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Graceful Fluidity / Graceful Masculinity: Behar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.

My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Sanctuary shall you revere – I am Hashem. (Leviticus 26:2)

Shabbat is in invitation for a time of deep and personal intimacy with G-d. It is also a time of great expansiveness to support the multifaceted spectrums of connectivity. We are told that on the shabbat we are given an additional soul to accommodate the soul’s dominance over the body, particularly in an arc of gender sensitivities.1

Although there is a dispute about which day of the month the Torah was given, “According to everyone it was given on the shabbos.” Shavuot is seen as the wedding between the Jewish People and G-d, that we prepared for by counting seven weeks from the blood of Passover (Zohar).  The two tablets were given to affect the kiddushin under the chuppah of Mount Sinai (Haflah).  Tradition also teaches that this is re-experienced every week with the shabbat (Igeres Hatyul). The Ari Z”l says it is reflected in the unique blessing in the Friday night prayer “Atah Kedashta” – which can either mean “you sanctified,” or “you betrothed.”

G-d’s identity in this relationship, like the People of Israel’s, is gender fluid. We find the Jewish people as a bride אֲרוּסָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּבָּ”ה יִשְׂרָאֵל – G-d’s bride is Israel (Rashi Exodus 34:1), and the tablets are the Shtar – marriage document (Baal Haturim Exodus 19:4) to the bride. Even the standard structure of the wedding blessing today, “Who sanctified your people Israel though chuppah and kiddushin,” is referring to the wedding between us and G-d at Sinai (Sheta Mekubetzes).

We also find that the Jewish People are referred to as the groom, marrying the Torah (Pesachim 49b), where G-d is the father of the bride (Shemot Rabbah 33:1), and the Mikdash – sanctuaries that we are commanded to build – are quarters for G-d, as G-d is our in-law who just wants to be close to us, wherever we are.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short lived. Just forty days later, we sinned against G-d in an adulterous act with the golden calf (Rashi Exodus 32:20 and Avodah Zarah 44a). G-d’s identity as the Creator necessitates our exclusivity in faithful monotheism. It also translates into the validation of this identity through the celebration of the Sabbath. The Rabbis go so far as to equate observing the Sabbath as a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Ohr Hachaim 26:2).

Maimonides, in concluding his laws of forbidden relationships, writes that “the greatest antidote to acting inappropriately is to turn oneself and one’s thoughts to words of Torah and immerse their mind in wisdom, because inappropriate thoughts do not rule in one’s mind except in the mind of one whose heart is turned away from wisdom. Regarding wisdom it is said, ‘It is a beloved hind, arousing grace. . . You shall be obsessed with her love (Proverbs 5:19).”

The Talmud (Eruvin 52b) explains the comparison teaching that “matters of Torah are cherished by those who study them each and every hour like the first hour.” Each part of this verse, according to the Vilna Gaon, refers to one of the four layers of the Torah’s פרדס – Pardes, and their corresponding levels of physical, and intellectual, intimacy.

One of the consequences of the breaking of the first set of tablets, at the sin of the Golden Calf, is the necessity for the oral law (Shar Yissaschar). The Torah is referred to as both  male and female, even in the same verse (Exodus 12:49). It is also understood that the written skews masculine while the oral towards the feminine (Kiddushin 2b Ben Yehoyada). Reb Tzadok (Dover Tzedek) teaches that, although the entire Torah is from G-d, the written represents G-d’s wisdom while the oral is from Israel’s. The Zohar’s (3:73a) famous teaching that G-d, Torah, and Israel are one, can be understood as the process of G-d and the Jewish people sanctifying their union at Sinai through the written Torah, and then, coming together with the Oral Law (R’ Eliyahu Baruch). 

There is no grace like the fulfillment of the Torah – אין חן כקיום התורה (Shevet Mussar). However unlike the Shabbat, that comes every 7 days with or without us, we are responsible for showing up to do our part in furthering the acceptance, understanding, and production of Torah. The more we revisit it, the newer, deeper, and more personal it becomes. As we prepare for Shavuot, let us feel empowered and embodied to expand our connectivity to it beyond just our lived experience, by experiencing it as part of the collective whole. 

 

1. [See Shabbos as an All Gender Experience]

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Progress / Graceful Masculinity: Emor

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.

You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest of the day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete. (Leviticus 23:15)

 

We find the “Exodus of Egypt” mentioned fifty times in the Torah (Gra), just as the world was created with fifty gates of wisdom (Rosh Hashanah 21b). We also find that when the Israelites left Egypt they were on the 49th level of spiritual impurity (Zohar P’ Yisro) and on the brink of reaching spiritual annihilation.  Remarkably, only 7 weeks later when they stood at Mount Sinai, they had reached the 49th level of holiness. (Rokeach

Every year we re-experience the transition, from going out of Egypt to receiving the Torah, by counting the 49 days of the Omer. It is intended to be a deeply personal and individualized process of really working on one’s own evolution and development. The Talmud (Menachus 65b) understand the word “לכם” you, as “each and every one” shall count for yourselves. 

These seven weeks are described in the verse as temimot, perfect and whole. Rashi explains temimot as meaning complete, in that we must begin counting on the second night of Passover, so that the first day of counting isn’t deficient. The midrash though understands temimot not as a technically complete count, but as complete in a spiritual sense. The midrash explains:

אֵימָתַי הֵן תְּמִימוֹת? בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם 

“When are these [seven weeks] complete? When Israel is doing the will of the G-d”. 

Clearly something about the verse is bothering the midrash that it was moved to reframe it. What does doing the Divine will have to do with counting to 49? Additionally, the task of this period of time is specifically to shift the negative into the positive. Rav Vachtfolgel Z”tl observes that this is why the word “שבתות” Shabbats are used as opposed to shavuot, meaning weeks – because it is about sanctifying oneself like the shabbos. How then are we meant to see the past as perfect if we are invested in changing it for the future?

The Ksav V’kabala explains temimut as an indicator of quality, not quantity. When a person is focused on doing their best, whatever that might be, it is called complete. It is so specific to the moment that even the same person should be seen differently, depending on where they are holding. 

Our rabbis also see an allusion, in the verse, to Abraham who is told lech-lecha, go for yourself. The midrash points out that G-d said those words to Abraham earlier in his spiritual journey, when he first left his father’s home, and again many years later, when he is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. The midrash continues by saying “and we don’t know which was a greater test.” An explanation is given, by the Slonimer Rebbe, that both of these tests were equally challenging because they reflected where Abraham was at the time. Comparing the two doesn’t help in evaluating the degree of difficulty of the moment.

We find a similar framing of the tam, the “simple son” in the Haggadah. The Vilina Gaon sees him as the counterpoint to the wicked son in that they are each equally focused on either coming closer or further away from G-d. Jacob too is described (Genesis 25:27) as a “simple man who sat in tents.” Jacob was simple in that there was no complexity of competing interests besides just doing the right thing.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is coming to answer: How can you claim that the seven weeks are tam – pure, perfect, and pristine – when it is clearly a work in progress? The important lesson being taught here is that the ideal is in flux. As we do our best to grow and change, every point along the way is tamim, or perfect. As we grow, so does the goodness, but those advancements don’t minimize or cancel the past.

It is for this reason that we find in Psalms (84:12) “Grace and glory does Hashem bestow; G-d withholds no goodness from those who walk in perfect innocence (בְּתָמִֽים).” Two people can do or say the same thing, but it can land very differently (Pele Yoetz). Chein, grace, is the difference in the way the action is perceived and it is determined by the intention and effort of the person in the moment.

If we can’t appreciate the changes that we are making for the good, because the comparison to the past highlights our shortcomings, we inhibit and deter future development. In repenting for unintentional transgressions we acknowledge that “had I known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” When we are trying as hard as we can to develop into the best version of ourselves each moment, we immediately come to learn that the ceiling quickly becomes the floor. In reflecting back on earlier times “when we just didn’t know any better,” we need to be critical of society and the factors that contributed to that environment, but knowing better, and acting differently because of that wisdom today, is a holy accomplishment.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

 

 

Graceful Love / Graceful Masculinity: Kedoshim

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
You shall not take revenge nor shall you bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as you love yourself – I am Hashem. (Lev. 19:18)

Reb Aron of Karlin taught that if one wants to know how one is doing as a lover of G-d, one should do an accounting of one’s love for G-d’s children. Then one will know one’s true level of love for G-d. The only other place in the Torah where the word “ואהבת“ – and you shall love – is found is with the commandment to love G-d. It has been observed that “Love Hashem, your G-d” (Deuteronomy 6:5) has the same numerical value in Hebrew as “Love your neighbor like yourself, I am Hashem.”

It is perhaps for this reason that we are given this mitzvah here in Kedoshim. The Imrie Noam notes that the word “Kedoshim” is plural and alludes to these two opportunities to generate holiness through love. Two times קדש (holy) also equals “ ואהבת לרעך כמו” / Love your neighbor like yourself. Rashi explains (19:1) that this Parsha was said at a gathering of the entire assembly of Israel, because the majority of the essentials of the Torah depend upon it [to be holy].

This principle of loving another as a way of connecting to “I am Hashem” is articulated by the Ari Z”l (Shar HaKavanas) as follows: “A person must accept upon themselves the commandment to love another as themselves before they pray, for whatever one does for G-d, they must also do for all of G-d’s children.” The Book of Leviticus opens with this teaching as well: “When a person (singular) among you offers…you shall bring your offering (plural).”

In the Midrash’s exploration for why everyone needed to gather to hear this Parsha, Rabbi Levi answers, “because the Ten Commandments are incorporated into it.” The Midrash cites a corresponding verse for each of the ten commandments, and the one that is quoted as representing the commandment of “Don’t covet” is “Loving your neighbor.” Nachmanides explains that when we increase our love for one another and we are happy when good things happen to others, we lose the ability to be jealous or vengeful.

When G-d asks us to be holy, at the beginning of the Parsha, the point of departure is our similarity; “because I am holy.” Loving one another as one loves oneself asks one to overcome the perception that we are too different, distinct, or dissimilar to ever see our identities as bound up with each other as one. However, often when we see someone as too similar to us, we can feel threatened, insecure, and in competition for our unique offerings.

The Arvei Nachal quotes a dispute between Plato and Aristotle on the source of love — coming either from the ways in which we are comparable to, or the opposite of, each other. He argues that Platonic love, like the wealthy person pursuing the poor to offer charity (Shabbos 104a), isn’t true love. Rather it’s a self focused love acquired through kindness to another. This works in both directions, as the Medresh teaches “More than the person who is wealthy does for the person who is poor, the poor person does for the wealthy.”

When two people need each other, like a buyer and a seller, each supports the other and benefits from the relationship. In a dynamic where there isn’t a perceived differential of power, the Torah encourages us to put in the effort to love another, particularly, when they are “like ourselves.”

The Aristotelian model, which is less commonly achieved, asks us not to seek out what’s in it for us, but to cleave to and elevate the lovablity of the other. This is primarily accomplished when we are first able to see ourselves as lovable, and then because we see each other as equals, we can engage in truly loving each other.

We find this distinction when Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt “ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ …וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת – He called to his son, Joseph, if I have found grace in your eyes…please do for me this kindness and truth.” Rashi explains that the “kindness that people do for the dead is the kindness of truth, because one doesn’t look forward to reciprocation.” The Malbim comments that the inclusion of both “son” and “Joseph” alludes to Jacob making his request on two different fronts. As a son, Joseph had certain obligations and needs to honor his father’s wishes. But as a person, he made a different kind of ask, predicated on the recognition of grace.

Rebbe Akiva said about loving another as ourselves “This is a great principle of the Torah.” The Sadigura Rebbe understood “ourselves” as meaning the way that we, ourselves, treat each other. G-d then reciprocates, and treats us in that same way. Our actions towards each other define our levels of holiness and indicate our true love for G-d.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Rebuke / Graceful Masculinity: Tazria

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.

If a person will have on their skin of their flesh, a seis, or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaras affliction on the skin of their flesh, they should be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim. (Leviticus 13:2)

It is too easy to judge others, even though we know how hard it is to ever really understand what another person is feeling or going through. Indeed it is often far simpler to recognize an imperfection in someone else than to notice that same flaw in ourselves. If we are so good at observing the failures of others, why is it so difficult for us to see them in ourselves?

Tradition teaches a concept of being nogea b’daver, being too close to a matter to maintain objectivity. As an example, one can not act as a judge for a family member. The phrase nogea b’daver shares the linguistic root of the word “nega or skin affliction. The Midrash Tanchuma suggests the word also hints to the causes of the affliction; having their source in crossing the appropriate boundaries of another. As part of the healing process, it is therefore required that “they should be brought” by another person.

Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra additionally taught that anyone who speaks lashon hara, malicious speech, will contract this skin ailment. The Talmud teaches “All of the attributes of G-d are dispensed measure for measure”. Why is this skin ailment an appropriate punishment for gossip? 

A person who gossips exposes the flaws of another to public ridicule. As a result, the gossiper is punished by having their own flaws manifest as an external skin disease readily seen by any onlooker. 

Instead of speaking badly about someone, the Torah expects us to speak to them. It is not pleasant to receive input that asks us to modify our actions. Yet such a rebuke is the consequence and counterbalance to our own lack of awareness. If we could receive the memo internally, then we wouldn’t need another to deliver it. 

The Talmud extols the individual who appreciates this type of feedback. Rebbe taught: “A person should love admonition; for as long as it exists in the world, pleasantries come with goodness and blessing and evil is removed from the world.” And R’ Yochanan added “Anyone who rebukes their friends, with the right intentions, merits a portion of the Divine and even more so a cord of grace is extended on them as it says in Proverbs: “One who reproves someone will later find grace”.

The Malbim explains that even though it is the way of the world that people initially prefer to avoid receiving negative feedback, after time, the natural consequences of the “flawed perspective” catch up to a person and then, in the end, they really value the corrective support. It is for that reason that the verse emphasizes “later.” So too in the case of the metzora. They need to be brought to the Kohen because they are reluctant to hear the truth about themselves that this affliction will confirm.

In the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Bible he explains the prefix “to” in “לנגע” as the Torah’s way of teaching us that those around this individual are aware of the discomfort caused by them, and they are pained in observing it. When we have an insight into the character traits of another, that sensitive information can be used to encourage that person to talk more openly about the motivations and intentions, or it could be the portal into something hurtful, G-d forbid. The Gra writes that gracefulness is manifested as the awareness that someone cared enough to take the time, and the chance, to share a heart centered perspective.

This parsha of negyim invites us to reflect when we see something, in another, that doesn’t land so well for us – perhaps something similar exists in ourselves. Having something “seen” by someone else helps us have a more accurate vision of ourselves. Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the banqueting-hall. Rashi explains that people are already dressed and ready for the party by the time they arrive; they just need to make minor adjustments to their hair or clothes before they formally present themselves. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves, and help others in doing the same, but that requires willingness to see the work that still needs to be done.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Shame / Graceful Masculinity: Shmini

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Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם.

A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed from the altar, the olah offering, and the fats; the people saw and they praised and fell upon their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)

Making mistakes, and learning from them, is part of life. One of the great indicators that we have really begun to internalize the new lesson is that deep feeling of disappointment and embarrassment that we didn’t realize this particular truth earlier, and that we were ever capable of doing the previous thing at all. 

This can be a shameful experience that tries to burden us with negativity that inhibits growth and change. There is another, holy variety, of shame called busha, בושה.  It propels us towards a more sensitive version of ourselves that just can’t imagine doing that thing ever again. We are simply no longer that person and wouldn’t ever want to be again. 

This movement, of coming closer to the ideal, is the act of offerings, korbanot (the word comes from a root meaning to come closer). Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi taught (TB Sotah 5b) the greatness of being of broken/humble spirits “is as if one has offered all of the sacrifices.”

The parable is given of a beloved prince, who one day rebels and acts inappropriately towards his father the king. As the king deliberates on the correct response, and overcomes his own anger and disappointment with his son, he decides rather than punishing him directly, he will instead advance the prince’s place in the kingdom and afford him even more honor and glory. When the son hears about this generosity, aware in his heart that he truly behaved poorly to his father, he is overcome with busha over his immaturity and can’t even show his face at the dinner in his honor, until he properly apologizes.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d acted towards the Jewish people with an unending love. G-d so wanted to dwell among the people and bestow goodness that folks were overcome with busha and needed to cover their faces in humility. Rina, the Hebrew word used here, is a unique language of praise; in that it expresses a mixture of happiness and sadness (Rav Tov).

Toras Kohanim says that when the fire descended and consumed the offerings they declared (Psalms 33:1) “Sing joyfully, righteous strugglers, because of HaShem.” It is specifically with “Hashem,” the attribute of mercy, that one can approach G-d from a place of regret, and pain of the past, with gratitude for the opportunity to commit to a different future.

However, the order of the verse is a little strange. Why are they praising G-d before they fall on their faces? If they were really overcome with embarrassment, how did they first sing out before they processed the emotional component? 

The Zohar (Mishpatim 108a) teaches that we don’t offer the sacrifices in a vein of the strict attribute of judgment, associated with G-d’s name Elokim, but to the Shem Havayah, the Tetragrammaton. When spelled out יו”ד – ה”י – ו”ו – ה”ה it has the same numerical value as מזבח, the altar, and with the word itself each equal חן, grace. 

In the mystical tradition,(Bris Kahunas Olam) G-d’s foundation of grace was revealed through this exchange on the altar and is hinted to by the Talmud (Sotah 47a), that a place, Makom – the Omnipresent – is graceful to its inhabitants.

Perhaps it is the compassion of the place where we are, wherever that may be in the moment, recognizing that G-d is patiently there with us that stirs us to be vocal about our relationship with G-d and give thanks. What follows may be less about a reflection of the past mistake, but more of an attitude towards our future state of being.

After the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, Moshe tells the people: “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of G-d may be on your faces, so that you do not go astray.” (Exodus 20:17). The Talmud (Nedarim 20a) quotes this verse and declares “זו בושה,” “this is shame,” and posits: “It is a good quality in a person that they are capable of experiencing shame. Others say: Any person who feels shame will not quickly sin.”

Learning more about the way we impact others, through simply being ourselves, is often a painful realization. It can potentially fuel insecurities about being good enough or worthy of being in relationship with others. The Torah is teaching us to reject and replace those thoughts of shame with the commitment to a healthier being. It takes faith and a deep desire for self-improvement to explore the next lesson we didn’t yet know we needed to learn.

 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

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.

A time to build and a time to refrain from building

 

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

 

In our fast-paced world it’s rare to take a sabbatical. A week’s vacation here and there is more the norm. But a full year? That’s an awfully long time.

For a farmer, leaving the land fallow for an entire year must feel like a lifetime. And yet that’s exactly what the Torah asks; “When you enter the land that I assign to you… in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” No planting, no pruning, no reaping.

The Torah assures us that even without human intervention, the land will provide enough for everyone to eat, both human and beast. But there’s one thing the Torah doesn’t say: What are the farmers and the builders and the do-ers supposed to do with themselves during the sabbath year?

Perhaps the answer is that they’re not meant to do anything at all. Or at least, nothing productive. Because sometimes stopping completely is the path to our most creative moments. And a week’s vacation simply isn’t long enough to do the important work of truly resting and recharging.

This week’s Torah portion is called B’har, “on the mountain,” and it begins with an anomaly. The opening sentence is a deviation from the normal introduction, which generally reads something like, “And God spoke to Moses, saying…”

This time, two words are inserted into the standard sentence, so it reads: “And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.”  The addition seems unnecessary, since we already know that Moses and God are together on the mountain.

Calling our attention to the mountain is a reminder that Moses is in an elevated place, both physically and spiritually. He has left everything and everyone he knew below, and has gone to a high place, where his sole task is to listen to God. Later, he will transmit all that he heard to the people below. But for now, he is not responsible for doing, only for receiving.

We live in a world that seems to function at a breakneck pace. We hurry from here to there, hurling ourselves down highways at speeds that were once unimaginable, yet today are routine. We take vacations that are filled with sights and sounds, and return home elated by the wonderful experiences but often so tired that we jokingly say we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

We construct lives of perpetual motion for ourselves and our families. We build an existence so structured around accomplishments that we become humans-doing instead of humans-being.  The lesson of B’har is to stop building, stop doing, and simply be.

From the heights of the mountain we can look at our lives with fresh eyes and understand anew the injunction from Ecclesiastes that there is a time to build and a time to refrain from building. Even as Torah guides us toward creating a better world, Torah also teaches us to abstain from building and give ourselves unstructured time for reflection and rejuvenation.

A year is a very long time. Even the ancient rabbis chafed at the thought of letting the land and people rest for an entire year, and they dreamt up ways to work around it by allowing just one field to represent an entire farm. But I wonder if we are short-changing ourselves by abbreviating our times of rest.

What would it do for our psyches if we took “a sabbath of complete rest” that lasted more than 25 hours? More than a week? Or a month? If we put down our tools and set aside our plans, put away our cell phones and computers, our radios and TVs? What if instead we breathed deeply, walked slowly, observed the sun as it rose and set, and watched in awe as the stars reeled above?

If we gave ourselves the chance to visit the mountain, perhaps we could return refreshed, both physically and spiritually, ready to embark on the next stage of our lives with  a renewed sense of purpose, ready to pick up our tools and begin once again to build the future.

 

By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

One Standard for Everyone

 

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

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: I, Adonai, am your God.” (Lev. 24:21) I can’t think of a better guideline for building. One standard for everyone, whether stranger or citizen. Torah asks us, “citizen and stranger” alike, to build the Jewish future in a way that lives up to tradition’s ethical and communal building codes — the injunctions in Torah and tradition about who and how we should be.

Our houses (our Judaisms) may be built from different materials, have different types of rooms, or have different dimensions. Regardless, Torah calls us all to build wisely, stranger and citizen alike. Rashi (d. 1105) writes that “I, Adonai, am your God” implies “the God of all of you,” Israelite and stranger alike. In other words: relationship with God isn’t ours alone. Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) agrees, reading “your [plural] God” as “God of the native and God of the stranger.”

This may be surprising coming from a tradition that began with triumphalism, the assumption that there is only one right way to connect with or understand divinity. But these classical commentators argue for a post-triumphalist reading of the verse. God is in relationship with all of us. That’s why this verse about the ethical obligation to hold everyone to the same standards ends with the reminder that (as Rashi and Ibn Ezra would have it) God is everyone’s God.

This God-talk may be making some of us squirm — what if we don’t believe in God? (Though following in the footsteps of Reb Zalman z”l, I always want to ask: tell me about the God you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in that God-idea either. I’m more interested in being in relationship with holiness than “believing in” it.) But this verse offers an ethical grounding regardless of what we do or don’t understand the G-word to mean.

Relationship with holiness is everyone’s birthright: citizen and stranger, believer and non-believer. And because all of us are in relationship with the holy, all of us need to build with wise building codes in mind. Whether we feel like “insiders” or “outsiders” to Jewish tradition and community, the Jewish future asks all of us to build with strong ethical standards, ensuring that our outsides match our insides, in a way that’s participatory and empowering to all.

In Torah’s language, we’re all made in the divine image. In the language of our mystics, each of us contains a spark of divinity. In secular language, each of us is entitled to equal and ethical treatment by dint of our common humanity… and each of us is asked to live up to the same standards of ethical behavior and informed participation. Each of us must build according to code, in order not to endanger ourselves and each other with the structures we put in place.

I see three lessons here for us as builders of Jewish community:

1) One standard means equality

We all have rights and responsibilities. There is no hierarchy here between clergy and laypeople, or between the ancient priestly class and “the rest of us,” or between Jews of different denominational backgrounds. There is no hierarchy here between those born into Jewish families and those who choose Judaism, between people of differing genders, or between Jews and non-Jews. If there’s one standard for all of us, then the rules (“building codes”) of an upright and ethical society apply to all of us equally.

2) We can’t outsource

And if there’s one standard for all of us,  then we can’t responsibly outsource our Jewishness to anyone else — to clergy, or to people with more training, or to those residing in the Land of Israel. On the contrary, all of us share the obligation of learning enough about our Jewishness to build a meaningful Jewish future with our own hands. All of us should aspire to equal standards of ethical behavior, and equal standards of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and equal standards of active engagement.

3) As for those who refuse to “build to code”…

People or organizations that refuse to take safety seriously (whether physical, emotional, or spiritual) are not acting in accordance with Torah. Torah often says that those who fail to live up to the ethical obligations of the mitzvot (connective-commandments)  become “karet,” cut off — which to me suggests not that they will be excommunicated, but rather that with their choices, they cut themselves off from community and from holiness.

Imagine a Jewish future in which we all understand ourselves to be responsible for our Jewish learning, our Jewish growing, our Jewish building. Clergy and laypeople; from Orthodox to Reform, across and beyond the denominations, including the non-Jews in our communities and families; across diversities of race; across the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation — building with one standard of ethical, active engagement for “us” and “them” alike.

Imagine it, and then go and build. The Torah, and the Jewish future, ask no less.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Start-Ups and Suffering the Need for Speed

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

Jimi Hendrix observed that “castles made of sand melt into the sea.” Sand buildings have their place (like Buddhist sand mandalas), but they are not meant to last. Rather, they are meant to teach us about impermanence.

Most spiritual builders don’t think they’re in the impermanence business. They build to have lasting impact, and the impulse to build often drives a need for speed.

But common sense and Torah teach what we often forget: building fast and building well rarely go together. The key to building for longevity is to take time, to resist the drive to build for fast impact over lasting impact.

Modernity presses a need for speed: short attention spans, fast solutions, 24/7 news cycles. Sometimes lasting spiritual impact can happen in an instant, but as the saying goes, more often “overnight success” takes years of preparation.

The nature of things is to take time. That’s the key building lesson I find in this week’s Torah portion (Kedoshim), which expresses the point in terms of nature itself:

“When you enter the land and plant any food tree, you must regard its fruit as blocked. For three years it will be blocked for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit must be set aside for jubilation before God, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit” (Lev. 19:23-25).

Nature takes time, and so must we. In Torah’s understanding, just because we can pick fruit doesn’t mean we should. To the contrary, we mustn’t – not yet.

One reason is that first fruits really are different: not all first fruits are ripe and worthy. As Nachmanides wrote, “the first three years are not fit to offer God, for in those years the crop is small and tasteless.” If only for health and good taste, these first fruits evoke nature’s own trial and error, cultivating her own ripening capacity.

Why? Perhaps because, in tradition’s words, kol hatchalot kashot: “All beginnings are hard” (Rashi, Ex. 19:5). Every creation has its pains, imperfections and difficulties – so we must expect them and plan for them. We must never expect our labors to bear “fruit” right away – and when they do, they might not yet be fully capable of “ripening.”

So too for spiritual ideas, and especially the task of spiritual building. If we expect overly quick results, we’re liable to sow unreasonable expectations and disappointment – the functional equivalent of unripe fruit. The result can be speed over quality.

Entrepreneurs understand it well. It’s a business truism that start-ups generally aren’t profitable or self sustainable for at least three years – and that they shouldn’t be. They need time to plan for the long term, try ideas and let unripe ideas fertilize the ground for what’s next. One who tries to live off of the fruits of labors too soon often finds that the yield is “small and tasteless.”

But patience, it turns out, also is hard. The Hebrew word for patience (savlanut) comes from the root “to suffer” or “to tolerate.” Encoded in the Jewish notion of patience is the recognition that waiting involves a certain amount of pain that we must learn to tolerate and, even more, welcome as the catalyst for creation and wise building.

Patience doesn’t come easy – and sometimes it doesn’t help that we look to validate impatience with spiritual sages who stood against wasteful inertia. Hillel’s “if not now, when” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) seems to discourage patience in favor of speed, but really it stands against procrastination. After all, “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) – but not for undue haste!

Torah’s fruit-tree teaching continues that even once tree fruit becomes edible after three years, the fourth year’s bounty is for God. It’s yet another reminder that spiritual builders must put the sacred first: we must “pay” God before paying ourselves.

Of course, we can’t literally “pay” God (at least, not any God that I know!). Rather, in building terms, spiritual entrepreneurs can begin repaying loans, keeping promises and reinvesting proceeds – all before thinking to reap for ourselves. In these and many other ways, wise building means that the first returns on investment go back into the process of building.

In turn, we learn that wise spiritual building must plan for the long haul, and inculcate from the start the notion that the call to build is about the building, not the builder; about the fourth and fifth year, not the first three; and always, always, about God.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. 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.