Bringing Sketchnoting to the B-Mitzvah Classroom

The first time Steve Silbert sketchnoted one of my divrei Torah, I was enthralled. The things he chose to highlight showed me what he found interesting in what I had written. His images uplifted my ideas in a new way. His sketchnote, rooted in my d’var Torah, was also its own piece of Torah creativity. That first sketchnote was my introduction to the spiritual technology of Visual Torah, now one of the tools Bayit offers for building Jewish life and practice. 

In 2019 Steve came to Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat to teach the art and spiritual practice of Jewish sketchnoting to a denominationally diverse group of rabbis, most of whom insisted that we couldn’t draw. Steve taught us that sketchnoting is about ideas, not art, and that anyone can do it: even us. By the end of that session, all of us had taken a crack at sketchnoting… and I had a vision of using sketchnoting to uplift my Hebrew school teaching. This year, I invited Steve to join my b-mitzvah class remotely, to teach the basics of sketchnoting to my students.

  1. Educating the Educator

The first step in bringing sketchnoting and Visual Torah to my b-mitzvah classroom was the workshop that Steve led at Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat. Because I had that experience of learning to use sketchnoting myself, and also because I’d spent a year watching Steve create Visual Torah for a full cycle of parshanut blog posts for Builders Blog, I had some understanding of sketchnoting and Visual Torah as both spiritual practice and learning tool. 

For anyone else who wants to bring Steve and this practice into your Hebrew school classrooms, I would strongly recommend some one-on-one sketchnoting learning with Steve first. Especially if he’s in the room remotely / via videoconference (as was the case here), it’s important that he have a hands-on partner in the room who understands sketchnoting both spiritually and pedagogically.

 

  1. The Runway

The week before his visit, I asked my students and their parents to reread the Shema and V’ahavta and to make a list of five things in that prayer that they thought were important.  

Each Monday I email my b-mitzvah parents to let them know what we’ll be learning that day. On the day when Steve was going to visit our class, I explained to parents that a digital visitor would be introducing sketchnoting, a spiritual technology designed to give their kids a new way of engaging with Torah and a new way of engraving their learning on their minds and hearts. 

 

  1. The Classroom Visit

My students seemed bemused at having a guest teacher appear on my computer, but they got used to it quickly, and treated Steve as though he were sitting at our table. 

First Steve took us through a visual vocabulary exercise. Each student had a pad of Post-It notes and a Sharpie marker. “Draw what comes to mind when I say the word ‘idea,’” he told us. “Don’t overthink it, you have ten seconds, go.” Most of us drew lightbulbs. One person drew a thought bubble. (Almost everyone chooses one of those two images for that word, Steve told us.)

“Okay, now draw ‘house.’” We drew little boxes with triangular roofs and maybe a door and a window. “Draw ‘love.’” We drew hearts. Each time we tore off our post-it notes and stuck them to the whiteboard, we noticed that we had drawn variations on the same theme. Though none of us consider ourselves artists, we share some basic visual vocabulary. We have simple pictographs in mind for basic words — door, hat, flower — and we can convey those in images. 

Then Steve gave us a set of Jewish prompts: mezuzah, Torah, hamentaschen, Ten Commandments, Shabbat candles. It turns out that we have shared visual vocabulary there too. 

And then we moved into the Shema and V’ahavta. We talked through the lists of five things that each student had considered “core” in that prayer. Some ideas were common across everyone’s list and others were more individual. 

Still working with post-its, we took a crack at drawing each of the five items on our lists. And then we placed them on a page, with the shema in the center and the five ideas circling around it like spokes on a wheel. Because we were working with post-it notes, we could rearrange our items at will.

By the end of the class, each student had a draft of a sketchnote exploring the core ideas of the Shema and V’ahavta.

 

  1. Re-Inscribing

A few weeks later, when we returned from winter break, we re-inscribed our sketchnote learning. I took the students through the basic visual vocabulary and basic Jewish visual vocabulary exercises again, to remind them that this is something they can do. 

Then we engaged in the same sort of exercise with the blessings before and after an aliyah of Torah. Questions that came up included: how might we depict God on a Post-It note? How about chosenness? “From among” all peoples or “along with” all peoples? And then each student arranged their Post-It notes to create a sketchnote of that prayer. 

 

  1. Did it “work”? (Yes.)

The sketchnoting lesson with Steve kept my students active and engaged. In that sense it was an immediate success. 

A few weeks later, I asked students what had stayed with them about studying the Torah blessings. They volunteered the images they had drawn. Having put pen to Post-it, they retained the core ideas they had depicted.

Studies have shown that writing or drawing something by hand inscribes it on the brain in a different way than reading it or even typing it. Sketchnoting these prayers gave my students an opportunity to engage using a different part of the brain than usual. And translating these prayers into images and rendering them with their own pens gave my students a different sense of ownership than just learning to read or sing them. (As one student said, “now that I put it on a Post-It, it’ll really ‘stick’ with me!” And that has turned out to be true.)

Based on the success of these experiments, I have other sketchnoting plans. We’ll sketchnote mitzvot, spiritual practices, the b-mitzvah journey. Based on what I saw in my classroom, I’m certain that Visual Torah and sketchnoting deepened my students’ engagement with the tradition. I can’t measure “how much” it impacted them, but I can see that it did.  I’m excited to see what will flow next from their pens.

 

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat with Steve Silbert.

Holding complexity, simply / Graceful Masculinity: Yitro

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אָנֹכִי יְקוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:  I am Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. (Exodus 20:2)

The Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai was God’s coming out speech. In it, G-d tells us about G-d’s self. G-d is everywhere, all of the time, relating to everything in this world in countless ways — and G-d is One. Indeed, what may be most complicated to grasp about G-d is G-d’s utter simplicity.1

“I am Hashem your God” is confusing for us. The verse includes two different names for G-d – Hashem and Elokim.  One name for G-d seems to be individualized (Elokecha, “your” God), while the other name sounds absolute.2 The variations we perceive between these different names of G-d are a result of G-d reflecting our diversity back to us in relationship.

It’s interesting that G-d introduces G-d’s self as the G-d of the Exodus from Egypt. Here, at Mount Sinai, G-d presented as “an old man full of mercy.” Earlier, at the splitting of the sea, G-d appeared as a “mighty warrior.” Even though the people of Israel perceived God differently, God is in fact One and the same. G-d is explaining: “Since I change appearances, do not say that there are two different powers”.3

G-d’s simplicity continues to be complex for us. It certainly could have been a more powerful claim to simply state: “I am Hashem your G-d who created the universe.” But that is harder for us to relate to. No one was there at the time of Creation, but everyone at Mount Sinai had just witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea.

In preparation for experiencing the revelation of G-d at Sinai, the verse testifies, “Israel (singular) encamped there, opposite the mountain” וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר. (Exodus 19:2) Rashi explains that Israel is described in the singular to indicate that they encamped as one person with one heart. To encamp, וַיִּחַן,  is a language of grace.4 Gathering the entire nation, unified in purpose and intention is not a small task, and was only made possible because of this attribute of grace. It allowed everyone to see each other’s character traits, and not to hate or separate from each other because they were different.5

The Divine revelation required a process of relatability: separate and distinct things coming together as one. In truth, we are all made of the same traits, attributes, and characteristics, just blended in unique ways with individualized expressions. Below the surface we all carry similar things, just in different ways, the result of our own life experiences.

We are each a part of the whole of humanity. Nothing is found in the whole except that which is found in the individual.6 There is a part of each of us in the other. This is true of the commandments as well. For example, there is a mitzvah to honor the Sabbath; and every mitzvah also has an aspect of honor in it. The red heifer is emblematic of an unintelligible commandment; and we also recognize that every mitzvah has aspects beyond our comprehension. “I am Hashem your G-d” is necessary for it all.

The manifestation of a trait, as the dominant expression in the moment, doesn’t minimize the existence of all of the other attributes that also make us who we are. When we dismiss people by what we think defines them, we flatten the depth and deny the complexities of G-d’s creations. When we recognize each person as valuable for specifically the constellation of character traits that makes them unique (and different from us), we come closer to perceiving and understanding the total unity of G-d.

 

Discussion questions:

When we first introduce ourselves to someone, we know that it takes a long time to really get to know someone. Why then are we so quick to judge each other?

What are some ways that we can build relationships with those who see the world differently than we?

The Talmud is filled with righteous people arguing. What are appropriate ways for reasonable people to disagree?

How can we foster more robust conversations about complex issues with more grace and respect?

 


 

1. R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s fifth principle about Hashem: “One must further know that Hashem’s existence is simple, without any composite or multiplicity. All perfections in their entirety are found within G-d in a simple way (שמציאותו יתברך שמו מציאות פשות).

2. עיין בתפארת ישראל קז

3. Rashi 20:2

4. הרבי מוורקה

5. כד הקמח

6. אין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

The Freedom of Control / Graceful Masculinity: Bo

word cloud

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’, בְּפִיךָ:  כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה, הוֹצִאֲךָ ה’ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

And it will be for you a sign on your hand and for remembrance between your eyes so that G-d’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand G-d removed you from Egypt. (Exodus 13:9)

 

Speech is most powerful when it is simultaneously controlled and free. We need the liberty to express ourselves, but if we do not exert care and restraint in what we say, our words cannot be optimally effective. Tefillin, טוטפות – an expression of speech,1 is the first daily mitzvah commanded in the Torah and also models both freedom and constraint. We bind ourselves to God’s words with leather straps and in doing so we exercise free choice to demonstrate a powerful religious commitment.

The purpose of tefillin is לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’ בְּפִיךָ so that our mouths will be filled with Torah. Tefillin is understood as a covenant of our mouths.2 Even though tefillin contain the words of the Written Torah, it is a symbol of the Oral Torah as well.

Tradition teaches that this commandment was delivered on the eve of Passover, right before the exodus from Egypt, in part as preparation for the redemption of speech. The Hebrew word for Egypt, מצרים,  like the Talmud, starts and ends with the letter “מ” mem. The Talmud teaches3 that the “מ”4 is sometimes open and sometimes closed (a regular mem has an opening; a final mem is a closed shape) to demonstrate that some things should be said and sometimes we should instead close our mouths and not speak. The first letter in the Mishna and in the word Mitzrayim is open, while the last letter in both is closed. The letters that remain in Mitzrayim form the word “desire” יצר yetzer.

Another name for the yetzer is michshol5 (to stumble) מכשיל. 6When one wraps the straps around the ring finger one recites “I will betroth you to me forever…with faithfulness”, with the joy of a groom under the chuppah. 7 Vilna Gaon says the two shins “ש” on the tefillin form the word sus, the root of ששון / celebration. We commit in relationship to renew our identity as a chason, groom, and remind ourselves of the need for self control to prevent falling short.

The rabbis fear that emotions, even joyous ones, can become too expansive and cause us to stumble. Rabbah noticed that Abaye was exceedingly happy and said to him: “rejoice with trepidation!” (Psalms 2:11) He responded by saying “I am wearing Tefillin.”8 The Gemara then continues with the story of Mar who made a wedding feast for his son and thought the rabbis were having too good a time. He bought an expensive glass that was worth 4009 zuz and broke it in front of them to contain their joy — and this, according to Tosafot, is why we have the universal custom of breaking a glass at a wedding.10

There are several differences between the tefillin of the arm and the head. The one we wear on the head, like the intellect, is compartmentalized. There are four separate texts, each in their own space, like the four senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell, each having their own domain. The one on the arm corresponds to the heart, and like our emotions, is total. The one on our head is revealed, the one on the arm concealed to remind us of the need to process our feelings into words that are appropriate for another to hear.

How we interact with others says a lot about who we are. Our ability to control ourselves and act properly testifies about our character, especially in emotionally charged situations.11Maturity has been defined as the intellect’s ability to control the emotions and support a healthy balance of the two. 

With the Exodus of Egypt came the birth of a nation and the need to relearn how to speak properly. The word Passover in Hebrew is פסח — “Peh Sach,” the mouth that speaks. All of the mitzvos of the seder — telling the story, eating matzah, drinking wine — involve the mouth. Paroh is understood as פה רע / “Peh Rah” — the evil mouth. The more we fill ourselves with Torah the more empowered we are. For there is no freedom when we are not in control; including controlling the words that come out of our mouth.

 

Discussion questions:

 

We do not wear tefillin on Shabbos. What might that tell us about the way we speak today?

What else in Judaism is called a “sign?” What do they have in common?

What are some strategies to better use words as a way of improving a situation?

Why do we often feel better after we have spoken about our feelings?

 


1. Rashi Exodus 13:16

2. עיין שפת אמת פ’ נח תרנ”ד

3. Shabbos 104a

4. Spelled מם with both letters, the first “open” and last “closed”.

5. עיין בן יהוידע ברכות ה: רע עין = 400 on the story of 400 barrels of wine that turned to vinegar

6. Michsol also has a numerical value of 400, the same as ת in חתן, leaving חן remaining.

7. Malbim hosea 2:21 כמ”ש ומשוש חתן על כלה ישיש עליך אלהיך, ויהיו אירוסין חדשים

8. Brachos 30b

9. Also an allusion to Esev who came after Jacob with 400 men.

10. The Tzlach explains that we are similar to glass in that we are also made from the earth and that we fall and break (through sin) we can also be reformed, like glass, through repentance.

11. In the verse of Shema, the first and last letters are large and form the word עד, meaning testimony. The Gra observes that the remaining letters in those two words form אשמך – to rejoice.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Charismatic Faith / Graceful Masculinity: Vayechi

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף, בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי-עָיִן; בָּנוֹת, צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי-שׁוּר.

A charming son is Joseph, a charming son to the eye; each of the daughters climbed heights to gaze. (Genesis 49:22)

 

Although Joseph was aware of his exceptional desirability, he never relied on his good looks or the privilege of being Jacob and Rachel’s oldest son — or on the financial success or political power that he accrued in Egypt. We read in Psalms that praiseworthy is the person who has made Hashem their trust (Psalms 40:5). According to the midrash, this refers to Joseph.1 He is the paradigm of a person who trusts in G-d. When the baker and the cup-bearer are disturbed by their dreams, Joseph tells them, “G-d has all dream interpretations.” (Genesis 40:8) When Joseph is later summoned to explain Pharaoh’s dreams, he declares, “It is not me. G-d will answer the peace of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:16). 

Yet, the same midrash faults Joseph for asking the cup-bearer twice (Genesis 40:14) to help him get out of prison. Because Joseph relied on a person, by asking for their intervention, instead of just having faith in God, he was forced to spend an additional two years in prison, one for each of the requests. It is implied however, that had he only asked once he wouldn’t have been punished at all. So why isn’t Joseph simply sentenced to one year, for the one unnecessary ask?

This midrash highlights one of the paradoxes of living a life of faith. Faith can be a propelling force that drives a person to seek and effect change, or it can comfort a person with the belief that everything will be ok so they don’t need to act. How can we balance our belief that God will cause everything to turn out as it should with the imperative to try our hardest to accomplish what we can? Wasn’t it proper for Joseph to try to get himself released from jail? Shouldn’t we always try to better our situation without sitting back and waiting for God to make it better?

Faith, or bitachon in Hebrew, enabled Joseph to tell his brothers time and again (Genesis 45:8, Genesis 50:20) that it was G-d’s plan that he go down to Egypt. Rashi translates “a charming son” as “a son of grace, chein.Bitachon, בטחון, is an anagram of  טוב חן – good grace. Jealousy only exists in the absence of faith in G-d’s wisdom and oversight. If we really believe that G-d has given each of us what we need to fulfill our unique purpose in this world, how could we possibly want what another has? 

Our rabbis point point out that the Hebrew word for worry is dayga, דאגה, which has four of the first five letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and is just missing the bet, ב, for bitachon.  It is that bet “ב” that we find as the first letter of Genesis. The stories in it, known as aggadah / אגדה (those same four letters again!), help inspire our faith, reduce our anxiety, and build the foundation for our relationship with G-d and each other.

The Gra says that the large “ב”, in the first word of the Torah “בראשית”, “In the beginning”, represents “בטחון”, faith. He further teaches that the first word can be parsed as “בראש-ית” at the head of “ית” , an allusion to the three letters in the Hebrew alphabet that head “ית”: namely ב,ט,ח2. Together, these three letters form the root of “faith” — in Hebrew, בטחון, which can be understood as G-d’s promise of our committed relationship.3 Joseph was in an exceedingly intimate dynamic with G-d. He lived with a deep awareness of G-d. But the moment he diverted his focus to another, he lapsed in his awareness of G-d — to the extent that it was clear to God that even the first time that he asked the cupbearer for help, he had the wrong motivation, and was therefore held responsible for both requests.

Motivation matters. And our connection with G-d matters. And — one never loses by doing the right thing. Our task is to seek to do the right thing, with the right motivation, maintaining our connection with our values and their Source. If we believe that G-d is the source of everything, how could we possibly advance our position by going against the will of the Creator, hurting another person, or misusing our resources for selfish gains? Each one of us has a connection to G-d, the Torah, and each other. We must see ourselves as partners and coworkers in the elevation of it all — and like Joseph, allow our charming and grace-filled faith to sustain us in the work in healing this broken world together.

 

Discussion questions:

The stories in our tradition are meant to model what our good and bad choices can lead to. What is your favorite Jewish story where faith led to a happy ending?

If Joseph was alive today, what do you think he would be doing with his time to fix our world?

Charisma is powerful. How can we make sure that it is used for in the right ways?

Who today, is a good example of one who using their status for the greater good?

 


1. בראשית רבה פ”ט:ג

2. בית, טית, חית

3. תי = 410 = קדוש

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

 

Enero 2020: Palabras del Torá / January 2020 Torah video

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

 

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, translated into Spanish by Rabbi Juan Mejia. The text follows, in Spanish and then in English.

¡Shalom javerim y buenos días amigos! El mes pasado celebramos la fiesta de Januká.  El próximo mes nos traerá Tu Bishvat, también conocido como el “año nuevo de los árboles”.  Pero Enero es un mes en espera. Un festival ya pasó y el otro todavía no ha llegado. 

Esta pausa entre fiestas es parte de nuestra vida espiritual también.  Nuestra vida espiritual no consta sólo de experiencias cumbre cuando la comunidad se reune para las fiestas o una celebración.  Por supuesto que éstas también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual. Pero los tiempos tranquilos, los tiempos de espera también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual.

La vida judía – como toda vida espiritual- tiene un ritmo natural de avance y retroceso.  En hebreo decimos “ratzó vashov”. La vida espiritual avanza y retrocede como la marea. Tanto la marea alta como la baja son parte del ritmo natural del mar. Igualmente, las cimas y los tiempos tranquilos son igualmente parte del ritmo natural de la vida espiritual. 

Amo a nuestras fiestas y los rituales que las acompañan.  Pero también amo los tiempos tranquilos. Estos me recuerdan que puedo encontrar santidad y apoyo en las pequeñas tareas que forman parte de mi día a día.  Estas pequeñas prácticas son parte de las herramientas que la tradición nos ofrece para construir vidas judías con sentido. 

Creo que es importante que estas prácticas no nos exigen venir a un sitio especial, o usar objetos especiales o incluso hablar en hebreo.  Somos judíos donde quiera que vayamos, no sólo en la sinagoga. Somos judíos sin importar en qué lenguaje estemos hablando o rezando.

Acá les presento mis dos prácticas favoritas.  Estos son sus textos y las melodías que las acompañan. Pero creo que lo más importante, más que las palabras o la música, es el movimiento del corazón.  Estas son dos de las herramientas esenciales de mi caja de herramientas espiritual. 

La primera de ellas es agradecer a Dios al despertarme.  Hay una oración tradicional para este fin llamada el Modé Aní.  Esta se encuentra al comienzo de la mayoría de los libros de oración / siddurim: “Te agradezco, mi Dios vivo y duradero, por haberme devuelto mi alma. Grande es tu fidelidad.”

Amo esta oración porque me recuerda que estar vivo es un regalo. Y me recuerda que aunque puedo haber cometido errores ayer, Dios tiene fe en mí para ser mejor hoy.  Amo la idea de que del mismo modo que buscamos tener fe en Dios, también podemos creer que Dios tiene fe en nosotros. 

Si no conoces las palabras tradicionales, o estas no resuenan contigo, puedes adoptar esta práctica con las palabras de tu propio corazón. Cuando te despiertes en la mañana, toma un momento para cultivar un sentimiento de gratitud.  Una vez esto se volvió un hábito para mí, hizo mis mañanas más luminosas. 

Recitar el Shemá antes de dormir es otra herramienta espiritual para el tiempo corriente. Primero hacemos una pausa y meditamos sobre nuestro día.  Resolvemos mejorar mañana y dejamos ir los errores y afanes del día- tanto los propios como los ajenos. 

Y después decimos el Shemá, un recordatorio de la unidad de Dios y un recordatorio de que somos parte de la unidad del Universo.  Hacer esto todas las noches es una forma de mantenimiento espiritual diario para el alma. Y, en mi opinión, también me ayuda a conciliar el sueño más rápido. Mi corazón se aligera.

Amo como estas prácticas en la mañana y en la noche enmarcan mi día. Me ayudan a comenzar y a terminar mi día con un sentimiento de conexión. Y me recuerdan que las cosas pequeñas pueden ser más grandes que la suma de sus partes.  A pesar de sólo tomar unos pocos minutos, su impacto es profundo. 

Meses como éste, sin grandes fiestas, nos vienen a enseñar (y a recordarnos) que toda la vida es vida espiritual.  Meses como estos nos recuerdan que nuestra vida espiritual está compuesta de simples acciones cotidianas. Todo lo que hacemos es parte de nuestra vida espiritual, o puede serlo, si prestamos atención.

Estas pequeñas prácticas diarias son algunas de nuestras herramientas judías para ayudarnos a prestar atención.  Nos despiertan, no sólo del sueño físico sino del sueño espiritual. Con ellas podemos construir vidas judías ricas y significativas no sólo durante las fiestas sino siempre. 

 

Shalom chaverim y buenos dias amigos! Last month we celebrated the festival of Chanukah. Next month will bring the holiday of Tu BiShvat, known as the “new year of the trees.” But January is an in-between month. One festival is over and the next has not yet arrived.

This pause between holidays is part of spiritual life too. Spiritual life isn’t only the peak experiences when communities come together for holidays or lifecycle celebrations. Of course those are part of spiritual life! But the quiet times, the in-between times, are also spiritual life.

Jewish life — all spiritual life — has a natural ebb and flow. In Hebrew, we say ratzo v’shov. Spiritual life ebbs and flows like the tide. High tide and low tide are both part of the natural rhythm of the sea. Peak times and quiet times are both part of the natural rhythm of spiritual life.

I love our festivals and the rituals that come with them. But I also love the quiet times. They remind me that I can find holiness and sustenance in small actions that are part of my every day. These small practices are among tradition’s tools for building meaningful Jewish lives. 

And I think it’s important that some of these practices don’t require us to come to a special place, to use special items, or even to speak Hebrew. We are Jewish everywhere we go, not just at synagogue. We are Jewish no matter what language we use to speak or to pray. 

Here are two of my favorite daily practices. There are texts and melodies that go with them, but I think the movement of the heart is the most important thing, more important than any special words or tunes. These are two of the most essential tools in my spiritual toolbox.

The first one is thanking God when I wake up. There’s a short traditional prayer for this purpose, called Modeh Ani. You can find it in most siddurim / prayerbooks: “I am thankful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness!”

I love this prayer because it reminds me that being alive is a gift. And it reminds me that even if I feel like I made mistakes yesterday, God has faith that I can be my best self today. I love the idea that just as we seek to have faith in God, we can also believe that God has faith in us.

If you don’t know the traditional words, or if they don’t speak to you, you can do this practice with the words of your own heart. When you wake up in the morning, just pause and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Once this became a habit for me, it made my mornings feel brighter.

Saying the Shema before sleep is another spiritual tool for ordinary time. First we pause before bed, and reflect on the day. We resolve to do better tomorrow, and try to let go of the day’s hurts and mistakes — both mistakes we made ourselves, and mistakes made by others.

And then we say the Shema, a reminder of the Oneness of God and a reminder that we are part of the great unity of the universe. Doing this every night is a form of daily spiritual soul-maintenance. And I think it helps me fall asleep more easily, too. My heart feels lighter.

I love how these morning and evening practices bookend my day. They help me begin and end each day with a sense of connection. And they remind me that little things can add up to more than the sum of their parts. They take only a few minutes, but their impact is deep.

Months like this one, with no big holidays, come to teach us (and then to remind us) that all of life is spiritual life. Months like this one remind us that spiritual life is made up of simple everyday actions. Everything we do is part of spiritual life… or can be, if we pay attention.

And these small daily spiritual practices are some of our Jewish tools for helping us pay attention. They help us wake up: not just from literal sleep, but from spiritual sleep. With them we can build Jewish lives that are meaningful and deep: not only at holiday times, but always.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Responsibility as Redemption / Graceful Masculinity: Vayigash

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1)

 

One of the most dramatic moments in the Genesis narrative is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, declaring “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The medrash explains that it was Judah who brought Joseph to a point where he could hold back no longer and therefore divulges his true identity. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba posits that Judah’s speech, although directed at Joseph, is actually constructed to appease Joseph, Benjamin, and the other brothers.

We understand why Judah needs to apologize to Joseph and Benjamin. It was Judah’s plan to sell Joseph as a slave, upending Joseph’s life and robbing Benjamin of his only brother from the same mother. But I find it interesting that Rabbi Chiyah also thinks that Judah is appeasing his other brothers as well. The other brothers had wanted to kill Joseph, while Judah suggested they could make some money by selling Joseph as a slave. Judah could argue that his other brothers are equally complicit in what was done to Joseph, but instead he chooses to take full responsibility for the situation.

In a relationship, it is an act of grace to take responsibility for our actions and inactions without trying to share the blame. Our choices are meaningful because they represent our will, and as a result they are ours to own. We should make it a daily practice to take stock of our deeds,  but Yom Kippur is especially designated as a particular Day of Reckoning in the Jewish calendar. The High Priest in the Yom Kippur Temple service takes full responsibility for the deeds of Israel. He is compared on this day to a graceful groom, reflecting the magnanimous nature of his behavior and the joy of the experience. 

The Midrash says that the meal which precipitated Joseph’s revelation happened on Shabbos. Shabbos is a time when we are able to access and orient ourselves to the truth of being G-d’s creations. The Hebrew word for face, פנים, is the same as a word for “inside” because the face gives expression to what is going on internally within a person. Our rabbis teach that the light that emanates from a person’s face is different on Shabbos than during the week and has its source in the holiness of the Garden of Eden. Even Adam, after the sin, didn’t lose that light until Saturday night. Shabbos invites us to remember and take action, to return to the ideal and work to fix the things we broke. 

The brothers are rendered speechless by Joseph’s revelation. The medresh uses this as a model for us and our own day of reckoning: “Woe to us on the day of judgment, woe to us on the day of rebuke.” If the brothers were not able to answer Joseph, how are we going to be able to answer G-d?

Joseph has not rebuked his brothers. He has simply revealed the truth of the situation. Chein (grace) can be understood as an acronym for chochma nistera, hidden wisdom. The brothers had originally thought that Joseph was extraneous and expendable. The “judgment” came with Joseph simply letting them know that they had gotten it wrong.

On the Day of Judgement we will all be confronted by the truth of our potential. The prospect of this is terrifying. When people become aware of their failings, they can feel embarrassed and even give up hope of correcting bad behavior. Chein is the ability to see the greatness of the hidden and bring it out. The groom, on the verge of marriage, epitomizes embracing one’s potential and turning it into reality. It is that commitment to the ideal that empowers the groom to take responsibility for inevitable bumps along the way. Acknowledging our mistakes allows us to make amends for the past and better positions us for a more perfect future.

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are the consequences of minimizing our own potential for change?

How can one break the cycle of bad habits?

What are some best practices in saying “I’m sorry”?

It isn’t easy to admit that one was wrong. How can those receiving an apology best support a healthy outcome?

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Rising With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Mikeitz

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיֹּאמֶר–הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; רְדוּ-שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ-לָנוּ מִשָּׁם, וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת.

And [Jacob] said. “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt; go down there and purchase for us from there, so that we may live and not die. (Genesis 42:2)

 

This week’s parsha finds Jacob in a dark time. He is in deep mourning for his son Joseph, a serious famine has descended upon the region, and Jacob and his remaining sons are in danger of starvation. Amid these difficulties, Jacob bids his sons to take a treacherous journey to Egypt in the prospect of procuring food. The medresh is bothered by Jacob’s use of the word “שבר” for food. Why not use אכל, which would be a more common term?1 The medresh answers that Jacob wanted to convey an aspect of hope. The root שבר  appears in psalms with a connotation of hope: אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ   עַל־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽיו –  Happy is the one who has the G-d of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the L-rd their G-d. (Psalms 146:5)

Jacob tells his sons רדו שמהdescend there. The word רדו has the numerical value of 210, which is an allusion to the 210 years of being enslaved in Egypt.2 This trip down to Egypt is emblematic of future struggles. Faith in our ability to create positive change nourishes the movement of the moment. That is the destination on the other side of the descent. “There” – שמה – has the same letters as משה, Moses, teaching us that after the 210 years there will be liberation, the giving of the Torah, and freedom. 3

The word שבר can also mean brokenness. It’s easy to experience brokenness as hopelessness, but our rabbis embrace a process of humility and empowerment. When things are difficult, we are easily tempted to give up. It takes a unique strength entwined with a particular grace to descend into the darkness and fight for light and life. The miracle of Chanukah is that in the aftermath of horrific trauma, we didn’t surrender or stop searching for light. We went down into the shattered fragments, and came out elevated on a supernal plane.

We are told that things do get better, but we are rarely aware of where we are in the arc of it all. Being created in the Divine Image means that we, like G-d, have the ability to create new realities. The power of our impactfulness is so great that we must constantly be alert and cautious. We are taught: “Do not believe in yourself [that you will always get it right] until the day of your death; for Rabbi Yochonon was the High Priest in the Temple for 80 years, but at the end of his life he denied Divine authority.” 4 Even someone who seems to be doing everything right might make mistakes… and even someone who seems to be doing everything wrong can always improve. 

The Chanukah liturgy recalls the brave actions of Matisyahu ben Yochonon, the High Priest, who led the resistance against the Greeks.5 There is a tradition that Matisyahu is the son of the High Priest who rebelled. His actions that we celebrate on Chanukah are the corrective act that restores our faith in the Divine and repairs his father’s mistake. As a result of his efforts to fix what was broken we now have another mitzvah in the Oral Law, and he is seen as an embodiment of (ben) his father’s true identity of grace 6 (The word chein, grace, is hidden within the name Yochanan: יוחנן).7

Matisyahu was committed to a more perfect existence. It’s reminiscent of the story  of Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah’s.8 At the end of his life, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordiah recognized all of the desecration and defilement that he had caused, and his transformation triggered a revolt of holiness and sanctification that the physical limitations of the earthly world could no longer contain, manifesting the miraculous.9His internal change came about through grace.  So too, later in this week’s parsha, when Joseph raises his eyes to his brother Benjamin, and asks G-d to bless him with grace (43:29), the mystical tradition sees this as a blessing for Chanukah. It is grace that allows us to rededicate ourselves to hopefulness and to spiritual pursuits.10

 

Discussion questions:

There is no shortage of things that are broken in this world. Where should a person look first to try and fix it?

How is the process of increasing light difference for the individual and the communal?

What are examples of the miraculous or supernatural accomplishments, of our times, that are good models for the work that still needs to be done?

Does optimism require faith or is it a rational expectation that things will improve?

 

 


1. ב”ר פצ”א ו

2. Rashi quoting Midrash Rabbah

3. עיין צמח צדיק

4. ברכות כט.

5. עיין בני יששכר מ”ד כה

6. שם כד

7. It is noteworthy that the three letters that remain, without חן grace spell Yavan יון , the Hebrew word for “Greece” and demonstrate a literal decent, as Hebrew is read from right to left.

8. Tractate Avoda Zarah 17a: Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah spent his life exploiting women for pleasure and after traveling the world pursuing physical indulgence he repents from such a depth that his soul leaves his body and is ushered into heaven with a Divine Voice calling him Rabbi.

9. The AriZ”l taught (פרע”ח) that he was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.

10. מאור ענים

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Re-educating the Natural Order / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeshev

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם.

His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers so they hated him and were not able to speak to him peacefully. (Genesis 37:4)

 

This coming Sunday night, we begin to celebrate the eight day festival of Chanukah. The Beis Yosef famously asks – Why are there eight days? If there was enough oil for the first day, wasn’t the miracle in fact only for 7 days? Why then isn’t the festival just seven days long? 

One of my favorite answers is supplied by the Ba’aeli Mussar. They teach that indeed everything in the world is miraculous. It is just that we are so accustomed to everyday wonders that we call them “natural.” If G-d willed for water to burn and oil to extinguish, then our “normal” would be perceived as the supernatural. Chanukah is a time to question what is real, and what we’ve simply accepted as truth because we are used to it. At Chanukah we acknowledge and appreciate the hidden light in the seemingly mundane.

This week’s parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, is also one of hidden light. People who are discounted, rejected, and dismissed turn out to be the mainstays of redemption. Joseph, the younger brother, is thrown into a pit, nearly killed, and sold as a slave, but he then becomes the viceroy of Egypt and is able to save everyone from famine. According to the medrash, after Shechem rapes Dina, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Asnos. Dina’s brothers want to abandon the baby but Jacob intervenes and arranges for her to be adopted by an Egyptian family. This baby girl, according to the midrash, grows up and marries Joseph. Together they parent Menashe and Efrayim, the first brothers to ever get along with each other. This light, hidden below the surface, is able to shine — and to disturb the system of artificially evaluating human worth, the system that discounted both Joseph and Dina.. 

So too with Tamar. Yehuda wanted to execute her because he assumed that she had become pregnant through harlotry, when he himself was in fact the father. When Tamar reveals the truth to Yehuda, he declares that she is more righteous than he. Tradition teaches that the Messiah of the Davidic line is descended from Tamar, while the Messiah of Joseph’s line comes from Asnos. (Yes, tradition speaks of two messiahs.) What’s important here is that each of these figures is descended from someone who was considered unworthy of living but survived and became a necessary agent of salvation… just like Joseph.

And in the times of the Chanukah story, when men were passive in the face of evil decrees and bride trafficking, it was Yehudis who had faith in the power of change. She resisted, rebelled, and revolted. Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that falls during two different months, demonstrating its own ability to incorporate shifts in the changing of time.

The name Chanukah comes from the language of chinuch, education. Now, like during the Chanukah story, we must actively pursue a constant re-education about what is right and appropriate. One of the indicators that we are being successful is whether or not we are producing chein, gracefulness,1, also at the root of both words.

The Greeks wanted us to forget the Torah and its eternal truth: that real power doesn’t rest in physical strength or gatherings of men, but in the One Who “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few”. The candles that we light each night remind us of our partnership with the Divine and the source of holiness that is our most precious resource.

We live in very dark times, but dark times contain hidden light. The medresh teaches that while everyone was busying themselves in these painful narratives, G-d was involved and was creating the light of redemption. When we challenge structures that support oppressors, we are shining the light of truth that is the most disruptive to oppression. The rebellions of today’s resistance are no less miraculous or courageous, perhaps they just feel more natural.

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are some of the changes that we have seen, in the last one hundred years, toward gender equality?

Where are changes today most needed in society?

Can systems and institutions that have contributed negatively change from the inside?

How can we use this Chanuka to affect change?  

 


1.חנוכה גימטריא חן א-ל Chanukah has the same numerical value of “G-dly grace”.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Becoming a Better Being / Graceful Masculinity: Vayishlach

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.

And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. (Genesis 33:18)

 

“Don’t just do something, stand there.” The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland understands that human beings have a very hard time just being. Often it is easier to pursue the future and be distracted from the moment than to be fully in the present. But it’s important for us to “just be” sometimes. When we are only thinking about what is next, our ability to actually improve ourselves is diminished.

Every week, Shabbos invites us to pivot from a weekday posture of creative production to one of graceful existence. (From “doing something” to “just being.”) The medresh teaches that Jacob came to the city of Shechem on erev Shabbos, and prepared for the day of rest. The Sefas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) understands the word “ויחן”, in the context of this verse, not just as he encamped, but also that Jacob restored grace,  חן, to the land.

Sefer Yetzirah teaches that G-d connects the letter ת with both חן (grace) and Shabbos. As a result, Shabbos is inherently connected with grace. Shabbos supports our acquisition of gracefulness by giving us the opportunity to reflect on what we have and to be satisfied with what we have. Just as G-d rested on the Shabbos from creating, and appreciated what had been made, so too does Shabbos provide a weekly reminder to cease pursuing the physical and instead to elevate it to the level of spirituality. 

The brothers Jacob and Esav offer two different ways of relating to “what we have” and “enoughness.” When Jacob is on his way to meet Esav, he attempts to make amends with his brother by sending him many gifts. Esav rejects the offering, saying, ““I have plenty,” which Rashi understands as an arrogant boast of accomplishment. By contrast, Jacob says of himself, “I have all (כל),” which Rashi interprets to mean that he has enough. 

Jacob tells Esav  כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹקים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל / “G-d has been gracious to me and therefore I have all that I need.” (Genesis 33:11) He means “I have found the G-dly type of grace, not a superficial one.” Jacob not only wants to give Esav physical gifts: he wants to give Esav the spiritual gift of his worldview, the spiritual gift of knowing that what one has is enough.

Esav comes with 400 men, a representation of the force of “רע עין,” a negative outlook of the world.  Jacob lives for 147 years, which is the numerical value of “עין טוב”, a positive outlook on the world. The numerical value of “יש לי כל”, I have enough, is 400, the same as the letter “ת” which as we explained, is connected to Shabbos and to חן / grace. Jacob was modeling for his brother a practice of being satisfied with what one has, and not being distracted by the superficial pleasure of being seen as successful through excess. This reflects a real internal חן / grace. 1

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם Jacob came shalem, in peace.  שָׁלֵם (Shalem) can also mean complete or full. Jacob came on Erev Shabbos, a time of completion. We conclude the physical work before Shabbos so that we can be free to invest in the spiritual “work” of Shabbos.2 Shabbos’s name is shalom. Part of achieving graceful living is appreciating what we have, existing in Jacob’s state of יש לי כל. For the moment we know that we have all we need. 

 

Discussion questions:

 

Why does society look at physical wealth as such an indicator of success?

Spiritual ambitions can also be toxic. How can we evaluate if our ambitions are holy?

How can we be more conscious of our presence?

Does being with other people make that easier?

 


1. חיצון = חן יופי

2. עיין אמרי אמת תר”צ “בשבת אדם משלים עצמו”

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Growing the Giving Nature of Love / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeitzei

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל, שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים; וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים, בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ.

Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.  (Genesis 29:20)

 

There’s a story about a student who is accompanying his rabbi to a restaurant for dinner. After they are seated and have looked over the menu, the rabbi asks, “What would you like to eat?” Still scanning the options, the student responds, “I love fish, so…” The rabbi interrupts by gently lowering the student’s menu, makes eye contact, and corrects him: “If you really love fish, you would let it live out its life peacefully in the water. Instead, you are willing to pay someone to catch it, kill it, dice it, deep fry the pieces, and then you will eat it. You don’t love fish. You love the way eating fish makes you feel.”

Love can be selfish or selfless. We can love another, G-d forbid, for what the person can provide to us — or we can love by trying to offer as much as possible. In Hebrew, the world for “love” is אהבה. It comes from the root הב, which means to give. In the purest kind of love, we seek to better ourselves as a way of making the best possible offering to those we love. 

In our parsha, the Torah testifies that Jacob’s love was for Rachel. Perhaps that is why the seven long years of labor felt like days for him. Moments waiting for a beloved can feel like an eternity, but Jacob was already achieving a sense of closeness in the moment by investing the time to work and refine himself. It is not coincidental that he, like many of our early leaders, was first a shepherd of animals before leading people. Putting the needs of others first isn’t easy, and it took effort to habituate themselves to accommodating the needs of the flock.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that we can best learn how to love another by learning to love ourselves and then expanding from there. In Tractate Nedarim, the Talmud explains the connection between the first half of the verse “You shall not seek revenge” with the second half of the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18) The Jerusalem Talmud presents a parable of a person who accidentally cut their finger while preparing food. Would the wounded hand take the knife and avenge itself by stabbing the hand that cut it? When we understand ourselves as being part of a greater whole, this not only discourages revenge, but it can inspire deep love. We are all commanded to love another the way that we love ourselves, but if we are not aware of the care we need to offer ourselves, we can end up hurting others.

Before we can expand our concern to include others, we need to understand our own needs. The way that we feel about ourselves can teach us how to properly feel for others. We must love ourselves in order to fully love someone else.

This is especially true in our most intimate relationships. Maimonides teaches that I must honor my partner even more than I honor myself and I should love my partner as much as I love myself.1 The source for this is the Babylonian Talmud, but it is noteworthy that the order there is reversed: One must love their partner the way one loves oneself and should honor the partner even more.2 The rabbis explain that Maimonides changes the order because he is offering practical advice on how to cultivate love for another. The first step is understanding and honoring what is important to the other, and making it important to you.

Tradition also acknowledges that desire is natural and powerful, and needs to be harnessed and channeled. The mystics understand the 613 commandments in the Torah as corresponding to 613 parts of our being. The commandment of loving another as we love ourselves is connected to the part of us that experiences desire. Intimate relationships offer the unique opportunity to focus on the needs of another, with as much sensitivity, as if those needs were one’s own. It is for this reason that the Talmud mandates that one see the other before marrying, to make sure there is an attraction. Torah’s imperative to love another as oneself is given as the prooftext.3

Jacob’s love for Rachel is passionate and generous. His work, both internal and external, models how we can find personal nourishment by focusing on the needs of another. G-d wants us to feel loved, and to know that we will never get there by exploiting others. Instead, we reach love through giving love in a healthy way.

 

Discussion questions:

How does the way society uses the word “love” affect our understanding of it?

What are some examples of micro-affections, small positive platonic acts, that we can offer through the day, especially to strangers?

If we feel good when we give and help others, why do we often feel resistance to giving more? 

Is it more helpful to try and apply successful lessons in one’s partnership with G-d to human relationships, or apply lessons from our human relationships to our partnership with G-d?

 


1. וְכֵן צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אָדָם מְכַבֵּד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ יוֹתֵר מִגּוּפוֹ וְאוֹהֲבָהּ כְּגוּפוֹ.

2. ת”ר האוהב את אשתו כגופו והמכבדה יותר מגופו

3. There are more rational reasons to be attractive to one’s partner, as Maimonides writes: otherwise the partnership could end in graceleness, hate, or divorce. וְלֹא יְקַדֵּשׁ אִשָּׁה עַד שֶׁיִּרְאֶנָּה וְתִהְיֶה כְּשֵׁרָה בְּעֵינָיו שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִּמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וְנִמְצָא מְגָרְשָׁהּ אוֹ שׁוֹכֵב עִמָּהּ וְהוּא שׂוֹנְאָהּ:

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image from wallpapercave.com.

See other #MenschUp posts here.