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.

 

#VisualTorah Book of Esther from Steve Silbert

From builder Steve Silbert comes this piece of Visual Torah: a one-page version of the Book of Esther, which will be read later this week at Purim! One of the mitzvot of Purim is to hear the megillah read aloud. Delving into Steve’s Visual Torah version can offer another doorway into the text, its meanings, and its relevance today. Chag sameach!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Creating a Spiritual Home

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

“A house is just a box where you keep your stuff.” A contractor tossed this comment over his shoulder as he left my new home, clearly thinking that he was dropping a pearl of wisdom.

I looked around. He had come to hang a painting over my bed that is too heavy for me to lift. It’s by an artist who was friends with my family. I’ve long admired her work, and until just a few years ago, the painting hung in my parents’ family room. My mother gifted it to me when she sold the house, after my father’s death.

I slowly turned, looking in all directions as I considered the “stuff” in my home. Art work, furnishings, books. Nearly everything tells me a story; about myself, about people I love, about places I’ve been and years gone by.

And I thought, “He’s wrong.” My house is so much more than a box filled with stuff. It was indeed simply an empty shell when the construction crew left, but now it is a home filled with meaning, not only because of the things in it, but because of my relationship with those things – because of the memories and happiness they ignite within me.

So too our houses of prayer. They are more than simply buildings. They are not important because they exist, but because of how they are used. They are places of worship, places that ignite memories, that link us to our tradition and our ancestors, that provide us with a communal space in which we can be in relationship, with each other and with the Divine.

And so too the Mishkan, the tabernacle that the Children of Israel built in the desert, following God’s detailed instructions. It provided a sacred space where the people could reach out to their God.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.46.55 PMIn this week’s Torah portion (Pekudei), the last in the Book of Exodus, the people complete the task of building and outfitting the Mishkan. The passage in Exodus 39:42-43 echoes the passage in Genesis 2:1-3 when God finished creating the heavens and earth: both use the same verbs, both end with a blessing. God blessed the Sabbath, Moses blessed the people.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.49.26 PMWhat I find most fascinating about both creation stories is that neither ends with the basic construction project. God doesn’t stop after creating the world; God “furnishes” the world with plants, animals, and finally humans. Moses and the people furnish the Mishkan with the altar and everything the priests need to perform their sacred duties.

No building is complete when the construction crew leaves. An empty synagogue is no different than an empty office building or an empty store. The task is not done until the requisite materials are brought in – desks for the offices, cash registers for the stores, ritual items for the synagogues.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.51.11 PMAnd still, the buildings are incomplete. Fully outfitted with every “thing” necessary, they are nothing without us. No work is accomplished in an empty office, no goods sold in an empty store, no spiritual connections made in an empty prayer space.

My congregation rents the space in which we meet. Other groups use it for other purposes when we’re not holding services. And when no one is there, it is simply a large, empty room, with two concrete walls and two glass walls that look out onto a park. The view is lovely. But the room itself is an empty box; no personality, nothing to recommend it.

But it’s not hard to turn an everyday room into a sacred space. Bring out chairs and place them in a welcoming semi-circle. Set up the portable ark, take the Torah out of its protective case, take out the candle sticks and Shabbat candles, place the challah on its tray under the embroidered cover, and put out the prayer books.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.53.12 PMThen open the doors and welcome in the people who have come to pray in community. And in that moment, an everyday room is transformed into a sacred space, a meaningful spiritual home that is no different from any other synagogue, anywhere in the world. Because an impermanent spiritual home can become a holy space by virtue of the memories, intentions, and actions of the people who inhabit it, even if only for a few hours.

Like the things in my home, the ritual items in our synagogue have deeper meanings beyond their mere functions. The pointer we use when reading from the Torah scroll, called a yad, was donated by a long-time member who died last year just before his 100th birthday. Every time I take it in my hands, I think of him. The scroll itself was donated by a Pittsburgh synagogue that was closing its doors and seeking new homes for its ritual items. The stand on which the Torah rests inside the ark was handcrafted by one of our founding members.

A building is just a box until it becomes something else. The transformation from structure to sacred space takes a two-step process – furnishing it with meaningful “stuff,” and populating it with people who care about each other and who seek meaningful interactions with each other, with the ritual items they use together, and with their God.

Remember the blessings that God and Moses gave after they finished their creations? The next time you walk into the sacred place where you pray, take a moment to bless the people around you. Because like God and Moses, together you have created something remarkable.

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketch note 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.