Isaiah + Sounds of Silence: video

Last year we shared a Yom Kippur haftarah from founding builder R’ David Markus — Isaiah 58 + Sounds of Silence. (At that link you can find a recording of the haftarah plus a marked-up PDF of the text annotated with haftarah trope.)

In response to a request on the Dreaming Up High Holidays 2020 Facebook group, R’ Shafir Lobb combined the recording from Soundcloud, the image from the blog post, and the text of the haftarah into a video suitable for screenshare during this pandemic year:

The video can be downloaded from google drive here.

If you are leading Zoom (or other digital) services during this pandemic year, you are welcome to use the video in your services, and/or to chant the haftarah yourself if you’re comfortable with haftarah trope.

May we all be sealed for goodness in the year to come.


Shafir Lobb

Haftarah by R’ David Markus. Video by R’ Shafir Lobb, rabbi of Congregation Eitz Chayim in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Ushpizin: liturgy for Sukkot in time of covid

Sukkot this year will be unlike any other. Some of us won’t be able to safely build a sukkah; others will find in the sukkah the outdoor safety that indoor ventilation doesn’t provide. What does it mean to invite ancestors when we can’t invite guests in person? With what, or whom, (or Whom!) are we sitting when we dwell in our sukkot this year — whether our sukkot be literal or metaphorical? What structures can we build liturgically and spiritually to protect us in these vulnerable times? Four liturgists from within and beyond the denominations collaborated on this set of offerings from Bayit to accompany us through this year’s festival. Here are excerpts; you can download the whole collection at the end of the post.


0. This Year’s Sukkah – With Words, by Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus, with illustration by Steve Silbert:

We build this year’s sukkah with words. Our words keep us company.  We read the words of this Teaching: this Teaching gathers us in…

1. Invitation to the Builders / Invitation to my Virtual Sukkah by Trisha Arlin:

…You are invited,
Builders of our past sukkot
In the backyard, the park, the roof:
Every year
You put up the walls
You hung the decorations.
Where are you this week?…

2. Far Away So Close by Rachel Barenblat:

…How can I welcome Abraham
and Sarah, David and
Rachel, when I can’t welcome
my own neighbors?…

3. UnSukkah by David Evan Markus:

We don’t build our sukkah with nails
Sharply hammered into sturdy place.

We don’t build our sukkah with roof shingles
And sustainable solar panels for midnight light…

4. In the Open by Sonja Keren Pilz:

Under the open sky.

The air gets thinner;
Canadian geese fly by…

5. Sitting in Emptiness by Trisha Arlin:

On Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah:
In an empty room
Porous walls
Holes in the ceiling
No door…

6. Sit With Me / Not Alone by Rachel Barenblat:

…The safest companion in times of covid:
Myself. Or you, Holy One:
dressed for the season in worn jeans
and flannel shirt, and maybe flip-flops
reluctant to let summer end…

7. Sitting neither Here nor There by Sonja Keren Pilz:

We used to sit, huddled together,
Sharing blankets, often too cold.
We used to drink,
Hot tea or cider,
Passing the water, the soda, the coke…

8. Tomorrow Again (for Shemini Atzeret) by David Evan Markus:

This is the breezy feeling I hope to remember
Starting tomorrow when beginning begins again

Pulsing reborn from the jumble of these many months
Left on pandemic ground to decay as pungent compost

For the first daring shoots of next year’s who-knows…

9. Simchat Torah, by the ensemble together:

We dance by ourselves.
We dance in our living rooms with Sefaria on our phones.
We dance in the falling rain.
We dance cradling toddlers, or dogs, or emptiness…

Download the whole collection here: Ushpizin [PDF]


Prayers by Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi David Evan Markus, and Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Mah Nora HaMakom Hazeh – a chant for (digital) sacred space

One of the challenges of convening a group for prayer over Zoom is shifting gears into sacred space.

How can we sanctify the space where each of us is planted, knowing that as we shelter-in-place during the pandemic, our desks or dining tables or coffee tables serve purposes both secular and sacred? The table from which I’m joining the Zoom call might be the same table where I paid bills an hour ago, or folded laundry, or homeschooled my kid. How can we skillfully make that space feel holy when it’s time for prayer?

And how can we sanctify the placeless place of the Zoom room itself? A Zoom room doesn’t have the comfort or majesty or familiarity of a synagogue. We may associate Zoom spaces with committee meetings and other secular activities, not the sacred purpose of prayer. And a Zoom room isn’t a “place,” exactly, any more than the internet is a “place.” How can we make that “place” holy and fitting to hold a community gathering in prayer?

At a recent digital Shabbaton convened to explore these questions, we used this chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere for both of these purposes. We sang it as a call-and-response. (Participants were muted, but the two of us sang the back-and-forth, inviting the community to sing along with the response half of the chant.) We sang it explicitly to sanctify the physical place from which each of us was calling in and to sanctify the Zoom space.

We used this chant as our melodic and thematic throughline. We sang it at the start of services, during the d’var Torah (The Mishkan’s Next Digital R/Evolution, on this very theme), and again to close the service and seal our time together. The call-and-response linked us together across nine different states and two different countries. And the words reminded us that where we are is holy — where we are in the world and in our homes and in our bodies, and where we are in the space of the internet and our hearts’ interconnection.


מה נורא המקום הזה/ Mah nora hamakom hazeh

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.


(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, try going to this post directly at


Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere. Her albums include Wild Earth Shebrew, Halleluyah All Night, Torah Tantrika and This Bliss; find her music at her website.



Post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus.

The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution

Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton 2020

June 13, 2020 • 21 Sivan 5780

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

(Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere.)

Shabbat shalom to all of us together במקום נורא הזה / in this awesome place, to honor Reb Zalman’s living legacy.  Wherever you are, our Zoom spiritual link is part of what Zalman imagined decades ago.  This spiritual space is what today is about.  We’re coming to know digital not as a mere filler for what’s real, but as a real vibrant מקום of its own.  Today is about what that might mean, and what it may ask of us.

Zalman might start us with a paradox about what we know and how we know it.  Zalman famously put it this way:

I start looking ahead … and suddenly I find [that] I am looking through the rearview mirror.  When you ask, “What would the future look like?,” I go into a nostalgic past, a romanticized past, and then go into a tribal thing, and think for a moment, “It would look like that.”  But it’s not going to look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.

Zalman’s rearview metaphor is about humility.  Maybe Zalman wouldn’t call himself modest – not the guy who urged us all to melitz yosher, spiritual intercession with holy chutzpah.  Still, there’s humility to know that the future won’t look how we imagine it.  Our history refracts future-questing vision so insidiously that usually we end up seeing the rear view of experience as some great vista up ahead.

Thus Torah this week calls Moses האיש אניו מאוד מכל האדם אשר אל פני האדמה / “the earth’s most humble person” (Num. 12:3).  Only such a person could see divinity באספקלריה מאירה / by a clear lens (B. Yevamot 49b) rather than hindsight.  Even more, in this week of Beha’alotecha – which opens with נרות המנורה / the menorah lights of the Mishkan, our first מקום נורא – our haftarah proclaims explicitly what the menorah light  means: לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יהו”ה / “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says [God]” (Zach. 4:6).  All light that we see is reflected light – rearview in all our vision and willful certainty.

Hence our paradox.  If only by anavah, not the might or power of rear-view vision by reflected light, how can we see the future – much less build it?

Zalman had advice on this.  Paradigm shifts like the one we’re in now – can anyone deny the tectonic shifts underfoot? – ask both anavah and holy chutzpah, humility and audacity.  No, the future won’t look how we envision it, but still we must build that future because people, communities and the planet need it now.  So we build what we see, and what gets built itself will end up different.  Fine!

So it’s in both chutzpah and anavah that we reach this Zoomosphere moment.  There’s no going back: yesterday’s “normal” is history, and mere nostalgia will cheat the future.  We must build the future, even if we only see it in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully not everything in the rearview is mere nostalgia.  Our hindsight can trace human spiritual history leading to our Zoomosphere, all of us “log[ging] onto God” exactly where we are, as Rachel quoted Zalman last night.  We might sense that history as the divine flow Itself, and imagine where that flow is leading.  And with some chutzpah, we might tell that story, all of spiritual time from the Beginning, על רגל אחת / “on one foot.”  One story in two acts.  Ready?

In a Beginning, the One created space and time.  Eternal sacred space called Eden ejected humanity; space itself re-booted with a flood of new life.  The One told Avram: lech lecha from ancestral space “to a land I’ll show you” (Gen. 12:1).  Avram raised sacred markers along the way.  Yitzchak “went out to talk [with God] in the field” (Gen. 24:68).  Jacob dreamed an angelic ladder highway: מה נורא המקום הזה / “Right here is the House of God” (Gen. 28:18), forgetting that every right here is, too.  His sons also missed it: cue centuries of bondage building sacred space for Pharaoh.  Freedom!  Sand-blind weeks to camp at history’s most famous sacred place nobody can find.  Two tablets!  Oops; two more tablets!  Build a Mishkan, complete with menorah.  Light it up and follow the cloud.  (That’s this week.)  Too afraid to go where I’ll show you?  In 40 years, a next generation will try again.  Enter the Land.  Build a Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile 70 years by the waters of Babylon, where we sat and wept remembering Zion.  Go back.  Build a second Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile.  End of Act One.

Intermission: God won’t be fixed in any one place.  The Sfat Emet (1846-1905) taught that we are God’s menorah, so “the essence of the Mishkan and Temple is that it’s in everyone.  That’s the point of ועשו לי מקדש שוכנתי בתוכם / ‘Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in them’ (Ex. 25:8)….  When the Temple stood, all knew that all life came of God,” but this knowledge kept depending on place.  So the Temple had to be destroyed to upshift our search for God from the constraining particularity of any place: “With the Mishkan hidden [in us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”

Act Two: Sacred space on the go.  The Mishkan’s table became every Shabbat table, learning centers like Sura and Pumbedita, Talmud, shuls, printing presses, books, liturgies, “correct” ways carved by power and custom.  Trade routes, living most anywhere but hearts still in the East.  Exile and inquisition.  Not so much the East: go West.  Enlightenment!  Liberty? Assimilation!  Denominations?  Fractures!  World wars?  Israel!  The nuclear age, the digital age, de-centering of every kind of institution, now a global pandemic bringing us together by separating us.  “With the Mishkan hidden, God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  How about on Zoom?

Rearview vision is good for seeing patterns.  The pattern seems to be that, all along, God used examples of sacred space to teach us cosmology.  Eden, Avraham’s matzevot, Yitzchak in the field, Jacob’s ladder place, Egyptian temples, Sinai, mobile Mishkan, two Temples, post-exile Shabbat tables, houses of learning, shuls – each sacred place was an example to show that מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).  But we confused example for essence; as Zalman put it, we “confused the pointer for the point.”  So pointers kept coming.  But rather than get the point, grief aroused nostalgia.  In Zalman’s words from 1993, we venerated each pointer as a holy “relic” rather than a “catalyst for the future.”

And again today.  Many grieve Jewish institutions failing by the day.  Many grieve physical shuls as the pandemic exiles us to our homes.  Now we must make sacred space in our homes – it’s here, or nowhere.  And that was the point all along.

Today’s exile to our homes is no ordinary exile.  It’s an inzile: it turns us in, and it turns us inward.  We’re roused to seek the very thing for which our inzile most cues our yearning – real connection.  And for once, the whole world can start to see the same things.  Now all humanity can experience each place, each home, that way.

In wise words inscribed on rearview mirrors: “Things are closer than they appear.”

Just as the menorah light lifts divine spirit over human might, digital means divine connection everywhere – or, at least, it can.  It’s not automatic: it asks us to transform.  We’re only starting to sense those transformations, and they won’t look quite like what we see.  But anavah balances with chutzpah: we must build our Digital Mishkan.  After kiddush, we’ll explore more about how, including some ideas around bending time if we’re not in the same time zone, and technical points like digital infrastructure, skillful means and a sacred ZoomCorps so nobody’s left behind.

Beyond the technical, Zalman urged “backward compatibility” when possible.  Dig deep, because our ancestors probably laid some foundation stone to anchor us.  And they did: 1,700 years ago, Midrash Tehillim 4:11 ascribed these words to God:

אמר הקב”ה: אני אמרתי כשאתה מתפלל, התפלל בבית הכנסת שבעירך. ואם אתה אינך יכול לילך בבית הכנסת שבעירך, התפלל בתוך ביתך. ואם אין אתה יכול לילך להתפלל, תתפלל על מטתך. ואם אין את יכול לדבר, הרהר בלבך.

God said, “I told you that when you pray, pray in a Beit Knesset in your community.  And if you can’t go to a Beit Knesset in your community, pray in your house.  And if you can’t go to pray, pray in your bed.  And if you can’t speak, meditate in your heart.”

How wise!  A synagogue always was called a Beit Knesset, a place of entering. It’s about entering another state and doing so together – not physically going.  Yet we’re still to “go” somewhere, even if we stay in our “house.”  So it’s about entering, by making an intentional shift where we physically are.

That shift depends on each soul, as it must now because we’re each in our own homes.  Inzile means that we can’t totally outsource to the rabbi, cantor, teacher, guru, yoga instructor or anyone outside.  We never could: only we can experience our space as sacred, but circumstances brings that truth close to home, at home.

Suddenly the only table in the Mishkan that can be sacred is our table, in our home.  If the Mishkan is to have a table sacred for you, only you can make it so.  It’s a radical, profound empowerment: it always was so, but now it hits home, at home.

If a Zoom connection is to be sacred for you, only you can make it so.  Skillful means will help – it’s still a shared medium – but it’s on you to “go” to sacred space by making intentional shifts in the sacred space that is our home.  We’ll harness the senses of embodiment.  We’ll take on ourselves to set our spaces in ways that aren’t routine; to dress for spiritual experience; to silence distracting devices like TVs and phones except for emergencies; to wash ritually before spiritual experience online.

That’s Assiyah, physicality.  In Yetzirah, we’ll accustom emotionally to open by new cues, new tenderizers.  We’re still carbon-based creatures: we evolved to feel, we learned to feel, by feeling other people first.  Our mirror neurons sympathetically resonate with others.  It’s why the physicality of collective gathering opens us emotionally, and it still can.  Our neuroplasticity, evolutionary capacity to rewire, will learn to take in others and cue us to feel deeply together online – but it’ll take time and focus.  It’s why we checked in with faces and bodies during the service.

And over time, we’ll learn how to meet new people digitally.  It can feel easier to go deep online if we already know someone, if digital connection activates the felt sense of pre-existing physical relationships.  That’s good, but can’t be the only way.  As we adapt, digital will feel less like a poor substitute for “real life.”  Digital is real, with real emotions, real spirituality, real prayer, real community, real tzedakah, real voting, real political campaigns.  We’ll get there.

Until then, this time of adjustment asks us to be gentle with each other and ourselves.  Until digital feels fully real, people may feel lonely.  If digital doesn’t hit the spot, we may feel even more isolated for all our so-called digital connectivity.  We may mourn “normal”: that too is our inzile, our turning inward.  These emotions will teach us if we let them, lest we become calcified and brittle.  If we let them, our inner defenses to the tumult of this time will ease and new inner landscapes will open.  Until then, let’s be gentle, take extra time with each other, and take it slow.

In Briyah, in thought, Zalman was right: we see the future in the rearview mirror.  However sure our vision, it won’t “look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.”  That’s part of what we’re doing here – sandboxing, trying, testing, adjusting and trying again.

Wise spiritual building isn’t like how I cook pasta – throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.  Serendipity, yes, but not avant garde to be different for its own sake.  It’s not doing what we want just because we want it, without the healthy gevurah of standards, ethics and external accountability for them.  The collectivity and stakes of this moment, for the Jewish future and the whole world, ask better than that.

Digital is good for that.  Digital allows collaboration across most every divide in ways that can hasten the necessary re-ordering of systems.  It allows fast feedback, democratized, from everyone.  It generates more data and helps us ask for it and use it.  It will reward people, groups and systems that do.  And that is good: insist on it.

In Atzilut, in essence, divine cosmology is as it’s always been: מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory.”  Finally, finally, our inzile might teach us that every place is sacred space.  “With the Mishkan hidden [within us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  The Mishkan is where you are.  It always was. The menorah is within you.  It always was.  Light it up, and follow the cloud.  It will lead you if you let it.  It will lead us if we let it.  It always has.  It always will.

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.


Offered as a keynote teaching at “An Emerging Judaism: A Global Digital Convening,” the Digital Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. Designed to dovetail with R’ Rachel’s keynote, Being Real: Digital Edition.



By Rabbi David Markus.


Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah from R’ David Markus

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi David Markus. The text follows the video, in Spanish and then in English.


Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ David Markus from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

Shalom a mis hermanos y hermanas cubanos de Klal Yisrael, nuestra familia global judía que, cada dia, se siente más como una familia – a pesar de la distancia.

Espero y rezo que este mensaje los encuentre sintiéndose saludables, fuertes, resistentes y seguros.

La vista desde mi casa en Nueva York es muy diferente a la de hace un año.   Hace un año, me deje llevar y pensé que el mundo era un lugar más seguro y saludable de lo que verdaderamente es.   El coronavirus ha cambiado, para siempre, como yo veo el mundo, mi comunidad y toda comunidad.

Yo puedo imaginar algunas de las imágenes que el coronavirus — y también, las protestas, han traído a sus televisores y a sus dispositivos digitales.   Puedo sentir algunas de las experiencias que estos cambios globales han traído a sus tiendas, a sus familias y a sus barrios: más escásez, más racionamiento, mas penuria.

En la penuria,y tambien en las protestas, tornamos los unos a los otros.   Esta es la manera cubana de hacer esas cosas.   Es como los judios de Cuba han sobrevivido el “periodo especial” y toda adversidad – natural o humana – tanto antes como después.

Honrar nuestra humanidad esencial – y tornar a los demás de una causa colectiva – es una lugar común cubano que muchos norteamericanos olvidan a menudo.   Si bien hemos caído en la tentación de vernos como entes separados — los unos de los otros – el coronavirus nos está enseñando, una vez más, que  estamos interconectados.

El mundo necesita aprender esta lección en lo más profundo de nuestras almas, y, en el alma de nuestras sociedades.   Es una importante lección — y una lección, por demás, muy judía.

El judaísmo nos enseña que, a veces, sólo un cambio radical de perspectiva puede hacernos ver esta verdad y otras verdades fundamentales.   Hay tiempos en la vida, tan fuertes, que lo cambian todo.   En cada vida – en sus vidas y en la mía propia – hay momentos personales que nos transforman hasta el tuétano.   Estos momentos de transformación también son aquellos en los que sentimos más empatía, y esto no es una coincidencia.   Es una verdad espiritual fundamental.

La época del coronavirus no es solamente un época personal: es un momento global, es un momento para toda la humanidad.   Estos momentos cambian civilizaciones enteras, y suceden más infrecuentemente que nuestros momentos personales de cambio – pero igual suceden, ciertos como el flujo de la historia misma.

Justamente la semana pasada, el pueblo judio celebró uno de estos momentos colectivos.   Shavuot, la fiesta de la entrega de la Torá, es el aniversario en la tradición judía del momento en que Moisés y el pueblo de Israel estuvieron juntos en el Monte Sinaí.   La Torá describe que Moisés, y el pueblo, estaban juntos k’ish ejad – como una sola persona – pues solo así podrían recibir los Diez Mandamientos.   Unidos, como si fueran una misma persona, vieron el humo del Monte Sinaí.   Unidos como si fueran una persona, sus sentidos tan confundidos que literalmente vieron el trueno: contemplaron con sus propios ojos las palabras de Dios.

Este momento fue tan confuso que cambio la historia para siempre.   El judaismo, el cristianismo, el islam, el flujo del espíritu, el flujo de la historia misma — todo se remonta ultimamente al Monte Sinaí.

Ésta es una de las grandes contribuciones al mundo — no sólo la Torá, no sólo los Diez Mandamientos, no sólo las reglas del ético vivir – sino también la idea radical de que un momento de cambio de visión: cuando es compartida por todos, puede cambiarlo todo.

En el calendario judío, esto sucedió la semana pasada.   Hecho y cumplido.   La próxima gran fiesta es Rosh Hashaná en unos cuantos meses. – Y entonces, ¿ahora qué?

Tal vez, la lección más grande del judaísmo no es que los Diez Mandamientos hayan sido dados en una explosion de luz y amor en el Monte Sinaí, sino que la Torá no terminó – ahí en ese momento.   Después del Monte Sinaí hubo una gran travesía hacia adelante: ¡Hay más libros de la Torá de Moisés que ocurren después del Monte Sinaí que antes de este!

Esto nos enseña que nuestra Torá, y nuestro judaísmo, no son sólo colecciones de grandes momentos.   La Torá fue puesta en nuestras manos, por toda la posteridad, para cargarla y cumplirla dia tras dia, dondequiera que nos lleve la vida.

Esta es la lección profunda del ese mes que sigue a Shavuot. Es nuestra responsabilidad vivir estos valores, orgullosos de nuestra herencia, pero sin conformarnos con el heroísmo y las luchas de nuestros ancestros.   No se trata del pasado sino del ahora: la humanidad necesita de todo nuestro ejemplo de amor, de empatía y de conexión – no sólo en las fiestas, sino cada dia.

Ustedes fueron ejemplos claros de estos principios – para mí y mi comunidad de Nueva York cuando visitamos Cuba el otoño pasado.   Fue tangible, y muy especial para nosotros. Los judios de Cuba cambiaron para siempre nuestra manera de ver el mundo.   Sospecho que la experiencia no fue tan especial para ustedes, ya que está es su naturaleza día a día.

Ustedes son la prueba del principio judio de que la vida judía es más que fiestas.   Es el amor, la benevolencia, la compasión, y la empatía que nos mostramos los unos a los otros todos los días.   Estas son las grandes joyas de la Torá: amar al prójimo como a nosotros mismos, particularmente cuando esto es difícil.   Es está empatía, nuestra identidad y destino compartidos, que nos ayudarán a cumplir la Torá en nuestros días, durante este momento en que el coronavirus está transformando el mundo.

De mi corazón al de ustedes, les envio bendiciones de resiliencia y salud – y – de todo aquello que necesitamos para vivir estos valores eternos en un mundo que los necesita y nos necesita a todos.

Shalom Javerim.   

Shalom to my Cuban sisters and brothers among Klal Yisrael, our global Jewish family that feels ever more like a family even across the span of distance.  I hope and pray that this message finds you feeling healthy, strong, resilient and safe.

The view from my home in New York feels so different from this time last year.  This time last year, I let myself believe that somehow my world was safer and healthier than it actually was.  The coronavirus changed forever how I see the world, my community and every community.

I imagine some images that the coronavirus – and now the protests – have brought to your televisions and digital news feeds. I can sense some experiences that global shifts are bringing to your stores, families and neighborhoods – more shortages, more regulations, more hardship.

In hardship, we turn to each other.  It’s the Cuban way.  It’s how the Jews of Cuba survived the “special period” and every adversity – natural and human – both before and since.

Honoring our essential humanity – and turning to each other in common cause – is a Cuban truism that we Americans too often forget. If ever we are tempted to regard ourselves as separate from each other, the coronavirus is teaching us yet again how interconnected we are.

The world needs to learn that lesson deeply in our own souls, and in the souls of our societies.  It’s an important lesson — and a very Jewish lesson at that.

Judaism teaches that the more people empathize with each other — the more our lives feel connected on the inside — the more we and our world can heal its rifts and injustices. Empathy is the felt sense that what happens to you happens to me. Empathy grows in shared experience and in knowing deeply that our fate is intertwined.

Judaism also teaches that sometimes only a radical change of perspective can help us see these and other fundamental truths.  Times in life come that are so big that suddenly they change everything.  Into each life, into your lives and my own, come those personal moments that transform us to our core.  Those transformation moments happen also to be the moments that we most feel our empathy – and it’s no coincidence.  It’s core spiritual truth.

This coronavirus moment isn’t only a personal moment: it’s a global moment, a moment for all humanity.  Moments that shift whole civilizations come more rarely than our own individual moments, but they come as sure as the flow of history itself.

Just last week, Judaism celebrated one of those collective moments.  It was Shavuot, the festival of receiving Torah, Jewish tradition’s anniversary of the moment when Moses and the Children of Israel stood together at Mount Sinai.  Torah recounts that they stood together k’ish echad — like one person – for only together could they receive the Ten Commandments.  Together as one, they saw Sinai smoke.  Together as one, their senses were so scrambled that they actually saw thunder: they saw the words of God.

That moment was so scrambling that it changed history forever.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the flow of spirit, the flow of history itself — they all trace back through Sinai.

It’s one of Judaism’s great contributions to the world — not just Torah, not just the Ten Commandments, not just rules for ethical living – but also the radical idea that a single moment of changed vision, shared together as one, can change everything.

On the Jewish calendar, that was last week — over and done.  The next major holiday is Rosh Hashanah months ahead.   So what now?

Maybe Judaism’s greatest teaching isn’t that the Ten Commandments were given in a burst of light and love on Mount Sinai, but rather that Torah didn’t end right then and there.  After Sinai there was a great journey ahead: far more of Torah’s Five Books of Moses come after Sinai than before!

We learn that our Torah, and our Judaism, aren’t about big moments only.  Torah was given into our hands for all of time to come – to carry and fulfill day after day, wherever life take us.

That is the deep meaning of this month following Shavuot.  It is on us to live those values, proud of our heritage but not resting on the heroism and struggles of our ancestors.  It’s not about then but about now: humanity needs every example of love, empathy and interconnection that we can offer — not just on holidays but every day.

You exemplified those principles to me and my community in New York, when we visited Cuba last autumn.  It was palpable and very special to us.  The Jews of Cuba changed forever how we see the world.  I suspect it all felt far less special to you, because it’s how you are.

You prove the Jewish principle that Jewish life is more than festival days.  It’s about the love, kindness, compassion and empathy we show each other every day.  These are the great jewels of Torah — to love another as we love ourselves, even when it’s difficult.  It is empathy, our shared identity and shared fate, that will help fulfill Torah in our own day, in this coronavirus moment now transforming the world.

From my heart to yours, I send blessings for resilience and health, and for all that we need to live these timeless values in a world that needs them — and needs us all.  Shalom chaverim.

By Rabbi David Markus. Translation by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Febrero 2020: Palabras del Torá / February 2020 Torah video

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ David Markus from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi David Markus, translated into Spanish by Rabbi Juan Mejia. The text follows, in Spanish and then in English.


Shalom javerim – Hola amigos!

Desde mi viaje a Cuba en el otoño pasado, la profunda calidez y orgullo que tantos judíos cubanos compartieron conmigo y con mi congregación neoyorquina se ha quedado en mí y en mi corazón.  Sigo inspirado por su orgullo, tenacidad y auténtica dedicación. Ustedes me enseñaron, a mí y a muchos miembros de mi congregación, una parte importante de lo que verdaderamente significa vivir como judíos.

La palabra hebrea javer (amigo) conlleva un significado más profundo, que también conlleva un importante mensaje sobre este periodo del calendario judío. Es algo que tenemos en común a pesar de las diferencia de cómo vivimos y también, precisamente, a causa de las diferencias de cómo vivimos.

La palabra hebrea javer extrae su significado profundo de la raíz trilítera ח.ב.ר. (jet, bet, reish) que significa “conectar” o “amarrar”.  Los verdaderos amigos no son simples conocidos pasajeros, sino que están profundamente conectados, amarrados el uno al otro, tanto interna como externamente.  De esta misma raíz verbal vienen las palabras hebreas para “unir”, “asociar”, y “pareja de estudio”. Estas son la esencia de toda comunidad.

En palabras que no puedo expresar completamente, me siento mejaber. Me siento conectado con los judíos de Cuba, parcialmente por cómo ustedes compartieron tan generosamente conmigo las conexiones entre ustedes.  Inmediatamente me hicieron sentir parte de su comunidad. Ustedes saben, intuitivamente, que construir comunidad es el secreto para la supervivencia y el florecimiento judío a través de los siglos.

Esto también tiene un profundo significado en esta época del año y en las tres fiestas judías que se aproximan, una por mes, en la luna llena del mes de Febrero (Shevat), Marzo (Adar) y Abril  (Nisán). Estas tres fiestas, en su esencia, también tratan de aquello que nos conecta más profundamente.

Primero viene Tu Bishvat.  En el 2020 comenzará en la noche del 9 de Febrero.  Coloquialmente esta fiesta es conocida como el “año nuevo de los árboles”, pero místicamente es un profundo recordatorio de que toda la naturaleza, incluídos nosotros, está unida.  Lo que pasa a cualquier parte de la naturaleza, también le pasa a la totalidad. Lo que le pasa a uno de nosotros, nos pasa a todos. En la luna llena de Febrero, tomémonos el tiempo para observar cómo toda la naturaleza está conectada.  Este año, al mirar a la luna llena, sabré que es la misma luna que ustedes ven y me alegraré en nuestra mutua conexión.

Después viene Purim. En el 2020 comenzará la noche del 9 de Marzo. Los niños judíos conocen a Purim como el “halloween judío”, celebrando la antigua historia de Ester y Mordejai, es un tiempo en el que nos disfrazamos para esconder nuestra verdadera identidad.  Los otros dos significados profundos de Purim que más me llaman la atención tienen que ver con este aspecto de la conexión. El primero es que el destino judío sube y baja colectivamente; estamos juntos en esto, del mismo modo que los judíos persas cuya angustia y victoria la fiesta de Purim rememora.  El otro es que, sin importar qué máscaras usemos en nuestras vidas, qué usemos para ocultarnos, qué hagamos para protegernos de nuestro ser más real y vulnerable, todos compartimos exactamente este impulso de auto protección. Nuestras máscaras, nuestras apariencias, no son lo que somos verdaderamente. Estamos conectados más por lo que somos internamente.

Luego viene Pesaj. En el 2020 comenzará en la noche del 8 de Abril.  Conocemos a Pésaj como la historia eterna de nuestra liberación de la esclavitud- la piedra angular de nuestra identidad judía.  Pésaj simboliza nuestra conexión con nuestros ancestros, por la promesa divina de nuestra liberación y por la celebración del Séder que es increíblemente similar en todo el mundo judío.  También conocemos a Pésaj como un llamado moderno a la justicia. Nuestra propia liberación no será completa hasta que liberemos a todos los amarrados injustamente. Estamos conectados por este llamado judío fundamental a la justicia social, a ayudar a curar un mundo con aún demasiados faraones, aún demasiada esclavitud y demasiada vulneración de la dignidad humana.

Tu Bishvat, Purim y Pésaj.  Son tres lunas llenas consecutivas de conexión.  Son tres oportunidades de celebrar las conexiones entre nosotros, nuestra herencia y nuestra comunidad.  Son tres oportunidades para construir comunidad- el secreto de la vida judía que ustedes bien conocen ya.  Son tres oportunidades para oir el continuo llamado judío a fortalecernos y juntos vivir más enteramente- por nosotros, por la naturaleza y por toda la humanidad.

Les envio bendiciones de alegría en esta temporada con estas tres lunas llenas que nos invitan a conectarnos con la naturaleza, con la comunidad y con la libertad humana.  De mi corazón para el vuestro: Jag sameaj.


Shalom javerim – Greetings, friends!

Since my trip to Cuba last fall, the deep warmth and pride that so many Cuban Jews shared with me and my New York Jewish community have stayed with me in my heart.  I continue to feel inspired by your pride, tenacity and genuine caring. You have taught me, and many in the community I serve in New York, part of what it really means to live as Jews.

The Hebrew word javer (friend) encodes a deeper meaning, that also encodes something important about this season in the Jewish calendar.  It’s something we have in common both despite differences in how we live, and precisely in differences in how we live.

The Hebrew word javer draws its deep meaning from the three-letter root ח.ב.ר. (jet, bet, reish), which means to connect or bind.  Real friends aren’t just passive acquaintances: they are deeply connected, bound together both inside and between.  From this same root word come the Hebrew words for “join,” “association,” and learning partnership. These are the essence of community.

In ways that words can’t fully express, I feel m’jaber / connected with the Jews of Cuba, partly because you so generously shared with me your connections with each other.  Instantly you helped me to feel like part of your community. You know intuitively that community-building is a secret of Jewish surviving and thriving over the centuries.

This, too, is a deep meaning of this time of year and its three Jewish holidays that will follow, once per month, at the full moon of each month of February (Shevat), March (Adar) and April (Nissan).  All three holidays, in their essence, also are about what most connects us.

First comes Tu B’shevat (in 2020, the night of February 9-10).  Colloquially it’s the “New Year of the Trees,” but mystically it’s a deep reminder that all of nature is joined together, including all of us.  What happens to any part of nature happens to the whole. What happens to any of us touches all of us. At February’s full moon, take time to notice how all of nature connects. This year, I will look up at the full moon, knowing it’s the same full moon for you, and I will revel in our connection together.

Next comes Purim (in 2020, the night of March 9-10).  Jewish children might know Purim as a kind of “Jewish Halloween” celebrating the ancient story of Esther and Mordechai, a time when we dress in costume as if to conceal who we really are.  Two other deep meanings of Purim that most speak to me are about connection. One is that Jewish fate rises and falls together: we’re in it together, no less than Persian Jews whose collective plight and triumph Purim honors.  Another is that whatever masks we might wear in our lives, whatever conceals us, whatever we do to protect against being most vulnerable and real, we all share exactly that self-protective impulse. Our masks, our outward appearances, are not who we really are.  We are most connected by what’s inside.

Then comes Passover (in 2020, starting the night of April 8).  We know Passover as the timeless story of liberation from bondage – our cornerstone of Jewish identity.  Passover stands for our connection by ancestry, by the divine promise of liberation, and by the seder celebration that is astonishingly similar for Jews everywhere.  We also can know Passover as a modern clarion call to justice. Our own liberation will not be complete until we free all who are wrongly bound. We connect by that essential Jewish calling of social justice, to help heal a world that still has far too many Pharaohs, too much bondage, too much affront to human dignity.

Tu B’shevat, Purim and Passover.  They’re three consecutive full moons of connection.  They’re three opportunities to celebrate our connections to each other, heritage and community.  They’re three opportunities to build community – the secret of Jewish life that you already know.  They’re three opportunities to heed the continuing Jewish call to become stronger and more whole together – for ourselves, for the natural world, and for all humanity. 

I send blessings of joy for this season, these three full moons that call us into our connections with nature, community and human freedom.  From my heart to yours, Jag sameaj! 


By Rabbi David Markus. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

How to Scout Your Landscape

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


Okay, you’re ready for spiritual building. As with a survey before building with a physical structure, first survey the landscape. How?

Parshat Shlach asks that question directly, and some of our spiritual ancestors’ first answers went tragically wrong. Their lessons – about who surveys, what we should look for, and how we handle different visions of what we see – are lessons that most of us need to keep re-learning, because we tend to keep repeating their mistakes.


Step One: Choose A Diverse Survey Team

As they approached to build their future in a new land, Torah instructed: “Send people to scout the land… one from each ancestral tribe, each a chief among them” (Num. 13:2).

With these words, Torah confirms that before building anything, first we must survey the landscape. But how? Torah’s answers: don’t do it alone but with a team representing each key stakeholder– and make sure all your fellow scouts are leaders.

Torah’s answers are good politics. Each constituency then can feel itself represented with an “equal” say (Nachmanides, Num. 13:2). That’s also why the High Priest wore all 12 tribes’ names engraved on the ritual shoulder piece (Ex. 28:9-11) – so all the tribes would see themselves equally reflected in their spiritual leader.

Torah’s answers also are challenging. Why invite multiple visions of the survey? Torah teaches that at this survey stage, diversity of vision and even conflicting vision can be more important than clarity or speed. And why all “chiefs,” each accustomed to having their perspectives honored? So all views might be heard and none so easily dismissed.

Spiritual builders, take note. Don’t rush this survey stage: far more important than speed are diversity and equality. Before building anything, harness many perspectives and make sure that none of them gets more or less weight.


Step Two: Survey for People, Places and Things

Moses charged the survey team: “Go up … and see what kind of land it is. Are people dwelling there strong or weak, few or many? Is the land … good or bad? Are the towns where they live open or walled? Is the soil rich or infertile? Is it wooded or not? And bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:17-20).

Go up: literally. Get perspective. Rise above the landscape: don’t yet become a part of it so you risk losing objectivity.

Once you’re there, first see the people. Whatever landscape you imagine for your building venture, first see the people – folks already there, and the folks you hope to serve in the future. People first.

Next, see the landscape. Is anything walled against change, or is it relatively open to transformation? How about the figurative soil: what might it support? What’s already growing? Does the existing context allow clear lines of sight, or is the existing context wooded or brambled in ways that obscure vision? These survey questions are vital, lest you build the wrong thing in the wrong place or in the wrong way.

Only after deeply seeing people and context might things matter. Then survey what the “fruit of the land” might be – the stuff you’d create.. That’s why people and context must come first: so that what you build will best serve people and place.


Step Three: Watch Out for Mirrors and Muscular Majorities

Torah’s survey team returned with good news: the land “flowed with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). But a large majority also brought bad news: the natives were huge and towns were fortified – and the scouts quickly told the whole community (Num. 13:32). “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:33). The people lost hope of building any future (Num. 14:1-4).

A minority of two on the survey team, however, saw something different. Rather than hear them, the majority threatened to pelt them with stones (Num. 14:10), so God sent everyone to wander 40 years in the desert (Num. 14:21-23). None would enter the land and build a future there, except the two silenced scouts.

This story reminds that “chiefs” risk seeing themselves into the landscape, and us too. if we feel small like “grasshoppers,” we might project our self-vision on most everything. Just as surveyors mustn’t see through rose-colored glasses, we also mustn’t be content to see mainly our own fears: nothing real gets built that way. That’s one reason that diverse survey teams are key – so that our vision isn’t merely a mirror of ourselves.

Of course, diversity is easier said than done. Torah’s survey team was a group of “chiefs” so that all might be heard, but the majority still silenced the minority and even threatened to kill them. The modern equivalent might be undermining, distancing or gaslighting people who see differently. Instead, make sure to fully hear and honor minority views before forming impressions or making decisions. Again, people first.

Jewish tradition to honor the minority view is especially critical at this stage. As Torah’s survey story teaches, majorities sometimes are tragically wrong. A muscular majority’s groupthink can be so powerful that it blinds a whole build team, even a whole nation. Try to survey the landscape that way, and you might end up wandering the desert.

Instead, design your survey team for smarts – for stakeholder buy-in and real diversity. Design your survey to see people first, then context, then things. Hear from everyone fully and safely: silence nobody and reject no vision outright. Use disagreement to clarify if reported vision reflects more a mirror than a truly accurate survey.

Do that and you’ll get a real survey of people, places and things that will support your building. Then you can wisely build the future – and make a “land flowing with milk and honey” truly your own.








By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Why This Firstborn Will Go Silent Before Passover: The Social Justice Ta’anit Dibbur

Among Passover’s many customs, the fast of the firstborn (ta’anit bechorot) fell into disuse. This ritual fast, commemorating Egypt’s victims of the Tenth Plague’s death of the firstborn, finds little traction among modern liberal Jews. Even most traditionalists arrange a ritual joyous reason to avoid the pre-Passover fast.

The day before Passover, however, this particular firstborn of Israel will fast – not just from food but also from speech. I will go silent – I will observe a total fast from speech (ta’anit dibbur) – and I will decline any excuse that might absolve me.

The reason isn’t virtue signaling. Rather, it’s to remind myself, and invite others to consider, that words and privilege can be as enslaving as iron shackles. It’s to renew my commitment to make space for the voices of all who feel excluded or diminished, whose identities or experiences have denied them privileges I enjoy – including the very privilege to write these words.

A Pre-Passover Fast from Food (Ta’anit Bechorot)

There are many reasons to fast before Passover – and not just make room for matzah! One reason is to mourn the too-high price of freedom. Talmud famously teaches that when angels rejoiced during the Exodus drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b). If Egypt’s first-born and soldiers died for Israelite liberation, their deaths are not less tragic. If angels had to learn that lesson, then so might we. Just as we spill drops of wine for each plague during the Seder (we can’t drink a full cup of joy at another’s expense), we can fast in poignant memory of the tragically high cost of freedom.

Another reason is to connect with today’s captives of body, heart or spirit. Until all are free, all are unfree. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can fast, as I wrote elsewhere, to spiritually purge for every time co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s degradation. We can fast to rededicate ourselves to bringing Passover’s global message of freedom to the whole globe.

A third reason is to honor this year’s calendrical confluence with Good Friday. Jews need not understand the Jesus of faith as Christians might, but we can understand suffering, grace and redemption in common cause with our Christian cousins as they commemorate their own ritual descent and ascent rooted in Passover.

A Pre-Passover Fast From Speech (Ta’anit Dibbur)

The idea of a ta’anit dibbur (fast from speech) traces from the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” We fast from speech as a practice of purification. By ritually controlling the incessant drive to speak, we can refine the inner impulses they voice.

All the more so before Passover. Mystics re-read Passover (pesach) as the speaking mouth (peh sach), the spiritual liberation that could heal both Moses’ impaired speech and our own. Understood this way, the creative impulse that Jewish mysticism understood as speech – God’s speech, and our speech – can be healed and channeled to liberate the sacred in our world.

Consider the countless injustices and shacklings expressed as speech. Consider the enormous power of words to include or exclude, create or destroy, empower or enfeeble, uplift or suppress, liberate or enslave. Words can wound, or words can heal. Understood this way, any Passover worth its weight in matzah must focus intently on the power of words to help purify our words.

What does this have to do with the firstborn? In its day, primogeniture stood for privilege and societal power dynamics that locked privilege into the day’s reality map. By dint of gender and birth order, the firstborn male held special status legally, politically and ritually. Others were at best second best. And as for the individual, so too the collective: God told Moses to call Israel “God’s firstborn” before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22). Later, liturgy attributed to Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, transformed Israel into reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our collective redemption.”

We’ve come far since primogeniture’s days, but Passover becomes a mere tasty relic if we rest on past laurels. A living Passover means bringing freedom and equality to all in the flowering of collective redemption. A living Passover means pushing boundaries outward until they include everyone, and feeling deeply wherever boundaries or the call to expand them feels tight. Those tight spots are our meitzarim, our “narrow places” – literally our “Egypt,” the frontiers of today’s Passover ongoing call to liberation.

Understood this way, the “fast of the firstborn” is a radical and evolving call to name and invert today’s social structures that hold people back. The “fast of the firstborn” isn’t mainly about the “firstborn” but rather about the privilege that primogeniture wrongly symbolizes. It’s strikingly beautiful that Judaism can honor Passover – a defining experience of peoplehood and liberation – with this internal hedge against its own imperfect realization of this sacred calling.

Now let’s get personal. I seem like the personification of privilege. I’m the firstborn child – and a son at that. I’m straight and cis-gendered. I hold two graduate degrees, from Harvard, plus a rabbinic ordination. I’m honored with a judicial role and a pulpit. I teach in seminary and I’ve led spiritual nonprofits. I have seemingly unfettered opportunities to speak, write and teach. I’m not just a man; euphemistically I’m The Man! And most who know me know that I can have much to say.

That’s exactly why I and people like me should go silent before Passover – to remind ourselves of the marginalization and subjugation that others experience daily, to make space for them, and to recommit ourselves to that cause as a way of life for all time.

To be sure, I wasn’t born on third base thinking that I’d hit a triple. I’m the son of an immigrant. I did not grow up affluent. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I faced and overcame many obstacles both personal and familial along the way. But such is the American experience and, often, the Jewish experience. All the more reason for me to make space for tomorrow’s “me” – whoever and however they may come.

I think of my own mom and countless other moms denied a Jewish education or countless other opportunities on the basis of sex. I think of LGBTQI friends still fighting whether in or out of the closet, denied their rights at tragic costs to themselves and society. I think of people of color, of all backgrounds, whose lives as visible minorities still are fraught 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated. I think of talented people of all ages and stages blocked from leadership by crusty, recalcitrant power dynamics that cling to their own false solidity. I think of Jewish life’s virulent allergy to wise succession planning that shortsightedly robs institutions of healthy and vibrant futures. And I think of many leaders who undoubtedly think they’re doing leadership right but who wield emotional or spiritual authority in ways that are pervasively self-perpetuating.

That’s why I will go silent before this Passover. I will reclaim the ta’anit dibbur as a deliberate space-making practice both within and without. I hope all firstborns, whether literally first out of the womb or metaphorical firsts of privilege, will consider doing likewise. Let’s make space for others starting with one day, then one week, then for a lifetime, for all Jewish life and for all life. Let’s make space to heal speech, to heal power, to heal the world.

When we break our ta’anit dibbur at the start of the Seder, let our first word be Baruch: ”Blessed.” Let that flow of blessing be the purpose of our speech and all speech. And in that merit, may we, all of us, experience a truly liberating and sweet Pesach.







By Rabbi David Markus



Holy Ashes: Designs for Spiritual Flow

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

How well does a spiritual practice or spiritual community “work”? One answer from this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) may seem surprising: We gauge what works spiritually by the detritus it leaves behind from what it transforms. If there’s no detritus, we’re doing Jewish life wrong.

IMG_0502 (2)

Spiritual life transforms people relative to themselves, community, things, the planet and the sacred. All transformation, in turn, leaves behind proof – discarded layers, ways and energies. A communal meal leaves crumbs and spills; a butterfly emerges from an expended chrysalis.  

Because transformations create detritus, spiritually we must build for creating detritus, then moving it in sacred ways – and Torah teaches us how.IMG_0502

In Torah’s days, our spiritual ancestors used ritual sacrifices (korbanot) to draw close (l’karev) to holiness. Their practice was to burn foods on the altar’s “eternal flame,” transforming foodstuff to smoke that rose up. Creating smoke and scent would transform the spirit and invoke the sacred.

But what of the ashes that their burning left at the altar? Transformation meant ashes, but ashes piling up would block air from flowing: the “eternal flame” would burn out.

That’s why Torah designed for detritus. The altar was elevated to make space for air and ashes.  Each day, the priest put the prior day’s ashes to the side, changed clothes, took the ashes to a “holy place,” returned, changed clothes again and proceeded with the day. Only that way could the “eternal flame” last and “never go out” (Lev. 6:2-6).

Torah called for transformation, and ashes. The creation of ash was as necessary and constant as the “eternal flame.” That’s why the altar’s ashes were holy and had to be brought to a holy place.

IMG_0502 (1)

Torah’s lesson is eternal, even though we long ago grew past physical sacrifice as spiritual practice. It’s universal law – in spirit and in physics – that transformation must create byproduct: otherwise there’s no transformation. Thus, spiritually speaking, we must build for byproduct.

What’s the “ash” at today’s “altar”? Most simplistically, there’s the physical detritus that spiritual community leaves behind – literally, its garbage. We’re not used to seeing our garbage or our garbage collectors as sacred – but they are. Our custodians and clean-up crews are priests, and we must treat them as servants of the holy.

This lesson goes far beyond the physicality of things. We create spiritual “ash” in all that the heat and light of spiritual life transforms, and we must treat this ash as part of a sacred process.

Beliefs and spiritual practices evolve. They have to: otherwise we get stuck in past ways that no longer serve who we’re becoming. When beliefs and spiritual practices change, they leave inner ashes that we must be lovingly tend, lest they accumulate and block the flow of our own growth.


Opinions change. They have to: otherwise we grow blind to new information and changing circumstances. Tradition so valued evolving views that Talmud preserved so-called “minority” opinions in a holy place. After all, a “minority” view today might carry tomorrow. In the realm of mind, today’s “ash” might fertilize tomorrow’s bounty.

Leaders change. They have to: otherwise people and communities burn out. Even Moses couldn’t lead his people to their destination. Leadership must be cycled. Leaders who step forward must be treated as priests. Then the community must purge them of their past roles and cleanse the resulting “ash” so community can re-enfold them.

IMG_0507 (1)

How should we build spiritually for the ash of these kinds of change? We must treat spiritual spaces like altars of transformation and their cleaners with visibility, respect and honorable pay. We must let beliefs and practices transform, training community members to welcome rather than push away these changes, and bring them to clergy and spiritual directors for refinement.

We must hold opinions gently, let them change and clean up after they do. We must structure leadership for shift: we must expect leadership situations to create ash and treat that ash as holy – without burning people up in the process.

The Sfat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter, 1847-1905) taught that authentic spirituality cannot be separate from its ash but rather leads directly through it. Spiritual fire must create ash: we can’t rise spiritually unless we honor and lift the ash that spiritual life creates.

So build for spiritual life’s ashes. They are proof of doing spiritual life right. They are proof of a spiritual flame burning with alchemy’s heat and eternity’s light.


DEM2 Silbert-small

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.


People of the Building Fund: Four Paths Through the “Edifice Complex”


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

“Don’t give to the Building Fund,” said no synagogue leader ever.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.56.09 PMMost community leaders would love to have Moses’ problem in “fundraising” for the Mishkan. Moses received so many resources from “everyone” to build Mishkan that he had to stop them from giving: “Let nobody bring any more gifts!” (Exodus 36:6).

Since then, Jewish spiritual life has felt nostalgic for the Mishkan’s universal generosity and collective plenty. Judaism isn’t alone: all spiritual communities must keep one eye on funding for needful realities, but who likes to talk about it? How many in spiritual life are left distracted, exhausted or dispirited by talk of money?

When does fundraising support wise spiritual building, and when does fundraising become a hamster wheel that spins away from spirituality? For all who care about wisely building the Jewish future, that’s a key question of Parshat Vayakhel.

Jewish spirituality is blunt about resourcing spiritual community: Ein kemach, ein Torah (“no flour, no Torah”) (Avot 3:17). The catch is raising “dough” for buildings that become a “structural fetish” rather than a sacred way to sense the sacred.

Bayit builder Ben Newman reminds us that God applauded Moses for shattering the tablets at the Golden Calf, teaching that no “things” are inherently holy – not even the tablets of the Ten Commandments – except as they inspire real spiritual experience. When resource drives elevate things over people, those things must break to teach us what’s truly holy and what’s just the latest Golden Calf that we began to worship.

When we build in ways that rely on major donors, less affluent others can get wrong ideas that weaken spiritual community. They can learn that their gifts are less valued. They can learn to outsource generosity to others. Some even learn to take community for granted. When we don’t feel a strong stake in community, community itself withers.

Thank goodness for angel donors who do a world of good in a world that needs all the good they can do. Thank goodness for vibrant Jewish spaces that nourish the Jewish future. Still, we must ask how we keep forgetting that everyone gave to the Mishkan? What happened to a generosity culture so universal that Moses had to say, “No more!”?

We must learn the Mishkan’s lesson about democratizing generosity. We must reorient Jewish spiritual building to the goal of cultivating a truly universal culture of giving.

This goal asks a different spiritual design than any “edifice complex” whose goal is a thing that relies on angel donors and projects “too big to fail.” Reorienting spiritual design asks for fundraising in ways that put people and spiritual experience above all.

Four Ideas to Build a Trust-Based Generosity Culture

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.52.06 PMHere are four ideas to build a more universal generosity culture while raising the dough. All four ideas entail risk because they ask substantial trust – but trust is paramount to build a relational and spiritual Judaism in which everyone feels that they fully count.

Teach universal giving as a core community value – and be explicit about it. Effective fundraisers know that tzedakah is a spiritual act that joins learning and prayer as Judaism’s three pillars (Avot 1:2). If we wouldn’t accept a Jewish life that raises even unintended barriers to learning or prayer, then we mustn’t accept an “edifice complex” that even inadvertently signals that anyone or their gifts are second rate. Teach and model the Jewish keystone principle that everyone gives and everyone gets, because that’s what binds and uplifts a truly vibrant community.

Segment fundraising campaigns so that success depends on both angel donors and “everyone.” Court major donors for key initiatives, but deliberately leave out something vital (like doors or programs) for the whole community to fund – and be explicit about it. Without those essentials for the community to fund, a major “edifice complex” would be incomplete, an empty shell or a boondoggle – and that’s the right message to send so that “everyone” has a stake in success.

Learn from our Christian cousins and “pass the plate” in Jewish ways. For communities uncomfortable handling money on Shabbat, try a pre-Shabbat online ritual, a #BeALight Havdalah giving ritual, or a Shabbat pledge card. For others, literally “pass the plate,” or spiritually uplift the tzedakah box. Teach so it feels spiritual rather than “pay to pray”: after all, Maimonides taught about giving before being asked. Torah was read on market days (when people handled money), so maybe we pass the tamchui (charity plate) when we honor Torah. Try alternatives, but send a clear message that universal generosity is as vital to Jewish communal life as Torah.

Make sure that giving isn’t only about money. Even when Moses stopped donations for the Mishkan, both time and talent were welcome. People less affluent in funds might be wealthy in time and talent. Solicit their gifts with the same honor as cash – not as a substitute for cash but as a complement. Plan for these gifts: pass the plate for them and make wise use of them. After all, aren’t these gifts of hands-on community among the reasons for spiritual building in the first place?


All four ideas – teaching universal participation, segmented donor campaigns, passing the plate, and soliciting non-cash gifts – entail risk. They ask trust in alternatives to the seeming certainty of big checks. This kind of trust can seem especially fanciful when plans and campaigns are “too big to fail.”

Spiritually speaking, this kind of trust is the point. People are the point. Making room for others is the point. If leaders don’t leave space for others to fill, and show everyone how important and needed everyone is, then others are sure not to step forward. Isn’t that exactly today’s problem in Jewish community life?

The Mishkan solicited everyone’s gifts, because “everyone” was the purpose of building. At long last, we in Jewish life today must do the same.


DEM2     Silbert-small

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketch Note by Steven Silbert