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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.