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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.

Dvarim’s Building Lessons

 

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

 

The book of Deuteronomy begins with a retelling of the story of everything that’s unfolded since the children of Israel left Egypt and began their wilderness wandering. Moshe recounts the last forty years to the children of Israel as they prepare to cross the river into the Land of Promise and into the next chapter of their (our) story. In the choices that Moshe makes as he offers his final sermon, we find five practical and ethical lessons for building a healthy Jewish future. 

First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present. 

In the wilderness, Moshe’s been a conduit between the people and God. Here in Deuteronomy, he shifts from speaking directly for God, to retelling the people’s history as a human being speaking to his fellow human beings. That’s a necessary step too. That shift helps to modulate God’s energy so that Torah comes to us in a form we can receive. That’s the second thing we learn from Moshe’s sermon: a good leader needs to speak in a way that people can hear.

In his retellings, Moshe includes himself. For instance, in recounting the story of the scouts sent to reconnoiter and explore the Land of Promise, he includes himself, and points out that he thought sending the scouts was a good idea. (Deut. 1:23) He could retell the story in a way that blames the Israelites and exonerates himself, but he doesn’t leave himself out of the story. As Pirkei Avot will teach (Pirkei Avot 2:4), he doesn’t separate himself from the community. 

In a bigger-picture sense, as he retells the story of the children of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness Moshe takes responsibility for his part in the narrative. Rather than blaming those whom he serves, he acknowledges his part in community dynamics. In that choice, we see an expression of care and love for those whom he serves. That’s the third building lesson we find in Moshe’s final sermon: a skillful leader builds community from a place of caring and love. 

When the two of us were in formation as rabbis, one of us heard a mentor speak negatively about those whom he served, and one heard a mentor say, “You have to love your Yidden!” The mentor who spoke with scorn of those whom he served burned out and left the rabbinate. The mentor who insisted on serving from a place of love still thrives, and so does the community under his care. We need to build with an attitude of love, not scorn, for our fellow builders.

Even the best leader sometimes falls down on the job. A few weeks ago we read about Moshe, exasperated with the people, snapping, “Listen up you rebels, shall I get water for you from this rock?” and then hitting the rock instead of speaking to it sweetly. His harsh words drew forth water, but not in a sustainable way. Wise community leadership requires a spiritual practice of cultivating respect and care for those whom one serves. Moshe lost sight of that for a while.

When Moshe does lose his cool, it’s because his ego or anxiety get in the way. And when that happens, he’s no longer a clear channel for divine transmission; he’s no longer bittul, transparent so that God can shine through him. When his own “stuff” gets in the way, that’s when things go awry — that’s what leads to his angry decision to snap at the People and to strike the rock. All who seek to build and to serve will fall short of our ideals sometimes.

Because he snapped in that moment, God tells him that he will not enter the Land of Promise. God recognizes, in that episode, that Moshe is worn out and needs a rest. God sees that Moshe is not the right leader for the people’s next chapter. As we learned in Pinchas, Moshe signals with the laying-on of hands that Joshua will lead them forward. That’s another implicit building lesson: a wise leader knows when it is time to step back and let the next generation shine.

Avoid triangulation. Speak with people, not about them. Don’t exclude anyone. Teach in a way that people can hear. Serve from a place of love, not a place of ego. Do your own work so that your “stuff” doesn’t get in the way — and when it does get in the way, be wise enough to step back and take a break. Always seek to lift others up into leadership, empowering others to build. These are Moshe’s building lessons from the banks of the Jordan. They still ring true.

 

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

 

Lamentations (Then and Now)

 

This responsive reading is intended for congregational use during Tisha b’Av. Most of these words come directly from refugee testimonies (citations below). They have been shaped into the form of a prayer, but have not otherwise been edited in any way. The indented lines are from the book of Eicha / Lamentations. 

In reciting this prayer together, we bring the words of today’s refugees into our own mouths.  May speaking these words galvanize us to build a world of justice, so that we can make manifest Tisha b’Av’s promise of redemption.1

Lamentations (Then and Now) [pdf]

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

 

Lamentations (Then and Now)

 

Hear, all you peoples,
And behold my agony:
My girls and my boys
Have gone into captivity! (1:18)

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son? 2

I raised my grandchild since she was little…
They didn’t tell me why they were taking her.

They just told me they were going to separate her from me…
My granddaughter calls me mommy.

And she told me [by phone], ‘mommy, I want to be with you
on mother’s day.’ She just wants to be with me. 3

The way they treat us, I cannot survive for long.
The officers don’t respect us for who we are – because of our skin…

The way we are exposed to sickness,
not being able to go outside.

We need the wind. And the water we are using
is not good enough to shower or drink. 4

At Ursula, we are kept in a cage. It is very crowded.
There is no room to move without stepping over the others.

We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor.
The lights are on all the time.

My sisters keep asking me, ‘when will mommy come get us?’
I don’t know what to tell them. 5

I have not been told how long I have to stay here.
I am frightened, scared, and sad.

I have a cold and cough. I have not seen a doctor or been given any medicine.
It is cold at night when we sleep.

We have not been able to shower.
The toilet is out in the open in the cage, there is no privacy.

There is no soap to wash our hands.
We have not been given a toothbrush or toothpaste to brush our teeth.

They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
As they languish like battle-wounded…
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms. (2:12)

When we arrived they took the clothes my baby was wearing.
We were not given any food or water or anything to drink.

We were put into a cage filled with loads of people. Too many to count.
There was nowhere to sit there were so many people.

One of the other boys got into trouble
and he was taken to the freezer box as a punishment.

I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Some are 3 or 4 years old.
Right now there is a 12-year-old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him.

One of the officers makes fun of those who cry.
It is cold at night in our room. We spend the entire day in our room.

The tongue of the suckling cleaves
To its palate for thirst.
Little children beg for bread;
None gives them a morsel. (4:4)

The meals are the same every day and there is not enough.
I am often hungry. One time the food was so bad, it made me sick.

There are very young children who are here all by themselves.
They do not have anyone to care for them.

Every night, the guards wake us at 3am and take away our blankets.
The water in the jugs tastes awful, like it’s from a dirty well.

Most of the children are all alone. One was only two years old.
She had to sleep on the floor. It is concrete. It is very cold.

We are locked in a room for most of the day.
The room has no windows.

I need comfort, too.
I am bigger than [other children] are, but I am a child, too.

Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days as of old!
For if you were to reject us,
Bitterly rage against us —
Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days like the dawn! (5:22)

 

Quotations assembled / curated by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

 

Sources:

1. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. The seeds of hope are planted even in — or especially in — our darkest time of despair.

2. Valquiria, forcibly separated from her six-year-old son after they requested asylum at a port-of-entry in El Paso (source: Amnesty International report “USA: You Don’t Have Any Rights Here”)

3. Clara, grandmother whose granddaughter was separated from her (ibid.)

4. Bokole, a refugee from the DRC (ibid.)

5. All other quotations (except those from Lamentations, which are indented) are from testimonies given by young migrants detained in Customs and Border Protection facilities.

Photo credit: The Washington Post.

 

 

From Tents to Dwellings

 

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

 

Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries. 

This time, Balaam declaims: “ מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל / How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5) (He says a few other things too, but that’s the familiar verse arising out of this week’s portion.)

For those of us who know this verse from liturgy, this may feel like the dramatic moment toward which this whole story has been building. As Rashi teaches on this verse, our communities become “good” when we ensure that each person has our own space, our own place, with safety both physical and emotional / spiritual. As we’ve written here before, any Jewish future worth building must prioritize healthy boundaries and ethical behavior. Our “tents” need to be set up such that each of us is safe from prying eyes — and from wandering hands, unwanted touch, and malicious speech. Those transgressions are inimical to healthy community.

Reading Rashi’s teaching more broadly, we can extrapolate that our communities also become “good’ when each person has their own vantage from which to engage with tradition. We build healthy community when we can hold differences of interpretation, custom, and practice. And that links back to the teaching I find in the very fact of Balaam’s prophetic relationship with God: it’s a mistake to presume that anyone has a monopoly on holiness. The Jewish future needs a  variety of “tents,” each oriented in its own way and also part of a greater whole. (That’s why we intentionally founded Bayit with a denominationally and spiritually diverse group of builders.)

Look back at “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel,” (Numbers 24:5) and try this on: when Jacob was “the Heel,” he was a regular guy who lived in a regular tent. But once he became Israel — “the Godwrestler” — his tent became a mishkan, a dwelling for the Holy. As for him, so too for us. When we grapple with God, when we build with ethical intention as our guide, when we open ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound (I Kings 19) — then our tents become dwelling-places for the divine. Then we access the flow that’s available wherever we go. Then we’ll build a Jewish future worthy of who we want to be.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.