Holy Ashes: Designs for Spiritual Flow

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Part of a yearlong series of Torah wisdom on spiritual building and builders.

How well does a spiritual practice or spiritual community “work”? One answer from this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) may seem surprising: We gauge what works spiritually by the detritus it leaves behind from what it transforms. If there’s no detritus, we’re doing Jewish life wrong.

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Spiritual life transforms people relative to themselves, community, things, the planet and the sacred. All transformation, in turn, leaves behind proof – discarded layers, ways and energies. A communal meal leaves crumbs and spills; a butterfly emerges from an expended chrysalis.  

Because transformations create detritus, spiritually we must build for creating detritus, then moving it in sacred ways – and Torah teaches us how.IMG_0502

In Torah’s days, our spiritual ancestors used ritual sacrifices (korbanot) to draw close (l’karev) to holiness. Their practice was to burn foods on the altar’s “eternal flame,” transforming foodstuff to smoke that rose up. Creating smoke and scent would transform the spirit and invoke the sacred.

But what of the ashes that their burning left at the altar? Transformation meant ashes, but ashes piling up would block air from flowing: the “eternal flame” would burn out.

That’s why Torah designed for detritus. The altar was elevated to make space for air and ashes.  Each day, the priest put the prior day’s ashes to the side, changed clothes, took the ashes to a “holy place,” returned, changed clothes again and proceeded with the day. Only that way could the “eternal flame” last and “never go out” (Lev. 6:2-6).

Torah called for transformation, and ashes. The creation of ash was as necessary and constant as the “eternal flame.” That’s why the altar’s ashes were holy and had to be brought to a holy place.

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Torah’s lesson is eternal, even though we long ago grew past physical sacrifice as spiritual practice. It’s universal law – in spirit and in physics – that transformation must create byproduct: otherwise there’s no transformation. Thus, spiritually speaking, we must build for byproduct.

What’s the “ash” at today’s “altar”? Most simplistically, there’s the physical detritus that spiritual community leaves behind – literally, its garbage. We’re not used to seeing our garbage or our garbage collectors as sacred – but they are. Our custodians and clean-up crews are priests, and we must treat them as servants of the holy.

This lesson goes far beyond the physicality of things. We create spiritual “ash” in all that the heat and light of spiritual life transforms, and we must treat this ash as part of a sacred process.

Beliefs and spiritual practices evolve. They have to: otherwise we get stuck in past ways that no longer serve who we’re becoming. When beliefs and spiritual practices change, they leave inner ashes that we must be lovingly tend, lest they accumulate and block the flow of our own growth.

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Opinions change. They have to: otherwise we grow blind to new information and changing circumstances. Tradition so valued evolving views that Talmud preserved so-called “minority” opinions in a holy place. After all, a “minority” view today might carry tomorrow. In the realm of mind, today’s “ash” might fertilize tomorrow’s bounty.

Leaders change. They have to: otherwise people and communities burn out. Even Moses couldn’t lead his people to their destination. Leadership must be cycled. Leaders who step forward must be treated as priests. Then the community must purge them of their past roles and cleanse the resulting “ash” so community can re-enfold them.

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How should we build spiritually for the ash of these kinds of change? We must treat spiritual spaces like altars of transformation and their cleaners with visibility, respect and honorable pay. We must let beliefs and practices transform, training community members to welcome rather than push away these changes, and bring them to clergy and spiritual directors for refinement.

We must hold opinions gently, let them change and clean up after they do. We must structure leadership for shift: we must expect leadership situations to create ash and treat that ash as holy – without burning people up in the process.

The Sfat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter, 1847-1905) taught that authentic spirituality cannot be separate from its ash but rather leads directly through it. Spiritual fire must create ash: we can’t rise spiritually unless we honor and lift the ash that spiritual life creates.

So build for spiritual life’s ashes. They are proof of doing spiritual life right. They are proof of a spiritual flame burning with alchemy’s heat and eternity’s light.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

#VisualTorah Book of Esther from Steve Silbert

From builder Steve Silbert comes this piece of Visual Torah: a one-page version of the Book of Esther, which will be read later this week at Purim! One of the mitzvot of Purim is to hear the megillah read aloud. Delving into Steve’s Visual Torah version can offer another doorway into the text, its meanings, and its relevance today. Chag sameach!

 

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Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

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

This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) is rich with sacrificial details. Animal body parts, kidneys and fat, and the altar on which they are burned — this is the stuff Leviticus is known for. This material can be tough for us as moderns. We may find the sacrificial system alienating and weird. But yesterday’s ways hold an important lesson for us as tomorrow’s builders: we must build in ways that balance, and uplift, the love inherent both in justice and in repair.

“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). It’s a principle of classical Torah interpretation that nothing in Torah is extraneous. We can find (or make) meaning in every word, especially words or phrases that Torah repeats.  So what’s up with the fixation on salt?

One response is that salt is a fixative – literally. In ancient days, salt was a primary way to make food last. So maybe Torah describes our covenant with God as a covenant of salt because salt represents what lasts. Our covenant is meant to last forever.

Another interpretation: tradition regards salt as a combination of fire and water. (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, d.1809, attributes this teaching to Ramban, d. 1270.) In a literal sense, salt is what happens when you apply fire to sea water — simmer away the water, and what’s left is the salt. But metaphorically, salt represents fire and water in balance.

A covenant of salt is a covenant of balance between fire and water. And fire and water, in turn, are understood by our mystics to represent justice and lovingkindness. (In the language of kabbalah, these are called gevurah and chesed.) Justice and lovingkindness are the two primordial qualities that our tradition imagines God balancing. Justice and lovingkindness are the tools with which God continually builds the world.

Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build.

This arises in the context of teachings about structuring a just society.  Both before and after the verse about salt, Torah details animal offerings. First come offerings of wellbeing (“Thank You” to God), then offerings for ritual transgression, then offerings for interpersonal ethics missteps.

In this system, a wrongdoer must make restitution. (Torah speaks of monetary damages — for instance, restitution for fraud was value of the fraud, plus an additional fifth.) Only then would a wrongdoer bring an offering to be sacrificed. This offering would atone for the transgressor – wiping the spiritual slate clean (Lev. 5:24-25) – but only after restitution was made.  

Notice how this process balances fire and water, justice and repair. First comes judgment (the process of discernment, paying restitution to make the injured party “whole”) – the zeal for right action that kindles our hearts like flame. Then comes the chance to make teshuvah and atone. That’s the work of repair and healing, the flow of divinity into and through our hearts like water.

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Fire and water in balance. Judgment and repair in balance. They’re like left hand and right hand working together, one wielding a hammer and one holding a nail. They are two parts of a whole.

Critically, there is love in both. Both fire and water can convey love. Both justice and repair can reflect love. Olam chesed yibaneh (“I will build this world from love”), sings Rabbi Menachem Creditor from Psalm 89 – but healthy love takes many forms depending on the circumstance.

Building the world and the Jewish future with love means embodying both love in chesed and love in gevurah. It means building with Vayikra’s balance of justice and repair.

That balance is this week’s building lesson. Whether we see ourselves as walking in ancestral footsteps or in the Holy One’s “footsteps,” we’re called to build with balance. Each of us may lean more toward the “fire” of judgment or the “water” of repair, but Torah asks us to bring both qualities to bear always, and to manifest the love inherent in each.

To build an ethical Jewish future that’s worth our labor and our hope, we need this week’s Torah toolbox and its loving balance between justice and repair. It’s as basic to life as salt.

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Creating a Spiritual Home

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

“A house is just a box where you keep your stuff.” A contractor tossed this comment over his shoulder as he left my new home, clearly thinking that he was dropping a pearl of wisdom.

I looked around. He had come to hang a painting over my bed that is too heavy for me to lift. It’s by an artist who was friends with my family. I’ve long admired her work, and until just a few years ago, the painting hung in my parents’ family room. My mother gifted it to me when she sold the house, after my father’s death.

I slowly turned, looking in all directions as I considered the “stuff” in my home. Art work, furnishings, books. Nearly everything tells me a story; about myself, about people I love, about places I’ve been and years gone by.

And I thought, “He’s wrong.” My house is so much more than a box filled with stuff. It was indeed simply an empty shell when the construction crew left, but now it is a home filled with meaning, not only because of the things in it, but because of my relationship with those things – because of the memories and happiness they ignite within me.

So too our houses of prayer. They are more than simply buildings. They are not important because they exist, but because of how they are used. They are places of worship, places that ignite memories, that link us to our tradition and our ancestors, that provide us with a communal space in which we can be in relationship, with each other and with the Divine.

And so too the Mishkan, the tabernacle that the Children of Israel built in the desert, following God’s detailed instructions. It provided a sacred space where the people could reach out to their God.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.46.55 PMIn this week’s Torah portion (Pekudei), the last in the Book of Exodus, the people complete the task of building and outfitting the Mishkan. The passage in Exodus 39:42-43 echoes the passage in Genesis 2:1-3 when God finished creating the heavens and earth: both use the same verbs, both end with a blessing. God blessed the Sabbath, Moses blessed the people.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.49.26 PMWhat I find most fascinating about both creation stories is that neither ends with the basic construction project. God doesn’t stop after creating the world; God “furnishes” the world with plants, animals, and finally humans. Moses and the people furnish the Mishkan with the altar and everything the priests need to perform their sacred duties.

No building is complete when the construction crew leaves. An empty synagogue is no different than an empty office building or an empty store. The task is not done until the requisite materials are brought in – desks for the offices, cash registers for the stores, ritual items for the synagogues.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.51.11 PMAnd still, the buildings are incomplete. Fully outfitted with every “thing” necessary, they are nothing without us. No work is accomplished in an empty office, no goods sold in an empty store, no spiritual connections made in an empty prayer space.

My congregation rents the space in which we meet. Other groups use it for other purposes when we’re not holding services. And when no one is there, it is simply a large, empty room, with two concrete walls and two glass walls that look out onto a park. The view is lovely. But the room itself is an empty box; no personality, nothing to recommend it.

But it’s not hard to turn an everyday room into a sacred space. Bring out chairs and place them in a welcoming semi-circle. Set up the portable ark, take the Torah out of its protective case, take out the candle sticks and Shabbat candles, place the challah on its tray under the embroidered cover, and put out the prayer books.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.53.12 PMThen open the doors and welcome in the people who have come to pray in community. And in that moment, an everyday room is transformed into a sacred space, a meaningful spiritual home that is no different from any other synagogue, anywhere in the world. Because an impermanent spiritual home can become a holy space by virtue of the memories, intentions, and actions of the people who inhabit it, even if only for a few hours.

Like the things in my home, the ritual items in our synagogue have deeper meanings beyond their mere functions. The pointer we use when reading from the Torah scroll, called a yad, was donated by a long-time member who died last year just before his 100th birthday. Every time I take it in my hands, I think of him. The scroll itself was donated by a Pittsburgh synagogue that was closing its doors and seeking new homes for its ritual items. The stand on which the Torah rests inside the ark was handcrafted by one of our founding members.

A building is just a box until it becomes something else. The transformation from structure to sacred space takes a two-step process – furnishing it with meaningful “stuff,” and populating it with people who care about each other and who seek meaningful interactions with each other, with the ritual items they use together, and with their God.

Remember the blessings that God and Moses gave after they finished their creations? The next time you walk into the sacred place where you pray, take a moment to bless the people around you. Because like God and Moses, together you have created something remarkable.

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketch note by Steve Silbert.

People of the Building Fund: Four Paths Through the “Edifice Complex”

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

“Don’t give to the Building Fund,” said no synagogue leader ever.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.56.09 PMMost community leaders would love to have Moses’ problem in “fundraising” for the Mishkan. Moses received so many resources from “everyone” to build Mishkan that he had to stop them from giving: “Let nobody bring any more gifts!” (Exodus 36:6).

Since then, Jewish spiritual life has felt nostalgic for the Mishkan’s universal generosity and collective plenty. Judaism isn’t alone: all spiritual communities must keep one eye on funding for needful realities, but who likes to talk about it? How many in spiritual life are left distracted, exhausted or dispirited by talk of money?

When does fundraising support wise spiritual building, and when does fundraising become a hamster wheel that spins away from spirituality? For all who care about wisely building the Jewish future, that’s a key question of Parshat Vayakhel.

Jewish spirituality is blunt about resourcing spiritual community: Ein kemach, ein Torah (“no flour, no Torah”) (Avot 3:17). The catch is raising “dough” for buildings that become a “structural fetish” rather than a sacred way to sense the sacred.

Bayit builder Ben Newman reminds us that God applauded Moses for shattering the tablets at the Golden Calf, teaching that no “things” are inherently holy – not even the tablets of the Ten Commandments – except as they inspire real spiritual experience. When resource drives elevate things over people, those things must break to teach us what’s truly holy and what’s just the latest Golden Calf that we began to worship.

When we build in ways that rely on major donors, less affluent others can get wrong ideas that weaken spiritual community. They can learn that their gifts are less valued. They can learn to outsource generosity to others. Some even learn to take community for granted. When we don’t feel a strong stake in community, community itself withers.

Thank goodness for angel donors who do a world of good in a world that needs all the good they can do. Thank goodness for vibrant Jewish spaces that nourish the Jewish future. Still, we must ask how we keep forgetting that everyone gave to the Mishkan? What happened to a generosity culture so universal that Moses had to say, “No more!”?

We must learn the Mishkan’s lesson about democratizing generosity. We must reorient Jewish spiritual building to the goal of cultivating a truly universal culture of giving.

This goal asks a different spiritual design than any “edifice complex” whose goal is a thing that relies on angel donors and projects “too big to fail.” Reorienting spiritual design asks for fundraising in ways that put people and spiritual experience above all.

Four Ideas to Build a Trust-Based Generosity Culture

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.52.06 PMHere are four ideas to build a more universal generosity culture while raising the dough. All four ideas entail risk because they ask substantial trust – but trust is paramount to build a relational and spiritual Judaism in which everyone feels that they fully count.

Teach universal giving as a core community value – and be explicit about it. Effective fundraisers know that tzedakah is a spiritual act that joins learning and prayer as Judaism’s three pillars (Avot 1:2). If we wouldn’t accept a Jewish life that raises even unintended barriers to learning or prayer, then we mustn’t accept an “edifice complex” that even inadvertently signals that anyone or their gifts are second rate. Teach and model the Jewish keystone principle that everyone gives and everyone gets, because that’s what binds and uplifts a truly vibrant community.

Segment fundraising campaigns so that success depends on both angel donors and “everyone.” Court major donors for key initiatives, but deliberately leave out something vital (like doors or programs) for the whole community to fund – and be explicit about it. Without those essentials for the community to fund, a major “edifice complex” would be incomplete, an empty shell or a boondoggle – and that’s the right message to send so that “everyone” has a stake in success.

Learn from our Christian cousins and “pass the plate” in Jewish ways. For communities uncomfortable handling money on Shabbat, try a pre-Shabbat online ritual, a #BeALight Havdalah giving ritual, or a Shabbat pledge card. For others, literally “pass the plate,” or spiritually uplift the tzedakah box. Teach so it feels spiritual rather than “pay to pray”: after all, Maimonides taught about giving before being asked. Torah was read on market days (when people handled money), so maybe we pass the tamchui (charity plate) when we honor Torah. Try alternatives, but send a clear message that universal generosity is as vital to Jewish communal life as Torah.

Make sure that giving isn’t only about money. Even when Moses stopped donations for the Mishkan, both time and talent were welcome. People less affluent in funds might be wealthy in time and talent. Solicit their gifts with the same honor as cash – not as a substitute for cash but as a complement. Plan for these gifts: pass the plate for them and make wise use of them. After all, aren’t these gifts of hands-on community among the reasons for spiritual building in the first place?

Conclusion

All four ideas – teaching universal participation, segmented donor campaigns, passing the plate, and soliciting non-cash gifts – entail risk. They ask trust in alternatives to the seeming certainty of big checks. This kind of trust can seem especially fanciful when plans and campaigns are “too big to fail.”

Spiritually speaking, this kind of trust is the point. People are the point. Making room for others is the point. If leaders don’t leave space for others to fill, and show everyone how important and needed everyone is, then others are sure not to step forward. Isn’t that exactly today’s problem in Jewish community life?

The Mishkan solicited everyone’s gifts, because “everyone” was the purpose of building. At long last, we in Jewish life today must do the same.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketch Note by Steven Silbert

The Builder’s Holy Sledgehammer: Sometimes It Must Break

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

Spiritual builders sometimes so deeply invest in their call to build that they can forget what that call is really about. This week’s paresha (Ki Tisa) redirects us with two related teachings: (1) nothing is too important to break, even purposefully; and (2) spiritual builders mustn’t confuse building with purpose, lest spiritual life itself become an idol.

After chapters of instruction to build the Mishkan, the story gets interrupted by the Golden Calf.  With Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people get nervous that he’ll never return. They build a Golden Calf, point to it and celebrate: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Moses sees the Golden Calf and shatters the two stone tablets on it (Exodus 32:19).

Sometimes It Must Break

Surprisingly, G!d isn’t upset that Moses shatters the tablets. Talmud records G!d to say, in essence, “More power to you!” (Yevamot 6a). We learn a key lesson: sometimes things must break. Sometimes behaviors, structures and things must break so new ones can arise.

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We might imagine that some things are too important to break. If Jewish tradition would hold anything to be too important to break (“too big to fail”), then surely it’d be the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But those tablets are exactly what Moses breaks, and G!d applauds.

Why? Precisely to teach that nothing, not even G!d’s tablets, or whatever we imagine to be holy, is too precious to break for the sake of core principle. Some principles are paramount above all, even what we believe comes from G!d’s own Self.

Breaking is the way of the world. In Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic description of creation, breaking is how G!d created the universe. G!d created vessels to hold infinite light, but they shattered, unable to hold Infinity. G!d began creation anew, from shards of that cosmic shattering. In this creation story, the world is sparks of light concealed by shards of the primordial breaking.

Everything we know is a product of breaking. Physically, we’re all stardust, recycled remnants of faraway stars that exploded, fusing the elements we know on Earth. Spiritually, we’re all pieces of the Infinite, and shattered shards surround us waiting for us to lift them to light.

“As above, so below”: as in the cosmos, so too for us. Sometimes our buildings (physical and spiritual) fall. Structures suitable for one era don’t serve another. Old institutions can’t evolve with hearts and souls. The past crumbles into raw material to build the future.

Lest We Miss the Point

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Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in Meshech Chochma, offers this teaching about breaking the tablets:

“‘Moses became angry and cast the tablets from his hands’ – meaning that there is no sanctity or divinity without the existence of the Creator. And if [Moses] had brought the tablets, it would be as if they were exchanging the calf for the tablets…. Moses acted superbly in breaking the tablets… to teach that nothing has inherent sanctity….”

Moses knew that if he gave the tablets while Israel danced around the Golden Calf, they’d merely trade the Calf’s emptiness for an equally empty sense of the tablets. Moses saw his people making a classic spiritual mistake: confusing a symbol for what it symbolizes.

Buddhism offers a saying: “Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger.” Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called this “mistaking the sign for the signified.” This is the Golden Calf’s second building lesson: don’t confuse a symbol for the reality it symbolizes. Don’t mistake any human building (or organization, siddur, tunes, leaders – anything or anyone you can touch) for the potential holiness it can represent, transmit, teach or empower.

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught borrowing a Sufi saying: “Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank told this story to illustrate the message:

“I didn’t want to sit in the temple because they have a Buddha they all bow to, and I thought it was pretty primitive. I told the roshi that and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we went into the Zendo.

“He said, ‘Do you think we really bow to this thing?’

“‘Well,’ I told him, ‘It looks bad. How do I know you don’t?’ He took it by the head, turned it upside down, and opened the storage room, and flung it, very disrespectfully, bounced it into the wood storage room and slammed the door. He said, ‘If we were going to bow to it, do you think I would do that?’

“People came in and saw there was no Buddha and they bowed to emptiness. So I had no trouble after that, sitting in the Zendo where the Zen teacher could do that.”

Wolfe-Blank warned us against becoming “spiritual materialists” who pile up golden moments of spiritual experience as if we can hold them tight, sought for their own sake. Like light streaming through a window, any spiritual structure is only as valuable as the spirit – wisdom, learning, kindness, love, truth and strength – that flows through.

Don’t mistake any spiritual building for the spirituality that flows through. And if real spirituality doesn’t flow through, odds are good that it became a Golden Calf no matter what anyone may have intended. That’s when it’s time to break.

As we build the Jewish future, we must build for the flow, not the thing. Just as houses are for shelter, warmth and gathering (not roofs and walls), we must design, build, repair and even break to serve the spiritual experience within. That’s the point: everything else is just the pointer.

Even the tablets had to be shattered. Even the stars had to explode so we could form from their stardust. So don’t be afraid to break things for the sake of spirit. Sometimes what spiritual builders of the future need most is a holy sledgehammer today.

 

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By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.