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Standing Together for What Matters

 

Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Everyone Needs a Break

 

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

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a set of instructions for when we enter the Land of Promise. Torah tells us to take our first fruits to a special place, tell a ritualized story, articulate gratitude for where we are, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest. In this ancient first-fruits ritual, I find a set of four instructions for us as builders. 

  • Take first fruits

In the Biblical paradigm, this meant the literal first fruits of the season’s harvest. Today when few of us farm (or even garden!), the first fruits are likely to be metaphorical. Maybe they’re the lessons we learned from the most recent round of building. Maybe they’re signs that we’ve completed a first step and it’s time to pause and prepare for whatever comes next. What are the fruits of your building labors this year? What have you built? Of what can you feel proud?

  • Tell a story 

Torah instructs us to go before the priest in the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name. For us, this might mean connecting with someone who’s operating in a leadership role right now. Or it might mean seeking out a trusted friend who can listen with keen attention and open heart. One way or another, go someplace that is meaningful, with someone who can listen. And then, Torah says, tell the story that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…” 

In Torah’s context, this is the story that leads to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. From that going-down flows a rising-up: that descent leads to our liberation, and to the next chapter of our communal narrative as a free people in relationship with the Holy. What might it mean for you, as a builder, to tell the story of where you came from and how you got to where you are? Can you see your descents as being for the sake of ascent, for the sake of growth and potential?

  • Articulate gratitude

Telling the story leads to bowing in gratitude before God. This may be the most useful tool in this week’s toolbox: gratitude. When we cultivate a mindset (and heart-set) of gratitude, then everything we encounter can become an opportunity to say thank You. And it’s not enough just to feel it: we have to speak it. Much like the way atonement isn’t considered real unless we speak our missteps aloud (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1), gratitude has to be named and spoken.

  • Celebrate 

Once we’ve identified the fruits of our labors, told our story, and spoken gratitude aloud, then we can join — in Torah’s paradigm, “with the Levite and with the stranger in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) — in celebration. Celebration is meant to be communal. We share our abundance with the Levite (those who have dedicated their lives to service) and with the stranger. We build the Jewish future not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those whom we don’t yet know.

These ancient instructions form the outline of the first-fruits ritual once followed in the Land of Promise and then at the Temple when it stood. I like to think that wherever we are can be a Land of Promise, if only we open ourselves to divine presence, if only we build in an upright and ethical way. Wherever we are can be holy ground. Wherever we are, that’s where we build. 

As we prepare for the end of the Jewish year, what is the building work we can lift up before God as we tell the story of how we came to be who and where we are? Let’s prime the pump of gratitude for all that we have, and all that we’ve been blessed to participate in building… and let’s celebrate as we prepare to take up our tools again in the new year to come.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Every Building Needs a Fence 

 

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

 

In Ki Tetze, Torah says, “When you build a new house, make a railing for your upper story, so that blood-guilt not be held against your house should somebody fall from it.” (Deut. 22:8) What a powerful building instruction: whatever kinds of structures we build, we must prioritize safety.

The Hasidic rebbe known as the Maggid of Mezrich reads this as commentary on the psycho-spiritual process of building new interpretations of Torah. In his volume Ohr Torah he writes, “This [the verse about the railing] refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. Make a railing for your upper story…As it is, the upper story is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from G!d.” 

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert offers similar insight into the creative process. Her main point is the provocative notion that ideas are alive. She’s not being metaphorical: she means that ideas are literally living beings, though not made of physical material substance. This is not the way modern Western society usually thinks about the creative process! 

Rather than imagining that ideas are generated by extraordinary people (“geniuses”), Gilbert believes that ordinary people are approached by living ideas seeking a partner who will help them become manifest in the world. She roots this in the original meaning of the word “genius.” That word’s original usage held not that a particular person is a genius, but rather that a person has a genius. The term comes from the Arabic word djinn (usually rendered in English as “genie”). In this formulation, a genius is like a “muse” — a living idea that comes to a human being, wanting a partner to bring it into the world. 

Why might a modern builder choose Gilbert’s paradigm? One answer is that her outlook on building keeps the ego in check, much like the Maggid of Mezrich’s notion that an idea “comes not from you, but from G!d.” If the idea is not yours exclusively or a product of your genius but an idea you’ve partnered-with to help it enter the world, or an idea that comes from G!d, then it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfall of excessive ego and pride.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes, “But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward…’” She sounds a lot like Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l, who often said, “Ego is a great manager and a lousy boss.”

Whatever we build — whether a house, a poem, or a community — we need to remember that our ideas don’t come from us, but rather move through us. We are but partners in bringing new structures into the world. This type of “fence for our roofs” keeps our building work, and the structures we build, safe for all.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Giving is Who We Are

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

When I was a kid, I loved watching my grandmother. After each visit to the doctor, when she got good news, she’d put a dollar in the pushkah (tzedakah box). Her joy in that ritual was contagious. I felt so good watching her do it. When the pushkah was filled, she’d donate the money. To this day, I try to continue that practice. 

In a child’s eyes, it was easier to share, to see the abundance in the world and not the lack. I had an easier time seeing the blessings the world had to offer, even if it didn’t always seem fair how those blessings were distributed. It felt simple to give as a nearly automatic response arising from gratitude. My grandparents shared with me a culture of giving and showing up for others. It’s what we did because it’s who we were.

Parashat Re’eh teaches the same thing. We must build a society based on giving. Giving must be what we do, because it’s who we’re meant to be.

If we really listen and pay attention (Deut. 11:13), hopefully we’ll love God – but Re’eh seems to care as much for what we do as how we feel. Re’eh teaches that if we really listen and pay attention, we’ll emphasize care for others in the way we build our world.

We’d tithe, so that “there will be no needy” (Deut. 15:4). We’d give naturally to those “who have no hereditary portion” (Deut. 14:27). We’d give to the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

We’d honor the flow of nature, the seven-year cycle of the land (shmita). 

We’d work actively to empower others. We’d release debts in the seventh year, so nobody would become a permanent debtor or underclass (Deut. 15:1-2).

We’d honor the fundamental dignity of people. Even in ancient days of bonded servitude, our ancestors freed servants after six years (Deut. 15:12). But freedom didn’t mean being let go empty handed and destitute (Deut. 15:13) — as the Union did with the Confederacy’s former slaves — but to make their leave-taking constructively possible by helping them learn to be self-sufficient and avoid enslavement to others out of lack of holdings and knowledge (Deut. 15:14-15).

Imagine if we treated people that way today. Imagine building a world that emphasized helping others be self-sufficient and avoid subjugation from lack of wealth or knowledge. Imagine the impacts for social policy – for migrant workers, prisoners, asylum seekers, people in recovery and more.

Why build that world? It’s not enough that we do it because we’re told to; merely being told isn’t working. Perhaps obedience had more staying power back then. Commandedness simply doesn’t hold much sway in the modern world.

A second approach also worked better then than now. Shai Held taught in The Heart of Torah that our ancestors believed that they’d deserve God’s blessing only by alleviating the suffering of others: only a society truly committed to erasing poverty was worthy of God’s blessing. That might well be true, but what a society deserves doesn’t make headlines. 

To fulfill the social vision of Re’eh, we need to confront the question that has confounded history. What can arouse us collectively to give generously to others? How can we build a community whose foundation is giving when commandedness and self-worth aren’t effective answers?

Enter neuroscience and the positive psychology of game theory.

One reason for our world of instant gratification is that social structures, things and priorities all get us hooked on dopamine hits. The rush of winning a video game (or something similar) is a potent life drug. If you’re thinking “that’s not me”, consider the buzz of your phone, the ping of an online sale and the tiny “congrats” of your digital step counter. If you’re reading this, odds are good that you’re hooked.

What if we could make giving feel as good as winning the lottery? That’s Sam Feinsmith’s question. He asks, “Have you ever had the experience where giving something away created a deeper sense of fullness or abundance in you?”

Science and history both teach that if we want to build a community in which giving is what we do because it’s who we are, we must change our insides. We must focus on the little dopamine hits of genuine altruism until the hits become our way of life, what we do, and thus who we are. 

If we’re lucky enough to live with a grandmother who teaches us by example to put a dollar in the pushkah, our insides learn by holy mimicry – from the outside in. And even if we once lived with such a person, for most of us those living examples are long gone.

But we can harness those dopamine hits and make new examples to follow. We can recreate in ourselves the routine that it feels good to give to others. If an app can ding when we buy, win, get an email or take our steps, then why not also when we give?

In ancient days, building Jewish community meant first having certain mandatory communal services – starting with a mikveh, a synagogue, a butcher (in the pre-vegan days) and the like. It’s core Judaism that a community isn’t Jewish without certain basics. One of those community basics now isn’t necessarily brick and mortar: it’s building a culture of giving.

Surround yourselves with people who give. Let them teach you by example. Get little dopamine hits from random acts of kindness, and sustained acts of giving. Build tiny reminders into your life. Put them everywhere. (And if you happen to be a bored software developer, let’s talk about building a Jewish giving app.)

Let many tiny acts of giving become what you do. It’s who we’re meant to be. That’s how we’ll build the community Re’eh envisions. That’s how we’ll build a community that truly loves God.

 

By Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

The Torah of Ikea

 

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

 

I’m a stereotype. Like many people (and especially some men), I have an aversion to following written instructions. I tend to believe that I can figure things out and build things all on my own instinct and intuition. Ikea furniture assembly instructions were for other people.

On my better days, my spiritual self knew how wrong I was. 

Among Jewish tradition’s many wisdom teachings is that sometimes we need instructions. Instructions don’t suggest that any of us individually lack intelligence or creativity. Rather, instructions are important because individual intelligence and creativity aren’t enough for a diverse collective to build and maintain a thriving community.

This week’s Torah portion (Eikev) records Moses telling all of Israel on God’s behalf: “You must faithfully observe all the instruction that I command you today, so that you will thrive…” (Deut. 8:1). This teaching is directed both to the individual and the community. When we follow these Divine instructions individually, the collective prospers.  This is a crucial concept of Judaism. Our individual actions should reflect our responsibility to uplift other members of the community.

Maybe this communitarian approach wasn’t obvious to our spiritual ancestors. Accordingly, Torah offered both carrots and sticks as incentive to follow God’s instructions – “blessings” of peace and prosperity if we followed those instructions, “curses” of strife and want if we didn’t.

On the “blessings” side, probably none of us can claim enough individual intelligence and creativity to promote a good life of prosperity, justice and security for all. Torah and spiritual wisdom traditions offer the time-tested expertise that our collective needs to build the most fair, safe and just world possible. On the “curses” side, we needn’t lay society’s ills at the proverbial feet of a retributive God: if only we’d followed instructions for building a fair, safe, just world! 

Torah does require observance of some rules that are beyond our comprehension. Jews merit Torah because of our willingness to naaseh v’nishmah, to do and then listen.  This reflects our faith that the objective of Torah is to construct a fair, safe and just world. 

There are times when Ikea instructions reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphics and with, at best, an implied promise of only a slightly wobbly bedroom set. Ikea instructions didn’t explicitly lay out “blessings” of compliance and “curses” so I proceeded by building on my own intuition rather than following directions. Even so, I should have followed those instructions as best I could: it would have saved me hours of frustration.

Moses knew that we might prefer to follow our own designs rather than following instructions. He knew that we might get comfortable in our homes and lives, prideful in our capacity to pursue wealth and power on our own. In Torah’s words, we’d forget God and God’s instructions (Deut. 8:15-17).

Remember mom’s advice to hold onto the instruction manuals for kitchen appliances and home furnishings? Mom was right, and so is Torah. When things break, instruction manuals can help. When the world feels broken, the instruction manual we call Torah can help guide repairs: feed orphans, care for widows, befriend strangers, protect the land, nourish justice. Teach children these instructions so their wisdom may endure for all.

One more thing: instructions are important, but it’s about the building. We can’t sleep on an Ikea bed assembly instruction manual: we actually have to build the bed. Same with Torah. The world can’t thrive on study and spiritual aphorisms alone: we actually have to build the world that Torah’s instruction manual envisions.

Instructions don’t guarantee perfection: bad things happen to good people, and even the most dogged and diligent build-it-yourselfer might end up with a rickety bookcase. And instructions don’t ask us to ignore our intelligence and creativity: society needs more out-of-the-box thinkers and courageous people marching to the beat of their own drummers. But Torah’s tried and true spiritual designs have proved their worth over time – if only we’d follow the instructions.

 

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

 

Building Gender… So the Neighbors Will Understand

 

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

We’re all in the “building” business, but often we don’t think about it. Even when we don’t try, we’re building our world and how we express key aspects of who we are in it.

Take gender. Gender is (and always has been) a cultural “construct.” Gender ideas, roles, identities and norms that we unthinkingly might experience as inherent to our lives and society around us are instead built. We receive gender constructions from the world around us, and we are not passive in this process. By our choices, we ourselves help build and perpetuate these gender constructions – or we tear them down and build new ones.

The double Torah portion of Matot-Masei is all about “constructs” – dividing land, building cities, relating between tribes, relating between enemy peoples and more. Torah’s text goes into great detail on these subjects, offering a “blueprint” for a future Israelite society in the Promised Land. 

This same text also lays a “blueprint” for gender roles in the Israelite society of 3,500 years ago. It affirms women’s autonomy to make vows, but lets fathers (for unmarried women) and husbands (for married women) annul them (Num. 30:2-17). In war between Israelites and Midianites, the text de-values Midianite women who no longer were virgins and condemns them to die, while saving virgins for absorption into Israelite society (Num. 31:15-18).

And for the daughters of Tzelofchad – who previously spoke up for their right to inherit with such directness that God changed the law to redress their exclusion – now Torah made another change. On complaint from men in their tribe, Torah limited whom these heroic women could marry, so that women’s inheritances couldn’t pass beyond the tribe (Num. 36:1-13). That’s how the Book of Numbers ends.

Of course, it was no ending. Whether Torah was diminishing women – or, as many scholars believe, slowly improving the status of women in an ancient context that had little or no sense of gender equality – we’ve been wrestling these gender-constructing words ever since.

Some 3,500 years later, one result was Yentl – the 1983 Barbra Streisand movie adapting the 1975 Broadway play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who first wrote the 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

In the opening scene, a bookseller enters the village of a young woman named Yentl passionate to learn. Trying to attract customers, the bookseller calls out, “Picture books for women, holy books for men!” When he catches Yentl reading a holy book (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of Jewish mysticism), the bookseller looks at her disapprovingly and tells her that she is in the wrong place. Not missing a beat, Yentl asks the bookseller to explain “why.” Annoyed, the bookseller quips dismissively, “Because it’s the law!”

Later at home, Yentl begs her scholarly father to study Talmud with her. The father agrees, then goes to close the window shutters – to hide the fact that he teaches his daughter. When Yentl questions him about this, her father answers, “God, I trust will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Gender constructions! Torah (“God,” for Yentl’s father) never banned women from learning or leading – but the “neighbors” were another matter. History took the tone of Matot-Masei, and its underlying societal notions of gender, and relegated women to “picture books.”

Gender constructions! A war in which the Israelites were to kill all Midianites, male and female, instead saved the “pure” (virginal) women and killed the others.

Gender constructions! The daughters of Tzelofchad – Machlah, Tirtzah, Chaglah, Milkah and Noah – weren’t inherently disqualified from inheriting but rather were treated that way by their society. The “law” purporting to state that “fact” wasn’t unchangeable: even the “law” we attribute to God could change.

All of these stories – and countless others in Jewish life – both reflect and respond to the deep truth that gender is built. We learn that we live in gender structures built by history, and we also learn that we participate in this ongoing building project whether we say so or not. 

If we too are builders, we must actively build gender ways that serve now and serve the future.

That means using today’s eyes. Dubious academics aside, we don’t fully know how women were viewed during Torah’s time. We have pieces and clues, but they’re not all clear and none of us were there. Thus, while we know what the Torah text says, we don’t fully know what the text assumes us to know of its context. We think we know what was – but we don’t.

We can’t fully see yesterday – yet often we think we can. Torah, tradition, history, myth, legend and momentum all can seem so sure, so alluring and so powerful that they convince us that we know what was. If we happen to resonate with our (right or wrong) understandings of what was, then all the easier to honor and perpetuate them. If we don’t resonate with them, then all the easier to ditch them and devalue the Jewish context in which we believe they arose. 

But there is a third way, and this third way is critical. The third way is to remember precisely that we don’t fully know what was. When we allow for this un-knowing about the whats and whys of gender constructions we received from history, our questions and critiques can stand alongside history. What’s more, they can become some of our most powerful tools for building the future.

So let’s remove all of those blind assumptions. Let’s drop ideas that don’t have truly clear foundations in spiritual history – that there are only two genders, that any gender should have diminished agency, that any role in spiritual life should be reserved or privileged for just one gender. And then let’s do the really hard work of uprooting those impure ideas from our world, our hearts, our communities – whatever the cost.

God, I trust, will understand. Now let’s work on explaining it to the neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Pressing Down: On Baking Community Leaders

 

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

 

I was watching the Great British Baking Show late one night. I learned some baking techniques for building a multi-layered French cake: the key skill was pressing down on the food to build up the dessert.

Turns out that this baking skill also can build leadership in communities.

Here’s what caught my attention. The baker was pushing layers of biscuit down into pastry cream. It required a deft hand and carefully balanced ingredients. With too much pressure or too much cream, confection would ooze out and layers would collapse. With too little pressure, the cake wouldn’t adhere. With too much crust or not enough cream, the cake would be dry.

In Jewish terms, the cake’s solidity is gevurah (strength, limits, boundaries). The sweet cream is chesed (love, kindness). A good cake needs both and must balance both. So does a good leader, and so does a good community leadership system.

Parshat Pinchas confirms these ideas. “God answered Moses: take Joshua son of Nun, a man that has spirit in him, and lay your hands on him” (Numbers 27:18). With these few words, Torah offers tools of successful leadership development. 

Before priest and community, Moses invested some of his authority in Joshua – building up a leader by literally pressing down, just like the baker. The laying of hands was an important first step in raising up a leader.

Pressing down symbolized the weightiness of role. Pressure and responsibility weigh on any leader: a leader who doesn’t feel it isn’t really leading. In that spirit, I imagine Moses looking Joshua in the eye, the palms of Moses’ hands digging into Joshua’s shoulders. Moses might have whispered to Joshua, “This is a tough job, kid! Stand tall and stay strong!  Don’t lose your cool when they kvetch. Be their advocate even when they act poorly. Love them with chesed, and be strong with gevurah.”

The moment also represented an exquisite act of right-timed planning. In the language of modern organizational theory, Moses (or maybe God) showed keen succession planning skills by choosing that moment to press down on Joshua to build him up. Well before Moses breathed his last, a successor was selected and invested. Power and responsibility then began to flow – in front of the entire community – both to groom the successor and to prepare the community for a future without Moses.

Not to exhaust the metaphor, but a good baker also must be a good planner –   accurately measuring, carefully placing utensils, keenly sensing when each step must occur and in what sequence. Maybe Moses would have been a great baker if only he had more than manna and water in the desert!

And also like good baking, effective leadership depends on pace. Some acts must happen quickly and at fixed times; others must wait for their time. A wise leader knows when to push forward, when to speed up, when to wait and when to stop. As with laying hands, wise use of time calibrates the pressure of pushing down just enough to build up in real time.

It’s much the same for the substance of leadership. Just as a good cake must balance “dry” and “wet” ingredients, effective leadership must balance the seemingly “dry” ingredients of structure (e.g. legal matters, budgets, agendas, goals, boundaries, accountability reviews, ethics systems) with the “wet” ingredients of emotion (e.g. inspiration, empathy, compassion, love). Too much of the first is like a dry and crumbly biscuit. Too much of the second is a gooey mush and the structure can’t hold.

Notice the repeated theme of balance: pushing down to lift up, both structure and filling, both individual and community, not too fast and not too slow. Wise building – whether a cake, a leader or a community – requires this balance at every level. Without this balance, the result is dry or gooey, or topples over.

In every age, problems press down on the shoulders of leaders. In turn, leaders must stand both solid and soft, and so must the communities they lead. That’s the path of balance, wisdom, sweetness and good cakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

From Tents to Dwellings

 

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

 

Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries. 

This time, Balaam declaims: “ מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל / How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5) (He says a few other things too, but that’s the familiar verse arising out of this week’s portion.)

For those of us who know this verse from liturgy, this may feel like the dramatic moment toward which this whole story has been building. As Rashi teaches on this verse, our communities become “good” when we ensure that each person has our own space, our own place, with safety both physical and emotional / spiritual. As we’ve written here before, any Jewish future worth building must prioritize healthy boundaries and ethical behavior. Our “tents” need to be set up such that each of us is safe from prying eyes — and from wandering hands, unwanted touch, and malicious speech. Those transgressions are inimical to healthy community.

Reading Rashi’s teaching more broadly, we can extrapolate that our communities also become “good’ when each person has their own vantage from which to engage with tradition. We build healthy community when we can hold differences of interpretation, custom, and practice. And that links back to the teaching I find in the very fact of Balaam’s prophetic relationship with God: it’s a mistake to presume that anyone has a monopoly on holiness. The Jewish future needs a  variety of “tents,” each oriented in its own way and also part of a greater whole. (That’s why we intentionally founded Bayit with a denominationally and spiritually diverse group of builders.)

Look back at “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel,” (Numbers 24:5) and try this on: when Jacob was “the Heel,” he was a regular guy who lived in a regular tent. But once he became Israel — “the Godwrestler” — his tent became a mishkan, a dwelling for the Holy. As for him, so too for us. When we grapple with God, when we build with ethical intention as our guide, when we open ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound (I Kings 19) — then our tents become dwelling-places for the divine. Then we access the flow that’s available wherever we go. Then we’ll build a Jewish future worthy of who we want to be.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Water and Words

 

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

Words have power. They have the power to create, and the power to destroy. Think of any human creation, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Harry Potter World: they were all created through words. On the other side of the coin, think of any human act of destruction, from World War II to the devastating effects of microplastics on the environment, all put into effect through words. 

Language is arguably the most powerful tool that humans possess. It is no coincidence that we call the process of creating magic a “spell”– literally from the word “to spell.” In Parshat Chukat we see an incident that seems somewhat inexplicable unless we take into account the awesome power of our words.

In Numbers 20 we read of the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses. More than just the sister of Moses, Miriam was a leader in her own right. One of her most important functions was to find the water in the Wilderness. In the Wilderness, finding water was literally a life or death matter. So it is not surprising that right after Miriam dies, and there is no one to find water, the people begin to complain: 

“The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.The people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD!’”

Moses goes to G!d who tells him ““You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock and tell it to yield its water.” (Numbers 20:8) However, Moses’ anger gets the better of him, and instead of speaking to the rock, he hits the rock with his staff and says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The water comes from the rock, but G!d’s response to Moses is that because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, and because “you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” Moses is prohibited from entering the land of Israel and seeing the fulfillment of his life’s journey. In fact, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, “Scripture discloses the fact that but for this sin alone, they would have entered the land of Canaan.” 

What was so wrong with what Moses did? Was it such a horrible sin that he should deserve such an extreme punishment? For me, this divine punishment of Moses reflects Chukat’s core message for us as builders: words have power to create or destroy. Therefore we must choose our words carefully. By hitting the rock rather than speaking to it, and by speaking out of anger to the Israelites calling them rebels, Moses was engaged in destructive rather than creative speech. 

In stark contrast, according to Midrash Rabbah, Miriam’s ability to find water was deeply connected to her positive speech. The Midrash connects Miriam’s special relationship with water to Miriam’s leading the women in a song of gratitude after the Splitting of the Sea. Because she expressed gratitude through song for a miracle that occurred through water, she was rewarded with water (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2). In addition, the Midrash says that the well of water came out of a rock that would follow the Israelites through the desert, and that when people wanted the water to come out of the rock, they would come and stand by it, saying: “Rise up, O well,” and it would rise. According to the Midrash, this was the same rock that Moses struck. 

The method of Moses and that of Miriam to draw water from the rock represent two opposite ways of building and leading. We can speak with anger and authority and command as Moses did, or we can sing with gratitude and encouragement as Miriam did. What Chukat tells us is that both methods may produce “water,” but Moses’ method is not sustainable in the long term. The ends may seem to justify the means, but in truth, in the process of building, the ends are the means. As science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” In building the Jewish future, how we build is as important as what we build. No Jewish leader worth their salt should use hurtful or wrongful speech. Better to emulate Miriam who built gratitude with her song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

How to Scout Your Landscape

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

 

Okay, you’re ready for spiritual building. As with a survey before building with a physical structure, first survey the landscape. How?

Parshat Shlach asks that question directly, and some of our spiritual ancestors’ first answers went tragically wrong. Their lessons – about who surveys, what we should look for, and how we handle different visions of what we see – are lessons that most of us need to keep re-learning, because we tend to keep repeating their mistakes.

 

Step One: Choose A Diverse Survey Team

As they approached to build their future in a new land, Torah instructed: “Send people to scout the land… one from each ancestral tribe, each a chief among them” (Num. 13:2).

With these words, Torah confirms that before building anything, first we must survey the landscape. But how? Torah’s answers: don’t do it alone but with a team representing each key stakeholder– and make sure all your fellow scouts are leaders.

Torah’s answers are good politics. Each constituency then can feel itself represented with an “equal” say (Nachmanides, Num. 13:2). That’s also why the High Priest wore all 12 tribes’ names engraved on the ritual shoulder piece (Ex. 28:9-11) – so all the tribes would see themselves equally reflected in their spiritual leader.

Torah’s answers also are challenging. Why invite multiple visions of the survey? Torah teaches that at this survey stage, diversity of vision and even conflicting vision can be more important than clarity or speed. And why all “chiefs,” each accustomed to having their perspectives honored? So all views might be heard and none so easily dismissed.

Spiritual builders, take note. Don’t rush this survey stage: far more important than speed are diversity and equality. Before building anything, harness many perspectives and make sure that none of them gets more or less weight.

 

Step Two: Survey for People, Places and Things

Moses charged the survey team: “Go up … and see what kind of land it is. Are people dwelling there strong or weak, few or many? Is the land … good or bad? Are the towns where they live open or walled? Is the soil rich or infertile? Is it wooded or not? And bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:17-20).

Go up: literally. Get perspective. Rise above the landscape: don’t yet become a part of it so you risk losing objectivity.

Once you’re there, first see the people. Whatever landscape you imagine for your building venture, first see the people – folks already there, and the folks you hope to serve in the future. People first.

Next, see the landscape. Is anything walled against change, or is it relatively open to transformation? How about the figurative soil: what might it support? What’s already growing? Does the existing context allow clear lines of sight, or is the existing context wooded or brambled in ways that obscure vision? These survey questions are vital, lest you build the wrong thing in the wrong place or in the wrong way.

Only after deeply seeing people and context might things matter. Then survey what the “fruit of the land” might be – the stuff you’d create.. That’s why people and context must come first: so that what you build will best serve people and place.

 

Step Three: Watch Out for Mirrors and Muscular Majorities

Torah’s survey team returned with good news: the land “flowed with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). But a large majority also brought bad news: the natives were huge and towns were fortified – and the scouts quickly told the whole community (Num. 13:32). “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:33). The people lost hope of building any future (Num. 14:1-4).

A minority of two on the survey team, however, saw something different. Rather than hear them, the majority threatened to pelt them with stones (Num. 14:10), so God sent everyone to wander 40 years in the desert (Num. 14:21-23). None would enter the land and build a future there, except the two silenced scouts.

This story reminds that “chiefs” risk seeing themselves into the landscape, and us too. if we feel small like “grasshoppers,” we might project our self-vision on most everything. Just as surveyors mustn’t see through rose-colored glasses, we also mustn’t be content to see mainly our own fears: nothing real gets built that way. That’s one reason that diverse survey teams are key – so that our vision isn’t merely a mirror of ourselves.

Of course, diversity is easier said than done. Torah’s survey team was a group of “chiefs” so that all might be heard, but the majority still silenced the minority and even threatened to kill them. The modern equivalent might be undermining, distancing or gaslighting people who see differently. Instead, make sure to fully hear and honor minority views before forming impressions or making decisions. Again, people first.

Jewish tradition to honor the minority view is especially critical at this stage. As Torah’s survey story teaches, majorities sometimes are tragically wrong. A muscular majority’s groupthink can be so powerful that it blinds a whole build team, even a whole nation. Try to survey the landscape that way, and you might end up wandering the desert.

Instead, design your survey team for smarts – for stakeholder buy-in and real diversity. Design your survey to see people first, then context, then things. Hear from everyone fully and safely: silence nobody and reject no vision outright. Use disagreement to clarify if reported vision reflects more a mirror than a truly accurate survey.

Do that and you’ll get a real survey of people, places and things that will support your building. Then you can wisely build the future – and make a “land flowing with milk and honey” truly your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.