Second Chances

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

Florida recently enacted a “Second Chance” law, repealing a lifetime ban on voting for 1.4 million convicted felons released from prison.  I thought about the impact on both individuals and society. While voting affirms the dignity of an individual voting also strengthens a society. This is an example of how we can offer participation to a person who is otherwise excluded due to competing “engagements.” Our Jewish tradition explores this same tension in the context of building a religious community and holy nation.

We are all going to miss participating in rituals due to competing commitments or physical challenges. Sometimes that ritual is a spiritual marker, aligning us with family or community or tradition. When missing a salutary ritual, the individual may feel frustration leading to disillusionment and dissociation. This may be especially true where the rule’s application is exclusive rather than inclusive.

Here’s what we learn in Torah. In parshat Behaalotcha, Moses is challenged to consider when compliance with rules of Passover holiday observance can be reexamined. Several in the Israelite camp were unable to partake of the Pesach offering having been rendered unclean by contact with the dead (to that category, God will add those who are away on travel). Separated for seven days, those in a state of pending purification missed the opportunity to eat the pesach offering that signified the beginning of our collective journey to liberation.

Some rituals are so time and date specific that the idea of celebrating at a later time or date makes little sense. The New Year is only celebrated on the first day of the year. Passover is slightly different.

The function of the Passover holiday is to acknowledge God as our redeemer from slavery.  The Passover offering is an obligatory symbol and eating it is an essential element of the biblical instruction. Yes, the fourteenth of Nissan is the date for celebration. Torah even threatens that we will be cut off if Pesach is not timely observed. Yet, the text also acknowledges that the date is not central to completion of the observance. Otherwise there would be no second chance Pesach.

Accordingly, God told Moses that a new category be created, allowing for later observance. For those who missed the opportunity to fully celebrate Passover, a second Passover offering, or Pesach Sheni is presented, saying “Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” Numbers 9:10 – 11.

A healthy religious life may depend upon the second chance to fulfill spiritual obligations. In fact, there’s both a communal and personal benefit in offering an additional opportunity at completing a ritual observance.

With a second opportunity to fulfill a ritual experience, spiritual lives can be restored.  There is also the psychosocial benefit of each person having the perception that they are both included and compliant.  Proper participation conveys a sense of inclusion and the second chance offers the view that fairness is at hand. Building a just and fair religious community sometimes means offering a second chance. The lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that rules should aspire to include and not alienate members of the community.

The underpinning of the community structure is not the rules themselves but the Godliness we seek. Our commitment to expanding righteousness is reinforced by our participation in observances and rituals. Accordingly, the religious precepts need to themselves reflect righteousness or the system will be perceived as iniquitous. The community we build rests on that holy foundation and connects through the proper application of rules that life us higher.

Yet, not every missed ritual is met with the quittance of a second chance.  To construct a caring and dutiful community, the goals of timely participation have to be encouraged. Without such organization, the civic structures shatter into egocentric shards. Therefore, the Pesach Sheni is only offered to those who were prohibited from participation when following a rule of competing value or when participation was impossible. As God instructed: “But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt.” Numbers 9:13 Flexibility has to have some limits for the sake of cohesiveness and collective holiness in society.

Just as “articulation” in the building trades is the joining together of the distinct parts of a structure, the rules of a civilization or religious group must be articulated in ways that connect people with common purpose.  When those rules are too harsh, the individual disassociates from the collective. But when those rules are too lax, the individual’s desires quash the group goals.

Assembling a new nation out of a rag tag assemblage of former slaves required rules of behavior that directed hearts toward the creation of an idealized Israel. That perfect nation or spiritual community is yet to be fully constructed. In that endeavor, the lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that the structures of religious life serve a Higher purpose and must sometimes offer flexibility to accommodate those whose hearts yearn to serve. The determination of which rituals can be tweaked, will be an ongoing conversation between God, Torah, and people of faith.







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.

Making Everyone Count


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


The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?”

We have to really know each other to know what work will most inspire. Is my fellow builder someone who wants a discrete task, or will they best thrive with flexibility and latitude? How do they best communicate? What kinds of things do they like to do, and what kinds of tasks are likely to enervate them — or to energize?

One of Bayit’s grand experiments is a rotating leadership model, in which everyone takes turns serving as chair. This model was inspired by the story of Reb Zalman and the rebbe chair. Reb Zalman z”l used to teach from the head of the Shabbes or festival table — and then invite everyone to rise, move over one seat, and let the next person serve as the “rebbe.” In inviting everyone at the table to sit in the “rebbe chair,” Reb Zalman taught that leadership comes through us, not from us, and that leadership is temporary, not permanent.

We evolved our leadership model to uplift values of collective engagement and collective responsibility, balancing collaborative decision-making with clear channels of communication and responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity to step up and then step back. We also built into our system the assumption that folks can “pass” on serving as Board chair if their name comes up in the rotation at a time that doesn’t work well for them.

As we move into our second year of this leadership model, we’re discovering that it doesn’t work exactly as we anticipated. Some folks opted to “pass” on serving as chair for reasons we didn’t anticipate – not only for busy times in work or life, but also because not all of us have the spaciousness to develop the skills and passions to hold responsibility for the whole and help “lift up the heads” of others. Collectively, we recognized that sometimes our passions and talents aim in different ways.

Good leadership asks the person who is leading to really see the people she’s leading. It asks the person who is leading to hold leadership lightly enough that roles and responsibilities can be shared, and to hold leadership strongly enough to give others confidence that there’s a hand at the helm. It asks the flexibility to shift leadership plans and models in response to realities at hand. It asks inner flexibility to step forward decisively and gracefully, then step back decisively and gracefully.

Bayit isn’t alone in this leadership development journey. Every Jewish organization should ask itself hard questions about who should lead, how they should lead, and how best to lift others into leadership. And of course, leadership takes many forms. In a synagogue, for instance, there’s likely to be any number of roles – whether rabbi, cantor, education director, executive director, board chair, board treasurer, fundraiser, etc. — plus other roles that don’t necessarily have titles: community elders and sages, “den mothers,” angel donors, cleaning crews and more.

In Jewish mystical tradition, God is One and is manifest in the world through ten sefirot, qualities such as lovingkindness, boundaried-strength, and balance. Each of those qualities is different, and each one is necessary. What would happen if every Jewish organization approached organizational development through that lens — ensuring that every leadership structure has and balances a diversity of skill sets and qualities, each integral to the whole?

Moses knew that community leadership is also community service. He knew that community leadership requires really seeing the people whom one is privileged to serve. It’s easy to imagine leadership vertically — the leader is at the “top,” and everyone else is at the “bottom” — but the servant-leadership model inverts that hierarchy.

God’s first instruction to Moses this week is to take an accounting of who’s in the community, to uplift each soul for who they are and what they bring to the table. In the Jewish community and in the world, we need to recognize who each of us truly is and how each of us is best called to serve. That’s the only way to build a Jewish future stronger and more whole than the sum of its parts.


By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.