I Have A Dream Haftarah

For the Shabbat of Martin Luther King Weekend, here’s a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, set to haftarah ta’amim (trope) by founding builder Rabbi David Markus for MLK Day 2018. (If you don’t see the embed from SoundCloud, you can go directly to the audio file here.)

You can download an annotated PDF of the speech marked-up in haftarah trope here.

Why We Wanted A Sounding Board

 

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From the beginning, we’ve wanted to have an advisory board for Bayit — a diverse group of thoughtful, creative, smart people to help us steer our work. It’s good to have brainstorming partners. It’s good to be able to seek advice. And most of all, we want to avoid groupthink.

Bayit’s builders are diverse in certain ways (different denominational and spiritual backgrounds, for instance) but we have a lot in common. We see the world in shared ways. That’s a good and valuable thing in a group of partners and collaborators, but it also means we’re likely to miss things. We wanted an advisory group in part to help us think outside our own box.

We took a few months to think about what we would want from such a group. We took another few months to ponder who we would invite to join such a group. A couple of us spent a while batting around possible titles for such a group, because we agreed that “advisory council” sounded too formal. The name we settled on was Sounding Board. To us, that connotes a group who will listen, offer suggestions, and help us refine our thinking and our plans.

The folks on our Sounding Board aren’t responsible for what Bayit does or doesn’t do. They’re not setting Bayit policies or attending our Board meetings. Rather, they’re our thinking partners, invited to give us honest opinions and diverse viewpoints when we reach out with questions both theoretical and practical. They’ll help us think outside our own box. Sometimes they’ll disagree with us (or with each other), and that too will be for the sake of heaven.

We’re starting with a group of eleven extraordinary individuals, anticipating that our Sounding Board will grow over time. Members of our Sounding Board teach at or lead multiple seminaries and institutions of higher education, among them Yeshivat Maharat, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), Vancouver Theological Seminary, the ALEPH Ordination Programs, and Washingon University at St. Louis.

One member of our Sounding Board is a co-founder of the National Havurah Committee, an organization that for decades has been revitalizing Jewish living and learning. Some are spiritual entrepreneurs who have founded new communities, paradigms, and institutions, from The Well to Hevria to to Hineni: the Mindful Heart Community. Some are leaders in congregational contexts. Some are mystics, contemplatives, teachers, writers. All are builders.

We’re honored that this group of amazing individuals is willing to think with us, brainstorm with us, argue with us, and expand our perspectives as we build. Welcome, Sounding Board.

Building (For) God

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Part of a yearlong series mining Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

 

It’s a heady and awesome thing to “build for God.”  That’s what spiritual builders do. That’s the business we’re all in.  

We can do it well (our ancestors’ desert Sanctuary), or we can do it disastrously (the Golden Calf) – but either way, building for God is what collective spiritual enterprise is at least partly about.  Whether places, structures, systems or relationships, we build so that through them we can experience a bit of the sacred right here on Earth.

And if you think you’re not a spiritual builder, or that your spiritual building isn’t about experiencing the sacred where you are, look deeply into this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) and think again.

Our slave ancestors, freed from Egyptian bondage, reach the Sea of Reeds and miraculously walk through.  Leaving Pharaoh’s army behind, our ancestors break into song. What they sang, heard with modern ears, is revolutionary.  

Traditionally we understand their “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15) as a celebration and an affirmation.  At the Song’s heart is the exclamation, Mi chamocha ba’eilim YHVH (“Who is like You, God?”): Who else could split the sea and overpower the world’s strongest army to free the bound?  These words have echoed in Jewish hearts ever since.

But there’s more.  Freed from seemingly endless bondage building brick structures for an enslaving Pharaoh, they sang: “In Your love, You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength, You guide [us] el-nave kodshecha (אל נוה קדשך) – to Your holy abode” (Exodus 15:13).  Instinctively they knew that wherever they were going, they were being led to a place – and that the place was holy.

What does this have to do with spiritual building?  Just moments earlier, they also sang: Zeh Eli v’anvehu (זה אלי ואנוהו) – “This is my God whom I’ll adore” (Exodus 15:2).  The two phrases share the same word (nave), which hints at a deep meaning: “This is my God whom I’ll build into a holy abode.”

Take that in.  In liberation’s peak moment of ecstatic joy, they sang not only that they were headed to a holy place but that they themselves were going to build it.  What were they going to build? Not only would they build for God: they would build God!  And why would they build?  They’d build so that they could “adore God.”

Our ancestors – who had been builders under Pharaoh’s lash – now would become builders for God.  And by building, they would learn to love. We learn that freedom is not for its own sake but for a loving purpose: to build for God, and to build God.

Of course, our wandering ancestors’ first spiritual building went very wrong: their first attempt was a Golden Calf that they treated as God.  That’s the danger of venerating things (whether places, structures, systems or relationships), and venerating our own capacity as builders. Maybe that’s why God had to get exactingly clear: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8) – not “it.”  God dwells in us all.

By building the right way, divinity can flow through the builders.  We learn that holiness and the spirituality of building are not about building except as building focuses human awareness and human actions on holiness.

So what should we make of our ancestors’ “build God” idea?  

Jacob got it in his peak experience of wrestling: “God was in this place and I, I did not know” (Genesis 28:16).  In a peak spiritual experience, we know that everything pulses with divinity, that there is nothing but God, that we (as builders) are instruments of the sacred.  It’s precisely by not knowing ourselves, not getting stuck on ourselves, that our awareness clears enough to really get it.

Same for our ancestors at the Song of the Sea: in that peak experience, it was all God.

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Great ideas, but so what?  What do they really mean for us here and now as builders?  To us, we learn a few things:

 

  • Building is all about curating experience.  The idea of God is not God; the thought of the sacred is not the sacred. Only as we experience holiness, getting out of our own way and experiencing what transcends us, can we begin to know God through any place or thing.  Thus, every spiritual building, to be worthy of that name, must curate experience beyond oneself.
  • Builders need to hold on gently, and maybe not at all.  Every spiritual building evokes a Zen-style koan.  Even as we “build God,” we can’t ever “build God” because God is never in a thing: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in [you].”  Lest our spiritual structures and systems become like Golden Calves, we must see them only as conduits, only as effective as what they channel.  And because we humans tend to grow attached to our own handiwork, we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that what makes spiritual building spiritual is precisely that we hold it gently and maybe not at all.
  • We must test our buildings and sometimes let them fall.  If spiritual buildings are only as effective as what they channel, then a building that doesn’t channel isn’t worth keeping.  We must test our spiritual buildings (places, structures, systems and relationships), repeatedly asking what they’re channeling now.  And if they’re too clogged, or not transmitting holy experience, it’s time to redesign and rebuild.

 

God is the master architect, Torah is the blueprint and we – all of us – are builders.  It’s our calling – all of us – to build wisely, courageously and well. And if we do, we too can become vessels for holiness in the world.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

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

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

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  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us.

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  • On our doorposts

When the lamb is slaughtered, Torah tells us to to mark the doorposts of our houses with its blood, in remembrance of the bloodied doorposts that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over. For two thousand years, Jews have marked our doorposts with mezuzot. (Josephus, who lived from 37-100 C.E., wrote about mezuzot as an “old and well-established custom.”) Mezuzot are often very beautiful. But the real beauty of this teaching lies in what the mezuzot represent: awareness of the Holy in all of our transitions.

We can remember the Holy in temporal transitions — e.g. opting to begin a meeting with a melody or a blessing, the way we begin and end Shabbat. We can remember the Holy in spatial transitions — e.g. marking the doorposts of our houses, and even our rooms. When we lie down and when we rise up, when we exit and when we enter: every transition offers us an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God. In every day, in every place, we can choose apathy or we can choose engagement. We can choose to knock down, or we can choose to build.

Torah prompts us to mark our doorposts so we will remember that life is full of transitions… and that in every transition, we can choose anew to uplift, to sanctify, and to build.

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  • Ready for our journey

Torah tells us to eat the feast of Passover with our sandals on our feet and our walking-sticks in our hands. The seder isn’t just a dinner party: it’s an embodied remembrance of what it was like then (and what it is like now) to be ready to go. The seder is an opportunity to open ourselves to the necessity of change, of going-forth from our stuck places, of new beginnings.

The seder reminds us that sometimes there is sweetness (or at least comfortable familiarity) in being stuck and in letting our spiritual lives be stale. Our job is to open ourselves to the flavor-burst of horseradish. To let our hearts and souls be startled out of complacency. To put on our sandals and be ready to move. To take up our tools and be ready to build. The Jewish future will not look exactly like the Jewish past. Slavish recreation of that past defeats the purpose — and I say that as someone who deeply loves a lot of things about that Jewish past!

But we need to have our shoes on and be ready to go. We need to have our toolboxes in good order and be ready to build. We need to cultivate the faith and trust required to set out on the work of building something new. And we need to approach the holy work of building with the humility of Moses, balanced with the exuberance of Miriam dancing at the edge of the sea.

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  • Clearing out our old stuff

Torah tells us that for seven days we are to remove leaven from our homes, in remembrance of the hasty waybread of the Exodus journey. Reams of pages have been written about the proper way to remove leaven from one’s home for Pesach. (Blowtorch, anyone?) But in its simplest (and deepest) form, Torah’s teaching here is about shedding the old in order to make ourselves ready for the new.

The word hametz (leaven) derives from the root meaning “to ferment.” In a literal sense, leaven is that which has fermented. That’s what a yeasted starter does to create the lightness we know as leavened bread. In a spiritual sense, hametz can mean that which is old and sour, the puffery of ego and self-importance that gets in the way of our capacity to build something new.

In order to build a Jewish future worthy of our hopes, we need to be ready to relinquish excessive ego. We need to be ready to relinquish old stories that no longer serve. We need to be ready to relinquish our attachment to mistakes (our own, and others’). Only when we wholly clear our old “stuff” can we make room to build the new. Only when our inner ground is leveled and prepared can we sink pilings for new foundations. Only when we remove what gets in the way of our openness to the unfolding of spirit can we wholly act on the call to come together and build — all of us, attentively, with our work boots on and our best tools in hand.

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.

  1. The importance of good plans

I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.

Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.

Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.

Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.

If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.

Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.

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Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

#Trending in 2019: the Year Ahead for Building the Jewish Future

Happy 2019, fellow builders of the Jewish future!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re part of a bold experiment in which everyone can be a builder.  The question is how we’ll build together – what we’ll build, what tools we’ll need, what works and how we’ll know what works.

All effective builders survey the landscape – the light, the view, the bedrock, what grows, what’s needed.  They build to the land, and the land changes.

As we survey the landscape of Jewish life, we can see what is and what’s next.  We see trends that are exhilarating and inspiring, and proof that amazing ideas need solid ground.  The best master builders know that the Jewish future needs a wise balance of inspiration and perspiration – lofty ideas and strong foundations.

In that spirit, here’s some of what we see #Trending in 2019 for building the Jewish future.

image1Opening Borders and New Conveners.  Spiritual borders will continue to open wider and at a faster pace.  The Pew Study “nones” who question religions in their current forms, who embrace spirituality precisely in questions that yearn for meaning, will inject meaning into a Jewish life eager to include them on their own terms.  Halakhah (Jewish law and practice, literally “the way”) – once imagined to be a fixed province of right-leaning orthopraxy – increasingly will be a forum for spiritual and social progressivity.  As nature abhors vacuums, thought-leaders of border-opening initiatives will draw from the breadth of Jewish life and, in turn, hasten these trends in an accelerating feedback loop of inclusion, creativity and innovation.

image5Social Justice on the Spiritual Calendar.  Tikkun olam (social justice, literally “repairing the world”) will more deeply root as a spiritual practice with beacons on the Jewish calendar.  Inspired by groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Passover (always about resisting tyranny) will drive both individual and collective social action across the political spectrum.  So will Havdalah (ritual bridge between Shabbat and the week ahead), inspired by the #BeALight Coalition.  In turn, emphasized times for social action will infuse spiritual life with meaning and help attract Jews of all generations to the spiritual calendar and spiritual community.

Rebooting Ethics From the Outside In.  Jewish communities are learning (sometimes the hard way) that transparency, accountability and right use of power are never self-executing.  Public trust – the lifeblood of Jewish communal life – requires both high ethics standards (such as Slingshot’s “workplace commitments” for nonprofit Boards) and vibrant systems to enforce ethics standards.  As #GamAni shows, closed ethics systems inside individual denominations, seminaries, clergy associations and Jewish nonprofits inherently are prone to self-protection and groupthink that sap public trust.  While journalists continue holding power accountable, 2019 will be the year to pioneer a new, clean ethics regime for Jewish life – one that elevates reporting, investigation, fact-finding, training and victim support above any single circle of influence or sponsoring context.  Lifting ethics above denominational context, and supporting nonprofits that don’t have their own independent ethics system, can reboot Jewish ethics from the outside in.

image4Adapting to the New Philanthropy.  2019 will be the year that Jewish life adapts to the recent tax law’s impacts on charitable giving – and enterprises that don’t adapt will wither.  “Deduction bunching” is sparking a revolution in philanthropy, with donor-advised funds (DAFs) housed in public charities far outpacing medium-donor private grants.  As this trend accelerates, the grant-making influence of large-scale philanthropies that host DAFs will continue to grow.  Successful Jewish organizations will need to tailor their asks, budgets and relationships accordingly – or get left behind.

Jewish Gluten is Back!  No offense to the gluten-free set, but Jewish gluten is back!  From trendy bagel shops to pierogi stands, Jews are rediscovering Ashkenazic ancestral cuisine in all its high-gluten glory.  Lines are out the door for fresh-baked bagels at DC’s “Call Your Mother” on weekends.  While New York’s famous H & H Bagel shops have closed, the company now ships anywhere.  Brooklyn hipsters are flocking to DeKalb Market for classic pierogies made by the Pierogi Boys.  South Philly is getting challah at Essen Bakery.  (Grab a chocolate babka for dessert while you’re there, unless you’re in Manhattan… where Breads Bakery arguably has the best chocolate babka this side of Poland.)

image3People of the Image (not just “People of the Book”). The internet long ago moved beyond text: longform blogs are yielding to visual realms on Instagram and Facebook, where images hold sway.  Jews are still a “People of the Book,” but 2019 will be a watershed year experiencing and sharing Jewish ideas with images rather than just words.  Visual approaches will engage broader audiences and new teaching tools, such as Jewish sketchnoting.  As Jews increasingly become a “People of the Image,” visual tools will offer NextGen engagement and technologies new roles in learning and teaching Torah.image2

Effective Jewish “R&D.”  Innovation means more than “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”  Innovation is meaningful not because it’s new or avant garde but because it achieves a tangible, replicable impact on Jewish life.  In 2019, we’ll see the most effective Jewish innovators getting disciplined about “research and development” (R&D) – exploring what works and why, what it means for innovation to “work” in Jewish community, and how to replicate results.  Tools of empirical R&D will make their way to both mainline and emergent settings, fueled by funders investing in vital pathways of impactful innovation. In turn, as more would-be innovators create their own projects and communities, the proliferation of these new engagements will reach a tipping point.  Their need for knowhow and quality control will attract them into networks to share ideas and build efficiencies. Conveners for these networks, like Kenissa, will become vital to moving these “communities of meaning” forward.