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

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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.


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.)


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:

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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.

 


Walking in God's Paths, Everywhere We Go

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אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,

וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ׃

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

These are the opening lines of this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then we will receive rains in their season. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then kinds of blessing and abundance will flow. And if we don't listen, and we don't keep the mitzvot, then all kinds of curses will ensue. (Torah goes into some detail here.)

This is the kind of problematic theology that caused the early Reform movement to remove the second paragraph of the Shema from our siddurim. Because we all know that following mitzvot is not a guarantee of prosperity and blessing, and that scarcity and tragedy are not signs of someone's wickedness. We all know that bad things can happen to good people and vice versa.

But I want to look more closely at the parsha's opening words. "If you walk in My paths..."

The Hebrew word for "My paths," chukotai, shares a root with one of our words for mitzvot, chukim. That root means engraved or carved, which is why chukim is sometimes translated as engraved-mitzvot, or "commandments that engrave themselves on us." So "if you walk in My paths" can also be rendered as "if you walk in My pathways that engrave themselves on you."

My friend Rabbi Bella Bogart understands this verse to mean that if we walk in God's pathways and let those pathways engrave themselves on us, then we will necessarily follow the mitzvot, the connective-commandments. It's not that we walk in God's ways and follow mitzvot and then blessings come; it's that when we walk in God's ways, we can't help following the mitzvot.

And when we can't help following the mitzvot, we receive blessing, because we will experience blessing in whatever unfolds. If we walk in God's chukim, if we let God's chukim engrave themselves on us, then we will experience blessing no matter what happens in our lives. It's a matter of epistemology rather than ontology, how we feel rather than "what measurably is."

Every week I study the writings of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet with my Bayit colleagues, and this week I was struck by a riff on this verse. The Sfat Emet cites a midrash about King David, that wherever he intended to go -- be it to somebody's house, or off to war -- his feet would carry him to the synagogue or the beit midrash, the house of study.

Now, on first blush this might look a little bit ridiculous. Because know that there were no synagogues or houses of study -- at least not as we now understand them -- in King David's day! It's as though the rabbis, who cherished the shul and the beit midrash, were trying to impose their own frame on a Biblical figure who didn't know what either of those things were.

But the Sfat Emet quotes our daily liturgy to argue that God's greatness and goodness fill the world. He says that God's "greatness" refers to the ten utterances with which Creation began, and God's "goodness" refers to the ten utterances we received at Sinai. To say, then, that "God's greatness and goodness fill the world" is to reference both creation and revelation.

And Rabbi Art Green notes, in his translators' notes, that there's an unspoken conclusion to the Sfat Emet's teaching. If the whole world is full of God's glory, then every place we go can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. King David, in this midrash, becomes our model for recognizing God's greatness and God's goodness wherever our paths may lead.

We can find God everywhere our paths take us. What a radically transformative idea that is. Every place we go -- to work, to the grocery store, running errands, karate class, dance rehearsals, you name it -- can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. That's what it means to walk in God's engraved paths, and to let God's paths engrave themselves on us.

When we let God's paths engrave themselves on us, that changes how we experience the world around us. Then suddenly the gas station and the hardware store and our workplaces and our homes become the synagogue and the beit midrash, places of learning and places of prayer. Because we carry that lens of learning and prayer with us, wherever we go.

And when we carry learning and prayer with us wherever we go, then all the world is our beit midrash where we can marvel in awe and wonder at how much there is to learn -- in Richard Levy's words that we prayed this morning, "how much Torah unfolds from each new flower!" And all the world is our synagogue, where we can pour forth our hearts in prayer.

And that's how the blessings promised in this week's parsha come to pass. When we walk in God's engraved pathways, when we let God's engraved-pathways carve grooves of gratitude and wonder on our hearts, then all the world becomes our house of prayer and study, and everywhere we go becomes a place where we can encounter the Holy. Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study buddies, especially (this week) R' Bella and R' David!


The old new, and the new holy - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat

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One of the verses in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, says that if we walk in God's ways and keep the mitzvot, we will find ourselves in a position where we need to clear out the old grain to make room for the new. (Lev. 26:10) I'll say more tomorrow morning about what it might mean to walk in God's ways. Tonight I want to stay with this one little half-verse about grain.

Rashi explains that this verse means that the old grain we've stored up will stay good and sweet and healthy. It won't turn rancid or go bad. Even years after its harvest, it will still be nourishing and delicious. And eventually we'll have to move it out of our granaries to make room for the new grain, because the prosperity and abundance are going to just keep flowing.

A whole bunch of other subsequent commentators follow in Rashi's footsteps. Everyone seems to agree: this verse means we'll have more grain than we need, and miraculously it will not rot, and we'll need to clear it out to make room for the new harvest.

Okay, so what? Most of us today are not farmers. We don't have granaries. But if we read this verse metaphorically, I think it offers a deep teaching about spiritual life. The first promise I think Torah is making to us is that old grain -- old traditions, old pathways, old teachings, old ideas -- will still nourish. Our ancient texts and traditions remain rich and full of sweetness.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes, in his commentary on this week's Torah portion, that when we immerse ourselves in Torah we may only "get" 1/1000th of its meaning. And that's okay! What matters is that we're immersing. What matters is that we're learning, delving into the traditions and seeing how they shape us. They are old grain that still nourishes.

And the second promise I think Torah makes here is that the abundance of Jewish wisdom, the abundance in spiritual practice, the abundance that comes from tending our spiritual selves through learning, study, mitzvah, ritual, prayer, poetry, text and tradition -- that abundance doesn't stop. On the contrary, it keeps flowing. It is still flowing. It will always be flowing.

And sometimes we have to move the old ideas and teachings and practices to the side in order to make way for the new. Just as our priestly ancestors once moved the ashes off the altar so the eternal flame could continue burning, sometimes we need to let go of old interpretations or practices in order to make space for new ones that meet our spiritual needs in this hour.

Does this sound far-fetched? Am I stretching too far to find meaning in a verse that on its surface is about literal grain?

Rav Kook -- the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel -- offered the teaching that "the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." In Hebrew, הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh. And that first word, ha-yashan, "the old" -- is the same word we find in this week's Torah portion, the word for old grain.

Rav Kook found in ancient teachings about storing and using old grain a powerful teaching about renewing modern spiritual life.  Old grain, old ideas, old practices will be made new. We can renew ancient spiritual practices and make them alive in our hearts and souls. We can (I would argue we must) turn to that old grain and find sustenance in it!

And we can also sanctify new ideas and teachings and practices. We can make the new holy. That's the work of spiritual practice writ large: making the old new, and the new holy. Turning to the "old grain" that's already in our granaries, while also trusting that the "new grain," the new ideas and teachings flowing now, are also a source of spiritual nourishment and plenty.

May this Shabbes nourish us with wisdom both ancient and modern. May we drink deep from the ancient well of sacred time and traditional practices, and also from the newly-flowing stream of new traditions and translations and ideas. And in so doing, may we nourish our hearts and souls so that we can return to the new week restored and renewed in all that we are.

 

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

 


Walking the Walk at Builders Blog

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...Actions and choices have consequences. Spiritual building isn’t about “deserving,” but about wisely preparing for the immense power of consequences. What we do matters. How we act matters. How we treat each other matters. They shape who we are.

How do we build this awareness of consequence into the holy work of spiritual building?

Our answer is this: we must teach, over and over again, that the path itself is the goal. How we walk that path shapes where the path leads – and who we become on the way...

That's from this week's Torah post at Bayit's Builders Blog, co-written by me and by Rabbi Bella Bogart, with sketchnote by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing here: Walking the Walk.


Making Time Holy - a d'var Torah for Emor

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There’s a story about three umpires discussing their trade. Maybe you’ve heard it. There are these three umpires, and they’re each bragging a little bit, showing off. They’re each claiming to be the best at what they do. The first one says, “I have a good eye, and I call it like I see it.” The second one says, “that’s nothing -- I have a good eye, and I call it like it is.” And the third one just shakes his head, and after a long pause he says, “it ain’t nothin’ ‘til I call it.”

Why am I telling you this?

מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה' אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ׃

“These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” (Lev. 23:2)

That’s from this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The verses that follow offer an outline of our festival year in its most ancient form. First and foremost is Shabbat. Time and again, weekday and workday consciousness gives way to Shabbat, which tradition calls “a foretaste of the world to come.” That’s the weekly rhythm, the flow and ebb, built into the fabric of creation. And it serves and supports a bigger oscillation, the annual rhythm of the festival year.

At Pesach, in the emerging spring, we celebrate liberation from narrow places. The Omer leads us to Shavuot, when we receive revelation. At Rosh Hashanah the universe begins anew -- Pesach is the anniversary of our Exodus, but Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of all creation. At Yom Kippur we answer for our souls. At Sukkot we move outside, celebrating the harvest and recognizing impermanence. And then, after a fallow time, Pesach comes around again.

Now, Torah could have just said that God declares certain times to be holy. Let it be God’s job to declare what’s holy and what isn’t, what’s a special time and what’s ordinary. I mean, God speaks the world into being, right? But instead Torah says that we proclaim holy time. We declare its holiness. We have a role to play in making our sacred times what they are. The questions for me are, how and why do we do that? And what happens in us when we do?

Torah and the rabbinic tradition are full of “how” and “why.” We declare a time to be kadosh, set-apart, by lighting candles or blessing the fruit of the vine: kiddush, which shares a root with kadosh. Or we build a sukkah, or wave a lulav. Or we set time apart by not-doing things. On Shabbat and festivals, Torah instructs us to cease our working, our rushing to make and create and do. Or we refrain from eating and drinking, as many of us do on Yom Kippur...

What interests me most is not so much the things we do or don’t do, but the internal dynamics behind the doing or not-doing. What does it feel like to consciously refrain from working? What does it feel like to kindle a candle and feel something internal shift thanks to its flickering light? What opens up in us as a result of that doing and the feeling that flows from that doing? Beyond that, what opens or changes in us when we do and feel those things together?

Because that’s another thing I notice about this verse in Torah: “These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” Now, I’m saying “y’all” because I grew up in south Texas, and even after 27 years in the Northeast I remain convinced that the English language needs a plural form of “you,” and “y’all” is the plural form of “you” that I like best. But I’m also saying y’all because that’s what Torah’s syntax suggests. This is a communal instruction.

Notice the tension between individual and communal. The how and the why of making time holy are communally-agreed-upon, or at least communally-discussed. The internal dynamics of making time holy -- what awakens in us when we take this work on -- are personal. What happens in me when I kindle candles is not necessarily transferrable. And it shifts over time as I change and grow. Making time holy has a profound impact on who and how I become.

The sage known as the Aish Kodesh teaches that festivals have an innate quality of holiness. (Writing about Purim, he says that even if one is grieving on Purim and can’t fully inhabit the holiday’s requisite joy, the day itself will work its magic. I found that deeply meaningful this year when Purim fell during shloshim, the first month of mourning, for my mom.) He’s not alone in that viewpoint. There’s a strong view in tradition that our holidays themselves are holy.

When it comes to Yom Kippur, our sages teach, the essence of the day itself is what enables us to atone -- together with our acts of teshuvah, yes, but the day itself has a unique quality that helps us get there. And yet there’s also a sense that holiness is something we create. In Heschel’s words, we “learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” We consecrate not space but time.

We consecrate. In instructing us to set holy time apart, Torah implies that something happens when we declare holy time. Maybe something happens in us when we set holy time apart. Experientially, that feels true to me. There’s a difference between being handed something, and making it myself. There’s a difference between being told that a day is holy, and making it holy with my actions and words -- and most especially with my heart and my intention.

It matters to me that we do this with our own hands and hearts. The Judaism that sets my heart afire and tingles my toes is a participatory Judaism. It’s a Judaism that doesn’t outsource our sense of holiness. It’s a Judaism that presumes that every one of us has a role to play in building the Jewish future. A Judaism that encourages every one of us to learn enough about the tradition that we can turn our hearts and hands to building the Judaism that comes next.

In Talmud (Brachot 64a) we read, “our children will be taught of God.” And then our sages creatively read “our children” as “our builders,” recognizing that every successive generation has the responsibility and the opportunity to build the Jewish future, rooted in our own encounters with holiness. The life's work of building Judaism isn’t just for “the rabbis.” Building Judaism belongs to all of us, just as sanctifying time belongs to all of us.

There's something profoundly democratic here, in the lower-case-d sense. God gives us the flow of the festival year, but it's incomplete without our participation. Our spiritual ancestors give us a vast library of texts and traditions, but they're incomplete without our participation, too. They're the recipe, but you can't eat a cookbook. It's our energy and attention, our investment of hands and hearts, that transforms the recipe into nourishing food for the soul.

Judaism asks us to balance what we've received, and what the future asks us to build. Sometimes we build in new ways, through new spiritual technologies, new ways of learning, new texts and prayers and melodies to enliven our experience of ancient texts and festivals and practices. And sometimes we build in ancient ways, letting those ancient practices (like sanctifying time) do their work in us as we open ourselves to becoming and to change.

In the instruction to proclaim the festivals, Torah is telling us that even something as fundamental to Jewish life as holy time is a partnership between us and God. Our sacred times have power, and that power is magnified when we make the choice to declare those times to be set-apart and holy. And when we consciously set time apart, we open ourselves so that holiness can flow through us into the future that is yet to be. Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat shalom.



 

This is the d'var Torah I offered this morning at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo where I am (with Rabbi David Markus) Halpern Scholar-In-Residence this weekend. Deep thanks to the Halpern family for bringing us to western New York!

Written with gratitude to my co-founders at Bayit: Building Jewish.

 


Holiness lessons

Holy"Y'all shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." (Lev. 19:2)

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim -- "Holy (Shall You Be)." But what does it mean to be holy as God is holy? It seems that the subsequent verses offer our answer. Treat our parents with respect and honor their needs. Keep Shabbat. When we make offerings to God -- remember, this arose at a moment when we still made physical sacrifices -- we are to eat them that day, or the next day, but not to let them linger. Wait, what? The first two things in that paragraph still resonate: honor our parents and honor Shabbat, so far so good. But what's with the need to eat sacrifices quickly?

We could regard that as an instruction pertaining to food safety. Meats, even meats cooked over fire, will go bad after a few days. Maybe this is an ancient precursor to germ theory? But I think there's more here than that. "When you make a wholeness offering to God," when you're seeking to draw-near to God because you feel that your life is whole, inhabit that feeling of wholeness... wholly. Make the offering and consume the offering. Experience your emotions completely. Inhabit your gratitude completely. Trust that the way to keep the abundance flowing is to celebrate and accept and enjoy the good you've received.

Read this way, it's a teaching about trusting that feelings of wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It's a teaching about trusting that reasons for wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It would be easy to want to cling to our reasons for gratitude, hoarding them, doling them out in little bits so that they will last -- like a box of chocolates eaten bit by tiny bit. But if we cling for too long, the thing we were grateful for may turn sour. The correct response to life's gifts is to celebrate them, express gratitude for them, and enjoy them -- now -- in the moment -- trusting that more will come.

Notice the interweaving of internal and external ways of cultivating holiness. Honor your parents -- which our tradition expands to include, honor your teachers, because one who teaches you Torah is like a parent, expanding your insights and showing you how to live. That's an ethical teaching about how to treat others. Honor Shabbat -- our tradition's core spiritual practice for experiencing abundance and blessing in our lives. Experience abundance and don't hoard your sense of blessedness -- trust that more good things will flow if you open your hands in gratitude. Those are internal teachings about how to carve healthy and holy grooves on our hearts so that blessing can flow in and gratitude can flow out.

Then we get a series of ethical and interpersonal instructions. When we harvest, leave the margins of the fields uncut so that those in need can glean. It is not holy to keep abundance for ourselves: holiness lies in ensuring that all who are hungry can eat and be satisfied. Don't steal or deal deceitfully with each other, or keep a laborer's wages until morning. Judge others fairly, not giving undue deference either to the poor or to the rich. Do not act vengefully. Do not engage in rechilut, gossip, or stand idly by when someone else's blood is shed.

Ordinarily I follow our sages in reading that one metaphorically. Harm to someone's reputation is considered tantamount to shedding their blood. Therefore we are commanded not to stand by when someone is being slandered, because that slander harms their integrity. But in a week that has contained yet another school shooting, the simple or surface reading of this verse leaps out at me anew. In allowing our nation's lax gun laws to stand, I fear that we are standing idly by on the blood of children who are slaughtered in schools where they should be most protected and safe. That is the opposite of holiness.

The culmination of the verses we read this morning is "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai." Love others: that is what it means to be holy as God is holy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva called this "The core principle of Torah." As though to underscore its centrality, this verse is at the literal heart of the Torah scroll -- in the middle of the middle book. This is the heart of Torah. Be holy as God is holy. The way to be holy is to love the other. Those are the words we've been singing all morning: "Here I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator, to love my neighbor as myself, my neighbor as myself."

These are our instructions for holiness:

1) Unclench our hands and trust that blessing will keep coming.

2) Share our abundance.

3) Be scrupulously ethical in feeding the hungry, treating workers fairly, enacting justice, and protecting the vulnerable.

4) And do all of these things not reluctantly or grudgingly but from a place of love.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Related: How to be holy: boundaries come first.


How to be holy: boundaries come first

I studied the most gorgeous text this morning from the Netivot Shalom (also known as the Slonimer, a.k.a. Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky). It's on the verse קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / kedoshim tihiyu, "y'all shall be holy."

The Slonimer teaches: the way we do that is first through strong boundaries and ethical choices. The first step in being holy as God is holy is having good boundaries and being scrupulously ethical in our interpersonal interactions.

That's the only part of holiness that we can control. That's how far we can go through our own strength. If we do that, then God meets us there and lifts us the rest of the way toward a more complete kind of holiness, a holiness in which our every act is sanctified and we ourselves become sanctuaries for God. But that higher level of holiness isn't possible unless we first do everything we can to steer clear of boundary transgressions. 

The Slonimer cites a Noam Elimelech teaching that yir'ah (awe) is the vessel and ahavah (love) is the light that streams through it. And we know from our mystics that when there is light without a strong container to hold it, we wind up with broken vessels. When there is unbounded love without good boundaries -- when there is chesed without gevurah, or when chesed is overprivileged above gevurah -- we wind up with broken vessels. We wind up with unsafe communities.

Holiness comes through living with rigorous integrity and being scrupulous about ethics. We receive the gift of being lifted to that higher level of holiness when we respect the boundaries that can safely channel our love.

 

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Megan Doherty, my Slonimer hevruta.

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017


After the death

"God spoke to Moses after the death..."

Those are the first words of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot. God speaks to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, and gives instructions on how to be safe, and how to draw near to God's presence, and how to atone when we miss the mark, and how to foster an ethical and upright community.

Acharei mot: after the death. I am speaking with you today after a death, too. All week long I've been struggling for words. After the second shooting spree carried out by a white nationalist at a synagogue on Shabbes. After multiple arsons at Black churches, and an Easter massacre in Sri Lanka, and a massacre at a mosque in New Zealand. After death after death after death.

What can I say to you at this moment when white nationalism and white supremacy are terrifyingly on the rise, tacitly approved by a president who chillingly called the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville "very fine people"? At this moment when the family of Lori Kaye z"l are still in the week of shiva, their loved one's burial still fresh and their grief still raw?

Torah gives us instructions for safety within the ancient sacrificial system, but there are no instructions for safety today in a synagogue or mosque or church or gurdwara. There are no instructions for ensuring safety today if you are a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or a person of color, or an immigrant, or a refugee living in the shadow of white supremacy.

And I am no Moses, and I do not have a direct line to God. But here is what I think God would say, if God were in the business of speaking to us directly in language that we can hear and clearly understand. I think God would say: you're all in this together.

I read part of the Poway shooter's manifesto. (I'm not naming him, because I don't want to give him the satisfaction of fame. He is Amalek; may his name be blotted out.) The hatred made me sick to my stomach. The unreasonableness of the hatred made me sick to my stomach. The belief, counter to any reason or fact, that Jews are evil and engaged in conspiracy and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight, made me sick to my stomach.

It doesn't make any sense to me. Because hatred doesn't make any sense to me.

Let’s be clear, that hatred is directed at us. This is a frightening time to be a Jew. And... let’s also be clear that it’s not only directed at us. The horror of what is aimed at us, as Jews in this world today, is also aimed at Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and people of color and immigrants and queer people and refugees. It is hatred of diversity, hatred of difference, and it harms us all.

In this case, the damaged soul who opened fire at Chabad of Poway had also attempted to set fire to a mosque. That one human being had literally tried to go after two different religious communities. But it's not just about him. It's the whole system of white supremacy. It is a twisted, tangled, interconnected web of hatred for all of us who are not Christian-white-supremacists.

Antisemitism is not separate from islamophobia, is not separate from homophobia and transphobia, is not separate from hatred of immigrants, is not separate from hatred of brown people, is not separate from hatred of refugees...

We are all in this together.

And the best response I can offer to this latest atrocity is: we need to keep on living. We need to keep on being Jewish -- visibly Jewish, publicly Jewish, Jewish when we lie down and when we rise up, Jewish when we are at home and when we are walking on our way! Because if we hide who we are, or shrink who we are, then we’re letting them win -- we’re letting people who are driven by hatred and intolerance deny us a source of meaning and connection and joy and love.

And we need to keep on living, together. In relationship with each other. In solidarity with each other. Celebrating and uplifting each other. Standing up to protect each other. We need to build and strengthen our relationships with all peoples who are fearful and targeted by white nationalism and white supremacy: people of every faith, people of every skin color, people of every ethnicity, people from every country, people of every gender and sexual orientation.

If we turn inward and focus only on our own safety, or if we imagine that our safety lies in ensuring that someone else is more marginalized than we are, we’re helping those who would harm us. If we let them drive a wedge between us, we are doing some of their work for them.

But if we make common cause with others who are marginalized, we can stand together against those who would annihilate us. And we will prevail, because we’re not letting them pit Jews and Muslims against each other, or people with different skin tones, or people of different ethnicities, or people from different nations. We win when we understand that our diversity is our strength.

The white nationalists want a narrow world where everyone who is not them is slaughtered, or subjugated, or erased. We can resist by building a world that is precisely not that. We can resist by joyously being who we are, and by embracing humanity's glorious spectrum of differences, and by standing up in common cause to protect others. That’s what I believe God asks of us.

Because we are all in this together. And together, we are stronger than any community could ever be alone.

Shabbat shalom.

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog.


Counting, listening, becoming - a d'varling for Acharei Mot and the Omer

OmerchartA few weeks ago I was talking about the Omer journey with my Journey Into Judaism class. Counting the Omer, you may remember, is this practice we do during the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Each week is linked with a different quality -- lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humble splendor, roots and generations, and the ineffable quality we call Shechinah: presence, in the sense of Divine Presence.

Each week, and each day within each week, is mapped to one of these qualities. This seven-week journey of counting gives us the opportunity to reflect on these qualities as they manifest in us. We get to ask ourselves: how do I express chesed, lovingkindness? How do I receive lovingkindness? What kind of repair do I need to do in my capacity to give or receive love?

And how do I express gevurah, boundaries and strength? Do I need stronger boundaries between myself and toxic people or institutions in my life? Or do I need more permeable boundaries so that my relationships have better give-and-take? What kind of repair work do I need to do in my boundaries and my strength? And so on.

In my class that day, someone noted that this sounds an awful lot like the inner work of teshuvah -- returning again, turning ourselves around, the work of discernment and repair in our relationship with self and God and others -- that we do in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. And I said: yes indeed! During the Omer, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. During the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to enter into a new year and to stand before God on Yom Kippur.

The two journeys are parallel. And this week's Torah portion offers a couple of connections between this journey in the spring and that journey in the fall. (This week, following Reform practice, we're reading from the first half of Acharei Mot.)

One piece of today's Torah portion tells the story of the scapegoat ritual, which is also read in many synagogues on Yom Kippur. Torah tells us to take two goats, draw lots and offer one goat up to God, and then symbolically confer the sins of the community onto the other goat and then send it into the wilderness. It was a way of cleansing the community of its missteps and misdeeds so they could have a clean slate and begin again.

And if that weren't enough of a link between this season and the fall holidays, then the Torah actually mentions Yom Kippur:

וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.

כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃

For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.

Sefaria translates it as, on the tenth day of the seventh month which is Tishri, we practice self-denial (many translations say "afflict our souls"), and abstain from work, and atonement is made for us. But my friend and hevruta Rabbi David Markus notes that a different reading can be offered here: t'anu et nafshoteichem can be read either as "afflict your souls," or as "answer with your souls." (The only difference in the two words is in the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll.)

How different that verse feels to me when it's an instruction not to afflict our souls, but to answer for them -- to take a reckoning of who we are and who we want to be; to seek to reconnect ourselves with what matters most; to cultivate and strengthen our good qualities and seek to shed our bad ones, so that we can live out the fullest expression of who we're meant to be in the world! (Rabbi David has written a beautiful d'var Torah exploring this teaching for AJR; it's now online here.)

Answering for our souls is the work of Yom Kippur. And it's the work of the Omer count too. Each day is an invitation to pause and notice where we are in time, and an invitation to pause and notice who we are and how we are and what spiritual muscles we need to strengthen.

Because taking a good hard look at my relationship with love and boundaries and my own strength and my sense of balance and my perseverance and my humility and my willingness to shine and my willingness to really be present -- that is not a onetime task. And taking a good hard look at my habits and my practices and my excuses and the places where I let myself off the hook but shouldn't -- and the places where I don't let myself off the hook but should! -- that's not a onetime task either.

This is the work of spiritual life. Discerning who we aspire to be. Answering for our souls, answering to our souls. And then living out our intentions of becoming the people we're called to become. I think our tradition gives us these two seven-week windows during the year to focus on this stuff because our ancestors were human too. They knew that inner work isn't one-and-done.

Some of us just went seven days without leaven. And that can feel like an affliction of our souls, or at least an affliction of our bodies! But it doesn't have to be an affliction, it can be an opportunity. To realign our relationship with food. To realign our relationship with sustenance. To think about the metaphysical hametz of old stories and old hurts that we need to shed in order to be free.

Counting the Omer could feel like an obligation, just one more item to cross off the to-do list every day (or another place to fall short when we inevitably forget.) But it doesn't have to be. It can be an opportunity.

What would happen if we made space during these seven weeks of the Omer to listen to our souls? I mean -- sit still, sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or walk the labyrinth, go running, do yoga, shut off the distractions and the devices -- whatever it takes to help us listen to that still small voice, the spark of divinity within?

What spiritual muscles do we need to strengthen in order to do that listening -- and what spiritual muscles might our souls ask us to strengthen so that we can receive Torah anew at Sinai this Shavuot as the best versions of ourselves that we can become? 

 

Deep thanks to R' David Markus for his teaching on תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם. This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning, cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.

 


Remember and forget: a dvarling for Shabbat Zachor

Amalek-soferetToday is Shabbat Zachor -- the Shabbat of Remembrance. That's the special name given to the Shabbat before Purim.

It's traditional today to read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (from the end of parashat Ki Teitzei), describing the attack by Amalek. Amalek attacked as we were fleeing from Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the winding train of footsore refugees. Amalek attacked those who were vulnerable and in most danger. The Talmud recounts a tradition that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. As we prepare for Purim, we remember Amalek who attacked from behind. 

Tradition instructs us to blot out the name of Amalek -- to erase the name, the identity, of those who harmed us. I see in this injunction an echo of those who today say that when there are, God forbid, mass shootings and acts of terror we should not publicize the names of those who committed the atrocities, because the perpetrators want to be known. Their twisted egos want fame for their horrendous acts, and therefore we shouldn't talk about them by name, we should deny them the fame they crave.

And tradition also instructs us to remember. Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance or Memory. We blot out the names of those who harm (indeed, there's a tradition in sofrut, the scribal arts, of writing the name of Amalek and then crossing it out with a bold stroke of ink)... even as we remember our wounds and our traumas, because those harms are part of what has made us who we are. Because we owe it to the victims to remember their names, and never to let their sacred memories die.

Today we reach Shabbat Zachor in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. A white supremacist who proudly called himself a fascist opened fire during Friday prayers at a mosque and at an Islamic center. When I woke to this news yesterday I had no words. I still have no words to wholly encompass my horror or my grief -- or my fury at a person who would attack others in sacred places of prayer and community. I stand today with our grieving Muslim siblings.

The gunman in this horrendous, atrocious, unspeakable attack is Amalek: attacking the vulnerable, attacking those on the margins, attacking innocents at prayer because of their different mode of prayer or dress or connection with the Holy One. 

The gunman in the Pittsburgh shootings at Tree of Life synagogue a few months ago was Amalek. 

The gunman behind the Pulse nightclub shooting of GLBTQ people a few years ago was Amalek.

The gunmen behind every school shooting, every house of worship massacre, every predatory attack on children and worshippers and those who are "different" -- those at the "back of the community," those who are vulnerable -- are Amalek. 

And today we are called to remember and to mourn -- and also to blot out the names of those who would commit such atrocities. Blotting out their names doesn't (only) mean redacting news articles to deny them publicity. It means blotting out the identities of hatred, the self-concept that would lead anyone to pick up a weapon and attack the innocent for any twisted reason. It means blotting out white supremacy and white nationalism, homophobia and hatred, antisemitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia.

It means we must build a world in which those virulent hatreds are no more. Only then will we truly be able to honor the memories of those whom Amalek has taken from us. Y'all know that I am mourning my mother right now, and you have seen me weep -- you will see me weep again! But she died surrounded by family, at 82, after a life that was long and full of blessing. Those whom Amalek attacks do not have that luxury. And those who mourn them experience an entirely different kind of grief.

May we blot out the hatreds that animate Amalek in every generation.

May we stand in solidarity with all who are victimized.

And may our actions bring about the Purim when these hatreds are inconceivable, and when no one ever need mourn again as the Muslim community around the world is mourning today.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source: soferet Jen Taylor Friedman


The details: Vayikra

GOD-IS-IN-THE-DETAILS-ARCHITECTURE-POSTER-CINQPOINTS-0-e1468415713734Little meditations on this week's Torah portion.

 

This week we're reading from Vayikra. The name means "And [God] Called" -- it's the first word of this week's Torah portion, and indeed, the first word of a whole new book of Torah, the book known in Hebrew as Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus.

My first Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judy Abrams z"l, used to say that she loved Leviticus most of all. When I was a new rabbinical student, I struggled with that. Why would one love Leviticus? So many details about offerings, ashes, kidneys -- holy barbecue!

But I've come to see Vayikra / Leviticus in a different light. Vayikra is all about details. Those offerings on the altar were how we used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry. They're written down in detail because details are how we show what matters.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that we show respect for each other by dressing well. For her, that meant always having manicured nails, always choosing nice jewelry, always wearing lipstick, always a spritz of Bal á Versailles perfume.

For the priests, a few thousand years ago, dressing well meant linen garb embroidered with bells and pomegranates. For our Torah scrolls today, dressing well means a woven mantle depicting words from psalms, and our willow tree and our mountain.

Could we store a Torah scroll in a sack? Sure, if we had to. But we show respect for the scroll, and for its contents, and for God, by dressing the Torah in beautiful garb, down to the carved wooden or filligreed silver yad (hand) hanging from one handle.

We used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry to God through offering pigeons, or meal offerings, or fat on the altar. Now we use the words of the siddur (prayerbook) and the words of our hearts. And maybe we also use music, or meditation, or tears. 

But the details matter. We show respect for the tradition, and for God, and for each other, with our attentiveness to detail. The details of how we pray, or how we dress the Torah, or how we make a practice of reaching out to each other in community.

After my shiva for my mom had concluded, someone asked me why we need ten for a minyan. Why can't we just say the prayers with however many people we have? And indeed, we do say Mourner's Kaddish at my small shul regardless of numbers.

But the tradition says that ten constitutes a symbolic community. Ten is a community that can bear witness to someone's words, and to someone's grief. And in my time of mourning, it mattered to me to respect that tradition -- to honor that detail together.

Because God is in the details -- or can be, if we take the time to look. That's the message I find in Vayikra this year. God is in the details of how we come together, whether for shiva or for a simcha (joyous occasion). God is in the details of ensuring a minyan.

God is in the details of the casserole brought to a mourner's home so they don't have to worry about cooking. God is in the details of my mother's manicure and her jewelry. God is in the details of the offerings that once helped us draw near to the Holy.

May we seek God in the details, and may we find God there, now and always, every day of our lives.

 


At Builders Blog: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

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

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

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

That's from my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing here: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair.


A blessing for taking up space

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The Torah rolls, the two trees moving from side to side in parallel, their spool of parchment unrolling from one side and rolling up on the other. There's a rhythm to rolling a Torah: stretch and pull and glide, stretch and pull and glide. I am standing in front of the scroll, though the text is upside-down to me. Opposite me is the Torah reader who is rolling. Stretch and pull and glide.

I've been watching as others came up to Torah to blindly choose a verse and receive a customized blessing. At first when people said I should go up too, I demurred. I'm a visitor in this synagogue, it's not my place to seek blessing now! They wouldn't take no for an answer. So here I am, eyes closed. I breathe, and after a while I say, "There." I point the yad at the scroll.

The rolling stops. I open my eyes.

Though I don't know it in the moment, I've landed in parashat Terumah. The yad is pointing at a verse about the dimensions of the enclosure around the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our ancestors were instructed to build and to carry with them in the wilderness. It's Simchat Torah and I've just chosen the words that will become my blessing for the new year.  I feel a pang.

I've landed at the start of the building of the mishkan, among endless weeks of measurements and dimensions. What if there is no blessing for me in these words? But I should've known better than that. The blessing that I receive is exactly the blessing I most need, rooted precisely in the phrase where my yad fell: 100 cubits. It's a blessing for taking up enough space in the world.

Life teaches many of us, in so many ways, not to take up space. Not to be loud. Not to be visible. Not to shine too brightly, lest our light provoke jealousy. If we're flowers, we'd best not grow too tall, lest the lawnmower chop us down. Women in particular learn this lesson in insidious ways about our bodies (only desirable if they are small in appropriate ways) as well as our souls.

Anavah, humility, is sometimes rendered as "no more than my place, no less than my space." I understand the spiritual value of making sure I'm not taking up all the air in the room. But the value of making sure I'm not shrinking too far? Making sure I'm not hiding my light? Making sure I'm able and ready to take up space in the world? The thought is literally breathtaking.

I don't remember the words of the blessing. I do remember the room receding, the whole world seeming to shrink for a moment to the intimate space of encounter: the giver of blessing, the scroll between us, and me. I remember wondering what it would feel like to truly take up the 100 cubits to which I am entitled. I remember laughing, joyously, with tears of gratitude in my eyes.

 

With gratitude to the giver of blessing, and to the Giver of Blessing, and to my spiritual director for evoking this memory this week.

 


Joy Ladin's The Soul of the Stranger

51oIX2gmicL._SX332_BO1 204 203 200_You know the feeling you get when you keep putting off something you want to do because you're waiting until you have time to really do it properly, and after a while you realize that letting the perfect be the enemy of the good means that you're not doing the thing at all?

For weeks now I've been meaning to review Joy Ladin's beautiful new book The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. It is so good, y'all.

It is thoughtful and beautiful and clear. It is thought-provoking. It speaks to me on multiple levels at once. It deserves a long, thoughtful, quote-filled review that will entice y'all to go and get a copy and read it for yourself. 

And between one thing and another -- being a solo parent, serving my congregation, navigating this moment in my life when my parents are aging and far-away and my kid is here and very present -- I haven't had the spaciousness to write that long, thoughtful review. I still don't. So I'm giving up on that plan, and instead, I'm writing this.

Joy begins the book by exploring the power of binaries in the early creation stories (including, but not limited to, the gender binary.) She writes about gender and loneliness, about Genesis and transgender identities, about what it means that Torah teaches we are made in the image of God. She writes:

Torah doesn't tell us what being created in the image of God means, or explain how human beings are similar to the invisible, disembodied, time- and space-transcending Creator of the Universe. That, to me, is the point of reading God and the Torah from a transgender perspective: to better understand the kinship between humanity and the inhuman, bodiless God in whose image we are created, a God who does not fit any of the categories through which human beings define ourselves and one another.

Holy wow.

The second chapter looks at trans experience in the Torah, and here Joy does something that really moves me: she opens up what it means to have trans experiences, even for those of us who identify as cisgender. (Her exploration of the Jacob and Esau story is truly stunning, and I don't want to spoil it for you with an excerpt that won't do it justice -- take my word for it, read the book.) She writes about leaving our households of origins and about the journey of becoming, in Torah and in the lived Torah of human experience. She writes about wounds, about the nightmare of gender, about the stories we carry with us.

Joy writes in chapter three about different visions and understandings of God. She unpacks Maimonides' insistence that our words always fall short in describing God, and then makes a move that I think my teacher Reb Zalman z"l would approve: she talks about how even though "words cannot help but misrepresent God," we need words for God, and we need to be in relationship with the One Who those words attempt to describe. Of course, God is ultimately impossible to pin down or name -- as the story of the Burning Bush reminds us, God Is Becoming Who / What God Is Becoming, and so are we.

Chapter four explores life outside the binaries, the experience of being exiled "outside the camp," about the Talmud's long-ago recognition that human beings come in more varieties than the binary of M/F would imply, about messy human lives unfolding beyond binaries of all kinds and the spiritual implications of that reality for all of us who live it. She writes about Torah's concept of vows, and what it means when we make promises to ourselves, to each other, and to the Holy One about who we are.

And in the final chapter, she writes about knowing the soul of the stranger -- about what it feels like to be a "problem," and what it's like to be different -- about the existential and experiential condition of being a stranger -- and about how that condition might give us a new way to have compassion for God, a minority of One.

I wish I had the time and space to unpack each chapter for you with pull-quotes and words of praise. Each of these chapters stands up to rereading, to underlining, to sharing passages excitedly with friends. (My own copy already has dogeared pages, underlined passages, and exclamation points in the margins -- a sure sign of a book to which I will return.)

If you're interested in scripture, Jewish tradition, or spiritual life, I commend this book to you. If you're interested in gender and sexuality, I commend this book to you. It is beautiful and audacious and real. It's enriched my understanding of my tradition.  It's given me new lenses for reading Torah. It's given me new appreciation for the holy journey of becoming in which we all take part -- including, or especially, my trans and nonbinary congregants, loved ones, and friends. I am grateful.

 


How can we keep from singing?

Sea-rananIn this week's Torah portion (Beshalach), the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. Upon experiencing that miracle, Torah tells us, three things happened: 1) they felt yir'ah, awe, and 2) they felt emunah, faith and trust, and 3) they broke into shirah, song. (And for me, the Torah is always both about what happened to "them" back "then," and also about us here and now: our journey, our spiritual lives, our emotional possibilities.) Some of the words they sang found their way into daily Jewish liturgy:

 מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!

Who is like You, God -- majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?

And when we sing these words each day, we're called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member -- to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.

The daily liturgy specifically mentions joy. "They answered You [and so we too answer You] with song, with great joy!" As the psalmist wrote -- the words that are inscribed over our sanctuary doors and over our ark -- "Serve the One with joy, come before God with gladness." (Psalm 100:2) Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, but once we emerged through the sea we became servants of the Most High. Slave or servant: the same word -- עבד / eved -- but the emotional valance is completely different.

Torah tells us that while we were in slavery, we experienced קוצר רוח/ kotzer ruach: constriction of spirit / shortness of breath, both physical and spiritual. Without breath, without spirit, it's hard to sing. And I want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes genuine joy is hard to come by. Sometimes life's constrictions -- depression, or grief, or loss -- steal our breath and our song. Pretending otherwise would be spiritual bypassing, using spiritual life to pretend that everything's okay when it's really not.

And. Every day our liturgy gives us the opportunity to remember -- to really re/member -- awe and trust and song. The Hasidic teacher known as the Sfat Emet writes that thanks to our faith and trust the Shechinah (God's own Presence) came to dwell within us, and our faith purified our hearts and then we were able to sing. He goes on to say: in fact that's the whole reason we were created in this world in the first place: to bear witness to life's miracles, to be redeemed from constriction, and to sing. 

I want to say that again, because it's so radical. The whole reason we were created is to notice life's miracles, to be redeemed from life's narrow places, and to sing. "Everyone else has a purpose, so what's mine?" The Sfat Emet says: awe, and liberation, and song. Our purpose isn't to get promoted, or to climb the social ladder, or to rack up accomplishments. "If you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free!" Our tradition says: the experience of freedom will naturally lead us to song.

Our daily liturgy reminds us of the Exodus. We remember it again in the Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a remembrance both of creation and of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat exists to help us re/member our liberation. Today we're freed from the workday, the weekday, ordinary labors, ordinary time. Today we can bask in a sense of awe and wonder: "Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!" And from that place of wonder, "how can we keep from singing?"

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel this morning during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) It echoes the themes in Answering With Joy by Rabbi David Markus. Each week he and I study the Sfat Emet together with our fellow builders at Bayit, so maybe it's not surprising that this week our divrei Torah are quite parallel!

Art by Yomam Ranaan.


Vaera: Listening for a new name

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וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔''ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)



So what? What is Torah trying to tell us here in this verse from this week's Torah portion? What is this verse really about?

We could read this verse as the text’s attempt to paper over an inconsistency. Our names for God change over the course of Torah, from our earliest ancestors to later ones like Moses. El-Shaddai is an older name in the strata of our sacred text, and יהו׳׳ה is a later one. A historical-critical reading uses those different names to show that Torah was written by different authors at different times. We could read this verse as an editorial attempt to smooth that out.

We could read it through the lens of what each of these divine Names means. El-Shaddai can be rendered as “God of Enoughness,” or even “The Breasted God,” God of nurturance and sustenance. יהו׳׳ה seems to be some kind of permutation of the verb “to be.” Maybe this verse comes to show us that in our spiritual infancy God was a Mother figure. As our people are growing up, spiritually, maybe we’re ready to handle a God-concept that’s more existential.

Whether we’re inclined to read it through a historical lens, or through a close-reading / etymology lens, we can always choose to read it through a spiritual lens. Spiritually, here’s what this verse offers me this year: God takes on different Names at different times. Our work is to open ourselves to the new name that will help us reach the land of promise. It was true of our mythic ancestors at this moment in the Exodus story, and it’s true of us here and now, today.

In last week’s Torah portion, at the bush that burned but was not consumed, God introduced God’s-self to Moses as אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה,  “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” אהיה, “I will be” or “I Am Becoming,” comes from the same root as the name יהו׳׳ה. That Name can’t be directly translated, but it seems to imply something about the nature of being and becoming itself. God is ever-changing. And we, made in the divine image, are always becoming, too.

“Your ancestors knew Me under one name, but here’s a new one,” God tells us. Sometimes we need to let go of an old Name, an old chapter, in order to be ready for a new one.  For instance, from House of Israel and Chevra Chai Adom, the two nascent Jewish communities in early North Adams, into Congregation Beth Israel. We remember and honor our community’s earlier names in its earlier incarnation. As part of our history, they will accompany us into our future.

And sometimes the work lies in learning to balance the old name and the new one. For instance, from Jacob to Israel, “the Heel” to “the Godwrestler.” Israel is the spiritual ancestor for whom our people is named -- we are the Godwrestlers, the ones named after our willingness to grapple with the Holy! And yet, even once Jacob becomes known as Israel, Torah uses both names for him, reminding us of the need to integrate who we’ve been with who we’re becoming.

Sometimes a name stays the same, while the inner essence changes and grows. When my son was born my name didn’t change, but my soul changed. Or maybe my soul grew more fully into who I had always been becoming, on some deep-down level I couldn’t understand until that change came to pass. And: when I became a rabbi I acquired a new name to live up to and live into, but I didn’t lose the name given to me at birth. I’m both Rabbi and Rachel.

“Each of us has a name,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda, “given by the seasons, and given by our blindness.” What new name might be unfolding for each of us as we move deeper into this season? What name do we receive as a result of our blindness -- what we are we blind to, about ourselves or about each other? What do we need to learn to see about who we are, about who we can choose to become, about how we can choose to become?

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” Until now. At this moment in our people’s story, on the cusp of the Exodus from the Narrow Place toward the Land of Promise, God gives us a new name for God’s-self, a name that hints at becoming and at being itself. God says: you used to know me in one way, but open your eyes and see that I am more than what you knew. I am Becoming itself.

This week’s Torah portion invites us to ask: what’s the new Name of God that’s being revealed to us now? What’s the new possibility, the new identity, the new growth, the new becoming that we can vision-forth in this moment that was never possible before? This isn’t “just” about God. It’s about us, too, as we grow and change. What could we be becoming? What could our community be becoming, if we could open ourselves to who the future is calling us to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Congregation Beth Israel. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

 


Calling us to Becoming - at Builders Blog

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...When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. All of these are gerunds for a reason: they’re our ever-continuing work in the world....

...We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?...

 

That's from this week's Torah post at Builders Blog, co-written by me and my Bayit co-founder Shoshanna Schechter, and sketchnoted by Steve Silbert.

Read the whole thing here: Calling Us To Becoming.

(And if you haven't yet subscribed, please do -- just go to Builders Blog and there's a place to enter your email address in the sidebar so you'll receive posts via email. This year we're sharing a series of weekly Torah commentaries through a building-focused lens, among other things. I hope you'll subscribe; there's really good stuff there, and I'm really glad to be a part of this endeavor.)