From Tents to Dwellings - at Builders Blog

IMG_1097 (1)

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.


Postcard

This is a postcard --
oversized, five by seven
and glossy. On the front
a photo of my garden:
look, the half-dead bushes
are gone, and the tangle
of wild mint and weeds.
In their place
tall purple astilbe,
silver-leafed brunnera,
a hydrangea, periwinkle
and columbine, shasta daisy.
On the back -- "wish
you were here" is trite.
Instead I'll write
that the sharp scent
of fresh mulch wakes
me like a shofar. All
around town tractors are
cutting tall grass, turning
summer's verdant beauty
into something sustaining
for when all this life
is gone.


Watch me

"Watch this, Mom, watch me."
My son jumps into the pool,
surfacing to ask "was that

a perfect pencil dive?" Or
"look at this, do I look
like a dolphin," wiggling

through the water, "or more
like a whale?" breaching
and landing with a splash.

If I don't witness, it's
as though it didn't happen.
Sometimes I watch, hungry

for every instant of his
nine-year-old summer, glimmer
of sun-sparkles on the water

and maybe a popsicle after
with hair still dripping wet.
Sometimes behind my shades

I want to roll my eyes: kid,
I can't be there your whole life
to see every move you make.

But what else are these poems
if not me calling out to you
watch this, Mom, watch me?

 


Chrysalis

On my Italian parsley plant:
a fat green stripey caterpillar.

It's a black swallowtail
in fourth instar, readying

for its chrysalis. Unlike
the monarch, predictable

in its cycle of rebirth, these
take an indeterminate time

encased in green or brown
before emerging wet-winged.

Growth has its own pace, can't
be hurried. How do they know

when they're ready to shed
what's protected them

and open, tender, to a world
waiting for them to soar?

 


Boundaries and forgiveness

Barricade-barrier-border-48246In this week's Torah portion, Shlach-Lecha, we find the story of the scouts. Maybe you remember it. Here's the thumbnail sketch: Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. They come back bearing a giant bunch of grapes, so big they require two men to carry.

They agree that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. But ten of the men say that the inhabitants of the land were giants, and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. The people rebel, demanding to know why God would bring them into a land only in order to be slaughtered by its giant inhabitants. "If only we had stayed in Egypt," they wail. "Let's go back!"

And for a moment there, God is really angry. Moshe convinces God to calm down. And Torah says, ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך / vayomer Adonai salachti kidvarecha. "And God said, 'I pardon, as you have asked.'" And, God adds, none of you will make it into the Land of Promise. None of you are ready for freedom. Your outburst just now made that clear. So you won't be going.

I've written before about how Moshe, in the wilderness, seems like an overtired parent. This time it's God who seems to me like the exasperated parent. God and Moshe are the two-parent duo: when one of them gets angry, the other acts as the balance. Ultimately God is forgiving, and affirming love, even while drawing boundaries around what's appropriate and what's not.

We can quibble with God's parenting choices here -- was that a proportional response? -- but what God is doing here feels entirely familiar to me. Appropriate. Even necessary.

Drawing a boundary isn't a sign of lack of love. On the contrary: it can be precisely a sign of love, love for the other and love for oneself. It's precisely because I love my child that I set boundaries around appropriate behavior.

And if my child were to do something that goes counter to the rules and expectations of our household, I would hope to respond as God does here: I love you; I forgive you; and, here's the consequence for the poor choice that you made.

Earlier this week I had my second voice lesson, as I work on preparing for the Days of Awe. My voice teacher asked me what piece of music most intimidates me, and I said "Kol Nidre," whereupon she brightly said, "Great, let's start there!" So I've spent part of this week singing Kol Nidre.

And I couldn't help noticing, looking at my machzor -- my high holiday prayerbook -- that there's a line from this week's Torah portion immediately following Kol Nidre. ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך are the words that are sung immediately after Kol Nidre.

These are the words our liturgy gives us, from God, in that tender moment of confronting our own failings. And they come from this week's parsha, from this moment in the unfolding of Torah's story. "And God said, I pardon, as you have asked."

The pardon still comes with a consequence. Sometimes a loving parent has to say, "I love you, and the answer is no." If a child does something wrong, and the parent doesn't draw a boundary, the child won't learn about consequences. But the consequences should come hand-in-hand with forgiveness and love.

Sometimes the answer we get -- from God, from each other, from the universe, from our lives -- is "you screwed up, so the answer is no." Mature spiritual life asks us to receive that answer when it comes, and to learn from it.

Ideally that doesn't mean self-flagellation. Ideally we remember that even when we've screwed up, we are loved. Ideally we remember that God forgives. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that someone we've wronged will forgive. Forgiveness from human beings isn't guaranteed. Apologizing and doing our inner work and making teshuvah and becoming better people is worth doing even so.)

Life comes with boundaries. We don't get to ignore the rules or what's ethical. We don't get to blithely make bad choices without consequence. But if we can hold on to the knowledge that love and boundaries are two sides of the divine coin -- that God balances chesed and gevurah, and so can we -- we can learn to take comfort both in the tochecha of being told where we've mis-stepped, and the sweetness of being reminded that we are loved.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Sun

Best hours for sun: ten until two.
You taught me that, sunbathing
on the flat woven chaise by the pool
straps pulled down so you wouldn't mar
any off-the-shoulder blouse
with lines. No one thinks like that
anymore. Here and now even boys
don't swim topless, exposing chests
to the depradations of our star, but
when I walk to the condo pool for a dip
I still notice whether or not I'm in
the good tan window. And later
in the shower when I see my forearms
darker against the soft pale flesh
of my belly, I feel at home in my body.
I don't look like you. But
after an afternoon spent dipping
into cool aqua waters festooned now
with tufts of fluff from cottonweeds,
my warmed skin comforts my touch
the way yours used to do.


The Slonimer on serving, even from within the cloud

The mishkan (the dwelling place for God) wasn't just an external thing our ancestors built in the wilderness way back when. It's also something we're each called to build and maintain in our own hearts. And just as the mishkan was covered with cloud by day and fire by night, our hearts have times of feeling covered with cloud, and times of burning bright. When the cloud lifted, we journeyed, and when the cloud rested, we stayed put. (Numbers 9: 17-19) As for our spiritual ancestors then, so too for us now.

Every life contains times of darkness, times of feeling tested. Authentic spiritual life asks us to serve from that place -- to do our spiritual work from the place where we are, even when that place is darkness or fog. (And when we're in the fog, it's our job to stay where we are -- to be where we are -- not to try to race on to the next thing, but to give ourselves permission to stand still and be with what's happening.) And when the cloud lifts and we can ascend, then moving on and ascending becomes our work.

The thing I really love here is: God is also there in the cloud with us -- heck, God speaks from within the cloud, Torah says so! Life's dark times might feel devoid of God's presence, but they're not. God is there with us in the dark times, and in those dark times, we have work to do even from that fogged-in place. Wherever life's journey takes us, it's from that place (not some other place; not the place where we imagine we "ought" to be; but the place where we actually are) that we are called to serve in love.

 

With thanks to Rabbi Megan Doherty for studying the Slonimer with me. (This teaching is an encapsulation of the teaching titled על פי ה׳ יחנו ועל פי ה׳ יסעו, on pages מז–מח of Sefer Netivot Shalom.)


In your shoes

When I shot up like a weed our feet
stopped matching. Our tastes
diverged too: once I moved out
I chose Docs, clunky Mary Janes.

When you got sick your shoes
languished, replaced by scuffs
and slippers. Two days after
we buried you, your daughters

and granddaughters gathered
in your walk-in closet
for a different kind of memorial.
I chose scarves and beads,

purses and pocketbooks. Didn't
bother with your shoes, those rows
of gleaming heels in leather
and lucite: like Cinderella's

step-sisters, I would've needed
to chop my feet. But one pair
of open-toed sandals beckoned.
Against all odds they fit, but

February is winter here. They went
on a shelf in my closet to wait.
Mom, last night we shared shoes
again. Were you watching as

I walked circles around the house,
relearning how heels swing my hips
playing dress-up in my mother's
shoes, now my own?

 


And our faces, my heart, brief as photos

48073931286_5c32ca6708_z

I don't know when the doll collecting started. One of the standing dolls has a note on the base that reads "from Brad,  Japan, 1975," which tells me it was a gift from one of my brothers the year I was born. Another bears a piece of tape on her foot reading "Lali and Eppie, Norway, 1988" -- a gift from my grandparents when I was thirteen. Some are porcelain dolls, some are plastic. One is a carved wooden man in a garment of rabbit fur -- I think he is Inuit in origin, and must have come from a parental trip to Alaska -- but the rabbit fur disintegrates in my hands when I pick him up.

There is the big porcelain doll in an off-white muslin dress whom I remember naming "Suzette" when I was a child, because I thought that sounded French; did my parents get her for me on a trip to France, or did I just think the name sounded sophisticated? There are two cloth dolls that my parents got for me when visiting China in the mid 1980s.  There are two cloth dolls that we bought in Amish country when I was nine, as we were driving to New York for our big year in the city -- they wear simple garb, and their faces are blank because of the Scriptural prohibition on graven images.

Four of the dolls, in varying sizes, are wearing Czech traditional dress. My mother was born in Prague, and returned there several times. Did she bring these dolls in hopes of giving me some kind of connection with the folklore and heritage of the place where she was born? When I was 18, we went to the Czech Republic (by then no longer called Czechoslovakia) with my grandparents. It was their final trip abroad. Their memories were already beginning to fail, but we visited the street where their apartment had been when Mom was born, and my grandfather's medical school alma mater. 

Both of my parents were collectors. My father collected matchsafes, and my mother collected silver napkin rings. I suspect this doll collection was started for me when I was born, though my father won't remember, and I can't ask Mom now. I know that everyplace where they went, and everyplace where my grandparents went, they would bring back a doll for me -- ideally in local folkloric costume -- and sometimes a children's book. I still have some of the children's books on my bookshelves: fairy tales in French, The Little Prince in Polish, a bright sturdy pop-up book in Czech.

Some of these are dolls that seem intended to be played-with. They are made of fabric and stuffed, or made of plastic that is soft to the touch. Some have fragile, breakable porcelain faces and hands and feet: dolls meant to be admired rather than cradled or dragged around by a child. Seeing them all assembled together, I'm struck by their assortment of faces, by their eyes and expressions. They represent probably twenty years' worth of my parents and grandparents thinking of me when they were far away, choosing something to bring home to show me where they had been. 

My parents shipped me the dolls shortly after I married. It didn't feel right to display them in my marital home, so they were relegated to the basement. They've been boxed up for more than twenty years. I wish I could look through them with Mom again now. I wish I could ask her where each one came from, what she was thinking when she chose them, what she wanted them to teach me or to say to me: about the richness and diversity of world cultures, or about the fact that even when my parents were traveling the globe, they were thinking of me at home. But that time has passed. 

We never know what questions we will wish we had thought to ask until it is too late to ask them. 

 

Title borrowed from John Berger.

 


Blackbird

My son's dance performance opens
with a song you used to play.

I weep for how you rolled these chords.
I can still hear you singing

"I need someone to love and
understand me," the way you'd slow

for emphasis on "oh what hard luck
stories they all hand me! Make

the bed and light the light,
I'll be home late tonight..."

But you won't be. Or -- not with us.
Dare I hope that the world to come

feels like home in all the ways
this world sometimes doesn't, that

now you feel loved and understood
in all that you are?

 


Revelation

On the night before Shavuot
I fall asleep thinking
about revelation.

In my dream you give me
a necklace, a cluster
of charms on a long chain.

Some are golden plates
engraved with the words
we'll say about you

at your funeral and shiva.
We both know it's coming.
I ask you before you go

to give me my name again.
We stand in a vast shower
-- warm water flowing,

like a mikvah, like
the chevra kadisha
washing the dead clean --

and you say my name
and I hold you
while you weep.

 


Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Ripple

1. Digital ghosts

Modern life is full of digital ghosts. Like the google cal popup that appears on my laptop screen to helpfully remind me of "our anniversary!" My ex-husband or I must have input that into google, and for reasons I don't understand, I can't make it go away. As though I could ever forget the date, what it was, what it meant. I didn't need my calendar to poke me in that bruise.

Or the first time I shared a photo of my mother on Facebook after she died. The algorithm startled me by recognizing her face and tagging her in the post. "With Liana Barenblat," the post proclaimed, and the words took my breath away. Facebook thought I was "with" my mother. I will never be "with" my mother again -- not in body, not in life. That preposition made me cry.

 

2. With and without you

I try to experience these automated algorithmic responses as a gift from the universe, a reminder of connections that have shaped me, even when relationships or lives are over. Still, sometimes being surprised by these reminders feels like a gift, and sometimes it feels like a wound is re-opened. Grief is a scar that sometimes unexpectedly becomes an open wound again.

Our online spaces can connect us in profound ways, but they can also isolate us, or activate us, or evoke our grief. So often we perform happiness in digital / social media spaces: look how beautiful my life is! As a result, we're sharing a skewed vision of who we really are. We're erasing or eliding the people who are missing. The aches of divorces and deaths and endings.

 

3. Making waves

I understand the appeal of the carefully-curated digital footprint. It allows us to share the life we wish we had, a life of only sweetness. I try hard to cultivate gratitude, for this recipe or that sunset, that moment or this friend. I like sharing glimpses of those kinds of things, in part because doing so helps me cultivate mindfulness and a heightened capacity for gratitude.

But I also want to be real. I don't want to pretend that life is picture-perfect, and I don't want to use spiritual practices as a crutch to help me in that pretense (or any pretense). Life is beautiful, and life is painful -- both of those are always simultaneously true. And grief is not a linear journey. Sometimes a stone gets tossed into the heart's pond, and makes waves.

 

4. Its own reward

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn't come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel -- the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret -- and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what's real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we're here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.


See you at Sinai

Jordana-Klein-mount-sinai-receiving-the-Torah-1"See you at Sinai!"

That's how I end a lot of my emails to friends and colleagues right now. Because Shavuot is coming, and at Shavuot we all stand again at Sinai to receive.

We've been counting down the 49 days to Shavuot ever since the second night of Pesach. In a few short days that Omer journey will be complete. We will again have made the inner trek from freedom to revelation, from Pesach's new beginning to the relationship-with-the-Holy that we took on at Sinai.

It's a relationship that we continue to take on. No relationship can be sustained with one moment of agreement. Our covenant with God is evolving and ongoing, as our relationship with God needs to be evolving and ongoing.

(If the G-word doesn't work for you, substitute something else: truth, meaning, love, justice, hope, transformation. "God" represents all of these and more.)

And our relationship with Torah is ongoing. Shavuot is called zman mattan Torateinu, "The time of the giving of our Torah." Not the time when it was given, but the time when it is given.

Torah is still being given. Revelation is ongoing -- as Reb Zalman z"l taught, the divine broadcast is perennial, and we receive on the channels where our inner spiritual radios are attuned.

Torah is still being given. Shavuot is a time of opening ourselves to receive what's coming through.

Midrash teaches that we were all present at Sinai. All of our souls were at Sinai for that experience of connection with our Source: every Jew who has ever been and will ever be. (Yes, including those who choose Judaism! If you join yourself with the Jewish people, then your soul was at Sinai too.) We were all there at Sinai in that moment of mythic time.

And we'll all stand together at Sinai again on Shavuot. On Shavuot we can seek to open ourselves to this year's revelation, to the wisdom that this moment asks of us. And when I close my eyes in meditation on Saturday night or Sunday morning, I will imagine all of us together bamidbar, in the Wilderness, at the foot of the mountain: "and you were there, and you, and you..." 

So I'll see you in three days, as the holy time of Shabbes gives way to the holy time of festival.

As our Omer journey ends, and our covenant with the Holy is renewed.

As we open ourselves to the Torah that needs to come through this year. As we open ourselves to transformation, and encounter, and awe. As we open to revelation, sweet and sustaining like milk and honey.

See you at Sinai.

 

Art by Jordana Klein.


Making Everyone Count at Builders Blog

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?” ...

That's the start of my latest d'var Torah for Builders Blog at Bayit: Building Jewish -- with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert:

IMG_0904

The post goes into questions of leadership and service, the story of Reb Zalman z"l and the rotating "rebbe chair" (and how that inspired Bayit's leadership structure), and implications for the Jewish future. Read the whole thing at Builders Blog: Making Everyone Count.