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Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts

"One who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their own time, it's as though they had destroyed it." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1.)

Even those who are pillars of the world go to their rest without building the Beit HaMikdash in their days. But in truth, the righteous in every era do build in their days a part of the Beit HaMikdash! Each one adds the spark which comes from his/her own heart.

The idea that "anyone who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their days, it's as though they had destroyed it" -- that means someone who doesn't understand which aspect of Torah learning is truly their own. That's the part of the Beit HaMikdash that person is supposed to be building, and if one doesn't know, then one doesn't build.

So one must pray for redemption, and to strengthen one's knowledge, and one's awe, and to understand what one doesn't yet know. That's what it means to "go up to the place which God has chosen." (Deut. 17:8.)


That's the Hasidic master known as the Bnei Yissachar (R. Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, who died in 1841.) He's commenting on a line from the Jerusalem Talmud which says that one who doesn't rebuild the Beit HaMikdash -- the Temple in Jerusalem -- in his own time is as guilty of its destruction as those who tore the Temple down.

That's a tough idea for those of us who have ambivalent feelings about the whole notion of the Temple. Most liberal Jews today decidedly do not wish to restore Temple sacrifice. (Neither Reform nor Reconstructionist Judaism nurtures this hope.) We tend to see the the destruction of the Temple as the brokenness out of which the new paradigm of rabbinic Judaism could emerge, and we don't want to return to the old paradigm. There's also the matter of contemporary geopolitics; two Muslim holy sites now occupy the top of that mountain.

The Bnei Yissaschar, though, offers a reading which I find really beautiful. The righteous in every era do rebuild the house of holiness, he says; each of us lifts up the spark in our own soul and our own heart, and together we collaborate on healing the cosmic rupture. Someone who doesn't rebuild, and who is therefore considered (by the sages) to be as guilty as the actual destroyers -- that means someone who doesn't take the time to learn which aspect of Torah is truly their own, which spark they're meant to uplift.

I love the idea that each of us can contribute a spark to the building of the Beit HaMikdash. The Bnei Yissachar is not talking about actually rebuilding a structure out of stones and mortar. Rather, he's talking about co-creating a spiritual structure of transformation through putting our hearts and souls together. And I love the idea that we do this, each of us, by learning the Torah which is truly ours to learn and to teach, and then lifting up the sparks of that learning and teaching to God.

How do I know which Torah is mine? Which Torah I most need to learn and to teach in order to contribute my irreplaceable spark to this collective enterprise? I don't have an easy answer to that. Sometimes I think that "my" Torah is the Torah which most powerfully calls to me and which makes me yearn to share it with others. Other times I think that "my" Torah is whatever Torah I most need to wrestle with: the tough texts, the painful passages, what I need to redeem in my own ways. Often I suspect I won't know which Torah was most truly mine until my life nears its end -- if then.

During these Three Weeks when Jews around the world are mourning the long-ago siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple, the shattering of the place where we once felt we had a "direct line" to God, at least I can continue to learn Torah. And maybe I'll happen upon the teaching I most need to learn, and most need to teach, in order to do my part in the rebuilding which has nothing to do with the physical world of real estate and everything to do with the heights of holiness in the human heart.


With thanks to R' Eliot Ginsburg.

17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall

One of the five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar is coming up this weekend: 17 Tammuz, the day when we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. On 17 Tammuz we also remember the breaking of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf. (A side note: this year 17 Tammuz falls on a Shabbat, so the fast will be observed on Sunday, the 18th of Tammuz, instead.) 17 Tammuz is the beginning of the "Three Weeks," also known as bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the narrows" or "in tight straits" -- a period of semi-mourning which culminates with Tisha b'Av.

I didn't grow up observing 17 Tammuz or the Three Weeks (or, for that matter, Tisha b'Av.) The Three Weeks aren't universally observed in the liberal Jewish world. (See Do Reform Jews Observe the Three Weeks?)  Some of us are unaware of this fast day, and others may feel some resistance to commemorating it by eschewing food all through the daylight hours of the day. What does it mean to mourn the siege of a city almost two thousand years ago, the breaching of the first wall which led to the fall of the Temple, especially when many of us no longer see the Temple Mount as the axis mundi, the umbilicus of creation, the place where communication with God is uniquely possible?

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests that 17 Tammuz is a day to mourn the ways in which the structures of peace are being dismantled in our time. Hearing that, some of us may think of olive trees uprooted and homes demolished; others may think of the removal of settlers from Gaza. What are the impediments to peace in today's Jerusalem? There's passionate disagreement on that front -- which makes me also think: what are the impediments to peace between and among us, in our community, who see the situation in Israel and Palestine in differing ways? The Talmud (tractate Yoma) tells us the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, "baseless hatred," within our community. Are we any kinder than our ancestors were?

How are the structures of caring and compassion dismantled in our time? The structures of understanding, gentleness, kindness?

Whether or not you are fasting on 17 Tammuz, consider donating what you would ordinarily spend on a day's food budget to an organization which works to effect healing. Combatants for Peace works to create healing and change in the Middle East; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) works to create healing for those who have suffered rape or abuse. Or choose a group in your community which works to alleviate some of the brokenness of our world.

What can we learn from the teaching that Moshe shattered the first set of tablets, broken-hearted at the apostasy of the community he served, on this same day when we remember the breaking of Jerusalem's city walls? Maybe that hope lies in learning how to care for that which is broken. Midrash holds that the children of Israel carried the broken tablets along with the second set of whole ones in the ark of the covenant. That which is broken is still holy, is still deserving of our respect and our care. "There is nothing so whole," said Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, "as the broken heart."

On 17 Tammuz; on every day of the year; may we learn to extend hope and kindness to all who suffer. May we learn that in our very brokenness lies the possibility of healing and transformation.

Reflections on a first year

7508209290_b52c44e20d_mOne evening, about a year ago, I brought my son to the synagogue in the evening and fed him supper while meeting with the president of the board. When he started to melt down, I signed the contract which had been sitting on the table between us, and took him home to prepare for bedtime. The next day, while he was playing with his grandparents, I loaded up my car with boxes of Judaic books and brought them to work -- where I wound up beginning to prepare for a funeral, a bat mitzvah, and the Days of Awe. (So much for "I'm just going to bring over some boxes of books, I won't be long...")

Last night, at the tail-end of the congregational Fourth of July party, as "We Are Family" poured forth from a congregant's ipod and my son ate his millionth slice of watermelon, I signed a contract again. When I had signed all three copies, and so had the board president, she grinned at me and we shook hands with mock-solemnity.

I want to write something about this first year of my active rabbinate -- this first year of serving my community as its rabbi -- but I find I'm not sure where to begin. Is it even possible to begin to encapsulate this first year? The kaleidscope of images in my mind's eye is too full and varied. Preparing for Shabbat after Shabbat. Preparing for the Days of Awe. Celebrations of bar and bat mitzvah, watching our kids shine. Funerals of congregants I had known, and funerals of people who had been unknown to me until their deaths brought them front-and-center into my consciousness.

Speaking with a congregant one-on-one about something unfolding in their life. Sitting by the bedside of a man who was beginning his passage out of this life, singing him the niggun which asks the question of why a soul incarnates in this world. Standing in front of the open ark at the final service of last Yom Kippur, singing Avinu Malkeinu with all my heart and all my hoarse voice. Meditating in our sanctuary immersed in the silence of a thick winter snowfall -- and surrounded by the waterfall of summer birdsong. My son, at the cookout yesterday, gleefully banging the cymbals he had found in our basket of sanctuary instruments.

7508246080_946dce2ccc_mTimes when I tried something and it worked -- and times when I came away feeling that I hadn't lived up to what I wanted to be. Times when I felt I was really reaching people, and times when I felt as though I had borrowed Sisyphus' rock and it was about to roll back down the hill. The quiet glow of satisfaction when someone who had seemed just the tiniest bit dubious about me began to call me "Rabbi," and the chagrin when a lesson I had thought would move our b'nei mitzvah students devolved instead into a flurry of paper airplanes and inappropriate remarks. The gladness when I was able to give over a teaching I'd received from my teachers, a melody I had learned from a friend, and to feel that it had hit home.

When I began telling people, a year and change ago, that I was working with this community to develop a job description for a "halftime pulpit," many of my friends and colleagues laughed. There's no such thing as a halftime rabbi, people said; only a halftime salary! And they weren't wrong. I'm a rabbi all the time, just as I'm a poet all the time, just as I'm a mother all the time. The rabbinate is a vocation, not merely X hours of work for Y dollars in pay. And a rabbi's work is never done. I could always be doing more: more pastoral care visits, more trips to the hospital, more phone calls to check in, more b'nei mitzvah tutoring, more preparation for services, more learning, more Torah study, more teaching.

And yet. In this first year I have found that the halftime model is a blessing. Not only for practical and financial reasons, but also because it gives me a different way of thinking about life and work and how they intersect. A rabbi's work is never done -- but it would be all too easy to keep trying to finish it even so. All of us who enter this line of work do so because we want to serve. How easy it would be to say to myself, "if I just put in another hour today..." If I just stayed a bit later tonight -- if I picked up the laptop again after the toddler goes to bed -- if I worked both days this weekend instead of only one...

But the work is neverending, and I know that. And that's the blessing, assuming I can let go of the fantasy of ever being "done." All I can do is what I can do today during the hours I've allotted. After that, I have to leave work and pick up my son and take him to a playground, or make him dinner, or read him books. This turns out to be an incredible gift. I am blessed to serve as a rabbi. And I am also blessed to step away from my desk at the end of the day, having done as much as I could, and to let go of what remains un-done... which in turn allows me to return, ready to pick up the yoke again. "It's not incumbent upon us to finish the task" -- that's as much a statement about life as it is about my job. That's the way life is meant to be.

Of course there are times when this truth is hard to remember. Like any working parent, I have days when I fear that I'm shortchanging either my family or my job (or both.) But my tradition teaches me that in every moment, God speaks the world into being, and in every moment teshuvah -- re/turning, re-orienting, starting-over -- is possible. Even when a lesson plan has failed, or I've communicated something poorly, or the to-do list looms, I can take a deep breath, find the blessing in whatever is arising, and begin again. As, now, I take a deep breath, thank God and my community alike for the gift of this first year of serving Congregation Beth Israel, and begin to write the book of year two.


O beautiful for spacious skies (highway, south Texas)


for amber waves of grain (winter rye, western Massachusetts)


For purple mountains' majesty (Berkshires, western Massachusetts)


Above the fruited plain (strawberry field, western Massachusetts)


America, America, God shed His grace on thee (border crossing, northern New York)


And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea (rocky coast, Maine: Atlantic)


to shining sea (jetty, southern California: Pacific)!


(lyrics from America the Beautiful.) Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate!

70 faces featured on How to Blog a Book

My book 70 faces and I have the honor of being featured on Nina Amir's How to Blog a Book today. Nina started that blog as a place to talk about "how to blog a book" -- how to use a blog for the purpose of writing a nonfiction book -- though once the blog was underway, she found herself also posting about blogging and books more generally, as well as "how to book a blog" (how to repurpose existing blog posts into a manuscript.) Anyway, she asked me some fun questions, and I had a good time answering. Here's a taste:

70FacesSmallI begin the month with an interview with a blogger I’ve followed for quite some time in the world of Jewish spirituality. Rachel Barenblat is a rabbi and a poet as well a blogger, and in 2008, TIME magazine named her blog one of the top 25 sites on the Internet. Pretty awesome, right? At that time, I said, “I want to figure out what she is doing right.” She was writing poetry and recording it—poetry based on the weekly Torah (or Old Testament) portion read in synagogue each week. And at that time she wasn’t even a rabbi yet!

Anyway, she already had a few chapbooks out, but now she has more published books. So, here’s her blog-to-book story, chock full of great advice on how to blog well, blog a book, book a blog and generally succeed as a blogger and an author or poet...

What advice would you offer to aspiring writers who might want to turn their blogs into books or blog a book?

Set yourself a goal and stick to it. One hundred words a day? One page a day? One post a week? Whatever it is, pick it and stick with it for at least a month—long enough for the habit to begin to become engrained. And cultivate friends (readers, other bloggers who are also writers) who are interested in commenting on your work! A good reader is worth their weight in gold. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the best way to interest other writers in my work is to be interested in theirs, and the best way to get other bloggers to read me and comment is for me to read them and respond to what they’re doing. So there’s an investment of time. But hopefully the ensuing relationship is its own reward.)

Read the whole thing here: Rachel Barenblat Speaks About Blogging and Booking Poetry. Thanks, Nina!

Three divrei Torah on Balak

This week we're in parashat Balak, which is a fun one. King Balak hires Balaam to curse the children of Israel; after hijinks with a talking donkey who sees angels, the prophet instead offers blessings. (For us, anyway.)

Here are tastes of the divrei Torah I've posted about this portion over the years.


With eyes unveiled, Balaam sees a new reality. Instead of seeing a military threat, a foreign people to be feared -- as Balak had seen -- Balaam looks into the hills and sees a people who travel with the Holy Blessed One in their midst. He sees with mochin d'gadlut, his "big mind" or expanded consciousness, instead of mochin d'katnut, constricted consciousness. And in that moment of seeing, all he can do is offer praise.

"How fair are thy tents, O Jacob / Thy dwellings, O Israel," he says. In this synechdoche, the patriarch symbolizes the whole. Jacob is the earthly, embodied side of the patriarch, the aspect that inhabits physical spaces. Israel is the other side of the coin, the part of the patriarch which wrestled with the angel of God and came away blessed. Where Jacob has tents, Israel has dwellings -- in Hebrew, Israel has mishkanot, like the holy dwelling-place of the indwelling Shekhinah.

Read the whole thing: On blessings and curses


Prophecy, writes the Sfat Emet (in Green's translation), "brings speech forth from potential to real." But in order for a prophet to have significance, there also needs to be an audience -- ideally, a receptive one. A prophet speaking in a vacuum isn't fulfilling his mission; that tree falling in the proverbial forest doesn't make a discernible sound until there are ears to hear. Balaam's prophecy was meaningful because it reached somebody's ears. In that sense, prophecy is inevitably a relational activity -- the prophet relates both to God and to the person or people who hear the prophetic words.

Read the whole thing: Prophetic (comedic) speech


If God gave voice
to my worn Birkenstocks

they would cry out
"what did we ever do to you..."

Read the whole thing: Sandals.

The sweetness of the sour

A week or two ago my friend Kate gave me a gift of cultured culture. It's a North Adams sourdough, cultivated by artist Eryn Foster as part of Oh, Canada, a large scale exhibition of Canadian art at MASS MoCA. Foster "spent two weeks foraging for wild yeast all over North Adams in areas of natural, cultural and geographic significance." Then she generated this bubbly sourdough starter. Now interested museum visitors can ask for samples, and receive them in pint jars. That's what Kate brought to me. (For more on this, try Wild yeast and Care and feeding of Sourdough -- both by Kate, in the Berkshire Eagle and on the Berkshires Week blog.)

I followed the instructions which came with it: fed and watered it, let it sit overnight, marveled at its yeasty bubbly aroma, pungent and sour. Put some back into the fridge for next time. Used some to bake a few loaves of bread -- my first sourdough! They turned out beautiful, with a golden-brown crust, an airy crumb, and -- after an overnight rise in the fridge, followed by an all-morning proof -- a lovely gentle sour. Suddenly I was reminded that once upon a time, all leavened bread must have been sourdough.


Sourdough challah, first rise.

Of course. I should have thought of that sooner. This is, after all, a theme on which I teach each spring as Pesach approaches. The Hebrew word for something which is leavened is chametz, from the root meaning "to sour or ferment." Leavened bread involves fermentation. (Matzah does not. It's made of the same ingredients as leavened bread -- water, flour, maybe a pinch of salt -- but is made quickly enough that no leavening, no fermentation, takes place.) It is the very nature of chametz to be sour. Or it was, presumably, when the word came into use.

I used to bake bread every Friday, though these days I don't often make the time. And I've grown to love the weekly ritual of taking Drew to the A-Frame Bakery in Williamstown after daycare on Fridays, where he joyfully clamors for "a challah an' a cookie!" But I was tempted by the thought of Maggie Glazer's Sourdough Challah. I've never tasted a sourdough challah. Would the bread have any of the tang I associate with sourdough? Or would it simply be a rich challah which happens to be leavened only with the natural activity of yeast and flour and time? (For that matter: would it leaven? Or, in the absence of a packet or two of storebought yeast, would I wind up with flatbread?)

Sourdough challah, second rise.

The process was, unsurprisingly, different from the other challah doughs I've made. First I fed and wakened my starter over the course of a long day. Then I took a mere two tablespoons of starter and mixed them into a sponge and let that grow overnight. Then mixed an eggy dough and kneaded the sourdough sponge into that and let it rise all morning. Then shaped braids to proof, a.k.a. rise again. It's a slow journey, but a pleasant one. The sourdough sponge was unbelievably soft, with a texture unlike anything else I know. The braids slowly swelled, going from looking comically small on their baking sheets to looking like pale raw challot.

I realized at the last minute, oven pre-heated and ready to go, that I had used all three of our remaining eggs to make the dough. I'd meant to buy more, but had gotten distracted by other things at the grocery store, and had completely forgotten. So after a bit of googling (and after asking twitter for suggestions) I wound up glazing one in milk, the other in milk mixed with a bit of honey. It was a hot day for baking, but there is always something profoundly satisfying about the magic of turning flour and water (and sourdough starter!) into bread.

Two sourdough challot, cooling.

They didn't rise quite as much as I had hoped; I might have to let them proof longer next time. Still, the fact that I got two braids of challah out of what started life as a small ball of dough leavened with two spoonfuls of starter seems a little bit miraculous. The texture is light, and the bread has a beautiful crumb. And on the whole, the bread is sweet. There's just the lightest tang of sour at the end of a bite, just before I swallow.

They're not quite as beautiful as the one I usually get from the bakery, but the satisfaction of having made them sweetens them for me. As it happens, I had extra things to celebrate on this particular Shabbat. On the previous evening, the membership of my congregation approved my contract for two more years. A new contract, two loaves of homemade bread, and the company of loved ones on the deck at suppertime: what could be finer?

Thanks, MASS MoCA; thanks, Kate; and thanks to the Source of All Who brings forth bread from the earth.