Now

 

Suddenly the two stately trees
outside my window are shot through

with sprays of gold. My heart rails
against the turning season

like a child resisting bedtime, but
the trees hear the shofar's call.

Come alive, flare up, be
who you are: let your light shine!

The katydids and crickets sing
the time is now, the time is now.

The last time I visited my mother
I told her "it's okay if you're ready

to go." My heart railed against
her dying, but after one last burst

of color she was ready to rest.
This year the trees' razzle-dazzle

speaks to me in her voice: be here
while you can. Drink every drop

of daylight. And when night falls,
it's full of stars: don't be afraid.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2019

 

(Each year during the month of Elul -- the month leading up to the Days of Awe -- I write a poem to share with family, friends, & blog readers. This is this year's. Those annual poems are online here -- most recent at the top.)


Pursuing justice

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"Justice, justice, shall you pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

Or in the translation of my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, "Resist so that you may exist." Because Torah says we are to pursue justice in order that we may live.

It's not enough to support justice. Agree with justice. Nod our heads about justice. We're supposed to pursue it. To run after it. To seek it with all that we are.

We need to pursue justice because without justice we cannot wholly live.

We need to pursue justice because without justice, life isn't wholly living.

Cornel West wrote that "Justice is what love looks like in public." If we love the other -- and Torah is quite clear that we should: "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated no fewer than thirty-six times in Torah -- the way we are to express that love is by seeking justice.

And where there is no justice, "love" is a hollow word. In the absence of justice, love loses its meaning. If someone says they love you, but they won't pursue justice for you, then their love is at best false and at worst highly damaging. 

What does it mean for us to pursue justice?

It means acting ethically. Always. Without fail. As much as we can.

On a personal level, it means discerning where we've fallen short, apologizing to those whom we've harmed, and pursuing restitution for those whom we've harmed. That's the work of this time of year. (This is classical Jewish teaching; see Maimonides on teshuvah.)

Communally, social justice means "equal distribution of opportunities, rights, and responsibilities" across our differences. [Source.] If the systems of our society prevent any subgroup from having equal opportunities, rights, and responsibilities, that isn't justice. 

A world in which people of color are systematically disenfranchised from voting is not justice. (This week at havdalah when it's time to #BeALight, we might choose to support Fair Fight.) I'll bet we can all can think of other examples of injustice needing to be repaired. 

Pursuing justice means acting with integrity to uplift those who are disempowered -- in Torah's paradigm, the widow and the orphan; in today's paradigm, those who experience systematic discrimination.

This is our work in the world as Jews. This is our work in the world as human beings. This isn't new, but this year it seems more important than ever.

So here's my prayer today:

Please, God, strengthen our commitment to justice. Strengthen our readiness to not only uplift justice but to pursue it, to run after it, to seek it with all that we are. Because without justice, the world is broken.

And with justice -- only with justice -- we can aim to live up to our highest aspirations as individuals and as a society. With justice, we can live up to what God asks of us.

Because justice is what God asks of us. And justice is what we should ask of our government, and our communities, and our own selves. Justice is what we're called to pursue, all the days of our lives.

Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) I followed it with last year's Torah poem: Pursue.


A week of building with Bayit

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Within minutes of arrival, I'm drawn into a conversation about the meaning of the end of the Book of Jonah, its place in the arc of Yom Kippur, and what the ellipses implicit in that ending have to teach us. The guitars come out, and next thing I know I'm saying "wait, wait, show me that chord again," and I'm learning new chord progressions. We talk and sing and we sit by an outdoor fire for a while and I make dinner and we dine around a big table and then we move back outside, to the firepit this time, where we talk and laugh and talk and argue and talk under the wheeling spray of the Milky Way.

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I wake to coffee. The sunlight on the lake is dazzling. There is yoga, expertly led. There is impromptu davenen on the pier, sunlight shining through my sheer rainbow tallit, my feet dipping into the waters of the lake. We do a core values exercise and talk about what animates us. We sit outside in the sunshine on Adirondack chairs and make giant lists of our hopes and aspirations, what we want to get out of the week, what's on our priority list, dreams and goals for Bayit and for ourselves. We spend a few hours combing through the pages of Doorways one by one. And then we go kayaking.

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We look at plans for our Sketchnoting Jewishly book. We cook. We talk about working with college students. We study texts about masculinity and grace, and begin brainstorming modalities of menschlichkeit. Giant sticky-tab pages proliferate on the walls, covered with words, drawings, diagrams, charts, and ideas. We break for ice cream. We talk and laugh and sing and learn. I learn new melodies for prayers I know and love. The number of guitars in the room multiplies. Whoever finishes the coffee in the pot starts a new one. Whoever didn't cook, does dishes. We laugh and harmonize.

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We talk about board functions, about growing our build teams, about how our different projects (should) interrelate, about growing from a startup into what follows. We take a break to walk all the way around the lake, past houses and summer camps, exclaiming over the softness of pine needles underfoot and the beauty of the woods around us. The walls of the living room fill up with more ideas, and pages, and bright yellow post-it notes. We praise each others' recipes. We bring all of the guitars out to the firepit with the Adirondack chairs and we sing and laugh under the stars.

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We kayak onto glassy water, pause our boats under an arched stone bridge, and sing. We talk about the innovation pipeline and what we hope Bayit can accomplish next year. We come up with a new plan for Builders Blog, and learn how to use Trello. We break for mincha (afternoon prayer) overlooking the lake, two altos and a tenor with a drum and a guitar; the ashrei feels like heaven. The fabulous R' Wendy Amsellem teaches us Talmud on taking diverse opinions into our ears and hearts, on making our insides match our outsides, and on creating communities where it's safe to speak.

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At the end of the week I make challah, and we work on high holiday sermons under the trees, and some of us do mikvah in the lake, and then we gather outdoors with guitars to welcome Shabbat. There is nothing quite like Shabbes at the end of a week like this -- a week of brainstorming and kayaking, visioning and singing, planning and building. I am so grateful for this week. It's been sweet and song-filled, intense and real. And now I'm ready to return to my kid... knowing that my Bayit hevre and I will continue the work of building Jewish together, in all of the different places we call home. 


Off I go!

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In my car: a case of wine, my suitcase, giant sticky-tab pages, markers, a dry erase board, more markers, guitar, tallit and tefillin, siddur, Sfat Emet book, water shoes, sneakers, sun hat, computer bag, bentschers, non-perishable groceries for the dinner I'm cooking on Monday, and half a bottle of fig arak left over from Shavuot. It must be time for Bayit: Building Jewish's annual visioning / strategic planning / learning for its own sake / HiHo prep / vacation week!


Star light

Mom, tonight
after I got
the kid to bed
I stepped outside

onto the balcony
-- the air cool
without a robe
already, late

August preparing
to give way --
and the Big Dipper
gleamed above me,

and Cassiopeia.
I forgot to say
"Star light, star
bright," but

God knows
all the things
I wish for,
including

you listening
for these missives
lofted skyward
for you.

 


Plant a tree: on action, and compassion, and bringing repair

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Reading this week's Torah portion, Eikev, the verses that leapt out at me were Deuteronomy 8:3-4:

"God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years."

Reading these verses, I thought two things:

One -- what an extraordinary teaching about trust. Moshe is reminding the children of Israel that during their forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God gave them everything they needed. God gave them something entirely unprecedented and new, this foodstuff called manna. And God kept their clothes from going threadbare, and kept their feet nimble and comfortable. This is a teaching about trusting that if we are open, the universe will give us what we need.

And two -- holy wow, I wish we had access to that right now.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult week to pay attention to the news. There's talk of detaining refugee and migrant children indefinitely. The Amazon rainforest, the "lungs of the earth," is literally on fire -- and not because of an accident, but because people are intentionally clear-cutting forest and burning the stumps to make room for more profitable cattle-grazing land, even though without that rainforest our planet may not survive.

God, we could really use some manna. And we could really use a miraculous rainstorm to put out the Amazon's fires. And we could really use a boost in humanity's capacity for compassion. Our compassion and our readiness to act need to not wear out, the way our spiritual ancestors' shoes didn't wear out. On the contrary, we need for our compassion and our readiness to act to be strengthened, because the needs of the world are so great, and it looks like they're only going to get greater.

I poured out my heart to God asking for those things, and here's the answer that came to me:

Manna isn't on offer these days. And God doesn't send floods to save us from our own avarice. That's not how God works in the world. God works in the world through us. As we sang earlier tonight, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." 

We have tools at our disposal to help us cultivate and strengthen our compassion, our love for the other, our willingness to extend ourselves to the migrant and the refugee, our readiness to care for the holy temple we call planet Earth. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual practices designed for exactly that purpose. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual technologies designed to refine our souls and boost our readiness to do what's right.

Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah can help us respond ethically to the current administration's attacks on the Flores settlement that protects the rights of refugee children. And to the burning of the rainforests and the greed that fuels those choices. And to every need there is. These are our tradition's core spiritual technologies: are we using them?

In just over five weeks, we'll come together for Rosh Hashanah and we'll hear the majestic words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. (I've written about that prayer before.) We'll remind ourselves that we never know, in the year to come, who will die by fire and who by water. And we will affirm that tefilah, and teshuvah, and tzedakah, avert the severity of the divine decree.

Tefilah: prayer, meditation, spiritual practice writ large. Teshuvah: repentance, atonement, turning ourselves around. And tzedakah: righteous giving, giving to the other in a way motivated not by "charity" but by our core sense of justice. That's how we mitigate whatever comes our way. That's how we take care of each other. That's how we take care of our world.

Prayer and repentance and tzedakah can't necessarily change what is. (Though sometimes they can. And if you have a few dollars to spare, donate to a worthy cause at havdalah, and #bealight to make the world a better place.) But tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change what we do about what is. We can "believe in God" or we can choose not to believe, but either way, Jewish tradition demands that we do what's right. Jewish tradition demands that we act. Prayer and teshuvah can strengthen us to act.

We're entering into Shabbes-time: the one day each week when we get to set the cares of the world aside. Let our worries and our griefs run off our shoulders. And when the new week begins, it'll be on us to do what we can to build a better world. Even if we know we can't do enough. The only unacceptable choice is despair and inaction.

In the rabbinic text known as Avot de Rabbi Natan (page 31b), we read,

If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.

If you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is healed, the traumas of the world as we've known it are over, there's no more war or bloodshed or hurt -- plant the sapling before you celebrate. And I think this also means: if you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is destroyed, that the world is burning and cannot be redeemed -- plant the sapling before you mourn. No matter what, plant the sapling. Plant the seeds of hope. Engage in an act of compassion. That's what it is to be a Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Hair

The alligator clips
for holding a hank of hair
while the rest is blown dry

wait patiently
for you to return
and need them again.

In your last years
you joined the ranks
of little old ladies

who let the beauty shop
wash and style.
Like your mother used to.

I always thought
they needed the bowl dryers
to set their curls.

I never understood
it was because arms
couldn't reach anymore, or

ports or open wounds
couldn't safely handle
the sluice of a shower.

I'd give anything
to talk over the hum
of your blowdryer again.

 


Tisha b'Av, and parenting, and responsibility, and change

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"I'll be at synagogue for Tisha b'Av," I tell my son. What's that, he asks. "It's when we remember that we used to have a Temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed. So we built it again, and it was destroyed again. It's a time for thinking about all the things that hurt -- in our history and in the world now." That doesn't sound like a holiday, says my son. That sounds sad.

And then he asks, why can't we just have holidays for the happy things? "Lots of our holidays are joyful," I point out. "Most of our holidays are joyful! This is the one where we let ourselves feel the things that hurt." His response makes me clutch at my heart: he says, simply, but I don't want to feel sad. "You're a kid, you don't have to," I assure him.

It's age-appropriate that he doesn't want to feel sad. (Especially now, a scant few months after his first grandparent's death. We're both still navigating that.) It's age-appropriate for him not to want to engage with the world's brokenness, how bad things happen to good people, the fall of the Temples, any of it. Right now he needs a sense of safety, not a broken heart.

It's easy to knock "pediatric" theology -- childlike theology that doesn't (yet) engage with theodicy and suffering. If we never grow beyond that, our spiritual selves and our relationship with tradition will be stunted.  We might choose to throw away relationship with God and tradition altogether because the simple version we got as kids doesn't speak to life's challenges.

And yet... for a kid, simple and sweet theology is appropriate. I'm grateful that my kid has the luxury of not living with tough questions of theodicy and suffering on a daily basis. I keep thinking about the children whose testimonies make up this prayer. I wish every child had the luxuries my child enjoys. I wish the suffering in Lamentations didn't still look so familiar.

Of course, there are adults who never outgrow reluctance to feel sadness or difficult emotions. I empathize: celebrations are plenty more fun than funerals. But when we want religion to be a source of happiness and light, but don't want to feel loss or sadness or culpability, our spiritual lives get out of whack. That's spiritual bypassing. Tisha b'Av is the opposite of that.

Tisha b'Av calls us into uncomfortable relationship with loss and sadness and culpability. Loss is hard-baked into the human experience: we can embrace it or we can ignore it, but we can't avoid it. But the sense of culpability -- taking responsibility for our role in the brokenness; facing our complicity in the patterns that lead to brokenness -- that one's up to us.

And to me that's the most fascinating thing about Tisha b'Av: how the tradition makes the spiritual move of saying: yeah, it's our fault. Tradition says this is the anniversary of the date when the scouts brought back a false report, a fearful report, dooming their entire generation to wander in the wilderness. Because we didn't trust, our homeless wandering continued.

Tradition says the Temples, destroyed on this date, fell because of our transgressions -- the first one because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the second one because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which teaches us that senseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.) That's a hell of a teaching.

As R' Alan Lew notes, in his Tisha b'Av chapter in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, any historian can tell you that we couldn't have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire, or for that matter Babylon before it. But the tradition says: that historical truth is irrelevant. What matters here is the spiritual truth that calls us to take responsibility.

In a way it's a victim fantasy. We want to believe that what happened to us must have been our fault, because if it were, then we can act differently next time and protect ourselves from the trauma recurring. But in another way it gives us agency. It reminds us that we can always choose to behave differently, to make teshuvah, to be better people than we were before.

And even if teshuvah doesn't protect us from sorrow and loss, the inner transformation might be its own reward. Because on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition says, the messiah will be born. We find hope even in our darkest places -- especially in our darkest places. As an adult I find profound comfort in that teaching. It's like the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.

The thing is, in order to get to that hope -- in order to get to the uplift of Tisha b'Av afternoon -- we have to be willing to go into the loss and grief and sense of communal responsibility that comes before. Where are our Jewish communities falling into senseless hatred, failing to be welcoming and inclusive?  Where are our national / secular communities doing the same?

Tisha b'Av is the hinge that turns us toward the Days of Awe. It's 7 weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We have 7 weeks to take a good look at our selves and souls, our (in)actions and choices. That inner work won't protect us from trauma and loss, personally or nationally. But it might change who we are and how we respond. And isn't that what spiritual life is for?


Return

Not sure what I fear more:
that your house will feel the same
or that it won't. The wheelchair
and hospital machines will be gone, but

the books in the library will still
be arranged by color, abstract
modern art constructed from their spines'
gradations. The heavy crystal bowls

of roasted nuts for cocktail hour
will still adorn the living room
where you used to hold court with
vodka soda and lime in hand, where

you let us take a family photo
that last Shabbat. I was shocked
you let us bring out the camera:
your hair was wild, unwashed.

You smiled as though nothing hurt.
You knew it was our last chance. Mom,
I don't know how to visit a Texas
that doesn't have you in it.

You're not there anymore. You're
not anywhere. But I want to believe
you're watching. Not all the time,
but maybe you feel a tug

when I'm thinking of you. Maybe
you were there when I went shopping.
I bought a dress for the trip.
It's deep yellow, like a loquat,

like your lacquered kitchen cabinets.
I chose it to show off your necklace.
You'd like it because it's bright,
it's vivid, like something alive.

 


New on Builders Blog: building lessons from D'varim

I had the profound pleasure of coauthoring this week's Builders Blog post with my friend and colleague Rabbi Bella Bogart. In studying this week's Torah portion together, we discerned some important building lessons. And we also discovered that when we were rabbinic students, we had parallel but opposite conversations with mentors, who taught us -- by example both positive and negative -- an important lesson about how to relate to those whom we serve.

Here's a taste:

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...First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present...

(Sketchnote by the marvelous Steve Silbert, as always.) Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Building lessons from D'varim

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


All our vows: on making promises, seeking justice, and taking refuge

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This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with instructions concerning vows. Torah's not just talking about little promises; it's talking about swearing, as in "I swear to God" -- or "I swear by God." Torah takes oaths like these very seriously. So does Jewish tradition writ large. In Hebrew, they're most often called nedarim and shavuot. If those words don't ring a bell, try hearing them this way: "Kol nidre, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei, u-shavuot..." I don't know about you, but when I sing the first line of Kol Nidre I quake in my sandals. I feel like: oh God it can't possibly be time for that yet.

I'm not ready to face the end of summer. (Can't we have another month of July before we move on to August?) I'm not ready to face the Days of Awe and all that they ask of me, not just as a rabbi but as a human being. I'm not ready to face everything I need to repair in my life or in the world. I'm not ready to face the ways in which I've inevitably fallen short. Well: ready or not, here it comes. Tisha b'Av is next weekend, and that spiritual low point places us firmly on the onramp to the Days of Awe. This week's verses about vows and oaths come eight weeks before the new year. The time for taking stock is on its way.

So I read this week's Torah portion, which opens with verses about making vows. And then I turned to the Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master Yehuda Lieb Alter of Ger, whose writings I'm studying this year with my Bayit hevre. The Sfat Emet cites the prophet Jeremiah, "You shall swear by the living God in truth, in justice, and in righteousness." And then he explains that these three qualities of truth, justice, and righteousness map to the three ways we are instructed (in Torah / in the V'ahavta) to love God: "with all [our] hearts, with all [our] souls, and with all [our] being." 

The Sfat Emet looks at these two triplets -- truth / justice / righteousness, and hearts / souls / being -- and connects them. He links "truth" with our souls, the life-force that animates us. He links "justice" with our hearts, because the heart needs justice in order to incline in the right way. He links "righteousness" with our very being, as though to remind us that we're called to embody righteousness in all that we are. And then he says that in order to truly receive words of Torah, we need to seek to heal or restore our whole selves, body and soul. I want to unpack that a little bit, because there's something beautiful here.

When the Sfat Emet talks about receiving Torah, he's talking about something beyond just hearing or reading the words of our sacred text. L'kabel, "to receive," isn't passive. It's a whole-self spiritual practice of receptivity to the flow of blessing and wisdom from on high. (It's the root of the word "kabbalah.") He's talking about taking the words into ourselves, taking them on, taking them in, being transformed by them. So that when we say the shema, we're not just singing a nice song: we're experiencing fundamental oneness. So that when we say the v'ahavta, we're embodying love with all that we are.

And in order to do that, we need restoration of our whole selves. We need to do the inner work of repairing our relationships with body and soul, with the physical world and the spiritual world. And we need to pursue not only inner repair, but outer repair: truth, and justice, and righteousness, those qualities that Jeremiah cites. Because inner repair without outer repair is at best insufficient, and at worst deeply damaging. If we use navel-gazing as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to heal the broken world, that's spiritual bypassing -- using the trappings of spiritual life in order to avoid facing what hurts.

So far, so good. But then the Sfat Emet says something that really surprised me. He says it's okay to take an oath to fulfill the mitzvot, because making a promise out loud can help us live up to who we aspire to be. Our tradition regards oaths as serious business, not something to be entered-into lightly. The classical tradition frowns on them altogether! And yet, I know that making a promise aloud can change me. If I say to my child, "I promise I will do everything I can to take care of you," those words express an inner truth and they strengthen my commitment to that truth, because I've spoken it aloud.

What kind of commitment are we willing to make to the mitzvot? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to spiritual practice and the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re-aligning ourselves with God? And -- because inner repair without outer repair is flawed at best -- what kind of commitment are we willing to make to feeding the hungry, protecting the powerless, welcoming the stranger? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to truth, justice, and righteousness? What would our lives look like if we took those commitments seriously, receiving and embodying them in all that we are?

Making commitments is risky. We might fail to live up to them. (Which is why the classical rabbinic tradition frowns on making vows in the first place.) But I've got a secret for you. Yom Kippur is coming, and when it gets here, we're all going to discover that we've fallen down on our promises. Because we're human, and we always do. We're bound to fail sometimes. I don't think that's a good reason to not even try. Yes, making commitments is risky. But a life without those commitments -- without even trying to live by standards of love and justice, truth and righteousness -- would be worse.

And this is where I want to bring in another Hasidic rebbe, the Slonimer, on a passage from the end of this week's portion. He's writing about the establishment of cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could be safe from retribution. He goes into some detail about the cities of refuge, and about the spiritual implications of having done something terribly wrong. And then he says that in our day we can take refuge in faith, and in community, and in the shema, and in Shabbat which is the source of holiness and the time each week when we can rekindle our God-connection.

Community is always available to us, if we choose to seek it, and in community we can be inspired to be our best selves even if we know we've fallen short. The shema is always available to us, and we can pray it every day. Shabbat is available to us every week. Even if we've done something wrong, even if we've broken our vows, even if we've fallen down on the job of being the people we want to be, we can take refuge in community and in spiritual practice and in Shabbat. And then when the new week begins, we can try again to live up to all our vows, and to be the people we know we are called to be.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). I share it here with gratitude to all of my hevruta learning-partners, and with gratitude to (and for) the spiritual practice of study.

 


A new prayer for Tisha b'Av

I've curated a new prayer for Tisha b'Av that interweaves quotes from Lamentations with quotes from migrants and refugees on the United States' southern border today. In reading the prayer aloud, we put the words of refugees -- parents separated from their children; children separated from their parents; human beings suffering in atrocious conditions -- into our own mouths. May hearing ourselves speak these words galvanize us to action.

Here's a taste:

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?...

The prayer is online (and also available as a downloadable PDF) at Bayit's Builders Blog, and you can find it here: Lamentations (Then and Now).


From Tents to Dwellings - at Builders Blog

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Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries...

That's the opening of my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog (with sketchnote, as always, by Steve Silbert). Read the whole thing here: From Tents to Dwellings

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


Water from the living well

Test-your-well

Water from a well.

 

I sat down to write about the episode in this week's Torah portion, Chukat, where Miriam dies and the people have no water. And I kept thinking about the people who've been arrested for the supposed "crime" of giving water to save the lives of migrants and refugees at our nation's southern border -- and the camps along that border where human beings are held in horrific conditions. The world is so very broken. In the face of that, pretty words about Torah and water seem... insignificant.

Many of you have said to me lately that it's hard to sleep, it's hard to breathe, that you feel assaulted on all sides by the constant furor of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant drumbeats of the atrocities being committed seemingly everywhere we look. Me, too. So I struggled to find words to share with you today. It felt almost inappropriate, like a sign of a profound and terrible kind of privilege, to focus on Torah while the world is burning down, while our nation is in disarray, while people are being harmed.

And then I sat down with my Bayit hevre (as I do every week) to study commentaries on this week's Torah portion. This year we're studying the commentary of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. We agreed when we founded that organization that we wanted to meet regularly not only for work and for board meetings, but also for Torah study lishma, for its own sake. Learning for the sake of the sweetness of learning, strengthening our connections with Torah and with each other.

In one of the commentaries we read this week from the Sfat Emet, I found a teaching that gave me a different way to look at Shabbat and Torah study and why we need them even (or especially) when the world is broken. The Sfat Emet references the well that tradition says followed Miriam in the wilderness, providing water for the children of Israel. Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says it was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Shabbat of creation, held in reserve until it was needed.

After mentioning Miriam's well, the Sfat Emet quotes Proverbs 5:15: "Drink water from your cistern, and flowing water from your well." There are two ways to get water: from a cistern, and from a well. A cistern holds "gathered waters" -- it's a tank, a water tower, a bucket on a roof. But eventually, a cistern will run dry. A well, on the other hand, is "joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring." A well is a symbol of intimate connection, in its root, to a source that will never run out.

This, says the Sfat Emet, is the difference between weekday and Shabbat. On weekdays we drink from a cistern. We measure out some of our saved water, and it renews us -- in the ways that it is able. But we know that the water in a cistern will eventually turn brackish and run dry. We know that our resources are limited. We always know, in the back of our minds, that there might not be enough. But on Shabbat, "the inner wellsprings are opened." On Shabbat, we get to drink from the well, from the source.

He's no longer talking just about the difference between water from a jug and water from a working faucet. He's talking about the difference between measuring out a little bit of our limited spiritual resources each day, and basking in the complete spiritual plenitude that Shabbat offers. Weekdays are a time of limited resources: we all know how that feels. There's so much that's broken. There isn't enough of me to go around. Shabbat is qualitatively different. Shabbat herself is the ever-flowing spring.

"Wellspring" and "Source" are two of our tradition's names for God. On Shabbat, we can open our hearts and souls to the flow that comes from the living well, from the living waters of Torah, from the living waters of divinity itself. That's how we renew ourselves for the week to come. That's how we refill our cisterns so we'll have water to drink, strength to go on, sustenance for the work at hand. In the Sfat Emet's metaphor, Shabbat is the one day of the week when water flows directly from God, for us.

Yes, immersing in words of Torah can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. Immersing in Shabbat practices can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. I get that. I feel it too. And... I think the Sfat Emet would say that when the world is on fire, we need our sources of replenishment even more. Each week we get to shift between the cistern and the living well -- if we chose to. Or we could just stick with the cistern, live in weekday consciousness 365 days a year... but I'm pretty sure we'll run dry.

Today the inner wellsprings are opened: will we cease from working and doing and worrying and checking Twitter and watching the world burn in order to drink from them? I know it can feel almost irresponsible to do so. But I believe it's irresponsible not to. We need this day of spiritual respite to refill our cisterns -- so that when we make havdalah tonight, we can choose to #bealight and begin the new week with a conscious act toward building a world of greater justice, righteousness, and love.

So today as Shabbat continues, take a break. Study some Torah. Sing a song. Dip in a swimming pool. Take a Shabbes schluff, a holy Shabbat nap. Live in the "as-if," as-if the world were already redeemed, as-if all of the suffering that consumes us were lifted. Refill your cistern in every way you know how. Because when havdalah comes, the world will still be in desperate need of repair, and we'll need to be strong and replenished and renewed and refreshed in order to face the challenges of that repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study group.