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Building Sacred Spaces With (and For) G-d

IMG_0296Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d is constantly recreating this world, building something out of nothing.  The fact that we are here right now testifies, in this very moment, to G-d’s intention for us to be here.

By contrast, when we build something, we are simply making something out of something else. We are really just taking things that have already existed — like trees, stones, and other elements  — and changing their form into buildings and furniture. As a result, we can walk away from our creations, and they continue to exist without us. However if G-d were to stop thinking about us for even a second, we would cease to exist like we were never here.

In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we read, “I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d. And they shall know that I Adonai am their G-d, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I, Adonai, their G-d.” (Exodus 29:45-46) Everything we do in Jewish life comes with this reminder: G-d dwells within us and among us. We build a space for G-d in order to be reminded Who liberated us from the Narrow Place, and Who liberates us even now.

G-d is continually building this world for us. In return, we’re called to build places for G-d, reminders of the One Who liberates us from constriction. And when we do build those places, we need to truly accommodate the needs of G-d’s creations.

There is a beautiful midrash about the construction of the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Imagine a king who has only one daughter, and that daughter marries a king from another land. After some time the son-in-law wants to return home with his bride.

The father explains to the younger king, “I understand that you want to go home, and I can’t tell you not to take my daughter with you — she’s your wife! But she’s my only daughter, and I can’t bear to be separate from her. Rather, please do me this favor: wherever you go make guest quarters for me so that I can dwell with you.”

So too G-d said to Israel, “I’ve given you the Torah.  I can’t tell you not to take it — it’s yours now. But I can’t bear to be separated from it. Rather, every place that you go, make me a home where I can live. As it is said: ‘Build for Me a sanctuary’…”

The Zohar expands “sanctuary” beyond just the mishkan to mean any sacred space. “How beloved are we by G-d that in every place where we are found, G-d’s presence is among us, as it says, ‘build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them;’ all spaces where people gather are called a sanctuary.”

Often the spaces where we gather aren’t really sanctuaries, though. They may not be accessible on a physical level. And even when they are ADA-compliant, they may exclude people for emotional, intellectual, and / or spiritual reasons. Too often, some of G-d’s children are excluded, unwelcomed, and suppressed — often in the false name of making these spaces “welcoming” for G-d.

The Talmud teaches that “It is greater to invite guests than it is to greet the Divine Presence.” Welcoming each other, in all that we are, is more important even than welcoming G-d’s own Presence into our midst! The tradition teaches that G-d is like a Parent who experiences pleasure when their children get along, not when we create ostensibly “G-d-focused” events while excluding any of G-d’s children… whether that means excluding people on the basis of gender expression or sexual orientation, or on the basis of race, or because of what form of Judaism they practice.

Indeed, excluding each other from community is the senseless hatred that (tradition teaches) caused G-d’s Temple to be destroyed 2,000 years ago. The Talmud teaches that although G-d no longer (since the Temple’s destruction) has a physical address, we can still seek and find G-d in the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law). We can still seek and find G-d in the open space that’s contained within the scaffolding of tradition, law, and interpretation.

Last week’s Torah portion called us to build for G-d a sanctuary that G-d might dwell within and among us. This week’s Torah portion links that building with our core story of liberation, reminding us that we must build our holy spaces both literal and metaphorical — we must build the Jewish future — with constant remembrance of the One Who brings us forth from narrow places.

Torah offers us Divine specifications for supporting sacred space, and when we follow those instructions we become co-creators with G-d. G-d builds the world for us, and in return we build holy space for G-d. G-d liberates us from Egypt, and in return we are called to liberate others from small-mindedness and exclusion.

The holy scaffolding that we provide for our communities requires our renewed and constant involvement, like G-d’s renewed and constant involvement in keeping the world turning. We must expand and reconfigure our sanctuaries to protect, inspire, and nourish the evolving needs of the Jewish people. If we don’t, then G-d doesn’t have a place to live with us, and none of us can truly be free.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move

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

So far, Builders Blog traced Torah’s first 18 portions, harvesting lessons about spiritual building from our spiritual ancestors’ lives and early journeys.  

Now in the 19th portion (Terumah) comes Torah’s building story par excellence, about building the Mishkan – the holy structure to focus the sacred’s indwelling presence among the people. Finally, a building story that’s literally about building! Or is it?

IMG_0248Torah first describes the Ark to hold the two tablets of Commandments, then the cherubim atop the Ark, then takes another 15 chapters to map out the Mishkan. These ordered priorities teach that the Mishkan isn’t for itself but for what’s inside.

We learn that no spiritual structure legitimately can serve mainly itself: it’s all for what’s within. Any spiritual structure, building or system that serves mainly itself misses the point of building it.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of building?

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One answer is the Commandments (or callings, or connections). Another is to remind of the One who spoke (and speaks) them from Sinai. I’m good with those answers as far as they go.

But to me, the point of building is going. Spiritual building is about going somewhere: the act of building or going inside a building is supposed to transport and transform us.

Hence the gold rings soldered onto the Ark. After describing the Ark but before describing the cherubim on top, Torah records these instructions (Exodus 25:12-15):

“Cast four gold rings on [the Ark], attached to its four feet – two rings on one side wall and two on the other. Make acacia wood poles and layer them with gold, then insert the poles into the rings on the Ark’s side walls for carrying the Ark. The poles will remain in the rings of the Ark: they will never be removed from it.”

Only after Torah set forth the Ark’s poles and rings did Torah have the Ark receive the tablets of the Commandments.

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Why does Torah instruct never to remove the Ark’s poles from the rings? So the Ark always is ready to move on a moment’s notice, and so we can be ready to move with it. Moving is the way of the Ark. And why teach this truth before the Ark receives the tablets of the Commandments? So they also could move and not be stuck even for a moment.  

We all tend to get stuck and sometimes justify it: we even say that “tradition” or “spirituality” require things to be how they are. But our ancestors turned that idea on its head. The medieval Da’at Z’kenim held that Moses himself attached the Ark’s rings and poles, and that removing them even for an instant would sever our link to Moses!

Moving is the way of the Ark, the way of Moses, and the way of all spiritual life. As R. Marcia Prager put it, even movements are called movements because they’re supposed to move.

That was then; how about now? How do we build for spiritual mobility today and tomorrow?

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We start by recognizing the opposite of spiritual mobility, which is habituation, even numbness. Some spiritual habits encourage discipline and depth, while others grow numb and dull. The Ark’s poles and rings teach that we always must be ready and willing to move, to not get stuck.

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We can start small. Move chairs, reorient space, swap out tunes – maybe not all at once and never just for the sake of change, but to start feeling movement. It takes time for communities habituated to certain ways to feel resilience, but that’s what the Ark’s poles and rings ask.

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And don’t be content just moving the proverbial deck chairs. Design spiritual spaces to be open, flexible and adaptable. Make everything moveable. Even more, try going out from fixed spaces entirely: if the ancient Ark could move about nature, so can we. Build spiritual life with moments in the woods, in fields, at the shore, in homes and in public spaces. Communal spiritual spaces are important to community cohesion, but spiritual life is exactly about not being fixed in a place!

Just as Jewish places must move, so must Judaism. A Judaism that clings to preservation, that loses its ability to move and adapt on a moment’s notice, loses its link to Moses. Jewish life isn’t mainly about preservation but rather about change. When we forget that change is a core value of Jewish life, we risk losing our own links to what’s most important.

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So build for spiritual mobility. Build to move. When we build a Jewish spiritual life that can move, it can move us. Motion, for emotion, is the Sanctuary in which the holy can dwell among us.

 

DEM2 Silbert

By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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“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.

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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?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

First Build: Seven Foundation Principles for Spiritual Builders

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

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We’re all stardust, re-mixed chemical elements forged in some distant supernova.  We’re all broken shards, fallen from the primordial shattering. We’re all reflected light, glimmering with the Source of Light.  We’re all builders, making and re-making the world one brick and one breath at a time.

Whatever your metaphor for who we are and what we do, your metaphor probably grounds in the foundation of some first principle – some First Build of mind and identity.

For us at Bayit, our first principle is that we – us and you – are builders of the Jewish future.  So this year, for a whole year, we’ll mine Torah’s wisdom for lessons about building and builders.

As the Torah cycle begins anew with Parshat Bereishit, we begin as Torah begins – with the primordial building story that is the Creation at Torah’s very beginning (“a very good place to start“).  One translation opens, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the land was a jumbled mess, with darkness on the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God hovered…” (Gen. 1:1-2).  Then came light, sky, sea, land, vegetation, stars, sun and moon, fish and birds, land creatures and first humans – a primordial building of sorts.

Reading this Creation story through a builder’s lens, we needn’t be architects or contractors to find a master plan for how to build.  Here are seven foundation principles for building the Jewish future.

  1. Expect a Mess – and Learn to Love It.  

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Look carefully: Creation began not by making a jumbled mess but from a jumbled mess.  The mess pre-existed Creation!  Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, famously teaches that we – and divinity, and everything in the world – are in the “chaos to cosmos” business.  Because chaos pre-existed creation and inheres in creation, the definition of soulful “building” is to use tools that evolve chaos toward order. But chaos and disorder aren’t enemies: they’re the foundation of all creation and all building.  Put another way, physicists meet Artson at the Second Law of Thermodynamics: chaos (“entropy”) inherently increases in any system, and without it Creation would get stuck.  Thus, everything we ever could build rests on a shaky foundation – and that’s great!  We need disorder’s arrow to slowly wear down everything one builds to keep us priming the pump of energy, building and re-building for tomorrow rather than yesterday.  

That’s why every builder must learn to love entropy – or in Clay Christensen‘s economics language, every builder must learn to love disruptive innovation.  If we do, then we’ll build in ways that are naturally flexible and open, with give in the joints rather than excess inner fixity that can become brittle.  We’ll learn to build not any “one and done” structure but rather as an unending process of inclusion, a lifestyle rather than a fixed structure. That’s why Jewish life always must be “under construction.”

  1. Have a Plan, Then Improvise.

IMG_3199Medieval mystics read the Creation story as a blueprint, a plan in the Divine Mind that preceded the actual work.  Building starts not with the first nail, but with the first inner impulse that ripens into an image – then a plan, then the first nail.  While plans can be designed as flexible, much like jazz can riff off a musical structure, plans and structures have their place.  Any other result is mere chaos or avant garde masquerading as creativity.  

Medieval mystics also read the Creation story as a first attempt and then second attempt.  Genesis 1 tells a different Creation story than Genesis 2, which inspired sacred myths that God tried a first Creation, failed and then tried a second Creation.  While the Documentary Hypothesis has much to offer about how Torah was edited and canonized, the telling of this “second Creation” approach over the centuries – about an ostensibly perfect God who’d try, fail and try again – should get our attention.  If God can try and try again, and not be irrevocably wedded to a “first Creation,” perhaps we can hold our building a little gently too.

  1. Design for Practical Phasing.  

IMG_3200Imagine if Creation had started with humanity, then vegetation, then firm land, then the sun, then light.  Of course it couldn’t work: primordial humanity would have no land to stand on or food to eat; then food would exist but float without land or sunlight by which to grow; then the sun would glow but dark.  None of this makes sense, which is the point. Creation reflects the need to think ahead and build in sequence based on function. Just as contractors can’t raise a roof without walls, or walls without a foundation, so the building of Jewish life needs a functional and rational sequence.

What does your creation need as its foundation?  What steps must follow? How will your design-build process evolve necessary structure to enforce that sequence, without becoming so rigid that the building loses joy and needed flexibility?  The reason so many ideas fail isn’t the idea but the execution. Buildings without good grounding and disciplined construction tend to be mere castles in the sky where nobody can live, or sand castles too easily eroded.

  1. Assess Clearly, Honestly and Through Others Different From You.

IMG_3212The Creator didn’t just create and pack up.  After each phase of building, the Torah narrative stops and recounts that “God saw that [the current phase of creation] was good.”  Why? It’s not enough to build: builders also must take stock and be accountable – to original plans, to the actual thing being built, to users and to history.  If medieval mystics got it right, then maybe the Creator’s “first creation” was adjudged unworthy and insufficient.

But frank assessment is hard.  Often we see ourselves in what we create, and we judge our creations either too charitably or too harshly based on how we see ourselves.  In this understanding, only God is a perfect witness and mirror (Ibn Ezra, Gen. 1:4): everyone else needs clear assessment tools that don’t depend on self-assessment or groupthink.

  1. Take the Right Kind of Break.

IMG_3197Building is perpetual – forever under construction – but not necessarily continuous.  Even the Creator modeled taking a day off. Jewish tradition calls it Shabbat, and on that day God “rested” (Gen. 2:2-3) – or sat, or returned – and then “re-ensouled” (Ex. 31:17).

Every builder needs time off from building, but for the sake of taking a specific kind of breather.  The “breather” that builders need is the re-ensouling kind – the kind that honors the ebb and flow of the creative impulse, the kind that incubates the next pulse of creation, the kind that comes from soulfulness rather than mere industry, ambition or momentum.  Figure out what that kind of “breather” means for you: it probably won’t mean just sitting there.

  1. Failure Isn’t Failure: Go Forward, Not Back.

IMG_3195Some things won’t work, but that’s not failure if we learn and adapt.  Theologians and Biblical scholars might debate forever whether God’s tussle with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was a “failure” and, if so, whose failure.  (Far from a “fall from grace,” maybe God intended or even hoped that fledgling humanity would eat the “forbidden fruit” and attain consciousness: how often did you learn only by pushing back?)  Regardless, the point was to go forward: whatever happened in Eden, there was no going back. The Creator even positioned cherubim with flaming swords at Eden’s entrance to block their way back (Gen. 3:24). 

So too for our own building adventures.  When things don’t go as planned, there’s no going back – and, what’s more, we needn’t want to.  Whatever breaking or mishap life may bring, there’s a future waiting to be built – and it’s important enough to merit angels stationed to point the way.

  1. Yeah, You Are Your Siblings’ Keeper.

IMG_3196Build teams are teams.  The rhetorical question that Cain asked God after killing his brother, Abel  – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) – has echoed throughout history.  And the Creator’s tacit answer is yes: we’re not meant to build alone, and jealousy has no rightful place in building the future.  The human-spiritual design so plainly intends us to be and build in community that even Cain, destined to wander aimlessly, miraculously settled down with a wife (created by Whom?) and birthed a new lineage.  

So take care of your build team, even and especially when relationships tug and fray.  More than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.

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Welcome to this new year of building together – with beloved messiness, plans carefully crafted and ditched, practical phasing, frank assessment, wise breaks, leaning forward beyond failure, and caring for each other.  Now, let’s pick up a hammer: next week, there’s an Ark to build.

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by builder Steve Silbert.

Visual Torah: Ki Tavo

From builder Steve Silbert comes this sketchnote for this week’s parsha, inspired by a d’var Torah from founding builder Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

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“When you reach the thing you’ve been waiting and working for, stop and be thankful, and then honor the sacredness of your story.” ~@velveteenrabbi #VisualTorah #storyarc ‬