Power Tools for Spiritual Building

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

The first weeks of Bayit’s Builder’s Blog harvested keystone principles about building the Jewish future – from primordial foundations of building, to where and with whom spiritual neighborhoods create community.

Now it’s time to build – but what and how?  Parshat Mikeitz offers answers: first build a granary to store food for the future, and powerfully organize community to make it work.

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Torah’s plot is familiar.  Pharaoh lifts Joseph from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Joseph foretells of famine. Pharaoh empowers Joseph to save Egypt.  For seven years, Joseph stores grain as a pikadon (reserve) (Gen. 41:36).  As the 19th century Malbim recognizes, this reserve was as much for the land as for the people: otherwise both would starve (Malbim Gen. 41:36).  

Because Pharaoh and Joseph acted with powerful resolve, Egypt had a future and therefore so did the Children of Israel, who came to Egypt in desperate search for food when famine hit.  Had Pharaoh and Joseph not acted, there might be no Jewish future.

Had Pharaoh not empowered Joseph to build Egypt’s reserves, there might be no future.  We learn that effective leaders must delegate, empower, trust and back away. This same pattern will repeat to build the Mishkan: God tells Moses and also empowers Betzalel (Tribe of Judah) and Oholiav (Tribe of Dan) (Ex. 31:1-6).  Building requires diversity and teamwork.

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Had Pharaoh not lifted Joseph from jail, there might be no future.  Pharaoh instead might have turned to his royal court, well-known people of seemingly high stature.  Sometimes needed skills, tools and powers come from outside our native circles and comfort zones.

Had Pharaoh acted mainly for himself, there might be no future.  Pharaoh easily could have sought to protect his own hide, but instead he and Joseph acted to save others.  (Granted, they later centralized power and dispossessed land owners: we’ll get to that.) Effective builders cannot legitimately use power to build only for themselves.

Had Pharaoh sunk in despair or blindly clutched optimism, there might be no future.  Both despair and excess optimism inhibit needed action. Effective builders must harness the power to see needs clearly and act decisively.

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Had Pharaoh and Joseph not enforced structure, there might be no future.  Had each Egyptian been left to decide how much grain to keep for oneself, there might be too little: the result would be starvation, violence and national decline.  Rules matter and must be enforced for the public good. Without wise use of power to enforce rules, people needlessly suffer.

Spiritual building requires both the power of vision – without vision, we perish (Proverbs 29:18) – and the power to translate vision into reality.  Spiritual building balances powerful physical and societal forces always at play: only in careful balance can structures and systems stay stable and nimble, sturdy and with just enough give in the joints to move when they must move.  To balance these forces, spiritual building needs the power to uplift and deploy expertise, teamwork and discipline. Thus, wise spiritual building requires capacity to design and enforce structure lest powers become unwieldy or abusive, or appetites exhaust finite resources, or inertia drive structures off shifting foundations.

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Builders with these power tools can build and thrive for the future.  Builders without these power tools will starve and die out: they will have no future.

I confess discomfort with these words.  With 25 years of experience in public life, I know that power risks danger: left to its own devices, human power tends to aggrandize itself and grow rife with abuse.  Even Pharaoh and Joseph, whose decisive action saved life, also used the crisis to dispossess Egyptians and seize their land (Gen. 47:13-20) – which has fueled much debate about the Biblical economics of coercion and opportunism.

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Especially today, when abuses of power seem like daily news items, cynicism about power and “powerful” people has become a fixture in modern life.  Our challenge and opportunity – and the urgent call of this time of Jewish, societal and planetary change – is to rectify our collective relationship with power.  Too little power to effect change and we’ll starve both spiritually and literally. Too much power wielded wrongly, without balance from outside itself, also can destroy.

It will take tremendous power to reorient political life and spiritual life to build better for the future.  Thus, if we’re to build a better world, first we must shed fear of power.

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Power is a tool, and we must not fear to use the right tool for the right job.  Like most tools, the practical and moral value of power depends on how we use it.  Power tools comes in two forms – control (power over) and capacity (power to).  Builders must use both kinds of power tools in balanced and careful measure: one without the other builds nothing

That’s the deep meaning I find in the Chanukkah haftarah about Zerubavel, Persian governor of Judea who laid the Second Temple’s cornerstone after return from exile in the early 500s BCE.  Zerubavel received an angelic message: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God” (Zecharia 4:6).  He learned that power flows from the Source: as the angel continued, only by that power flow can ground become “level” on which to build the future (Zecharia 4:7).

Power tools – both the power of control and the power of capacity – are holy.  They don’t belong any of us: they come on loan from their Source, and we must use them in that spirit.  

IMG_3637Only by skillfully using these power tools could Pharaoh and Joseph build and fill granaries for the future of Egypt and the Children of Israel.  Only by responsibly using power tools on loan from their Source could Zerubavel “level” the ground and begin building the Second Temple. Only by using our own power tools likewise can we build wisely for the future of Judaism, and for a planet that urgently needs wise use of power.

So power up, everyone.  Use your power tools wisely: it’s the only way to build.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

The Neighborhood of Spiritual Life

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

Most architects and builders say that where they build shapes what they build.  As for physical structures, so for spiritual ones: where we live can powerfully shape our Jewish lives.  

My parents chose to make a home in a suburban town that was mostly Jewish, what we endearingly call a shtetl.   My public high school was nearly 90% Jewish. The bagel store was next to a kosher deli.  Several synagogues were in walking distance of our house. Within our walls were indicia of a Jewish home.  Our books were most often written by Jewish authors: Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Leon Uris. Friday dinner was baked chicken and Sunday dinner was Chinese.

My identity formed by immersion in a community where the ideas and values shared began from Jewish reference points. Yiddishisms helped define relationships, social status informed politics, and everything was measured by what is good for the Jews. In a community so heterogeneous, being Jewish was both comfortable and cautious.  

Today fewer progressive Jews experience that kind of close knit community, Outside of Orthodox Jewry, more Jews live in culturally diverse and spiritually depleted communities. Social change is driving a new demographic reality still reverberating through Jewish life: when Jews can live most anywhere, many will live far from communities with strong Jewish centers of gravity.  What will geographic dispersion mean for Jewish life? As Jews disperse, what will happen to Jewish community?

We’ve been asking this question for centuries: today’s Jews aren’t the first to move. What can we learn from history’s builders about building on the move?

Finding New Neighborhoods

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev), Judah, son of Jacob, moves away from his family and settles in foreign territory (Gen. 38:1).  He takes a Canaanite wife and lives among the Canaanites.  Maybe Judah wished to distance himself from his brothers’ awful treatment of Joseph.  (Only Judah stood against killing him.) Or perhaps Judah wanted to advance his financial position.  To Rashi, Judah and Hirah, an Adullamite, entered into an economic arrangement (Rashi Gen. 38:1), and only then did Judah find a wife and begin raising a family of his own.

Rashi’s explanation resonates.  Throughout history, Jews wandered in search of stability and opportunity. Jewish connections as merchants and traders made Jews vital to state economies and planted Jewish neighborhoods around the globe. Today, progressive Jews also make homes based on opportunities, even if opportunities bring them to places with few other Jews.

Judah’s move to a new neighborhood didn’t work out so well. Two of his sons died. He became estranged from his daughter in law. He lived apart from his birth family and without their support.  Maybe his move made him wealthy but it offered him little peace or spiritual sustenance.

Jewish history teaches that a thriving life depends on healthy connections that link individuals to what community can offer.  Our ancestors knew that vibrant communities were so vital that they limited where Jews can live (Sanhedrin 17b):

A Torah scholar may only live [somewhere] with these 10 things: a beit din (court)…, a tzedakah fund…, a synagogue, a bath house (mikveh), a bathroom, a doctor, a craftsperson, a blood-letter, a butcher, and a teacher of children.

Even 1,500 years ago, our ancestors knew that we can’t depend on ourselves alone. A flourishing life needs justice and charity system, houses of worship and purification rituals, health care, art, quality food, education and more.  Only from these core supports can we build strong and vibrant lives. And lest we think that these principles apply only to some, our tradition made clear that everyone can be a “Torah scholar,” so these ideas apply to all. Everyone needs others.

Much has changed in 1,500 years, but not bedrock spiritual principles. More now than ever, we must be wise architects of our lives. We must drive posts of social strength deeply into our spiritual bedrock. We still must tend the community’s master plan, review its spiritual zoning, and carefully measure distances to core  institutions. As realtors say, it’s still about “location, location, location.”

But I worry.  I worry that as social structures weaken and people scatter, Judaism is losing one of its strongest pillars: a community focus.  While Judaism also uplifts each individual body, heart, mind and spirit, Jewish lifeblood is still community. It’s about the interaction between neighbors that we identify as Jewish, like taking responsibility for each other in times of need and meeting at the gym in the Jewish community center.  It is about how we host Jewish book clubs and proudly declare our charitable giving on plaques and in synagogue bulletins.

Rapid social change, family dispersion and weakening of community institutions fuel loss of meaning and an epidemic of loneliness.  We’re losing not only Jewish neighborhoods but also the Jewish idea of “location” itself.

Rebuilding Jewish Ideas of Location

As technologies continue to reshape every aspect of life, we’ll want to steer their impacts on Jewish ways.  We can adapt. When 1950s Jews moved to suburban areas too far to walk to synagogue, the Conservative Movement decided to allow travel by car for the purpose of sustaining a praying community.

Technology is accelerating quickly: science advanced more since 1950 than in the prior 500 years. Today high-speed internet can stream Shabbat services, make virtual shiva minyanim and connect teachers with students anywhere.  Whole libraries are instantly available online.  E-commerce can ship most ritual items and kosher products anywhere.

So maybe we don’t need to live down the street from the kosher butcher anymore (if we still eat meat), but Jewish life is far more than conveniences and proximity to Jewish institutions.  It’s still about Jewish rhythms, values and ideas. How will we, our children and their children experience the rhythms of Jewish living and learn Jewish values and ideas without residing down the street from each other?  How will we feel and teach the strength of community if we don’t bring soup to sick neighbors, make shiva calls and build Jewish community centers?  Digital connections can be real, but the greatest power of enduring community is the commonplace visceral experience of in person contact.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m not afraid of the questions.  We’ll need to figure out how to harness technology to build new “locations” where we all can dwell together in the diversity of communities that we can’t simply turn off.  We’ll need to confront technologies and cultural dynamics that disconnect us more than they connect us. We’ll need to learn how to drive the pillars of our lives into Judaism’s communitarian bedrock even when more and more pillars are made of pixels.

I’m also unafraid of the bold experiments we’ll need if they progress alongside personal connectedness.  Yes to online talmud study and let’s try virtual minyanim, so long as we will still value our shared in person experiences from attending a chuppah to hosting a Yom Kippur break fast. We just might have to travel a bit further to get there than did our grandparents’ generation.

If we restructure our tradition with an awareness of the benefits of physical community, then the neighborhood of the future will feel every bit like home.

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By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Collective Spiritual Foundations: Re-Mixing the Cement

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

Look under any building and you’ll see its foundation.  Look deeper: you’ll see architectural plans. Look even deeper: you’ll see some impulse that the builder wanted to bring to life.  Look even deeper than that: see the values, hopes and assumptions that shaped the impulse to build.

We learn this: as we build the spiritual future, sometimes we must re-build the values, hopes and assumptions of building.  Only then can we be sure to build on a foundation that’s stable and strong for today rather than just yesterday.

That kind of vision, and the courage to re-vision the foundation, might be the most important tool in the spiritual builder’s toolkit.  This week’s extraordinary Torah portion (Vayishlach) teaches me so: it’s visioning and building for tomorrow, not for yesterday, that matter most.

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This paresha opens as Jacob is to face his estranged twin brother, Esau. Jacob will wrestle with… someone. He will reconcile with his brother… sort of.  His daughter will be raped and his sons will exact what they wrongly think is justice. Our ancestors lived rich and eventful lives!

Much of Jacob’s life was the wrestle for which he’d be re-named, the name that Israel carries today.  From the start, Jacob wanted what wasn’t his: first-born privileges, strength, power the blessing of a father to his own first-born son.  Then at Peni’el (“God turns to face me”), Jacob wrestled.  Was it a dream? a meditation? a physical-level encounter?  Whatever happened, it wrenched his hip, and he’d never walk the same way again.

Jacob’s hip injury got my attention, because usually wrestling injuries most affect the shoulder.  Why the hip? Maybe Jacob’s limp reminded himself – and us – that Jacob changed. Jacob no longer could walk in the world without a subtle but clear message to others that he’s different.

Modern social science and psychology teach that vital to any communication is body language.  Jacob’s limp is an outwardly visible token of an inner message. Seeing Jacob’s limp, we can see Jacob’s change from afar.  As Baal Shem Tov’s disciples taught, “legs” and “habits” hail from the same Hebrew word (regel).  Habits are difficult to change, but aspirations can change in a flash, a moment of clarity.  Maybe so for Jacob: he saw a light – Peni’el: God turned to face him.  He emerged limping on his legs (“habits”): in just one night, new aspirations were born that would begin to grow immediately.

Jacob next saw his brother.  He responded to seeing Esau’s army not with fear and dread but with conciliation, embracing and crying.  Teshuvah, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

For a brief moment: their reunion passed and they parted.  In the words of poet and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat,

“And again the possibility

Of inhabiting a different kind of story

Vanished into the unforgiving air.”

What do we learn from this?  While often Jacob is a model for us, not all of Jacob’s life is equally worthy of emulation.  When the occasion presents to build a bridge of healing to the past, build it – and then travel it as fully as you can.  Don’t let the moment go.

Jacob was right to seize his “Esau moment,” but what if the Jacob-Esau encounter hadn’t ended?

Imagine a different history if Jacob had built a future with Esau.  What might have become of Dinah? Of Shechem and their men? Jewish-Israelite history might have looked very different.

Too many Jews today aren’t finding a nourishing spiritual home in the Judaism they inherited. This is almost inconceivable to me: Judaism has been at the forefront of building bridges to the Eternal, rethinking our place in this universe, and in Rav Kook’s words, “Making the old new the new holy.”

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Think about it.  Since when did Judaism forget its own history of remaking itself?  The judges, prophets, Mishnah and Talmud all were new in their epochs.  Rashi (11th century) was new in his day; Maimonides (12th century) was new in his: he even wrote a “Second Mishnah” that to his mind was clearer and more evolved than the first!  Zohar and the Jewish mystics were new (1300s – 1500s). Hasidism was new (1700s- 1800s). The Reform movement (late 1700s and early 1800s). Denominations. The State of Israel.

Do we forget that every encounter with history changed Israel’s path?  Do we forget that we’ve been building for thousands of years? We rarely seem to forget when we limp, but too often we seem to forget that we’re on a Change Mission.  Always we’ve built a new future – not an old one! And now in the 21st century, today’s time of spiritual challenge perhaps unlike any other in our history, we must re-learn that lesson for tomorrow.

The Judaism we need for tomorrow doesn’t leave Jacob’s “Esau moment” behind.  We must ask: what and whom are we excluding in spiritual life that now we must help re-include?  To me, the values, hopes and assumptions that shape the impulse to build that kind of inclusive future trace back to the moment that Jacob and Esau parted without building a future together.

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As spiritual builders, we must be courageous enough to see whom we’ve left behind and make teshuvah.  This “return” doesn’t mean just apologizing and crying: it means re-including – not leaving again.  Only then can we build the Judaism that tomorrow really needs – a richly spiritual and inclusive Judaism that unifies and heals.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Our Two-Story Houses: Becoming Ladders for Spiritual Ascent

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

I’m a fan of two-story houses.  I enjoy some separation from the busy “functional” part of the house, while my husband prefers the ease of having “practical” things accessible on one level.  Our new ranch-style home seemed a perfect solution: single-level living with an upstairs perch – a sunny loft, my very own ‘’second story.” I love my little retreat in the sky filled with comfy furniture, books and music.

IMG_3483But I rarely use it myself, and it’s impractical for me to invite others to join me there. Do I love my loft more in theory than in reality, or is getting up there just too much of a challenge to be useful?  The only access to the loft is a heavy ladder that must be wrestled awkwardly into place each time we wish to ascend.

I admit some “ladder envy” when engaging with this week’s Torah portion and the description of Jacob’s iconic vision (Vayeitzei).  If only a mystical staircase would appear to connect the loft to the rest of our house. (While we’re asleep, no less!) And, to dive into Torah’s metaphor of connecting “above” with “below,” if only we all had easy tools for spiritual ascent.

Then again, maybe we do.

The Jacob we encounter this week doesn’t begin in a good place.  He alienated his family and enraged his brother. He flees. As the sun sets and darkness descends, Jacob makes camp: he sets stones to protect his head and lays down for the night.  There he experiences his famous dreamscape vision: the heavens open, a ladder appears and reaches skyward, angels ascend and descend, and the Divine Presence appears at the top. Jacob hears God promise to be with him wherever he goes.  Jacob wakes and affirms God’s presence:

“Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.  How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:15-17).

IMG_3481Sulam Yaakov

We call it Sulam Yaakov, Jacob’s Ladder, although he himself neither builds it nor climbs it. More accurately, it is God’s ladder – to enlighten Jacob, to awaken him to God’s presence on earth.  Narrowly read, we might think Jacob was shown only an isolated “place” (in Hebrew, makom) where heaven and earth connect.  Indeed, rabbinic tradition makes much of that geographic place, associating it with the Akedah (binding of Isaac), Sinai, the Holy Temples and more.  

But Jacob’s actions the next morning reveal a higher truth.  

The ladder had disappeared and the “real world” remained as it was.  Yet Jacob designates the now seemingly ordinary place as “none other than Beit El” (House of God).  He further vows if God leads and protects Jacob, then Jacob will believe and dedicate himself and his possessions to God’s service (Gen. 28:20-22).  

Tradition holds that Jacob’s vow still indicates his “conditional faith,” that he was still trying to bargain and even manipulate just as he had with the family he was fleeing. I offer a different read.

Building and Becoming

Jacob’s words indicate a radical shift in worldview.  Torah’s “trickster” has been humbled. He no longer could believe that what happens “downstairs” is solely his domain.  Rather, he was given to understand that even life’s basics (food, clothing, safety) depend on a Divine Source that is everywhere – in Hebrew, HaMakom (the Place).

What is it exactly that Jacob saw and understood?

Interestingly, the most mundane component of Jacob’s revelation is the clue. The existence of God, heaven and angels didn’t seem to be a surprise, nor should they be.  After all, this was his family’s God: is Jacob not the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, son of Isaac and Rebecca?

What’s news to Jacob is the most ordinary part of the scene – the ladder, “Sulam Yaakov.” Jacob already knew there were two stories: he just needed to make the connection.

Our teaching then comes less from Jacob’s dream than from his twofold response to it: building and becoming.  Jacob didn’t set out to build a scaffold, stairway or tower to the sky (like the Tower of Babel that went so wrong).  Nor did Jacob pray for God to send another ladder when the first one disappeared. Rather, Jacob built a monument, a marker here on Earth, to remind and reconnect. He then vowed to remodel his life; in what he now understood the world to be – God’s place. Emotionally and spiritually, the builder, and the act of building, became the ladder.

“Wonderful story,” my rational mind says.  “What does that mean for me?”

One more hint from the text:

IMG_3485There’s No “I” in Heaven

When Jacob woke and opened his eyes, he expressed astonishment: “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it” – in Hebrew, va’anochi lo yadati.  Rendered in English, the Hebrew reads slightly differently: “… and I, I did not know.”

Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz reads Jacob’s bewilderment radically: “I did not know my I-ness.”  “I did not know” isn’t merely an expression of surprise but a description of what Jacob experienced and an instruction for how to build.  

We come to experience what’s “upstairs” precisely by learning how to not-know our Anochi, our own ego.  As Lord Jonathan Sacks put it, we most experience holiness when we move beyond Self.  We sense the “Thou” of divinity when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity.  Only as we move beyond our Self do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.

That’s the kind of Judaism we must build – a Judaism that encourages us to serve others, both for their sake and for the sake of moving beyond our own “I-ness.”  Serving others is the way up. Only by working for the greater good, in the house where we already are, can we ourselves become ladders to access “upstairs.”

May we be granted the ability to seek Divinity in every place.  May the call to build inspire us to serve. And may we be blessed with moments of Grace when ego fades (sometimes even despite ourselves) and we see ladders “upstairs” simply appear.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot

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

וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽ”ה׃

But the children struggled in her womb, and [Rivka] said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of God. (Genesis 25:22)

Everyone who dreams and yearns and builds knows the experience of agonizing over a project. Do I really know what I’m doing? What if I had a vision for what this project would be, and now it’s growing into something different? What if I have conflicting visions for what I want to bring into the world, and now I don’t know what to do with that tension?

That’s the experience of our foremother Rivka. Pregnant with twins, she felt them struggling within her. She poured out her heart to God, saying, אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי — If this is what’s going to be, then why am I? (Genesis 25:22)

Here are three lessons for building that I learn from Rivka and from parashat Toldot writ large:

  1. Be open to surprises.

IMG_3437Rivka yearned for a child, and Torah tells us that God heard her plea and she conceived. I identify with that on a literal level as a woman who struggled with miscarriage before carrying a pregnancy to term. But I resonate with it even more on a metaphorical level… because once Rivka conceives, things don’t take exactly the shape she anticipated.

This matches my experience of both parenthood and spiritual life.  Even if we have what we think are good blueprints, the work may take a different shape than we imagined. The woman who expected one easy infant might get a pair of contentious twins. The committee chair who expected a simple meeting might get a tense interpersonal situation. The builder who expected easy construction might discover that there is critical plumbing running through the wall where he intended to cut the window.

Sometimes the build doesn’t go according to plan. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t plan well or that we shouldn’t be building — rather that life is full of surprises. In Bereshit we were reminded that even God needs a plan B sometimes: clearly this is part of creation’s design. We can’t prepare for every eventuality, but we can learn to “roll with” surprises when they come and to improvise based on what we learn.

  1. Ask big questions, and hold our certainties lightly.

IMG_3439When Rivka felt her twins fighting in her womb, she went directly to the big question: if this is what’s happening, why do I exist, why am I even here? We would do well to ask that question in our building work, too. Why are we here? What are we doing? Are we putting our attention and our effort in the right place? Should we be building differently?

In her readiness to ask big questions about her life’s purpose, Rivka also teaches us to hold our certainties lightly. Like Rivka, we too can strive to find a healthy balance between cultivating a vision of what we yearn to create — and being willing to accept that what we’re building might turn out to be a surprise even for us.

Notably, Rivka doesn’t seem to question whether or not God will hear. And sure enough, God answers her right away. Most of us in the modern world don’t have the luxury of feeling heard by (and answered by!) the Source of the Universe. But even “just” asking the questions can be transformative, and can help us suss out the guiding principles that inform our building.

  1. Old pipes can hold new flow

IMG_3438This week’s Torah portion is called Toldot, “Generations.” All of us who seek to build the Jewish future do so on the foundations laid by previous generations. It’s on us to honor the foundations they placed, even as we open ourselves like Rivka to surprises — and embrace new interpretations, spiritual technologies, and ideas that our forebears couldn’t have imagined.

Later in Toldot, there’s a verse about re-plumbing an ancestor’s wells (Genesis 26:32). When Torah talks about re-plumbing, it’s not a matter of choosing fixtures for the ensuite bath. Our spiritual ancestors were a desert people for whom water was precious and rare. A well running dry could be a matter of life or death. And, water is also one of Torah’s profoundest metaphors for sustenance, for hope, for life, for God’s presence — even for Torah itself.

We may no longer drink from the literal wells of our ancestors, but their spiritual wells still flow — especially when we delve into them ourselves to ensure that they’re still open. All who seek to build Jewish life can draw new sustenance from old sources, laying pipe to bring reach hearts and souls that are thirsty for meaning. We can deepen our ancestors’ wells, drawing up vision and hope, new interpretations and new practices, for each other and for generations to come.

We may channel that flow to places, and in ways, that our predecessors couldn’t have imagined.  In software parlance, I think that’s a feature, not a bug. Someday our descendants (both literal and spiritual) will do the same, building rituals and interpretations and structures that we can’t imagine on the foundations we will have left behind. Our task is to keep the channels open, to ask big questions, and to be open to surprising outcomes.

Just ask Rivka.
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by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat; sketchnote by Steve Silbert

 

Building families through the ages

Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

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The Torah portion Chayyei Sarah may be called “the life of Sarah,” but it’s really about her family getting on with their lives after her death. It begins with Sarah’s burial, ends with Abraham’s death, and sandwiched in the middle is the long saga of seeking and finding a suitable wife for Isaac.

The story is told with much repetition and in great detail, in the longest chapter in Genesis.  But why? Usually the Torah chooses words carefully, sparingly. Not here. We follow every step of the way as Eliezer goes off to find a wife for his master’s son. He pauses to say a prayer and sure enough his prayer is answered, a young woman appears, negotiations ensue, and Rebecca returns with Eliezer to be Isaac’s wife.

But before all of that happens, the Torah says “…the Lord blessed Abraham in all things.” (Genesis 24:1). Clearly not all things, since his son was still unmarried and without a child to fulfill God’s promise of a great nation coming from him and Sarah. Abraham had to take matters into his own hands, using Eliezer as his emissary, to ensure that the covenant God promised to them would be fulfilled.

And he also ensured two important things on behalf of Isaac – that he would be comforted on the loss of his mother, and experience love. On this, the Woman’s Torah Commentary says (p. 124) “This final verse [of the story], which focuses on Isaac’s emotional connections to his mother and to his new wife, reasserts the central role that women play in realizing God’s covenantal promise.” 

Indeed. We know that Jewish mothers are the backbone of the Jewish family, the building blocks of Jewish community. The story of Isaac and Rebecca is the foundational story of the Jewish family, the beginning of our emphasis on the importance of establishing a family and a home.

Fathers are important too, of course. Abraham took an active role in the matter, not waiting for God to ensure that his and Sarah’s lineage would continue. But once he had taken care of providing a wife for his son Abraham went his own way, seemingly content that the results would speak for themselves. It was up to Isaac and Rebecca.

Much of Jewish practice is home-based. Women have carried the burden of creating Jewish homes with enthusiasm, knowing that they are building something more solid and more meaningful than any edifice or physical structure. They are building community, and a future.

IMG_3421So what does it mean to create a Jewish home? Once upon a time, the answer was uniform – everyone did basically the same things, living within the confines of their Jewish communities and communal structures. For most of us, that is no longer true.

Today’s Jewish homes vary widely from one another. Some observe the laws of kashrut, many don’t. Some families belong to a synagogue and send their kids to Hebrew school, but many don’t.  Some light candles on Friday night, some go to the high school football game. Some maintain their Jewish identity through books, art, culture, foods. Some simply feel Jewish; it is not uncommon for a modern American Jew to say, “I’m just Jewish.”

It sometimes feels that the old communal structures have crumbled, leaving many Jews isolated. But today we have new tools that help us build bridges to each other and our Jewish tradition, using technologies that the ancient rabbis could never have imagined.

We can study with teachers from all over the world. We can build relationships with people whom we’ve never met in person, transcending physical and geographic boundaries. We can reach out to family and friends who live on the other side of the globe, and speak to each other as if we are face-to-face, using technologies that are accessible to everyone.

IMG_3420And thanks to these technologies, we can access Judaism in ways that once were unheard of, without filters, without embarrassment or frustration.  If you or someone you know is floundering, unsure of where to turn and how to find meaningful Jewish content, this website is a powerful resource designed for just those purposes, but it is not the only one. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time when so much is right at our fingertips – Jewish books, music, even live-streamed Friday night synagogue services.

Judaism is in the air, on the net, ready for you to take advantage of all it has to offer, ready to help each of us establish meaningful Jewish homes for our families and ourselves.

JS Silbert-small
by Rabbi Jennifer Singer; sketchnote by Steve Silbert

Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga

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Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms.  The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders.  It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.

The poster’s message was clear.  We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us.  We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations.  We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.

IMG_3375Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong.  We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.  

If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one.  A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish.  Rather, it’s especially Jewish.

This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.”  Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.

So, let’s say so.  Let’s talk about the contexts that embed “difficult texts.”  Let’s talk about this week’s Torah portion (Vayera).  Most of all, let’s talk about sex. Continue reading “Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga”