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Coming out against hate for Shavuot

 

This weekend we celebrate, with pride, G-d’s “coming out” speech – the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Our need to be seen and understood for who we are draws from that very highest of the High Truths of sacred tradition.

The Jewish community and LGBTQ+ community share long experiences of being closeted, forced — in different ways — to choose between being unsafe or hiding the fullness of who we are. Walking in the world as someone recognizably Jewish or LGBTQ+ has often meant being subject to hate, discrimination and attack.

For centuries Jewish life and perhaps all spiritual life was built with closets.  As we felt the need to hide the fullness of our truest selves, we built in society and religion closets out of fear.

But that’s not the Judaism (or the world) that we are called to build.  We’re called to build a world that reflects and uplifts the many diversities of G-d’s splendor, the many colors of the rainbow refracting G-d’s infinite light.

To build that world, first we must stop fooling ourselves about how much work still lies ahead, or who must do it.  Many who grew up in America over the last 50 years believed that anti-Semitism had become far more an historical relic than a modern reality.  Many LGBTQ+ people and allies, especially over the last decade, believed that progress was flourishing: legal protections were expanding rapidly, and civic leaders increasingly took our safety and health seriously.

But Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision of an ever more just and inclusive world — while ultimately true on G-d’s time — isn’t automatically true on human time.  The arc of the moral universe doesn’t necessarily bend toward justice unless we build it that way.

Today, societal forces are mounting to undo the progress of the last decades — targeting houses of worship, inciting fear and hate, shoving whole communities back into closets that we thought we were well on our way to dismantling.

The good news is that we’re not alone, we’re not building alone and, as always, we’re far stronger together than any of us ever could be on our own.  Advancements against anti-Semitism and homophobia always have been incremental and cooperative: they happen slowly, and they require the collaboration of many hands on the “build team” of a futre worthy of everyone.

It’s easy to focus on building that better world “for us” — forgetting that the only way truly to build that better world is to build it for all.  How many cisgender white gays and lesbians celebrated when marriage equality became a reality, but went absent from ongoing activism for their trans siblings?  How many progressive Jews felt that anti-Semitism had vanished from their lives, not noticing that our visibly-Jewish Orthodox siblings faced continued attacks?  How many white Jews were absent from activism on behalf of Jews of color? It goes on and on.

Real progress means expanding beyond our own communities and specific interests.  The fact that we may not yet have experienced certain vulnerabilities and inequalities does not mean that we are protected from them. The privileges that shield us today can easily slip away in the future. But as history keeps teaching, if we don’t stand up for others, there won’t be anyone left to stand up for us.

This ongoing work is both external and internal. We need to build outward and advocate for others (for instance, straight and cisgender allies must advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and non-Jewish allies must stand up for the Jewish community).  At the same time, we must build inward and strengthen connections internal to our communities as well.

Now 50 years since Stonewall, this work is far from complete.  To paraphrase the charge given at b’nei mitzvah celebrations: this must not be the end of our activism, but the beginning.  In the words of our sages, even if it’s it not our job to “complete” this work (it’s never “complete”), neither are we free to refrain from it.

This year’s Pride Month coincides with Shavuot, the end of Judaism’s seven-week cycle of counting the Omer, moving from the story of Passover to the receiving of Torah. Over these 49 days, we followed the example of the Children of Israel in the desert, working to transform ourselves from a newly freed mixed multitude into a unified humanity able to stand together at Sinai and receive the highest Torah.  During this time, we reaffirm our spiritual duty to ensure that all are protected and safe, so that we all can stand together.

The reason is core to Jewish spiritual life.  Tradition teaches that we received the Torah only as a unified community, with each and every person equally invited, present and welcomed.  The completeness of Torah depended on the wholeness of community. Just as a Torah with even one letter missing cannot ever be true Torah, so too a community with even one person excluded or dehumanized cannot ever be true holy community.

In that spirit, there are real spiritual consequences if anyone feels pressured much less forced to conceal who they truly are out of fear of not being fully accepted.  We learn that it is un-Jewish and un-holy, by definition, to exclude in those ways — as equally unacceptable as dropping letters from Torah itself.

In that same spirit, the Revelation at Sinai was a true divine “coming out” to the world.  What little our enslaved ancestors knew of G-d was in their liberation from bondage, but now G-d would reveal G-d’s Self. G-d’s “I” narrative of introduction at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-2) reminds that there is but one G-d, in whose image we all are created. To discriminate against a person for just being is to discriminate against the source of all being.

On Shavuot, we remember the moment when G-d said, “This is who I Am.”  G-d’s identity needs no affirmation, but G-d still gave humanity the opportunity to say, “Yes, we see You, and we will call You by the names You teach us.” G-d modeled coming out, and G-d modeled how we should treat everyone.

This Shavuot and this Pride Month, may we all continue the work and blessing of that ongoing Revelation – fully seeing each other, being completely present for each other, ensuring that no one ever is pressured to hide. That’s how we’ll build a future without closets of fear, a future truly for everyone.

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Marisa James. 

People of the Building Fund: Four Paths Through the “Edifice Complex”

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

“Don’t give to the Building Fund,” said no synagogue leader ever.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.56.09 PMMost community leaders would love to have Moses’ problem in “fundraising” for the Mishkan. Moses received so many resources from “everyone” to build Mishkan that he had to stop them from giving: “Let nobody bring any more gifts!” (Exodus 36:6).

Since then, Jewish spiritual life has felt nostalgic for the Mishkan’s universal generosity and collective plenty. Judaism isn’t alone: all spiritual communities must keep one eye on funding for needful realities, but who likes to talk about it? How many in spiritual life are left distracted, exhausted or dispirited by talk of money?

When does fundraising support wise spiritual building, and when does fundraising become a hamster wheel that spins away from spirituality? For all who care about wisely building the Jewish future, that’s a key question of Parshat Vayakhel.

Jewish spirituality is blunt about resourcing spiritual community: Ein kemach, ein Torah (“no flour, no Torah”) (Avot 3:17). The catch is raising “dough” for buildings that become a “structural fetish” rather than a sacred way to sense the sacred.

Bayit builder Ben Newman reminds us that God applauded Moses for shattering the tablets at the Golden Calf, teaching that no “things” are inherently holy – not even the tablets of the Ten Commandments – except as they inspire real spiritual experience. When resource drives elevate things over people, those things must break to teach us what’s truly holy and what’s just the latest Golden Calf that we began to worship.

When we build in ways that rely on major donors, less affluent others can get wrong ideas that weaken spiritual community. They can learn that their gifts are less valued. They can learn to outsource generosity to others. Some even learn to take community for granted. When we don’t feel a strong stake in community, community itself withers.

Thank goodness for angel donors who do a world of good in a world that needs all the good they can do. Thank goodness for vibrant Jewish spaces that nourish the Jewish future. Still, we must ask how we keep forgetting that everyone gave to the Mishkan? What happened to a generosity culture so universal that Moses had to say, “No more!”?

We must learn the Mishkan’s lesson about democratizing generosity. We must reorient Jewish spiritual building to the goal of cultivating a truly universal culture of giving.

This goal asks a different spiritual design than any “edifice complex” whose goal is a thing that relies on angel donors and projects “too big to fail.” Reorienting spiritual design asks for fundraising in ways that put people and spiritual experience above all.

Four Ideas to Build a Trust-Based Generosity Culture

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.52.06 PMHere are four ideas to build a more universal generosity culture while raising the dough. All four ideas entail risk because they ask substantial trust – but trust is paramount to build a relational and spiritual Judaism in which everyone feels that they fully count.

Teach universal giving as a core community value – and be explicit about it. Effective fundraisers know that tzedakah is a spiritual act that joins learning and prayer as Judaism’s three pillars (Avot 1:2). If we wouldn’t accept a Jewish life that raises even unintended barriers to learning or prayer, then we mustn’t accept an “edifice complex” that even inadvertently signals that anyone or their gifts are second rate. Teach and model the Jewish keystone principle that everyone gives and everyone gets, because that’s what binds and uplifts a truly vibrant community.

Segment fundraising campaigns so that success depends on both angel donors and “everyone.” Court major donors for key initiatives, but deliberately leave out something vital (like doors or programs) for the whole community to fund – and be explicit about it. Without those essentials for the community to fund, a major “edifice complex” would be incomplete, an empty shell or a boondoggle – and that’s the right message to send so that “everyone” has a stake in success.

Learn from our Christian cousins and “pass the plate” in Jewish ways. For communities uncomfortable handling money on Shabbat, try a pre-Shabbat online ritual, a #BeALight Havdalah giving ritual, or a Shabbat pledge card. For others, literally “pass the plate,” or spiritually uplift the tzedakah box. Teach so it feels spiritual rather than “pay to pray”: after all, Maimonides taught about giving before being asked. Torah was read on market days (when people handled money), so maybe we pass the tamchui (charity plate) when we honor Torah. Try alternatives, but send a clear message that universal generosity is as vital to Jewish communal life as Torah.

Make sure that giving isn’t only about money. Even when Moses stopped donations for the Mishkan, both time and talent were welcome. People less affluent in funds might be wealthy in time and talent. Solicit their gifts with the same honor as cash – not as a substitute for cash but as a complement. Plan for these gifts: pass the plate for them and make wise use of them. After all, aren’t these gifts of hands-on community among the reasons for spiritual building in the first place?

Conclusion

All four ideas – teaching universal participation, segmented donor campaigns, passing the plate, and soliciting non-cash gifts – entail risk. They ask trust in alternatives to the seeming certainty of big checks. This kind of trust can seem especially fanciful when plans and campaigns are “too big to fail.”

Spiritually speaking, this kind of trust is the point. People are the point. Making room for others is the point. If leaders don’t leave space for others to fill, and show everyone how important and needed everyone is, then others are sure not to step forward. Isn’t that exactly today’s problem in Jewish community life?

The Mishkan solicited everyone’s gifts, because “everyone” was the purpose of building. At long last, we in Jewish life today must do the same.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketch Note by Steven Silbert

The Builder’s Holy Sledgehammer: Sometimes It Must Break

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Spiritual builders sometimes so deeply invest in their call to build that they can forget what that call is really about. This week’s paresha (Ki Tisa) redirects us with two related teachings: (1) nothing is too important to break, even purposefully; and (2) spiritual builders mustn’t confuse building with purpose, lest spiritual life itself become an idol.

After chapters of instruction to build the Mishkan, the story gets interrupted by the Golden Calf.  With Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people get nervous that he’ll never return. They build a Golden Calf, point to it and celebrate: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Moses sees the Golden Calf and shatters the two stone tablets on it (Exodus 32:19).

Sometimes It Must Break

Surprisingly, G!d isn’t upset that Moses shatters the tablets. Talmud records G!d to say, in essence, “More power to you!” (Yevamot 6a). We learn a key lesson: sometimes things must break. Sometimes behaviors, structures and things must break so new ones can arise.

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We might imagine that some things are too important to break. If Jewish tradition would hold anything to be too important to break (“too big to fail”), then surely it’d be the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But those tablets are exactly what Moses breaks, and G!d applauds.

Why? Precisely to teach that nothing, not even G!d’s tablets, or whatever we imagine to be holy, is too precious to break for the sake of core principle. Some principles are paramount above all, even what we believe comes from G!d’s own Self.

Breaking is the way of the world. In Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic description of creation, breaking is how G!d created the universe. G!d created vessels to hold infinite light, but they shattered, unable to hold Infinity. G!d began creation anew, from shards of that cosmic shattering. In this creation story, the world is sparks of light concealed by shards of the primordial breaking.

Everything we know is a product of breaking. Physically, we’re all stardust, recycled remnants of faraway stars that exploded, fusing the elements we know on Earth. Spiritually, we’re all pieces of the Infinite, and shattered shards surround us waiting for us to lift them to light.

“As above, so below”: as in the cosmos, so too for us. Sometimes our buildings (physical and spiritual) fall. Structures suitable for one era don’t serve another. Old institutions can’t evolve with hearts and souls. The past crumbles into raw material to build the future.

Lest We Miss the Point

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Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in Meshech Chochma, offers this teaching about breaking the tablets:

“‘Moses became angry and cast the tablets from his hands’ – meaning that there is no sanctity or divinity without the existence of the Creator. And if [Moses] had brought the tablets, it would be as if they were exchanging the calf for the tablets…. Moses acted superbly in breaking the tablets… to teach that nothing has inherent sanctity….”

Moses knew that if he gave the tablets while Israel danced around the Golden Calf, they’d merely trade the Calf’s emptiness for an equally empty sense of the tablets. Moses saw his people making a classic spiritual mistake: confusing a symbol for what it symbolizes.

Buddhism offers a saying: “Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger.” Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called this “mistaking the sign for the signified.” This is the Golden Calf’s second building lesson: don’t confuse a symbol for the reality it symbolizes. Don’t mistake any human building (or organization, siddur, tunes, leaders – anything or anyone you can touch) for the potential holiness it can represent, transmit, teach or empower.

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught borrowing a Sufi saying: “Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank told this story to illustrate the message:

“I didn’t want to sit in the temple because they have a Buddha they all bow to, and I thought it was pretty primitive. I told the roshi that and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we went into the Zendo.

“He said, ‘Do you think we really bow to this thing?’

“‘Well,’ I told him, ‘It looks bad. How do I know you don’t?’ He took it by the head, turned it upside down, and opened the storage room, and flung it, very disrespectfully, bounced it into the wood storage room and slammed the door. He said, ‘If we were going to bow to it, do you think I would do that?’

“People came in and saw there was no Buddha and they bowed to emptiness. So I had no trouble after that, sitting in the Zendo where the Zen teacher could do that.”

Wolfe-Blank warned us against becoming “spiritual materialists” who pile up golden moments of spiritual experience as if we can hold them tight, sought for their own sake. Like light streaming through a window, any spiritual structure is only as valuable as the spirit – wisdom, learning, kindness, love, truth and strength – that flows through.

Don’t mistake any spiritual building for the spirituality that flows through. And if real spirituality doesn’t flow through, odds are good that it became a Golden Calf no matter what anyone may have intended. That’s when it’s time to break.

As we build the Jewish future, we must build for the flow, not the thing. Just as houses are for shelter, warmth and gathering (not roofs and walls), we must design, build, repair and even break to serve the spiritual experience within. That’s the point: everything else is just the pointer.

Even the tablets had to be shattered. Even the stars had to explode so we could form from their stardust. So don’t be afraid to break things for the sake of spirit. Sometimes what spiritual builders of the future need most is a holy sledgehammer today.

 

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By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

So far, Builders Blog traced Torah’s first 18 portions, harvesting lessons about spiritual building from our spiritual ancestors’ lives and early journeys.  

Now in the 19th portion (Terumah) comes Torah’s building story par excellence, about building the Mishkan – the holy structure to focus the sacred’s indwelling presence among the people. Finally, a building story that’s literally about building! Or is it?

IMG_0248Torah first describes the Ark to hold the two tablets of Commandments, then the cherubim atop the Ark, then takes another 15 chapters to map out the Mishkan. These ordered priorities teach that the Mishkan isn’t for itself but for what’s inside.

We learn that no spiritual structure legitimately can serve mainly itself: it’s all for what’s within. Any spiritual structure, building or system that serves mainly itself misses the point of building it.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of building?

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One answer is the Commandments (or callings, or connections). Another is to remind of the One who spoke (and speaks) them from Sinai. I’m good with those answers as far as they go.

But to me, the point of building is going. Spiritual building is about going somewhere: the act of building or going inside a building is supposed to transport and transform us.

Hence the gold rings soldered onto the Ark. After describing the Ark but before describing the cherubim on top, Torah records these instructions (Exodus 25:12-15):

“Cast four gold rings on [the Ark], attached to its four feet – two rings on one side wall and two on the other. Make acacia wood poles and layer them with gold, then insert the poles into the rings on the Ark’s side walls for carrying the Ark. The poles will remain in the rings of the Ark: they will never be removed from it.”

Only after Torah set forth the Ark’s poles and rings did Torah have the Ark receive the tablets of the Commandments.

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Why does Torah instruct never to remove the Ark’s poles from the rings? So the Ark always is ready to move on a moment’s notice, and so we can be ready to move with it. Moving is the way of the Ark. And why teach this truth before the Ark receives the tablets of the Commandments? So they also could move and not be stuck even for a moment.  

We all tend to get stuck and sometimes justify it: we even say that “tradition” or “spirituality” require things to be how they are. But our ancestors turned that idea on its head. The medieval Da’at Z’kenim held that Moses himself attached the Ark’s rings and poles, and that removing them even for an instant would sever our link to Moses!

Moving is the way of the Ark, the way of Moses, and the way of all spiritual life. As R. Marcia Prager put it, even movements are called movements because they’re supposed to move.

That was then; how about now? How do we build for spiritual mobility today and tomorrow?

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We start by recognizing the opposite of spiritual mobility, which is habituation, even numbness. Some spiritual habits encourage discipline and depth, while others grow numb and dull. The Ark’s poles and rings teach that we always must be ready and willing to move, to not get stuck.

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We can start small. Move chairs, reorient space, swap out tunes – maybe not all at once and never just for the sake of change, but to start feeling movement. It takes time for communities habituated to certain ways to feel resilience, but that’s what the Ark’s poles and rings ask.

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And don’t be content just moving the proverbial deck chairs. Design spiritual spaces to be open, flexible and adaptable. Make everything moveable. Even more, try going out from fixed spaces entirely: if the ancient Ark could move about nature, so can we. Build spiritual life with moments in the woods, in fields, at the shore, in homes and in public spaces. Communal spiritual spaces are important to community cohesion, but spiritual life is exactly about not being fixed in a place!

Just as Jewish places must move, so must Judaism. A Judaism that clings to preservation, that loses its ability to move and adapt on a moment’s notice, loses its link to Moses. Jewish life isn’t mainly about preservation but rather about change. When we forget that change is a core value of Jewish life, we risk losing our own links to what’s most important.

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So build for spiritual mobility. Build to move. When we build a Jewish spiritual life that can move, it can move us. Motion, for emotion, is the Sanctuary in which the holy can dwell among us.

 

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By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

 

 

First Build

With gratitude to our many collaborators, partners, friends, colleagues, teachers, advisors, and fellow builders:

First Build

First Build: Bayit Impact Report 2019 [pdf]

Our mission, and vision, and animating principles. Our inspirations, and our advisors. Our partners, and our funders. What we’ve done during our first year, and what we aim to do in year two. Where we’ve been, and blueprints for where we’re going.

Comments / questions welcome. We look forward to building with you in 2019.

(Download the PDF file above, or go to the Annual Reports page on the Bayit website.)

The Spiritual Life is Lonely

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“A Foggy Passage” Simon Kingsworth

The farther you progress in the spiritual life, the lonelier it gets.

The topics that used to consume you may now only arouse faint interest. (How many books did I read about “the future of the church” in my late twenties and early thirties? Hundreds. How many have I read since we moved to the island three years ago? None.)

The dichotomies that used to agonize you now all seem like artificial constructions that obscure a deeper Truth. (Is this an outward work? An inward work? Is this love of God or love of neighbor? How do you balance work with rest? Anger with forgiveness?)

The conversations that used to energize you all deflate like sad little balloons, without enough hot air to keep them afloat anymore. (In my case, denominational politics, theological esoterica, and the over-earnest discussion of “what does it mean to be the church?”)

Instead, you find that your gaze turns inwards: to the places of deepest unspoken hurt, to the deeper comprehension of self, to the wrenching, painful work of giving up all those external attachments that you thought were You.

In the process, you also discover loneliness.

I’ve discovered that there are precious few people who are able to have those conversations about matters like this, much less engage in this work with the necessary degree of maniacal consistency.

After all, it is a journey that their friends will not encourage them to take, because it can strip them of the unspoken tribal prejudices and previously energizing interests upon which friendships are based.

After all, it is a journey which our society, built upon superficial urgency and the frantic pursuit of novelty, is designed to prevent. (Don’t believe me? How many times did you check your smartphone today? And how many of times did you check it because you grew uncomfortable, bored, upset, or disturbed with something which you would prefer be left unnamed?)

After all, it is a journey which their churches, which institutionally depend on busy people highly invested in externals, simply do not have the capacity to imagine.

And the journey is hard, because the road is terrifying. From the comfortable ruts of life, you emerge into a dangerous, dark wilderness of spirit, filled with monsters of your own making. The road ahead seems like no more than a vague trail (pray to God for something as clear as a vague trail!) with the road behind always clear as day, beckoning for you to come back to safer ground.

My experience? Most people, if they don’t have journey companions, will take a few steps on that terrifying trail, and then retreat back to the comfortable territory of their familiar existence, filled with friends and jobs, religious observances and books, momentary bursts of passion brought on by the novelty of a new spiritual idea, and the steady, familiar rhythm of prejudices and interests that were formed in childhood.

The problem is that God (and by God I most specifically the Love that birthed the universe, that birthed each of us, and that lies at the truest center of our being,) can only be encountered fully in that dark wilderness of spirit.

Ideally, our spiritual communities exist so that people can find companions and guides for exactly this journey; but maintaining that communal ethos requires spiritual vigilance and produces very few institutional returns. This is why the communities that call themselves churches have turned instead to peddling a hyper-commodified mass market version of themselves, so that people may learn to possess God rather than learning to let God possess them. (This may be true for other religious and a-religious traditions, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on this count.)

I’m thankful that I’ve found a community, albeit a temporary one, that has helped me take my first full steps into the wilderness of my own soul. I also hear an echo of loneliness, sometimes even terror, knowing that soon that community will come to an end, and it is not a given that I will find other people to journey with me.

I don’t have any reassurances for me, but I do have advice for you if who have heard God’s call to walk a deeper path, even if that call is heard only in whispers.

First, step out the door on that new road, even if all you have is a backpack full of questions.

Second, find some people. Be wary of the good church people. Look for the pones hovering around the edges (or the comfortably self-differentiated ones in the middle.) Look for the ones who talk more about God and about people and less about “church”. Look for the ones who have a smiling, self-deprecatory honesty. Look for the ones who seem like actual humans, not religious facsimiles of themselves.

Finally, ask them to join you on the journey. Some will look at you oddly. Some will say “no”; or say “yes” but actually mean “no” when they realize what is involved. But remember, God is gracious, and if God is pulling you into the wilderness, then God will send you a couple of people who might dare to say “yes” along with you: people who will pick you up when you stumble, or get lost, and point you back into the darkness and say “keep going”.

Because, in the end, this is really the only journey ultimately worth taking.

It is just as the great Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, says,

Out in front of us is the drama of [people] and of nations, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of [people] an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history.

It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of [humans]. Is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hill comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. it is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare…And always its chief is – the Eternal God of Love.

THOMAS KELLY. A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION. 1941.

 

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By Ben Yosua-Davis. Reposted with permission from A Glorious Mess.

A Nation of Priests (Everybody Builds)

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Part of a yearlong series mining Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

Question: How to build a special community that focuses on the transcendent?

Answer: Empower an entire nation!  And build spiritual life around this collective empowerment.

This idea might sound over the top, but it’s what this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) suggests.  Everyone in the people of Israel – men, women, children – are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and this “priest” we are to be is different from the priestly class in Torah.

If not the priestly class, what is this kind of “priest” we all are called to become?

A “priest” functions as intermediary between humanity and divinity.  When I think of that kind of “priest,” I think of someone to whom one might go for spiritual guidance, perhaps for assistance in navigating life from an ethical or holy perspective. I think of someone ordained to perform a role, a function on behalf of others in tackling the mysteries of life with zeal and holiness.

That kind of “priest” is a rarefied, limited role.  Whether for a “priestly class” defined by lineage, or a calling ripened by learning, that kind of “priestly” calling isn’t for everyone – and that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a priest, rabbi, pastor or imam. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a trash collector.  We’d have really clean streets, but not much else.

To date, my calling and daily routine involve a courtroom, not a bimah. I went to law school, not seminary.  Even so, Torah’s radical vision of a “kingdom of priests” suggests a kind of priesthood that is for everyone regardless of what we do for a living or what we think we can do.

This kind of “priest” isn’t a role but an identity.  It’s not a go-between or intermediary, but a way of being.  It’s a calling to seek the sacred and serve the sacred precisely in the lives we lead.

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This “priestly” calling asks me not to outsource my spirituality to anyone – even the people who take on a “priestly” role as pastor, rabbi or imam.  That’s Torah’s calling, for each person to live spiritually, and in that way become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But how?  How do we build in a way that reminds that we mustn’t outsource our “priestdom”? And what does this mean for how we build spiritual life?

One clue is in the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, from the Hebrew l’kahen (“to serve”).  A priest is one who serves: we are called to serve.  Whatever our paths in the world, we can understand our way in the world as a way of service.

If so, then we must build spiritual life for that.  We must build to empower everyone, and remind everyone that they are empowered – commanded – to serve in their own right.

What does that kind of building look like?

Maybe it looks like increased engagement and investment: one can’t be a priest, simultaneously a servant of the community and a spiritual leader, from a place of ignorance or uncaring.  That’s a calling to spiritual education.

Maybe it looks like teaching our kids (and ourselves) to speak not about God from a distance, but with God with the presumption of relationship.

Maybe it looks like linking social justice impulses with ritual time, so that at moments of ritual significance (like havdalah) we’re channeling our energy also into building a better world. Maybe it looks like a website that curates resources for lifecycle moments so that a spiritual seeker can access tradition’s wisdom at their fingertips wherever they are – whether home, vacation, or a hospital hallway. (Full disclosure: those two things are among Bayit’s first keystone initiatives.)

Maybe it looks like something we can’t yet imagine. As a “nation of priests,” we all get to shape what and how we build.  That’s Torah’s invitation to the nation of Israel, to all who wrestle with these fundamental questions.

As a “lay priest,” I explore paths my ancestors blazed. I make them my own, in ways that aspire to being spiritually open and vulnerable, building new structures on tradition’s foundations.  This task can’t succeed if only “professional Jews” — yesterday’s kohanim, or today’s rabbis — pick up the building mantle.

That’s Torah’s wisdom: only all of us together, all of us living into being “priests,” can live into the holy strength, vibrance and enduring relevance that is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So it was in the days of our ancestors, and so it is now and forever.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building (For) God

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Part of a yearlong series mining Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

 

It’s a heady and awesome thing to “build for God.”  That’s what spiritual builders do. That’s the business we’re all in.  

We can do it well (our ancestors’ desert Sanctuary), or we can do it disastrously (the Golden Calf) – but either way, building for God is what collective spiritual enterprise is at least partly about.  Whether places, structures, systems or relationships, we build so that through them we can experience a bit of the sacred right here on Earth.

And if you think you’re not a spiritual builder, or that your spiritual building isn’t about experiencing the sacred where you are, look deeply into this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) and think again.

Our slave ancestors, freed from Egyptian bondage, reach the Sea of Reeds and miraculously walk through.  Leaving Pharaoh’s army behind, our ancestors break into song. What they sang, heard with modern ears, is revolutionary.  

Traditionally we understand their “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15) as a celebration and an affirmation.  At the Song’s heart is the exclamation, Mi chamocha ba’eilim YHVH (“Who is like You, God?”): Who else could split the sea and overpower the world’s strongest army to free the bound?  These words have echoed in Jewish hearts ever since.

But there’s more.  Freed from seemingly endless bondage building brick structures for an enslaving Pharaoh, they sang: “In Your love, You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength, You guide [us] el-nave kodshecha (אל נוה קדשך) – to Your holy abode” (Exodus 15:13).  Instinctively they knew that wherever they were going, they were being led to a place – and that the place was holy.

What does this have to do with spiritual building?  Just moments earlier, they also sang: Zeh Eli v’anvehu (זה אלי ואנוהו) – “This is my God whom I’ll adore” (Exodus 15:2).  The two phrases share the same word (nave), which hints at a deep meaning: “This is my God whom I’ll build into a holy abode.”

Take that in.  In liberation’s peak moment of ecstatic joy, they sang not only that they were headed to a holy place but that they themselves were going to build it.  What were they going to build? Not only would they build for God: they would build God!  And why would they build?  They’d build so that they could “adore God.”

Our ancestors – who had been builders under Pharaoh’s lash – now would become builders for God.  And by building, they would learn to love. We learn that freedom is not for its own sake but for a loving purpose: to build for God, and to build God.

Of course, our wandering ancestors’ first spiritual building went very wrong: their first attempt was a Golden Calf that they treated as God.  That’s the danger of venerating things (whether places, structures, systems or relationships), and venerating our own capacity as builders. Maybe that’s why God had to get exactingly clear: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8) – not “it.”  God dwells in us all.

By building the right way, divinity can flow through the builders.  We learn that holiness and the spirituality of building are not about building except as building focuses human awareness and human actions on holiness.

So what should we make of our ancestors’ “build God” idea?  

Jacob got it in his peak experience of wrestling: “God was in this place and I, I did not know” (Genesis 28:16).  In a peak spiritual experience, we know that everything pulses with divinity, that there is nothing but God, that we (as builders) are instruments of the sacred.  It’s precisely by not knowing ourselves, not getting stuck on ourselves, that our awareness clears enough to really get it.

Same for our ancestors at the Song of the Sea: in that peak experience, it was all God.

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Great ideas, but so what?  What do they really mean for us here and now as builders?  To us, we learn a few things:

 

  • Building is all about curating experience.  The idea of God is not God; the thought of the sacred is not the sacred. Only as we experience holiness, getting out of our own way and experiencing what transcends us, can we begin to know God through any place or thing.  Thus, every spiritual building, to be worthy of that name, must curate experience beyond oneself.
  • Builders need to hold on gently, and maybe not at all.  Every spiritual building evokes a Zen-style koan.  Even as we “build God,” we can’t ever “build God” because God is never in a thing: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in [you].”  Lest our spiritual structures and systems become like Golden Calves, we must see them only as conduits, only as effective as what they channel.  And because we humans tend to grow attached to our own handiwork, we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that what makes spiritual building spiritual is precisely that we hold it gently and maybe not at all.
  • We must test our buildings and sometimes let them fall.  If spiritual buildings are only as effective as what they channel, then a building that doesn’t channel isn’t worth keeping.  We must test our spiritual buildings (places, structures, systems and relationships), repeatedly asking what they’re channeling now.  And if they’re too clogged, or not transmitting holy experience, it’s time to redesign and rebuild.

 

God is the master architect, Torah is the blueprint and we – all of us – are builders.  It’s our calling – all of us – to build wisely, courageously and well. And if we do, we too can become vessels for holiness in the world.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

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  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us.

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  • On our doorposts

When the lamb is slaughtered, Torah tells us to to mark the doorposts of our houses with its blood, in remembrance of the bloodied doorposts that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over. For two thousand years, Jews have marked our doorposts with mezuzot. (Josephus, who lived from 37-100 C.E., wrote about mezuzot as an “old and well-established custom.”) Mezuzot are often very beautiful. But the real beauty of this teaching lies in what the mezuzot represent: awareness of the Holy in all of our transitions.

We can remember the Holy in temporal transitions — e.g. opting to begin a meeting with a melody or a blessing, the way we begin and end Shabbat. We can remember the Holy in spatial transitions — e.g. marking the doorposts of our houses, and even our rooms. When we lie down and when we rise up, when we exit and when we enter: every transition offers us an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God. In every day, in every place, we can choose apathy or we can choose engagement. We can choose to knock down, or we can choose to build.

Torah prompts us to mark our doorposts so we will remember that life is full of transitions… and that in every transition, we can choose anew to uplift, to sanctify, and to build.

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  • Ready for our journey

Torah tells us to eat the feast of Passover with our sandals on our feet and our walking-sticks in our hands. The seder isn’t just a dinner party: it’s an embodied remembrance of what it was like then (and what it is like now) to be ready to go. The seder is an opportunity to open ourselves to the necessity of change, of going-forth from our stuck places, of new beginnings.

The seder reminds us that sometimes there is sweetness (or at least comfortable familiarity) in being stuck and in letting our spiritual lives be stale. Our job is to open ourselves to the flavor-burst of horseradish. To let our hearts and souls be startled out of complacency. To put on our sandals and be ready to move. To take up our tools and be ready to build. The Jewish future will not look exactly like the Jewish past. Slavish recreation of that past defeats the purpose — and I say that as someone who deeply loves a lot of things about that Jewish past!

But we need to have our shoes on and be ready to go. We need to have our toolboxes in good order and be ready to build. We need to cultivate the faith and trust required to set out on the work of building something new. And we need to approach the holy work of building with the humility of Moses, balanced with the exuberance of Miriam dancing at the edge of the sea.

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  • Clearing out our old stuff

Torah tells us that for seven days we are to remove leaven from our homes, in remembrance of the hasty waybread of the Exodus journey. Reams of pages have been written about the proper way to remove leaven from one’s home for Pesach. (Blowtorch, anyone?) But in its simplest (and deepest) form, Torah’s teaching here is about shedding the old in order to make ourselves ready for the new.

The word hametz (leaven) derives from the root meaning “to ferment.” In a literal sense, leaven is that which has fermented. That’s what a yeasted starter does to create the lightness we know as leavened bread. In a spiritual sense, hametz can mean that which is old and sour, the puffery of ego and self-importance that gets in the way of our capacity to build something new.

In order to build a Jewish future worthy of our hopes, we need to be ready to relinquish excessive ego. We need to be ready to relinquish old stories that no longer serve. We need to be ready to relinquish our attachment to mistakes (our own, and others’). Only when we wholly clear our old “stuff” can we make room to build the new. Only when our inner ground is leveled and prepared can we sink pilings for new foundations. Only when we remove what gets in the way of our openness to the unfolding of spirit can we wholly act on the call to come together and build — all of us, attentively, with our work boots on and our best tools in hand.

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.

  1. The importance of good plans

I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.

Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.

Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.

Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.

If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.

Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.

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Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.