Creating Sacred Spaces

Reprinted from The Times of Israel.

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As we read these parshiyot (Torah portions) about creating a mishkan, a sacred space for God, it’s a fair question to ask what the value of sacred spaces is, and whether we need them at all. After all, shouldn’t we serve God anywhere and everywhere? I believe that Rav Soloveitchik addresses this issue in an article entitled, “Sacred and Profane: Kodesh and Hol in World Perspectives.” In this article, he describes the concept of Kedushat makom, what he calls “place consciousness.” He asks, “In what ways is the settler who has his own place superior to the nomad who has none of his own?” He explains that the nomad does not desire to till the soil and cultivate the land because he will move from place to place and therefore does not feel a symbiotic relationship between the land and himself. The nomad has no place consciousness. The settler, however, desires to till the soil and cultivate the land. He is attached to the land. He lives in a symbiotic relationship with his land. He loves it and merges into it. The settler has place consciousness. This is true in the spiritual realm, as well. The idea of “makom,” as applied to God, means that He is not only transcendent, but He is also our immediate companion. Rav Soloveitchik asserts that we meet God through experience and intuition. Kedushat makom means that we are especially in tune with our spiritual identity, with God, in a particular place, and that is why sacred spaces are so necessary. Sacred spaces create opportunities to feel intensely close with our very essence and our very identity.

That is also why sacred spaces can be very challenging. Three different Jews walk into a shul – and it’s not a joke – three different Jews walk into one sacred space, each with different expectations and needs. And in 2019, the expectations of many have changed in particular ways. Whereas prior generations looked to centralized spiritual institutions as holding the keys to spiritual growth, younger congregants on the whole have been expressing different expectations. Often, those of us in communal positions hear, “I want my own personalized approach to spirituality. You need to tailor make religion so that I feel comfortable. I will not automatically become a member of your institution unless it speaks to me personally.” Then our sacred spaces become tricky because we all expect them to become tailor-made for each one of us. I view my sacred space primarily as a space of passionate, heartfelt prayer. You want your sacred space as a space where all Jews, regardless of background and observance, feel like a family. He wants his sacred space as a space where we passionately advocate for the State of Israel. She wants her sacred space as a place of serious Torah study. And if we’re not satisfied that our sacred space reflects our personal religious identity, then we will start our own shteibel, hence the shteibelization of orthodoxy.

To me, then, a large sacred space like a shul will only be successful in 2019 if its membership supports each other’s legitimate spiritual motivations even if they do not all personally speak to each of us. Even if I am not someone who gets excited about chesed projects (i.e., acts of kindness), I will still support my shul in its chesed endeavors. I will understand that for members who are passionate about chesed, having those programs helps bind them to our shul and make it their “makom,” their source of spirituality. And if despite working on my davening it’s still not doing much for me, I will still come on time to minyan and I will try as best as I can to stay in shul and focus because I want to support those who are so passionate about their shul being a place of heartfelt prayer. Though not every initiative of my shul may speak to me personally, I recognize that they may be how my fellow congregants make our shul their “makom,” and I want to support them.

Our shuls are strengthened when our membership looks around and realizes that different people identify with this sacred space in different ways, and each one of us searches for ways to help support each other’s Divine vision for their sacred space. Let us each fulfill the commandment of “v’asu li mikdash…” by building our sacred space in a way that allows everyone in the community to realize his or her own dream of a kedushat makom, of place consciousness. If we do this, it is my hope that we will merit the blessing at the end of the verse, “…v’shachanti b’tocham.” May God’s Divine presence dwell inside our sacred spaces, and inside each one of us.

Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.

This article originally appeared at the Times of Israel.

Building Sacred Spaces With (and For) G-d

IMG_0296Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d is constantly recreating this world, building something out of nothing.  The fact that we are here right now testifies, in this very moment, to G-d’s intention for us to be here.

By contrast, when we build something, we are simply making something out of something else. We are really just taking things that have already existed — like trees, stones, and other elements  — and changing their form into buildings and furniture. As a result, we can walk away from our creations, and they continue to exist without us. However if G-d were to stop thinking about us for even a second, we would cease to exist like we were never here.

In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we read, “I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d. And they shall know that I Adonai am their G-d, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I, Adonai, their G-d.” (Exodus 29:45-46) Everything we do in Jewish life comes with this reminder: G-d dwells within us and among us. We build a space for G-d in order to be reminded Who liberated us from the Narrow Place, and Who liberates us even now.

G-d is continually building this world for us. In return, we’re called to build places for G-d, reminders of the One Who liberates us from constriction. And when we do build those places, we need to truly accommodate the needs of G-d’s creations.

There is a beautiful midrash about the construction of the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Imagine a king who has only one daughter, and that daughter marries a king from another land. After some time the son-in-law wants to return home with his bride.

The father explains to the younger king, “I understand that you want to go home, and I can’t tell you not to take my daughter with you — she’s your wife! But she’s my only daughter, and I can’t bear to be separate from her. Rather, please do me this favor: wherever you go make guest quarters for me so that I can dwell with you.”

So too G-d said to Israel, “I’ve given you the Torah.  I can’t tell you not to take it — it’s yours now. But I can’t bear to be separated from it. Rather, every place that you go, make me a home where I can live. As it is said: ‘Build for Me a sanctuary’…”

The Zohar expands “sanctuary” beyond just the mishkan to mean any sacred space. “How beloved are we by G-d that in every place where we are found, G-d’s presence is among us, as it says, ‘build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them;’ all spaces where people gather are called a sanctuary.”

Often the spaces where we gather aren’t really sanctuaries, though. They may not be accessible on a physical level. And even when they are ADA-compliant, they may exclude people for emotional, intellectual, and / or spiritual reasons. Too often, some of G-d’s children are excluded, unwelcomed, and suppressed — often in the false name of making these spaces “welcoming” for G-d.

The Talmud teaches that “It is greater to invite guests than it is to greet the Divine Presence.” Welcoming each other, in all that we are, is more important even than welcoming G-d’s own Presence into our midst! The tradition teaches that G-d is like a Parent who experiences pleasure when their children get along, not when we create ostensibly “G-d-focused” events while excluding any of G-d’s children… whether that means excluding people on the basis of gender expression or sexual orientation, or on the basis of race, or because of what form of Judaism they practice.

Indeed, excluding each other from community is the senseless hatred that (tradition teaches) caused G-d’s Temple to be destroyed 2,000 years ago. The Talmud teaches that although G-d no longer (since the Temple’s destruction) has a physical address, we can still seek and find G-d in the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law). We can still seek and find G-d in the open space that’s contained within the scaffolding of tradition, law, and interpretation.

Last week’s Torah portion called us to build for G-d a sanctuary that G-d might dwell within and among us. This week’s Torah portion links that building with our core story of liberation, reminding us that we must build our holy spaces both literal and metaphorical — we must build the Jewish future — with constant remembrance of the One Who brings us forth from narrow places.

Torah offers us Divine specifications for supporting sacred space, and when we follow those instructions we become co-creators with G-d. G-d builds the world for us, and in return we build holy space for G-d. G-d liberates us from Egypt, and in return we are called to liberate others from small-mindedness and exclusion.

The holy scaffolding that we provide for our communities requires our renewed and constant involvement, like G-d’s renewed and constant involvement in keeping the world turning. We must expand and reconfigure our sanctuaries to protect, inspire, and nourish the evolving needs of the Jewish people. If we don’t, then G-d doesn’t have a place to live with us, and none of us can truly be free.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move

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

So far, Builders Blog traced Torah’s first 18 portions, harvesting lessons about spiritual building from our spiritual ancestors’ lives and early journeys.  

Now in the 19th portion (Terumah) comes Torah’s building story par excellence, about building the Mishkan – the holy structure to focus the sacred’s indwelling presence among the people. Finally, a building story that’s literally about building! Or is it?

IMG_0248Torah first describes the Ark to hold the two tablets of Commandments, then the cherubim atop the Ark, then takes another 15 chapters to map out the Mishkan. These ordered priorities teach that the Mishkan isn’t for itself but for what’s inside.

We learn that no spiritual structure legitimately can serve mainly itself: it’s all for what’s within. Any spiritual structure, building or system that serves mainly itself misses the point of building it.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of building?

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One answer is the Commandments (or callings, or connections). Another is to remind of the One who spoke (and speaks) them from Sinai. I’m good with those answers as far as they go.

But to me, the point of building is going. Spiritual building is about going somewhere: the act of building or going inside a building is supposed to transport and transform us.

Hence the gold rings soldered onto the Ark. After describing the Ark but before describing the cherubim on top, Torah records these instructions (Exodus 25:12-15):

“Cast four gold rings on [the Ark], attached to its four feet – two rings on one side wall and two on the other. Make acacia wood poles and layer them with gold, then insert the poles into the rings on the Ark’s side walls for carrying the Ark. The poles will remain in the rings of the Ark: they will never be removed from it.”

Only after Torah set forth the Ark’s poles and rings did Torah have the Ark receive the tablets of the Commandments.

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Why does Torah instruct never to remove the Ark’s poles from the rings? So the Ark always is ready to move on a moment’s notice, and so we can be ready to move with it. Moving is the way of the Ark. And why teach this truth before the Ark receives the tablets of the Commandments? So they also could move and not be stuck even for a moment.  

We all tend to get stuck and sometimes justify it: we even say that “tradition” or “spirituality” require things to be how they are. But our ancestors turned that idea on its head. The medieval Da’at Z’kenim held that Moses himself attached the Ark’s rings and poles, and that removing them even for an instant would sever our link to Moses!

Moving is the way of the Ark, the way of Moses, and the way of all spiritual life. As R. Marcia Prager put it, even movements are called movements because they’re supposed to move.

That was then; how about now? How do we build for spiritual mobility today and tomorrow?

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We start by recognizing the opposite of spiritual mobility, which is habituation, even numbness. Some spiritual habits encourage discipline and depth, while others grow numb and dull. The Ark’s poles and rings teach that we always must be ready and willing to move, to not get stuck.

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We can start small. Move chairs, reorient space, swap out tunes – maybe not all at once and never just for the sake of change, but to start feeling movement. It takes time for communities habituated to certain ways to feel resilience, but that’s what the Ark’s poles and rings ask.

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And don’t be content just moving the proverbial deck chairs. Design spiritual spaces to be open, flexible and adaptable. Make everything moveable. Even more, try going out from fixed spaces entirely: if the ancient Ark could move about nature, so can we. Build spiritual life with moments in the woods, in fields, at the shore, in homes and in public spaces. Communal spiritual spaces are important to community cohesion, but spiritual life is exactly about not being fixed in a place!

Just as Jewish places must move, so must Judaism. A Judaism that clings to preservation, that loses its ability to move and adapt on a moment’s notice, loses its link to Moses. Jewish life isn’t mainly about preservation but rather about change. When we forget that change is a core value of Jewish life, we risk losing our own links to what’s most important.

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So build for spiritual mobility. Build to move. When we build a Jewish spiritual life that can move, it can move us. Motion, for emotion, is the Sanctuary in which the holy can dwell among us.

 

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By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

 

 

First Build

With gratitude to our many collaborators, partners, friends, colleagues, teachers, advisors, and fellow builders:

First Build

First Build: Bayit Impact Report 2019 [pdf]

Our mission, and vision, and animating principles. Our inspirations, and our advisors. Our partners, and our funders. What we’ve done during our first year, and what we aim to do in year two. Where we’ve been, and blueprints for where we’re going.

Comments / questions welcome. We look forward to building with you in 2019.

(Download the PDF file above, or go to the Annual Reports page on the Bayit website.)

Building Light With Sapphire Bricks

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

A recent exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum reminded me of the potent spiritual power in building things, and how powerful the details can be – like color.

The featured exhibit was Infinite Blue and included diverse works of art – ancient Egyptian blue pottery, a 13th century altarpiece of Madonna draped in blue, and contemporary glass sculpture.  Each work of art demonstrated how the color blue can evoke a spiritual and powerful response.

Perhaps this is why blue is significant in Jewish tradition.  Blue was Creation’s first color: Creation’s first day was just light, but Creation’s second day brought sky and sea, both shining blue.  Blue was God’s first building block.

Blue threads through Jewish spiritual life.  Blue is the color of the thread (t’chelet tzitzit) in the prayer shawl (tallit).  Gazing on the blue thread reminds us to connect with Creation and Creator: the blue dye is an aide-mémoire of the bond between the Jewish people and the Holy One.

Blue’s most beguiling reference comes in Parshat Mishpatim, just after the Ten Commandments of Sinai.  Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and 70 elders ascend the holy mountain. There “they saw the God of Israel: under [God’s] feet there was the likeness of a sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir), like the essence of sky in purity” (Exodus 24:10).

The “brickwork” links back to the Exodus story, with Hebrew slaves stooped in mud pits making bricks to build storehouses for Pharaoh.  Mystics tell us that their muddy bondage was the 49th level of descent, just one level up from being forever lost.  From this low place, their cries drew God’s attention and ultimate liberation.

Ten plagues, three months and twenty-four chapters later, Israel’s leaders now stand in God’s presence.  Beneath God’s “feet” is blue sapphire brickwork.  Pharaoh’s bricks became God’s bricks: mud became light.  All at once, the image reminds them of the depths from which they came and the spiritual heights to which they have risen.

The sapphire brickwork is rigid and fixed in place.  It serves as a liminal boundary, a separation. Yet the sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir) also is translucent, letting in divine light filtered through to us as if through a prism.  In Hebrew, we can read livnat ha-sapir as l’vanat ha-sapir – the whiteness of the sapphire.  The blue of spiritual building transmits the white light of holiness.

Every activity in this physical universe potentially refracts this divine light.  When living our lives in divine service, we can achieve a satisfaction and pleasure we cannot achieve by our own self-serving efforts.

It was on Sinai that Moses and his cohort gazed on God’s likeness, reminding us also that many find spiritual connection in nature, whether viewing the sky from a mountaintop or watching waves reach the seashore. The challenge is to find spiritual connection in the works of our hands beyond the vistas of mountains, sea and sky.  Torah’s vision of sapphire brickwork urges us to find connection beyond God’s original creations.  Livnat HaSapir reminds us to discover our own transcendent connections in how we fashion Creation’s elements.

Whether our spiritual structures are sapphire stone, wood, metal or brick, every structure can serve – must serve – to remind us of the Source of All, the First Builder, and ancient bricks of mud transformed into bricks of light.

 

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By Rabbi Evan Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

The Spiritual Life is Lonely

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“A Foggy Passage” Simon Kingsworth

The farther you progress in the spiritual life, the lonelier it gets.

The topics that used to consume you may now only arouse faint interest. (How many books did I read about “the future of the church” in my late twenties and early thirties? Hundreds. How many have I read since we moved to the island three years ago? None.)

The dichotomies that used to agonize you now all seem like artificial constructions that obscure a deeper Truth. (Is this an outward work? An inward work? Is this love of God or love of neighbor? How do you balance work with rest? Anger with forgiveness?)

The conversations that used to energize you all deflate like sad little balloons, without enough hot air to keep them afloat anymore. (In my case, denominational politics, theological esoterica, and the over-earnest discussion of “what does it mean to be the church?”)

Instead, you find that your gaze turns inwards: to the places of deepest unspoken hurt, to the deeper comprehension of self, to the wrenching, painful work of giving up all those external attachments that you thought were You.

In the process, you also discover loneliness.

I’ve discovered that there are precious few people who are able to have those conversations about matters like this, much less engage in this work with the necessary degree of maniacal consistency.

After all, it is a journey that their friends will not encourage them to take, because it can strip them of the unspoken tribal prejudices and previously energizing interests upon which friendships are based.

After all, it is a journey which our society, built upon superficial urgency and the frantic pursuit of novelty, is designed to prevent. (Don’t believe me? How many times did you check your smartphone today? And how many of times did you check it because you grew uncomfortable, bored, upset, or disturbed with something which you would prefer be left unnamed?)

After all, it is a journey which their churches, which institutionally depend on busy people highly invested in externals, simply do not have the capacity to imagine.

And the journey is hard, because the road is terrifying. From the comfortable ruts of life, you emerge into a dangerous, dark wilderness of spirit, filled with monsters of your own making. The road ahead seems like no more than a vague trail (pray to God for something as clear as a vague trail!) with the road behind always clear as day, beckoning for you to come back to safer ground.

My experience? Most people, if they don’t have journey companions, will take a few steps on that terrifying trail, and then retreat back to the comfortable territory of their familiar existence, filled with friends and jobs, religious observances and books, momentary bursts of passion brought on by the novelty of a new spiritual idea, and the steady, familiar rhythm of prejudices and interests that were formed in childhood.

The problem is that God (and by God I most specifically the Love that birthed the universe, that birthed each of us, and that lies at the truest center of our being,) can only be encountered fully in that dark wilderness of spirit.

Ideally, our spiritual communities exist so that people can find companions and guides for exactly this journey; but maintaining that communal ethos requires spiritual vigilance and produces very few institutional returns. This is why the communities that call themselves churches have turned instead to peddling a hyper-commodified mass market version of themselves, so that people may learn to possess God rather than learning to let God possess them. (This may be true for other religious and a-religious traditions, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on this count.)

I’m thankful that I’ve found a community, albeit a temporary one, that has helped me take my first full steps into the wilderness of my own soul. I also hear an echo of loneliness, sometimes even terror, knowing that soon that community will come to an end, and it is not a given that I will find other people to journey with me.

I don’t have any reassurances for me, but I do have advice for you if who have heard God’s call to walk a deeper path, even if that call is heard only in whispers.

First, step out the door on that new road, even if all you have is a backpack full of questions.

Second, find some people. Be wary of the good church people. Look for the pones hovering around the edges (or the comfortably self-differentiated ones in the middle.) Look for the ones who talk more about God and about people and less about “church”. Look for the ones who have a smiling, self-deprecatory honesty. Look for the ones who seem like actual humans, not religious facsimiles of themselves.

Finally, ask them to join you on the journey. Some will look at you oddly. Some will say “no”; or say “yes” but actually mean “no” when they realize what is involved. But remember, God is gracious, and if God is pulling you into the wilderness, then God will send you a couple of people who might dare to say “yes” along with you: people who will pick you up when you stumble, or get lost, and point you back into the darkness and say “keep going”.

Because, in the end, this is really the only journey ultimately worth taking.

It is just as the great Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, says,

Out in front of us is the drama of [people] and of nations, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of [people] an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history.

It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of [humans]. Is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hill comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. it is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare…And always its chief is – the Eternal God of Love.

THOMAS KELLY. A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION. 1941.

 

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By Ben Yosua-Davis. Reposted with permission from A Glorious Mess.