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Return To Your Heart: Va-etchanan 5783

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After the deep dive into communal grief that is Tisha b'Av, our tradition gives us seven Shabbatot of comfort. On Wednesday night we faced the age-old hatred of antisemitism and the brokenness of the world. Maybe in the aftermath we feel anew that when we let ourselves be real, the grief doesn't annihilate us after all. And with that awareness we begin tradition's seven weeks of consolation. 

Enter this week's Torah portion. Parashat Va'etchanan is a kind of Jewish Greatest Hits. Moses recaps the Sh'ma and v'ahavta, reminding us to listen and to love with all that we are. Moses recaps the Ten Commandments and reminds us of receiving Torah in the first place. And we also have this verse, which maybe we recognize from the Aleinu prayer, because the Aleinu borrows these words from Torah:

וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד׃

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that יהו''ה alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (Deut. 4:39)

That's not a bad translation; it captures the simple meaning of the text. The Sforno says, "establish it firmly in your heart." I like that better, because he's attuned to the use of the word lev, heart. But I want to look more deeply at this phrase וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ / v'hasheivota el-levavekha, because I think it's no coincidence that this verse appears for us now. It's a reminder, a foretaste of what's coming. 


The Hebrew root שׁוּב mean to return or turn around -- as in teshuvah: repentance, return, turning our lives around, re-aligning ourselves with our highest values and with our Source. Returning to something we've maybe left behind or strayed from or forgotten. Literally re / turning -- turning again. In modern Hebrew, a teshuvah can also be an answer, as in a halakhic answer to a deep Jewish question. 

So another way to translate this verse might be: Deeply know, today, as you return to your heart: God is God. Torah is instructing us: to go into our hearts and make teshuvah. Do the inner work of re-aligning ourselves with our highest values. Answer the deep question that our heart is asking about who we mean to be. Return to our hearts and return to our Source, because God is God.

יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים / Adonai hu ha-Elohim: God far away is also God deep within. There's a unity that encompasses all of our differences. And as always if the "G-word" doesn't work for us, try: we do our inner work because Justice. Because Love. Because Truth. Because we just reminded ourselves at Tisha b'Av how much brokenness there is for us to repair in this world, and we've got work to do.

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Tisha b'Av set us on the runway toward the Days of Awe. Exactly seven weeks from tonight we'll be here in this sanctuary welcoming not only Shabbat but also a new year. Torah is here to remind us: the time for teshuvah is beginning. Return to our hearts, because that's the first step toward the great turning of the year, the great turning from who we've been toward who the world most needs us to be.

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In the spring we count the seven weeks of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, from liberation to revelation. We focus on seven inner qualities as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. Now we move through those same seven qualities in reverse as we prepare ourselves for the new year that is coming. We begin this journey where we ended the last one: with malkhut, presence.

We begin this journey by simply being present to what is. Present to what's real, in us and around us. What does it take to really be present -- really in the moment, not in the stories we tell ourselves about what was or what might be? How can we be present for and with each other? Because though each of us has our own inner work, Judaism is a communal tradition; none of us walks this path alone.

Our mystics teach that Shekhinah (the immanent, indwelling divine Presence) goes with us in exile. Originally this was a teaching about being kicked out of Jerusalem. When Babylon destroyed the first Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. The place that we understood as God's home address was destroyed, but our mystics said: the Presence of holiness goes with us wherever we go.

And that teaching continued to be relevant. When Rome destroyed the second Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. In every expulsion: Jews kicked out of England, or Spain, or Portugal, or eastern Europe -- Shekhinah came with us. It can also mean: in whatever ways we feel exiled from wholeness, Shekhinah is with us. No matter how isolated or alienated we may feel, we are not alone.

It's a radical idea. God isn't just "out there" or far from us. We find God here with us in the messiness of our human lives. And -- this feels important -- not only in the easy places. On the contrary, tradition holds that Shekhinah hovers over every sickbed. When we say God's presence is with us in exile, we mean in our fear, or suffering, or doubt. אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד / Ein od -- there is no place without the Presence.

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Ein od milvado calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer.

Our journey toward the new year begins where we are. With presence, Shekhinah, malkhut, really inhabiting all that we are. Step one is to return to our hearts. Be present to who we are, how we need to re-align. Make teshuvah and begin to return. Because justice, and love, and truth matter. Because we are about to start over, and we can make choices about who and how we want to be.

Shabbat shalom.


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av

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Not just the litany of destruction: Babylon, Rome, the first Crusade.
Forced out of England, and France, and Spain.
Or how on this day in 1941 the Nazi Party approved
"The Final Solution," the mass graves, the gas chambers.

Or the old claim that we make matzah with their childrens' blood,
or the cartoons that show us hook-nosed and greedy,
money-grubbing, conspiring, defiling the world
with our stubborn insistence that we deserve to exist.

What gets me is that these hatreds persist.
In every antisemitic flyer and QAnon meme.
In every synagogue shooting.
In the uneasy fear that we might be next.

And still somehow we’re meant to look inside, to do the work,
To seek justice for those who have it worse than we,
To make things right with those we’ve harmed,
And if we must, to die like our ancestors  –

– with the Sh’ma on our lips.
R. Rachel Barenblat

It's almost Tisha b'Av. This is the new piece I wrote this year for that somber day. If it speaks to you, feel free to use it and share it.

I wrote it after traveling in Israel this spring. (And no, I'm not writing today about what's happening there. This is not that post.) I was profoundly struck by the reminder of how many peoples have hated us and tried to wipe us out. It's history I've always known, of course. But it lands differently now. Once I had the luxury of imagining that antisemitism was outdated and fading away. With the ugly rise of white nationalism and "Christian nationalism" both here and elsewhere -- with the reality that my synagogue now keeps its doors locked -- with praise for Hitler coming from public figures -- every Jew I know lives with the sickening awareness that there are people who want to exterminate us. Most of the time I keep the fear and grief at bay. But Tisha b'Av is in part about letting ourselves feel the things we keep at arm's length. We let our walls come down and face what feels annihilating. From the other side of that brokenness we begin the ascent to the Days of Awe.

And -- this feels really important to say -- if you are a trauma survivor, do what you need for your own safety. If letting your emotional or spiritual walls fall would harm you, don't do it. I can't say this strongly enough. The spiritual practice of opening ourselves to what's broken is a different thing altogether for someone who already suffers trauma's shrapnel. If that is you, maybe it's not safe for you to break open, or maybe you don't need the reminder of brokenness. Stay safe and whole. 

If you're looking for other resources for Tisha b'Av, here are two at Bayit that I find deeply powerful:

May this year's Tisha b'Av be what we need it to be, and may it move us closer to a world redeemed.

A Week of Building With the Bayit Board




Every summer the Bayit board gathers for a retreat. There are board meetings, of course. There are big-picture conversations about what we're building, how we're building it, whom we serve. There are late-night conversations and early morning confabs. As we learn, and pray, and play, and dream, we strengthen the foundations of the building work we aim to do (and to empower others to do.)

We talk Torah over breakfast. This week we're in Devarim. Why is Moses speaking to the next generation as though their parents' adventures were theirs? Is he showing that there is no before and after in Torah? Is he connecting the people with their ancestors? Is he coming unhooked in time and uncertain with whom he's speaking? What are the pastoral and spiritual implications of each of these?

We dip in the ocean. We marvel at the ocean, because most of us on the board don't live here. (The one who does live here laughs and affectionately calls us tourists.) Pelicans glide right overhead, and sandpipers run on wet sand. We hum bits of liturgy on the beach. A seashell with a hole in it sparks a sermon idea. Among rabbis, with the Days of Awe on the horizon, everything is a sermon idea.




We brainstorm about build projects, governance and innovation, what we want to co-create in the year to come. We talk about collaborative play, about middot (character-qualities), about book projects and game mechanics and how to reach people where they are. We play Hebrew bananagrams, examine what makes good games work, talk about what might differentiate liturgy from poetry.

We fall into accidental build-planning and vision conversations even when it's not board meeting time, because that's what happens when we're together. We cook good food. We make endless pots of iced coffee. One morning we wake early and paddle kayaks among dolphins in the intercoastal waterway and I quietly sing R. Bella's Modah Ani to the ospreys and the dolphins and the little sea turtles.

We daven beside (and in) the pool and the ocean. We sing the psalms of Hallel at new moon. We talk about the spiritual implications of the shehakol blessing, usually rendered as blessing God Who made all things by God's word, though the grammar points toward the future, not the past. What does it mean to bless God for speaking-into-being not what is, but what everything will become?




We unpack the possible gematria of our rental car's license plate. We unpack our various responses to R. Alan Lew's writings on responsibility for recurring patterns, and the fine line between agency and blame. We talk about spiritual direction and flow and dishwashers, how to use StoryCubes in Torah study, favorite melodies for regular prayers, the ideal number of builders on any build team.

We talk about Tisha b'Av, about different understandings of the fundamental rupture that that day represents, about what we talk about when we talk about God. While floating in the salt waves, we talk about what it means halakhically and spiritually for a hat on the waves to be hefker (ownerless). We write ideas down on post-it notes and move them around like a live-action Trello board.

We dream an entirely new build: talking about tools we can create and curate, the communities we think it could serve, the needs we hope it would meet. The whole room gets excited, tossing ideas out in turn, each suggestion building on the last. One night we are joined by one of our builders, and we brainstorm about tools, partners, Torah interpretations, what the world needs that we could make.




At the end of the week we are scholars-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. We share some Torah, some spiritual tools and technologies -- some of what we do. There are services, a Friday night d'var, Torah study, lunch table discussions. We return home nourished by dreaming, collaborating, playing, praying, remixing: ready to take up our tools again, and to continue to build. 


Shared with deepest gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors; cross-posted to Builders Blog. 

If We Build: D'varim 5783


This is the d'varling I offered at Bayit's Scholar-In-Residence weekend at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.

It’s Shabbat Hazon, the “Shabbat of Vision.” This Shabbat gets its name from tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, in which Isaiah describes a vision of calamities that will befall Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Sure enough, we’re approaching the end of the Three Weeks leading to Tisha b’Av. If this is the Shabbat of Vision, it’s easy to see what’s coming: the fall of the Temple. 

Not all Jews deeply feel Tisha b'Av, or mourn the destruction of the Temple, but the fall of the Temple remains  the quintessential Jewish tragedy of loss and exile. And yet that hurban – that destruction – enabled the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Our forebears wrote the Mishnah precisely to preserve memory of what had been and to start rethinking what had been.They took the foundations of the Judaism that had come before, and began to build something new. 

Later, in the conversations that became Gemara, the scaffolding of construction rose higher and stretched more broadly. And then others built on those foundations. Today we inhabit a Judaism of so deliciously many rooms! Jewish life and practice now take some forms that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. But all are built on the foundations we inherited from our forebears. They built the Judaism that their moment needed, and so too do we. 

The destruction of the Temple is foundational for the Jewish people not only because it sent us into Diaspora all over the world. It’s foundational because it laid down the principle on which Judaism as we know it continues to unfold: we all need to be builders. The Jewish future is always under construction. That’s the founding principle of Bayit. 

In Talmud we read:

Wise students increase shalom in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of God, and great shall be the shalom of your children” (Isaiah 54:13). Don’t read it as “your children,” [banayikh], but “your builders” [bonayikh]. (Brakhot 64a)

It’s our job to increase shalom in the world: not just “peace,” but shleimut – wholeness, completeness. No one is a spectator to this holy calling. All of us are called to take up our tools and keep building Judaism. That’s one of our core values at Bayit, and as we say in Texas where I grew up, “Y’all means all.” All ages, all gender expressions and sexual orientations, all races and ethnicities, all branches of Judaism, clergy and laypeople, rationalists and mystics.

At Bayit we create and curate meaningful tools for building the Jewish future. Like our forebears, we remix tradition with innovation, what’s been with what’s next. Some of our “builds” are new books, or new prayers, or new practices. Some are games – you’ll get a taste of that tomorrow at Shabbat lunch.  All of our “builds” seek to engage in new ways or deeper ways, with a first-hand sense of participation and investment in the experience.

How we build is as important as what we build. Building the Jewish future is an iterative process. We try something new. Measure whether it worked. (What does it mean for a prayer or a ritual or a game to “work,” anyway?) We get feedback. We tweak and improve. And then we try again. You could call this design thinking, or research and development. I call it fun.

Does it feel weird to be thinking about fun on the cusp of Tisha b’Av? Maybe a better word is nourishing. Even when what we’re building is new liturgy or updated ritual for Tisha b’Av – like collaboratively writing the text we called Megillat Covid during the early months of the pandemic, or setting an Amanda Gorman poem to Eikha trope – there’s shleimut in doing it.

There’s shleimut in part because we’re building together. In our Liturgical Arts Working Group (a creative collaborative of writers, artists, and liturgists) we’ve got Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews, clergy and laypeople, spanning the continent. Together we’re more than the sum of our parts, and together we can build in ways that none of us could’ve done alone. 

The Judaism of the future needs all of us, in all that we are and all that we can become. That’s one of my favorite ways to understand the teaching from Torah that we’re made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Each of our souls is a facet of that ineffable Whole we name as God, which means the only way for the image of God to be complete is for all of us to build together.

And a Judaism of shleimut asks us to be authentic. In spiritual life and ethical life, the things we do and the way we do them, we need to bring our whole selves to the table. The work of building Judaism requires us to be real with each other, with our traditions, and with our Source. Otherwise what we’re building would rest on flimsy foundations.

The Judaism of the future won’t look exactly like the Judaism of today, any more than what we do looks exactly like the Judaism of 800 or 2,000 years ago. With all due respect to the great Rabbi Moses Shreiber of Pressburg, the Hatam Sofer (d. 1839) who claimed in a streak of preservationism that anything new in Judaism is automatically forbidden, change has always been built into Judaism. When the Temple fell, we took broken pieces of tradition as we’d known it and we built something beautiful and new. Even the Temples were a re-framing of what had come before, a traveling Mishkan in the desert, which replaced the stone altars of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Rabbi Isaac Luria (d.1572) taught that when God began to create, God’s infinite light streamed into creation. The “vessels” that were meant to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The world as we know it is full of the broken shards of those original vessels, concealing sparks of creation’s original light. Our job as Jews – and I would say, our job as human beings – is to repair the world’s broken pieces and uplift those holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: literally, taking up our tools and repairing our broken world.

It’s Shabbat Hazon. When we look around, we can see plenty of brokenness. 

But brokenness isn’t the end of the story. The very fact of Judaism itself proves that, to the contrary, it’s only the beginning.  It’s an invitation to create something new, and a spiritual mandate to do so together. On our spiritual calendar, Tisha b’Av next week begins the seven-week runway to Rosh Hashanah and the infinite potential inherent in every new year. The Judaism of tomorrow will be what we make it, and especially on this Shabbat of Vision, I can’t wait to see what we’ll build together next. 

To remix Theodore Herzl (the “father” of modern political Zionism) with the 1989 Kevin Costner classic Field of Dreams, if we build it, it is no dream.


Cross-posted to Builders Blog


The Journeys: Matot-Masei 5783 / 2023

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This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…” (Num. 33:1) Torah spends many verses listing the 42 places where we went or stopped or camped over forty years. (Num. 33:1-37) In a 12th-century collection of midrash on the book of Numbers, our sages compare Torah's recounting of our journeys to the parable of a king whose child fell ill:

[The king] brought him to a certain place to heal him. When they returned, his father began recounting the stages, “Here we slept. Here we cooled off. Here you had a headache....”  (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3) I like the image of God as the parent who remembers every moment, and the chronicle of our journey as a reminder that the One we name as God is with us everywhere along the way.

As a speculative fiction fan of a certain age the number 42 makes me think of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 connotes, "life, the universe, and everything." Another interpretation: as R. Laura Duhan Kaplan notes, there are 42 words in the v'ahavta, the prayer that instructs us "to love God when we come and when we go and when we rest." 

To the mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov, Torah's list of stops along our journey is a metaphor for the journey of an individual soul. The forty-two stops evoke the twists and turns of every human life: leaving Mitzrayim / places of constriction, seeking sustenance and purpose and our hopes fulfilled. And for us as for our ancient ancestors, the trajectory of the journey probably won't be linear.


For us as for our spiritual ancestors, the journey might feel tangled. A journey that we might imagine should be brief or simple can take a lifetime. If you’ve ever thought, “Haven’t I been here before? Didn’t I already face this issue, didn’t I already do this work?” – you’re not alone. Any therapists in the room are nodding right about now. The work of becoming is never done.

The work of living up to our best selves, refining our best qualities (from lovingkindness to ethical strength to presence), acting with integrity, learning from our mis-steps is never done. It's almost as though the journey itself is the point, and the Land of Promise is our ethical north star that guides us.toward building a world in which every human being enjoys full human rights and dignity.

R. Alan Lew writes about how we bring ourselves to the same unresolved issues over and over again. I see the same kind of patterns in our national political life. (Today's wave of anti-trans legislation in many states mirrors the "gay panic" of the 1980s.) Are we just going in circles? I prefer to hope that we can make our trajectory go up even as cycles repeat, like the ramp inside the Guggenheim. 


The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that all of our journeys come from God for the sake of lifting up sparks. Our mystics imagined that when God first set out to create, God's infinite light streamed into a world that was too fragile to hold it, so creation's "vessels" shattered. There's a primordial brokenness -- and also primordial sparks of supernal light for us to find and uplift.

Our job is to cultivate the inner qualities that the fallen sparks need in order to be uplifted. We need empathy, we need care for the other, so we can take care of the broken places in the way that they need. Ultimately, the purpose of our journeying is to effect yetziah -- going-forth, Exodus from tight straits -- not just for us, but for the holy sparks in the broken places. For the whole broken world.


Okay, these are sparklers, not holy sparks. But for me the image evokes the sparks in everything.

If our journeying is only for the sake of our own needs and our own growth, we're doing it wrong. Don't get me wrong: our own growth does matter. Becoming our best selves does matter. But not for the sake of our own greatness. We strive toward becoming the best "us" we can be so that we can help others. Feed the hungry. End poverty. Uplift human rights and dignity. Lift all the sparks.  

And that includes the sparks we find beneath the shards in life's broken places. Enter the Jewish calendar. We’re in the Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz when we remember the first cracks in Jerusalem’s city walls, and Tisha b’Av when we remember destruction and face what's broken. On Tisha b’Av we’ll begin a seven-week journey of preparing ourselves to begin the new Jewish year.

The Jewish calendar is saying: what feels broken or precarious? The calendar is saying: we need to see what’s broken in order to mend it; we need to feel our losses in order to move through them.  As R. David Markus writes, We need to see where we've been in order to know where we're going. And what better time to look back on the twists and turns of our path than now, approaching a new year?

The journey of a lifetime isn’t linear. The journey of spiritual growth: not linear. The journey of a community or a nation toward living up to its highest ideals: not linear. Progress toward justice and human dignity for people of every race, religion, origin, sexual orientation, gender expression: not linear. The human journey is rarely linear: not for our ancestors in Torah, nor for us now.

We may feel lost or stuck; our ancestors did too. We may be unsure how to get from here to the land of promise; our ancestors were too. Maybe we're frustrated to be fighting to regain rights and safety we used to be able to take for granted; nu, spiritually we're right on time to face life's broken places. And wherever our journeys take us, we uplift every spark... until we've lifted up the world.


Shared with deep gratitude to the Bayit board of directors for learning together each week. 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)