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

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

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

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

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

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

 

מה נורא המקום הזה/ Mah nora hamakom hazeh

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

 

(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, try going to this post directly at yourbayit.org/makom/.)

 

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

 

 

Post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus.

Being Real, Digital Edition

Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn’t Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text — which, as you probably know, is a children’s book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name — the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved… and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video… If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we’re learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me — and R’ David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn’t “as-if” — it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn’t matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one’s face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and “RL,” real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection — with another; with community; with our Source — can be real no matter what tools we’re using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real when someone is suffering. It’s hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means “feeling-with” or “suffering-with.” Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn’t want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I’m not sure anyone’s picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren’t just words on a page, they’re pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart — to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source — and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I’ve learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they’re real. It’s my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what’s real in a way that’s safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there’s risk — and there’s also reward. As we read in Mishlei, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person.” (Proverbs 27:19) When I’m willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z”l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. “To log on to God,” he said in 2004, “we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.” That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren’t “virtual reality.” They’re as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon — designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d’var, given by R’ David Markus, on The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution. Reprinted from Velveteen Rabbi.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Mayo 2020 Palabras del Torá / May 2020 Words of Torah from R’ Rachel Barenblat

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

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

Shalom javerim.  Espero que estén tan bien como puedan estarlo en este dolorosos momentos de pandemia.  Ocupan un lugar en mi mente y en mi corazón. 

Este es uno de mis tiempos favoritos del año.  No sólo porque finalmente ha llegado la primera en el lugar en el que vivo, sino porque en esta temporada estamos en un viaje de marcar el tiempo juntos.

En la segunda noche de Pésaj, comenzamos a contar el Omer.  Contamos el Omer durante 49 días.  Hace mucho tiempo, comenzábamos estos 49 días con una ofrenda de cebada, y terminamos estos 49 días con una ofrenda de trigo: los primeros frutos dados a Dios.  Después de la destrucción del Templo, aprendimos a entender estas siete semanas como un tiempo de preparación para recibir la Torá en el Monte Sinaí.  Nuestra cosecha no es dada en grano, sino en el crecimiento interno de nuestros corazones y nuestras almas.

Para nuestros místicos, estas siete semanas se convirtieron en una oportunidad para reflexionar sobre las siete cualidades que compartimos con nuestro Creador.  Jésed- amor abundante. Guevurá – límites y fuerza.  Tiféret – harmonía y balance.  Netzaj – duración y persistencia.  Hod – humildad y esplendor.  Yesod – nuestras raíces y nuestra capacidad de generación.  Maljut – nobleza y presencia.  Cada semana y cada día de cada semana, está dedicada a una de estas cualidades.  Cada día del Omer iluminamos una faceta diferente de este trabajo interno que estamos llamados a acometer. 

Cada noche, la cuenta del Omer nos invita a hacer una pausa y notar dónde estamos en el flujo del tiempo.  Bendecimos a Dios quien nos hace santos al conectarnos-ordenarnos y quien no manda a contar el Omer.  Y decimos, en voz alta, el número que corresponde al nuevo día que comienza.   Amo esta tradición porque me invita a notar el paso del tiempo.  Me llama a estar presente en el momento. Y me invita a pensar sobre estas siete cualidades- amor, límites, balance, duración, humildad, arraigo, presencia —- y cómo debo incorporarlos en mi vida.

En estos tiempos de pandemia, creo que necesitamos estas siete cualidades aún más.  Necesitamos amor para motivarnos a seguir.  Necesitamos límites saludables para mantenernos seguros.  Necesitamos balance entre nuestros anhelos y nuestros miedos.  Necesitamos perseverar.  Necesitamos ser humildes.  Necesitamos ahondar nuestras raíces. Y necesitamos estar presentes con los demás y con Dios, aún cuando estar presentes es doloroso.

Al final de este viaje de trabajo interno llega Shavuot: el aniversario del día en el que recibimos la Torá en el Monte Sinaí.  Contar el Omer conecta la liberación con la revelación.  Fuimos liberados del lugar estrecho para un propósito:  recibir la Torá y estar en un pacto con Dios.

Todos estábamos juntos en el Monte Sinaí: cada alma judía que ha existido o existirá.  Contar el Omer es como contar los días que faltan para una reunión familiar.  En Shavuot, nos levantamos para recibir la Torá nuevamente: dondequiera que estamos, quienquiera que seamos.  Aunque no podemos encontrarnos en persona, por la pandemia y por las muchas millas de distancia que nos separan, nos encontraremos en el Monte Sinaí con el espíritu y el corazón.  Que tu viaje del Omer sea significativo y dulce.


Hello friends. I hope you are doing as well as any of us can be in these difficult times of pandemic. You have been much on my mind and in my heart. 

This is one of my favorite times of the year. Not only because it is finally spring where I live — but because at this season, we’re on a journey of marking time together.

On the second night of Pesach, we began counting the Omer. We count the Omer for 49 days. Long ago we used to begin those 49 days with an offering of barley, and we’d end the 49 days with an offering of wheat — a first-fruits offering given to God. After the Temple was destroyed, we came to understand these seven weeks as a time of preparing ourselves to receive Torah at Sinai. Our harvest now is not grain, but the inner growth of our hearts and souls. 

For our mystics, these seven weeks became an opportunity to reflect on seven qualities that we share with our Creator. Chesed – abundant lovingkindness. Gevurah – boundaries and strength. Tiferet – harmony and balance. Netzach – endurance and persistence. Hod – humility and splendor. Yesod – our roots and our generativity. Malchut – noility and presence. Each week, and each day within each week, is dedicated to one of these qualities. Every day of the Omer we illuminate a different facet of the inner work we’re called to do.

Each evening, the Omer count invites us to pause and notice where we are in the flow of time. We bless God Who makes us holy in connecting-command and Who commands us to count the Omer. And we say, aloud, what number the new day will be. I love this tradition because it calls me to notice the passage of time. It calls me to be present in the moment. And it invites me to think about those seven qualities — love, boundaries, balance, endurance, humility, rootedness, presence — and how I want to embody them.

In this time of pandemic, I think we need those seven qualities even more. We need love to keep us going. We need healthy separations to keep us safe. We need balance between our hopes and our fears. We need to persevere. We need to be humble. We need to grow deep roots. And we need to be present to each other and to God, even when being present is hard. 

At the end of this journey of inner work comes Shavuot: the anniversary of the day when we received Torah at Sinai. Counting the Omer links liberation with revelation. We are freed from the Narrow Place for a purpose: to receive Torah, and to be in covenant with God. 

We were all there at Sinai: every Jewish soul that has ever been or ever will be. Counting the Omer is like counting the days until a family reunion. On Shavuot, we will all stand together to receive Torah anew: whoever we are, wherever we are. Even though we can’t convene in person — because of the pandemic, and because of the miles between me and you — I’ll see you at Sinai in my spirit and in my heart. May your Omer journey be meaningful and sweet.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Bringing Sketchnoting to the B-Mitzvah Classroom

The first time Steve Silbert sketchnoted one of my divrei Torah, I was enthralled. The things he chose to highlight showed me what he found interesting in what I had written. His images uplifted my ideas in a new way. His sketchnote, rooted in my d’var Torah, was also its own piece of Torah creativity. That first sketchnote was my introduction to the spiritual technology of Visual Torah, now one of the tools Bayit offers for building Jewish life and practice. 

In 2019 Steve came to Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat to teach the art and spiritual practice of Jewish sketchnoting to a denominationally diverse group of rabbis, most of whom insisted that we couldn’t draw. Steve taught us that sketchnoting is about ideas, not art, and that anyone can do it: even us. By the end of that session, all of us had taken a crack at sketchnoting… and I had a vision of using sketchnoting to uplift my Hebrew school teaching. This year, I invited Steve to join my b-mitzvah class remotely, to teach the basics of sketchnoting to my students.

  1. Educating the Educator

The first step in bringing sketchnoting and Visual Torah to my b-mitzvah classroom was the workshop that Steve led at Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat. Because I had that experience of learning to use sketchnoting myself, and also because I’d spent a year watching Steve create Visual Torah for a full cycle of parshanut blog posts for Builders Blog, I had some understanding of sketchnoting and Visual Torah as both spiritual practice and learning tool. 

For anyone else who wants to bring Steve and this practice into your Hebrew school classrooms, I would strongly recommend some one-on-one sketchnoting learning with Steve first. Especially if he’s in the room remotely / via videoconference (as was the case here), it’s important that he have a hands-on partner in the room who understands sketchnoting both spiritually and pedagogically.

 

  1. The Runway

The week before his visit, I asked my students and their parents to reread the Shema and V’ahavta and to make a list of five things in that prayer that they thought were important.  

Each Monday I email my b-mitzvah parents to let them know what we’ll be learning that day. On the day when Steve was going to visit our class, I explained to parents that a digital visitor would be introducing sketchnoting, a spiritual technology designed to give their kids a new way of engaging with Torah and a new way of engraving their learning on their minds and hearts. 

 

  1. The Classroom Visit

My students seemed bemused at having a guest teacher appear on my computer, but they got used to it quickly, and treated Steve as though he were sitting at our table. 

First Steve took us through a visual vocabulary exercise. Each student had a pad of Post-It notes and a Sharpie marker. “Draw what comes to mind when I say the word ‘idea,’” he told us. “Don’t overthink it, you have ten seconds, go.” Most of us drew lightbulbs. One person drew a thought bubble. (Almost everyone chooses one of those two images for that word, Steve told us.)

“Okay, now draw ‘house.’” We drew little boxes with triangular roofs and maybe a door and a window. “Draw ‘love.’” We drew hearts. Each time we tore off our post-it notes and stuck them to the whiteboard, we noticed that we had drawn variations on the same theme. Though none of us consider ourselves artists, we share some basic visual vocabulary. We have simple pictographs in mind for basic words — door, hat, flower — and we can convey those in images. 

Then Steve gave us a set of Jewish prompts: mezuzah, Torah, hamentaschen, Ten Commandments, Shabbat candles. It turns out that we have shared visual vocabulary there too. 

And then we moved into the Shema and V’ahavta. We talked through the lists of five things that each student had considered “core” in that prayer. Some ideas were common across everyone’s list and others were more individual. 

Still working with post-its, we took a crack at drawing each of the five items on our lists. And then we placed them on a page, with the shema in the center and the five ideas circling around it like spokes on a wheel. Because we were working with post-it notes, we could rearrange our items at will.

By the end of the class, each student had a draft of a sketchnote exploring the core ideas of the Shema and V’ahavta.

 

  1. Re-Inscribing

A few weeks later, when we returned from winter break, we re-inscribed our sketchnote learning. I took the students through the basic visual vocabulary and basic Jewish visual vocabulary exercises again, to remind them that this is something they can do. 

Then we engaged in the same sort of exercise with the blessings before and after an aliyah of Torah. Questions that came up included: how might we depict God on a Post-It note? How about chosenness? “From among” all peoples or “along with” all peoples? And then each student arranged their Post-It notes to create a sketchnote of that prayer. 

 

  1. Did it “work”? (Yes.)

The sketchnoting lesson with Steve kept my students active and engaged. In that sense it was an immediate success. 

A few weeks later, I asked students what had stayed with them about studying the Torah blessings. They volunteered the images they had drawn. Having put pen to Post-it, they retained the core ideas they had depicted.

Studies have shown that writing or drawing something by hand inscribes it on the brain in a different way than reading it or even typing it. Sketchnoting these prayers gave my students an opportunity to engage using a different part of the brain than usual. And translating these prayers into images and rendering them with their own pens gave my students a different sense of ownership than just learning to read or sing them. (As one student said, “now that I put it on a Post-It, it’ll really ‘stick’ with me!” And that has turned out to be true.)

Based on the success of these experiments, I have other sketchnoting plans. We’ll sketchnote mitzvot, spiritual practices, the b-mitzvah journey. Based on what I saw in my classroom, I’m certain that Visual Torah and sketchnoting deepened my students’ engagement with the tradition. I can’t measure “how much” it impacted them, but I can see that it did.  I’m excited to see what will flow next from their pens.

 

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat with Steve Silbert.

Innovating, learning, recharging

Cross-posted from Velveteen Rabbi: reflections on this year’s innovation retreat.

 

Innovation retreat 2020

Within moments of arrival we’re talking about how fulfilling it is to learn from each other across the denominations. R’ Evan Krame (The Jewish Studio, Bayit) has designed an icebreaker wherein we withdraw slips of paper from an envelope, each containing a quote, and relate the quotes we’ve drawn to our hopes for our time together. One of the quotes I draw reminds me of the importance of collaboration, and how we can build the Jewish future together better than any of us could build alone.

We study design thinking and innovation with Steve Silbert (Bayit). We talk about the needs we’re trying to meet in the community contexts where we serve (and how do we even know what the needs are?) We talk about buy-in and safety, how to measure whether innovative solutions are working, iterative change (come up with a solution, try it, measure what worked, refine it, try again), rightsizing our questions. We dream follow-up conversations, workshopping ideas, adapting, trying again.

R’ Jeff Fox (Yeshivat Maharat) teaches us mussar (character refinement) and halakha. We learn that our job as human beings is to feel-with others, and to help others carry their burdens. We learn a teaching of R’ Simcha Zissel about tension between imagination (flowing freely) and mind (operating within limits). How does the dialectic between flow and limitation drive innovation? How do we operate from the stance that fundamentally what it means to be a Jew is to ease the suffering of others?

R’ Mike Moskowitz (Bayit, CBST) brings texts about the tension between individual and community. We learn about when it’s okay to delegate someone else to perform a mitzvah, and when we should be wholly present to bring our unique light. We talk about doing mitzvot because we genuinely love the One Who asks us to do so. We leave that session with the framing question “What can I do that no one else can do?” — a way to prioritize our limited time and energy as we try to repair this broken world.

There are so many conversations. We talk about congregational dynamics, about who we serve, about projections and transference, liturgy and melody, best practices in teaching and b-mitzvah education, our work’s challenges and joys. Even aside from the formal learning we’re here to do, the immersion in conversations with wise colleagues is impossibly nourishing. I keep thinking of the Mandelstam quote I drew at the start, about how we can build together what we couldn’t build alone.

We span all the denominations of Judaism, so early on in the retreat we negotiate how to daven together. Davening in a community like this — where we all care about the words, and we’re all dedicating our lives to serving the Holy and serving the community that serves the Holy — is the best medicine there is for my heart. Especially when the davening involves harmony and song, which it always does. There is nothing better, for me. It feeds a part of my soul that is not fed in any other way.

Monday morning we read from Torah. At each aliyah, there is a glorious cacophony of words — some of us using the traditional words, some of us using a more inclusive variation, some of us using the Reconstructing variation; masculine names for God and feminine names for God; all woven into one tapestry of melody and heart. When we sing the words for returning the scroll to the ark, “renew our hearts as of old,” my heart cracks open. It’s ineffable, it’s like water after a long thirst, it’s grace.

The change agency panel features R’ Debbie Bravo (Makom NY), R’ Jeff, and R’ Mike. R’ Mike talks about trans inclusivity in Orthodoxy and about answering people instead of questions. R’ Jeff talks about ordaining women in Orthodoxy, change agency and design thinking, and navigating opposition. R’ Debbie talks about values, community, and how to walk our talk on welcoming. We talk about the loneliness of being a change agent, and about where we find practical and spiritual support.

Shoshanna Schechter (Charles E. Smith) teaches about understanding Gen Z (b. 1997-2012) before we teach them, about navigating Jewish learning and screen time, about kids’ resistance to prayer across all the denominations and how we work with that. We talk about how increasing anxiety among teens impacts our b-mitzvah teaching, and how we teach Jewish values (especially to kids who may be allergic to that term.) That leads us into a conversation about innovation in b-mitzvah prep.

We spend some time sandboxing #MenschUp values education for b-mitzvah learning. We use design thinking and its built-in iterative processes to begin brainstorming how we might co-create learning tools that would help kids meet some of the challenges they face today. What can we do with the “periodic table” of Jewish character traits to teach kids of all gender expressions? What would it look like to build tools for this work in a consciously trans-denominational way?

Over the course of the gathering we experience deep text study and davening and singing. We experience innovation learning, text learning, best-practices learning. We partake in late-night game play and laughter.  We grapple with how to innovate wisely and well, and how to meet real needs in the real world. After two days together I’m leaving with a re-filled rabbinic tool box — and maybe even more importantly, a re-filled sense of connection to this calling, and gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

 

Shared with deep gratitude to this year’s innovation retreat planning team, on which I served alongside R’ Debbie Bravo, R’ Jonathan Freirich, R’ Evan Krame, R’ David Markus, and R’ Alana Suskin. Related: last year’s innovation retreat report.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Enero 2020: Palabras del Torá / January 2020 Torah video

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

 

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

¡Shalom javerim y buenos días amigos! El mes pasado celebramos la fiesta de Januká.  El próximo mes nos traerá Tu Bishvat, también conocido como el “año nuevo de los árboles”.  Pero Enero es un mes en espera. Un festival ya pasó y el otro todavía no ha llegado. 

Esta pausa entre fiestas es parte de nuestra vida espiritual también.  Nuestra vida espiritual no consta sólo de experiencias cumbre cuando la comunidad se reune para las fiestas o una celebración.  Por supuesto que éstas también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual. Pero los tiempos tranquilos, los tiempos de espera también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual.

La vida judía – como toda vida espiritual- tiene un ritmo natural de avance y retroceso.  En hebreo decimos “ratzó vashov”. La vida espiritual avanza y retrocede como la marea. Tanto la marea alta como la baja son parte del ritmo natural del mar. Igualmente, las cimas y los tiempos tranquilos son igualmente parte del ritmo natural de la vida espiritual. 

Amo a nuestras fiestas y los rituales que las acompañan.  Pero también amo los tiempos tranquilos. Estos me recuerdan que puedo encontrar santidad y apoyo en las pequeñas tareas que forman parte de mi día a día.  Estas pequeñas prácticas son parte de las herramientas que la tradición nos ofrece para construir vidas judías con sentido. 

Creo que es importante que estas prácticas no nos exigen venir a un sitio especial, o usar objetos especiales o incluso hablar en hebreo.  Somos judíos donde quiera que vayamos, no sólo en la sinagoga. Somos judíos sin importar en qué lenguaje estemos hablando o rezando.

Acá les presento mis dos prácticas favoritas.  Estos son sus textos y las melodías que las acompañan. Pero creo que lo más importante, más que las palabras o la música, es el movimiento del corazón.  Estas son dos de las herramientas esenciales de mi caja de herramientas espiritual. 

La primera de ellas es agradecer a Dios al despertarme.  Hay una oración tradicional para este fin llamada el Modé Aní.  Esta se encuentra al comienzo de la mayoría de los libros de oración / siddurim: “Te agradezco, mi Dios vivo y duradero, por haberme devuelto mi alma. Grande es tu fidelidad.”

Amo esta oración porque me recuerda que estar vivo es un regalo. Y me recuerda que aunque puedo haber cometido errores ayer, Dios tiene fe en mí para ser mejor hoy.  Amo la idea de que del mismo modo que buscamos tener fe en Dios, también podemos creer que Dios tiene fe en nosotros. 

Si no conoces las palabras tradicionales, o estas no resuenan contigo, puedes adoptar esta práctica con las palabras de tu propio corazón. Cuando te despiertes en la mañana, toma un momento para cultivar un sentimiento de gratitud.  Una vez esto se volvió un hábito para mí, hizo mis mañanas más luminosas. 

Recitar el Shemá antes de dormir es otra herramienta espiritual para el tiempo corriente. Primero hacemos una pausa y meditamos sobre nuestro día.  Resolvemos mejorar mañana y dejamos ir los errores y afanes del día- tanto los propios como los ajenos. 

Y después decimos el Shemá, un recordatorio de la unidad de Dios y un recordatorio de que somos parte de la unidad del Universo.  Hacer esto todas las noches es una forma de mantenimiento espiritual diario para el alma. Y, en mi opinión, también me ayuda a conciliar el sueño más rápido. Mi corazón se aligera.

Amo como estas prácticas en la mañana y en la noche enmarcan mi día. Me ayudan a comenzar y a terminar mi día con un sentimiento de conexión. Y me recuerdan que las cosas pequeñas pueden ser más grandes que la suma de sus partes.  A pesar de sólo tomar unos pocos minutos, su impacto es profundo. 

Meses como éste, sin grandes fiestas, nos vienen a enseñar (y a recordarnos) que toda la vida es vida espiritual.  Meses como estos nos recuerdan que nuestra vida espiritual está compuesta de simples acciones cotidianas. Todo lo que hacemos es parte de nuestra vida espiritual, o puede serlo, si prestamos atención.

Estas pequeñas prácticas diarias son algunas de nuestras herramientas judías para ayudarnos a prestar atención.  Nos despiertan, no sólo del sueño físico sino del sueño espiritual. Con ellas podemos construir vidas judías ricas y significativas no sólo durante las fiestas sino siempre. 

 

Shalom chaverim y buenos dias amigos! Last month we celebrated the festival of Chanukah. Next month will bring the holiday of Tu BiShvat, known as the “new year of the trees.” But January is an in-between month. One festival is over and the next has not yet arrived.

This pause between holidays is part of spiritual life too. Spiritual life isn’t only the peak experiences when communities come together for holidays or lifecycle celebrations. Of course those are part of spiritual life! But the quiet times, the in-between times, are also spiritual life.

Jewish life — all spiritual life — has a natural ebb and flow. In Hebrew, we say ratzo v’shov. Spiritual life ebbs and flows like the tide. High tide and low tide are both part of the natural rhythm of the sea. Peak times and quiet times are both part of the natural rhythm of spiritual life.

I love our festivals and the rituals that come with them. But I also love the quiet times. They remind me that I can find holiness and sustenance in small actions that are part of my every day. These small practices are among tradition’s tools for building meaningful Jewish lives. 

And I think it’s important that some of these practices don’t require us to come to a special place, to use special items, or even to speak Hebrew. We are Jewish everywhere we go, not just at synagogue. We are Jewish no matter what language we use to speak or to pray. 

Here are two of my favorite daily practices. There are texts and melodies that go with them, but I think the movement of the heart is the most important thing, more important than any special words or tunes. These are two of the most essential tools in my spiritual toolbox.

The first one is thanking God when I wake up. There’s a short traditional prayer for this purpose, called Modeh Ani. You can find it in most siddurim / prayerbooks: “I am thankful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness!”

I love this prayer because it reminds me that being alive is a gift. And it reminds me that even if I feel like I made mistakes yesterday, God has faith that I can be my best self today. I love the idea that just as we seek to have faith in God, we can also believe that God has faith in us.

If you don’t know the traditional words, or if they don’t speak to you, you can do this practice with the words of your own heart. When you wake up in the morning, just pause and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Once this became a habit for me, it made my mornings feel brighter.

Saying the Shema before sleep is another spiritual tool for ordinary time. First we pause before bed, and reflect on the day. We resolve to do better tomorrow, and try to let go of the day’s hurts and mistakes — both mistakes we made ourselves, and mistakes made by others.

And then we say the Shema, a reminder of the Oneness of God and a reminder that we are part of the great unity of the universe. Doing this every night is a form of daily spiritual soul-maintenance. And I think it helps me fall asleep more easily, too. My heart feels lighter.

I love how these morning and evening practices bookend my day. They help me begin and end each day with a sense of connection. And they remind me that little things can add up to more than the sum of their parts. They take only a few minutes, but their impact is deep.

Months like this one, with no big holidays, come to teach us (and then to remind us) that all of life is spiritual life. Months like this one remind us that spiritual life is made up of simple everyday actions. Everything we do is part of spiritual life… or can be, if we pay attention.

And these small daily spiritual practices are some of our Jewish tools for helping us pay attention. They help us wake up: not just from literal sleep, but from spiritual sleep. With them we can build Jewish lives that are meaningful and deep: not only at holiday times, but always.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Happy Chanukah from the Builders at Bayit!

Chag urim sameach

#BeALight this Chanukah as we
move past the solstice and
we rededicate our hearts.

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
illustration by Steve Silbert

Mission Statement: Listen. Remember. Connect. Build.

 

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

 

In Ha’azinu, Moses gives his final oration. At the beginning of his story he called himself a person of uncircumcised lips or impeded speech, (Ex. 6:30) but here he’s eloquent, pouring forth an impassioned mission statement for the children of Israel. Ever since the burning bush, Moses has been a figure of transcendence. He speaks face-to-face with God, he goes up to the mountaintop… In this final speech, his transcendence feels even more palpable, maybe because he knows he’s about to die. And he begins (Deut: 32:1) by connecting up to heaven. 

But leading the people has always required both connection with heaven, and rootedness on earth. Which is maybe why Moses has always had a partner. When Moses said he couldn’t go to Pharaoh because he can’t speak to people, God promised that Aaron would speak for him. And when Moses was too fiery, Aaron spoke to the people safely. Aaron was his connector, keeping him grounded. This time, it’s Joshua who is standing by his side. (Deut. 32:44)  Joshua is his new connector, his new “grounding,” balancing Moses’ heavenly energy with some earth.

Given that, it’s interesting that Moses doesn’t conclude his speech with an introduction of Joshua as the people’s new leader. That would have put the people’s focus on the person at the helm — first Moses, who’s in the process of stepping down; then Joshua, who’s in the process of stepping up — rather than on the message that Moses wants to convey. Moses wants to give over a mission statement for b’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel; the community that together wrestles with the Holy; our spiritual ancestors in Torah “back then;” all of us listening today.)

Moses says:

“Take all of this to heart. Teach it to your generations. This is not a trifling thing: it is your very life!” (Deut. 32:4647

Moses knows that his time is over. And Joshua’s time too will be temporary. Every person who serves as a leader is necessarily temporary. In this final speech, he aims to teach the people that this isn’t about us, the leaders who are privileged to serve the community. It’s not about me or him (or her or them!) or whoever comes after. This is about our core mission as human beings. This is about who we are and what we’re here for. Our mission as b’nei Yisrael is to hear, to remember, to be in relationship with the Holy, and to build mindfully from that place. 

Each of us is part of the chain of generations, the chain of tradition and transmission from our ancestors to our descendants (whether literal or metaphorical). In our place and time, each of us has building work to do: building on what came before us, and leaving good foundations for what will come next. But none of us is permanent. What’s permanent, says Moses in this week’s Torah portion, is God; heaven; earth; the whole of which each of us is a part. What’s permanent is the “Us”-ness that will continue after each of us is gone, and the mission we take on together.

Torah tells us that “God spoke to Moses in his bones on that day.” (Deut. 32:48) That verse is usually translated “on that very day,” but the use of the word עצם is striking. It can connote our bones, our essence, who we most truly are. Moses feels in his very bones that he is done. He feels in his bones that it’s time for a transition, and he consciously transfers leadership to Joshua — while making sure to focus not on them as individuals (no matter how extraordinary), but instead to focus on mission. Our mission is listening. Remembering. Relationship. Building.

May we feel that mission in our very bones… and may that somatic awareness inspire us to listen, to remember, to connect with each other and with God, and from there, to build.

By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Keystones: Great for Buildings, But Not for Relationships

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

 

Vayeilech continues Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel, encamped on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Land of Promise. Three times over the course of the parsha, Torah instructs us to share this teaching (this whole teaching) with the community (the whole community): 

“Then Moses wrote down this Teaching… and instructed them as follows:… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community — that they may hear…” (Deut. 31:9-12)

“Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…” (Deut. 21:19)

“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)

Reading these words as this year of building Torah draws to a close, I find two lessons — and one warning! — for us as builders of the Jewish future: 

  • Read the whole plan

The Jewish mystical tradition regards Torah as a blueprint for all of creation. That poetic image may or may not resonate with us today. But even on a pshat (surface) level, Torah contains all kinds of injunctions about how to live and how to treat each other. Rules like, “remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy,” or “when you are reaping the harvest of your fields, don’t go all the way to the corners: leave food there for those who need to glean,” or “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Or, in R’ Mike Moskowitz’ translation, “Resist so that you may persist.”) 

These are Torah’s building instructions for us.  They’re the blueprint for building an ethical and spiritually conscious society. And in this week’s parsha, Torah is reminding us that we need to read (and hear) all of them. We may read these instructions through the lenses of Talmud and commentaries. (Indeed, Jews rarely read Torah on its own.) We may read these instructions through a mystical lens, or a poetic lens. But we need to keep reading them, and we need to read all of them — even the ones that may require major reinterpretation to feel live today.

If we’re building a house, we need to look at all of the blueprints: for the foundation and the plumbing, the electrical system and the walls. If we were to ignore the HVAC blueprint, for instance, we’d make some critical errors that would make the house impossible to heat or cool. Assuming that our architect is trustworthy, we need to pay attention to the whole plan. (If our architect isn’t trustworthy, we have a different problem.) Torah teaches that Moshe recited the words of this poem (meaning the Torah itself) “to the very end.” Be attentive to the whole plan.

  • Empower everyone to build

When there’s an intention to build together, we need to make sure that everyone is clear on the building plan. We can’t leave anyone out. “Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community,” says Torah. (Today we might regard “men [and] women” as shorthand for “the whole range of genders and gender expressions.”) And don’t leave out the strangers in the community, the outsiders, the immigrants, the refugees. Or maybe we understand “strangers” in a less literal way, as those already in community who aren’t yet on board with the building plan.

The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed. 

It’s not enough to merely write down “this poem” (the Torah, the blueprint, the building plan) — we need to “put it in [our] mouths.” Everyone needs to be able to take ownership of a piece of the building plan, to speak it in their own words, to articulate for themselves why this building work matters. Even as Torah shows us a top-down hierarchy (God speaks to Moshe who speaks to us), it’s instructing us to pursue empowerment and democratization. It’s instructing us to put the words of the building plan in everyone’s mouths, not just the general contractor’s.

  • Be careful…

God says to Moses, “When you die, the people will go astray.” (Deut. 31:16) This may be a warning about excessive verticality. It’s a warning about the dangers of conflating a leader — no matter how extraordinary — with the work they’re leading the community in doing. Every build team needs a leader, to dream and plan, manage and inspire. But if the members of the build team abdicate responsibility, that’s not healthy. Then — to borrow a different architectural metaphor — the leader becomes the keystone, and without them the arch will crumble.

We need to be careful about not vesting too much power in the hands of those who lead. That’s not healthy for leaders, and it’s not healthy for the community, either. Better to share leadership, share responsibility, and share vision with everyone. Empower builders to take up their tools together.  When we engage with the whole plan, from bottom to top — and when we each take ownership of the unique building that only we can do (the unique pearl of Torah that only we can teach) — then we’ll be able to build a world of justice and joy, a land of promise wherever we are.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Everyone Needs a Break

 

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

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a set of instructions for when we enter the Land of Promise. Torah tells us to take our first fruits to a special place, tell a ritualized story, articulate gratitude for where we are, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest. In this ancient first-fruits ritual, I find a set of four instructions for us as builders. 

  • Take first fruits

In the Biblical paradigm, this meant the literal first fruits of the season’s harvest. Today when few of us farm (or even garden!), the first fruits are likely to be metaphorical. Maybe they’re the lessons we learned from the most recent round of building. Maybe they’re signs that we’ve completed a first step and it’s time to pause and prepare for whatever comes next. What are the fruits of your building labors this year? What have you built? Of what can you feel proud?

  • Tell a story 

Torah instructs us to go before the priest in the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name. For us, this might mean connecting with someone who’s operating in a leadership role right now. Or it might mean seeking out a trusted friend who can listen with keen attention and open heart. One way or another, go someplace that is meaningful, with someone who can listen. And then, Torah says, tell the story that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…” 

In Torah’s context, this is the story that leads to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. From that going-down flows a rising-up: that descent leads to our liberation, and to the next chapter of our communal narrative as a free people in relationship with the Holy. What might it mean for you, as a builder, to tell the story of where you came from and how you got to where you are? Can you see your descents as being for the sake of ascent, for the sake of growth and potential?

  • Articulate gratitude

Telling the story leads to bowing in gratitude before God. This may be the most useful tool in this week’s toolbox: gratitude. When we cultivate a mindset (and heart-set) of gratitude, then everything we encounter can become an opportunity to say thank You. And it’s not enough just to feel it: we have to speak it. Much like the way atonement isn’t considered real unless we speak our missteps aloud (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1), gratitude has to be named and spoken.

  • Celebrate 

Once we’ve identified the fruits of our labors, told our story, and spoken gratitude aloud, then we can join — in Torah’s paradigm, “with the Levite and with the stranger in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) — in celebration. Celebration is meant to be communal. We share our abundance with the Levite (those who have dedicated their lives to service) and with the stranger. We build the Jewish future not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those whom we don’t yet know.

These ancient instructions form the outline of the first-fruits ritual once followed in the Land of Promise and then at the Temple when it stood. I like to think that wherever we are can be a Land of Promise, if only we open ourselves to divine presence, if only we build in an upright and ethical way. Wherever we are can be holy ground. Wherever we are, that’s where we build. 

As we prepare for the end of the Jewish year, what is the building work we can lift up before God as we tell the story of how we came to be who and where we are? Let’s prime the pump of gratitude for all that we have, and all that we’ve been blessed to participate in building… and let’s celebrate as we prepare to take up our tools again in the new year to come.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.