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Megillat Covid: Five Offerings for Tisha b’Av

Here are five offerings for Tisha b’Av, each available as its own downloadable PDF. They are intended for both personal and communal use, and can be used singly or all together. Any of them could be read on their own, or as a prelude to Eicha / Lamentations. The final one has been set to Eicha trope.

 

Crying Out by R’ Rachel Barenblat draws on images from the pandemic and asks the question: who will we be when the pandemic is gone? Here is a brief excerpt (you can read the whole piece in the PDF file below):

Lonely sits the city once great with people —
her subways now empty, her classrooms closed.
Refrigerator trucks await the bodies of the dead
wrapped in sheets of plastic and stacked like logs.
Mourners keep a painful distance, unable to embrace…

Along the Lines of Lamentations by R’ Sonja K. Pilz is similar to a cento (a poem that repurposes lines from another poem), as it consists primarily of quotations from Eicha, re-contextualized by their juxtaposition and by this pandemic season. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

We were laid waste (2:5).
We were stripped like a garden;
Ended have Shabbat and festivals (2:6).
Our gates have sunk into the ground (2:9).
Elders sit silently;
Women bow their heads to the ground (2:10).
My eyes are spent;
My being melts away (2:11)….

Jeremiahs without a jeremiad by devon spier offers fragmented lines evoking our fragmented hearts in this time of pandemic. About her contribution, devon writes:

To be used to cultivate an embodied COVID megillah reading that honours the fall of Jerusalem and the ebb and flow of our bodies in the months of the Coronavirus and related social distancing. 

To honour that for those of us with pre-existing conditions (our own frail, flimsy, fabulous humanness, our addictions, chronic health issues, years of unfelt griefs suddenly flung to the surface…each of these), we can wrap our whole selves in the scroll of this weeping day. And we can arrive, just as we are.

I would frame this as a kavannah as lines of ketuvim (lines of poetical post-exilic writings) the speaker can read before beginning chanting to set an intention. Or, the lines of this work could also be read throughout the chanting, as the verses I cite appear throughout the first chapter of Eicha. 

‘V’ha-ikar…” and the essence: Pause for the moments you feel the most human. Feel. And insert the words of this piece exactly where you are. From the lines of this intention and a gentle remembrance on this solemn day where we still face ourselves, our ancestors, our communities and each other, in and beyond, always, with hope: “Jerusalem is me is you.”

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

lamentations
for those with pages
of unwritten loss
lamenting
Jerusalem
and everything else
they never had
but Are
somehow
we are…

Alas by Trisha Arlin evokes the full journey of Eicha, from weeping for the city in distress to remembrance and the promise of change. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

…Eating, Sleeping, Walking
Alone
TV, Facebook, Prayer
Alone
Coughing, Crying, Dying
Alone

Alas, loneliness!
I am so frightened.
I weep and who will hear me?…

Remember by Rabbi Evan Krame evokes the end of Lamentations, beseeching God to remember us and to let us return. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

God! Remember what we had? Consider and see our situation!
Our future went to strangers, our houses no refuge.
We are like orphans, without a leader, our mothers worry like widows…

Here also is a recording of R’ Krame’s words sung in Eicha trope, recorded by Rabbi Jennifer Singer.

Together these five offerings make up this year’s “Megillat Covid,” the scroll of our mourning and our search for meaning during these pandemic times. Each is available for download as a PDF file here:

MegillatCovid-Barenblat-CryingOut (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Pilz-AlongTheLines (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Spier-Jeremiahs (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Arlin-Alas (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Krame-Remember (PDF) and audio recording by R’ Jennifer Singer:

 

And here’s a sketchnote of R’ Krame’s words, created by Steve Silbert:

 

Contributors:

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is a founding builder at Bayit and author of several volumes of poetry who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi.

Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD is the Editor of the CCAR Press. She taught Worship, Liturgy, and Ritual at HUC-JIR in New York and the School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University, and authored one book, some articles, and many poems, midrashim, and prayers. Her work has been published in Liturgy, Worship, the CCAR Journal, a number of anthologies, and online.

Devon Spier is a rabbinic student, an author, and a visual poet theologian (proemologian), who both weaves and teaches others to weave their stories through poems, prose and theology of digital images.

Trisha Arlin is a liturgist, performer and student of prayer in Brooklyn, NY.  She is author of Place Yourself: Words of Prayer and Intention

Rabbi Evan Krame is a founding builder at Bayit and co-founder of The Jewish Studio.

Steve Silbert is the Bayit builder behind VisualTorah and Sketchnoting Jewishly.

 

Ashrei á la the Dalai Lama

This variation on the Ashrei uses quotations from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to articulate the themes of the Ashrei. Like the classical Ashrei, it is an alphabetical acrostic, and it’s singable to the same melodies as the Hebrew. When you reach the “R” line, pause and listen for a few moments during the ellipses. 

 

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

 

Account for the fact that great love /and great achievements involve great risk.

But when you lose at something you attempted / don’t lose the lesson.

Chart by the three R’s: / Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility.

Don’t forget that not getting what you want / is sometimes a stroke of luck.

Each time you realize you’ve made a mistake / take immediate steps to correct it.  

Friendships include differences / don’t let a dispute injure a relationship.

Genuine friends will stand by you / whether you are successful or unlucky. 

Happiness is not something ready made. / It comes from your own actions.

In disagreements deal only with the current situation. / Don’t bring up the past.

Judge success by what you gave up / in order to get what you wanted.

Keep an open heart / everyone needs to be loved.

Love and compassion are necessities. / Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Maintain a sincere attitude / be concerned that outcomes are fair

Nurture a loving atmosphere in your home / it is the foundation for your life.

Open your arms to change /  but don’t let go of your values.

Please be gentle with the earth / it’s the only planet we have.

Quit complaining about others / and spend more time making yourself better.

Remember that silence . . . / . . . is sometimes the best answer.

Share your knowledge wisely. / It is a way to achieve immortality.

Twice or even once a year / go someplace you’ve never been before.

Understanding for others / brings the tranquility and happiness we seek.

Verify your understanding /  but don’t forget to believe and have faith.

We all need some time alone / make room for you each and every day.

X-ray vision doesn’t exist / but seeking the truth is a good start.

You are not alone / God made all of us unique but not special.

Zero in on what matters / and start each day with loving yourself.

 

וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ, מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, הַלְלוּיָהּ. / Vaanachnu n’vareich Yah me’atah v’ad olam, hal’lu-Yah!

(And we will bless the Name of God now and forever, hallelujah!)

Edited / curated by Rabbi Evan Krame.

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

Reposting this in 2020 to make it easily findable now: 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]

 

Red thread ritual for Yom Kippur

spool of red thread

This ritual seeks to connect us with atonement and make us aware of our interconnectedness. The only required element is red thread, cut into discrete lengths (a foot long, all the same length) handed out at the start of the ritual. The ritual begins with a short teaching about the red thread, followed by an activity involving the thread directly. This could be used as a prelude to the Musaf repetition of “Al Chet” (in communities that do Musaf) or as a component in the Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon. At the close, there’s an opportunity for people to talk with each other about what the ritual was like and how it impacted them. — Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

  • Opening teaching

The red thread is Jewish folk talisman, said to ward off the evil eye. Red thread also appears in the story of Tamar (Genesis 38:28-30), in the story of Rahav (Joshua 2:18), and in association with the Mishkan / Temple rituals and clothing. Red thread can represent the boundary between the sacred and profane; it can also be a symbol of protection and promise. Proverbs (31:21) also mentions the virtuous woman who creates protection for her family with red wool. 

Mishnah (Yoma 4:2, 6:8) and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah also describe how red string was used in the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual. The high priest would place his hands on the scapegoat, confessing the sins of Israel and asking for atonement. He would tie a red string between the horns of the scapegoat, and another strip around the neck of the second goat to indicate where it should be slaughtered.

 

  • Red thread

Today we incorporate the red thread into a ritual of acknowledging and atoning for errant behavior.

[Hand out red threads.]

What are some modern sins that might not have been given expression in the classical Al Chet prayer? Let’s name a few of them: 

[Harvest responses from the room. Solicit interpersonal / communal answers — damage to the environment, poverty and homelessness, etc.]

Take your red thread and turn to the person next to you. Stand close to one another, each holding an end of the thread, with the thread hanging slack between you. As we acknowledge our failings, each person moves your body in the way I am about to describe. With each expression, take a very short step with your left foot, moving it slightly forward and in front of the right. The second step should bring your left foot fully in front of the right, which will make the red thread more taut. The third step will move the left foot past the right and the string will be stretched.

[Mention three sins]

Now let’s come up with three ways to repair the world and unravel the dynamic that created these broken places. As each possibility for repair is listed, move your foot back, so that we end the exercise in the same posture in which we began:

[With each repair, people will move back to their original places.]

 

  • (Optional) How did this feel?

Turn now to your partner and speak quietly for a few moments. How did this ritual feel for you? What role did the red thread play in connecting you? What meaning did you find in the position of your bodies relative to one another? Take turns speaking about your experience. We’ll bring everyone back together again with a niggun when it’s time to move on.

 

*

 

See also: this beautiful red thread sketchnote by Steve Silbert arising out of this ritual!

Using stones for Yizkor

This ritual seeks to connect the Yizkor prayers, recited four times a year, with an embodied experience of memory and connection. The only required element is a basket of stones — smooth river-washed stones are available at landscaping supply stores — which are handed out during the service. The central act is placing the stones together on a central location (often the amud or Torah reading table), in silence, while allowing music and memory to open our hearts.  — Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

  • Opening

In our tradition, we bring not flowers but stones to a gravesite. That’s what Jacob did for Rachel when he created a matzevah (monument), as we read in Torah:

Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Gen. 35:22. )

וַיַּצֵּ֧ב יַעֲקֹ֛ב מַצֵּבָ֖ה עַל־קְבֻרָתָ֑הּ הִ֛וא מַצֶּ֥בֶת קְבֻֽרַת־רָחֵ֖ל עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃

Many of us no longer live near the cemeteries where our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents are buried. We may not have the opportunity to place a stone in remembrance of those who brought us into the world or nurtured us. 

Some of us have siblings or children who have preceded us in death, whose absence is hard to bear. Being far from those graves can be especially painful. 

And even when we live near the graves of those whom we’ve lost, we’re not at those graves now, today, as we recite these Yizkor prayers in memory. But we can still take a stone, and use it as a focus for our remembrance.

 

  • Stones

Take a stone now. Hold it, and think of the person or people you are remembering today.

[Invite people to go row by row to select a stone, or pass stones out row by row. While stones are being handed out, the following instruction may be offered:]

We’ll take silent time for the Yizkor memorial prayers.

After we hear the words of Psalm 23, come place the stone on the bimah, and return to your seats in silent dedication. 

[Volunteers direct the community in coming up, row by row, to place their stones while “Turn, Turn, Turn” is sung.]

 

  • Closing

Remembering and honoring those we have lost, we come together again as a community. Though each of us is remembering someone different, we’re connected in the shared experience of mourning and memory.

We move now into Mourner’s Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim…

 

The Torah of Ikea

 

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

 

I’m a stereotype. Like many people (and especially some men), I have an aversion to following written instructions. I tend to believe that I can figure things out and build things all on my own instinct and intuition. Ikea furniture assembly instructions were for other people.

On my better days, my spiritual self knew how wrong I was. 

Among Jewish tradition’s many wisdom teachings is that sometimes we need instructions. Instructions don’t suggest that any of us individually lack intelligence or creativity. Rather, instructions are important because individual intelligence and creativity aren’t enough for a diverse collective to build and maintain a thriving community.

This week’s Torah portion (Eikev) records Moses telling all of Israel on God’s behalf: “You must faithfully observe all the instruction that I command you today, so that you will thrive…” (Deut. 8:1). This teaching is directed both to the individual and the community. When we follow these Divine instructions individually, the collective prospers.  This is a crucial concept of Judaism. Our individual actions should reflect our responsibility to uplift other members of the community.

Maybe this communitarian approach wasn’t obvious to our spiritual ancestors. Accordingly, Torah offered both carrots and sticks as incentive to follow God’s instructions – “blessings” of peace and prosperity if we followed those instructions, “curses” of strife and want if we didn’t.

On the “blessings” side, probably none of us can claim enough individual intelligence and creativity to promote a good life of prosperity, justice and security for all. Torah and spiritual wisdom traditions offer the time-tested expertise that our collective needs to build the most fair, safe and just world possible. On the “curses” side, we needn’t lay society’s ills at the proverbial feet of a retributive God: if only we’d followed instructions for building a fair, safe, just world! 

Torah does require observance of some rules that are beyond our comprehension. Jews merit Torah because of our willingness to naaseh v’nishmah, to do and then listen.  This reflects our faith that the objective of Torah is to construct a fair, safe and just world. 

There are times when Ikea instructions reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphics and with, at best, an implied promise of only a slightly wobbly bedroom set. Ikea instructions didn’t explicitly lay out “blessings” of compliance and “curses” so I proceeded by building on my own intuition rather than following directions. Even so, I should have followed those instructions as best I could: it would have saved me hours of frustration.

Moses knew that we might prefer to follow our own designs rather than following instructions. He knew that we might get comfortable in our homes and lives, prideful in our capacity to pursue wealth and power on our own. In Torah’s words, we’d forget God and God’s instructions (Deut. 8:15-17).

Remember mom’s advice to hold onto the instruction manuals for kitchen appliances and home furnishings? Mom was right, and so is Torah. When things break, instruction manuals can help. When the world feels broken, the instruction manual we call Torah can help guide repairs: feed orphans, care for widows, befriend strangers, protect the land, nourish justice. Teach children these instructions so their wisdom may endure for all.

One more thing: instructions are important, but it’s about the building. We can’t sleep on an Ikea bed assembly instruction manual: we actually have to build the bed. Same with Torah. The world can’t thrive on study and spiritual aphorisms alone: we actually have to build the world that Torah’s instruction manual envisions.

Instructions don’t guarantee perfection: bad things happen to good people, and even the most dogged and diligent build-it-yourselfer might end up with a rickety bookcase. And instructions don’t ask us to ignore our intelligence and creativity: society needs more out-of-the-box thinkers and courageous people marching to the beat of their own drummers. But Torah’s tried and true spiritual designs have proved their worth over time – if only we’d follow the instructions.

 

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

 

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

IMG_0216.PNG

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.