Posts

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

IMG_0459.PNG

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.

balance

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.

 

All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

IMG_0120.PNG

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

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

IMG_0121.PNG

  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us.

img_0117

  • On our doorposts

When the lamb is slaughtered, Torah tells us to to mark the doorposts of our houses with its blood, in remembrance of the bloodied doorposts that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over. For two thousand years, Jews have marked our doorposts with mezuzot. (Josephus, who lived from 37-100 C.E., wrote about mezuzot as an “old and well-established custom.”) Mezuzot are often very beautiful. But the real beauty of this teaching lies in what the mezuzot represent: awareness of the Holy in all of our transitions.

We can remember the Holy in temporal transitions — e.g. opting to begin a meeting with a melody or a blessing, the way we begin and end Shabbat. We can remember the Holy in spatial transitions — e.g. marking the doorposts of our houses, and even our rooms. When we lie down and when we rise up, when we exit and when we enter: every transition offers us an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God. In every day, in every place, we can choose apathy or we can choose engagement. We can choose to knock down, or we can choose to build.

Torah prompts us to mark our doorposts so we will remember that life is full of transitions… and that in every transition, we can choose anew to uplift, to sanctify, and to build.

IMG_0116.PNG

  • Ready for our journey

Torah tells us to eat the feast of Passover with our sandals on our feet and our walking-sticks in our hands. The seder isn’t just a dinner party: it’s an embodied remembrance of what it was like then (and what it is like now) to be ready to go. The seder is an opportunity to open ourselves to the necessity of change, of going-forth from our stuck places, of new beginnings.

The seder reminds us that sometimes there is sweetness (or at least comfortable familiarity) in being stuck and in letting our spiritual lives be stale. Our job is to open ourselves to the flavor-burst of horseradish. To let our hearts and souls be startled out of complacency. To put on our sandals and be ready to move. To take up our tools and be ready to build. The Jewish future will not look exactly like the Jewish past. Slavish recreation of that past defeats the purpose — and I say that as someone who deeply loves a lot of things about that Jewish past!

But we need to have our shoes on and be ready to go. We need to have our toolboxes in good order and be ready to build. We need to cultivate the faith and trust required to set out on the work of building something new. And we need to approach the holy work of building with the humility of Moses, balanced with the exuberance of Miriam dancing at the edge of the sea.

img_0115

  • Clearing out our old stuff

Torah tells us that for seven days we are to remove leaven from our homes, in remembrance of the hasty waybread of the Exodus journey. Reams of pages have been written about the proper way to remove leaven from one’s home for Pesach. (Blowtorch, anyone?) But in its simplest (and deepest) form, Torah’s teaching here is about shedding the old in order to make ourselves ready for the new.

The word hametz (leaven) derives from the root meaning “to ferment.” In a literal sense, leaven is that which has fermented. That’s what a yeasted starter does to create the lightness we know as leavened bread. In a spiritual sense, hametz can mean that which is old and sour, the puffery of ego and self-importance that gets in the way of our capacity to build something new.

In order to build a Jewish future worthy of our hopes, we need to be ready to relinquish excessive ego. We need to be ready to relinquish old stories that no longer serve. We need to be ready to relinquish our attachment to mistakes (our own, and others’). Only when we wholly clear our old “stuff” can we make room to build the new. Only when our inner ground is leveled and prepared can we sink pilings for new foundations. Only when we remove what gets in the way of our openness to the unfolding of spirit can we wholly act on the call to come together and build — all of us, attentively, with our work boots on and our best tools in hand.

RB Silbert-small

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

IMG_0071

“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.

  1. The importance of good plans

I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.

Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.

Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.

Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.

If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.

Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.

*

Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

RB Silbert-small

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Calling Us To Becoming

IMG_0038

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

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, Moses has an encounter with the bush that burns but is not consumed. A Voice speaks to him from the bush, telling him to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the children of Israel.

IMG_0037When Moses asks who shall he say is sending him, God responds  אהיה אשר אהיה / ehyeh asher ehyeh — sometimes translated “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” or “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” In this name of God there’s a deep message for us as builders.

When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. 

We who seek to build the future of Judaism need to be attuned both to our own becoming (our personal / internal / spiritual growth and change), and to the becoming and change that are part of Judaism’s growth and renewal in every age. An overfocus on our own personal becoming can feed a spiritual narcissism that’s all about “me, me, me” — which is why we need to ensure that our own becoming is in service of that larger becoming to which the Jewish future calls us.

IMG_0035Tradition teaches that in every era “the Voice continues to sound from Horeb.” (1 Kings 19) Revelation wasn’t a singular thing that happened once and then was done. It’s always happening, as God is always becoming, as we are always growing and listening and receiving. Reb Zalman z”l used to say that God broadcasts on all channels — and we receive that broadcast when we attune ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound.

And as we attune to that broadcast, we’ll hear the call to grow and change and build: not for the sake of ego, but for the sake of the future of Judaism itself. In every age, it’s incumbent on us to build a Judaism that’s authentic, balancing ancient with new. In this age, one of the calls we hear is to build a Judaism that embraces all gender expressions. That’s some of our tradition’s “becoming” that couldn’t be fully expressed in earlier eras — but we can build that Judaism now.

We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

IMG_0036The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?

Just as God is always-becoming, so must our Judaism be always-becoming. Never static; always growing toward being a greater expression of our highest values. One of the values that animates us at Bayit is radical inclusivity as we seek to build a Judaism that can sustain our hearts and souls even in changing times. When you tune your inner radio to the Voice that continues to sound from Sinai (and from the burning bush), what values call you to build?

What do you want your Judaism to be becoming?

 

By Rachel Barenblat and Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.