Our Two-Story Houses: Becoming Ladders for Spiritual Ascent

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

I’m a fan of two-story houses.  I enjoy some separation from the busy “functional” part of the house, while my husband prefers the ease of having “practical” things accessible on one level.  Our new ranch-style home seemed a perfect solution: single-level living with an upstairs perch – a sunny loft, my very own ‘’second story.” I love my little retreat in the sky filled with comfy furniture, books and music.

IMG_3483But I rarely use it myself, and it’s impractical for me to invite others to join me there. Do I love my loft more in theory than in reality, or is getting up there just too much of a challenge to be useful?  The only access to the loft is a heavy ladder that must be wrestled awkwardly into place each time we wish to ascend.

I admit some “ladder envy” when engaging with this week’s Torah portion and the description of Jacob’s iconic vision (Vayeitzei).  If only a mystical staircase would appear to connect the loft to the rest of our house. (While we’re asleep, no less!) And, to dive into Torah’s metaphor of connecting “above” with “below,” if only we all had easy tools for spiritual ascent.

Then again, maybe we do.

The Jacob we encounter this week doesn’t begin in a good place.  He alienated his family and enraged his brother. He flees. As the sun sets and darkness descends, Jacob makes camp: he sets stones to protect his head and lays down for the night.  There he experiences his famous dreamscape vision: the heavens open, a ladder appears and reaches skyward, angels ascend and descend, and the Divine Presence appears at the top. Jacob hears God promise to be with him wherever he goes.  Jacob wakes and affirms God’s presence:

“Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.  How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:15-17).

IMG_3481Sulam Yaakov

We call it Sulam Yaakov, Jacob’s Ladder, although he himself neither builds it nor climbs it. More accurately, it is God’s ladder – to enlighten Jacob, to awaken him to God’s presence on earth.  Narrowly read, we might think Jacob was shown only an isolated “place” (in Hebrew, makom) where heaven and earth connect.  Indeed, rabbinic tradition makes much of that geographic place, associating it with the Akedah (binding of Isaac), Sinai, the Holy Temples and more.  

But Jacob’s actions the next morning reveal a higher truth.  

The ladder had disappeared and the “real world” remained as it was.  Yet Jacob designates the now seemingly ordinary place as “none other than Beit El” (House of God).  He further vows if God leads and protects Jacob, then Jacob will believe and dedicate himself and his possessions to God’s service (Gen. 28:20-22).  

Tradition holds that Jacob’s vow still indicates his “conditional faith,” that he was still trying to bargain and even manipulate just as he had with the family he was fleeing. I offer a different read.

Building and Becoming

Jacob’s words indicate a radical shift in worldview.  Torah’s “trickster” has been humbled. He no longer could believe that what happens “downstairs” is solely his domain.  Rather, he was given to understand that even life’s basics (food, clothing, safety) depend on a Divine Source that is everywhere – in Hebrew, HaMakom (the Place).

What is it exactly that Jacob saw and understood?

Interestingly, the most mundane component of Jacob’s revelation is the clue. The existence of God, heaven and angels didn’t seem to be a surprise, nor should they be.  After all, this was his family’s God: is Jacob not the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, son of Isaac and Rebecca?

What’s news to Jacob is the most ordinary part of the scene – the ladder, “Sulam Yaakov.” Jacob already knew there were two stories: he just needed to make the connection.

Our teaching then comes less from Jacob’s dream than from his twofold response to it: building and becoming.  Jacob didn’t set out to build a scaffold, stairway or tower to the sky (like the Tower of Babel that went so wrong).  Nor did Jacob pray for God to send another ladder when the first one disappeared. Rather, Jacob built a monument, a marker here on Earth, to remind and reconnect. He then vowed to remodel his life; in what he now understood the world to be – God’s place. Emotionally and spiritually, the builder, and the act of building, became the ladder.

“Wonderful story,” my rational mind says.  “What does that mean for me?”

One more hint from the text:

IMG_3485There’s No “I” in Heaven

When Jacob woke and opened his eyes, he expressed astonishment: “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it” – in Hebrew, va’anochi lo yadati.  Rendered in English, the Hebrew reads slightly differently: “… and I, I did not know.”

Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz reads Jacob’s bewilderment radically: “I did not know my I-ness.”  “I did not know” isn’t merely an expression of surprise but a description of what Jacob experienced and an instruction for how to build.  

We come to experience what’s “upstairs” precisely by learning how to not-know our Anochi, our own ego.  As Lord Jonathan Sacks put it, we most experience holiness when we move beyond Self.  We sense the “Thou” of divinity when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity.  Only as we move beyond our Self do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.

That’s the kind of Judaism we must build – a Judaism that encourages us to serve others, both for their sake and for the sake of moving beyond our own “I-ness.”  Serving others is the way up. Only by working for the greater good, in the house where we already are, can we ourselves become ladders to access “upstairs.”

May we be granted the ability to seek Divinity in every place.  May the call to build inspire us to serve. And may we be blessed with moments of Grace when ego fades (sometimes even despite ourselves) and we see ladders “upstairs” simply appear.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot

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

וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽ”ה׃

But the children struggled in her womb, and [Rivka] said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of God. (Genesis 25:22)

Everyone who dreams and yearns and builds knows the experience of agonizing over a project. Do I really know what I’m doing? What if I had a vision for what this project would be, and now it’s growing into something different? What if I have conflicting visions for what I want to bring into the world, and now I don’t know what to do with that tension?

That’s the experience of our foremother Rivka. Pregnant with twins, she felt them struggling within her. She poured out her heart to God, saying, אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי — If this is what’s going to be, then why am I? (Genesis 25:22)

Here are three lessons for building that I learn from Rivka and from parashat Toldot writ large: Continue reading “Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot”

Building families through the ages

Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

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The Torah portion Chayyei Sarah may be called “the life of Sarah,” but it’s really about her family getting on with their lives after her death. It begins with Sarah’s burial, ends with Abraham’s death, and sandwiched in the middle is the long saga of seeking and finding a suitable wife for Isaac.

The story is told with much repetition and in great detail, in the longest chapter in Genesis.  But why? Usually the Torah chooses words carefully, sparingly. Not here. We follow every step of the way as Eliezer goes off to find a wife for his master’s son. He pauses to say a prayer and sure enough his prayer is answered, a young woman appears, negotiations ensue, and Rebecca returns with Eliezer to be Isaac’s wife.

But before all of that happens, the Torah says “…the Lord blessed Abraham in all things.” (Genesis 24:1). Clearly not all things, since his son was still unmarried and without a child to fulfill God’s promise of a great nation coming from him and Sarah. Abraham had to take matters into his own hands, using Eliezer as his emissary, to ensure that the covenant God promised to them would be fulfilled.

And he also ensured two important things on behalf of Isaac – that he would be comforted on the loss of his mother, and experience love. On this, the Woman’s Torah Commentary says (p. 124) “This final verse [of the story], which focuses on Isaac’s emotional connections to his mother and to his new wife, reasserts the central role that women play in realizing God’s covenantal promise.” 

Indeed. We know that Jewish mothers are the backbone of the Jewish family, the building blocks of Jewish community. The story of Isaac and Rebecca is the foundational story of the Jewish family, the beginning of our emphasis on the importance of establishing a family and a home. Continue reading “Building families through the ages”

Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga

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Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms.  The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders.  It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.

The poster’s message was clear.  We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us.  We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations.  We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.

IMG_3375Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong.  We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.  

If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one.  A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish.  Rather, it’s especially Jewish.

This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.”  Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.

So, let’s say so.  Let’s talk about the contexts that embed “difficult texts.”  Let’s talk about this week’s Torah portion (Vayera).  Most of all, let’s talk about sex. Continue reading “Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga”

Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call

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

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Building something demands a leap of faith. Proto-ancestor Avram shows us the kind of leap, and the kind of faith, that wise building requires.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

YHVH said to Avram, “Lech-lecha / Go forth from your land, and from your birth,
and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1).

When I left Colorado two years ago to return to the east coast, I experienced a Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”) moment of venturing into the unknown.  I left behind the familiarity of a legacy institution, and set out into the unknown world of the start-up rabbinate.  Though I had general outlines of the kind of community I wanted to build, my path was mostly a mystery. The leap I took felt like jumping off a tall cliff and building an airplane on the way down.  

Building something new demands this sort of leap.

Avram, who later took the name Avraham, had to take a far greater leap of faith into the unknown to build the family that would become the Israelite People. That’s why Avram is our spiritual ancestor in more ways than one: Avram is not only regarded as the first monotheist, but also he’s a spiritual entrepreneur – a builder par excellence.

God’s call to Avram begins with the phrase “lech lecha”. Many commentators remarked on the superfluous nature of this grammatical construction.  All Torah needs to say is lech (“go”).  Instead, Torah says “lech lecha” (“go to you/for you”).  Medieval commentator Rashi reads this seeming redundancy as evidence that God called Avram to go “for his own benefit, for his own good.”  Zohar (thirteenth century) went farther, understanding lech lecha to mean “for your own sake: go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your [spiritual] level.”  

This is our first lesson that Avram’s Lech Lecha teaches about building:

  1. Builders need a clear vision of who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve.

To answer God’s call, Avram had to go deep into himself (as Rashi teaches), and do his own inner work to fix broken places in his soul (as Zohar teaches).  All who follow in his footsteps must do the same. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, we’ll reach greater clarity about the problem we want to solve — or, to use our core metaphor, we’ll have a clearer sense of what and how we’re being called to build.  

We need inner clarity so that we can see what’s outside us more clearly. Otherwise our own stuff is likely to cloud our vision, so that what we see becomes a reflection of ourselves, rather than a clear lens on the work at hand. And we need to keep doing our inner work so that we can boldly and wisely “go forth” into places we can’t yet know.

Continue reading “Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call”

Denominational and spiritual diversity

Many_Hands_(16859686419)Bayit’s core group of founding Builders is denominationally and spiritually diverse — and that was a conscious choice on our part. Spiritual diversity matters to us. Jewish life is made out of many different priorities and practices and ways of “doing Jewish.” From the beginning, we knew we wanted Bayit to reflect that diversity too. 

The organization’s founders have roots in, and a track record serving in, every major branch of Judaism from Reform to Orthodoxy.  Some of us are proud denominational Jews. Some of us self-identify as post-denominational or trans-denominational Jews. Some of us are both / and Jews, identifying as denominational Jews and as part of the transdenominational Jewish renewal movement. We grew up secular, religious, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. Those of us who are rabbis attended both denominational seminaries and transdenominational seminaries. Those of us who are laypeople come from backgrounds that span the denominational spectrum too.

Beyond our denominational diversity, we’re also spiritually diverse. Some of us are mystics who write love poetry to the divine, and some of us are rationalists who find most mysticism uncomfortable. Some of us experience God through music, some through liturgy, some through philosophy, some through poetry, and some aren’t sure we experience God at all.

Some of us have spent years immersed in non-Jewish spiritual practice, including Zen and transcendental meditation. Some of us have spent years immersed in Yeshivish (a.k.a. “ultra-Orthodox”) learning. Some of us use feminine God(dess)-language, some of us use masculine-God language, some of us use gender-neutral language for the divine, and some of us do all of the above depending on situation, audience, mood, or the phase of the moon. (Just kidding about the moon. Mostly.)

Some of us daven (pray), given the choice, entirely in Hebrew. Some of us daven, given the choice, entirely in English. Some of us would prefer diving into a daf (page) of Gemara to davening at all. Some of us hold a second ordination as mashpi’im (spiritual directors) and are trained to companion others on the journey of ongoing spiritual formation. Some of us write poetry, some of us write music, some of us write blog posts, some of us write quarterly reports and nonprofit documents. Most of us fit into at least two of the categories listed above.

These various diversities aren’t accidental. As our dreams of this organization began to coalesce, we agreed that spiritual diversity was not only a strength but a necessity. 

We’re also aware that while our spiritual diversity spans a wide spectrum, we’re not yet a sufficiently diverse group on other axes (especially race, sexual orientation, and gender identity). The next post in this series will explore other diversities, including the ones where we’re still laying the foundations for future growth.

It’s fun to work with colleagues who aren’t all coming from the same place, spiritually speaking. Because we come from different denominational backgrounds, and favor different modes of spiritual practice, we’re able to recognize and meet the needs of a broad cross-section of the community. Because of our differences, we know in our bones that there’s not one “right way” to do Jewish or to do spiritual life. Because we learn so much from each other, we know in our bones that we will be enriched as we learn from all of those whom we serve.

 

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Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

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

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.