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.

 

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By Rabbi David Evan Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Building Light With Sapphire Bricks

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Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in spiritual life.

A recent exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum reminded me of the potent spiritual power in building things, and how powerful the details can be – like color.

The featured exhibit was Infinite Blue and included diverse works of art – ancient Egyptian blue pottery, a 13th century altarpiece of Madonna draped in blue, and contemporary glass sculpture.  Each work of art demonstrated how the color blue can evoke a spiritual and powerful response.

Perhaps this is why blue is significant in Jewish tradition.  Blue was Creation’s first color: Creation’s first day was just light, but Creation’s second day brought sky and sea, both shining blue.  Blue was God’s first building block.

Blue threads through Jewish spiritual life.  Blue is the color of the thread (t’chelet tzitzit) in the prayer shawl (tallit).  Gazing on the blue thread reminds us to connect with Creation and Creator: the blue dye is an aide-mémoire of the bond between the Jewish people and the Holy One.

Blue’s most beguiling reference comes in Parshat Mishpatim, just after the Ten Commandments of Sinai.  Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and 70 elders ascend the holy mountain. There “they saw the God of Israel: under [God’s] feet there was the likeness of a sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir), like the essence of sky in purity” (Exodus 24:10).

The “brickwork” links back to the Exodus story, with Hebrew slaves stooped in mud pits making bricks to build storehouses for Pharaoh.  Mystics tell us that their muddy bondage was the 49th level of descent, just one level up from being forever lost.  From this low place, their cries drew God’s attention and ultimate liberation.

Ten plagues, three months and twenty-four chapters later, Israel’s leaders now stand in God’s presence.  Beneath God’s “feet” is blue sapphire brickwork.  Pharaoh’s bricks became God’s bricks: mud became light.  All at once, the image reminds them of the depths from which they came and the spiritual heights to which they have risen.

The sapphire brickwork is rigid and fixed in place.  It serves as a liminal boundary, a separation. Yet the sapphire brickwork (livnat ha-sapir) also is translucent, letting in divine light filtered through to us as if through a prism.  In Hebrew, we can read livnat ha-sapir as l’vanat ha-sapir – the whiteness of the sapphire.  The blue of spiritual building transmits the white light of holiness.

Every activity in this physical universe potentially refracts this divine light.  When living our lives in divine service, we can achieve a satisfaction and pleasure we cannot achieve by our own self-serving efforts.

It was on Sinai that Moses and his cohort gazed on God’s likeness, reminding us also that many find spiritual connection in nature, whether viewing the sky from a mountaintop or watching waves reach the seashore. The challenge is to find spiritual connection in the works of our hands beyond the vistas of mountains, sea and sky.  Torah’s vision of sapphire brickwork urges us to find connection beyond God’s original creations.  Livnat HaSapir reminds us to discover our own transcendent connections in how we fashion Creation’s elements.

Whether our spiritual structures are sapphire stone, wood, metal or brick, every structure can serve – must serve – to remind us of the Source of All, the First Builder, and ancient bricks of mud transformed into bricks of light.

 

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By Rabbi Evan Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

A Nation of Priests (Everybody Builds)

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

Question: How to build a special community that focuses on the transcendent?

Answer: Empower an entire nation!  And build spiritual life around this collective empowerment.

This idea might sound over the top, but it’s what this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) suggests.  Everyone in the people of Israel – men, women, children – are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and this “priest” we are to be is different from the priestly class in Torah.

If not the priestly class, what is this kind of “priest” we all are called to become?

A “priest” functions as intermediary between humanity and divinity.  When I think of that kind of “priest,” I think of someone to whom one might go for spiritual guidance, perhaps for assistance in navigating life from an ethical or holy perspective. I think of someone ordained to perform a role, a function on behalf of others in tackling the mysteries of life with zeal and holiness.

That kind of “priest” is a rarefied, limited role.  Whether for a “priestly class” defined by lineage, or a calling ripened by learning, that kind of “priestly” calling isn’t for everyone – and that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a priest, rabbi, pastor or imam. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone were a trash collector.  We’d have really clean streets, but not much else.

To date, my calling and daily routine involve a courtroom, not a bimah. I went to law school, not seminary.  Even so, Torah’s radical vision of a “kingdom of priests” suggests a kind of priesthood that is for everyone regardless of what we do for a living or what we think we can do.

This kind of “priest” isn’t a role but an identity.  It’s not a go-between or intermediary, but a way of being.  It’s a calling to seek the sacred and serve the sacred precisely in the lives we lead.

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This “priestly” calling asks me not to outsource my spirituality to anyone – even the people who take on a “priestly” role as pastor, rabbi or imam.  That’s Torah’s calling, for each person to live spiritually, and in that way become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But how?  How do we build in a way that reminds that we mustn’t outsource our “priestdom”? And what does this mean for how we build spiritual life?

One clue is in the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, from the Hebrew l’kahen (“to serve”).  A priest is one who serves: we are called to serve.  Whatever our paths in the world, we can understand our way in the world as a way of service.

If so, then we must build spiritual life for that.  We must build to empower everyone, and remind everyone that they are empowered – commanded – to serve in their own right.

What does that kind of building look like?

Maybe it looks like increased engagement and investment: one can’t be a priest, simultaneously a servant of the community and a spiritual leader, from a place of ignorance or uncaring.  That’s a calling to spiritual education.

Maybe it looks like teaching our kids (and ourselves) to speak not about God from a distance, but with God with the presumption of relationship.

Maybe it looks like linking social justice impulses with ritual time, so that at moments of ritual significance (like havdalah) we’re channeling our energy also into building a better world. Maybe it looks like a website that curates resources for lifecycle moments so that a spiritual seeker can access tradition’s wisdom at their fingertips wherever they are – whether home, vacation, or a hospital hallway. (Full disclosure: those two things are among Bayit’s first keystone initiatives.)

Maybe it looks like something we can’t yet imagine. As a “nation of priests,” we all get to shape what and how we build.  That’s Torah’s invitation to the nation of Israel, to all who wrestle with these fundamental questions.

As a “lay priest,” I explore paths my ancestors blazed. I make them my own, in ways that aspire to being spiritually open and vulnerable, building new structures on tradition’s foundations.  This task can’t succeed if only “professional Jews” — yesterday’s kohanim, or today’s rabbis — pick up the building mantle.

That’s Torah’s wisdom: only all of us together, all of us living into being “priests,” can live into the holy strength, vibrance and enduring relevance that is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So it was in the days of our ancestors, and so it is now and forever.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

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

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

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  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us.

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  • On our doorposts

When the lamb is slaughtered, Torah tells us to to mark the doorposts of our houses with its blood, in remembrance of the bloodied doorposts that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over. For two thousand years, Jews have marked our doorposts with mezuzot. (Josephus, who lived from 37-100 C.E., wrote about mezuzot as an “old and well-established custom.”) Mezuzot are often very beautiful. But the real beauty of this teaching lies in what the mezuzot represent: awareness of the Holy in all of our transitions.

We can remember the Holy in temporal transitions — e.g. opting to begin a meeting with a melody or a blessing, the way we begin and end Shabbat. We can remember the Holy in spatial transitions — e.g. marking the doorposts of our houses, and even our rooms. When we lie down and when we rise up, when we exit and when we enter: every transition offers us an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God. In every day, in every place, we can choose apathy or we can choose engagement. We can choose to knock down, or we can choose to build.

Torah prompts us to mark our doorposts so we will remember that life is full of transitions… and that in every transition, we can choose anew to uplift, to sanctify, and to build.

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  • Ready for our journey

Torah tells us to eat the feast of Passover with our sandals on our feet and our walking-sticks in our hands. The seder isn’t just a dinner party: it’s an embodied remembrance of what it was like then (and what it is like now) to be ready to go. The seder is an opportunity to open ourselves to the necessity of change, of going-forth from our stuck places, of new beginnings.

The seder reminds us that sometimes there is sweetness (or at least comfortable familiarity) in being stuck and in letting our spiritual lives be stale. Our job is to open ourselves to the flavor-burst of horseradish. To let our hearts and souls be startled out of complacency. To put on our sandals and be ready to move. To take up our tools and be ready to build. The Jewish future will not look exactly like the Jewish past. Slavish recreation of that past defeats the purpose — and I say that as someone who deeply loves a lot of things about that Jewish past!

But we need to have our shoes on and be ready to go. We need to have our toolboxes in good order and be ready to build. We need to cultivate the faith and trust required to set out on the work of building something new. And we need to approach the holy work of building with the humility of Moses, balanced with the exuberance of Miriam dancing at the edge of the sea.

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  • Clearing out our old stuff

Torah tells us that for seven days we are to remove leaven from our homes, in remembrance of the hasty waybread of the Exodus journey. Reams of pages have been written about the proper way to remove leaven from one’s home for Pesach. (Blowtorch, anyone?) But in its simplest (and deepest) form, Torah’s teaching here is about shedding the old in order to make ourselves ready for the new.

The word hametz (leaven) derives from the root meaning “to ferment.” In a literal sense, leaven is that which has fermented. That’s what a yeasted starter does to create the lightness we know as leavened bread. In a spiritual sense, hametz can mean that which is old and sour, the puffery of ego and self-importance that gets in the way of our capacity to build something new.

In order to build a Jewish future worthy of our hopes, we need to be ready to relinquish excessive ego. We need to be ready to relinquish old stories that no longer serve. We need to be ready to relinquish our attachment to mistakes (our own, and others’). Only when we wholly clear our old “stuff” can we make room to build the new. Only when our inner ground is leveled and prepared can we sink pilings for new foundations. Only when we remove what gets in the way of our openness to the unfolding of spirit can we wholly act on the call to come together and build — all of us, attentively, with our work boots on and our best tools in hand.

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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

  1. The importance of good plans

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

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

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

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

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

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

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

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

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

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

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

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.