Building Collective Spiritual Foundations: Re-Mixing the Cement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And again the possibility

Of inhabiting a different kind of story

Vanished into the unforgiving air.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Our Two-Story Houses: Becoming Ladders for Spiritual Ascent

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

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

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

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

Then again, maybe we do.

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

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

IMG_3481Sulam Yaakov

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

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

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

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

Building and Becoming

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

What is it exactly that Jacob saw and understood?

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

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

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

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

One more hint from the text:

IMG_3485There’s No “I” in Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Be open to surprises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Old pipes can hold new flow

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building families through the ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rabbi Jennifer Singer; sketchnote by Steve Silbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call

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

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Building something demands a leap of faith. Proto-ancestor Avram shows us the kind of leap, and the kind of faith, that wise building requires.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

YHVH said to Avram, “Lech-lecha / Go forth from your land, and from your birth,
and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1).

When I left Colorado two years ago to return to the east coast, I experienced a Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”) moment of venturing into the unknown.  I left behind the familiarity of a legacy institution, and set out into the unknown world of the start-up rabbinate.  Though I had general outlines of the kind of community I wanted to build, my path was mostly a mystery. The leap I took felt like jumping off a tall cliff and building an airplane on the way down.  

Building something new demands this sort of leap.

Avram, who later took the name Avraham, had to take a far greater leap of faith into the unknown to build the family that would become the Israelite People. That’s why Avram is our spiritual ancestor in more ways than one: Avram is not only regarded as the first monotheist, but also he’s a spiritual entrepreneur – a builder par excellence.

God’s call to Avram begins with the phrase “lech lecha”. Many commentators remarked on the superfluous nature of this grammatical construction.  All Torah needs to say is lech (“go”).  Instead, Torah says “lech lecha” (“go to you/for you”).  Medieval commentator Rashi reads this seeming redundancy as evidence that God called Avram to go “for his own benefit, for his own good.”  Zohar (thirteenth century) went farther, understanding lech lecha to mean “for your own sake: go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your [spiritual] level.”  

This is our first lesson that Avram’s Lech Lecha teaches about building:

  1. Builders need a clear vision of who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve.

To answer God’s call, Avram had to go deep into himself (as Rashi teaches), and do his own inner work to fix broken places in his soul (as Zohar teaches).  All who follow in his footsteps must do the same. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, we’ll reach greater clarity about the problem we want to solve — or, to use our core metaphor, we’ll have a clearer sense of what and how we’re being called to build.  

We need inner clarity so that we can see what’s outside us more clearly. Otherwise our own stuff is likely to cloud our vision, so that what we see becomes a reflection of ourselves, rather than a clear lens on the work at hand. And we need to keep doing our inner work so that we can boldly and wisely “go forth” into places we can’t yet know.

  1. Builders must question unconscious assumptions encoded in their origins.

The next part of Avram’s call instructs him to go me-artzecha (“from your land”).  We can read this phrase literally that Avram had to leave his country of origin, which was true.  We also can read it to mean that one must leave behind preconceived notions about how the world works and what’s possible.  Everyone has unconscious assumptions, and those assumptions aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but often they reflect the past (what has been) – not the potential (what can be) or the future (what will be).  To most wisely build the Jewish future, we all must notice our assumptions and their origins, and be willing to risk them. Only then can we be sure to build the future on its own terms, rather than merely replicating or responding to the past.

  1. Builders must grow beyond preconceived capacities both individually and together.

The third part of Avram’s Lech Lecha calls him mi-moladetcha – usually translated “from your birthplace” but also from one’s inherent birth-self.  Our predisposed talents and capacities are important to know for all they are: not everyone is born with native inclination or capacity to be an engineer, or designer, or craftsperson.  We’re all different and those differences are important to honor.

That said, Lech Lecha calls us beyond what we think we can do, because we often can do more than we think – and the future needs all we can give.

To best serve the future, wise builders must discern what they can learn to do better and how they can do better.  Wise builders must continually develop a broader and deeper toolkit than perhaps they think possible. Just as Avram’s journey called him to become more resourceful, more outgoing, and probably also more organized than he was before, so for everyone who seek to build new structures to house the life of spirit.

And what we truly can’t do alone, we must do together.  Avram didn’t go it alone: he brought helpers and made alliances along the way.  Anyone who builds alone is likely to build only a house for one.

  1. Builders must be ready to leave behind outdated structures, however much beloved.

God’s final Lecha Lecha direction to Avram was to leave behind beit avicha (his “father’s house”).  God encodes a building metaphor (and Bayit’s name!) to make a key point about building.

The key point is this: some structures must be left behind to build the future.

The idea of jettisoning the old may seem to contradict one of our keystone principles about backward compatibility – that when we build and innovate, most new structures shouldn’t so “break” with what came before that they lose their foundation.  But these two ideals (backward compatibility and shedding past baggage) must be in fruitful relationship and dynamic tension.

Even when we leave behind past experiences, they continue to shape us.  Indeed, when our hero wants to find a wife for his son Isaac, he sends his servant back to his country of origin, a sign that even though he “left home” long ago, he’s still shaped by where he came from.

Reb Zalman z”l, who spoke often about backward compatibility, also spoke of the need to drive using the wide view of the windshield, not only the limited perspective of a rearview mirror.  Like Avram, we must keep looking back at where we came from – hopefully lovingly. And like Avram, we also must strike out in new directions. When old ideas no longer serve, we must claim permission to rebuild them, or build anew, to meet the needs of a new time.  Often, though not always, tradition’s ancestral foundations will still serve. And we shouldn’t be afraid to re-use, remix, and re-purpose them.

Building the future is an exciting and often scary proposition.  Sometimes building the future will be incremental and relatively conservative; sometimes it’ll seem like a radical break with what came before but stand on ancient foundations or even deeper bedrock.  The Lech Lecha journey of building a new home asks clear vision, challenging assumptions, learning new tools and new ways, working together, sometimes leaving it all behind, and sometimes finding our way back.  

It’s a dynamic, holy and ongoing journey.  Just ask Avram, this week’s building teacher.

 

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by Rabbi Ben Newman; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

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

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.