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The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution

Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton 2020

June 13, 2020 • 21 Sivan 5780

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

(Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere.)

Shabbat shalom to all of us together במקום נורא הזה / in this awesome place, to honor Reb Zalman’s living legacy.  Wherever you are, our Zoom spiritual link is part of what Zalman imagined decades ago.  This spiritual space is what today is about.  We’re coming to know digital not as a mere filler for what’s real, but as a real vibrant מקום of its own.  Today is about what that might mean, and what it may ask of us.

Zalman might start us with a paradox about what we know and how we know it.  Zalman famously put it this way:

I start looking ahead … and suddenly I find [that] I am looking through the rearview mirror.  When you ask, “What would the future look like?,” I go into a nostalgic past, a romanticized past, and then go into a tribal thing, and think for a moment, “It would look like that.”  But it’s not going to look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.

Zalman’s rearview metaphor is about humility.  Maybe Zalman wouldn’t call himself modest – not the guy who urged us all to melitz yosher, spiritual intercession with holy chutzpah.  Still, there’s humility to know that the future won’t look how we imagine it.  Our history refracts future-questing vision so insidiously that usually we end up seeing the rear view of experience as some great vista up ahead.

Thus Torah this week calls Moses האיש אניו מאוד מכל האדם אשר אל פני האדמה / “the earth’s most humble person” (Num. 12:3).  Only such a person could see divinity באספקלריה מאירה / by a clear lens (B. Yevamot 49b) rather than hindsight.  Even more, in this week of Beha’alotecha – which opens with נרות המנורה / the menorah lights of the Mishkan, our first מקום נורא – our haftarah proclaims explicitly what the menorah light  means: לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יהו”ה / “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says [God]” (Zach. 4:6).  All light that we see is reflected light – rearview in all our vision and willful certainty.

Hence our paradox.  If only by anavah, not the might or power of rear-view vision by reflected light, how can we see the future – much less build it?

Zalman had advice on this.  Paradigm shifts like the one we’re in now – can anyone deny the tectonic shifts underfoot? – ask both anavah and holy chutzpah, humility and audacity.  No, the future won’t look how we envision it, but still we must build that future because people, communities and the planet need it now.  So we build what we see, and what gets built itself will end up different.  Fine!

So it’s in both chutzpah and anavah that we reach this Zoomosphere moment.  There’s no going back: yesterday’s “normal” is history, and mere nostalgia will cheat the future.  We must build the future, even if we only see it in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully not everything in the rearview is mere nostalgia.  Our hindsight can trace human spiritual history leading to our Zoomosphere, all of us “log[ging] onto God” exactly where we are, as Rachel quoted Zalman last night.  We might sense that history as the divine flow Itself, and imagine where that flow is leading.  And with some chutzpah, we might tell that story, all of spiritual time from the Beginning, על רגל אחת / “on one foot.”  One story in two acts.  Ready?

In a Beginning, the One created space and time.  Eternal sacred space called Eden ejected humanity; space itself re-booted with a flood of new life.  The One told Avram: lech lecha from ancestral space “to a land I’ll show you” (Gen. 12:1).  Avram raised sacred markers along the way.  Yitzchak “went out to talk [with God] in the field” (Gen. 24:68).  Jacob dreamed an angelic ladder highway: מה נורא המקום הזה / “Right here is the House of God” (Gen. 28:18), forgetting that every right here is, too.  His sons also missed it: cue centuries of bondage building sacred space for Pharaoh.  Freedom!  Sand-blind weeks to camp at history’s most famous sacred place nobody can find.  Two tablets!  Oops; two more tablets!  Build a Mishkan, complete with menorah.  Light it up and follow the cloud.  (That’s this week.)  Too afraid to go where I’ll show you?  In 40 years, a next generation will try again.  Enter the Land.  Build a Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile 70 years by the waters of Babylon, where we sat and wept remembering Zion.  Go back.  Build a second Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile.  End of Act One.

Intermission: God won’t be fixed in any one place.  The Sfat Emet (1846-1905) taught that we are God’s menorah, so “the essence of the Mishkan and Temple is that it’s in everyone.  That’s the point of ועשו לי מקדש שוכנתי בתוכם / ‘Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in them’ (Ex. 25:8)….  When the Temple stood, all knew that all life came of God,” but this knowledge kept depending on place.  So the Temple had to be destroyed to upshift our search for God from the constraining particularity of any place: “With the Mishkan hidden [in us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”

Act Two: Sacred space on the go.  The Mishkan’s table became every Shabbat table, learning centers like Sura and Pumbedita, Talmud, shuls, printing presses, books, liturgies, “correct” ways carved by power and custom.  Trade routes, living most anywhere but hearts still in the East.  Exile and inquisition.  Not so much the East: go West.  Enlightenment!  Liberty? Assimilation!  Denominations?  Fractures!  World wars?  Israel!  The nuclear age, the digital age, de-centering of every kind of institution, now a global pandemic bringing us together by separating us.  “With the Mishkan hidden, God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  How about on Zoom?

Rearview vision is good for seeing patterns.  The pattern seems to be that, all along, God used examples of sacred space to teach us cosmology.  Eden, Avraham’s matzevot, Yitzchak in the field, Jacob’s ladder place, Egyptian temples, Sinai, mobile Mishkan, two Temples, post-exile Shabbat tables, houses of learning, shuls – each sacred place was an example to show that מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).  But we confused example for essence; as Zalman put it, we “confused the pointer for the point.”  So pointers kept coming.  But rather than get the point, grief aroused nostalgia.  In Zalman’s words from 1993, we venerated each pointer as a holy “relic” rather than a “catalyst for the future.”

And again today.  Many grieve Jewish institutions failing by the day.  Many grieve physical shuls as the pandemic exiles us to our homes.  Now we must make sacred space in our homes – it’s here, or nowhere.  And that was the point all along.

Today’s exile to our homes is no ordinary exile.  It’s an inzile: it turns us in, and it turns us inward.  We’re roused to seek the very thing for which our inzile most cues our yearning – real connection.  And for once, the whole world can start to see the same things.  Now all humanity can experience each place, each home, that way.

In wise words inscribed on rearview mirrors: “Things are closer than they appear.”

Just as the menorah light lifts divine spirit over human might, digital means divine connection everywhere – or, at least, it can.  It’s not automatic: it asks us to transform.  We’re only starting to sense those transformations, and they won’t look quite like what we see.  But anavah balances with chutzpah: we must build our Digital Mishkan.  After kiddush, we’ll explore more about how, including some ideas around bending time if we’re not in the same time zone, and technical points like digital infrastructure, skillful means and a sacred ZoomCorps so nobody’s left behind.

Beyond the technical, Zalman urged “backward compatibility” when possible.  Dig deep, because our ancestors probably laid some foundation stone to anchor us.  And they did: 1,700 years ago, Midrash Tehillim 4:11 ascribed these words to God:

אמר הקב”ה: אני אמרתי כשאתה מתפלל, התפלל בבית הכנסת שבעירך. ואם אתה אינך יכול לילך בבית הכנסת שבעירך, התפלל בתוך ביתך. ואם אין אתה יכול לילך להתפלל, תתפלל על מטתך. ואם אין את יכול לדבר, הרהר בלבך.

God said, “I told you that when you pray, pray in a Beit Knesset in your community.  And if you can’t go to a Beit Knesset in your community, pray in your house.  And if you can’t go to pray, pray in your bed.  And if you can’t speak, meditate in your heart.”

How wise!  A synagogue always was called a Beit Knesset, a place of entering. It’s about entering another state and doing so together – not physically going.  Yet we’re still to “go” somewhere, even if we stay in our “house.”  So it’s about entering, by making an intentional shift where we physically are.

That shift depends on each soul, as it must now because we’re each in our own homes.  Inzile means that we can’t totally outsource to the rabbi, cantor, teacher, guru, yoga instructor or anyone outside.  We never could: only we can experience our space as sacred, but circumstances brings that truth close to home, at home.

Suddenly the only table in the Mishkan that can be sacred is our table, in our home.  If the Mishkan is to have a table sacred for you, only you can make it so.  It’s a radical, profound empowerment: it always was so, but now it hits home, at home.

If a Zoom connection is to be sacred for you, only you can make it so.  Skillful means will help – it’s still a shared medium – but it’s on you to “go” to sacred space by making intentional shifts in the sacred space that is our home.  We’ll harness the senses of embodiment.  We’ll take on ourselves to set our spaces in ways that aren’t routine; to dress for spiritual experience; to silence distracting devices like TVs and phones except for emergencies; to wash ritually before spiritual experience online.

That’s Assiyah, physicality.  In Yetzirah, we’ll accustom emotionally to open by new cues, new tenderizers.  We’re still carbon-based creatures: we evolved to feel, we learned to feel, by feeling other people first.  Our mirror neurons sympathetically resonate with others.  It’s why the physicality of collective gathering opens us emotionally, and it still can.  Our neuroplasticity, evolutionary capacity to rewire, will learn to take in others and cue us to feel deeply together online – but it’ll take time and focus.  It’s why we checked in with faces and bodies during the service.

And over time, we’ll learn how to meet new people digitally.  It can feel easier to go deep online if we already know someone, if digital connection activates the felt sense of pre-existing physical relationships.  That’s good, but can’t be the only way.  As we adapt, digital will feel less like a poor substitute for “real life.”  Digital is real, with real emotions, real spirituality, real prayer, real community, real tzedakah, real voting, real political campaigns.  We’ll get there.

Until then, this time of adjustment asks us to be gentle with each other and ourselves.  Until digital feels fully real, people may feel lonely.  If digital doesn’t hit the spot, we may feel even more isolated for all our so-called digital connectivity.  We may mourn “normal”: that too is our inzile, our turning inward.  These emotions will teach us if we let them, lest we become calcified and brittle.  If we let them, our inner defenses to the tumult of this time will ease and new inner landscapes will open.  Until then, let’s be gentle, take extra time with each other, and take it slow.

In Briyah, in thought, Zalman was right: we see the future in the rearview mirror.  However sure our vision, it won’t “look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.”  That’s part of what we’re doing here – sandboxing, trying, testing, adjusting and trying again.

Wise spiritual building isn’t like how I cook pasta – throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.  Serendipity, yes, but not avant garde to be different for its own sake.  It’s not doing what we want just because we want it, without the healthy gevurah of standards, ethics and external accountability for them.  The collectivity and stakes of this moment, for the Jewish future and the whole world, ask better than that.

Digital is good for that.  Digital allows collaboration across most every divide in ways that can hasten the necessary re-ordering of systems.  It allows fast feedback, democratized, from everyone.  It generates more data and helps us ask for it and use it.  It will reward people, groups and systems that do.  And that is good: insist on it.

In Atzilut, in essence, divine cosmology is as it’s always been: מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory.”  Finally, finally, our inzile might teach us that every place is sacred space.  “With the Mishkan hidden [within us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  The Mishkan is where you are.  It always was. The menorah is within you.  It always was.  Light it up, and follow the cloud.  It will lead you if you let it.  It will lead us if we let it.  It always has.  It always will.

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at “An Emerging Judaism: A Global Digital Convening,” the Digital Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. Designed to dovetail with R’ Rachel’s keynote, Being Real: Digital Edition.

 

 

By Rabbi David Markus.

 

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah from R’ David Markus

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi David Markus. The text follows the video, in Spanish and then in English.

 

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ David Markus from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.


Shalom a mis hermanos y hermanas cubanos de Klal Yisrael, nuestra familia global judía que, cada dia, se siente más como una familia – a pesar de la distancia.

Espero y rezo que este mensaje los encuentre sintiéndose saludables, fuertes, resistentes y seguros.

La vista desde mi casa en Nueva York es muy diferente a la de hace un año.   Hace un año, me deje llevar y pensé que el mundo era un lugar más seguro y saludable de lo que verdaderamente es.   El coronavirus ha cambiado, para siempre, como yo veo el mundo, mi comunidad y toda comunidad.

Yo puedo imaginar algunas de las imágenes que el coronavirus — y también, las protestas, han traído a sus televisores y a sus dispositivos digitales.   Puedo sentir algunas de las experiencias que estos cambios globales han traído a sus tiendas, a sus familias y a sus barrios: más escásez, más racionamiento, mas penuria.

En la penuria,y tambien en las protestas, tornamos los unos a los otros.   Esta es la manera cubana de hacer esas cosas.   Es como los judios de Cuba han sobrevivido el “periodo especial” y toda adversidad – natural o humana – tanto antes como después.

Honrar nuestra humanidad esencial – y tornar a los demás de una causa colectiva – es una lugar común cubano que muchos norteamericanos olvidan a menudo.   Si bien hemos caído en la tentación de vernos como entes separados — los unos de los otros – el coronavirus nos está enseñando, una vez más, que  estamos interconectados.

El mundo necesita aprender esta lección en lo más profundo de nuestras almas, y, en el alma de nuestras sociedades.   Es una importante lección — y una lección, por demás, muy judía.

El judaísmo nos enseña que, a veces, sólo un cambio radical de perspectiva puede hacernos ver esta verdad y otras verdades fundamentales.   Hay tiempos en la vida, tan fuertes, que lo cambian todo.   En cada vida – en sus vidas y en la mía propia – hay momentos personales que nos transforman hasta el tuétano.   Estos momentos de transformación también son aquellos en los que sentimos más empatía, y esto no es una coincidencia.   Es una verdad espiritual fundamental.

La época del coronavirus no es solamente un época personal: es un momento global, es un momento para toda la humanidad.   Estos momentos cambian civilizaciones enteras, y suceden más infrecuentemente que nuestros momentos personales de cambio – pero igual suceden, ciertos como el flujo de la historia misma.

Justamente la semana pasada, el pueblo judio celebró uno de estos momentos colectivos.   Shavuot, la fiesta de la entrega de la Torá, es el aniversario en la tradición judía del momento en que Moisés y el pueblo de Israel estuvieron juntos en el Monte Sinaí.   La Torá describe que Moisés, y el pueblo, estaban juntos k’ish ejad – como una sola persona – pues solo así podrían recibir los Diez Mandamientos.   Unidos, como si fueran una misma persona, vieron el humo del Monte Sinaí.   Unidos como si fueran una persona, sus sentidos tan confundidos que literalmente vieron el trueno: contemplaron con sus propios ojos las palabras de Dios.

Este momento fue tan confuso que cambio la historia para siempre.   El judaismo, el cristianismo, el islam, el flujo del espíritu, el flujo de la historia misma — todo se remonta ultimamente al Monte Sinaí.

Ésta es una de las grandes contribuciones al mundo — no sólo la Torá, no sólo los Diez Mandamientos, no sólo las reglas del ético vivir – sino también la idea radical de que un momento de cambio de visión: cuando es compartida por todos, puede cambiarlo todo.

En el calendario judío, esto sucedió la semana pasada.   Hecho y cumplido.   La próxima gran fiesta es Rosh Hashaná en unos cuantos meses. – Y entonces, ¿ahora qué?

Tal vez, la lección más grande del judaísmo no es que los Diez Mandamientos hayan sido dados en una explosion de luz y amor en el Monte Sinaí, sino que la Torá no terminó – ahí en ese momento.   Después del Monte Sinaí hubo una gran travesía hacia adelante: ¡Hay más libros de la Torá de Moisés que ocurren después del Monte Sinaí que antes de este!

Esto nos enseña que nuestra Torá, y nuestro judaísmo, no son sólo colecciones de grandes momentos.   La Torá fue puesta en nuestras manos, por toda la posteridad, para cargarla y cumplirla dia tras dia, dondequiera que nos lleve la vida.

Esta es la lección profunda del ese mes que sigue a Shavuot. Es nuestra responsabilidad vivir estos valores, orgullosos de nuestra herencia, pero sin conformarnos con el heroísmo y las luchas de nuestros ancestros.   No se trata del pasado sino del ahora: la humanidad necesita de todo nuestro ejemplo de amor, de empatía y de conexión – no sólo en las fiestas, sino cada dia.

Ustedes fueron ejemplos claros de estos principios – para mí y mi comunidad de Nueva York cuando visitamos Cuba el otoño pasado.   Fue tangible, y muy especial para nosotros. Los judios de Cuba cambiaron para siempre nuestra manera de ver el mundo.   Sospecho que la experiencia no fue tan especial para ustedes, ya que está es su naturaleza día a día.

Ustedes son la prueba del principio judio de que la vida judía es más que fiestas.   Es el amor, la benevolencia, la compasión, y la empatía que nos mostramos los unos a los otros todos los días.   Estas son las grandes joyas de la Torá: amar al prójimo como a nosotros mismos, particularmente cuando esto es difícil.   Es está empatía, nuestra identidad y destino compartidos, que nos ayudarán a cumplir la Torá en nuestros días, durante este momento en que el coronavirus está transformando el mundo.

De mi corazón al de ustedes, les envio bendiciones de resiliencia y salud – y – de todo aquello que necesitamos para vivir estos valores eternos en un mundo que los necesita y nos necesita a todos.

Shalom Javerim.   


Shalom to my Cuban sisters and brothers among Klal Yisrael, our global Jewish family that feels ever more like a family even across the span of distance.  I hope and pray that this message finds you feeling healthy, strong, resilient and safe.

The view from my home in New York feels so different from this time last year.  This time last year, I let myself believe that somehow my world was safer and healthier than it actually was.  The coronavirus changed forever how I see the world, my community and every community.

I imagine some images that the coronavirus – and now the protests – have brought to your televisions and digital news feeds. I can sense some experiences that global shifts are bringing to your stores, families and neighborhoods – more shortages, more regulations, more hardship.

In hardship, we turn to each other.  It’s the Cuban way.  It’s how the Jews of Cuba survived the “special period” and every adversity – natural and human – both before and since.

Honoring our essential humanity – and turning to each other in common cause – is a Cuban truism that we Americans too often forget. If ever we are tempted to regard ourselves as separate from each other, the coronavirus is teaching us yet again how interconnected we are.

The world needs to learn that lesson deeply in our own souls, and in the souls of our societies.  It’s an important lesson — and a very Jewish lesson at that.

Judaism teaches that the more people empathize with each other — the more our lives feel connected on the inside — the more we and our world can heal its rifts and injustices. Empathy is the felt sense that what happens to you happens to me. Empathy grows in shared experience and in knowing deeply that our fate is intertwined.

Judaism also teaches that sometimes only a radical change of perspective can help us see these and other fundamental truths.  Times in life come that are so big that suddenly they change everything.  Into each life, into your lives and my own, come those personal moments that transform us to our core.  Those transformation moments happen also to be the moments that we most feel our empathy – and it’s no coincidence.  It’s core spiritual truth.

This coronavirus moment isn’t only a personal moment: it’s a global moment, a moment for all humanity.  Moments that shift whole civilizations come more rarely than our own individual moments, but they come as sure as the flow of history itself.

Just last week, Judaism celebrated one of those collective moments.  It was Shavuot, the festival of receiving Torah, Jewish tradition’s anniversary of the moment when Moses and the Children of Israel stood together at Mount Sinai.  Torah recounts that they stood together k’ish echad — like one person – for only together could they receive the Ten Commandments.  Together as one, they saw Sinai smoke.  Together as one, their senses were so scrambled that they actually saw thunder: they saw the words of God.

That moment was so scrambling that it changed history forever.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the flow of spirit, the flow of history itself — they all trace back through Sinai.

It’s one of Judaism’s great contributions to the world — not just Torah, not just the Ten Commandments, not just rules for ethical living – but also the radical idea that a single moment of changed vision, shared together as one, can change everything.

On the Jewish calendar, that was last week — over and done.  The next major holiday is Rosh Hashanah months ahead.   So what now?

Maybe Judaism’s greatest teaching isn’t that the Ten Commandments were given in a burst of light and love on Mount Sinai, but rather that Torah didn’t end right then and there.  After Sinai there was a great journey ahead: far more of Torah’s Five Books of Moses come after Sinai than before!

We learn that our Torah, and our Judaism, aren’t about big moments only.  Torah was given into our hands for all of time to come – to carry and fulfill day after day, wherever life take us.

That is the deep meaning of this month following Shavuot.  It is on us to live those values, proud of our heritage but not resting on the heroism and struggles of our ancestors.  It’s not about then but about now: humanity needs every example of love, empathy and interconnection that we can offer — not just on holidays but every day.

You exemplified those principles to me and my community in New York, when we visited Cuba last autumn.  It was palpable and very special to us.  The Jews of Cuba changed forever how we see the world.  I suspect it all felt far less special to you, because it’s how you are.

You prove the Jewish principle that Jewish life is more than festival days.  It’s about the love, kindness, compassion and empathy we show each other every day.  These are the great jewels of Torah — to love another as we love ourselves, even when it’s difficult.  It is empathy, our shared identity and shared fate, that will help fulfill Torah in our own day, in this coronavirus moment now transforming the world.

From my heart to yours, I send blessings for resilience and health, and for all that we need to live these timeless values in a world that needs them — and needs us all.  Shalom chaverim.

By Rabbi David Markus. Translation by Rabbi Juan Mejia.