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On Reconciliation, Building, and Bereishit

 

Yesterday was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, commemorating the painful and tragic legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 140 such schools operated between 1831 and 1998. Over that time over 150,000 Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) children were taken from their homes and subjected to systematic erasure of their cultures, languages, and for too many, their lives. It is believed that more than 4000 children died. Among those who survived, many suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their “teachers.” 

Yesterday honoured the memories of the children who died, the survivors of Indian Residential Schools who carry these scars, their communities, and their families. As I stood on Parliament Hill on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe territory, listening to the moving testimonies and calls to action of survivors of Indian Residential schools and Indigenous community leaders, I took in the collections of teddy bears and drawings, and hundreds of pairs of shoes — intimate and heartbreaking representations of children and childhoods taken away. Overhead, I kept looking up at the construction cranes and scaffolding flanking the Centre Block of the federal Parliament buildings. Their presence seemed especially fitting. 

The Centre Block is currently being taken down to the studs, to its very foundation, to be rebuilt for the needs of the future while maintaining its essential elements. Harmful and obsolete materials are being removed from within the building’s stone walls. It is the most significant renovation since the whole of Centre Block (save its Library of Parliament) was rebuilt after burning to the ground in 1916. It will take at least a decade.

True reconciliation in Canada, for the systemic harms and genocide committed and continuing to be committed against Indigenous peoples, will also take time. The very foundations of our country are in need of rebuilding and renewal. Systems — legal, educational, health and more — need to have their obsolete and harmful elements removed so that they can be rebuilt with the promise of the future.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary May Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, emphasized the ongoing effort needed to achieve reconciliation:

Reconciliation requires effort every day, and this effort we must carry out for all time, for it has no end date or finish line. 

On this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I urge you to pause and reflect on Canada’s full history. Do it to honour those Indigenous children who experienced or witnessed cruel injustices. Many emerged traumatized, many still suffer pain. 

As we strive to resolve the tensions of the past with the promise of the future, we can stand together and move forward with grace and humility.

Make reconciliation a way of life.

On Parliament Hill, amidst the ceremony and the construction, I reflected on my responsibility to make reconciliation a way of life. My Judaism, particularly the arc of time from the month of Av in the summer through rebirth and renewal in Tishrei, gives me a frame for that.

The most recent events that led to the ceremonies on Parliament Hill were the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked childrens’ graves at various former Indian Residential Schools this past summer. This time corresponded with the months of Av and Elul. Av contains the spiritual low point of the Jewish year. On the 9th of Av we remember the destruction of the Temple, caused by sinat chinam / baseless hatred: the failure of people to see the fundamental holiness in each other. In Elul we focus on teshuvah, literally “returning,” repenting by acknowledging where we have missed the mark and taking concrete steps to correct past wrongs. 

The Talmud teaches that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul אלול represent the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3). At the core of the teshuvah process is a focus on connection and repairing relationships, with each other and with God. Yet before we are able to repair relationships and reconcile differences, we must first acknowledge the truth, the emet, of what caused brokenness or rupture in the first place. Only by facing the truth of what we have done can we embark on a journey of teshuvah, reconciliation and repair. 

This year, September 30th coincided with the end of Tishrei: a lived metaphor for how we embed the journey of emet to teshuvah in all aspects of our lives, year to year, cycle to cycle. It also coincided with restarting our Torah cycle with the first parsha, Bereishit, and its fundamental teaching that we are all created in the Divine image — all deserving of respect and love. 

As local Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda emphasized speaking on Parliament Hill, creating space for truth and reconciliation, for emet and teshuvah is ultimately a gift to enable us to heal and grow: “Take this beautiful gift we are offering you; learn, listen and we will walk together to turn this country into a beautiful country for all our children.” Similarly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report calls on us to work together “to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.”

As I looked up at teddy bears and drawings and shoes and cranes and construction on Parliament Hill, all together, I wondered, will Canada rebuild in a way so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace and prosperity? 

Our Sages taught that while it may not be upon us to complete the work, we are not free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21). It is aleinu, on us, to make that happen. And every year now, during our season of teshuvah surrounding the High Holidays and on September 30th. we will be able to take stock of our rebuilding and reconciliation together.

 

Resources:

 

And from work together this past summer with campers at URJ Camp George:

A land acknowledgment created and prepared by teen campers for camp. Inspired by a local indigenous name for the region, the background of the plaque evokes a glowing light.

a banner, on a background of orange handprints from all of camp, with the text “Every Child Matters” along with a quite from the Talmud (Berakhot 64a:14)- אַל תִּקְרֵי ״בָּנָיִךְ״ אֶלָּא ״בּוֹנָיִךְ״ – “Don’t call them your children, call them your builders,” which speaks to the fundamental role that our youth play in our present and our future. This quote from Talmud also inspired the name and mission of Bayit: Building Jewish!

 

 

Rabbi Dara Lithwick is on the Board of Bayit: Building Jewish. When not at work as a constitutional and parliamentary affairs lawyer, she is active as an outreach rabbi at Temple Israel Ottawa. Rabbi Dara is also chairing a Canadian Council for Reform Judaism group to develop a Tikkun Olam strategy for Canada and is the Canadian representative to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action. (Find her whole bio on our Board page.)

First Build: Seven Foundation Principles for Spiritual Builders

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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We’re all stardust, re-mixed chemical elements forged in some distant supernova.  We’re all broken shards, fallen from the primordial shattering. We’re all reflected light, glimmering with the Source of Light.  We’re all builders, making and re-making the world one brick and one breath at a time.

Whatever your metaphor for who we are and what we do, your metaphor probably grounds in the foundation of some first principle – some First Build of mind and identity.

For us at Bayit, our first principle is that we – us and you – are builders of the Jewish future.  So this year, for a whole year, we’ll mine Torah’s wisdom for lessons about building and builders.

As the Torah cycle begins anew with Parshat Bereishit, we begin as Torah begins – with the primordial building story that is the Creation at Torah’s very beginning (“a very good place to start“).  One translation opens, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the land was a jumbled mess, with darkness on the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God hovered…” (Gen. 1:1-2).  Then came light, sky, sea, land, vegetation, stars, sun and moon, fish and birds, land creatures and first humans – a primordial building of sorts.

Reading this Creation story through a builder’s lens, we needn’t be architects or contractors to find a master plan for how to build.  Here are seven foundation principles for building the Jewish future.

  1. Expect a Mess – and Learn to Love It.  

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Look carefully: Creation began not by making a jumbled mess but from a jumbled mess.  The mess pre-existed Creation!  Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, famously teaches that we – and divinity, and everything in the world – are in the “chaos to cosmos” business.  Because chaos pre-existed creation and inheres in creation, the definition of soulful “building” is to use tools that evolve chaos toward order. But chaos and disorder aren’t enemies: they’re the foundation of all creation and all building.  Put another way, physicists meet Artson at the Second Law of Thermodynamics: chaos (“entropy”) inherently increases in any system, and without it Creation would get stuck.  Thus, everything we ever could build rests on a shaky foundation – and that’s great!  We need disorder’s arrow to slowly wear down everything one builds to keep us priming the pump of energy, building and re-building for tomorrow rather than yesterday.  

That’s why every builder must learn to love entropy – or in Clay Christensen‘s economics language, every builder must learn to love disruptive innovation.  If we do, then we’ll build in ways that are naturally flexible and open, with give in the joints rather than excess inner fixity that can become brittle.  We’ll learn to build not any “one and done” structure but rather as an unending process of inclusion, a lifestyle rather than a fixed structure. That’s why Jewish life always must be “under construction.”

  1. Have a Plan, Then Improvise.

IMG_3199Medieval mystics read the Creation story as a blueprint, a plan in the Divine Mind that preceded the actual work.  Building starts not with the first nail, but with the first inner impulse that ripens into an image – then a plan, then the first nail.  While plans can be designed as flexible, much like jazz can riff off a musical structure, plans and structures have their place.  Any other result is mere chaos or avant garde masquerading as creativity.  

Medieval mystics also read the Creation story as a first attempt and then second attempt.  Genesis 1 tells a different Creation story than Genesis 2, which inspired sacred myths that God tried a first Creation, failed and then tried a second Creation.  While the Documentary Hypothesis has much to offer about how Torah was edited and canonized, the telling of this “second Creation” approach over the centuries – about an ostensibly perfect God who’d try, fail and try again – should get our attention.  If God can try and try again, and not be irrevocably wedded to a “first Creation,” perhaps we can hold our building a little gently too.

  1. Design for Practical Phasing.  

IMG_3200Imagine if Creation had started with humanity, then vegetation, then firm land, then the sun, then light.  Of course it couldn’t work: primordial humanity would have no land to stand on or food to eat; then food would exist but float without land or sunlight by which to grow; then the sun would glow but dark.  None of this makes sense, which is the point. Creation reflects the need to think ahead and build in sequence based on function. Just as contractors can’t raise a roof without walls, or walls without a foundation, so the building of Jewish life needs a functional and rational sequence.

What does your creation need as its foundation?  What steps must follow? How will your design-build process evolve necessary structure to enforce that sequence, without becoming so rigid that the building loses joy and needed flexibility?  The reason so many ideas fail isn’t the idea but the execution. Buildings without good grounding and disciplined construction tend to be mere castles in the sky where nobody can live, or sand castles too easily eroded.

  1. Assess Clearly, Honestly and Through Others Different From You.

IMG_3212The Creator didn’t just create and pack up.  After each phase of building, the Torah narrative stops and recounts that “God saw that [the current phase of creation] was good.”  Why? It’s not enough to build: builders also must take stock and be accountable – to original plans, to the actual thing being built, to users and to history.  If medieval mystics got it right, then maybe the Creator’s “first creation” was adjudged unworthy and insufficient.

But frank assessment is hard.  Often we see ourselves in what we create, and we judge our creations either too charitably or too harshly based on how we see ourselves.  In this understanding, only God is a perfect witness and mirror (Ibn Ezra, Gen. 1:4): everyone else needs clear assessment tools that don’t depend on self-assessment or groupthink.

  1. Take the Right Kind of Break.

IMG_3197Building is perpetual – forever under construction – but not necessarily continuous.  Even the Creator modeled taking a day off. Jewish tradition calls it Shabbat, and on that day God “rested” (Gen. 2:2-3) – or sat, or returned – and then “re-ensouled” (Ex. 31:17).

Every builder needs time off from building, but for the sake of taking a specific kind of breather.  The “breather” that builders need is the re-ensouling kind – the kind that honors the ebb and flow of the creative impulse, the kind that incubates the next pulse of creation, the kind that comes from soulfulness rather than mere industry, ambition or momentum.  Figure out what that kind of “breather” means for you: it probably won’t mean just sitting there.

  1. Failure Isn’t Failure: Go Forward, Not Back.

IMG_3195Some things won’t work, but that’s not failure if we learn and adapt.  Theologians and Biblical scholars might debate forever whether God’s tussle with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was a “failure” and, if so, whose failure.  (Far from a “fall from grace,” maybe God intended or even hoped that fledgling humanity would eat the “forbidden fruit” and attain consciousness: how often did you learn only by pushing back?)  Regardless, the point was to go forward: whatever happened in Eden, there was no going back. The Creator even positioned cherubim with flaming swords at Eden’s entrance to block their way back (Gen. 3:24). 

So too for our own building adventures.  When things don’t go as planned, there’s no going back – and, what’s more, we needn’t want to.  Whatever breaking or mishap life may bring, there’s a future waiting to be built – and it’s important enough to merit angels stationed to point the way.

  1. Yeah, You Are Your Siblings’ Keeper.

IMG_3196Build teams are teams.  The rhetorical question that Cain asked God after killing his brother, Abel  – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) – has echoed throughout history.  And the Creator’s tacit answer is yes: we’re not meant to build alone, and jealousy has no rightful place in building the future.  The human-spiritual design so plainly intends us to be and build in community that even Cain, destined to wander aimlessly, miraculously settled down with a wife (created by Whom?) and birthed a new lineage.  

So take care of your build team, even and especially when relationships tug and fray.  More than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.

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Welcome to this new year of building together – with beloved messiness, plans carefully crafted and ditched, practical phasing, frank assessment, wise breaks, leaning forward beyond failure, and caring for each other.  Now, let’s pick up a hammer: next week, there’s an Ark to build.

DEM2 Silbert

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by builder Steve Silbert.