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”

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. 

First Build: Seven Foundation Principles for Spiritual Builders

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

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We’re all stardust, re-mixed chemical elements forged in some distant supernova.  We’re all broken shards, fallen from the primordial shattering. We’re all reflected light, glimmering with the Source of Light.  We’re all builders, making and re-making the world one brick and one breath at a time.

Whatever your metaphor for who we are and what we do, your metaphor probably grounds in the foundation of some first principle – some First Build of mind and identity.

For us at Bayit, our first principle is that we – us and you – are builders of the Jewish future.  So this year, for a whole year, we’ll mine Torah’s wisdom for lessons about building and builders.

As the Torah cycle begins anew with Parshat Bereishit, we begin as Torah begins – with the primordial building story that is the Creation at Torah’s very beginning (“a very good place to start“).  One translation opens, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the land was a jumbled mess, with darkness on the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God hovered…” (Gen. 1:1-2).  Then came light, sky, sea, land, vegetation, stars, sun and moon, fish and birds, land creatures and first humans – a primordial building of sorts.

Reading this Creation story through a builder’s lens, we needn’t be architects or contractors to find a master plan for how to build.  Here are seven foundation principles for building the Jewish future.

  1. Expect a Mess – and Learn to Love It.  

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Look carefully: Creation began not by making a jumbled mess but from a jumbled mess.  The mess pre-existed Creation!  Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, famously teaches that we – and divinity, and everything in the world – are in the “chaos to cosmos” business.  Because chaos pre-existed creation and inheres in creation, the definition of soulful “building” is to use tools that evolve chaos toward order. But chaos and disorder aren’t enemies: they’re the foundation of all creation and all building.  Put another way, physicists meet Artson at the Second Law of Thermodynamics: chaos (“entropy”) inherently increases in any system, and without it Creation would get stuck.  Thus, everything we ever could build rests on a shaky foundation – and that’s great!  We need disorder’s arrow to slowly wear down everything one builds to keep us priming the pump of energy, building and re-building for tomorrow rather than yesterday.  

That’s why every builder must learn to love entropy – or in Clay Christensen‘s economics language, every builder must learn to love disruptive innovation.  If we do, then we’ll build in ways that are naturally flexible and open, with give in the joints rather than excess inner fixity that can become brittle.  We’ll learn to build not any “one and done” structure but rather as an unending process of inclusion, a lifestyle rather than a fixed structure. That’s why Jewish life always must be “under construction.”

  1. Have a Plan, Then Improvise.

IMG_3199Medieval mystics read the Creation story as a blueprint, a plan in the Divine Mind that preceded the actual work.  Building starts not with the first nail, but with the first inner impulse that ripens into an image – then a plan, then the first nail.  While plans can be designed as flexible, much like jazz can riff off a musical structure, plans and structures have their place.  Any other result is mere chaos or avant garde masquerading as creativity.  

Medieval mystics also read the Creation story as a first attempt and then second attempt.  Genesis 1 tells a different Creation story than Genesis 2, which inspired sacred myths that God tried a first Creation, failed and then tried a second Creation.  While the Documentary Hypothesis has much to offer about how Torah was edited and canonized, the telling of this “second Creation” approach over the centuries – about an ostensibly perfect God who’d try, fail and try again – should get our attention.  If God can try and try again, and not be irrevocably wedded to a “first Creation,” perhaps we can hold our building a little gently too.

  1. Design for Practical Phasing.  

IMG_3200Imagine if Creation had started with humanity, then vegetation, then firm land, then the sun, then light.  Of course it couldn’t work: primordial humanity would have no land to stand on or food to eat; then food would exist but float without land or sunlight by which to grow; then the sun would glow but dark.  None of this makes sense, which is the point. Creation reflects the need to think ahead and build in sequence based on function. Just as contractors can’t raise a roof without walls, or walls without a foundation, so the building of Jewish life needs a functional and rational sequence.

What does your creation need as its foundation?  What steps must follow? How will your design-build process evolve necessary structure to enforce that sequence, without becoming so rigid that the building loses joy and needed flexibility?  The reason so many ideas fail isn’t the idea but the execution. Buildings without good grounding and disciplined construction tend to be mere castles in the sky where nobody can live, or sand castles too easily eroded.

  1. Assess Clearly, Honestly and Through Others Different From You.

IMG_3212The Creator didn’t just create and pack up.  After each phase of building, the Torah narrative stops and recounts that “God saw that [the current phase of creation] was good.”  Why? It’s not enough to build: builders also must take stock and be accountable – to original plans, to the actual thing being built, to users and to history.  If medieval mystics got it right, then maybe the Creator’s “first creation” was adjudged unworthy and insufficient.

But frank assessment is hard.  Often we see ourselves in what we create, and we judge our creations either too charitably or too harshly based on how we see ourselves.  In this understanding, only God is a perfect witness and mirror (Ibn Ezra, Gen. 1:4): everyone else needs clear assessment tools that don’t depend on self-assessment or groupthink.

  1. Take the Right Kind of Break.

IMG_3197Building is perpetual – forever under construction – but not necessarily continuous.  Even the Creator modeled taking a day off. Jewish tradition calls it Shabbat, and on that day God “rested” (Gen. 2:2-3) – or sat, or returned – and then “re-ensouled” (Ex. 31:17).

Every builder needs time off from building, but for the sake of taking a specific kind of breather.  The “breather” that builders need is the re-ensouling kind – the kind that honors the ebb and flow of the creative impulse, the kind that incubates the next pulse of creation, the kind that comes from soulfulness rather than mere industry, ambition or momentum.  Figure out what that kind of “breather” means for you: it probably won’t mean just sitting there.

  1. Failure Isn’t Failure: Go Forward, Not Back.

IMG_3195Some things won’t work, but that’s not failure if we learn and adapt.  Theologians and Biblical scholars might debate forever whether God’s tussle with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was a “failure” and, if so, whose failure.  (Far from a “fall from grace,” maybe God intended or even hoped that fledgling humanity would eat the “forbidden fruit” and attain consciousness: how often did you learn only by pushing back?)  Regardless, the point was to go forward: whatever happened in Eden, there was no going back. The Creator even positioned cherubim with flaming swords at Eden’s entrance to block their way back (Gen. 3:24). 

So too for our own building adventures.  When things don’t go as planned, there’s no going back – and, what’s more, we needn’t want to.  Whatever breaking or mishap life may bring, there’s a future waiting to be built – and it’s important enough to merit angels stationed to point the way.

  1. Yeah, You Are Your Siblings’ Keeper.

IMG_3196Build teams are teams.  The rhetorical question that Cain asked God after killing his brother, Abel  – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) – has echoed throughout history.  And the Creator’s tacit answer is yes: we’re not meant to build alone, and jealousy has no rightful place in building the future.  The human-spiritual design so plainly intends us to be and build in community that even Cain, destined to wander aimlessly, miraculously settled down with a wife (created by Whom?) and birthed a new lineage.  

So take care of your build team, even and especially when relationships tug and fray.  More than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.

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Welcome to this new year of building together – with beloved messiness, plans carefully crafted and ditched, practical phasing, frank assessment, wise breaks, leaning forward beyond failure, and caring for each other.  Now, let’s pick up a hammer: next week, there’s an Ark to build.

DEM2 Silbert

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by builder Steve Silbert.