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.

 

The Builder’s Holy Sledgehammer: Sometimes It Must Break

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

Spiritual builders sometimes so deeply invest in their call to build that they can forget what that call is really about. This week’s paresha (Ki Tisa) redirects us with two related teachings: (1) nothing is too important to break, even purposefully; and (2) spiritual builders mustn’t confuse building with purpose, lest spiritual life itself become an idol.

After chapters of instruction to build the Mishkan, the story gets interrupted by the Golden Calf.  With Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people get nervous that he’ll never return. They build a Golden Calf, point to it and celebrate: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Moses sees the Golden Calf and shatters the two stone tablets on it (Exodus 32:19).

Sometimes It Must Break

Surprisingly, G!d isn’t upset that Moses shatters the tablets. Talmud records G!d to say, in essence, “More power to you!” (Yevamot 6a). We learn a key lesson: sometimes things must break. Sometimes behaviors, structures and things must break so new ones can arise.

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We might imagine that some things are too important to break. If Jewish tradition would hold anything to be too important to break (“too big to fail”), then surely it’d be the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But those tablets are exactly what Moses breaks, and G!d applauds.

Why? Precisely to teach that nothing, not even G!d’s tablets, or whatever we imagine to be holy, is too precious to break for the sake of core principle. Some principles are paramount above all, even what we believe comes from G!d’s own Self.

Breaking is the way of the world. In Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic description of creation, breaking is how G!d created the universe. G!d created vessels to hold infinite light, but they shattered, unable to hold Infinity. G!d began creation anew, from shards of that cosmic shattering. In this creation story, the world is sparks of light concealed by shards of the primordial breaking.

Everything we know is a product of breaking. Physically, we’re all stardust, recycled remnants of faraway stars that exploded, fusing the elements we know on Earth. Spiritually, we’re all pieces of the Infinite, and shattered shards surround us waiting for us to lift them to light.

“As above, so below”: as in the cosmos, so too for us. Sometimes our buildings (physical and spiritual) fall. Structures suitable for one era don’t serve another. Old institutions can’t evolve with hearts and souls. The past crumbles into raw material to build the future.

Lest We Miss the Point

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Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in Meshech Chochma, offers this teaching about breaking the tablets:

“‘Moses became angry and cast the tablets from his hands’ – meaning that there is no sanctity or divinity without the existence of the Creator. And if [Moses] had brought the tablets, it would be as if they were exchanging the calf for the tablets…. Moses acted superbly in breaking the tablets… to teach that nothing has inherent sanctity….”

Moses knew that if he gave the tablets while Israel danced around the Golden Calf, they’d merely trade the Calf’s emptiness for an equally empty sense of the tablets. Moses saw his people making a classic spiritual mistake: confusing a symbol for what it symbolizes.

Buddhism offers a saying: “Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger.” Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called this “mistaking the sign for the signified.” This is the Golden Calf’s second building lesson: don’t confuse a symbol for the reality it symbolizes. Don’t mistake any human building (or organization, siddur, tunes, leaders – anything or anyone you can touch) for the potential holiness it can represent, transmit, teach or empower.

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught borrowing a Sufi saying: “Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank told this story to illustrate the message:

“I didn’t want to sit in the temple because they have a Buddha they all bow to, and I thought it was pretty primitive. I told the roshi that and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we went into the Zendo.

“He said, ‘Do you think we really bow to this thing?’

“‘Well,’ I told him, ‘It looks bad. How do I know you don’t?’ He took it by the head, turned it upside down, and opened the storage room, and flung it, very disrespectfully, bounced it into the wood storage room and slammed the door. He said, ‘If we were going to bow to it, do you think I would do that?’

“People came in and saw there was no Buddha and they bowed to emptiness. So I had no trouble after that, sitting in the Zendo where the Zen teacher could do that.”

Wolfe-Blank warned us against becoming “spiritual materialists” who pile up golden moments of spiritual experience as if we can hold them tight, sought for their own sake. Like light streaming through a window, any spiritual structure is only as valuable as the spirit – wisdom, learning, kindness, love, truth and strength – that flows through.

Don’t mistake any spiritual building for the spirituality that flows through. And if real spirituality doesn’t flow through, odds are good that it became a Golden Calf no matter what anyone may have intended. That’s when it’s time to break.

As we build the Jewish future, we must build for the flow, not the thing. Just as houses are for shelter, warmth and gathering (not roofs and walls), we must design, build, repair and even break to serve the spiritual experience within. That’s the point: everything else is just the pointer.

Even the tablets had to be shattered. Even the stars had to explode so we could form from their stardust. So don’t be afraid to break things for the sake of spirit. Sometimes what spiritual builders of the future need most is a holy sledgehammer today.

 

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By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Sacred Spaces With (and For) G-d

IMG_0296Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d is constantly recreating this world, building something out of nothing.  The fact that we are here right now testifies, in this very moment, to G-d’s intention for us to be here.

By contrast, when we build something, we are simply making something out of something else. We are really just taking things that have already existed — like trees, stones, and other elements  — and changing their form into buildings and furniture. As a result, we can walk away from our creations, and they continue to exist without us. However if G-d were to stop thinking about us for even a second, we would cease to exist like we were never here.

In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we read, “I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d. And they shall know that I Adonai am their G-d, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I, Adonai, their G-d.” (Exodus 29:45-46) Everything we do in Jewish life comes with this reminder: G-d dwells within us and among us. We build a space for G-d in order to be reminded Who liberated us from the Narrow Place, and Who liberates us even now.

G-d is continually building this world for us. In return, we’re called to build places for G-d, reminders of the One Who liberates us from constriction. And when we do build those places, we need to truly accommodate the needs of G-d’s creations.

There is a beautiful midrash about the construction of the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Imagine a king who has only one daughter, and that daughter marries a king from another land. After some time the son-in-law wants to return home with his bride.

The father explains to the younger king, “I understand that you want to go home, and I can’t tell you not to take my daughter with you — she’s your wife! But she’s my only daughter, and I can’t bear to be separate from her. Rather, please do me this favor: wherever you go make guest quarters for me so that I can dwell with you.”

So too G-d said to Israel, “I’ve given you the Torah.  I can’t tell you not to take it — it’s yours now. But I can’t bear to be separated from it. Rather, every place that you go, make me a home where I can live. As it is said: ‘Build for Me a sanctuary’…”

The Zohar expands “sanctuary” beyond just the mishkan to mean any sacred space. “How beloved are we by G-d that in every place where we are found, G-d’s presence is among us, as it says, ‘build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them;’ all spaces where people gather are called a sanctuary.”

Often the spaces where we gather aren’t really sanctuaries, though. They may not be accessible on a physical level. And even when they are ADA-compliant, they may exclude people for emotional, intellectual, and / or spiritual reasons. Too often, some of G-d’s children are excluded, unwelcomed, and suppressed — often in the false name of making these spaces “welcoming” for G-d.

The Talmud teaches that “It is greater to invite guests than it is to greet the Divine Presence.” Welcoming each other, in all that we are, is more important even than welcoming G-d’s own Presence into our midst! The tradition teaches that G-d is like a Parent who experiences pleasure when their children get along, not when we create ostensibly “G-d-focused” events while excluding any of G-d’s children… whether that means excluding people on the basis of gender expression or sexual orientation, or on the basis of race, or because of what form of Judaism they practice.

Indeed, excluding each other from community is the senseless hatred that (tradition teaches) caused G-d’s Temple to be destroyed 2,000 years ago. The Talmud teaches that although G-d no longer (since the Temple’s destruction) has a physical address, we can still seek and find G-d in the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law). We can still seek and find G-d in the open space that’s contained within the scaffolding of tradition, law, and interpretation.

Last week’s Torah portion called us to build for G-d a sanctuary that G-d might dwell within and among us. This week’s Torah portion links that building with our core story of liberation, reminding us that we must build our holy spaces both literal and metaphorical — we must build the Jewish future — with constant remembrance of the One Who brings us forth from narrow places.

Torah offers us Divine specifications for supporting sacred space, and when we follow those instructions we become co-creators with G-d. G-d builds the world for us, and in return we build holy space for G-d. G-d liberates us from Egypt, and in return we are called to liberate others from small-mindedness and exclusion.

The holy scaffolding that we provide for our communities requires our renewed and constant involvement, like G-d’s renewed and constant involvement in keeping the world turning. We must expand and reconfigure our sanctuaries to protect, inspire, and nourish the evolving needs of the Jewish people. If we don’t, then G-d doesn’t have a place to live with us, and none of us can truly be free.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move

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

So far, Builders Blog traced Torah’s first 18 portions, harvesting lessons about spiritual building from our spiritual ancestors’ lives and early journeys.  

Now in the 19th portion (Terumah) comes Torah’s building story par excellence, about building the Mishkan – the holy structure to focus the sacred’s indwelling presence among the people. Finally, a building story that’s literally about building! Or is it?

IMG_0248Torah first describes the Ark to hold the two tablets of Commandments, then the cherubim atop the Ark, then takes another 15 chapters to map out the Mishkan. These ordered priorities teach that the Mishkan isn’t for itself but for what’s inside.

We learn that no spiritual structure legitimately can serve mainly itself: it’s all for what’s within. Any spiritual structure, building or system that serves mainly itself misses the point of building it.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of building?

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One answer is the Commandments (or callings, or connections). Another is to remind of the One who spoke (and speaks) them from Sinai. I’m good with those answers as far as they go.

But to me, the point of building is going. Spiritual building is about going somewhere: the act of building or going inside a building is supposed to transport and transform us.

Hence the gold rings soldered onto the Ark. After describing the Ark but before describing the cherubim on top, Torah records these instructions (Exodus 25:12-15):

“Cast four gold rings on [the Ark], attached to its four feet – two rings on one side wall and two on the other. Make acacia wood poles and layer them with gold, then insert the poles into the rings on the Ark’s side walls for carrying the Ark. The poles will remain in the rings of the Ark: they will never be removed from it.”

Only after Torah set forth the Ark’s poles and rings did Torah have the Ark receive the tablets of the Commandments.

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Why does Torah instruct never to remove the Ark’s poles from the rings? So the Ark always is ready to move on a moment’s notice, and so we can be ready to move with it. Moving is the way of the Ark. And why teach this truth before the Ark receives the tablets of the Commandments? So they also could move and not be stuck even for a moment.  

We all tend to get stuck and sometimes justify it: we even say that “tradition” or “spirituality” require things to be how they are. But our ancestors turned that idea on its head. The medieval Da’at Z’kenim held that Moses himself attached the Ark’s rings and poles, and that removing them even for an instant would sever our link to Moses!

Moving is the way of the Ark, the way of Moses, and the way of all spiritual life. As R. Marcia Prager put it, even movements are called movements because they’re supposed to move.

That was then; how about now? How do we build for spiritual mobility today and tomorrow?

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We start by recognizing the opposite of spiritual mobility, which is habituation, even numbness. Some spiritual habits encourage discipline and depth, while others grow numb and dull. The Ark’s poles and rings teach that we always must be ready and willing to move, to not get stuck.

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We can start small. Move chairs, reorient space, swap out tunes – maybe not all at once and never just for the sake of change, but to start feeling movement. It takes time for communities habituated to certain ways to feel resilience, but that’s what the Ark’s poles and rings ask.

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And don’t be content just moving the proverbial deck chairs. Design spiritual spaces to be open, flexible and adaptable. Make everything moveable. Even more, try going out from fixed spaces entirely: if the ancient Ark could move about nature, so can we. Build spiritual life with moments in the woods, in fields, at the shore, in homes and in public spaces. Communal spiritual spaces are important to community cohesion, but spiritual life is exactly about not being fixed in a place!

Just as Jewish places must move, so must Judaism. A Judaism that clings to preservation, that loses its ability to move and adapt on a moment’s notice, loses its link to Moses. Jewish life isn’t mainly about preservation but rather about change. When we forget that change is a core value of Jewish life, we risk losing our own links to what’s most important.

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So build for spiritual mobility. Build to move. When we build a Jewish spiritual life that can move, it can move us. Motion, for emotion, is the Sanctuary in which the holy can dwell among us.

 

DEM2 Silbert

By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.