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Second Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Seder for the Seventh Night, by Rabbi Evan J. Krame

New from founding builder Rabbi Evan J. Krame comes a haggadah — not for the first or second night of Pesach, but for the seventh night. Rabbi Evan writes:

The seventh night of Passover – Shevi’i Pesach – is said to be the time when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. In Kabbalistic and in Hasidic circles, there is a custom to have a Seder and focus on the meaning of Shevi’i Pesach. The night would be spent in prayer and study, exploring the theme of divine revelation at Kriyat Yam Suf, the parting of the Red Sea. And in the Kabbalistic and Hasidic mystical communities, participants were open to the possibility of ongoing revelation and divine intervention.

The liturgy of the Seventh Night of Pesach may be called a “Tikkun” – a text that combines passages from a variety of sources including Torah, Talmud, and Midrash. Supplementing traditional texts are modern commentary, poetry, and humor. This Haggadah (retelling) for the seventh night of Pesach is an attempt to find deeper meaning and greater relevance in the mythic story of the crossing of the Red Sea…

To instigate learning and exploration, seven themes will be presented. Each will relate to a part of the body. The student of kabbalah is encouraged to link these seven with the lower sephirot. We will offer seven blessings relating to the meal and consider the seven clouds of Glory God sent to protect the people in the dessert. What other sevens can you relate to Shevi’i Pesach?

The Seventh Day Passover Seder/Order:

Kol/Voice – Beginning

Ntilat Yadayim/ Washing

Raglayim/Feet – Leaping

Eynaim/Eyes – Receiving

Oznayim/Ears – Believing

Peh/Mouth – Satisfying and

Lev/Heart – Loving

 

Seventh Night Seder – Krame [pdf]

 

Doorways

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

I enjoy counting each mezuzah I see on doorposts while walking through a neighborhood. Whether or not one is traditionally observant, it’s quintessentially Jewish to place these beacons of holiness at entrances to homes. I’m delighted when I see them.

Lately, I’ve come to understand mezuzot not only as fulfilling a mitzvah, but also as reminders that everything we build is a potential portal of rebirth and purification – and that we must build for those lofty purposes.

The call to build for rebirth and purification flows from this week’s Torah portion (Tazria) connecting birth, impurity and purity. In ancient Israel, mothers who birthed children had a period of purification before returning to community (Lev. 12:1-7). Spiritually speaking, birth blood was inherently “charged” and, thus, so too was the mother. Her spiritual “charge” had to be “discharged” – literally.

Just as the birth canal is a portal, so too is the Passover symbolism of lamb’s blood on the Hebrews’ doors. The bloodied doorways identified its inhabitants as those to be sheltered from the angel of death during the tenth plague (Ex. 12:7). In the morning, the birth of a free people came through bloodstained lintels and doorposts – marking the death of not only Egypt’s first-born children but also the lamb-image of an Egyptian “god.” The next day, Israel exited Mitzrayim (literally, “the straits” – the narrow place), birthed into a new life with and by God.

As lamb’s blood marked doorways then, so too do mezuzot mark doorways now. We exchange lintel lamb’s blood that marked our liberation for mezuzot parchment marking a different kind of liberation: “Love YHVH your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might. Set these words that I command you this day on your heart. Teach them to your children…” (Deut. 6:5-7).

Whether blood or mezuzot, doorway markers serve the same spiritual function: to renew and liberate us each time we pay attention as we move through. With sacred intention, every door can be like a birth canal, arousing our next moment of liberation – and, as in this week’s paresha, arousing the “charge” of birth that we then must “discharge.”

The lessons for spiritual builders are profound, enduring and challenging. Potentially sacred spaces, such as the home, require careful design for both openness and narrowness. As the doorway marks the transition between interior and exterior, we can sense that emerging through narrow places evokes a dynamic sense of spirit. Doorways are the portals. Ritual objects, like the mezuzah, invite holiness in transitions. Ritual reminders here “charge” us up so that we can translate the inspiration within into “discharging” mitzvot out in the world.

Life cycle events and other rituals ask careful design for the journey from one spiritual state to another. A literal birth, the ritual design of a wedding chuppah, the chanukat bayit of placing mezuzot on the doors of a new home, or any other major life change – all are sacred Doorways. Moments of transition are portals, focal points for “charging” us up so that we can “discharge” a renewed sense of self in the next phase of life’s journey.

In this way, physical births marked by blood, physical doorways marked by mezuzot, and life events marked by ritual, all reflect this week’s Torah idea that all transitions have the potential to be a sacred “charge.” And if so, the whole world is an altar.

Midrash (Pesikta Zutarta, Lekach Tov, P. Bo, ch. 12.7) teaches that from the lintel blood of the Passover evening before liberation, “We learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars: the lintel, the two doorposts and the doorstep.” As the foot lands on the doorstep and propels the body forward, it becomes a place of transformation.

Every birth, every marriage, every death, every choice is likewise – a doorstep upon which we propel ourselves forward in some transformation. The goodness of our steps as individuals, a community and a people called to holiness, depends on our mindfulness that each step is sacred in birthing what’s next. They depend on seeing each step as “charged” with the power of creation, for us to “discharge” with purifying goodness in the world.

As we enter the month of Nissan and approach the Passover festival of freedom, we have the opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves and all that we build. As if being born, we can emerge anew. As if getting married, we move toward unification and harmony. As if making sacred our doorways, we get to step out into the altar of this world, reminded by parchments of love, determined to be free and spreading holiness in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Building Light With Sapphire Bricks

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

A recent exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum reminded me of the potent spiritual power in building things, and how powerful the details can be – like color.

The featured exhibit was Infinite Blue and included diverse works of art – ancient Egyptian blue pottery, a 13th century altarpiece of Madonna draped in blue, and contemporary glass sculpture.  Each work of art demonstrated how the color blue can evoke a spiritual and powerful response.

Perhaps this is why blue is significant in Jewish tradition.  Blue was Creation’s first color: Creation’s first day was just light, but Creation’s second day brought sky and sea, both shining blue.  Blue was God’s first building block.

Blue threads through Jewish spiritual life.  Blue is the color of the thread (t’chelet tzitzit) in the prayer shawl (tallit).  Gazing on the blue thread reminds us to connect with Creation and Creator: the blue dye is an aide-mémoire of the bond between the Jewish people and the Holy One.

Blue’s most beguiling reference comes in Parshat Mishpatim, just after the Ten Commandments of Sinai.  Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and 70 elders ascend the holy mountain. There “they saw the God of Israel: under [God’s] feet there was the likeness of a sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir), like the essence of sky in purity” (Exodus 24:10).

The “brickwork” links back to the Exodus story, with Hebrew slaves stooped in mud pits making bricks to build storehouses for Pharaoh.  Mystics tell us that their muddy bondage was the 49th level of descent, just one level up from being forever lost.  From this low place, their cries drew God’s attention and ultimate liberation.

Ten plagues, three months and twenty-four chapters later, Israel’s leaders now stand in God’s presence.  Beneath God’s “feet” is blue sapphire brickwork.  Pharaoh’s bricks became God’s bricks: mud became light.  All at once, the image reminds them of the depths from which they came and the spiritual heights to which they have risen.

The sapphire brickwork is rigid and fixed in place.  It serves as a liminal boundary, a separation. Yet the sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir) also is translucent, letting in divine light filtered through to us as if through a prism.  In Hebrew, we can read livnat ha-sapir as l’vanat ha-sapir – the whiteness of the sapphire.  The blue of spiritual building transmits the white light of holiness.

Every activity in this physical universe potentially refracts this divine light.  When living our lives in divine service, we can achieve a satisfaction and pleasure we cannot achieve by our own self-serving efforts.

It was on Sinai that Moses and his cohort gazed on God’s likeness, reminding us also that many find spiritual connection in nature, whether viewing the sky from a mountaintop or watching waves reach the seashore. The challenge is to find spiritual connection in the works of our hands beyond the vistas of mountains, sea and sky.  Torah’s vision of sapphire brickwork urges us to find connection beyond God’s original creations.  Livnat HaSapir reminds us to discover our own transcendent connections in how we fashion Creation’s elements.

Whether our spiritual structures are sapphire stone, wood, metal or brick, every structure can serve – must serve – to remind us of the Source of All, the First Builder, and ancient bricks of mud transformed into bricks of light.

 

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By Rabbi Evan Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

The Neighborhood of Spiritual Life

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

Most architects and builders say that where they build shapes what they build.  As for physical structures, so for spiritual ones: where we live can powerfully shape our Jewish lives.  

My parents chose to make a home in a suburban town that was mostly Jewish, what we endearingly call a shtetl.   My public high school was nearly 90% Jewish. The bagel store was next to a kosher deli.  Several synagogues were in walking distance of our house. Within our walls were indicia of a Jewish home.  Our books were most often written by Jewish authors: Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Leon Uris. Friday dinner was baked chicken and Sunday dinner was Chinese.

My identity formed by immersion in a community where the ideas and values shared began from Jewish reference points. Yiddishisms helped define relationships, social status informed politics, and everything was measured by what is good for the Jews. In a community so heterogeneous, being Jewish was both comfortable and cautious.  

Today fewer progressive Jews experience that kind of close knit community, Outside of Orthodox Jewry, more Jews live in culturally diverse and spiritually depleted communities. Social change is driving a new demographic reality still reverberating through Jewish life: when Jews can live most anywhere, many will live far from communities with strong Jewish centers of gravity.  What will geographic dispersion mean for Jewish life? As Jews disperse, what will happen to Jewish community?

We’ve been asking this question for centuries: today’s Jews aren’t the first to move. What can we learn from history’s builders about building on the move?

Finding New Neighborhoods

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev), Judah, son of Jacob, moves away from his family and settles in foreign territory (Gen. 38:1).  He takes a Canaanite wife and lives among the Canaanites.  Maybe Judah wished to distance himself from his brothers’ awful treatment of Joseph.  (Only Judah stood against killing him.) Or perhaps Judah wanted to advance his financial position.  To Rashi, Judah and Hirah, an Adullamite, entered into an economic arrangement (Rashi Gen. 38:1), and only then did Judah find a wife and begin raising a family of his own.

Rashi’s explanation resonates.  Throughout history, Jews wandered in search of stability and opportunity. Jewish connections as merchants and traders made Jews vital to state economies and planted Jewish neighborhoods around the globe. Today, progressive Jews also make homes based on opportunities, even if opportunities bring them to places with few other Jews.

Judah’s move to a new neighborhood didn’t work out so well. Two of his sons died. He became estranged from his daughter in law. He lived apart from his birth family and without their support.  Maybe his move made him wealthy but it offered him little peace or spiritual sustenance.

Jewish history teaches that a thriving life depends on healthy connections that link individuals to what community can offer.  Our ancestors knew that vibrant communities were so vital that they limited where Jews can live (Sanhedrin 17b):

A Torah scholar may only live [somewhere] with these 10 things: a beit din (court)…, a tzedakah fund…, a synagogue, a bath house (mikveh), a bathroom, a doctor, a craftsperson, a blood-letter, a butcher, and a teacher of children.

Even 1,500 years ago, our ancestors knew that we can’t depend on ourselves alone. A flourishing life needs justice and charity system, houses of worship and purification rituals, health care, art, quality food, education and more.  Only from these core supports can we build strong and vibrant lives. And lest we think that these principles apply only to some, our tradition made clear that everyone can be a “Torah scholar,” so these ideas apply to all. Everyone needs others.

Much has changed in 1,500 years, but not bedrock spiritual principles. More now than ever, we must be wise architects of our lives. We must drive posts of social strength deeply into our spiritual bedrock. We still must tend the community’s master plan, review its spiritual zoning, and carefully measure distances to core  institutions. As realtors say, it’s still about “location, location, location.”

But I worry.  I worry that as social structures weaken and people scatter, Judaism is losing one of its strongest pillars: a community focus.  While Judaism also uplifts each individual body, heart, mind and spirit, Jewish lifeblood is still community. It’s about the interaction between neighbors that we identify as Jewish, like taking responsibility for each other in times of need and meeting at the gym in the Jewish community center.  It is about how we host Jewish book clubs and proudly declare our charitable giving on plaques and in synagogue bulletins.

Rapid social change, family dispersion and weakening of community institutions fuel loss of meaning and an epidemic of loneliness.  We’re losing not only Jewish neighborhoods but also the Jewish idea of “location” itself.

Rebuilding Jewish Ideas of Location

As technologies continue to reshape every aspect of life, we’ll want to steer their impacts on Jewish ways.  We can adapt. When 1950s Jews moved to suburban areas too far to walk to synagogue, the Conservative Movement decided to allow travel by car for the purpose of sustaining a praying community.

Technology is accelerating quickly: science advanced more since 1950 than in the prior 500 years. Today high-speed internet can stream Shabbat services, make virtual shiva minyanim and connect teachers with students anywhere.  Whole libraries are instantly available online.  E-commerce can ship most ritual items and kosher products anywhere.

So maybe we don’t need to live down the street from the kosher butcher anymore (if we still eat meat), but Jewish life is far more than conveniences and proximity to Jewish institutions.  It’s still about Jewish rhythms, values and ideas. How will we, our children and their children experience the rhythms of Jewish living and learn Jewish values and ideas without residing down the street from each other?  How will we feel and teach the strength of community if we don’t bring soup to sick neighbors, make shiva calls and build Jewish community centers?  Digital connections can be real, but the greatest power of enduring community is the commonplace visceral experience of in person contact.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m not afraid of the questions.  We’ll need to figure out how to harness technology to build new “locations” where we all can dwell together in the diversity of communities that we can’t simply turn off.  We’ll need to confront technologies and cultural dynamics that disconnect us more than they connect us. We’ll need to learn how to drive the pillars of our lives into Judaism’s communitarian bedrock even when more and more pillars are made of pixels.

I’m also unafraid of the bold experiments we’ll need if they progress alongside personal connectedness.  Yes to online talmud study and let’s try virtual minyanim, so long as we will still value our shared in person experiences from attending a chuppah to hosting a Yom Kippur break fast. We just might have to travel a bit further to get there than did our grandparents’ generation.

If we restructure our tradition with an awareness of the benefits of physical community, then the neighborhood of the future will feel every bit like home.

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By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.