Healing from the affliction of separation

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

The Talmud teaches (Megillah 31b): “If old men advise you to demolish, and children [advise you] to build, then demolish and do not build, because the demolishing of old men is [as constructive as] building and the building of children is demolishing.” In other words: wise elders can help us see when it’s time to demolish old structures, practices, and ideas that no longer serve — so that the demolishing becomes the first step toward building something new.

I just returned from a trip to the United States / Mexico border co-sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We visited the Otero County Processing Center, which houses over 1000 migrants who have been separated from their families. The refugees housed there have not committed any crime, but the warden referred to them as “inmates.” They wore colored jumpsuits, and slept 50 to a room behind bars. These family separations are connected with the affliction described in this week’s paresha — and in Torah’s cure for that affliction, we can find tools to heal and to build.

In this week’s paresha, Metzora, we learn that Torah’s cure for the affliction called tzaras (sometimes translated as leprosy) begins with sacrificing birds.  Rashi writes, on Leviticus 14:4, “since the affliction [of tzaras] comes about because of lashon ha-ra (malicious speech) which is an act of verbal twittering, therefore for purification Torah requires birds that constantly twitter.” Tzaras isn’t (just) a skin condition: it’s a moral condition, rooted in the sin of malicious speech.

In another interpretation, the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) explains that the word “metzora” (a person with tzaras) can be understood in the language of “motzi ra,”  giving off evil. Metzora is when a person’s essence becomes so twisted that whatever that person says or does is bad. The Torah this week provides a roadmap both to the depths of that impurity and the path towards purity.

Our rabbis also say that this affliction of tzaras comes from arrogance. For this reason, Rashi explains, Torah prescribes a cure of cedarwood, crimson wool, and hyssop. “What is the remedy so that one should be cured? He should lower himself from his arrogance like a worm [תולעת / tolaat means both wool and worm] and like hyssop [which grows low to the ground].” And why cedar? According to the medresh (Tanchuma 3) the cedar’s tall magnificence reminds us that the sinner thought of themselves as glorious (and needs to adjust their self-image a bit).

In Talmud (Sotah 5a) we learn that G-d separates from us when we are arrogant —  something that doesn’t happen with any other character trait. Our purpose in life is to see G-d as the source of all, and not fill space with the fake reality that we are somehow better than any other person created by G-d.  When we are arrogant, G-d pulls away from us. When our eyes are open, we recognize that in our connectedness with each other, we experience connectedness with G-d… and when we separate from each other, we separate from G-d.

The family separations that I witnessed on the border are a profound case of separating from each other. Not only are parents and children separated from each other, but all who take part in creating and enforcing that separation are maintaining a system that separates us from G-d.

The rehabilitation of the metzora, as described in Torah, involves experiencing a temporary separation from community (Leviticus 14:3). We can see that as a kind of sensitivity training. If tzaras is (as Rashi and Talmud teach) an affliction of arrogance and malicious speech, the metzora needs time away from community to do their own work so that they can return with a sense of the communal responsibility that must be at the core of all spiritual practice. Every sin between people creates separation between us and G-d. We need to build in a way that heals that separation — and heals our illusory sense of separateness from each other, too.

As builders of the Jewish future, we must turn away from lashon ha-ra (wicked speech). We must turn away from the temptation of arrogance or holding ourselves to be separate from or better than others. All of these are today’s tzaras — a word that shares its root with tzuris, suffering. Wicked speech, arrogance, and separating ourselves from each other (which means separating ourselves from G-d) are our tzaras and our tzuris — and these are no way to build.

The rabbis opine that the two birds slaughtered at the start of this week’s paresha (Lev. 14:4) can represent two approaches to building a more humble and human society. One approach is to first focus on the greatness of G-d and all of G-d’s wonders, which helps us more accurately calibrate our own greatness. Alternatively, we can start by looking at the loneliness of the human experience. What’s behind our capacity as a people to create terrible separations like those unfolding at the US/Mexico border? Examining that, we should see clearly that the places and policies that come out of lashon ha-ra, arrogance, and separation need to be demolished.

Torah gives us tools: tackling our twittering (let spring’s birdsong remind us to sing the greatness of G-d, not to speak wickedness or untruths), cultivating humility (hinted-at by the wool and the low-growing hyssop), and recalibrating our sense of awe (remembering the majestic cedar). With these we can demolish old structures that serve to separate, and we can build something better in their place.
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By Rabbi Mike Moskowtz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Doorways

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

I enjoy counting each mezuzah I see on doorposts while walking through a neighborhood. Whether or not one is traditionally observant, it’s quintessentially Jewish to place these beacons of holiness at entrances to homes. I’m delighted when I see them.

Lately, I’ve come to understand mezuzot not only as fulfilling a mitzvah, but also as reminders that everything we build is a potential portal of rebirth and purification – and that we must build for those lofty purposes.

The call to build for rebirth and purification flows from this week’s Torah portion (Tazria) connecting birth, impurity and purity. In ancient Israel, mothers who birthed children had a period of purification before returning to community (Lev. 12:1-7). Spiritually speaking, birth blood was inherently “charged” and, thus, so too was the mother. Her spiritual “charge” had to be “discharged” – literally.

Just as the birth canal is a portal, so too is the Passover symbolism of lamb’s blood on the Hebrews’ doors. The bloodied doorways identified its inhabitants as those to be sheltered from the angel of death during the tenth plague (Ex. 12:7). In the morning, the birth of a free people came through bloodstained lintels and doorposts – marking the death of not only Egypt’s first-born children but also the lamb-image of an Egyptian “god.” The next day, Israel exited Mitzrayim (literally, “the straits” – the narrow place), birthed into a new life with and by God.

As lamb’s blood marked doorways then, so too do mezuzot mark doorways now. We exchange lintel lamb’s blood that marked our liberation for mezuzot parchment marking a different kind of liberation: “Love YHVH your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might. Set these words that I command you this day on your heart. Teach them to your children…” (Deut. 6:5-7).

Whether blood or mezuzot, doorway markers serve the same spiritual function: to renew and liberate us each time we pay attention as we move through. With sacred intention, every door can be like a birth canal, arousing our next moment of liberation – and, as in this week’s paresha, arousing the “charge” of birth that we then must “discharge.”

The lessons for spiritual builders are profound, enduring and challenging. Potentially sacred spaces, such as the home, require careful design for both openness and narrowness. As the doorway marks the transition between interior and exterior, we can sense that emerging through narrow places evokes a dynamic sense of spirit. Doorways are the portals. Ritual objects, like the mezuzah, invite holiness in transitions. Ritual reminders here “charge” us up so that we can translate the inspiration within into “discharging” mitzvot out in the world.

Life cycle events and other rituals ask careful design for the journey from one spiritual state to another. A literal birth, the ritual design of a wedding chuppah, the chanukat bayit of placing mezuzot on the doors of a new home, or any other major life change – all are sacred Doorways. Moments of transition are portals, focal points for “charging” us up so that we can “discharge” a renewed sense of self in the next phase of life’s journey.

In this way, physical births marked by blood, physical doorways marked by mezuzot, and life events marked by ritual, all reflect this week’s Torah idea that all transitions have the potential to be a sacred “charge.” And if so, the whole world is an altar.   

Midrash (Pesikta Zutarta, Lekach Tov, P. Bo, ch. 12.7) teaches that from the lintel blood of the Passover evening before liberation, “We learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars: the lintel, the two doorposts and the doorstep.” As the foot lands on the doorstep and propels the body forward, it becomes a place of transformation.

Every birth, every marriage, every death, every choice is likewise – a doorstep upon which we propel ourselves forward in some transformation. The goodness of our steps as individuals, a community and a people called to holiness, depends on our mindfulness that each step is sacred in birthing what’s next. They depend on seeing each step as “charged” with the power of creation, for us to “discharge” with purifying goodness in the world.

As we enter the month of Nissan and approach the Passover festival of freedom, we have the opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves and all that we build. As if being born, we can emerge anew.  As if getting married, we move toward unification and harmony. As if making sacred our doorways, we get to step out into the altar of this world, reminded by parchments of love, determined to be free and spreading holiness in the world.

 

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

 

Building for Value Conflicts: Matching Insides and Outsides

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

We build institutions and communities to support values, but buildings don’t live values: people do. What if values conflict, or we struggle to align our feelings, values and behaviors?

These are questions of the tragedy that opens this week’s Torah portion (Shmini).

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer God an esh zara (“alien fire”), causing their deaths. As Aaron’s sons lie dead before him, Moses speaks – perhaps in an attempt to explain their deaths – of God’s glory. Aaron is silent.

We can only imagine what Aaron thought and felt, and many commentators have tried. Whatever Aaron felt, it is almost certain that his outer stoicism masked inner anguish. Was Aaron a hypocrite, or caught between fatherly emotion and priestly role? How difficult it must have been to align his inner life and outer commitments.

Conflicts between inside and outside are among humanity’s greatest challenges. Sometimes conflicts between emotions or desires and behaviors, or between values, can lead us to act in ways that are corrosive to community or our own souls.  But conflicts between inside and outside also are inevitable: humans and institutions are complex and flawed, and integrity is difficult to achieve even with our best efforts.

Even as each of us personally must seek our own integrity, Jewish life especially values communal integrity.  What if institutions’ values and behaviors conflict?  Can spiritual institutions and buildings be hypocritical? When do they require correction? When value conflicts arise, when does challenge represent correction and when — in the imagery of this week’s Torah portion – do they become “alien fire”?

And when these conflicts arise, how should communities handle them? Should leaders stop “alien fire” at the proverbial community door by screening people and practices, or should we trust community to harmonize whatever comes in? Should we set values from the outside, or from the inside?

The Talmud (Berakhot 28a) offers two ways to approach these questions. Rabban Gamliel, head of the study hall, stationed a guard at the door to tell people: “Any student whose inside is not like his outside (ein tocho k’varo) will not enter the study hall.” He was replaced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, whose first act was to dismiss the guard at the door and open the study hall to anyone. So many students came that the study hall had to add 700 benches.

Rabban Gamliel took an “outside” approach. He let in only people whose outsides already “matched their insides,” thereby protecting the institution from people who he believed to fall short. This week’s Torah portion affirms this approach partly, calling us to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure” (Lev. 10:10). We protect what is precious from harm. But the cost can be high: we risk screening out people poised to grow, and people who might offer needed challenge to strengthen our institutions.

Rabbi Elazar took an “inside” approach. He felt that community immersion would align each student, so each person’s inside would be (or become) like the outside. Trusting the building and all within it, Rabbi Elazar flung open the doors –  even at risk of letting “alien fire” enter. To Rabbi Elazar, ein tocho k’varo wasn’t the end of the matter but potentially only part of a process.  Not a fixed judgment of unfitness, ein tocho k’varo became a chance for growth for the individuals who joined the community.

Both approaches have their place. Like insides and outsides themselves, we must balance Rabban Gamliel’s outside approach and Rabbi Elazar’s inside approach. We must build for both, so neither one becomes excessive.

This middle path reflects the Talmud’s one other mention of ein tocho k’varo, which arises in the literal context of building the Mishkan. Commenting on Torah’s instruction that the Ark be made of acacia wood and then “cover[ed] with pure gold, inside and outside you will cover it,” (Ex. 25:11), Rava said that likewise, anyone whose “inside is not like his outside …cannot be considered a Torah scholar” (Yoma 72b).

Rava echoes Rabban Gamliel: make sure people are gold inside and out before they enter. But however golden the Ark would become, first it was built with wood. One might even say that at its deepest level, the Ark’s wooden inside is not like its outside, and perhaps cannot be. Still, we must act to cover both inside and outside with gold.

Jewish life is about not only who we are but also how we act, and how we learn to be. Like covering the Ark with gold both “inside and outside,” we must lay the gold of values “inside” and then live them “outside.” And like gold on an Ark or wisdom in a study hall or spiritual attainment in our lives, it’s a process of layers – and we must build for it.  

What of today’s synagogues and other Jewish spaces? We learn that we must ask about our communal spaces the same question Rabban Gamliel asked about individuals: are their insides like their outsides?

How many synagogue websites describe themselves as heimish (warm and welcoming) but newcomers receive no warm welcome? How many Jewish institutions claim to fulfill Jewish values while not paying workers living wages or treating staff more like wood than gold? How many leaders who stand at the door are ein tocho k’varo – saying one thing but acting differently in private?

In countless ways large and small, institutions – sometimes precisely because they’re institutions with their own internal dynamics – can become ein tocho k’varo.  And when they do, they fail inherently to achieve their missions.

Rabbi Elazar’s “inside” approach taught that the timeless internal strength of a healthy beit midrash (house of study – today a seminary, school or other learning institution) is its openness to refine, teach, and propagate values. Therefore, we must not guardi the doors too closely – whether literal doors or the doors to ideas – and we must be as truly open and welcoming in reality as we purport to be in name.

But Rabban Gamliel’s “outside” approach wasn’t wrong. Institutions are vulnerable to hypocrisy. Sometimes we need someone standing outside to speak difficult truths – whether to people coming in, or to people already inside.

We must build for both Rabbi Elazar’s inside approach (flexibly for learning and inner transformation) and Rabban Gamliel’s outside approach (strongly for sorting and boundaries).  Prominently post core values so all can see them. Make sure build teams and leadership teams have both a Rabban Gamliel (calling people out) and a Rabbi Elazar (calling people in) – with two ways to evolve insides and behaviors to match outside claims.

And like the Ark, teach that everyone begins as wood and, at least potentially, can become gold inside and out.

 

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By Rabbi Alana Suskin. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Holy Ashes: Designs for Spiritual Flow

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

How well does a spiritual practice or spiritual community “work”? One answer from this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) may seem surprising: We gauge what works spiritually by the detritus it leaves behind from what it transforms. If there’s no detritus, we’re doing Jewish life wrong.

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Spiritual life transforms people relative to themselves, community, things, the planet and the sacred. All transformation, in turn, leaves behind proof – discarded layers, ways and energies. A communal meal leaves crumbs and spills; a butterfly emerges from an expended chrysalis.  

Because transformations create detritus, spiritually we must build for creating detritus, then moving it in sacred ways – and Torah teaches us how.IMG_0502

In Torah’s days, our spiritual ancestors used ritual sacrifices (korbanot) to draw close (l’karev) to holiness. Their practice was to burn foods on the altar’s “eternal flame,” transforming foodstuff to smoke that rose up. Creating smoke and scent would transform the spirit and invoke the sacred.

But what of the ashes that their burning left at the altar? Transformation meant ashes, but ashes piling up would block air from flowing: the “eternal flame” would burn out.

That’s why Torah designed for detritus. The altar was elevated to make space for air and ashes.  Each day, the priest put the prior day’s ashes to the side, changed clothes, took the ashes to a “holy place,” returned, changed clothes again and proceeded with the day. Only that way could the “eternal flame” last and “never go out” (Lev. 6:2-6).

Torah called for transformation, and ashes. The creation of ash was as necessary and constant as the “eternal flame.” That’s why the altar’s ashes were holy and had to be brought to a holy place.

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Torah’s lesson is eternal, even though we long ago grew past physical sacrifice as spiritual practice. It’s universal law – in spirit and in physics – that transformation must create byproduct: otherwise there’s no transformation. Thus, spiritually speaking, we must build for byproduct.

What’s the “ash” at today’s “altar”? Most simplistically, there’s the physical detritus that spiritual community leaves behind – literally, its garbage. We’re not used to seeing our garbage or our garbage collectors as sacred – but they are. Our custodians and clean-up crews are priests, and we must treat them as servants of the holy.

This lesson goes far beyond the physicality of things. We create spiritual “ash” in all that the heat and light of spiritual life transforms, and we must treat this ash as part of a sacred process.

Beliefs and spiritual practices evolve. They have to: otherwise we get stuck in past ways that no longer serve who we’re becoming. When beliefs and spiritual practices change, they leave inner ashes that we must be lovingly tend, lest they accumulate and block the flow of our own growth.

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Opinions change. They have to: otherwise we grow blind to new information and changing circumstances. Tradition so valued evolving views that Talmud preserved so-called “minority” opinions in a holy place. After all, a “minority” view today might carry tomorrow. In the realm of mind, today’s “ash” might fertilize tomorrow’s bounty.

Leaders change. They have to: otherwise people and communities burn out. Even Moses couldn’t lead his people to their destination. Leadership must be cycled. Leaders who step forward must be treated as priests. Then the community must purge them of their past roles and cleanse the resulting “ash” so community can re-enfold them.

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How should we build spiritually for the ash of these kinds of change? We must treat spiritual spaces like altars of transformation and their cleaners with visibility, respect and honorable pay. We must let beliefs and practices transform, training community members to welcome rather than push away these changes, and bring them to clergy and spiritual directors for refinement.

We must hold opinions gently, let them change and clean up after they do. We must structure leadership for shift: we must expect leadership situations to create ash and treat that ash as holy – without burning people up in the process.

The Sfat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter, 1847-1905) taught that authentic spirituality cannot be separate from its ash but rather leads directly through it. Spiritual fire must create ash: we can’t rise spiritually unless we honor and lift the ash that spiritual life creates.

So build for spiritual life’s ashes. They are proof of doing spiritual life right. They are proof of a spiritual flame burning with alchemy’s heat and eternity’s light.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) is rich with sacrificial details. Animal body parts, kidneys and fat, and the altar on which they are burned — this is the stuff Leviticus is known for. This material can be tough for us as moderns. We may find the sacrificial system alienating and weird. But yesterday’s ways hold an important lesson for us as tomorrow’s builders: we must build in ways that balance, and uplift, the love inherent both in justice and in repair.

“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). It’s a principle of classical Torah interpretation that nothing in Torah is extraneous. We can find (or make) meaning in every word, especially words or phrases that Torah repeats.  So what’s up with the fixation on salt?

One response is that salt is a fixative – literally. In ancient days, salt was a primary way to make food last. So maybe Torah describes our covenant with God as a covenant of salt because salt represents what lasts. Our covenant is meant to last forever.

Another interpretation: tradition regards salt as a combination of fire and water. (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, d.1809, attributes this teaching to Ramban, d. 1270.) In a literal sense, salt is what happens when you apply fire to sea water — simmer away the water, and what’s left is the salt. But metaphorically, salt represents fire and water in balance.

A covenant of salt is a covenant of balance between fire and water. And fire and water, in turn, are understood by our mystics to represent justice and lovingkindness. (In the language of kabbalah, these are called gevurah and chesed.) Justice and lovingkindness are the two primordial qualities that our tradition imagines God balancing. Justice and lovingkindness are the tools with which God continually builds the world.

Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build.

This arises in the context of teachings about structuring a just society.  Both before and after the verse about salt, Torah details animal offerings. First come offerings of wellbeing (“Thank You” to God), then offerings for ritual transgression, then offerings for interpersonal ethics missteps.

In this system, a wrongdoer must make restitution. (Torah speaks of monetary damages — for instance, restitution for fraud was value of the fraud, plus an additional fifth.) Only then would a wrongdoer bring an offering to be sacrificed. This offering would atone for the transgressor – wiping the spiritual slate clean (Lev. 5:24-25) – but only after restitution was made.  

Notice how this process balances fire and water, justice and repair. First comes judgment (the process of discernment, paying restitution to make the injured party “whole”) – the zeal for right action that kindles our hearts like flame. Then comes the chance to make teshuvah and atone. That’s the work of repair and healing, the flow of divinity into and through our hearts like water.

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Fire and water in balance. Judgment and repair in balance. They’re like left hand and right hand working together, one wielding a hammer and one holding a nail. They are two parts of a whole.

Critically, there is love in both. Both fire and water can convey love. Both justice and repair can reflect love. Olam chesed yibaneh (“I will build this world from love”), sings Rabbi Menachem Creditor from Psalm 89 – but healthy love takes many forms depending on the circumstance.

Building the world and the Jewish future with love means embodying both love in chesed and love in gevurah. It means building with Vayikra’s balance of justice and repair.

That balance is this week’s building lesson. Whether we see ourselves as walking in ancestral footsteps or in the Holy One’s “footsteps,” we’re called to build with balance. Each of us may lean more toward the “fire” of judgment or the “water” of repair, but Torah asks us to bring both qualities to bear always, and to manifest the love inherent in each.

To build an ethical Jewish future that’s worth our labor and our hope, we need this week’s Torah toolbox and its loving balance between justice and repair. It’s as basic to life as salt.

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.