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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.

 

Making Everyone Count

 

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

 

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?”

We have to really know each other to know what work will most inspire. Is my fellow builder someone who wants a discrete task, or will they best thrive with flexibility and latitude? How do they best communicate? What kinds of things do they like to do, and what kinds of tasks are likely to enervate them — or to energize?

One of Bayit’s grand experiments is a rotating leadership model, in which everyone takes turns serving as chair. This model was inspired by the story of Reb Zalman and the rebbe chair. Reb Zalman z”l used to teach from the head of the Shabbes or festival table — and then invite everyone to rise, move over one seat, and let the next person serve as the “rebbe.” In inviting everyone at the table to sit in the “rebbe chair,” Reb Zalman taught that leadership comes through us, not from us, and that leadership is temporary, not permanent.

We evolved our leadership model to uplift values of collective engagement and collective responsibility, balancing collaborative decision-making with clear channels of communication and responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity to step up and then step back. We also built into our system the assumption that folks can “pass” on serving as Board chair if their name comes up in the rotation at a time that doesn’t work well for them.

As we move into our second year of this leadership model, we’re discovering that it doesn’t work exactly as we anticipated. Some folks opted to “pass” on serving as chair for reasons we didn’t anticipate – not only for busy times in work or life, but also because not all of us have the spaciousness to develop the skills and passions to hold responsibility for the whole and help “lift up the heads” of others. Collectively, we recognized that sometimes our passions and talents aim in different ways.

Good leadership asks the person who is leading to really see the people she’s leading. It asks the person who is leading to hold leadership lightly enough that roles and responsibilities can be shared, and to hold leadership strongly enough to give others confidence that there’s a hand at the helm. It asks the flexibility to shift leadership plans and models in response to realities at hand. It asks inner flexibility to step forward decisively and gracefully, then step back decisively and gracefully.

Bayit isn’t alone in this leadership development journey. Every Jewish organization should ask itself hard questions about who should lead, how they should lead, and how best to lift others into leadership. And of course, leadership takes many forms. In a synagogue, for instance, there’s likely to be any number of roles – whether rabbi, cantor, education director, executive director, board chair, board treasurer, fundraiser, etc. — plus other roles that don’t necessarily have titles: community elders and sages, “den mothers,” angel donors, cleaning crews and more.

In Jewish mystical tradition, God is One and is manifest in the world through ten sefirot, qualities such as lovingkindness, boundaried-strength, and balance. Each of those qualities is different, and each one is necessary. What would happen if every Jewish organization approached organizational development through that lens — ensuring that every leadership structure has and balances a diversity of skill sets and qualities, each integral to the whole?

Moses knew that community leadership is also community service. He knew that community leadership requires really seeing the people whom one is privileged to serve. It’s easy to imagine leadership vertically — the leader is at the “top,” and everyone else is at the “bottom” — but the servant-leadership model inverts that hierarchy.

God’s first instruction to Moses this week is to take an accounting of who’s in the community, to uplift each soul for who they are and what they bring to the table. In the Jewish community and in the world, we need to recognize who each of us truly is and how each of us is best called to serve. That’s the only way to build a Jewish future stronger and more whole than the sum of its parts.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Walking the Walk

 

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

 

This week’s Torah portion (Bechukotai) lists “blessings” and “curses,” “rewards” and “punishments.”  If we honor the mitzvot, Torah says, then “blessings” will flow.  If not, then we sign up for “curses.”

This ancient theology may not necessarily hold up for us as moderns.  What to do with an ancient theology that doesn’t seem to hold? How to build spiritually when the middle doesn’t seem to hold?

We all know that “bad” things happen to “good” people, and no spiritual building can hold by pretending otherwise.  It’s simply untrue that every well-lived life leads only to outwardly positive outcomes. It’s equally untrue that difficult circumstances prove that someone strayed from the path.

We read Torah’s words differently.  The resonance we find in this week’s portion is not in the “if/then” details, but rather in how the “if” produces the “then” that follows.

Actions and choices have consequences.  Spiritual building isn’t about “deserving,” but about wisely preparing for the immense power of consequences.  What we do matters. How we act matters. How we treat each other matters. They shape who we are.

How do we build this awareness of consequence into the holy work of spiritual building?

Our answer is this: we must teach, over and over again, that the path itself is the goal.  How we walk that path shapes where the path leads – and who we become on the way.

We follow mitzvot not to bring about blessings (though some mitzvot genuinely can yield positive outcomes), but because choosing to follow mitzvot is itself a way to experience a life oriented beyond itself.  We aspire to build a Jewish future according to Torah’s high standards of ethics and interpersonal interaction not to merit external reward, but because living up to high ethical and interpersonal standards is itself the reward.

The opening of this week’s portion underscore the point. “If you walk in My chukim (engraved pathways) and faithfully observe My mitzvot (connective commands),” then good things beyond us will follow. The “if” creates the “then” that follows. If we walk in God’s engraved-pathways, then we’re naturally connecting beyond ourselves.

The Hebrew for “walking” shares a root with the term halakhah (the way, euphemistically “the law”). God’s engraved-pathways point to our way of walking.  If we walk in those ways, naturally we keep the mitzvot (connective commands), holy links to our highest selves and our Source.

The way to follow the connectors is to walk in such a way as to become engraved with holy instructions and holy ethical choices.  And because mitzvot point the way and evolve with us, they’re not static.  If we walk engraved by God, following the connectors, we’ll be in conversation with the mitzvot as they evolve, and blessings will flow.  Conversely, if we’re not “walking our walk,” it won’t matter what kind of so-called mitzvot we claim to be doing: we’ll wind up with curses, because that’s where that path leads.

The Jewish future worth building demands that we “walk the walk.”  Building Judaism requires walking the walk in a way that engraves God on us and in us, so we naturally follow Torah’s ethical blueprints, so that mitzvot connect us “in” and “up” to God. This kind of building asks a new orientation to a mitzvah-oriented life that’s first and foremost about the intention to connect spiritually by walking well in the world – keeping in mind that the connection between intention and action is what will secure any spiritual future.

If we walk that walk – if we build that way, with mitzvot as companions, pointers and guides – then we’ll experience blessing in whatever unfolds.

 

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

One Standard for Everyone

 

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

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: I, Adonai, am your God.” (Lev. 24:21) I can’t think of a better guideline for building. One standard for everyone, whether stranger or citizen. Torah asks us, “citizen and stranger” alike, to build the Jewish future in a way that lives up to tradition’s ethical and communal building codes — the injunctions in Torah and tradition about who and how we should be.

Our houses (our Judaisms) may be built from different materials, have different types of rooms, or have different dimensions. Regardless, Torah calls us all to build wisely, stranger and citizen alike. Rashi (d. 1105) writes that “I, Adonai, am your God” implies “the God of all of you,” Israelite and stranger alike. In other words: relationship with God isn’t ours alone. Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) agrees, reading “your [plural] God” as “God of the native and God of the stranger.”

This may be surprising coming from a tradition that began with triumphalism, the assumption that there is only one right way to connect with or understand divinity. But these classical commentators argue for a post-triumphalist reading of the verse. God is in relationship with all of us. That’s why this verse about the ethical obligation to hold everyone to the same standards ends with the reminder that (as Rashi and Ibn Ezra would have it) God is everyone’s God.

This God-talk may be making some of us squirm — what if we don’t believe in God? (Though following in the footsteps of Reb Zalman z”l, I always want to ask: tell me about the God you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in that God-idea either. I’m more interested in being in relationship with holiness than “believing in” it.) But this verse offers an ethical grounding regardless of what we do or don’t understand the G-word to mean.

Relationship with holiness is everyone’s birthright: citizen and stranger, believer and non-believer. And because all of us are in relationship with the holy, all of us need to build with wise building codes in mind. Whether we feel like “insiders” or “outsiders” to Jewish tradition and community, the Jewish future asks all of us to build with strong ethical standards, ensuring that our outsides match our insides, in a way that’s participatory and empowering to all.

In Torah’s language, we’re all made in the divine image. In the language of our mystics, each of us contains a spark of divinity. In secular language, each of us is entitled to equal and ethical treatment by dint of our common humanity… and each of us is asked to live up to the same standards of ethical behavior and informed participation. Each of us must build according to code, in order not to endanger ourselves and each other with the structures we put in place.

I see three lessons here for us as builders of Jewish community:

1) One standard means equality

We all have rights and responsibilities. There is no hierarchy here between clergy and laypeople, or between the ancient priestly class and “the rest of us,” or between Jews of different denominational backgrounds. There is no hierarchy here between those born into Jewish families and those who choose Judaism, between people of differing genders, or between Jews and non-Jews. If there’s one standard for all of us, then the rules (“building codes”) of an upright and ethical society apply to all of us equally.

2) We can’t outsource

And if there’s one standard for all of us,  then we can’t responsibly outsource our Jewishness to anyone else — to clergy, or to people with more training, or to those residing in the Land of Israel. On the contrary, all of us share the obligation of learning enough about our Jewishness to build a meaningful Jewish future with our own hands. All of us should aspire to equal standards of ethical behavior, and equal standards of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and equal standards of active engagement.

3) As for those who refuse to “build to code”…

People or organizations that refuse to take safety seriously (whether physical, emotional, or spiritual) are not acting in accordance with Torah. Torah often says that those who fail to live up to the ethical obligations of the mitzvot (connective-commandments)  become “karet,” cut off — which to me suggests not that they will be excommunicated, but rather that with their choices, they cut themselves off from community and from holiness.

Imagine a Jewish future in which we all understand ourselves to be responsible for our Jewish learning, our Jewish growing, our Jewish building. Clergy and laypeople; from Orthodox to Reform, across and beyond the denominations, including the non-Jews in our communities and families; across diversities of race; across the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation — building with one standard of ethical, active engagement for “us” and “them” alike.

Imagine it, and then go and build. The Torah, and the Jewish future, ask no less.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Communities of safety and repair

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

Acharei Mot (“After the Death” — e.g. the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, which took place a few parshiot ago) is full of instructions from our ancient sacrificial past. This parasha is one part OSHA safety manual, one part instructions for community cohesion and forgiveness practices, and one part ethical guidebook for avoiding power differential transgressions. And while instructions for correctly dashing blood on an altar are no longer useful to us as modern Jews, the need for strong systems (to ensure safety, offer pathways for healthy reconciliation, and maintain high ethical standards especially where there is power imbalance) seems to be eternal.

Among the laws covered in Acharei Mot are proper dress in the holiest of places (behind the curtain in the mishkan); which animals to offer up as we seek to draw near to God, and how to sprinkle their blood; and the origins of the “scapegoat,” a story many of us also hear each year on Yom Kippur. We also find, sandwiched between injunctions not to behave like other regional tribes in the Ancient Near East, a string of instructions about power differential transgressions. What leaps out at me from these instructions is their (very contemporary) insistence on the importance of systems for creating and promoting safety, justice, and ethical behavior.

So what does Acharei Mot offer us in terms of best practices for our communities today?

 

  • Community leaders need to do our own work.

Before he could oversee the ritual of the scapegoat, Aaron was instructed to offer a bull of expiation for himself and his household. Those who are privileged to serve communities today (whether as clergy or in lay leadership) need to do our own work so that we can be clear vessels to help others. This might mean maintaining regular spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, yoga), or working with a therapist and/or spiritual director, or having a trusted hevruta with whom one can share the journey of strengthening positive qualities and overcoming negative ones… or all of the above.

  • Communities need processes for repair.

No community is utopia. We need systems and processes for creating repair when things go wrong. In an online community, this might mean a robust team of moderators keeping an eye on the slack channels or message boards, and an explicit process for talking things out and resolving disputes when hurts or transgressions arise. In a physical community, this might mean an ombudsperson to whom complaints can be brought, a clear ethics process, and communal buy-in to a cohort of respected, independent voices who can wisely adjudicate and manage ethical disputes.

  • Communities need explicit standards… and enforcement.

Every community needs rules for ethical behavior. Maybe that means a written ethics code. Maybe it means adopting a covenant, like the one created at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, NY (available online for adapting in any community). Adopting a covenant or ethics code requires wise and thoughtful facilitation… and communities also have to face the possibility that some people will not be willing to abide by stated standards, and they’ll have to develop processes for either changing hearts and minds, or (in extreme cases) ushering those who reject ethical standards out of the community.

Bayit is built on the principle that we’re all builders of the Jewish future — not just clergy or Federation leaders or board presidents, but all of us. That means all of us are responsible for building Jewish communal spaces that are ethical and safe. Safe from workplace danger (even if we’re not worried about a lightning bolt from on high!), safe from grudges or unethical behaviors, safe from misdeeds rooted in power differentials whether sexual or otherwise — and safe because there are systems in place to protect the vulnerable. That’s how we live up to Torah’s highest ideals. That’s how we build a Jewish future worth our time and our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

On removing leaven (again)

 

From builder Steve Silbert comes this updated sketchnote for the first day of Pesach:

(This #VisualTorah sketchnote arose out of the post On removing leaven again.)

 

 

Bedikat Chametz: Readying to Build Anew

Everyone in Jewish life is called to be a builder: that’s Bayit’s guiding principle. As Passover approaches, we’re called to take a long hard look at our tools and our stuff, discerning what needs to be discarded. Enter the ritual of bedikat chametz, searching for leaven.

Bedikat chametz is a ritual of hiding pieces of leaven around the home on the eve of Passover, searching by candle-light, declaring any remaining chametz to be ownerless, and burning the chametz: an offering-up (both literal and symbolic) of home and hearth’s old crumbs.

In one understanding (drawn from Hasidic tradition) chametz can mean not only literal leaven but also the puffery of ego and the sourness of old ideas: the spiritual equivalent of the Tupperware left too long at the back of the fridge. For we who frame our Judaism around the core imperative of building, chametz could also mean old blueprints for projects that never got off the ground, or tools that don’t meet the spiritual needs of tomorrow, or the stories we tell ourselves about why we don’t have what it takes to build vibrant, authentic spiritual life.

The original matzah of the Exodus story is waybread baked in haste. It reminds us that the only way to reach liberation is to stop dilly-dallying, to grab what we can carry and start walking. How can we train ourselves to relive that urgency? How can we teach ourselves to leap into the unknown, certain that the Jewish future demands our risk-taking and our willingness to (in the words of Magic Schoolbus’ heroic Ms. Frizzle) “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy”?

Bedikat chametz is one of tradition’s tools for this task. Begin on the eve of the day that will become Pesach. Whether or not you’ve cleansed your home of the five “leavenable grains,” hide a few crackers or crusts of bread. Before beginning the search, recite the blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יהו׳׳ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אָשֶר קִדְשָנו בְמִצְותָו, וְצִוָנו עַל בִעור חָמֵץ.

Baruch atah, יהו׳׳ה Eloheinu, melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, vetsivanu al bi’ur chametz.

Blessed are You, יהו׳׳ה our God, Source of all being: You make us holy in connecting-command, and enjoin us to remove chametz.

Pause for a few minutes of silence. (Maybe set a bell-timer on your phone, and give yourself some minutes of silence in the darkness.) Imagine your heart, your inner world, as a house with different rooms. Imagine yourself walking into each room of your heart, with a whisk broom and dustpan, and cleaning out the chametz you find there. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of old narratives that no longer serve. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of old plans that were never fulfilled, or broken relationships never wholly mourned. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of an antiquated God-concept that doesn’t connect you with the Source of Holiness any longer.

When you’re ready, open your eyes, light a candle, and go gather the chametz you purposefully hid. After the search is complete, say:

If there is any chametz I do not know about, that I have not seen or removed, I disown it. I declare it to be nothing—as ownerless as the dust of the earth.

The next morning, take it outside — I recommend doing this on your barbecue grill, if you have such a thing, though you’ll know best how to safely kindle a fire where you live — and burn it.

I have a longstanding custom of saving my lulav, the branches of palm and myrtle and willow from Sukkot, and using that as kindling to start my fire: an embodied connection between the old fall and the coming spring. Branches that were green and fragrant back in September or October have dried to a rattling husk now. Like the old ideas and plans and stories that once held life but didn’t get used to their full potential. Time to use them to catalyze something new.

As the branches and your chametz become ash, as smoke rises toward heaven, take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders. Let the old become ash, and resolve to let the ash fertilize the new growth of spring, the new building of your Judaism that is yet to be.

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

 

 

Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

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

This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) is rich with sacrificial details. Animal body parts, kidneys and fat, and the altar on which they are burned — this is the stuff Leviticus is known for. This material can be tough for us as moderns. We may find the sacrificial system alienating and weird. But yesterday’s ways hold an important lesson for us as tomorrow’s builders: we must build in ways that balance, and uplift, the love inherent both in justice and in repair.

“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). It’s a principle of classical Torah interpretation that nothing in Torah is extraneous. We can find (or make) meaning in every word, especially words or phrases that Torah repeats.  So what’s up with the fixation on salt?

One response is that salt is a fixative – literally. In ancient days, salt was a primary way to make food last. So maybe Torah describes our covenant with God as a covenant of salt because salt represents what lasts. Our covenant is meant to last forever.

Another interpretation: tradition regards salt as a combination of fire and water. (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, d.1809, attributes this teaching to Ramban, d. 1270.) In a literal sense, salt is what happens when you apply fire to sea water — simmer away the water, and what’s left is the salt. But metaphorically, salt represents fire and water in balance.

A covenant of salt is a covenant of balance between fire and water. And fire and water, in turn, are understood by our mystics to represent justice and lovingkindness. (In the language of kabbalah, these are called gevurah and chesed.) Justice and lovingkindness are the two primordial qualities that our tradition imagines God balancing. Justice and lovingkindness are the tools with which God continually builds the world.

Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build.

This arises in the context of teachings about structuring a just society.  Both before and after the verse about salt, Torah details animal offerings. First come offerings of wellbeing (“Thank You” to God), then offerings for ritual transgression, then offerings for interpersonal ethics missteps.

In this system, a wrongdoer must make restitution. (Torah speaks of monetary damages — for instance, restitution for fraud was value of the fraud, plus an additional fifth.) Only then would a wrongdoer bring an offering to be sacrificed. This offering would atone for the transgressor – wiping the spiritual slate clean (Lev. 5:24-25) – but only after restitution was made.  

Notice how this process balances fire and water, justice and repair. First comes judgment (the process of discernment, paying restitution to make the injured party “whole”) – the zeal for right action that kindles our hearts like flame. Then comes the chance to make teshuvah and atone. That’s the work of repair and healing, the flow of divinity into and through our hearts like water.

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Fire and water in balance. Judgment and repair in balance. They’re like left hand and right hand working together, one wielding a hammer and one holding a nail. They are two parts of a whole.

Critically, there is love in both. Both fire and water can convey love. Both justice and repair can reflect love. Olam chesed yibaneh (“I will build this world from love”), sings Rabbi Menachem Creditor from Psalm 89 – but healthy love takes many forms depending on the circumstance.

Building the world and the Jewish future with love means embodying both love in chesed and love in gevurah. It means building with Vayikra’s balance of justice and repair.

That balance is this week’s building lesson. Whether we see ourselves as walking in ancestral footsteps or in the Holy One’s “footsteps,” we’re called to build with balance. Each of us may lean more toward the “fire” of judgment or the “water” of repair, but Torah asks us to bring both qualities to bear always, and to manifest the love inherent in each.

To build an ethical Jewish future that’s worth our labor and our hope, we need this week’s Torah toolbox and its loving balance between justice and repair. It’s as basic to life as salt.

 

RB Silbert

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.