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A Nation of Priests (Everybody Builds)

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

Question: How to build a special community that focuses on the transcendent?

Answer: Empower an entire nation!  And build spiritual life around this collective empowerment.

This idea might sound over the top, but it’s what this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) suggests.  Everyone in the people of Israel – men, women, children – are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and this “priest” we are to be is different from the priestly class in Torah.

If not the priestly class, what is this kind of “priest” we all are called to become?

A “priest” functions as intermediary between humanity and divinity.  When I think of that kind of “priest,” I think of someone to whom one might go for spiritual guidance, perhaps for assistance in navigating life from an ethical or holy perspective. I think of someone ordained to perform a role, a function on behalf of others in tackling the mysteries of life with zeal and holiness.

That kind of “priest” is a rarefied, limited role.  Whether for a “priestly class” defined by lineage, or a calling ripened by learning, that kind of “priestly” calling isn’t for everyone – and that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a priest, rabbi, pastor or imam. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a trash collector.  We’d have really clean streets, but not much else.

To date, my calling and daily routine involve a courtroom, not a bimah. I went to law school, not seminary.  Even so, Torah’s radical vision of a “kingdom of priests” suggests a kind of priesthood that is for everyone regardless of what we do for a living or what we think we can do.

This kind of “priest” isn’t a role but an identity.  It’s not a go-between or intermediary, but a way of being.  It’s a calling to seek the sacred and serve the sacred precisely in the lives we lead.

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This “priestly” calling asks me not to outsource my spirituality to anyone – even the people who take on a “priestly” role as pastor, rabbi or imam.  That’s Torah’s calling, for each person to live spiritually, and in that way become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But how?  How do we build in a way that reminds that we mustn’t outsource our “priestdom”? And what does this mean for how we build spiritual life?

One clue is in the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, from the Hebrew l’kahen (“to serve”).  A priest is one who serves: we are called to serve.  Whatever our paths in the world, we can understand our way in the world as a way of service.

If so, then we must build spiritual life for that.  We must build to empower everyone, and remind everyone that they are empowered – commanded – to serve in their own right.

What does that kind of building look like?

Maybe it looks like increased engagement and investment: one can’t be a priest, simultaneously a servant of the community and a spiritual leader, from a place of ignorance or uncaring.  That’s a calling to spiritual education.

Maybe it looks like teaching our kids (and ourselves) to speak not about God from a distance, but with God with the presumption of relationship.

Maybe it looks like linking social justice impulses with ritual time, so that at moments of ritual significance (like havdalah) we’re channeling our energy also into building a better world. Maybe it looks like a website that curates resources for lifecycle moments so that a spiritual seeker can access tradition’s wisdom at their fingertips wherever they are – whether home, vacation, or a hospital hallway. (Full disclosure: those two things are among Bayit’s first keystone initiatives.)

Maybe it looks like something we can’t yet imagine. As a “nation of priests,” we all get to shape what and how we build.  That’s Torah’s invitation to the nation of Israel, to all who wrestle with these fundamental questions.

As a “lay priest,” I explore paths my ancestors blazed. I make them my own, in ways that aspire to being spiritually open and vulnerable, building new structures on tradition’s foundations.  This task can’t succeed if only “professional Jews” — yesterday’s kohanim, or today’s rabbis — pick up the building mantle.

That’s Torah’s wisdom: only all of us together, all of us living into being “priests,” can live into the holy strength, vibrance and enduring relevance that is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So it was in the days of our ancestors, and so it is now and forever.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building Collective Spiritual Foundations: Re-Mixing the Cement

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

Look under any building and you’ll see its foundation.  Look deeper: you’ll see architectural plans. Look even deeper: you’ll see some impulse that the builder wanted to bring to life.  Look even deeper than that: see the values, hopes and assumptions that shaped the impulse to build.

We learn this: as we build the spiritual future, sometimes we must re-build the values, hopes and assumptions of building.  Only then can we be sure to build on a foundation that’s stable and strong for today rather than just yesterday.

That kind of vision, and the courage to re-vision the foundation, might be the most important tool in the spiritual builder’s toolkit.  This week’s extraordinary Torah portion (Vayishlach) teaches me so: it’s visioning and building for tomorrow, not for yesterday, that matter most.

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This paresha opens as Jacob is to face his estranged twin brother, Esau. Jacob will wrestle with… someone. He will reconcile with his brother… sort of.  His daughter will be raped and his sons will exact what they wrongly think is justice. Our ancestors lived rich and eventful lives!

Much of Jacob’s life was the wrestle for which he’d be re-named, the name that Israel carries today.  From the start, Jacob wanted what wasn’t his: first-born privileges, strength, power the blessing of a father to his own first-born son.  Then at Peni’el (“God turns to face me”), Jacob wrestled.  Was it a dream? a meditation? a physical-level encounter?  Whatever happened, it wrenched his hip, and he’d never walk the same way again.

Jacob’s hip injury got my attention, because usually wrestling injuries most affect the shoulder.  Why the hip? Maybe Jacob’s limp reminded himself – and us – that Jacob changed. Jacob no longer could walk in the world without a subtle but clear message to others that he’s different.

Modern social science and psychology teach that vital to any communication is body language.  Jacob’s limp is an outwardly visible token of an inner message. Seeing Jacob’s limp, we can see Jacob’s change from afar.  As Baal Shem Tov’s disciples taught, “legs” and “habits” hail from the same Hebrew word (regel).  Habits are difficult to change, but aspirations can change in a flash, a moment of clarity.  Maybe so for Jacob: he saw a light – Peni’el: God turned to face him.  He emerged limping on his legs (“habits”): in just one night, new aspirations were born that would begin to grow immediately.

Jacob next saw his brother.  He responded to seeing Esau’s army not with fear and dread but with conciliation, embracing and crying.  Teshuvah, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

For a brief moment: their reunion passed and they parted.  In the words of poet and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat,

“And again the possibility

Of inhabiting a different kind of story

Vanished into the unforgiving air.”

What do we learn from this?  While often Jacob is a model for us, not all of Jacob’s life is equally worthy of emulation.  When the occasion presents to build a bridge of healing to the past, build it – and then travel it as fully as you can.  Don’t let the moment go.

Jacob was right to seize his “Esau moment,” but what if the Jacob-Esau encounter hadn’t ended?

Imagine a different history if Jacob had built a future with Esau.  What might have become of Dinah? Of Shechem and their men? Jewish-Israelite history might have looked very different.

Too many Jews today aren’t finding a nourishing spiritual home in the Judaism they inherited. This is almost inconceivable to me: Judaism has been at the forefront of building bridges to the Eternal, rethinking our place in this universe, and in Rav Kook’s words, “Making the old new the new holy.”

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Think about it.  Since when did Judaism forget its own history of remaking itself?  The judges, prophets, Mishnah and Talmud all were new in their epochs.  Rashi (11th century) was new in his day; Maimonides (12th century) was new in his: he even wrote a “Second Mishnah” that to his mind was clearer and more evolved than the first!  Zohar and the Jewish mystics were new (1300s – 1500s). Hasidism was new (1700s- 1800s). The Reform movement (late 1700s and early 1800s). Denominations. The State of Israel.

Do we forget that every encounter with history changed Israel’s path?  Do we forget that we’ve been building for thousands of years? We rarely seem to forget when we limp, but too often we seem to forget that we’re on a Change Mission.  Always we’ve built a new future – not an old one! And now in the 21st century, today’s time of spiritual challenge perhaps unlike any other in our history, we must re-learn that lesson for tomorrow.

The Judaism we need for tomorrow doesn’t leave Jacob’s “Esau moment” behind.  We must ask: what and whom are we excluding in spiritual life that now we must help re-include?  To me, the values, hopes and assumptions that shape the impulse to build that kind of inclusive future trace back to the moment that Jacob and Esau parted without building a future together.

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As spiritual builders, we must be courageous enough to see whom we’ve left behind and make teshuvah.  This “return” doesn’t mean just apologizing and crying: it means re-including – not leaving again.  Only then can we build the Judaism that tomorrow really needs – a richly spiritual and inclusive Judaism that unifies and heals.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

All of us, taking up our tools together

BuildersThe founding Builders at Bayit include both laypeople and clergy. We are rabbis and laypeople, lawyers and educators, fundraisers and administrators, rooted both inside and outside the denominations.  I am a layperson working with a group that also includes talented and enthusiastic clergy, and together we aim to help define and redefine our collective Jewish story. Why would I want to even consider doing such a thing?

My answer to that question is rooted in my own spiritual journey. For many years I had nothing to do with my Jewish roots. I was so far removed from Judaism that the only way I knew it was time for a major holiday would be to read about it in the newspaper or see it covered on the local TV news. The Judaism I had known was vacuous. I believed it had nothing to offer.  

I wandered in the proverbial wilderness for decades, looking for a spirituality that was meaningful, that was urgent, that was “modern,” that felt real. I was looking for a practice that didn’t feel stuck in the past, but could incorporate the best of history with the modernity of today. I was seeking a way to more fully understand, to more deeply experience, and to know the awe of creation.

I found a path back in to Judaism through the trans-denominational phenomenon known as Jewish renewal, and that path led me to collaborating with the other builders at Bayit.

What excites me about we who are building Bayit is that we are all deeply committed to a Judaism that seeks to be be personally transformative, wonderfully rich, and deliciously communal. We aim to connect seekers with spiritual technologies that can meet their needs. We aim to build both with and for those who want more, and need more, than may have been offered by the Judaism they inherited.

To those who have found Judaism empty, we say: stay and experience how much more Judaism can be. For those who are already deeply practicing your Judaism, we say: join us in going deeper still. Bayit can assist all who want to take a deep dive into their Jewish life and into spiritual life writ large.

As we build together, we intend not to be bound by convention. We intend not to be bound by what was done before or what worked or didn’t work before. Ours is a boundary-crossing approach, a post-denominational approach: an approach that intentionally brings together clergy and laypeople, congregations and solo practitioners, traditional pulpit contexts and “pop-ups,” people and communities rooted across the denominations and also people and communities rooted outside of the denominations.

To whet your appetite: one of our initial keystone projects is an Innovation Pilot program, a spiritual lab where a variety of congregations both across and beyond the denominational spectrum will try out new ideas and practices, and will report back on what worked and did not work and what might be done differently next time.

What ideas do you have for what Bayit might do and be?  There are no “should” or “musts.” We are open. We are excited to partner with individuals and organizations. We will be there with and for one another as we explore new ideas/tools/approaches that help to continually renew our Judaism and make that Judaism every bit as relevant today as it was for our ancestors.

My hope, my aspiration, my prayer, is that we at Bayit can provide tools and spiritual technologies to enable people to fully and deeply experience all that spiritual practice can offer. Core to our philosophy is the idea that all of us can be (indeed: must be) builders of the Judaism that the future needs us to co-create. Building a renewed Judaism is not the task of clergy alone. It needs all of us, taking up our tools together.

 

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Steven Green