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Creating a Spiritual Home

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

“A house is just a box where you keep your stuff.” A contractor tossed this comment over his shoulder as he left my new home, clearly thinking that he was dropping a pearl of wisdom.

I looked around. He had come to hang a painting over my bed that is too heavy for me to lift. It’s by an artist who was friends with my family. I’ve long admired her work, and until just a few years ago, the painting hung in my parents’ family room. My mother gifted it to me when she sold the house, after my father’s death.

I slowly turned, looking in all directions as I considered the “stuff” in my home. Art work, furnishings, books. Nearly everything tells me a story; about myself, about people I love, about places I’ve been and years gone by.

And I thought, “He’s wrong.” My house is so much more than a box filled with stuff. It was indeed simply an empty shell when the construction crew left, but now it is a home filled with meaning, not only because of the things in it, but because of my relationship with those things – because of the memories and happiness they ignite within me.

So too our houses of prayer. They are more than simply buildings. They are not important because they exist, but because of how they are used. They are places of worship, places that ignite memories, that link us to our tradition and our ancestors, that provide us with a communal space in which we can be in relationship, with each other and with the Divine.

And so too the Mishkan, the tabernacle that the Children of Israel built in the desert, following God’s detailed instructions. It provided a sacred space where the people could reach out to their God.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.46.55 PMIn this week’s Torah portion (Pekudei), the last in the Book of Exodus, the people complete the task of building and outfitting the Mishkan. The passage in Exodus 39:42-43 echoes the passage in Genesis 2:1-3 when God finished creating the heavens and earth: both use the same verbs, both end with a blessing. God blessed the Sabbath, Moses blessed the people.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.49.26 PMWhat I find most fascinating about both creation stories is that neither ends with the basic construction project. God doesn’t stop after creating the world; God “furnishes” the world with plants, animals, and finally humans. Moses and the people furnish the Mishkan with the altar and everything the priests need to perform their sacred duties.

No building is complete when the construction crew leaves. An empty synagogue is no different than an empty office building or an empty store. The task is not done until the requisite materials are brought in – desks for the offices, cash registers for the stores, ritual items for the synagogues.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.51.11 PMAnd still, the buildings are incomplete. Fully outfitted with every “thing” necessary, they are nothing without us. No work is accomplished in an empty office, no goods sold in an empty store, no spiritual connections made in an empty prayer space.

My congregation rents the space in which we meet. Other groups use it for other purposes when we’re not holding services. And when no one is there, it is simply a large, empty room, with two concrete walls and two glass walls that look out onto a park. The view is lovely. But the room itself is an empty box; no personality, nothing to recommend it.

But it’s not hard to turn an everyday room into a sacred space. Bring out chairs and place them in a welcoming semi-circle. Set up the portable ark, take the Torah out of its protective case, take out the candle sticks and Shabbat candles, place the challah on its tray under the embroidered cover, and put out the prayer books.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.53.12 PMThen open the doors and welcome in the people who have come to pray in community. And in that moment, an everyday room is transformed into a sacred space, a meaningful spiritual home that is no different from any other synagogue, anywhere in the world. Because an impermanent spiritual home can become a holy space by virtue of the memories, intentions, and actions of the people who inhabit it, even if only for a few hours.

Like the things in my home, the ritual items in our synagogue have deeper meanings beyond their mere functions. The pointer we use when reading from the Torah scroll, called a yad, was donated by a long-time member who died last year just before his 100th birthday. Every time I take it in my hands, I think of him. The scroll itself was donated by a Pittsburgh synagogue that was closing its doors and seeking new homes for its ritual items. The stand on which the Torah rests inside the ark was handcrafted by one of our founding members.

A building is just a box until it becomes something else. The transformation from structure to sacred space takes a two-step process – furnishing it with meaningful “stuff,” and populating it with people who care about each other and who seek meaningful interactions with each other, with the ritual items they use together, and with their God.

Remember the blessings that God and Moses gave after they finished their creations? The next time you walk into the sacred place where you pray, take a moment to bless the people around you. Because like God and Moses, together you have created something remarkable.

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketch note by Steve Silbert.

It’s Still About the Team: Re-building Leadership for Community Renewal

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

How can you build a community when the people have known nothing but hardship and slavery? Are promises of freedom and redemption enough? What does a people need to feel safe enough to step forward and begin something new?

These are timeless questions, from Moses’ struggle on behalf of the downtrodden Children of Israel until today, when communities around the globe are being rent apart by war and warlords. Syria and Central America may be half a world apart, but for the civilian populations, the result of a breakdown in the social order is the same – misery, desperation, and ultimately flight to places unknown in the hopes of finding a place to build a better life.

So too with the Children of Israel. They were enslaved for so long that when Moses brought God’s message of redemption they were unable to listen, because they experienced “shortness of spirit and cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:9

God’s promises to free the people, deliver them, redeem them, and take them into the land that God had promised to their forefathers, fell on deaf ears. They could not imagine building a new reality for themselves.

Even Moses was dispirited, and complained to God that the people wouldn’t listen to him, and moreover that he was “a man of impeded speech.”

Building something new takes courage, motivation, and the ability to stick with a task despite setbacks and impediments. Even the smallest projects require a concerted effort. To build a community? That takes many people working towards the same goal, each taking responsibility for their own part of the job, knowing that the disparate elements will come together to create a single whole. It takes leadership at all levels; one visionary alone cannot create a new reality without the support of others, both leaders and followers.

God knew that Moses was the right person for the job, but also knew that Moses couldn’t do it alone. So God built what today we would call a leadership team, consisting of God, Moses, and Aaron. And, according to modern feminist midrash, the team included Miriam, called niviyah, prophetess, when she led the women in song after the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Together, God and the three siblings were able to build up the peoples’ confidence until they were ready to leave Egypt. The ten plagues were more than a display of power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The plagues – which affected only the Egyptians and not the Children of Israel – were signs to the slaves that their cause was just, that their leaders had the strength and courage to help them build a new reality for themselves.

As we read the story of their flight from slavery to freedom, we know that there will be bumps in the road. Again and again, the peoples’ will fails them, and it will fall upon the shoulders of their leaders to ensure the success of their audacious venture. Although most of the time it is Moses who takes the brunt of their complaints, both Aaron and Miriam will have opportunities to step forward and help lead the people.

This is the genius of the leadership team that God built, and it offers a blueprint for today’s community-builders. Each of the siblings had different gifts. Moses had terrific leadership skills, but he couldn’t do it alone. He needed Aaron’s talents as a peace-maker and Miriam’s strengths as a nurturer.

As a pulpit rabbi, I quickly learned that I could not lead my congregation without the help and support of a strong group of lay leaders. Together, we have built a community that encourages its members – both long-time and newcomers – to step into leadership roles.

As our community grows and we build new lines of connection amongst ourselves, we keep in mind that building a community is an ongoing process, and requires a constant influx of new members, new ideas, and new leaders.

This does not mean that transitions are easy.  Change can be frightening. It takes strong leaders to help communities flourish and welcome new people, new ideas, new ways of viewing the world.  

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Today I believe that our nation is at a crossroads, floundering as our leaders refuse to understand the value of welcoming people who are different, and who have forgotten the stirring words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

Sadly, the people seeking refuge in our nation today are not being met with open arms. Instead, they are met by walls and barriers, both physical and psychological. They are trying to enter a country that has chosen to turn them away, to deny their humanity and treat them like vermin, not human beings.

People are flocking to our borders, seeking safety and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, they are undertaking arduous, dangerous journeys to a place they have never seen.

The crimes against humanity that are being perpetuated by our own government are tearing down what America has striven to build. It represents an utter disregard for the promise that the builders of our nation made to themselves and to their descendants, that this would be a place where new ideas could take seed and the social experiment that is democracy could flourish.

The challenge is clear. Our task is to seek out and support leaders who are willing to rebuild that which is in danger of being destroyed. May we be blessed with the courage and strength to do so.

 

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building families through the ages

Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

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The Torah portion Chayyei Sarah may be called “the life of Sarah,” but it’s really about her family getting on with their lives after her death. It begins with Sarah’s burial, ends with Abraham’s death, and sandwiched in the middle is the long saga of seeking and finding a suitable wife for Isaac.

The story is told with much repetition and in great detail, in the longest chapter in Genesis.  But why? Usually the Torah chooses words carefully, sparingly. Not here. We follow every step of the way as Eliezer goes off to find a wife for his master’s son. He pauses to say a prayer and sure enough his prayer is answered, a young woman appears, negotiations ensue, and Rebecca returns with Eliezer to be Isaac’s wife.

But before all of that happens, the Torah says “…the Lord blessed Abraham in all things.” (Genesis 24:1). Clearly not all things, since his son was still unmarried and without a child to fulfill God’s promise of a great nation coming from him and Sarah. Abraham had to take matters into his own hands, using Eliezer as his emissary, to ensure that the covenant God promised to them would be fulfilled.

And he also ensured two important things on behalf of Isaac – that he would be comforted on the loss of his mother, and experience love. On this, the Woman’s Torah Commentary says (p. 124) “This final verse [of the story], which focuses on Isaac’s emotional connections to his mother and to his new wife, reasserts the central role that women play in realizing God’s covenantal promise.” 

Indeed. We know that Jewish mothers are the backbone of the Jewish family, the building blocks of Jewish community. The story of Isaac and Rebecca is the foundational story of the Jewish family, the beginning of our emphasis on the importance of establishing a family and a home.

Fathers are important too, of course. Abraham took an active role in the matter, not waiting for God to ensure that his and Sarah’s lineage would continue. But once he had taken care of providing a wife for his son Abraham went his own way, seemingly content that the results would speak for themselves. It was up to Isaac and Rebecca.

Much of Jewish practice is home-based. Women have carried the burden of creating Jewish homes with enthusiasm, knowing that they are building something more solid and more meaningful than any edifice or physical structure. They are building community, and a future.

IMG_3421So what does it mean to create a Jewish home? Once upon a time, the answer was uniform – everyone did basically the same things, living within the confines of their Jewish communities and communal structures. For most of us, that is no longer true.

Today’s Jewish homes vary widely from one another. Some observe the laws of kashrut, many don’t. Some families belong to a synagogue and send their kids to Hebrew school, but many don’t.  Some light candles on Friday night, some go to the high school football game. Some maintain their Jewish identity through books, art, culture, foods. Some simply feel Jewish; it is not uncommon for a modern American Jew to say, “I’m just Jewish.”

It sometimes feels that the old communal structures have crumbled, leaving many Jews isolated. But today we have new tools that help us build bridges to each other and our Jewish tradition, using technologies that the ancient rabbis could never have imagined.

We can study with teachers from all over the world. We can build relationships with people whom we’ve never met in person, transcending physical and geographic boundaries. We can reach out to family and friends who live on the other side of the globe, and speak to each other as if we are face-to-face, using technologies that are accessible to everyone.

IMG_3420And thanks to these technologies, we can access Judaism in ways that once were unheard of, without filters, without embarrassment or frustration.  If you or someone you know is floundering, unsure of where to turn and how to find meaningful Jewish content, this website is a powerful resource designed for just those purposes, but it is not the only one. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time when so much is right at our fingertips – Jewish books, music, even live-streamed Friday night synagogue services.

Judaism is in the air, on the net, ready for you to take advantage of all it has to offer, ready to help each of us establish meaningful Jewish homes for our families and ourselves.

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by Rabbi Jennifer Singer; sketchnote by Steve Silbert