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Every Building Needs a Fence 

 

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

 

In Ki Tetze, Torah says, “When you build a new house, make a railing for your upper story, so that blood-guilt not be held against your house should somebody fall from it.” (Deut. 22:8) What a powerful building instruction: whatever kinds of structures we build, we must prioritize safety.

The Hasidic rebbe known as the Maggid of Mezrich reads this as commentary on the psycho-spiritual process of building new interpretations of Torah. In his volume Ohr Torah he writes, “This [the verse about the railing] refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. Make a railing for your upper story…As it is, the upper story is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from G!d.” 

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert offers similar insight into the creative process. Her main point is the provocative notion that ideas are alive. She’s not being metaphorical: she means that ideas are literally living beings, though not made of physical material substance. This is not the way modern Western society usually thinks about the creative process! 

Rather than imagining that ideas are generated by extraordinary people (“geniuses”), Gilbert believes that ordinary people are approached by living ideas seeking a partner who will help them become manifest in the world. She roots this in the original meaning of the word “genius.” That word’s original usage held not that a particular person is a genius, but rather that a person has a genius. The term comes from the Arabic word djinn (usually rendered in English as “genie”). In this formulation, a genius is like a “muse” — a living idea that comes to a human being, wanting a partner to bring it into the world. 

Why might a modern builder choose Gilbert’s paradigm? One answer is that her outlook on building keeps the ego in check, much like the Maggid of Mezrich’s notion that an idea “comes not from you, but from G!d.” If the idea is not yours exclusively or a product of your genius but an idea you’ve partnered-with to help it enter the world, or an idea that comes from G!d, then it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfall of excessive ego and pride.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes, “But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward…’” She sounds a lot like Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l, who often said, “Ego is a great manager and a lousy boss.”

Whatever we build — whether a house, a poem, or a community — we need to remember that our ideas don’t come from us, but rather move through us. We are but partners in bringing new structures into the world. This type of “fence for our roofs” keeps our building work, and the structures we build, safe for all.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Water and Words

 

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

Words have power. They have the power to create, and the power to destroy. Think of any human creation, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Harry Potter World: they were all created through words. On the other side of the coin, think of any human act of destruction, from World War II to the devastating effects of microplastics on the environment, all put into effect through words. 

Language is arguably the most powerful tool that humans possess. It is no coincidence that we call the process of creating magic a “spell”– literally from the word “to spell.” In Parshat Chukat we see an incident that seems somewhat inexplicable unless we take into account the awesome power of our words.

In Numbers 20 we read of the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses. More than just the sister of Moses, Miriam was a leader in her own right. One of her most important functions was to find the water in the Wilderness. In the Wilderness, finding water was literally a life or death matter. So it is not surprising that right after Miriam dies, and there is no one to find water, the people begin to complain: 

“The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.The people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD!’”

Moses goes to G!d who tells him ““You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock and tell it to yield its water.” (Numbers 20:8) However, Moses’ anger gets the better of him, and instead of speaking to the rock, he hits the rock with his staff and says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The water comes from the rock, but G!d’s response to Moses is that because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, and because “you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” Moses is prohibited from entering the land of Israel and seeing the fulfillment of his life’s journey. In fact, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, “Scripture discloses the fact that but for this sin alone, they would have entered the land of Canaan.” 

What was so wrong with what Moses did? Was it such a horrible sin that he should deserve such an extreme punishment? For me, this divine punishment of Moses reflects Chukat’s core message for us as builders: words have power to create or destroy. Therefore we must choose our words carefully. By hitting the rock rather than speaking to it, and by speaking out of anger to the Israelites calling them rebels, Moses was engaged in destructive rather than creative speech. 

In stark contrast, according to Midrash Rabbah, Miriam’s ability to find water was deeply connected to her positive speech. The Midrash connects Miriam’s special relationship with water to Miriam’s leading the women in a song of gratitude after the Splitting of the Sea. Because she expressed gratitude through song for a miracle that occurred through water, she was rewarded with water (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2). In addition, the Midrash says that the well of water came out of a rock that would follow the Israelites through the desert, and that when people wanted the water to come out of the rock, they would come and stand by it, saying: “Rise up, O well,” and it would rise. According to the Midrash, this was the same rock that Moses struck. 

The method of Moses and that of Miriam to draw water from the rock represent two opposite ways of building and leading. We can speak with anger and authority and command as Moses did, or we can sing with gratitude and encouragement as Miriam did. What Chukat tells us is that both methods may produce “water,” but Moses’ method is not sustainable in the long term. The ends may seem to justify the means, but in truth, in the process of building, the ends are the means. As science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” In building the Jewish future, how we build is as important as what we build. No Jewish leader worth their salt should use hurtful or wrongful speech. Better to emulate Miriam who built gratitude with her song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Ben Newman. 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.

The Builder’s Holy Sledgehammer: Sometimes It Must Break

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

Spiritual builders sometimes so deeply invest in their call to build that they can forget what that call is really about. This week’s paresha (Ki Tisa) redirects us with two related teachings: (1) nothing is too important to break, even purposefully; and (2) spiritual builders mustn’t confuse building with purpose, lest spiritual life itself become an idol.

After chapters of instruction to build the Mishkan, the story gets interrupted by the Golden Calf.  With Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people get nervous that he’ll never return. They build a Golden Calf, point to it and celebrate: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Moses sees the Golden Calf and shatters the two stone tablets on it (Exodus 32:19).

Sometimes It Must Break

Surprisingly, G!d isn’t upset that Moses shatters the tablets. Talmud records G!d to say, in essence, “More power to you!” (Yevamot 6a). We learn a key lesson: sometimes things must break. Sometimes behaviors, structures and things must break so new ones can arise.

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We might imagine that some things are too important to break. If Jewish tradition would hold anything to be too important to break (“too big to fail”), then surely it’d be the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But those tablets are exactly what Moses breaks, and G!d applauds.

Why? Precisely to teach that nothing, not even G!d’s tablets, or whatever we imagine to be holy, is too precious to break for the sake of core principle. Some principles are paramount above all, even what we believe comes from G!d’s own Self.

Breaking is the way of the world. In Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic description of creation, breaking is how G!d created the universe. G!d created vessels to hold infinite light, but they shattered, unable to hold Infinity. G!d began creation anew, from shards of that cosmic shattering. In this creation story, the world is sparks of light concealed by shards of the primordial breaking.

Everything we know is a product of breaking. Physically, we’re all stardust, recycled remnants of faraway stars that exploded, fusing the elements we know on Earth. Spiritually, we’re all pieces of the Infinite, and shattered shards surround us waiting for us to lift them to light.

“As above, so below”: as in the cosmos, so too for us. Sometimes our buildings (physical and spiritual) fall. Structures suitable for one era don’t serve another. Old institutions can’t evolve with hearts and souls. The past crumbles into raw material to build the future.

Lest We Miss the Point

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Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in Meshech Chochma, offers this teaching about breaking the tablets:

“‘Moses became angry and cast the tablets from his hands’ – meaning that there is no sanctity or divinity without the existence of the Creator. And if [Moses] had brought the tablets, it would be as if they were exchanging the calf for the tablets…. Moses acted superbly in breaking the tablets… to teach that nothing has inherent sanctity….”

Moses knew that if he gave the tablets while Israel danced around the Golden Calf, they’d merely trade the Calf’s emptiness for an equally empty sense of the tablets. Moses saw his people making a classic spiritual mistake: confusing a symbol for what it symbolizes.

Buddhism offers a saying: “Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger.” Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called this “mistaking the sign for the signified.” This is the Golden Calf’s second building lesson: don’t confuse a symbol for the reality it symbolizes. Don’t mistake any human building (or organization, siddur, tunes, leaders – anything or anyone you can touch) for the potential holiness it can represent, transmit, teach or empower.

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught borrowing a Sufi saying: “Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank told this story to illustrate the message:

“I didn’t want to sit in the temple because they have a Buddha they all bow to, and I thought it was pretty primitive. I told the roshi that and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we went into the Zendo.

“He said, ‘Do you think we really bow to this thing?’

“‘Well,’ I told him, ‘It looks bad. How do I know you don’t?’ He took it by the head, turned it upside down, and opened the storage room, and flung it, very disrespectfully, bounced it into the wood storage room and slammed the door. He said, ‘If we were going to bow to it, do you think I would do that?’

“People came in and saw there was no Buddha and they bowed to emptiness. So I had no trouble after that, sitting in the Zendo where the Zen teacher could do that.”

Wolfe-Blank warned us against becoming “spiritual materialists” who pile up golden moments of spiritual experience as if we can hold them tight, sought for their own sake. Like light streaming through a window, any spiritual structure is only as valuable as the spirit – wisdom, learning, kindness, love, truth and strength – that flows through.

Don’t mistake any spiritual building for the spirituality that flows through. And if real spirituality doesn’t flow through, odds are good that it became a Golden Calf no matter what anyone may have intended. That’s when it’s time to break.

As we build the Jewish future, we must build for the flow, not the thing. Just as houses are for shelter, warmth and gathering (not roofs and walls), we must design, build, repair and even break to serve the spiritual experience within. That’s the point: everything else is just the pointer.

Even the tablets had to be shattered. Even the stars had to explode so we could form from their stardust. So don’t be afraid to break things for the sake of spirit. Sometimes what spiritual builders of the future need most is a holy sledgehammer today.

 

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By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Every Team Needs a Build; Every Build Needs a Team

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

The Torah portion known as Vayechi offers the conclusion of the dramatic family narrative of the book of Genesis. Jacob knows he will die soon, and calls in his family to provide them with blessings. Encoded in these blessings is an essential piece of sage advice about how to build thriving communities that live on after the death of a charismatic founder: members must recognize that everyone has a role to play that’s unique to their particular talents and interests. In building language: every build requires a build team, and everyone on the build team has gifts to bring.

Though this parsha is titled “Vayechi,” “and he [Jacob] lived,” it’s actually about Jacob’s death. The Midrash explains: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the days of the righteous die, but they do not die… It does not say, ‘and Israel drew near to die,’ but ‘the days of Israel drew near to die.’” This midrash is saying that though we die physically, we can live on through the lives we have touched and through the things we have built that can continue to transform the world

The same message appears in Joan Baez’s song “Joe Hill,” about the famous union organizer: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me says I but Joe, you’re ten years dead. I never died says he, I never died, says he.” The song and the midrash express the same truth: a builder’s spirit lives on through what they have built. And this week’s parsha offers a lesson on how to keep that spirit alive: each inheritor of any builder’s vision has a unique role to play.

Right before he dies, Jacob calls together all of his sons, each of whom will go on to found one of the twelve tribes. To each he gives an essential piece of wisdom about their particular role to play in the sustenance of the people of Israel — for example: “Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor…” or “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise.”

Throughout Genesis, Torah has explored the question of who inherits a builder’s legacy.  Isaac and Ishmael fought over Abraham’s legacy. Jacob and Esau fought over Isaac’s legacy. In each of those first two generations, only one brother could inherit. Here at the end of Genesis, Torah offers a new answer, and a way for community to remain intact. Everyone inherits Jacob’s legacy in their own unique way. Everyone has a role to play.

Jacob’s wisdom is embedded in Bayit’s founding principles. Every build needs a team, and “[m]ore than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.” As we do the work of spiritual building — both building the spiritual future, and doing the actual building in a way that expresses our spiritual values — we must value each person’s unique gifts and skills. We must build in a way that honors teamwork and collaboration. We must build with recognition that spiritual building isn’t a zero-sum game where only one person can inherit. On the contrary: the only way to build the spiritual future for which our hearts and souls yearn is together.

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There is risk in this kind of building. The Occupy movement, which had great potential for social and political transformation, fizzled in part because excessive egalitarianism led to a leadership vacuum. In science fiction terms, if everyone is an identical drone in the hive, you wind up with Star Trek’s The Borg. Better, if Star Trek is the model, to be like the Starship Enterprise — “boldly going where no one has gone before,” and doing so in a way that includes and honors a wide variety of skills, talents, and roles.

That’s the blessing that Jacob gave to his sons: permission to each bring their own gifts and skills to the work of building the Jewish future. That’s the blessing that we seek in our day, too. Every build team needs an architect, a blueprint, a variety of differently-skilled craftspeople — and the right balance of following visionary plans, and being willing to adapt the plans as needed. May we, like Jacob’s sons (and like the crew of the Enterprise!), honor our variety of skills, gifts, and roles. Then we can build with audacity and humility in appropriate balance, “boldly going” where the future calls, with firm foundations that will help spirits soar.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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Building something demands a leap of faith. Proto-ancestor Avram shows us the kind of leap, and the kind of faith, that wise building requires.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

YHVH said to Avram, “Lech-lecha / Go forth from your land, and from your birth,
and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1).

When I left Colorado two years ago to return to the east coast, I experienced a Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”) moment of venturing into the unknown.  I left behind the familiarity of a legacy institution, and set out into the unknown world of the start-up rabbinate.  Though I had general outlines of the kind of community I wanted to build, my path was mostly a mystery. The leap I took felt like jumping off a tall cliff and building an airplane on the way down.  

Building something new demands this sort of leap.

Avram, who later took the name Avraham, had to take a far greater leap of faith into the unknown to build the family that would become the Israelite People. That’s why Avram is our spiritual ancestor in more ways than one: Avram is not only regarded as the first monotheist, but also he’s a spiritual entrepreneur – a builder par excellence.

God’s call to Avram begins with the phrase “lech lecha”. Many commentators remarked on the superfluous nature of this grammatical construction.  All Torah needs to say is lech (“go”).  Instead, Torah says “lech lecha” (“go to you/for you”).  Medieval commentator Rashi reads this seeming redundancy as evidence that God called Avram to go “for his own benefit, for his own good.”  Zohar (thirteenth century) went farther, understanding lech lecha to mean “for your own sake: go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your [spiritual] level.”  

This is our first lesson that Avram’s Lech Lecha teaches about building:

  1. Builders need a clear vision of who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve.

To answer God’s call, Avram had to go deep into himself (as Rashi teaches), and do his own inner work to fix broken places in his soul (as Zohar teaches).  All who follow in his footsteps must do the same. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, we’ll reach greater clarity about the problem we want to solve — or, to use our core metaphor, we’ll have a clearer sense of what and how we’re being called to build.  

We need inner clarity so that we can see what’s outside us more clearly. Otherwise our own stuff is likely to cloud our vision, so that what we see becomes a reflection of ourselves, rather than a clear lens on the work at hand. And we need to keep doing our inner work so that we can boldly and wisely “go forth” into places we can’t yet know.

  1. Builders must question unconscious assumptions encoded in their origins.

The next part of Avram’s call instructs him to go me-artzecha (“from your land”).  We can read this phrase literally that Avram had to leave his country of origin, which was true.  We also can read it to mean that one must leave behind preconceived notions about how the world works and what’s possible.  Everyone has unconscious assumptions, and those assumptions aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but often they reflect the past (what has been) – not the potential (what can be) or the future (what will be).  To most wisely build the Jewish future, we all must notice our assumptions and their origins, and be willing to risk them. Only then can we be sure to build the future on its own terms, rather than merely replicating or responding to the past.

  1. Builders must grow beyond preconceived capacities both individually and together.

The third part of Avram’s Lech Lecha calls him mi-moladetcha – usually translated “from your birthplace” but also from one’s inherent birth-self.  Our predisposed talents and capacities are important to know for all they are: not everyone is born with native inclination or capacity to be an engineer, or designer, or craftsperson.  We’re all different and those differences are important to honor.

That said, Lech Lecha calls us beyond what we think we can do, because we often can do more than we think – and the future needs all we can give.

To best serve the future, wise builders must discern what they can learn to do better and how they can do better.  Wise builders must continually develop a broader and deeper toolkit than perhaps they think possible. Just as Avram’s journey called him to become more resourceful, more outgoing, and probably also more organized than he was before, so for everyone who seek to build new structures to house the life of spirit.

And what we truly can’t do alone, we must do together.  Avram didn’t go it alone: he brought helpers and made alliances along the way.  Anyone who builds alone is likely to build only a house for one.

  1. Builders must be ready to leave behind outdated structures, however much beloved.

God’s final Lecha Lecha direction to Avram was to leave behind beit avicha (his “father’s house”).  God encodes a building metaphor (and Bayit’s name!) to make a key point about building.

The key point is this: some structures must be left behind to build the future.

The idea of jettisoning the old may seem to contradict one of our keystone principles about backward compatibility – that when we build and innovate, most new structures shouldn’t so “break” with what came before that they lose their foundation.  But these two ideals (backward compatibility and shedding past baggage) must be in fruitful relationship and dynamic tension.

Even when we leave behind past experiences, they continue to shape us.  Indeed, when our hero wants to find a wife for his son Isaac, he sends his servant back to his country of origin, a sign that even though he “left home” long ago, he’s still shaped by where he came from.

Reb Zalman z”l, who spoke often about backward compatibility, also spoke of the need to drive using the wide view of the windshield, not only the limited perspective of a rearview mirror.  Like Avram, we must keep looking back at where we came from – hopefully lovingly. And like Avram, we also must strike out in new directions. When old ideas no longer serve, we must claim permission to rebuild them, or build anew, to meet the needs of a new time.  Often, though not always, tradition’s ancestral foundations will still serve. And we shouldn’t be afraid to re-use, remix, and re-purpose them.

Building the future is an exciting and often scary proposition.  Sometimes building the future will be incremental and relatively conservative; sometimes it’ll seem like a radical break with what came before but stand on ancient foundations or even deeper bedrock.  The Lech Lecha journey of building a new home asks clear vision, challenging assumptions, learning new tools and new ways, working together, sometimes leaving it all behind, and sometimes finding our way back.  

It’s a dynamic, holy and ongoing journey.  Just ask Avram, this week’s building teacher.

 

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by Rabbi Ben Newman; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.