Standing Together for What Matters

 

Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Everyone Needs a Break

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a set of instructions for when we enter the Land of Promise. Torah tells us to take our first fruits to a special place, tell a ritualized story, articulate gratitude for where we are, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest. In this ancient first-fruits ritual, I find a set of four instructions for us as builders. 

  • Take first fruits

In the Biblical paradigm, this meant the literal first fruits of the season’s harvest. Today when few of us farm (or even garden!), the first fruits are likely to be metaphorical. Maybe they’re the lessons we learned from the most recent round of building. Maybe they’re signs that we’ve completed a first step and it’s time to pause and prepare for whatever comes next. What are the fruits of your building labors this year? What have you built? Of what can you feel proud?

  • Tell a story 

Torah instructs us to go before the priest in the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name. For us, this might mean connecting with someone who’s operating in a leadership role right now. Or it might mean seeking out a trusted friend who can listen with keen attention and open heart. One way or another, go someplace that is meaningful, with someone who can listen. And then, Torah says, tell the story that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…” 

In Torah’s context, this is the story that leads to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. From that going-down flows a rising-up: that descent leads to our liberation, and to the next chapter of our communal narrative as a free people in relationship with the Holy. What might it mean for you, as a builder, to tell the story of where you came from and how you got to where you are? Can you see your descents as being for the sake of ascent, for the sake of growth and potential?

  • Articulate gratitude

Telling the story leads to bowing in gratitude before God. This may be the most useful tool in this week’s toolbox: gratitude. When we cultivate a mindset (and heart-set) of gratitude, then everything we encounter can become an opportunity to say thank You. And it’s not enough just to feel it: we have to speak it. Much like the way atonement isn’t considered real unless we speak our missteps aloud (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1), gratitude has to be named and spoken.

  • Celebrate 

Once we’ve identified the fruits of our labors, told our story, and spoken gratitude aloud, then we can join — in Torah’s paradigm, “with the Levite and with the stranger in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) — in celebration. Celebration is meant to be communal. We share our abundance with the Levite (those who have dedicated their lives to service) and with the stranger. We build the Jewish future not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those whom we don’t yet know.

These ancient instructions form the outline of the first-fruits ritual once followed in the Land of Promise and then at the Temple when it stood. I like to think that wherever we are can be a Land of Promise, if only we open ourselves to divine presence, if only we build in an upright and ethical way. Wherever we are can be holy ground. Wherever we are, that’s where we build. 

As we prepare for the end of the Jewish year, what is the building work we can lift up before God as we tell the story of how we came to be who and where we are? Let’s prime the pump of gratitude for all that we have, and all that we’ve been blessed to participate in building… and let’s celebrate as we prepare to take up our tools again in the new year to come.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Every Building Needs a Fence 

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ki Tetze, Torah says, “When you build a new house, make a railing for your upper story, so that blood-guilt not be held against your house should somebody fall from it.” (Deut. 22:8) What a powerful building instruction: whatever kinds of structures we build, we must prioritize safety.

The Hasidic rebbe known as the Maggid of Mezrich reads this as commentary on the psycho-spiritual process of building new interpretations of Torah. In his volume Ohr Torah he writes, “This [the verse about the railing] refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. Make a railing for your upper story…As it is, the upper story is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from G!d.” 

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert offers similar insight into the creative process. Her main point is the provocative notion that ideas are alive. She’s not being metaphorical: she means that ideas are literally living beings, though not made of physical material substance. This is not the way modern Western society usually thinks about the creative process! 

Rather than imagining that ideas are generated by extraordinary people (“geniuses”), Gilbert believes that ordinary people are approached by living ideas seeking a partner who will help them become manifest in the world. She roots this in the original meaning of the word “genius.” That word’s original usage held not that a particular person is a genius, but rather that a person has a genius. The term comes from the Arabic word djinn (usually rendered in English as “genie”). In this formulation, a genius is like a “muse” — a living idea that comes to a human being, wanting a partner to bring it into the world. 

Why might a modern builder choose Gilbert’s paradigm? One answer is that her outlook on building keeps the ego in check, much like the Maggid of Mezrich’s notion that an idea “comes not from you, but from G!d.” If the idea is not yours exclusively or a product of your genius but an idea you’ve partnered-with to help it enter the world, or an idea that comes from G!d, then it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfall of excessive ego and pride.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes, “But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward…’” She sounds a lot like Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l, who often said, “Ego is a great manager and a lousy boss.”

Whatever we build — whether a house, a poem, or a community — we need to remember that our ideas don’t come from us, but rather move through us. We are but partners in bringing new structures into the world. This type of “fence for our roofs” keeps our building work, and the structures we build, safe for all.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Communal Resistance for Elul

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Resist so that you may exist. This is the charge that the Torah provides (Deuteronomy 16:20) as an introduction to communal living in the Land of Israel. The statutes that follow demand that we end apathy towards injustice. We must mobilize a resistance in which those with societal privilege feel as freighted by maltreatment in the world as those who suffer indignity directly.

G-d’s design for building a holier world has an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive prerequisite. According to R’ Yossi HaGalili, the Torah lists categories of military deferment – those who built a new house, planted a vineyard or got betrothed, who might be distracted because they haven’t yet finished those pursuits – only to provide cover for the one true military exemption: one who is fearful and faint hearted (Deuteronomy 20:8). The Talmud re-contextualizes this fear as someone afraid of their transgressions (Sotah 44a [המתיירא מעבירות שבידו]).

Being concerned about one’s sins is not a bad thing: not being afraid of them is a much greater cause of concern. Why, then, should tradition disqualify someone from participating in this resistance on account of a level of spiritual consciousness?

The Torah’s word for fear here (“הירא”) is found in only one other verse in the Torah. After Moses declares that the plague of hail is coming, the verse states: “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock into the houses” (Exodus 9:20). This inward-focused fear is limited to retribution for sin, a concern for the safety of oneself and one’s possessions. This preoccupation of שבידו – that which specifically affects “oneself” – disqualifies a person from participating in communal action.

The point is that motive matters. It’s one thing to oppose nearly daily mass shootings by white domestic terrorists because you are afraid to get shot. It’s another to act because no one should get shot! No movement fully can succeed if each participant’s motive is mainly one’s own needs, spiritually or physically. 

Our relationship with G-d also must transcend limited self-interest. Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (אלול), intensifying our personal introspection into our intimate and unique relationship with G-d. Elul’s name is famously understood as an acronym for the Hebrew verse in Song of Songs, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” What is less known is that it also refers to the sin of Judah’s son Onan, who marries Tamar after his older brother Er dies (Genesis 38:9). Judah instructs Onan to marry Tamar in order to establish a line of descent for his deceased brother. The verse explains that Onan knew that the child of this levirate marriage wouldn’t be considered his (“לא לו”), and therefore refused to have a child with her. 

Tradition responded to Onan’s fit of pique by leaving him out of our spiritual future.  Our rabbis teach that the Messiah will come from the union of Judah and Tamar along with Ruth and Boaz, both Levirate marriages that would produce children credited to others. Redemption comes from exactly this quality of selflessness.

That’s why a spiritually authentic אלול must also include the לא לו. Elul focuses us on  precisely what is beyond ourselves. True teshuvah requires restoration for all. We must love, protect and provide for asylum seekers, trans youth, and all suffering prejudice, discrimination or other indignities. Redemption and forgiveness only can come when we restore our love for each other the way we naturally love ourselves. 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Giving is Who We Are

Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

When I was a kid, I loved watching my grandmother. After each visit to the doctor, when she got good news, she’d put a dollar in the pushkah (tzedakah box). Her joy in that ritual was contagious. I felt so good watching her do it. When the pushkah was filled, she’d donate the money. To this day, I try to continue that practice. 

In a child’s eyes, it was easier to share, to see the abundance in the world and not the lack. I had an easier time seeing the blessings the world had to offer, even if it didn’t always seem fair how those blessings were distributed. It felt simple to give as a nearly automatic response arising from gratitude. My grandparents shared with me a culture of giving and showing up for others. It’s what we did because it’s who we were.

Parashat Re’eh teaches the same thing. We must build a society based on giving. Giving must be what we do, because it’s who we’re meant to be.

If we really listen and pay attention (Deut. 11:13), hopefully we’ll love God – but Re’eh seems to care as much for what we do as how we feel. Re’eh teaches that if we really listen and pay attention, we’ll emphasize care for others in the way we build our world.

We’d tithe, so that “there will be no needy” (Deut. 15:4). We’d give naturally to those “who have no hereditary portion” (Deut. 14:27). We’d give to the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

We’d honor the flow of nature, the seven-year cycle of the land (shmita). 

We’d work actively to empower others. We’d release debts in the seventh year, so nobody would become a permanent debtor or underclass (Deut. 15:1-2).

We’d honor the fundamental dignity of people. Even in ancient days of bonded servitude, our ancestors freed servants after six years (Deut. 15:12). But freedom didn’t mean being let go empty handed and destitute (Deut. 15:13) — as the Union did with the Confederacy’s former slaves — but to make their leave-taking constructively possible by helping them learn to be self-sufficient and avoid enslavement to others out of lack of holdings and knowledge (Deut. 15:14-15).

Imagine if we treated people that way today. Imagine building a world that emphasized helping others be self-sufficient and avoid subjugation from lack of wealth or knowledge. Imagine the impacts for social policy – for migrant workers, prisoners, asylum seekers, people in recovery and more.

Why build that world? It’s not enough that we do it because we’re told to; merely being told isn’t working. Perhaps obedience had more staying power back then. Commandedness simply doesn’t hold much sway in the modern world.

A second approach also worked better then than now. Shai Held taught in The Heart of Torah that our ancestors believed that they’d deserve God’s blessing only by alleviating the suffering of others: only a society truly committed to erasing poverty was worthy of God’s blessing. That might well be true, but what a society deserves doesn’t make headlines. 

To fulfill the social vision of Re’eh, we need to confront the question that has confounded history. What can arouse us collectively to give generously to others? How can we build a community whose foundation is giving when commandedness and self-worth aren’t effective answers?

Enter neuroscience and the positive psychology of game theory.

One reason for our world of instant gratification is that social structures, things and priorities all get us hooked on dopamine hits. The rush of winning a video game (or something similar) is a potent life drug. If you’re thinking “that’s not me”, consider the buzz of your phone, the ping of an online sale and the tiny “congrats” of your digital step counter. If you’re reading this, odds are good that you’re hooked.

What if we could make giving feel as good as winning the lottery? That’s Sam Feinsmith’s question. He asks, “Have you ever had the experience where giving something away created a deeper sense of fullness or abundance in you?”

Science and history both teach that if we want to build a community in which giving is what we do because it’s who we are, we must change our insides. We must focus on the little dopamine hits of genuine altruism until the hits become our way of life, what we do, and thus who we are. 

If we’re lucky enough to live with a grandmother who teaches us by example to put a dollar in the pushkah, our insides learn by holy mimicry – from the outside in. And even if we once lived with such a person, for most of us those living examples are long gone.

But we can harness those dopamine hits and make new examples to follow. We can recreate in ourselves the routine that it feels good to give to others. If an app can ding when we buy, win, get an email or take our steps, then why not also when we give?

In ancient days, building Jewish community meant first having certain mandatory communal services – starting with a mikveh, a synagogue, a butcher (in the pre-vegan days) and the like. It’s core Judaism that a community isn’t Jewish without certain basics. One of those community basics now isn’t necessarily brick and mortar: it’s building a culture of giving.

Surround yourselves with people who give. Let them teach you by example. Get little dopamine hits from random acts of kindness, and sustained acts of giving. Build tiny reminders into your life. Put them everywhere. (And if you happen to be a bored software developer, let’s talk about building a Jewish giving app.)

Let many tiny acts of giving become what you do. It’s who we’re meant to be. That’s how we’ll build the community Re’eh envisions. That’s how we’ll build a community that truly loves God.

 

By Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

The Torah of Ikea

 

Part of a yearlong Toah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life. 

 

I’m a stereotype. Like many people (and especially some men), I have an aversion to following written instructions. I tend to believe that I can figure things out and build things all on my own instinct and intuition. Ikea furniture assembly instructions were for other people.

On my better days, my spiritual self knew how wrong I was. 

Among Jewish tradition’s many wisdom teachings is that sometimes we need instructions. Instructions don’t suggest that any of us individually lack intelligence or creativity. Rather, instructions are important because individual intelligence and creativity aren’t enough for a diverse collective to build and maintain a thriving community.

This week’s Torah portion (Eikev) records Moses telling all of Israel on God’s behalf: “You must faithfully observe all the instruction that I command you today, so that you will thrive…” (Deut. 8:1). This teaching is directed both to the individual and the community. When we follow these Divine instructions individually, the collective prospers.  This is a crucial concept of Judaism. Our individual actions should reflect our responsibility to uplift other members of the community.

Maybe this communitarian approach wasn’t obvious to our spiritual ancestors. Accordingly, Torah offered both carrots and sticks as incentive to follow God’s instructions – “blessings” of peace and prosperity if we followed those instructions, “curses” of strife and want if we didn’t.

On the “blessings” side, probably none of us can claim enough individual intelligence and creativity to promote a good life of prosperity, justice and security for all. Torah and spiritual wisdom traditions offer the time-tested expertise that our collective needs to build the most fair, safe and just world possible. On the “curses” side, we needn’t lay society’s ills at the proverbial feet of a retributive God: if only we’d followed instructions for building a fair, safe, just world! 

Torah does require observance of some rules that are beyond our comprehension. Jews merit Torah because of our willingness to naaseh v’nishmah, to do and then listen.  This reflects our faith that the objective of Torah is to construct a fair, safe and just world. 

There are times when Ikea instructions reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphics and with, at best, an implied promise of only a slightly wobbly bedroom set. Ikea instructions didn’t explicitly lay out “blessings” of compliance and “curses” so I proceeded by building on my own intuition rather than following directions. Even so, I should have followed those instructions as best I could: it would have saved me hours of frustration.

Moses knew that we might prefer to follow our own designs rather than following instructions. He knew that we might get comfortable in our homes and lives, prideful in our capacity to pursue wealth and power on our own. In Torah’s words, we’d forget God and God’s instructions (Deut. 8:15-17).

Remember mom’s advice to hold onto the instruction manuals for kitchen appliances and home furnishings? Mom was right, and so is Torah. When things break, instruction manuals can help. When the world feels broken, the instruction manual we call Torah can help guide repairs: feed orphans, care for widows, befriend strangers, protect the land, nourish justice. Teach children these instructions so their wisdom may endure for all.

One more thing: instructions are important, but it’s about the building. We can’t sleep on an Ikea bed assembly instruction manual: we actually have to build the bed. Same with Torah. The world can’t thrive on study and spiritual aphorisms alone: we actually have to build the world that Torah’s instruction manual envisions.

Instructions don’t guarantee perfection: bad things happen to good people, and even the most dogged and diligent build-it-yourselfer might end up with a rickety bookcase. And instructions don’t ask us to ignore our intelligence and creativity: society needs more out-of-the-box thinkers and courageous people marching to the beat of their own drummers. But Torah’s tried and true spiritual designs have proved their worth over time – if only we’d follow the instructions.

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building God’s Home Within

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

I live in a new neighborhood that still is under construction. It had been a neglected golf course, and a developer decided to turn it into houses. My street is an odd assortment of new homes filled with nice people, and vacant lots filled with the debris that vacant lots attract.

One of the vacant lots has just sprouted a house. It seemed to happen so quickly; one day there was nothing, then an area was staked out, concrete poured, walls went up, a roof, and – as if like magic – there stood a house!

And then? Nothing. Or so it seemed. On the outside, nothing changed. But every day workers would show up and disappear inside. Something important was happening that was invisible to the external world.

Eventually someone will move in, and another transformation will occur. It will no longer be a vacant lot or a house. It will be a home.

This process – build the structure, do the interior work, and inhabit the dwelling place, is exactly what this week’s Torah portion (Va’etchanan) offers. It is the second portion in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’s farewell speech.

By the end of their 40-year trek through the desert, Moses knew a thing or two about community building. He’d learned how to deal with hecklers, protestors, challenges to his authority, and passive-aggressive grumblers. He’d seen it all — unwarranted attacks from within and surprise attacks from the outside. So when it came time for his big farewell speech, he was ready.

“Shema Yisrael!” he thundered. Again and again, he said the word Shema – Listen! Like a born orator or an advertising genius, this once tongue-tied man knew that the best way to get his message across was through repetition.

So it is no surprise that he took the opportunity to remind the people of the building blocks of Judaism, the Ten Commandments. Speaking to the next generation, the children of those who had been at Mt. Sinai with him 40 years earlier, he told them that the words apply to them too: “Adonai our God made a covenant with us… It was not with our fathers that Adonai made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:2-3).

“Shema Yisrael!” he shouted again. “Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God, Adonai alone.”

With that declaration, combined with the commandments, the external structure was complete. But as with the house down the street from me, the job was not done. It was time for the interior work. So Moses spoke the words that so many of us know by heart, words we have recited over and over again, in Hebrew and in English:

“You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Take these words to heart…” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6)

Known simply as the V’ahavta (“you shall love”), this paragraph that comes immediately after the Shema tells us how to be in relationship with God.

How? With all our heart and soul and strength.

Where? At home. Away from home. Everywhere.

When? At bedtime. In the morning. Every time we walk through the doors of our houses.

Why? For our children. For ourselves. For our God.

The words of the V’ahavta don’t tell us how to worship God. They tell us how to love God and how to let that love infuse our very being, our every action, each moment. And every time we walk through the doorway of a Jewish home, we can find those words in the mezuzah that is affixed during a house dedication; the final step in the process of making a house a home.

Moses knew that the external structure needed to be filled, and it needed to be filled with love. He was building a community of God lovers, teaching us how to fall in love with God and how to express that love.

The house down the street from me is almost complete. Almost. It won’t be done until a truck pulls up and spills out the furnishings, the dishes, knick-knacks, and all that is needed to make a building into a home. And even then, it won’t be done.

I will know it is complete when people arrive, when I see lights shining from the windows one evening, and when they step out into the morning and introduce themselves – happy to have joined this community, perhaps not even realizing that a transformation had occurred.

Each one of these vacant lots will, in time, experience the same transformation. May we each be blessed to create for ourselves the inner transformation that Moses envisioned.

 

By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Dvarim’s Building Lessons

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

 

The book of Deuteronomy begins with a retelling of the story of everything that’s unfolded since the children of Israel left Egypt and began their wilderness wandering. Moshe recounts the last forty years to the children of Israel as they prepare to cross the river into the Land of Promise and into the next chapter of their (our) story. In the choices that Moshe makes as he offers his final sermon, we find five practical and ethical lessons for building a healthy Jewish future. 

First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present. 

In the wilderness, Moshe’s been a conduit between the people and God. Here in Deuteronomy, he shifts from speaking directly for God, to retelling the people’s history as a human being speaking to his fellow human beings. That’s a necessary step too. That shift helps to modulate God’s energy so that Torah comes to us in a form we can receive. That’s the second thing we learn from Moshe’s sermon: a good leader needs to speak in a way that people can hear.

In his retellings, Moshe includes himself. For instance, in recounting the story of the scouts sent to reconnoiter and explore the Land of Promise, he includes himself, and points out that he thought sending the scouts was a good idea. (Deut. 1:23) He could retell the story in a way that blames the Israelites and exonerates himself, but he doesn’t leave himself out of the story. As Pirkei Avot will teach (Pirkei Avot 2:4), he doesn’t separate himself from the community. 

In a bigger-picture sense, as he retells the story of the children of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness Moshe takes responsibility for his part in the narrative. Rather than blaming those whom he serves, he acknowledges his part in community dynamics. In that choice, we see an expression of care and love for those whom he serves. That’s the third building lesson we find in Moshe’s final sermon: a skillful leader builds community from a place of caring and love. 

When the two of us were in formation as rabbis, one of us heard a mentor speak negatively about those whom he served, and one heard a mentor say, “You have to love your Yidden!” The mentor who spoke with scorn of those whom he served burned out and left the rabbinate. The mentor who insisted on serving from a place of love still thrives, and so does the community under his care. We need to build with an attitude of love, not scorn, for our fellow builders.

Even the best leader sometimes falls down on the job. A few weeks ago we read about Moshe, exasperated with the people, snapping, “Listen up you rebels, shall I get water for you from this rock?” and then hitting the rock instead of speaking to it sweetly. His harsh words drew forth water, but not in a sustainable way. Wise community leadership requires a spiritual practice of cultivating respect and care for those whom one serves. Moshe lost sight of that for a while.

When Moshe does lose his cool, it’s because his ego or anxiety get in the way. And when that happens, he’s no longer a clear channel for divine transmission; he’s no longer bittul, transparent so that God can shine through him. When his own “stuff” gets in the way, that’s when things go awry — that’s what leads to his angry decision to snap at the People and to strike the rock. All who seek to build and to serve will fall short of our ideals sometimes.

Because he snapped in that moment, God tells him that he will not enter the Land of Promise. God recognizes, in that episode, that Moshe is worn out and needs a rest. God sees that Moshe is not the right leader for the people’s next chapter. As we learned in Pinchas, Moshe signals with the laying-on of hands that Joshua will lead them forward. That’s another implicit building lesson: a wise leader knows when it is time to step back and let the next generation shine.

Avoid triangulation. Speak with people, not about them. Don’t exclude anyone. Teach in a way that people can hear. Serve from a place of love, not a place of ego. Do your own work so that your “stuff” doesn’t get in the way — and when it does get in the way, be wise enough to step back and take a break. Always seek to lift others up into leadership, empowering others to build. These are Moshe’s building lessons from the banks of the Jordan. They still ring true.

 

By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Gender… So the Neighbors Will Understand

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

We’re all in the “building” business, but often we don’t think about it. Even when we don’t try, we’re building our world and how we express key aspects of who we are in it.

Take gender. Gender is (and always has been) a cultural “construct.” Gender ideas, roles, identities and norms that we unthinkingly might experience as inherent to our lives and society around us are instead built. We receive gender constructions from the world around us, and we are not passive in this process. By our choices, we ourselves help build and perpetuate these gender constructions – or we tear them down and build new ones.

The double Torah portion of Matot-Masei is all about “constructs” – dividing land, building cities, relating between tribes, relating between enemy peoples and more. Torah’s text goes into great detail on these subjects, offering a “blueprint” for a future Israelite society in the Promised Land. 

This same text also lays a “blueprint” for gender roles in the Israelite society of 3,500 years ago. It affirms women’s autonomy to make vows, but lets fathers (for unmarried women) and husbands (for married women) annul them (Num. 30:2-17). In war between Israelites and Midianites, the text de-values Midianite women who no longer were virgins and condemns them to die, while saving virgins for absorption into Israelite society (Num. 31:15-18).

And for the daughters of Tzelofchad – who previously spoke up for their right to inherit with such directness that God changed the law to redress their exclusion – now Torah made another change. On complaint from men in their tribe, Torah limited whom these heroic women could marry, so that women’s inheritances couldn’t pass beyond the tribe (Num. 36:1-13). That’s how the Book of Numbers ends.

Of course, it was no ending. Whether Torah was diminishing women – or, as many scholars believe, slowly improving the status of women in an ancient context that had little or no sense of gender equality – we’ve been wrestling these gender-constructing words ever since.

Some 3,500 years later, one result was Yentl – the 1983 Barbra Streisand movie adapting the 1975 Broadway play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who first wrote the 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

In the opening scene, a bookseller enters the village of a young woman named Yentl passionate to learn. Trying to attract customers, the bookseller calls out, “Picture books for women, holy books for men!” When he catches Yentl reading a holy book (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of Jewish mysticism), the bookseller looks at her disapprovingly and tells her that she is in the wrong place. Not missing a beat, Yentl asks the bookseller to explain “why.” Annoyed, the bookseller quips dismissively, “Because it’s the law!”

Later at home, Yentl begs her scholarly father to study Talmud with her. The father agrees, then goes to close the window shutters – to hide the fact that he teaches his daughter. When Yentl questions him about this, her father answers, “God, I trust will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Gender constructions! Torah (“God,” for Yentl’s father) never banned women from learning or leading – but the “neighbors” were another matter. History took the tone of Matot-Masei, and its underlying societal notions of gender, and relegated women to “picture books.”

Gender constructions! A war in which the Israelites were to kill all Midianites, male and female, instead saved the “pure” (virginal) women and killed the others.

Gender constructions! The daughters of Tzelofchad – Machlah, Tirtzah, Chaglah, Milkah and Noah – weren’t inherently disqualified from inheriting but rather were treated that way by their society. The “law” purporting to state that “fact” wasn’t unchangeable: even the “law” we attribute to God could change.

All of these stories – and countless others in Jewish life – both reflect and respond to the deep truth that gender is built. We learn that we live in gender structures built by history, and we also learn that we participate in this ongoing building project whether we say so or not. 

If we too are builders, we must actively build gender ways that serve now and serve the future.

That means using today’s eyes. Dubious academics aside, we don’t fully know how women were viewed during Torah’s time. We have pieces and clues, but they’re not all clear and none of us were there. Thus, while we know what the Torah text says, we don’t fully know what the text assumes us to know of its context. We think we know what was – but we don’t.

We can’t fully see yesterday – yet often we think we can. Torah, tradition, history, myth, legend and momentum all can seem so sure, so alluring and so powerful that they convince us that we know what was. If we happen to resonate with our (right or wrong) understandings of what was, then all the easier to honor and perpetuate them. If we don’t resonate with them, then all the easier to ditch them and devalue the Jewish context in which we believe they arose. 

But there is a third way, and this third way is critical. The third way is to remember precisely that we don’t fully know what was. When we allow for this un-knowing about the whats and whys of gender constructions we received from history, our questions and critiques can stand alongside history. What’s more, they can become some of our most powerful tools for building the future.

So let’s remove all of those blind assumptions. Let’s drop ideas that don’t have truly clear foundations in spiritual history – that there are only two genders, that any gender should have diminished agency, that any role in spiritual life should be reserved or privileged for just one gender. And then let’s do the really hard work of uprooting those impure ideas from our world, our hearts, our communities – whatever the cost.

God, I trust, will understand. Now let’s work on explaining it to the neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Pressing Down: On Baking Community Leaders

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

 

I was watching the Great British Baking Show late one night. I learned some baking techniques for building a multi-layered French cake: the key skill was pressing down on the food to build up the dessert.

Turns out that this baking skill also can build leadership in communities.

Here’s what caught my attention. The baker was pushing layers of biscuit down into pastry cream. It required a deft hand and carefully balanced ingredients. With too much pressure or too much cream, confection would ooze out and layers would collapse. With too little pressure, the cake wouldn’t adhere. With too much crust or not enough cream, the cake would be dry.

In Jewish terms, the cake’s solidity is gevurah (strength, limits, boundaries). The sweet cream is chesed (love, kindness). A good cake needs both and must balance both. So does a good leader, and so does a good community leadership system.

Parshat Pinchas confirms these ideas. “God answered Moses: take Joshua son of Nun, a man that has spirit in him, and lay your hands on him” (Numbers 27:18). With these few words, Torah offers tools of successful leadership development. 

Before priest and community, Moses invested some of his authority in Joshua – building up a leader by literally pressing down, just like the baker. The laying of hands was an important first step in raising up a leader.

Pressing down symbolized the weightiness of role. Pressure and responsibility weigh on any leader: a leader who doesn’t feel it isn’t really leading. In that spirit, I imagine Moses looking Joshua in the eye, the palms of Moses’ hands digging into Joshua’s shoulders. Moses might have whispered to Joshua, “This is a tough job, kid! Stand tall and stay strong!  Don’t lose your cool when they kvetch. Be their advocate even when they act poorly. Love them with chesed, and be strong with gevurah.”

The moment also represented an exquisite act of right-timed planning. In the language of modern organizational theory, Moses (or maybe God) showed keen succession planning skills by choosing that moment to press down on Joshua to build him up. Well before Moses breathed his last, a successor was selected and invested. Power and responsibility then began to flow – in front of the entire community – both to groom the successor and to prepare the community for a future without Moses.

Not to exhaust the metaphor, but a good baker also must be a good planner –   accurately measuring, carefully placing utensils, keenly sensing when each step must occur and in what sequence. Maybe Moses would have been a great baker if only he had more than manna and water in the desert!

And also like good baking, effective leadership depends on pace. Some acts must happen quickly and at fixed times; others must wait for their time. A wise leader knows when to push forward, when to speed up, when to wait and when to stop. As with laying hands, wise use of time calibrates the pressure of pushing down just enough to build up in real time.

It’s much the same for the substance of leadership. Just as a good cake must balance “dry” and “wet” ingredients, effective leadership must balance the seemingly “dry” ingredients of structure (e.g. legal matters, budgets, agendas, goals, boundaries, accountability reviews, ethics systems) with the “wet” ingredients of emotion (e.g. inspiration, empathy, compassion, love). Too much of the first is like a dry and crumbly biscuit. Too much of the second is a gooey mush and the structure can’t hold.

Notice the repeated theme of balance: pushing down to lift up, both structure and filling, both individual and community, not too fast and not too slow. Wise building – whether a cake, a leader or a community – requires this balance at every level. Without this balance, the result is dry or gooey, or topples over.

In every age, problems press down on the shoulders of leaders. In turn, leaders must stand both solid and soft, and so must the communities they lead. That’s the path of balance, wisdom, sweetness and good cakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.