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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

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

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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?

Conclusion

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.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketch Note by Steven Silbert

Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move

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

So far, Builders Blog traced Torah’s first 18 portions, harvesting lessons about spiritual building from our spiritual ancestors’ lives and early journeys.  

Now in the 19th portion (Terumah) comes Torah’s building story par excellence, about building the Mishkan – the holy structure to focus the sacred’s indwelling presence among the people. Finally, a building story that’s literally about building! Or is it?

IMG_0248Torah first describes the Ark to hold the two tablets of Commandments, then the cherubim atop the Ark, then takes another 15 chapters to map out the Mishkan. These ordered priorities teach that the Mishkan isn’t for itself but for what’s inside.

We learn that no spiritual structure legitimately can serve mainly itself: it’s all for what’s within. Any spiritual structure, building or system that serves mainly itself misses the point of building it.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of building?

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One answer is the Commandments (or callings, or connections). Another is to remind of the One who spoke (and speaks) them from Sinai. I’m good with those answers as far as they go.

But to me, the point of building is going. Spiritual building is about going somewhere: the act of building or going inside a building is supposed to transport and transform us.

Hence the gold rings soldered onto the Ark. After describing the Ark but before describing the cherubim on top, Torah records these instructions (Exodus 25:12-15):

“Cast four gold rings on [the Ark], attached to its four feet – two rings on one side wall and two on the other. Make acacia wood poles and layer them with gold, then insert the poles into the rings on the Ark’s side walls for carrying the Ark. The poles will remain in the rings of the Ark: they will never be removed from it.”

Only after Torah set forth the Ark’s poles and rings did Torah have the Ark receive the tablets of the Commandments.

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Why does Torah instruct never to remove the Ark’s poles from the rings? So the Ark always is ready to move on a moment’s notice, and so we can be ready to move with it. Moving is the way of the Ark. And why teach this truth before the Ark receives the tablets of the Commandments? So they also could move and not be stuck even for a moment.  

We all tend to get stuck and sometimes justify it: we even say that “tradition” or “spirituality” require things to be how they are. But our ancestors turned that idea on its head. The medieval Da’at Z’kenim held that Moses himself attached the Ark’s rings and poles, and that removing them even for an instant would sever our link to Moses!

Moving is the way of the Ark, the way of Moses, and the way of all spiritual life. As R. Marcia Prager put it, even movements are called movements because they’re supposed to move.

That was then; how about now? How do we build for spiritual mobility today and tomorrow?

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We start by recognizing the opposite of spiritual mobility, which is habituation, even numbness. Some spiritual habits encourage discipline and depth, while others grow numb and dull. The Ark’s poles and rings teach that we always must be ready and willing to move, to not get stuck.

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We can start small. Move chairs, reorient space, swap out tunes – maybe not all at once and never just for the sake of change, but to start feeling movement. It takes time for communities habituated to certain ways to feel resilience, but that’s what the Ark’s poles and rings ask.

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And don’t be content just moving the proverbial deck chairs. Design spiritual spaces to be open, flexible and adaptable. Make everything moveable. Even more, try going out from fixed spaces entirely: if the ancient Ark could move about nature, so can we. Build spiritual life with moments in the woods, in fields, at the shore, in homes and in public spaces. Communal spiritual spaces are important to community cohesion, but spiritual life is exactly about not being fixed in a place!

Just as Jewish places must move, so must Judaism. A Judaism that clings to preservation, that loses its ability to move and adapt on a moment’s notice, loses its link to Moses. Jewish life isn’t mainly about preservation but rather about change. When we forget that change is a core value of Jewish life, we risk losing our own links to what’s most important.

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So build for spiritual mobility. Build to move. When we build a Jewish spiritual life that can move, it can move us. Motion, for emotion, is the Sanctuary in which the holy can dwell among us.

 

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By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

 

 

I Have A Dream Haftarah

Building (For) God

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Part of a yearlong series mining Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

 

It’s a heady and awesome thing to “build for God.”  That’s what spiritual builders do. That’s the business we’re all in.  

We can do it well (our ancestors’ desert Sanctuary), or we can do it disastrously (the Golden Calf) – but either way, building for God is what collective spiritual enterprise is at least partly about.  Whether places, structures, systems or relationships, we build so that through them we can experience a bit of the sacred right here on Earth.

And if you think you’re not a spiritual builder, or that your spiritual building isn’t about experiencing the sacred where you are, look deeply into this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) and think again.

Our slave ancestors, freed from Egyptian bondage, reach the Sea of Reeds and miraculously walk through.  Leaving Pharaoh’s army behind, our ancestors break into song. What they sang, heard with modern ears, is revolutionary.  

Traditionally we understand their “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15) as a celebration and an affirmation.  At the Song’s heart is the exclamation, Mi chamocha ba’eilim YHVH (“Who is like You, God?”): Who else could split the sea and overpower the world’s strongest army to free the bound?  These words have echoed in Jewish hearts ever since.

But there’s more.  Freed from seemingly endless bondage building brick structures for an enslaving Pharaoh, they sang: “In Your love, You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength, You guide [us] el-nave kodshecha (אל נוה קדשך) – to Your holy abode” (Exodus 15:13).  Instinctively they knew that wherever they were going, they were being led to a place – and that the place was holy.

What does this have to do with spiritual building?  Just moments earlier, they also sang: Zeh Eli v’anvehu (זה אלי ואנוהו) – “This is my God whom I’ll adore” (Exodus 15:2).  The two phrases share the same word (nave), which hints at a deep meaning: “This is my God whom I’ll build into a holy abode.”

Take that in.  In liberation’s peak moment of ecstatic joy, they sang not only that they were headed to a holy place but that they themselves were going to build it.  What were they going to build? Not only would they build for God: they would build God!  And why would they build?  They’d build so that they could “adore God.”

Our ancestors – who had been builders under Pharaoh’s lash – now would become builders for God.  And by building, they would learn to love. We learn that freedom is not for its own sake but for a loving purpose: to build for God, and to build God.

Of course, our wandering ancestors’ first spiritual building went very wrong: their first attempt was a Golden Calf that they treated as God.  That’s the danger of venerating things (whether places, structures, systems or relationships), and venerating our own capacity as builders. Maybe that’s why God had to get exactingly clear: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8) – not “it.”  God dwells in us all.

By building the right way, divinity can flow through the builders.  We learn that holiness and the spirituality of building are not about building except as building focuses human awareness and human actions on holiness.

So what should we make of our ancestors’ “build God” idea?  

Jacob got it in his peak experience of wrestling: “God was in this place and I, I did not know” (Genesis 28:16).  In a peak spiritual experience, we know that everything pulses with divinity, that there is nothing but God, that we (as builders) are instruments of the sacred.  It’s precisely by not knowing ourselves, not getting stuck on ourselves, that our awareness clears enough to really get it.

Same for our ancestors at the Song of the Sea: in that peak experience, it was all God.

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Great ideas, but so what?  What do they really mean for us here and now as builders?  To us, we learn a few things:

 

  • Building is all about curating experience.  The idea of God is not God; the thought of the sacred is not the sacred. Only as we experience holiness, getting out of our own way and experiencing what transcends us, can we begin to know God through any place or thing.  Thus, every spiritual building, to be worthy of that name, must curate experience beyond oneself.
  • Builders need to hold on gently, and maybe not at all.  Every spiritual building evokes a Zen-style koan.  Even as we “build God,” we can’t ever “build God” because God is never in a thing: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in [you].”  Lest our spiritual structures and systems become like Golden Calves, we must see them only as conduits, only as effective as what they channel.  And because we humans tend to grow attached to our own handiwork, we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that what makes spiritual building spiritual is precisely that we hold it gently and maybe not at all.
  • We must test our buildings and sometimes let them fall.  If spiritual buildings are only as effective as what they channel, then a building that doesn’t channel isn’t worth keeping.  We must test our spiritual buildings (places, structures, systems and relationships), repeatedly asking what they’re channeling now.  And if they’re too clogged, or not transmitting holy experience, it’s time to redesign and rebuild.

 

God is the master architect, Torah is the blueprint and we – all of us – are builders.  It’s our calling – all of us – to build wisely, courageously and well. And if we do, we too can become vessels for holiness in the world.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Power Tools for Spiritual Building

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

The first weeks of Bayit’s Builder’s Blog harvested keystone principles about building the Jewish future – from primordial foundations of building, to where and with whom spiritual neighborhoods create community.

Now it’s time to build – but what and how?  Parshat Mikeitz offers answers: first build a granary to store food for the future, and powerfully organize community to make it work.

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Torah’s plot is familiar.  Pharaoh lifts Joseph from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Joseph foretells of famine. Pharaoh empowers Joseph to save Egypt.  For seven years, Joseph stores grain as a pikadon (reserve) (Gen. 41:36).  As the 19th century Malbim recognizes, this reserve was as much for the land as for the people: otherwise both would starve (Malbim Gen. 41:36).  

Because Pharaoh and Joseph acted with powerful resolve, Egypt had a future and therefore so did the Children of Israel, who came to Egypt in desperate search for food when famine hit.  Had Pharaoh and Joseph not acted, there might be no Jewish future.

Had Pharaoh not empowered Joseph to build Egypt’s reserves, there might be no future.  We learn that effective leaders must delegate, empower, trust and back away. This same pattern will repeat to build the Mishkan: God tells Moses and also empowers Betzalel (Tribe of Judah) and Oholiav (Tribe of Dan) (Ex. 31:1-6).  Building requires diversity and teamwork.

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Had Pharaoh not lifted Joseph from jail, there might be no future.  Pharaoh instead might have turned to his royal court, well-known people of seemingly high stature.  Sometimes needed skills, tools and powers come from outside our native circles and comfort zones.

Had Pharaoh acted mainly for himself, there might be no future.  Pharaoh easily could have sought to protect his own hide, but instead he and Joseph acted to save others.  (Granted, they later centralized power and dispossessed land owners: we’ll get to that.) Effective builders cannot legitimately use power to build only for themselves.

Had Pharaoh sunk in despair or blindly clutched optimism, there might be no future.  Both despair and excess optimism inhibit needed action. Effective builders must harness the power to see needs clearly and act decisively.

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Had Pharaoh and Joseph not enforced structure, there might be no future.  Had each Egyptian been left to decide how much grain to keep for oneself, there might be too little: the result would be starvation, violence and national decline.  Rules matter and must be enforced for the public good. Without wise use of power to enforce rules, people needlessly suffer.

Spiritual building requires both the power of vision – without vision, we perish (Proverbs 29:18) – and the power to translate vision into reality.  Spiritual building balances powerful physical and societal forces always at play: only in careful balance can structures and systems stay stable and nimble, sturdy and with just enough give in the joints to move when they must move.  To balance these forces, spiritual building needs the power to uplift and deploy expertise, teamwork and discipline. Thus, wise spiritual building requires capacity to design and enforce structure lest powers become unwieldy or abusive, or appetites exhaust finite resources, or inertia drive structures off shifting foundations.

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Builders with these power tools can build and thrive for the future.  Builders without these power tools will starve and die out: they will have no future.

I confess discomfort with these words.  With 25 years of experience in public life, I know that power risks danger: left to its own devices, human power tends to aggrandize itself and grow rife with abuse.  Even Pharaoh and Joseph, whose decisive action saved life, also used the crisis to dispossess Egyptians and seize their land (Gen. 47:13-20) – which has fueled much debate about the Biblical economics of coercion and opportunism.

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Especially today, when abuses of power seem like daily news items, cynicism about power and “powerful” people has become a fixture in modern life.  Our challenge and opportunity – and the urgent call of this time of Jewish, societal and planetary change – is to rectify our collective relationship with power.  Too little power to effect change and we’ll starve both spiritually and literally. Too much power wielded wrongly, without balance from outside itself, also can destroy.

It will take tremendous power to reorient political life and spiritual life to build better for the future.  Thus, if we’re to build a better world, first we must shed fear of power.

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Power is a tool, and we must not fear to use the right tool for the right job.  Like most tools, the practical and moral value of power depends on how we use it.  Power tools comes in two forms – control (power over) and capacity (power to).  Builders must use both kinds of power tools in balanced and careful measure: one without the other builds nothing

That’s the deep meaning I find in the Chanukkah haftarah about Zerubavel, Persian governor of Judea who laid the Second Temple’s cornerstone after return from exile in the early 500s BCE.  Zerubavel received an angelic message: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God” (Zecharia 4:6).  He learned that power flows from the Source: as the angel continued, only by that power flow can ground become “level” on which to build the future (Zecharia 4:7).

Power tools – both the power of control and the power of capacity – are holy.  They don’t belong any of us: they come on loan from their Source, and we must use them in that spirit.  

IMG_3637Only by skillfully using these power tools could Pharaoh and Joseph build and fill granaries for the future of Egypt and the Children of Israel.  Only by responsibly using power tools on loan from their Source could Zerubavel “level” the ground and begin building the Second Temple. Only by using our own power tools likewise can we build wisely for the future of Judaism, and for a planet that urgently needs wise use of power.

So power up, everyone.  Use your power tools wisely: it’s the only way to build.

 

DEM2 Silbert-small

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

First Build: Seven Foundation Principles for Spiritual Builders

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

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We’re all stardust, re-mixed chemical elements forged in some distant supernova.  We’re all broken shards, fallen from the primordial shattering. We’re all reflected light, glimmering with the Source of Light.  We’re all builders, making and re-making the world one brick and one breath at a time.

Whatever your metaphor for who we are and what we do, your metaphor probably grounds in the foundation of some first principle – some First Build of mind and identity.

For us at Bayit, our first principle is that we – us and you – are builders of the Jewish future.  So this year, for a whole year, we’ll mine Torah’s wisdom for lessons about building and builders.

As the Torah cycle begins anew with Parshat Bereishit, we begin as Torah begins – with the primordial building story that is the Creation at Torah’s very beginning (“a very good place to start“).  One translation opens, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the land was a jumbled mess, with darkness on the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God hovered…” (Gen. 1:1-2).  Then came light, sky, sea, land, vegetation, stars, sun and moon, fish and birds, land creatures and first humans – a primordial building of sorts.

Reading this Creation story through a builder’s lens, we needn’t be architects or contractors to find a master plan for how to build.  Here are seven foundation principles for building the Jewish future.

  1. Expect a Mess – and Learn to Love It.  

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Look carefully: Creation began not by making a jumbled mess but from a jumbled mess.  The mess pre-existed Creation!  Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, famously teaches that we – and divinity, and everything in the world – are in the “chaos to cosmos” business.  Because chaos pre-existed creation and inheres in creation, the definition of soulful “building” is to use tools that evolve chaos toward order. But chaos and disorder aren’t enemies: they’re the foundation of all creation and all building.  Put another way, physicists meet Artson at the Second Law of Thermodynamics: chaos (“entropy”) inherently increases in any system, and without it Creation would get stuck.  Thus, everything we ever could build rests on a shaky foundation – and that’s great!  We need disorder’s arrow to slowly wear down everything one builds to keep us priming the pump of energy, building and re-building for tomorrow rather than yesterday.  

That’s why every builder must learn to love entropy – or in Clay Christensen‘s economics language, every builder must learn to love disruptive innovation.  If we do, then we’ll build in ways that are naturally flexible and open, with give in the joints rather than excess inner fixity that can become brittle.  We’ll learn to build not any “one and done” structure but rather as an unending process of inclusion, a lifestyle rather than a fixed structure. That’s why Jewish life always must be “under construction.”

  1. Have a Plan, Then Improvise.

IMG_3199Medieval mystics read the Creation story as a blueprint, a plan in the Divine Mind that preceded the actual work.  Building starts not with the first nail, but with the first inner impulse that ripens into an image – then a plan, then the first nail.  While plans can be designed as flexible, much like jazz can riff off a musical structure, plans and structures have their place.  Any other result is mere chaos or avant garde masquerading as creativity.  

Medieval mystics also read the Creation story as a first attempt and then second attempt.  Genesis 1 tells a different Creation story than Genesis 2, which inspired sacred myths that God tried a first Creation, failed and then tried a second Creation.  While the Documentary Hypothesis has much to offer about how Torah was edited and canonized, the telling of this “second Creation” approach over the centuries – about an ostensibly perfect God who’d try, fail and try again – should get our attention.  If God can try and try again, and not be irrevocably wedded to a “first Creation,” perhaps we can hold our building a little gently too.

  1. Design for Practical Phasing.  

IMG_3200Imagine if Creation had started with humanity, then vegetation, then firm land, then the sun, then light.  Of course it couldn’t work: primordial humanity would have no land to stand on or food to eat; then food would exist but float without land or sunlight by which to grow; then the sun would glow but dark.  None of this makes sense, which is the point. Creation reflects the need to think ahead and build in sequence based on function. Just as contractors can’t raise a roof without walls, or walls without a foundation, so the building of Jewish life needs a functional and rational sequence.

What does your creation need as its foundation?  What steps must follow? How will your design-build process evolve necessary structure to enforce that sequence, without becoming so rigid that the building loses joy and needed flexibility?  The reason so many ideas fail isn’t the idea but the execution. Buildings without good grounding and disciplined construction tend to be mere castles in the sky where nobody can live, or sand castles too easily eroded.

  1. Assess Clearly, Honestly and Through Others Different From You.

IMG_3212The Creator didn’t just create and pack up.  After each phase of building, the Torah narrative stops and recounts that “God saw that [the current phase of creation] was good.”  Why? It’s not enough to build: builders also must take stock and be accountable – to original plans, to the actual thing being built, to users and to history.  If medieval mystics got it right, then maybe the Creator’s “first creation” was adjudged unworthy and insufficient.

But frank assessment is hard.  Often we see ourselves in what we create, and we judge our creations either too charitably or too harshly based on how we see ourselves.  In this understanding, only God is a perfect witness and mirror (Ibn Ezra, Gen. 1:4): everyone else needs clear assessment tools that don’t depend on self-assessment or groupthink.

  1. Take the Right Kind of Break.

IMG_3197Building is perpetual – forever under construction – but not necessarily continuous.  Even the Creator modeled taking a day off. Jewish tradition calls it Shabbat, and on that day God “rested” (Gen. 2:2-3) – or sat, or returned – and then “re-ensouled” (Ex. 31:17).

Every builder needs time off from building, but for the sake of taking a specific kind of breather.  The “breather” that builders need is the re-ensouling kind – the kind that honors the ebb and flow of the creative impulse, the kind that incubates the next pulse of creation, the kind that comes from soulfulness rather than mere industry, ambition or momentum.  Figure out what that kind of “breather” means for you: it probably won’t mean just sitting there.

  1. Failure Isn’t Failure: Go Forward, Not Back.

IMG_3195Some things won’t work, but that’s not failure if we learn and adapt.  Theologians and Biblical scholars might debate forever whether God’s tussle with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was a “failure” and, if so, whose failure.  (Far from a “fall from grace,” maybe God intended or even hoped that fledgling humanity would eat the “forbidden fruit” and attain consciousness: how often did you learn only by pushing back?)  Regardless, the point was to go forward: whatever happened in Eden, there was no going back. The Creator even positioned cherubim with flaming swords at Eden’s entrance to block their way back (Gen. 3:24). 

So too for our own building adventures.  When things don’t go as planned, there’s no going back – and, what’s more, we needn’t want to.  Whatever breaking or mishap life may bring, there’s a future waiting to be built – and it’s important enough to merit angels stationed to point the way.

  1. Yeah, You Are Your Siblings’ Keeper.

IMG_3196Build teams are teams.  The rhetorical question that Cain asked God after killing his brother, Abel  – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) – has echoed throughout history.  And the Creator’s tacit answer is yes: we’re not meant to build alone, and jealousy has no rightful place in building the future.  The human-spiritual design so plainly intends us to be and build in community that even Cain, destined to wander aimlessly, miraculously settled down with a wife (created by Whom?) and birthed a new lineage.  

So take care of your build team, even and especially when relationships tug and fray.  More than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.

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Welcome to this new year of building together – with beloved messiness, plans carefully crafted and ditched, practical phasing, frank assessment, wise breaks, leaning forward beyond failure, and caring for each other.  Now, let’s pick up a hammer: next week, there’s an Ark to build.

DEM2 Silbert

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by builder Steve Silbert.

Isaiah 58 + Sounds of Silence

IsaiahFrom Rabbi David Markus comes Isaiah 58 (from the haftarah reading  that tradition assigns to Yom Kippur morning) interlaced with lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel, set to haftarah trope.

Released last year, this haftarah setting was used in several different synagogues of different denominational (and non-denominational) affiliations.

After the holidays last year, one davener wrote, “I especially loved the use of Paul Simon’s Sounds of Silence.” Another told us, “The renewed haftarah was meaningful, surprising, and deep.” 

May its use enliven your Yom Kippur.


YK a.m. haftarah – Isaiah + Sounds of Silence [high-resolution pdf]

You’re Building the Jewish Future – Yeah, You!

unnamed-2It’s an audacious idea – that a Jewish future needs to be built, or that we (or anyone) can claim the inner wisdom, the know-how, the tools, the chutzpah and even the right to do the building.

But if you’re reading this post, you’re part of that team – a growing circle of builders taking the Jewish future into your own hands.  Because let’s face it: the Jewish future is in your hands.

This call to build isn’t a risk-averse negative – like shrill sirens wailing alarmist warnings of the “ever-disappearing Jew” – but rather a welcoming and realistic positive.  The Jewish future will be exactly what people make it – nothing more and nothing less – so why not focus on the realities of building and builders?

That’s exactly what we aim to do.  Welcome to Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

Bayit is a start-up committed to helping build a soulful, inclusive and meaningful Jewish life for all ages and stages.  Partnering broadly with individuals and communities, Bayit will develop, test, refine and distribute tools for a Jewish future always under construction.

In the coming weeks, we’ll introduce Bayit and the various “rooms” of the Bayit “house.”  We’ll share some “Big Thinker” design influences and big-hearted inspirations.  We’ll introduce the diverse Bayit folks building behind the scenes – across generations, denominations, service contexts and skill sets.  We’ll float big questions about what “works” and how we know (and whether we know!), what real design thinking is about, how wise building tools can best connect heart and head, and some initial projects that will be the foundation of Bayit.

For now, we begin with The Builders Blog. Read more