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.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.

  1. The importance of good plans

I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.

Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.

Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.

Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.

If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.

Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.

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Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

#Trending in 2019: the Year Ahead for Building the Jewish Future

Happy 2019, fellow builders of the Jewish future!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re part of a bold experiment in which everyone can be a builder.  The question is how we’ll build together – what we’ll build, what tools we’ll need, what works and how we’ll know what works.

All effective builders survey the landscape – the light, the view, the bedrock, what grows, what’s needed.  They build to the land, and the land changes.

As we survey the landscape of Jewish life, we can see what is and what’s next.  We see trends that are exhilarating and inspiring, and proof that amazing ideas need solid ground.  The best master builders know that the Jewish future needs a wise balance of inspiration and perspiration – lofty ideas and strong foundations.

In that spirit, here’s some of what we see #Trending in 2019 for building the Jewish future.

image1Opening Borders and New Conveners.  Spiritual borders will continue to open wider and at a faster pace.  The Pew Study “nones” who question religions in their current forms, who embrace spirituality precisely in questions that yearn for meaning, will inject meaning into a Jewish life eager to include them on their own terms.  Halakhah (Jewish law and practice, literally “the way”) – once imagined to be a fixed province of right-leaning orthopraxy – increasingly will be a forum for spiritual and social progressivity.  As nature abhors vacuums, thought-leaders of border-opening initiatives will draw from the breadth of Jewish life and, in turn, hasten these trends in an accelerating feedback loop of inclusion, creativity and innovation.

image5Social Justice on the Spiritual Calendar.  Tikkun olam (social justice, literally “repairing the world”) will more deeply root as a spiritual practice with beacons on the Jewish calendar.  Inspired by groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Passover (always about resisting tyranny) will drive both individual and collective social action across the political spectrum.  So will Havdalah (ritual bridge between Shabbat and the week ahead), inspired by the #BeALight Coalition.  In turn, emphasized times for social action will infuse spiritual life with meaning and help attract Jews of all generations to the spiritual calendar and spiritual community.

Rebooting Ethics From the Outside In.  Jewish communities are learning (sometimes the hard way) that transparency, accountability and right use of power are never self-executing.  Public trust – the lifeblood of Jewish communal life – requires both high ethics standards (such as Slingshot’s “workplace commitments” for nonprofit Boards) and vibrant systems to enforce ethics standards.  As #GamAni shows, closed ethics systems inside individual denominations, seminaries, clergy associations and Jewish nonprofits inherently are prone to self-protection and groupthink that sap public trust.  While journalists continue holding power accountable, 2019 will be the year to pioneer a new, clean ethics regime for Jewish life – one that elevates reporting, investigation, fact-finding, training and victim support above any single circle of influence or sponsoring context.  Lifting ethics above denominational context, and supporting nonprofits that don’t have their own independent ethics system, can reboot Jewish ethics from the outside in.

image4Adapting to the New Philanthropy.  2019 will be the year that Jewish life adapts to the recent tax law’s impacts on charitable giving – and enterprises that don’t adapt will wither.  “Deduction bunching” is sparking a revolution in philanthropy, with donor-advised funds (DAFs) housed in public charities far outpacing medium-donor private grants.  As this trend accelerates, the grant-making influence of large-scale philanthropies that host DAFs will continue to grow.  Successful Jewish organizations will need to tailor their asks, budgets and relationships accordingly – or get left behind.

Jewish Gluten is Back!  No offense to the gluten-free set, but Jewish gluten is back!  From trendy bagel shops to pierogi stands, Jews are rediscovering Ashkenazic ancestral cuisine in all its high-gluten glory.  Lines are out the door for fresh-baked bagels at DC’s “Call Your Mother” on weekends.  While New York’s famous H & H Bagel shops have closed, the company now ships anywhere.  Brooklyn hipsters are flocking to DeKalb Market for classic pierogies made by the Pierogi Boys.  South Philly is getting challah at Essen Bakery.  (Grab a chocolate babka for dessert while you’re there, unless you’re in Manhattan… where Breads Bakery arguably has the best chocolate babka this side of Poland.)

image3People of the Image (not just “People of the Book”). The internet long ago moved beyond text: longform blogs are yielding to visual realms on Instagram and Facebook, where images hold sway.  Jews are still a “People of the Book,” but 2019 will be a watershed year experiencing and sharing Jewish ideas with images rather than just words.  Visual approaches will engage broader audiences and new teaching tools, such as Jewish sketchnoting.  As Jews increasingly become a “People of the Image,” visual tools will offer NextGen engagement and technologies new roles in learning and teaching Torah.image2

Effective Jewish “R&D.”  Innovation means more than “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”  Innovation is meaningful not because it’s new or avant garde but because it achieves a tangible, replicable impact on Jewish life.  In 2019, we’ll see the most effective Jewish innovators getting disciplined about “research and development” (R&D) – exploring what works and why, what it means for innovation to “work” in Jewish community, and how to replicate results.  Tools of empirical R&D will make their way to both mainline and emergent settings, fueled by funders investing in vital pathways of impactful innovation. In turn, as more would-be innovators create their own projects and communities, the proliferation of these new engagements will reach a tipping point.  Their need for knowhow and quality control will attract them into networks to share ideas and build efficiencies. Conveners for these networks, like Kenissa, will become vital to moving these “communities of meaning” forward.

 

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.

 

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.