A Nation of Priests (Everybody Builds)

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

Question: How to build a special community that focuses on the transcendent?

Answer: Empower an entire nation!  And build spiritual life around this collective empowerment.

This idea might sound over the top, but it’s what this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) suggests.  Everyone in the people of Israel – men, women, children – are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and this “priest” we are to be is different from the priestly class in Torah.

If not the priestly class, what is this kind of “priest” we all are called to become?

A “priest” functions as intermediary between humanity and divinity.  When I think of that kind of “priest,” I think of someone to whom one might go for spiritual guidance, perhaps for assistance in navigating life from an ethical or holy perspective. I think of someone ordained to perform a role, a function on behalf of others in tackling the mysteries of life with zeal and holiness.

That kind of “priest” is a rarefied, limited role.  Whether for a “priestly class” defined by lineage, or a calling ripened by learning, that kind of “priestly” calling isn’t for everyone – and that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a priest, rabbi, pastor or imam. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a trash collector.  We’d have really clean streets, but not much else.

To date, my calling and daily routine involve a courtroom, not a bimah. I went to law school, not seminary.  Even so, Torah’s radical vision of a “kingdom of priests” suggests a kind of priesthood that is for everyone regardless of what we do for a living or what we think we can do.

This kind of “priest” isn’t a role but an identity.  It’s not a go-between or intermediary, but a way of being.  It’s a calling to seek the sacred and serve the sacred precisely in the lives we lead.

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This “priestly” calling asks me not to outsource my spirituality to anyone – even the people who take on a “priestly” role as pastor, rabbi or imam.  That’s Torah’s calling, for each person to live spiritually, and in that way become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But how?  How do we build in a way that reminds that we mustn’t outsource our “priestdom”? And what does this mean for how we build spiritual life?

One clue is in the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, from the Hebrew l’kahen (“to serve”).  A priest is one who serves: we are called to serve.  Whatever our paths in the world, we can understand our way in the world as a way of service.

If so, then we must build spiritual life for that.  We must build to empower everyone, and remind everyone that they are empowered – commanded – to serve in their own right.

What does that kind of building look like?

Maybe it looks like increased engagement and investment: one can’t be a priest, simultaneously a servant of the community and a spiritual leader, from a place of ignorance or uncaring.  That’s a calling to spiritual education.

Maybe it looks like teaching our kids (and ourselves) to speak not about God from a distance, but with God with the presumption of relationship.

Maybe it looks like linking social justice impulses with ritual time, so that at moments of ritual significance (like havdalah) we’re channeling our energy also into building a better world. Maybe it looks like a website that curates resources for lifecycle moments so that a spiritual seeker can access tradition’s wisdom at their fingertips wherever they are – whether home, vacation, or a hospital hallway. (Full disclosure: those two things are among Bayit’s first keystone initiatives.)

Maybe it looks like something we can’t yet imagine. As a “nation of priests,” we all get to shape what and how we build.  That’s Torah’s invitation to the nation of Israel, to all who wrestle with these fundamental questions.

As a “lay priest,” I explore paths my ancestors blazed. I make them my own, in ways that aspire to being spiritually open and vulnerable, building new structures on tradition’s foundations.  This task can’t succeed if only “professional Jews” — yesterday’s kohanim, or today’s rabbis — pick up the building mantle.

That’s Torah’s wisdom: only all of us together, all of us living into being “priests,” can live into the holy strength, vibrance and enduring relevance that is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So it was in the days of our ancestors, and so it is now and forever.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

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.

It’s Still About the Team: Re-building Leadership for Community Renewal

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

How can you build a community when the people have known nothing but hardship and slavery? Are promises of freedom and redemption enough? What does a people need to feel safe enough to step forward and begin something new?

These are timeless questions, from Moses’ struggle on behalf of the downtrodden Children of Israel until today, when communities around the globe are being rent apart by war and warlords. Syria and Central America may be half a world apart, but for the civilian populations, the result of a breakdown in the social order is the same – misery, desperation, and ultimately flight to places unknown in the hopes of finding a place to build a better life.

So too with the Children of Israel. They were enslaved for so long that when Moses brought God’s message of redemption they were unable to listen, because they experienced “shortness of spirit and cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:9

God’s promises to free the people, deliver them, redeem them, and take them into the land that God had promised to their forefathers, fell on deaf ears. They could not imagine building a new reality for themselves.

Even Moses was dispirited, and complained to God that the people wouldn’t listen to him, and moreover that he was “a man of impeded speech.”

Building something new takes courage, motivation, and the ability to stick with a task despite setbacks and impediments. Even the smallest projects require a concerted effort. To build a community? That takes many people working towards the same goal, each taking responsibility for their own part of the job, knowing that the disparate elements will come together to create a single whole. It takes leadership at all levels; one visionary alone cannot create a new reality without the support of others, both leaders and followers.

God knew that Moses was the right person for the job, but also knew that Moses couldn’t do it alone. So God built what today we would call a leadership team, consisting of God, Moses, and Aaron. And, according to modern feminist midrash, the team included Miriam, called niviyah, prophetess, when she led the women in song after the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Together, God and the three siblings were able to build up the peoples’ confidence until they were ready to leave Egypt. The ten plagues were more than a display of power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The plagues – which affected only the Egyptians and not the Children of Israel – were signs to the slaves that their cause was just, that their leaders had the strength and courage to help them build a new reality for themselves.

As we read the story of their flight from slavery to freedom, we know that there will be bumps in the road. Again and again, the peoples’ will fails them, and it will fall upon the shoulders of their leaders to ensure the success of their audacious venture. Although most of the time it is Moses who takes the brunt of their complaints, both Aaron and Miriam will have opportunities to step forward and help lead the people.

This is the genius of the leadership team that God built, and it offers a blueprint for today’s community-builders. Each of the siblings had different gifts. Moses had terrific leadership skills, but he couldn’t do it alone. He needed Aaron’s talents as a peace-maker and Miriam’s strengths as a nurturer.

As a pulpit rabbi, I quickly learned that I could not lead my congregation without the help and support of a strong group of lay leaders. Together, we have built a community that encourages its members – both long-time and newcomers – to step into leadership roles.

As our community grows and we build new lines of connection amongst ourselves, we keep in mind that building a community is an ongoing process, and requires a constant influx of new members, new ideas, and new leaders.

This does not mean that transitions are easy.  Change can be frightening. It takes strong leaders to help communities flourish and welcome new people, new ideas, new ways of viewing the world.  

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Today I believe that our nation is at a crossroads, floundering as our leaders refuse to understand the value of welcoming people who are different, and who have forgotten the stirring words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

Sadly, the people seeking refuge in our nation today are not being met with open arms. Instead, they are met by walls and barriers, both physical and psychological. They are trying to enter a country that has chosen to turn them away, to deny their humanity and treat them like vermin, not human beings.

People are flocking to our borders, seeking safety and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, they are undertaking arduous, dangerous journeys to a place they have never seen.

The crimes against humanity that are being perpetuated by our own government are tearing down what America has striven to build. It represents an utter disregard for the promise that the builders of our nation made to themselves and to their descendants, that this would be a place where new ideas could take seed and the social experiment that is democracy could flourish.

The challenge is clear. Our task is to seek out and support leaders who are willing to rebuild that which is in danger of being destroyed. May we be blessed with the courage and strength to do so.

 

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Calling Us To Becoming

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

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, Moses has an encounter with the bush that burns but is not consumed. A Voice speaks to him from the bush, telling him to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the children of Israel.

IMG_0037When Moses asks who shall he say is sending him, God responds  אהיה אשר אהיה / ehyeh asher ehyeh — sometimes translated “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” or “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” In this name of God there’s a deep message for us as builders.

When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. 

We who seek to build the future of Judaism need to be attuned both to our own becoming (our personal / internal / spiritual growth and change), and to the becoming and change that are part of Judaism’s growth and renewal in every age. An overfocus on our own personal becoming can feed a spiritual narcissism that’s all about “me, me, me” — which is why we need to ensure that our own becoming is in service of that larger becoming to which the Jewish future calls us.

IMG_0035Tradition teaches that in every era “the Voice continues to sound from Horeb.” (1 Kings 19) Revelation wasn’t a singular thing that happened once and then was done. It’s always happening, as God is always becoming, as we are always growing and listening and receiving. Reb Zalman z”l used to say that God broadcasts on all channels — and we receive that broadcast when we attune ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound.

And as we attune to that broadcast, we’ll hear the call to grow and change and build: not for the sake of ego, but for the sake of the future of Judaism itself. In every age, it’s incumbent on us to build a Judaism that’s authentic, balancing ancient with new. In this age, one of the calls we hear is to build a Judaism that embraces all gender expressions. That’s some of our tradition’s “becoming” that couldn’t be fully expressed in earlier eras — but we can build that Judaism now.

We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

IMG_0036The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?

Just as God is always-becoming, so must our Judaism be always-becoming. Never static; always growing toward being a greater expression of our highest values. One of the values that animates us at Bayit is radical inclusivity as we seek to build a Judaism that can sustain our hearts and souls even in changing times. When you tune your inner radio to the Voice that continues to sound from Sinai (and from the burning bush), what values call you to build?

What do you want your Judaism to be becoming?

 

By Rachel Barenblat and Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Every Team Needs a Build; Every Build Needs a Team

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

The Torah portion known as Vayechi offers the conclusion of the dramatic family narrative of the book of Genesis. Jacob knows he will die soon, and calls in his family to provide them with blessings. Encoded in these blessings is an essential piece of sage advice about how to build thriving communities that live on after the death of a charismatic founder: members must recognize that everyone has a role to play that’s unique to their particular talents and interests. In building language: every build requires a build team, and everyone on the build team has gifts to bring.

Though this parsha is titled “Vayechi,” “and he [Jacob] lived,” it’s actually about Jacob’s death. The Midrash explains: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the days of the righteous die, but they do not die… It does not say, ‘and Israel drew near to die,’ but ‘the days of Israel drew near to die.’” This midrash is saying that though we die physically, we can live on through the lives we have touched and through the things we have built that can continue to transform the world

The same message appears in Joan Baez’s song “Joe Hill,” about the famous union organizer: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me says I but Joe, you’re ten years dead. I never died says he, I never died, says he.” The song and the midrash express the same truth: a builder’s spirit lives on through what they have built. And this week’s parsha offers a lesson on how to keep that spirit alive: each inheritor of any builder’s vision has a unique role to play.

Right before he dies, Jacob calls together all of his sons, each of whom will go on to found one of the twelve tribes. To each he gives an essential piece of wisdom about their particular role to play in the sustenance of the people of Israel — for example: “Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor…” or “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise.”

Throughout Genesis, Torah has explored the question of who inherits a builder’s legacy.  Isaac and Ishmael fought over Abraham’s legacy. Jacob and Esau fought over Isaac’s legacy. In each of those first two generations, only one brother could inherit. Here at the end of Genesis, Torah offers a new answer, and a way for community to remain intact. Everyone inherits Jacob’s legacy in their own unique way. Everyone has a role to play.

Jacob’s wisdom is embedded in Bayit’s founding principles. Every build needs a team, and “[m]ore than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.” As we do the work of spiritual building — both building the spiritual future, and doing the actual building in a way that expresses our spiritual values — we must value each person’s unique gifts and skills. We must build in a way that honors teamwork and collaboration. We must build with recognition that spiritual building isn’t a zero-sum game where only one person can inherit. On the contrary: the only way to build the spiritual future for which our hearts and souls yearn is together.

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There is risk in this kind of building. The Occupy movement, which had great potential for social and political transformation, fizzled in part because excessive egalitarianism led to a leadership vacuum. In science fiction terms, if everyone is an identical drone in the hive, you wind up with Star Trek’s The Borg. Better, if Star Trek is the model, to be like the Starship Enterprise — “boldly going where no one has gone before,” and doing so in a way that includes and honors a wide variety of skills, talents, and roles.

That’s the blessing that Jacob gave to his sons: permission to each bring their own gifts and skills to the work of building the Jewish future. That’s the blessing that we seek in our day, too. Every build team needs an architect, a blueprint, a variety of differently-skilled craftspeople — and the right balance of following visionary plans, and being willing to adapt the plans as needed. May we, like Jacob’s sons (and like the crew of the Enterprise!), honor our variety of skills, gifts, and roles. Then we can build with audacity and humility in appropriate balance, “boldly going” where the future calls, with firm foundations that will help spirits soar.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building a Temple from Tears

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

The Torah is filled with instructions for building the Mishkan, G-d’s “dwelling place” that our ancestors carried in the wilderness, but those blueprints don’t provide measurements of the emotional dimensions needed to build that holy space within our hearts. It often feels like the walls we have constructed, to protect that space, are more permanent than the walls of the original Mishkan, designed to create an inviting space.

There are few things that penetrate our hearts more powerfully than the wailing cries of a child. We hear and witness the holy purity and unfiltered truth of their experience in real time. It is this portal into the honest rawness and exposed feelings of human vulnerability that naturally move us to open up our own emotional channels.

IMG_3665Tears can be powerful, cleansing, and soulful. They can also be the result of overwhelming pain. Regardless of the part of us that hurts, it is the eyes that cry. No other part of our body is as sensitive to the basic material of the physical world. Even one speck of dirt in the eye can be excruciating and incapacitating, where it would go completely unnoticed nearly everywhere else on the body.

Our Rabbis teach that we come into this world crying because the soul feels the pain of just being forced into this physical and constrained space of a body. Crying, it seems, is also a bridge back to that spiritual habitat. The Talmud teaches that although the gates of prayer are sometimes shut, the gates of tears are never closed. If so, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, why then do they need gates at all? He answers that only true, heartfelt tears are let in. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word for crying (בכי) has the same numerical value as the word for heart (לב).

So why in this week’s Torah portion didn’t Jacob cry with his son Joseph, when they are finally reunited? The verse (Genesis 46:29) observes that “Joseph harnessed his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel, and he appeared to him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.” Rashi comments that while Joseph wept greatly, continuously, and more than usual – Jacob however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him but instead said the Shema.

When we recite the Shema, we close our eyes and give testimony to our faith and total commitment to the One that we can’t see, but know to be the source of it all.

שמע ישראל ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד

The large “עand “ד” spell the words for “witness” and “knowledge”. Saying the Shema is IMG_3663a demonstration of our inner truth and willingness to serve G-d “With all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might”.

The six letters of the first and last words are an acronym for six people who sacrificed their lives in the service of G-d, and were miraculously saved . These two words are 1 also acronyms for the six different literal sacrifices that were offered in the Temple , 2 often compared to the neck, where we are told heaven and earth are connected.

Perhaps Jacob’s absence of tears wasn’t a denial of a shared experience, with his son, but rather an expression of it.

The verse can be read as “Shema Yisroel”, “Israel (Jacob) heard”: he listened, he internalized, and he responded with a complete focus of reunification with the ultimate source of goodness, healing, and power. This is one of the interpretations of Chanukah- “חנוכה” an application (חנו) of the 25 (כה) letters of the Shema.

The Greeks wanted to darken the eyes of the Jewish people. In response the Maccabees rededicate the Temple and brought forth miraculous light. The Midrash teaches that G-d told Israel that once the Temple is destroyed, G-d will desire that we say the Shema, twice a day, and it will be an elevation greater than the sacrifices themselves. That’s the path that Jacob models here: eyes closed, heart open.

IMG_3664The temple for our soul, our Rabbis teach, is in our eyes. This is perhaps why our tradition instructs us to close the eyes of a person, once their soul has returned to its source. However, as long as our heart beats, it must beat for the collective, to see the pain of another’s, as our own.

Too often we limit our vision of what we see as possible. When we connect and partner with the Omnipresent (המקום), not only is there comfort but there is a true sense of empowerment. When we look out into the world, whether our heart feels moved to tears or not, we must feel the responsibility to each other, and be willing to make an offering, because of our relationship with G-d.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Teves, the day tradition has it that Jacob is buried. It is also the month that is ruled by the letter “ע” and the power of a deeper sight. We must constantly rededicate our temple, allowing our soul to hear, granting it permission to cry, and letting our tears flow to form a path forward to soothe the pain of all of G-d’s children.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.