Posts

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.

Second Chances

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

Florida recently enacted a “Second Chance” law, repealing a lifetime ban on voting for 1.4 million convicted felons released from prison.  I thought about the impact on both individuals and society. While voting affirms the dignity of an individual voting also strengthens a society. This is an example of how we can offer participation to a person who is otherwise excluded due to competing “engagements.” Our Jewish tradition explores this same tension in the context of building a religious community and holy nation.

We are all going to miss participating in rituals due to competing commitments or physical challenges. Sometimes that ritual is a spiritual marker, aligning us with family or community or tradition. When missing a salutary ritual, the individual may feel frustration leading to disillusionment and dissociation. This may be especially true where the rule’s application is exclusive rather than inclusive.

Here’s what we learn in Torah. In parshat Behaalotcha, Moses is challenged to consider when compliance with rules of Passover holiday observance can be reexamined. Several in the Israelite camp were unable to partake of the Pesach offering having been rendered unclean by contact with the dead (to that category, God will add those who are away on travel). Separated for seven days, those in a state of pending purification missed the opportunity to eat the pesach offering that signified the beginning of our collective journey to liberation.

Some rituals are so time and date specific that the idea of celebrating at a later time or date makes little sense. The New Year is only celebrated on the first day of the year. Passover is slightly different.

The function of the Passover holiday is to acknowledge God as our redeemer from slavery.  The Passover offering is an obligatory symbol and eating it is an essential element of the biblical instruction. Yes, the fourteenth of Nissan is the date for celebration. Torah even threatens that we will be cut off if Pesach is not timely observed. Yet, the text also acknowledges that the date is not central to completion of the observance. Otherwise there would be no second chance Pesach.

Accordingly, God told Moses that a new category be created, allowing for later observance. For those who missed the opportunity to fully celebrate Passover, a second Passover offering, or Pesach Sheni is presented, saying “Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” Numbers 9:10 – 11.

A healthy religious life may depend upon the second chance to fulfill spiritual obligations. In fact, there’s both a communal and personal benefit in offering an additional opportunity at completing a ritual observance.

With a second opportunity to fulfill a ritual experience, spiritual lives can be restored.  There is also the psychosocial benefit of each person having the perception that they are both included and compliant.  Proper participation conveys a sense of inclusion and the second chance offers the view that fairness is at hand. Building a just and fair religious community sometimes means offering a second chance. The lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that rules should aspire to include and not alienate members of the community.

The underpinning of the community structure is not the rules themselves but the Godliness we seek. Our commitment to expanding righteousness is reinforced by our participation in observances and rituals. Accordingly, the religious precepts need to themselves reflect righteousness or the system will be perceived as iniquitous. The community we build rests on that holy foundation and connects through the proper application of rules that life us higher.

Yet, not every missed ritual is met with the quittance of a second chance.  To construct a caring and dutiful community, the goals of timely participation have to be encouraged. Without such organization, the civic structures shatter into egocentric shards. Therefore, the Pesach Sheni is only offered to those who were prohibited from participation when following a rule of competing value or when participation was impossible. As God instructed: “But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt.” Numbers 9:13 Flexibility has to have some limits for the sake of cohesiveness and collective holiness in society.

Just as “articulation” in the building trades is the joining together of the distinct parts of a structure, the rules of a civilization or religious group must be articulated in ways that connect people with common purpose.  When those rules are too harsh, the individual disassociates from the collective. But when those rules are too lax, the individual’s desires quash the group goals.

Assembling a new nation out of a rag tag assemblage of former slaves required rules of behavior that directed hearts toward the creation of an idealized Israel. That perfect nation or spiritual community is yet to be fully constructed. In that endeavor, the lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that the structures of religious life serve a Higher purpose and must sometimes offer flexibility to accommodate those whose hearts yearn to serve. The determination of which rituals can be tweaked, will be an ongoing conversation between God, Torah, and people of faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Power and Peril of Spiritual Role

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

As we all build the Jewish future, how sure should we be about what’s holy?  Asked that way, maybe the question answers itself: only one filled with hubris would proclaim knowing for sure what is holy.

And yet, Jewish spiritual life – and Jewish spiritual pathways of role, halakhah, liturgy and community – all send clear signals about what is holy and what is not.

What’s up with that seeming inconsistency, and how do we build for it?  That’s the question I take from this week’s portion (Nasso) and its three roles of sotah, nazir and kohen.

This role focus continues a theme from last week’s portion (Bamidbar). It also continues my colleague Rachel Barenblat’s Builders Blog teaching that Torah’s instruction to take a census meant lifting up each person’s role and gifts as fellow builders of that era’s Jewish future. In a shared leadership model, people step forward and step back each in their right time. No one person is entitled to lead, or ever should lead, based on identity or fixed role.

Nasso continues to explore spiritual roles assigned to different kinds of individuals.  The portion starts with three subcategories of Levites and divides their labor based on tribe, then jumps to persons whose roles are shaped by actions.

First is the sotah, a woman whose husband has no evidence that she was unfaithful but who nevertheless is jealous. Torah instructs him to bring her to the kohen and put her through a humiliating public ordeal to prove her fidelity.

Next is the nazir, who takes on themselves a period of abstinence. The nazir is not to drink wine or vinegar, or eat grapes or raisins. They also abstain from trimming hair or going near a corpse – even for a close family member.

Finally, the kohen receives the power to bless the people with what we know today as the Kohenic (or Priestly) Blessing.

The sotah and kohen are mirror images of each other. Each receives a role to transmit holiness by action. The ancient kohen was male and his society understood him to be holy inherently, based on who he was. By sharp contrast, the sotah was a woman and her society understood her to be holy only as she served others. The sotah’s holy “service” was to undergo a public ordeal to “prove” her fidelity, assuage her husband’s jealousy, and give the community and its leaders a way to ritually determine truth under social and emotional stress.

The sotah lacked power. A jealous husband brought her to the community’s highest power for a ritual that publicly humiliated her and would even kill her if she was “proven” unfaithful. On the other hand, the tools of the sotah trial – dirt, water, a little dried ink – were highly unlikely to have a negative physical effect on anyone, regardless of guilt or innocence. Thus, even if the sotah ordeal “fixed” the problem of a jealous husband, it did so without fixing the real “problem” of the woman’s powerlessness.

Compare her to the kohen – male, born with power, automatically given an identity entitling him to serve at the community’s highest levels of perceived holiness. By virtue of birth, he decided who stayed in camp and who was sent out. He tested the sotah, offered the sacrifices, purified the impure and blessed the people. The kohen declared what was holy, by virtue of his identity.

Tellingly, however, Torah offers not only the stark contrast of sotah and kohen, but also a third role, the nazir, relative to them both. It is in the nazir that Torah offers the most healthy model for building the spiritual future.

Unlike the sotah who had status foisted on her, the nazir positively acted to take on his or her role. And unlike the kohen whose role was given based on identity, the nazir’s role was what the nazir became by opting in. The nazir wasn’t anything on account of birth: the whole point of the nazir was the choice to become one and behave as one.

The opting-in aspect of a nazir teaches us that people who willingly choose holy roles, and abide their limits, merit special consideration to the extent their behaviors align with the status and role they purport to choose. A nazir who didn’t take on the self-imposed limits of the role wasn’t really a nazir. Far more than role or title, choices and behavior count most. This idea is especially compelling today, when all sacred belonging is, ultimately, chosen, but this should not cause us to take it less seriously. Such choices are powerful: once made, we should consider these choices as having inherent and compelling worth.

The nazir also teaches that roles, and especially roles of power for spiritual building, require  healthy transitions. The nazir role had a term, a period of time, after which the nazir ended the role. At the end, the nazir brought a ritual offering to mark the transition. Even more, the ritual offering was a sin offering, as if to imply that the nazir role never could be inherently pure.

As for the nazir, so for all who take on a spiritual role. No spiritual role can be perfectly held, if only because we are human.  As for the nazir, a spiritual leadership role will need a sin offering when its term ends – whether because we began the role with hubris, or the role aroused in us a sense of superiority, or we held the role with less than full diligence, or we achieved less than we intended, or we cause harm along the way (whether deliberately or unintentionally).

To be a nazir is to take on a role that requires a sin offering. It is to be unsure – and this lack of certainty is the nazir’s third and maybe most important lesson of all. Unlike for the sotah and kohen, about whose roles Torah was very clear, Torah is at best vague about what made the nazir holy.  And if Torah was vague, textual tradition was downright confused about what it meant for the nazir to choose.

Was a nazir holier than others who didn’t choose the role (B.T. Taanit 11a; cf. Ramban, Maharit: Shealot U’teshuvot 1:543)? Or was a nazir less holy for abstaining from things that were permitted? So suggests Robert Alter in his 2004 Torah commentary: A nazir, by “acting exceptionally to set oneself apart for holiness, renouncing the pleasures of wine and letting one’s hair grow long, expresses a kind of presumption, an aspiration to spiritual superiority, and thus is an offense” (see also B.T. Taanit 11a; B.T. Nedarim 10a; Rambam, Shemonah Perakim).  Or maybe a nazir chose the role as a spiritual regimen of self-restraint, sensing that they themselves needed it (see Nechama Leibowitz, citing Astruc, Midrashei HaTorah; Rama on B.T. Sotah 2a). Or maybe the nazir represented an aspiration for the whole community rather than just oneself (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:11)?

All are possible – and maybe unavoidable for everyone who builds the Jewish spiritual future. And that is exactly the point.

In that sense, everyone who steps forward to build the Jewish future is a nazir – and we should treat them that way.  We must attract, train, and treat our spiritual builders not as intrinsic (like a kohen) and we should certainly not want them to be coerced (like a sotah), but as people who choose voluntarily – and temporarily. We must regard the role as tempered by strictures of time, character and self-restraint. We must know and accept that these strictures will be honored imperfectly, and therefore build into the role transitions for repair and re-integration.

If we don’t, then our sacred institutions – and the Jewish future – will continue to distribute power in sometimes very unhealthy ways, perpetuating a status quo based on identity or disempowerment that can leave the vulnerable more vulnerable.  

By contrast, with a nazir approach to spiritual building, we can aspire to high standards with healthy ambivalence about fully achieving them – not to arouse mistrust or cynicism, but to  harness the inner wisdom and outer structure that are the keys to effective spiritual design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Alana Suskin. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.