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From Tents to Dwellings

 

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

 

Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries. 

This time, Balaam declaims: “ מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל / How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5) (He says a few other things too, but that’s the familiar verse arising out of this week’s portion.)

For those of us who know this verse from liturgy, this may feel like the dramatic moment toward which this whole story has been building. As Rashi teaches on this verse, our communities become “good” when we ensure that each person has our own space, our own place, with safety both physical and emotional / spiritual. As we’ve written here before, any Jewish future worth building must prioritize healthy boundaries and ethical behavior. Our “tents” need to be set up such that each of us is safe from prying eyes — and from wandering hands, unwanted touch, and malicious speech. Those transgressions are inimical to healthy community.

Reading Rashi’s teaching more broadly, we can extrapolate that our communities also become “good’ when each person has their own vantage from which to engage with tradition. We build healthy community when we can hold differences of interpretation, custom, and practice. And that links back to the teaching I find in the very fact of Balaam’s prophetic relationship with God: it’s a mistake to presume that anyone has a monopoly on holiness. The Jewish future needs a  variety of “tents,” each oriented in its own way and also part of a greater whole. (That’s why we intentionally founded Bayit with a denominationally and spiritually diverse group of builders.)

Look back at “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel,” (Numbers 24:5) and try this on: when Jacob was “the Heel,” he was a regular guy who lived in a regular tent. But once he became Israel — “the Godwrestler” — his tent became a mishkan, a dwelling for the Holy. As for him, so too for us. When we grapple with God, when we build with ethical intention as our guide, when we open ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound (I Kings 19) — then our tents become dwelling-places for the divine. Then we access the flow that’s available wherever we go. Then we’ll build a Jewish future worthy of who we want to be.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Walking the Walk

 

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

 

This week’s Torah portion (Bechukotai) lists “blessings” and “curses,” “rewards” and “punishments.”  If we honor the mitzvot, Torah says, then “blessings” will flow.  If not, then we sign up for “curses.”

This ancient theology may not necessarily hold up for us as moderns.  What to do with an ancient theology that doesn’t seem to hold? How to build spiritually when the middle doesn’t seem to hold?

We all know that “bad” things happen to “good” people, and no spiritual building can hold by pretending otherwise.  It’s simply untrue that every well-lived life leads only to outwardly positive outcomes. It’s equally untrue that difficult circumstances prove that someone strayed from the path.

We read Torah’s words differently.  The resonance we find in this week’s portion is not in the “if/then” details, but rather in how the “if” produces the “then” that follows.

Actions and choices have consequences.  Spiritual building isn’t about “deserving,” but about wisely preparing for the immense power of consequences.  What we do matters. How we act matters. How we treat each other matters. They shape who we are.

How do we build this awareness of consequence into the holy work of spiritual building?

Our answer is this: we must teach, over and over again, that the path itself is the goal.  How we walk that path shapes where the path leads – and who we become on the way.

We follow mitzvot not to bring about blessings (though some mitzvot genuinely can yield positive outcomes), but because choosing to follow mitzvot is itself a way to experience a life oriented beyond itself.  We aspire to build a Jewish future according to Torah’s high standards of ethics and interpersonal interaction not to merit external reward, but because living up to high ethical and interpersonal standards is itself the reward.

The opening of this week’s portion underscore the point. “If you walk in My chukim (engraved pathways) and faithfully observe My mitzvot (connective commands),” then good things beyond us will follow. The “if” creates the “then” that follows. If we walk in God’s engraved-pathways, then we’re naturally connecting beyond ourselves.

The Hebrew for “walking” shares a root with the term halakhah (the way, euphemistically “the law”). God’s engraved-pathways point to our way of walking.  If we walk in those ways, naturally we keep the mitzvot (connective commands), holy links to our highest selves and our Source.

The way to follow the connectors is to walk in such a way as to become engraved with holy instructions and holy ethical choices.  And because mitzvot point the way and evolve with us, they’re not static.  If we walk engraved by God, following the connectors, we’ll be in conversation with the mitzvot as they evolve, and blessings will flow.  Conversely, if we’re not “walking our walk,” it won’t matter what kind of so-called mitzvot we claim to be doing: we’ll wind up with curses, because that’s where that path leads.

The Jewish future worth building demands that we “walk the walk.”  Building Judaism requires walking the walk in a way that engraves God on us and in us, so we naturally follow Torah’s ethical blueprints, so that mitzvot connect us “in” and “up” to God. This kind of building asks a new orientation to a mitzvah-oriented life that’s first and foremost about the intention to connect spiritually by walking well in the world – keeping in mind that the connection between intention and action is what will secure any spiritual future.

If we walk that walk – if we build that way, with mitzvot as companions, pointers and guides – then we’ll experience blessing in whatever unfolds.

 

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

Communities of safety and repair

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

Acharei Mot (“After the Death” — e.g. the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, which took place a few parshiot ago) is full of instructions from our ancient sacrificial past. This parasha is one part OSHA safety manual, one part instructions for community cohesion and forgiveness practices, and one part ethical guidebook for avoiding power differential transgressions. And while instructions for correctly dashing blood on an altar are no longer useful to us as modern Jews, the need for strong systems (to ensure safety, offer pathways for healthy reconciliation, and maintain high ethical standards especially where there is power imbalance) seems to be eternal.

Among the laws covered in Acharei Mot are proper dress in the holiest of places (behind the curtain in the mishkan); which animals to offer up as we seek to draw near to God, and how to sprinkle their blood; and the origins of the “scapegoat,” a story many of us also hear each year on Yom Kippur. We also find, sandwiched between injunctions not to behave like other regional tribes in the Ancient Near East, a string of instructions about power differential transgressions. What leaps out at me from these instructions is their (very contemporary) insistence on the importance of systems for creating and promoting safety, justice, and ethical behavior.

So what does Acharei Mot offer us in terms of best practices for our communities today?

 

  • Community leaders need to do our own work.

Before he could oversee the ritual of the scapegoat, Aaron was instructed to offer a bull of expiation for himself and his household. Those who are privileged to serve communities today (whether as clergy or in lay leadership) need to do our own work so that we can be clear vessels to help others. This might mean maintaining regular spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, yoga), or working with a therapist and/or spiritual director, or having a trusted hevruta with whom one can share the journey of strengthening positive qualities and overcoming negative ones… or all of the above.

  • Communities need processes for repair.

No community is utopia. We need systems and processes for creating repair when things go wrong. In an online community, this might mean a robust team of moderators keeping an eye on the slack channels or message boards, and an explicit process for talking things out and resolving disputes when hurts or transgressions arise. In a physical community, this might mean an ombudsperson to whom complaints can be brought, a clear ethics process, and communal buy-in to a cohort of respected, independent voices who can wisely adjudicate and manage ethical disputes.

  • Communities need explicit standards… and enforcement.

Every community needs rules for ethical behavior. Maybe that means a written ethics code. Maybe it means adopting a covenant, like the one created at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, NY (available online for adapting in any community). Adopting a covenant or ethics code requires wise and thoughtful facilitation… and communities also have to face the possibility that some people will not be willing to abide by stated standards, and they’ll have to develop processes for either changing hearts and minds, or (in extreme cases) ushering those who reject ethical standards out of the community.

Bayit is built on the principle that we’re all builders of the Jewish future — not just clergy or Federation leaders or board presidents, but all of us. That means all of us are responsible for building Jewish communal spaces that are ethical and safe. Safe from workplace danger (even if we’re not worried about a lightning bolt from on high!), safe from grudges or unethical behaviors, safe from misdeeds rooted in power differentials whether sexual or otherwise — and safe because there are systems in place to protect the vulnerable. That’s how we live up to Torah’s highest ideals. That’s how we build a Jewish future worth our time and our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

#Trending in 2019: the Year Ahead for Building the Jewish Future

Happy 2019, fellow builders of the Jewish future!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re part of a bold experiment in which everyone can be a builder.  The question is how we’ll build together – what we’ll build, what tools we’ll need, what works and how we’ll know what works.

All effective builders survey the landscape – the light, the view, the bedrock, what grows, what’s needed.  They build to the land, and the land changes.

As we survey the landscape of Jewish life, we can see what is and what’s next.  We see trends that are exhilarating and inspiring, and proof that amazing ideas need solid ground.  The best master builders know that the Jewish future needs a wise balance of inspiration and perspiration – lofty ideas and strong foundations.

In that spirit, here’s some of what we see #Trending in 2019 for building the Jewish future.

image1Opening Borders and New Conveners.  Spiritual borders will continue to open wider and at a faster pace.  The Pew Study “nones” who question religions in their current forms, who embrace spirituality precisely in questions that yearn for meaning, will inject meaning into a Jewish life eager to include them on their own terms.  Halakhah (Jewish law and practice, literally “the way”) – once imagined to be a fixed province of right-leaning orthopraxy – increasingly will be a forum for spiritual and social progressivity.  As nature abhors vacuums, thought-leaders of border-opening initiatives will draw from the breadth of Jewish life and, in turn, hasten these trends in an accelerating feedback loop of inclusion, creativity and innovation.

image5Social Justice on the Spiritual Calendar.  Tikkun olam (social justice, literally “repairing the world”) will more deeply root as a spiritual practice with beacons on the Jewish calendar.  Inspired by groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Passover (always about resisting tyranny) will drive both individual and collective social action across the political spectrum.  So will Havdalah (ritual bridge between Shabbat and the week ahead), inspired by the #BeALight Coalition.  In turn, emphasized times for social action will infuse spiritual life with meaning and help attract Jews of all generations to the spiritual calendar and spiritual community.

Rebooting Ethics From the Outside In.  Jewish communities are learning (sometimes the hard way) that transparency, accountability and right use of power are never self-executing.  Public trust – the lifeblood of Jewish communal life – requires both high ethics standards (such as Slingshot’s “workplace commitments” for nonprofit Boards) and vibrant systems to enforce ethics standards.  As #GamAni shows, closed ethics systems inside individual denominations, seminaries, clergy associations and Jewish nonprofits inherently are prone to self-protection and groupthink that sap public trust.  While journalists continue holding power accountable, 2019 will be the year to pioneer a new, clean ethics regime for Jewish life – one that elevates reporting, investigation, fact-finding, training and victim support above any single circle of influence or sponsoring context.  Lifting ethics above denominational context, and supporting nonprofits that don’t have their own independent ethics system, can reboot Jewish ethics from the outside in.

image4Adapting to the New Philanthropy.  2019 will be the year that Jewish life adapts to the recent tax law’s impacts on charitable giving – and enterprises that don’t adapt will wither.  “Deduction bunching” is sparking a revolution in philanthropy, with donor-advised funds (DAFs) housed in public charities far outpacing medium-donor private grants.  As this trend accelerates, the grant-making influence of large-scale philanthropies that host DAFs will continue to grow.  Successful Jewish organizations will need to tailor their asks, budgets and relationships accordingly – or get left behind.

Jewish Gluten is Back!  No offense to the gluten-free set, but Jewish gluten is back!  From trendy bagel shops to pierogi stands, Jews are rediscovering Ashkenazic ancestral cuisine in all its high-gluten glory.  Lines are out the door for fresh-baked bagels at DC’s “Call Your Mother” on weekends.  While New York’s famous H & H Bagel shops have closed, the company now ships anywhere.  Brooklyn hipsters are flocking to DeKalb Market for classic pierogies made by the Pierogi Boys.  South Philly is getting challah at Essen Bakery.  (Grab a chocolate babka for dessert while you’re there, unless you’re in Manhattan… where Breads Bakery arguably has the best chocolate babka this side of Poland.)

image3People of the Image (not just “People of the Book”). The internet long ago moved beyond text: longform blogs are yielding to visual realms on Instagram and Facebook, where images hold sway.  Jews are still a “People of the Book,” but 2019 will be a watershed year experiencing and sharing Jewish ideas with images rather than just words.  Visual approaches will engage broader audiences and new teaching tools, such as Jewish sketchnoting.  As Jews increasingly become a “People of the Image,” visual tools will offer NextGen engagement and technologies new roles in learning and teaching Torah.image2

Effective Jewish “R&D.”  Innovation means more than “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”  Innovation is meaningful not because it’s new or avant garde but because it achieves a tangible, replicable impact on Jewish life.  In 2019, we’ll see the most effective Jewish innovators getting disciplined about “research and development” (R&D) – exploring what works and why, what it means for innovation to “work” in Jewish community, and how to replicate results.  Tools of empirical R&D will make their way to both mainline and emergent settings, fueled by funders investing in vital pathways of impactful innovation. In turn, as more would-be innovators create their own projects and communities, the proliferation of these new engagements will reach a tipping point.  Their need for knowhow and quality control will attract them into networks to share ideas and build efficiencies. Conveners for these networks, like Kenissa, will become vital to moving these “communities of meaning” forward.