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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.

 

 

Start-Ups and Suffering the Need for Speed

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

Jimi Hendrix observed that “castles made of sand melt into the sea.” Sand buildings have their place (like Buddhist sand mandalas), but they are not meant to last. Rather, they are meant to teach us about impermanence.

Most spiritual builders don’t think they’re in the impermanence business. They build to have lasting impact, and the impulse to build often drives a need for speed.

But common sense and Torah teach what we often forget: building fast and building well rarely go together. The key to building for longevity is to take time, to resist the drive to build for fast impact over lasting impact.

Modernity presses a need for speed: short attention spans, fast solutions, 24/7 news cycles. Sometimes lasting spiritual impact can happen in an instant, but as the saying goes, more often “overnight success” takes years of preparation.

The nature of things is to take time. That’s the key building lesson I find in this week’s Torah portion (Kedoshim), which expresses the point in terms of nature itself:

“When you enter the land and plant any food tree, you must regard its fruit as blocked. For three years it will be blocked for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit must be set aside for jubilation before God, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit” (Lev. 19:23-25).

Nature takes time, and so must we. In Torah’s understanding, just because we can pick fruit doesn’t mean we should. To the contrary, we mustn’t – not yet.

One reason is that first fruits really are different: not all first fruits are ripe and worthy. As Nachmanides wrote, “the first three years are not fit to offer God, for in those years the crop is small and tasteless.” If only for health and good taste, these first fruits evoke nature’s own trial and error, cultivating her own ripening capacity.

Why? Perhaps because, in tradition’s words, kol hatchalot kashot: “All beginnings are hard” (Rashi, Ex. 19:5). Every creation has its pains, imperfections and difficulties – so we must expect them and plan for them. We must never expect our labors to bear “fruit” right away – and when they do, they might not yet be fully capable of “ripening.”

So too for spiritual ideas, and especially the task of spiritual building. If we expect overly quick results, we’re liable to sow unreasonable expectations and disappointment – the functional equivalent of unripe fruit. The result can be speed over quality.

Entrepreneurs understand it well. It’s a business truism that start-ups generally aren’t profitable or self sustainable for at least three years – and that they shouldn’t be. They need time to plan for the long term, try ideas and let unripe ideas fertilize the ground for what’s next. One who tries to live off of the fruits of labors too soon often finds that the yield is “small and tasteless.”

But patience, it turns out, also is hard. The Hebrew word for patience (savlanut) comes from the root “to suffer” or “to tolerate.” Encoded in the Jewish notion of patience is the recognition that waiting involves a certain amount of pain that we must learn to tolerate and, even more, welcome as the catalyst for creation and wise building.

Patience doesn’t come easy – and sometimes it doesn’t help that we look to validate impatience with spiritual sages who stood against wasteful inertia. Hillel’s “if not now, when” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) seems to discourage patience in favor of speed, but really it stands against procrastination. After all, “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) – but not for undue haste!

Torah’s fruit-tree teaching continues that even once tree fruit becomes edible after three years, the fourth year’s bounty is for God. It’s yet another reminder that spiritual builders must put the sacred first: we must “pay” God before paying ourselves.

Of course, we can’t literally “pay” God (at least, not any God that I know!). Rather, in building terms, spiritual entrepreneurs can begin repaying loans, keeping promises and reinvesting proceeds – all before thinking to reap for ourselves. In these and many other ways, wise building means that the first returns on investment go back into the process of building.

In turn, we learn that wise spiritual building must plan for the long haul, and inculcate from the start the notion that the call to build is about the building, not the builder; about the fourth and fifth year, not the first three; and always, always, about God.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. 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.

Healing from the affliction of separation

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

The Talmud teaches (Megillah 31b): “If old men advise you to demolish, and children [advise you] to build, then demolish and do not build, because the demolishing of old men is [as constructive as] building and the building of children is demolishing.” In other words: wise elders can help us see when it’s time to demolish old structures, practices, and ideas that no longer serve — so that the demolishing becomes the first step toward building something new.

I just returned from a trip to the United States / Mexico border co-sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We visited the Otero County Processing Center, which houses over 1000 migrants who have been separated from their families. The refugees housed there have not committed any crime, but the warden referred to them as “inmates.” They wore colored jumpsuits, and slept 50 to a room behind bars. These family separations are connected with the affliction described in this week’s paresha — and in Torah’s cure for that affliction, we can find tools to heal and to build.

In this week’s paresha, Metzora, we learn that Torah’s cure for the affliction called tzaras (sometimes translated as leprosy) begins with sacrificing birds. Rashi writes, on Leviticus 14:4, “since the affliction [of tzaras] comes about because of lashon ha-ra (malicious speech) which is an act of verbal twittering, therefore for purification Torah requires birds that constantly twitter.” Tzaras isn’t (just) a skin condition: it’s a moral condition, rooted in the sin of malicious speech.

In another interpretation, the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) explains that the word “metzora” (a person with tzaras) can be understood in the language of “motzi ra,” giving off evil. Metzora is when a person’s essence becomes so twisted that whatever that person says or does is bad. The Torah this week provides a roadmap both to the depths of that impurity and the path towards purity.

Our rabbis also say that this affliction of tzaras comes from arrogance. For this reason, Rashi explains, Torah prescribes a cure of cedarwood, crimson wool, and hyssop. “What is the remedy so that one should be cured? He should lower himself from his arrogance like a worm [תולעת / tolaat means both wool and worm] and like hyssop [which grows low to the ground].” And why cedar? According to the medresh (Tanchuma 3) the cedar’s tall magnificence reminds us that the sinner thought of themselves as glorious (and needs to adjust their self-image a bit).

In Talmud (Sotah 5a) we learn that G-d separates from us when we are arrogant — something that doesn’t happen with any other character trait. Our purpose in life is to see G-d as the source of all, and not fill space with the fake reality that we are somehow better than any other person created by G-d. When we are arrogant, G-d pulls away from us. When our eyes are open, we recognize that in our connectedness with each other, we experience connectedness with G-d… and when we separate from each other, we separate from G-d.

The family separations that I witnessed on the border are a profound case of separating from each other. Not only are parents and children separated from each other, but all who take part in creating and enforcing that separation are maintaining a system that separates us from G-d.

The rehabilitation of the metzora, as described in Torah, involves experiencing a temporary separation from community (Leviticus 14:3). We can see that as a kind of sensitivity training. If tzaras is (as Rashi and Talmud teach) an affliction of arrogance and malicious speech, the metzora needs time away from community to do their own work so that they can return with a sense of the communal responsibility that must be at the core of all spiritual practice. Every sin between people creates separation between us and G-d. We need to build in a way that heals that separation — and heals our illusory sense of separateness from each other, too.

As builders of the Jewish future, we must turn away from lashon ha-ra (wicked speech). We must turn away from the temptation of arrogance or holding ourselves to be separate from or better than others. All of these are today’s tzaras — a word that shares its root with tzuris, suffering. Wicked speech, arrogance, and separating ourselves from each other (which means separating ourselves from G-d) are our tzaras and our tzuris — and these are no way to build.

The rabbis opine that the two birds slaughtered at the start of this week’s paresha (Lev. 14:4) can represent two approaches to building a more humble and human society. One approach is to first focus on the greatness of G-d and all of G-d’s wonders, which helps us more accurately calibrate our own greatness. Alternatively, we can start by looking at the loneliness of the human experience. What’s behind our capacity as a people to create terrible separations like those unfolding at the US/Mexico border? Examining that, we should see clearly that the places and policies that come out of lashon ha-ra, arrogance, and separation need to be demolished.

Torah gives us tools: tackling our twittering (let spring’s birdsong remind us to sing the greatness of G-d, not to speak wickedness or untruths), cultivating humility (hinted-at by the wool and the low-growing hyssop), and recalibrating our sense of awe (remembering the majestic cedar). With these we can demolish old structures that serve to separate, and we can build something better in their place.

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowtz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Doorways

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

I enjoy counting each mezuzah I see on doorposts while walking through a neighborhood. Whether or not one is traditionally observant, it’s quintessentially Jewish to place these beacons of holiness at entrances to homes. I’m delighted when I see them.

Lately, I’ve come to understand mezuzot not only as fulfilling a mitzvah, but also as reminders that everything we build is a potential portal of rebirth and purification – and that we must build for those lofty purposes.

The call to build for rebirth and purification flows from this week’s Torah portion (Tazria) connecting birth, impurity and purity. In ancient Israel, mothers who birthed children had a period of purification before returning to community (Lev. 12:1-7). Spiritually speaking, birth blood was inherently “charged” and, thus, so too was the mother. Her spiritual “charge” had to be “discharged” – literally.

Just as the birth canal is a portal, so too is the Passover symbolism of lamb’s blood on the Hebrews’ doors. The bloodied doorways identified its inhabitants as those to be sheltered from the angel of death during the tenth plague (Ex. 12:7). In the morning, the birth of a free people came through bloodstained lintels and doorposts – marking the death of not only Egypt’s first-born children but also the lamb-image of an Egyptian “god.” The next day, Israel exited Mitzrayim (literally, “the straits” – the narrow place), birthed into a new life with and by God.

As lamb’s blood marked doorways then, so too do mezuzot mark doorways now. We exchange lintel lamb’s blood that marked our liberation for mezuzot parchment marking a different kind of liberation: “Love YHVH your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might. Set these words that I command you this day on your heart. Teach them to your children…” (Deut. 6:5-7).

Whether blood or mezuzot, doorway markers serve the same spiritual function: to renew and liberate us each time we pay attention as we move through. With sacred intention, every door can be like a birth canal, arousing our next moment of liberation – and, as in this week’s paresha, arousing the “charge” of birth that we then must “discharge.”

The lessons for spiritual builders are profound, enduring and challenging. Potentially sacred spaces, such as the home, require careful design for both openness and narrowness. As the doorway marks the transition between interior and exterior, we can sense that emerging through narrow places evokes a dynamic sense of spirit. Doorways are the portals. Ritual objects, like the mezuzah, invite holiness in transitions. Ritual reminders here “charge” us up so that we can translate the inspiration within into “discharging” mitzvot out in the world.

Life cycle events and other rituals ask careful design for the journey from one spiritual state to another. A literal birth, the ritual design of a wedding chuppah, the chanukat bayit of placing mezuzot on the doors of a new home, or any other major life change – all are sacred Doorways. Moments of transition are portals, focal points for “charging” us up so that we can “discharge” a renewed sense of self in the next phase of life’s journey.

In this way, physical births marked by blood, physical doorways marked by mezuzot, and life events marked by ritual, all reflect this week’s Torah idea that all transitions have the potential to be a sacred “charge.” And if so, the whole world is an altar.

Midrash (Pesikta Zutarta, Lekach Tov, P. Bo, ch. 12.7) teaches that from the lintel blood of the Passover evening before liberation, “We learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars: the lintel, the two doorposts and the doorstep.” As the foot lands on the doorstep and propels the body forward, it becomes a place of transformation.

Every birth, every marriage, every death, every choice is likewise – a doorstep upon which we propel ourselves forward in some transformation. The goodness of our steps as individuals, a community and a people called to holiness, depends on our mindfulness that each step is sacred in birthing what’s next. They depend on seeing each step as “charged” with the power of creation, for us to “discharge” with purifying goodness in the world.

As we enter the month of Nissan and approach the Passover festival of freedom, we have the opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves and all that we build. As if being born, we can emerge anew. As if getting married, we move toward unification and harmony. As if making sacred our doorways, we get to step out into the altar of this world, reminded by parchments of love, determined to be free and spreading holiness in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga

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

As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms.  The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders.  It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.

The poster’s message was clear.  We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us.  We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations.  We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.

IMG_3375Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong.  We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.  

If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one.  A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish.  Rather, it’s especially Jewish.

This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.”  Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.

So, let’s say so.  Let’s talk about the contexts that embed “difficult texts.”  Let’s talk about this week’s Torah portion (Vayera).  Most of all, let’s talk about sex. Read more

Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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Building something demands a leap of faith. Proto-ancestor Avram shows us the kind of leap, and the kind of faith, that wise building requires.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

YHVH said to Avram, “Lech-lecha / Go forth from your land, and from your birth,
and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1).

When I left Colorado two years ago to return to the east coast, I experienced a Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”) moment of venturing into the unknown.  I left behind the familiarity of a legacy institution, and set out into the unknown world of the start-up rabbinate.  Though I had general outlines of the kind of community I wanted to build, my path was mostly a mystery. The leap I took felt like jumping off a tall cliff and building an airplane on the way down.  

Building something new demands this sort of leap.

Avram, who later took the name Avraham, had to take a far greater leap of faith into the unknown to build the family that would become the Israelite People. That’s why Avram is our spiritual ancestor in more ways than one: Avram is not only regarded as the first monotheist, but also he’s a spiritual entrepreneur – a builder par excellence.

God’s call to Avram begins with the phrase “lech lecha”. Many commentators remarked on the superfluous nature of this grammatical construction.  All Torah needs to say is lech (“go”).  Instead, Torah says “lech lecha” (“go to you/for you”).  Medieval commentator Rashi reads this seeming redundancy as evidence that God called Avram to go “for his own benefit, for his own good.”  Zohar (thirteenth century) went farther, understanding lech lecha to mean “for your own sake: go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your [spiritual] level.”  

This is our first lesson that Avram’s Lech Lecha teaches about building:

  1. Builders need a clear vision of who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve.

To answer God’s call, Avram had to go deep into himself (as Rashi teaches), and do his own inner work to fix broken places in his soul (as Zohar teaches).  All who follow in his footsteps must do the same. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, we’ll reach greater clarity about the problem we want to solve — or, to use our core metaphor, we’ll have a clearer sense of what and how we’re being called to build.  

We need inner clarity so that we can see what’s outside us more clearly. Otherwise our own stuff is likely to cloud our vision, so that what we see becomes a reflection of ourselves, rather than a clear lens on the work at hand. And we need to keep doing our inner work so that we can boldly and wisely “go forth” into places we can’t yet know.

  1. Builders must question unconscious assumptions encoded in their origins.

The next part of Avram’s call instructs him to go me-artzecha (“from your land”).  We can read this phrase literally that Avram had to leave his country of origin, which was true.  We also can read it to mean that one must leave behind preconceived notions about how the world works and what’s possible.  Everyone has unconscious assumptions, and those assumptions aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but often they reflect the past (what has been) – not the potential (what can be) or the future (what will be).  To most wisely build the Jewish future, we all must notice our assumptions and their origins, and be willing to risk them. Only then can we be sure to build the future on its own terms, rather than merely replicating or responding to the past.

  1. Builders must grow beyond preconceived capacities both individually and together.

The third part of Avram’s Lech Lecha calls him mi-moladetcha – usually translated “from your birthplace” but also from one’s inherent birth-self.  Our predisposed talents and capacities are important to know for all they are: not everyone is born with native inclination or capacity to be an engineer, or designer, or craftsperson.  We’re all different and those differences are important to honor.

That said, Lech Lecha calls us beyond what we think we can do, because we often can do more than we think – and the future needs all we can give.

To best serve the future, wise builders must discern what they can learn to do better and how they can do better.  Wise builders must continually develop a broader and deeper toolkit than perhaps they think possible. Just as Avram’s journey called him to become more resourceful, more outgoing, and probably also more organized than he was before, so for everyone who seek to build new structures to house the life of spirit.

And what we truly can’t do alone, we must do together.  Avram didn’t go it alone: he brought helpers and made alliances along the way.  Anyone who builds alone is likely to build only a house for one.

  1. Builders must be ready to leave behind outdated structures, however much beloved.

God’s final Lecha Lecha direction to Avram was to leave behind beit avicha (his “father’s house”).  God encodes a building metaphor (and Bayit’s name!) to make a key point about building.

The key point is this: some structures must be left behind to build the future.

The idea of jettisoning the old may seem to contradict one of our keystone principles about backward compatibility – that when we build and innovate, most new structures shouldn’t so “break” with what came before that they lose their foundation.  But these two ideals (backward compatibility and shedding past baggage) must be in fruitful relationship and dynamic tension.

Even when we leave behind past experiences, they continue to shape us.  Indeed, when our hero wants to find a wife for his son Isaac, he sends his servant back to his country of origin, a sign that even though he “left home” long ago, he’s still shaped by where he came from.

Reb Zalman z”l, who spoke often about backward compatibility, also spoke of the need to drive using the wide view of the windshield, not only the limited perspective of a rearview mirror.  Like Avram, we must keep looking back at where we came from – hopefully lovingly. And like Avram, we also must strike out in new directions. When old ideas no longer serve, we must claim permission to rebuild them, or build anew, to meet the needs of a new time.  Often, though not always, tradition’s ancestral foundations will still serve. And we shouldn’t be afraid to re-use, remix, and re-purpose them.

Building the future is an exciting and often scary proposition.  Sometimes building the future will be incremental and relatively conservative; sometimes it’ll seem like a radical break with what came before but stand on ancient foundations or even deeper bedrock.  The Lech Lecha journey of building a new home asks clear vision, challenging assumptions, learning new tools and new ways, working together, sometimes leaving it all behind, and sometimes finding our way back.  

It’s a dynamic, holy and ongoing journey.  Just ask Avram, this week’s building teacher.

 

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by Rabbi Ben Newman; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert. 

Keystone Values for Building the Jewish Future

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בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים
כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.

“For seven days, you will dwell in booths:
All the citizens of Israel will dwell in booths.”

(Leviticus 23:42)

Master Builders who preceded us refined principles for building the Jewish future in their own days and ways.  Bayit’s keystone values evolve from theirs, much as their values evolved from their teachers, up through Jewish history’s centuries of architects, builders and decorators.

Here are some values by which we aim to align all that we’ll build together.  Fittingly for builders, we anchor these keystone values in Torah’s call to build booths and dwell in them for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

  1. We’re All Builders and Dwellers: Democratize Experience

All … will dwell in booths” (Lev. 23:42).  The upshot is clear: an authentic Jewish future worth building must be for “all.”

“All” invites everybody and excludes nobody.  “All” refuses qualifiers and disqualifiers. “All” is radically inclusive: whoever you are, you’re welcome.

“All” shouldn’t be a radical idea.  If inclusivity seems radical, it’s because inclusivity hasn’t always been so, well, inclusive.  Consider what you believe Jewish life most asks to be built.  Whatever your ideas about who isn’t part of it, or can’t or won’t be part of it, those ideas point to what’s most important to build.  The Jewish call is to include the excluded.

“All” also means that we’re “all” builders, not just dwellers.  A desert-wandering tribe (then), and a globally dispersed Jewry (now), are too large and diverse for any centralized team of sukkah builders to do the building for everyone.  Thus, the only way for “all” to heed this call to dwell is for “all” to pitch in and build – and to expand the very idea of building to include “all.”

It’s not only “do it yourself” (DIY) Judaism, but that there’s no other Judaism except DIY.  The Jewish call is the call to do.  “All” are called to “make” Shabbat (Ex. 31:16); same for tzitzit (Num. 15:38); same for a sukkah.  To Rabbi David Ingber, “We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingers.”  Essentially, we need a Judaism with builders’ hands.

That’s our first principle: we’re all builders.  In Talmud’s words, “and all Your children will be … builders” (B.T. Berakhot 64a).  Everything we do must inspire and support the universal call to build, the experience that is the foundation of Jewish life. Read more