s rearview metaphor is about humility.  Maybe Zalman wouldn’t call himself modest – not the guy who urged us all to melitz yosher, spiritual intercession with holy chutzpah.  Still, there’s humility to know that the future won’t look how we imagine it.  Our history refracts future-questing vision so insidiously that usually we end up seeing the rear view of experience as some great vista up ahead.

Thus Torah this week calls Moses האיש עניו מאוד מכל האדם אשר אל פני האדמה / “the earth’s most humble person” (Num. 12:3).  Only such a person could see divinity באספקלריה מאירה / by a clear lens (B. Yevamot 49b) rather than hindsight.  Even more, in this week of Beha’alotecha – which opens with נרות המנורה / the menorah lights of the Mishkan, our first מקום נורא – our haftarah proclaims explicitly what the menorah light  means: לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יהו”ה / “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says [God]” (Zach. 4:6).  All light that we see is reflected light – rearview in all our vision and willful certainty.

Hence our paradox.  If only by anavah, not the might or power of rear-view vision by reflected light, how can we see the future – much less build it?

Zalman had advice on this.  Paradigm shifts like the one we’re in now – can anyone deny the tectonic shifts underfoot? – ask both anavah and holy chutzpah, humility and audacity.  No, the future won’t look how we envision it, but still we must build that future because people, communities and the planet need it now.  So we build what we see, and what gets built itself will end up different.  Fine!

So it’s in both chutzpah and anavah that we reach this Zoomosphere moment.  There’s no going back: yesterday’s “normal” is history, and mere nostalgia will cheat the future.  We must build the future, even if we only see it in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully not everything in the rearview is mere nostalgia.  Our hindsight can trace human spiritual history leading to our Zoomosphere, all of us “log[ging] onto God” exactly where we are, as Rachel quoted Zalman last night.  We might sense that history as the divine flow Itself, and imagine where that flow is leading.  And with some chutzpah, we might tell that story, all of spiritual time from the Beginning, על רגל אחת / “on one foot.”  One story in two acts.  Ready?

In a Beginning, the One created space and time.  Eternal sacred space called Eden ejected humanity; space itself re-booted with a flood of new life.  The One told Avram: lech lecha from ancestral space “to a land I’ll show you” (Gen. 12:1).  Avram raised sacred markers along the way.  Yitzchak “went out to talk [with God] in the field” (Gen. 24:68).  Jacob dreamed an angelic ladder highway: מה נורא המקום הזה / “Right here is the House of God” (Gen. 28:18), forgetting that every right here is, too.  His sons also missed it: cue centuries of bondage building sacred space for Pharaoh.  Freedom!  Sand-blind weeks to camp at history’s most famous sacred place nobody can find.  Two tablets!  Oops; two more tablets!  Build a Mishkan, complete with menorah.  Light it up and follow the cloud.  (That’s this week.)  Too afraid to go where I’ll show you?  In 40 years, a next generation will try again.  Enter the Land.  Build a Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile 70 years by the waters of Babylon, where we sat and wept remembering Zion.  Go back.  Build a second Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile.  End of Act One.

Intermission: God won’t be fixed in any one place.  The Sfat Emet (1846-1905) taught that we are God’s menorah, so “the essence of the Mishkan and Temple is that it’s in everyone.  That’s the point of ועשו לי מקדש שוכנתי בתוכם / ‘Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in them’ (Ex. 25:8)….  When the Temple stood, all knew that all life came of God,” but this knowledge kept depending on place.  So the Temple had to be destroyed to upshift our search for God from the constraining particularity of any place: “With the Mishkan hidden [in us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”

Act Two: Sacred space on the go.  The Mishkan’s table became every Shabbat table, learning centers like Sura and Pumbedita, Talmud, shuls, printing presses, books, liturgies, “correct” ways carved by power and custom.  Trade routes, living most anywhere but hearts still in the East.  Exile and inquisition.  Not so much the East: go West.  Enlightenment!  Liberty? Assimilation!  Denominations?  Fractures!  World wars?  Israel!  The nuclear age, the digital age, de-centering of every kind of institution, now a global pandemic bringing us together by separating us.  “With the Mishkan hidden, God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  How about on Zoom?

Rearview vision is good for seeing patterns.  The pattern seems to be that, all along, God used examples of sacred space to teach us cosmology.  Eden, Avraham’s matzevot, Yitzchak in the field, Jacob’s ladder place, Egyptian temples, Sinai, mobile Mishkan, two Temples, post-exile Shabbat tables, houses of learning, shuls – each sacred place was an example to show that מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).  But we confused example for essence; as Zalman put it, we “confused the pointer for the point.”  So pointers kept coming.  But rather than get the point, grief aroused nostalgia.  In Zalman’s words from 1993, we venerated each pointer as a holy “relic” rather than a “catalyst for the future.”

And again today.  Many grieve Jewish institutions failing by the day.  Many grieve physical shuls as the pandemic exiles us to our homes.  Now we must make sacred space in our homes – it’s here, or nowhere.  And that was the point all along.

Today’s exile to our homes is no ordinary exile.  It’s an inzile: it turns us in, and it turns us inward.  We’re roused to seek the very thing for which our inzile most cues our yearning – real connection.  And for once, the whole world can start to see the same things.  Now all humanity can experience each place, each home, that way.

In wise words inscribed on rearview mirrors: “Things are closer than they appear.”

Just as the menorah light lifts divine spirit over human might, digital means divine connection everywhere – or, at least, it can.  It’s not automatic: it asks us to transform.  We’re only starting to sense those transformations, and they won’t look quite like what we see.  But anavah balances with chutzpah: we must build our Digital Mishkan.  After kiddush, we’ll explore more about how, including some ideas around bending time if we’re not in the same time zone, and technical points like digital infrastructure, skillful means and a sacred ZoomCorps so nobody’s left behind.

Beyond the technical, Zalman urged “backward compatibility” when possible.  Dig deep, because our ancestors probably laid some foundation stone to anchor us.  And they did: 1,700 years ago, Midrash Tehillim 4:11 ascribed these words to God:

אמר הקב”ה: אני אמרתי כשאתה מתפלל, התפלל בבית הכנסת שבעירך. ואם אתה אינך יכול לילך בבית הכנסת שבעירך, התפלל בתוך ביתך. ואם אין אתה יכול לילך להתפלל, תתפלל על מטתך. ואם אין את יכול לדבר, הרהר בלבך.

God said, “I told you that when you pray, pray in a Beit Knesset in your community.  And if you can’t go to a Beit Knesset in your community, pray in your house.  And if you can’t go to pray, pray in your bed.  And if you can’t speak, meditate in your heart.”

How wise!  A synagogue always was called a Beit Knesset, a place of entering. It’s about entering another state and doing so together – not physically going.  Yet we’re still to “go” somewhere, even if we stay in our “house.”  So it’s about entering, by making an intentional shift where we physically are.

That shift depends on each soul, as it must now because we’re each in our own homes.  Inzile means that we can’t totally outsource to the rabbi, cantor, teacher, guru, yoga instructor or anyone outside.  We never could: only we can experience our space as sacred, but circumstances brings that truth close to home, at home.

Suddenly the only table in the Mishkan that can be sacred is our table, in our home.  If the Mishkan is to have a table sacred for you, only you can make it so.  It’s a radical, profound empowerment: it always was so, but now it hits home, at home.

If a Zoom connection is to be sacred for you, only you can make it so.  Skillful means will help – it’s still a shared medium – but it’s on you to “go” to sacred space by making intentional shifts in the sacred space that is our home.  We’ll harness the senses of embodiment.  We’ll take on ourselves to set our spaces in ways that aren’t routine; to dress for spiritual experience; to silence distracting devices like TVs and phones except for emergencies; to wash ritually before spiritual experience online.

That’s Assiyah, physicality.  In Yetzirah, we’ll accustom emotionally to open by new cues, new tenderizers.  We’re still carbon-based creatures: we evolved to feel, we learned to feel, by feeling other people first.  Our mirror neurons sympathetically resonate with others.  It’s why the physicality of collective gathering opens us emotionally, and it still can.  Our neuroplasticity, evolutionary capacity to rewire, will learn to take in others and cue us to feel deeply together online – but it’ll take time and focus.  It’s why we checked in with faces and bodies during the service.

And over time, we’ll learn how to meet new people digitally.  It can feel easier to go deep online if we already know someone, if digital connection activates the felt sense of pre-existing physical relationships.  That’s good, but can’t be the only way.  As we adapt, digital will feel less like a poor substitute for “real life.”  Digital is real, with real emotions, real spirituality, real prayer, real community, real tzedakah, real voting, real political campaigns.  We’ll get there.

Until then, this time of adjustment asks us to be gentle with each other and ourselves.  Until digital feels fully real, people may feel lonely.  If digital doesn’t hit the spot, we may feel even more isolated for all our so-called digital connectivity.  We may mourn “normal”: that too is our inzile, our turning inward.  These emotions will teach us if we let them, lest we become calcified and brittle.  If we let them, our inner defenses to the tumult of this time will ease and new inner landscapes will open.  Until then, let’s be gentle, take extra time with each other, and take it slow.

In Briyah, in thought, Zalman was right: we see the future in the rearview mirror.  However sure our vision, it won’t “look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.”  That’s part of what we’re doing here – sandboxing, trying, testing, adjusting and trying again.

Wise spiritual building isn’t like how I cook pasta – throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.  Serendipity, yes, but not avant garde to be different for its own sake.  It’s not doing what we want just because we want it, without the healthy gevurah of standards, ethics and external accountability for them.  The collectivity and stakes of this moment, for the Jewish future and the whole world, ask better than that.

Digital is good for that.  Digital allows collaboration across most every divide in ways that can hasten the necessary re-ordering of systems.  It allows fast feedback, democratized, from everyone.  It generates more data and helps us ask for it and use it.  It will reward people, groups and systems that do.  And that is good: insist on it.

In Atzilut, in essence, divine cosmology is as it’s always been: מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory.”  Finally, finally, our inzile might teach us that every place is sacred space.  “With the Mishkan hidden [within us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  The Mishkan is where you are.  It always was. The menorah is within you.  It always was.  Light it up, and follow the cloud.  It will lead you if you let it.  It will lead us if we let it.  It always has.  It always will.

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.


Offered as a keynote teaching at “An Emerging Judaism: A Global Digital Convening,” the Digital Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. Designed to dovetail with R’ Rachel’s keynote, Being Real: Digital Edition.



By Rabbi David Markus.