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.


Pressing Down: On Baking Community Leaders


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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


The Power and Peril of Spiritual Role

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

As we all build the Jewish future, how sure should we be about what’s holy?  Asked that way, maybe the question answers itself: only one filled with hubris would proclaim knowing for sure what is holy.

And yet, Jewish spiritual life – and Jewish spiritual pathways of role, halakhah, liturgy and community – all send clear signals about what is holy and what is not.

What’s up with that seeming inconsistency, and how do we build for it?  That’s the question I take from this week’s portion (Nasso) and its three roles of sotah, nazir and kohen.

This role focus continues a theme from last week’s portion (Bamidbar). It also continues my colleague Rachel Barenblat’s Builders Blog teaching that Torah’s instruction to take a census meant lifting up each person’s role and gifts as fellow builders of that era’s Jewish future. In a shared leadership model, people step forward and step back each in their right time. No one person is entitled to lead, or ever should lead, based on identity or fixed role.

Nasso continues to explore spiritual roles assigned to different kinds of individuals.  The portion starts with three subcategories of Levites and divides their labor based on tribe, then jumps to persons whose roles are shaped by actions.

First is the sotah, a woman whose husband has no evidence that she was unfaithful but who nevertheless is jealous. Torah instructs him to bring her to the kohen and put her through a humiliating public ordeal to prove her fidelity.

Next is the nazir, who takes on themselves a period of abstinence. The nazir is not to drink wine or vinegar, or eat grapes or raisins. They also abstain from trimming hair or going near a corpse – even for a close family member.

Finally, the kohen receives the power to bless the people with what we know today as the Kohenic (or Priestly) Blessing.

The sotah and kohen are mirror images of each other. Each receives a role to transmit holiness by action. The ancient kohen was male and his society understood him to be holy inherently, based on who he was. By sharp contrast, the sotah was a woman and her society understood her to be holy only as she served others. The sotah’s holy “service” was to undergo a public ordeal to “prove” her fidelity, assuage her husband’s jealousy, and give the community and its leaders a way to ritually determine truth under social and emotional stress.

The sotah lacked power. A jealous husband brought her to the community’s highest power for a ritual that publicly humiliated her and would even kill her if she was “proven” unfaithful. On the other hand, the tools of the sotah trial – dirt, water, a little dried ink – were highly unlikely to have a negative physical effect on anyone, regardless of guilt or innocence. Thus, even if the sotah ordeal “fixed” the problem of a jealous husband, it did so without fixing the real “problem” of the woman’s powerlessness.

Compare her to the kohen – male, born with power, automatically given an identity entitling him to serve at the community’s highest levels of perceived holiness. By virtue of birth, he decided who stayed in camp and who was sent out. He tested the sotah, offered the sacrifices, purified the impure and blessed the people. The kohen declared what was holy, by virtue of his identity.

Tellingly, however, Torah offers not only the stark contrast of sotah and kohen, but also a third role, the nazir, relative to them both. It is in the nazir that Torah offers the most healthy model for building the spiritual future.

Unlike the sotah who had status foisted on her, the nazir positively acted to take on his or her role. And unlike the kohen whose role was given based on identity, the nazir’s role was what the nazir became by opting in. The nazir wasn’t anything on account of birth: the whole point of the nazir was the choice to become one and behave as one.

The opting-in aspect of a nazir teaches us that people who willingly choose holy roles, and abide their limits, merit special consideration to the extent their behaviors align with the status and role they purport to choose. A nazir who didn’t take on the self-imposed limits of the role wasn’t really a nazir. Far more than role or title, choices and behavior count most. This idea is especially compelling today, when all sacred belonging is, ultimately, chosen, but this should not cause us to take it less seriously. Such choices are powerful: once made, we should consider these choices as having inherent and compelling worth.

The nazir also teaches that roles, and especially roles of power for spiritual building, require  healthy transitions. The nazir role had a term, a period of time, after which the nazir ended the role. At the end, the nazir brought a ritual offering to mark the transition. Even more, the ritual offering was a sin offering, as if to imply that the nazir role never could be inherently pure.

As for the nazir, so for all who take on a spiritual role. No spiritual role can be perfectly held, if only because we are human.  As for the nazir, a spiritual leadership role will need a sin offering when its term ends – whether because we began the role with hubris, or the role aroused in us a sense of superiority, or we held the role with less than full diligence, or we achieved less than we intended, or we cause harm along the way (whether deliberately or unintentionally).

To be a nazir is to take on a role that requires a sin offering. It is to be unsure – and this lack of certainty is the nazir’s third and maybe most important lesson of all. Unlike for the sotah and kohen, about whose roles Torah was very clear, Torah is at best vague about what made the nazir holy.  And if Torah was vague, textual tradition was downright confused about what it meant for the nazir to choose.

Was a nazir holier than others who didn’t choose the role (B.T. Taanit 11a; cf. Ramban, Maharit: Shealot U’teshuvot 1:543)? Or was a nazir less holy for abstaining from things that were permitted? So suggests Robert Alter in his 2004 Torah commentary: A nazir, by “acting exceptionally to set oneself apart for holiness, renouncing the pleasures of wine and letting one’s hair grow long, expresses a kind of presumption, an aspiration to spiritual superiority, and thus is an offense” (see also B.T. Taanit 11a; B.T. Nedarim 10a; Rambam, Shemonah Perakim).  Or maybe a nazir chose the role as a spiritual regimen of self-restraint, sensing that they themselves needed it (see Nechama Leibowitz, citing Astruc, Midrashei HaTorah; Rama on B.T. Sotah 2a). Or maybe the nazir represented an aspiration for the whole community rather than just oneself (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:11)?

All are possible – and maybe unavoidable for everyone who builds the Jewish spiritual future. And that is exactly the point.

In that sense, everyone who steps forward to build the Jewish future is a nazir – and we should treat them that way.  We must attract, train, and treat our spiritual builders not as intrinsic (like a kohen) and we should certainly not want them to be coerced (like a sotah), but as people who choose voluntarily – and temporarily. We must regard the role as tempered by strictures of time, character and self-restraint. We must know and accept that these strictures will be honored imperfectly, and therefore build into the role transitions for repair and re-integration.

If we don’t, then our sacred institutions – and the Jewish future – will continue to distribute power in sometimes very unhealthy ways, perpetuating a status quo based on identity or disempowerment that can leave the vulnerable more vulnerable.  

By contrast, with a nazir approach to spiritual building, we can aspire to high standards with healthy ambivalence about fully achieving them – not to arouse mistrust or cynicism, but to  harness the inner wisdom and outer structure that are the keys to effective spiritual design.








By Rabbi Alana Suskin. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.