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.

 

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.

 

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.