Building (For) God

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

 

It’s a heady and awesome thing to “build for God.”  That’s what spiritual builders do. That’s the business we’re all in.  

We can do it well (our ancestors’ desert Sanctuary), or we can do it disastrously (the Golden Calf) – but either way, building for God is what collective spiritual enterprise is at least partly about.  Whether places, structures, systems or relationships, we build so that through them we can experience a bit of the sacred right here on Earth.

And if you think you’re not a spiritual builder, or that your spiritual building isn’t about experiencing the sacred where you are, look deeply into this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) and think again.

Our slave ancestors, freed from Egyptian bondage, reach the Sea of Reeds and miraculously walk through.  Leaving Pharaoh’s army behind, our ancestors break into song. What they sang, heard with modern ears, is revolutionary.  

Traditionally we understand their “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15) as a celebration and an affirmation.  At the Song’s heart is the exclamation, Mi chamocha ba’eilim YHVH (“Who is like You, God?”): Who else could split the sea and overpower the world’s strongest army to free the bound?  These words have echoed in Jewish hearts ever since.

But there’s more.  Freed from seemingly endless bondage building brick structures for an enslaving Pharaoh, they sang: “In Your love, You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength, You guide [us] el-nave kodshecha (אל נוה קדשך) – to Your holy abode” (Exodus 15:13).  Instinctively they knew that wherever they were going, they were being led to a place – and that the place was holy.

What does this have to do with spiritual building?  Just moments earlier, they also sang: Zeh Eli v’anvehu (זה אלי ואנוהו) – “This is my God whom I’ll adore” (Exodus 15:2).  The two phrases share the same word (nave), which hints at a deep meaning: “This is my God whom I’ll build into a holy abode.”

Take that in.  In liberation’s peak moment of ecstatic joy, they sang not only that they were headed to a holy place but that they themselves were going to build it.  What were they going to build? Not only would they build for God: they would build God!  And why would they build?  They’d build so that they could “adore God.”

Our ancestors – who had been builders under Pharaoh’s lash – now would become builders for God.  And by building, they would learn to love. We learn that freedom is not for its own sake but for a loving purpose: to build for God, and to build God.

Of course, our wandering ancestors’ first spiritual building went very wrong: their first attempt was a Golden Calf that they treated as God.  That’s the danger of venerating things (whether places, structures, systems or relationships), and venerating our own capacity as builders. Maybe that’s why God had to get exactingly clear: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8) – not “it.”  God dwells in us all.

By building the right way, divinity can flow through the builders.  We learn that holiness and the spirituality of building are not about building except as building focuses human awareness and human actions on holiness.

So what should we make of our ancestors’ “build God” idea?  

Jacob got it in his peak experience of wrestling: “God was in this place and I, I did not know” (Genesis 28:16).  In a peak spiritual experience, we know that everything pulses with divinity, that there is nothing but God, that we (as builders) are instruments of the sacred.  It’s precisely by not knowing ourselves, not getting stuck on ourselves, that our awareness clears enough to really get it.

Same for our ancestors at the Song of the Sea: in that peak experience, it was all God.

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Great ideas, but so what?  What do they really mean for us here and now as builders?  To us, we learn a few things:

 

  • Building is all about curating experience.  The idea of God is not God; the thought of the sacred is not the sacred. Only as we experience holiness, getting out of our own way and experiencing what transcends us, can we begin to know God through any place or thing.  Thus, every spiritual building, to be worthy of that name, must curate experience beyond oneself.
  • Builders need to hold on gently, and maybe not at all.  Every spiritual building evokes a Zen-style koan.  Even as we “build God,” we can’t ever “build God” because God is never in a thing: “Build Me a Sanctuary so I can dwell in [you].”  Lest our spiritual structures and systems become like Golden Calves, we must see them only as conduits, only as effective as what they channel.  And because we humans tend to grow attached to our own handiwork, we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that what makes spiritual building spiritual is precisely that we hold it gently and maybe not at all.
  • We must test our buildings and sometimes let them fall.  If spiritual buildings are only as effective as what they channel, then a building that doesn’t channel isn’t worth keeping.  We must test our spiritual buildings (places, structures, systems and relationships), repeatedly asking what they’re channeling now.  And if they’re too clogged, or not transmitting holy experience, it’s time to redesign and rebuild.

 

God is the master architect, Torah is the blueprint and we – all of us – are builders.  It’s our calling – all of us – to build wisely, courageously and well. And if we do, we too can become vessels for holiness in the world.

 

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By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building a Temple from Tears

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

The Torah is filled with instructions for building the Mishkan, G-d’s “dwelling place” that our ancestors carried in the wilderness, but those blueprints don’t provide measurements of the emotional dimensions needed to build that holy space within our hearts. It often feels like the walls we have constructed, to protect that space, are more permanent than the walls of the original Mishkan, designed to create an inviting space.

There are few things that penetrate our hearts more powerfully than the wailing cries of a child. We hear and witness the holy purity and unfiltered truth of their experience in real time. It is this portal into the honest rawness and exposed feelings of human vulnerability that naturally move us to open up our own emotional channels.

IMG_3665Tears can be powerful, cleansing, and soulful. They can also be the result of overwhelming pain. Regardless of the part of us that hurts, it is the eyes that cry. No other part of our body is as sensitive to the basic material of the physical world. Even one speck of dirt in the eye can be excruciating and incapacitating, where it would go completely unnoticed nearly everywhere else on the body.

Our Rabbis teach that we come into this world crying because the soul feels the pain of just being forced into this physical and constrained space of a body. Crying, it seems, is also a bridge back to that spiritual habitat. The Talmud teaches that although the gates of prayer are sometimes shut, the gates of tears are never closed. If so, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, why then do they need gates at all? He answers that only true, heartfelt tears are let in. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word for crying (בכי) has the same numerical value as the word for heart (לב).

So why in this week’s Torah portion didn’t Jacob cry with his son Joseph, when they are finally reunited? The verse (Genesis 46:29) observes that “Joseph harnessed his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel, and he appeared to him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.” Rashi comments that while Joseph wept greatly, continuously, and more than usual – Jacob however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him but instead said the Shema.

When we recite the Shema, we close our eyes and give testimony to our faith and total commitment to the One that we can’t see, but know to be the source of it all.

שמע ישראל ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד

The large “עand “ד” spell the words for “witness” and “knowledge”. Saying the Shema is IMG_3663a demonstration of our inner truth and willingness to serve G-d “With all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might”.

The six letters of the first and last words are an acronym for six people who sacrificed their lives in the service of G-d, and were miraculously saved . These two words are 1 also acronyms for the six different literal sacrifices that were offered in the Temple , 2 often compared to the neck, where we are told heaven and earth are connected.

Perhaps Jacob’s absence of tears wasn’t a denial of a shared experience, with his son, but rather an expression of it.

The verse can be read as “Shema Yisroel”, “Israel (Jacob) heard”: he listened, he internalized, and he responded with a complete focus of reunification with the ultimate source of goodness, healing, and power. This is one of the interpretations of Chanukah- “חנוכה” an application (חנו) of the 25 (כה) letters of the Shema.

The Greeks wanted to darken the eyes of the Jewish people. In response the Maccabees rededicate the Temple and brought forth miraculous light. The Midrash teaches that G-d told Israel that once the Temple is destroyed, G-d will desire that we say the Shema, twice a day, and it will be an elevation greater than the sacrifices themselves. That’s the path that Jacob models here: eyes closed, heart open.

IMG_3664The temple for our soul, our Rabbis teach, is in our eyes. This is perhaps why our tradition instructs us to close the eyes of a person, once their soul has returned to its source. However, as long as our heart beats, it must beat for the collective, to see the pain of another’s, as our own.

Too often we limit our vision of what we see as possible. When we connect and partner with the Omnipresent (המקום), not only is there comfort but there is a true sense of empowerment. When we look out into the world, whether our heart feels moved to tears or not, we must feel the responsibility to each other, and be willing to make an offering, because of our relationship with G-d.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Teves, the day tradition has it that Jacob is buried. It is also the month that is ruled by the letter “ע” and the power of a deeper sight. We must constantly rededicate our temple, allowing our soul to hear, granting it permission to cry, and letting our tears flow to form a path forward to soothe the pain of all of G-d’s children.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Power Tools for Spiritual Building

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

The first weeks of Bayit’s Builder’s Blog harvested keystone principles about building the Jewish future – from primordial foundations of building, to where and with whom spiritual neighborhoods create community.

Now it’s time to build – but what and how?  Parshat Mikeitz offers answers: first build a granary to store food for the future, and powerfully organize community to make it work.

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Torah’s plot is familiar.  Pharaoh lifts Joseph from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Joseph foretells of famine. Pharaoh empowers Joseph to save Egypt.  For seven years, Joseph stores grain as a pikadon (reserve) (Gen. 41:36).  As the 19th century Malbim recognizes, this reserve was as much for the land as for the people: otherwise both would starve (Malbim Gen. 41:36).  

Because Pharaoh and Joseph acted with powerful resolve, Egypt had a future and therefore so did the Children of Israel, who came to Egypt in desperate search for food when famine hit.  Had Pharaoh and Joseph not acted, there might be no Jewish future.

Had Pharaoh not empowered Joseph to build Egypt’s reserves, there might be no future.  We learn that effective leaders must delegate, empower, trust and back away. This same pattern will repeat to build the Mishkan: God tells Moses and also empowers Betzalel (Tribe of Judah) and Oholiav (Tribe of Dan) (Ex. 31:1-6).  Building requires diversity and teamwork.

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Had Pharaoh not lifted Joseph from jail, there might be no future.  Pharaoh instead might have turned to his royal court, well-known people of seemingly high stature.  Sometimes needed skills, tools and powers come from outside our native circles and comfort zones.

Had Pharaoh acted mainly for himself, there might be no future.  Pharaoh easily could have sought to protect his own hide, but instead he and Joseph acted to save others.  (Granted, they later centralized power and dispossessed land owners: we’ll get to that.) Effective builders cannot legitimately use power to build only for themselves.

Had Pharaoh sunk in despair or blindly clutched optimism, there might be no future.  Both despair and excess optimism inhibit needed action. Effective builders must harness the power to see needs clearly and act decisively.

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Had Pharaoh and Joseph not enforced structure, there might be no future.  Had each Egyptian been left to decide how much grain to keep for oneself, there might be too little: the result would be starvation, violence and national decline.  Rules matter and must be enforced for the public good. Without wise use of power to enforce rules, people needlessly suffer.

Spiritual building requires both the power of vision – without vision, we perish (Proverbs 29:18) – and the power to translate vision into reality.  Spiritual building balances powerful physical and societal forces always at play: only in careful balance can structures and systems stay stable and nimble, sturdy and with just enough give in the joints to move when they must move.  To balance these forces, spiritual building needs the power to uplift and deploy expertise, teamwork and discipline. Thus, wise spiritual building requires capacity to design and enforce structure lest powers become unwieldy or abusive, or appetites exhaust finite resources, or inertia drive structures off shifting foundations.

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Builders with these power tools can build and thrive for the future.  Builders without these power tools will starve and die out: they will have no future.

I confess discomfort with these words.  With 25 years of experience in public life, I know that power risks danger: left to its own devices, human power tends to aggrandize itself and grow rife with abuse.  Even Pharaoh and Joseph, whose decisive action saved life, also used the crisis to dispossess Egyptians and seize their land (Gen. 47:13-20) – which has fueled much debate about the Biblical economics of coercion and opportunism.

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Especially today, when abuses of power seem like daily news items, cynicism about power and “powerful” people has become a fixture in modern life.  Our challenge and opportunity – and the urgent call of this time of Jewish, societal and planetary change – is to rectify our collective relationship with power.  Too little power to effect change and we’ll starve both spiritually and literally. Too much power wielded wrongly, without balance from outside itself, also can destroy.

It will take tremendous power to reorient political life and spiritual life to build better for the future.  Thus, if we’re to build a better world, first we must shed fear of power.

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Power is a tool, and we must not fear to use the right tool for the right job.  Like most tools, the practical and moral value of power depends on how we use it.  Power tools comes in two forms – control (power over) and capacity (power to).  Builders must use both kinds of power tools in balanced and careful measure: one without the other builds nothing

That’s the deep meaning I find in the Chanukkah haftarah about Zerubavel, Persian governor of Judea who laid the Second Temple’s cornerstone after return from exile in the early 500s BCE.  Zerubavel received an angelic message: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God” (Zecharia 4:6).  He learned that power flows from the Source: as the angel continued, only by that power flow can ground become “level” on which to build the future (Zecharia 4:7).

Power tools – both the power of control and the power of capacity – are holy.  They don’t belong any of us: they come on loan from their Source, and we must use them in that spirit.  

IMG_3637Only by skillfully using these power tools could Pharaoh and Joseph build and fill granaries for the future of Egypt and the Children of Israel.  Only by responsibly using power tools on loan from their Source could Zerubavel “level” the ground and begin building the Second Temple. Only by using our own power tools likewise can we build wisely for the future of Judaism, and for a planet that urgently needs wise use of power.

So power up, everyone.  Use your power tools wisely: it’s the only way to build.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.