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. 

All of us, taking up our tools together

BuildersThe founding Builders at Bayit include both laypeople and clergy. We are rabbis and laypeople, lawyers and educators, fundraisers and administrators, rooted both inside and outside the denominations.  I am a layperson working with a group that also includes talented and enthusiastic clergy, and together we aim to help define and redefine our collective Jewish story. Why would I want to even consider doing such a thing?

My answer to that question is rooted in my own spiritual journey. For many years I had nothing to do with my Jewish roots. I was so far removed from Judaism that the only way I knew it was time for a major holiday would be to read about it in the newspaper or see it covered on the local TV news. The Judaism I had known was vacuous. I believed it had nothing to offer.  

I wandered in the proverbial wilderness for decades, looking for a spirituality that was meaningful, that was urgent, that was “modern,” that felt real. I was looking for a practice that didn’t feel stuck in the past, but could incorporate the best of history with the modernity of today. I was seeking a way to more fully understand, to more deeply experience, and to know the awe of creation.

I found a path back in to Judaism through the trans-denominational phenomenon known as Jewish renewal, and that path led me to collaborating with the other builders at Bayit.

What excites me about we who are building Bayit is that we are all deeply committed to a Judaism that seeks to be be personally transformative, wonderfully rich, and deliciously communal. We aim to connect seekers with spiritual technologies that can meet their needs. We aim to build both with and for those who want more, and need more, than may have been offered by the Judaism they inherited.

To those who have found Judaism empty, we say: stay and experience how much more Judaism can be. For those who are already deeply practicing your Judaism, we say: join us in going deeper still. Bayit can assist all who want to take a deep dive into their Jewish life and into spiritual life writ large.

As we build together, we intend not to be bound by convention. We intend not to be bound by what was done before or what worked or didn’t work before. Ours is a boundary-crossing approach, a post-denominational approach: an approach that intentionally brings together clergy and laypeople, congregations and solo practitioners, traditional pulpit contexts and “pop-ups,” people and communities rooted across the denominations and also people and communities rooted outside of the denominations.

To whet your appetite: one of our initial keystone projects is an Innovation Pilot program, a spiritual lab where a variety of congregations both across and beyond the denominational spectrum will try out new ideas and practices, and will report back on what worked and did not work and what might be done differently next time.

What ideas do you have for what Bayit might do and be?  There are no “should” or “musts.” We are open. We are excited to partner with individuals and organizations. We will be there with and for one another as we explore new ideas/tools/approaches that help to continually renew our Judaism and make that Judaism every bit as relevant today as it was for our ancestors.

My hope, my aspiration, my prayer, is that we at Bayit can provide tools and spiritual technologies to enable people to fully and deeply experience all that spiritual practice can offer. Core to our philosophy is the idea that all of us can be (indeed: must be) builders of the Judaism that the future needs us to co-create. Building a renewed Judaism is not the task of clergy alone. It needs all of us, taking up our tools together.

 

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Steven Green