Everything I needed to know about revelation I learned from Exodus 19:1-20:18; Or, how I learned to stop (continue) dreaming about cheesecake and love the mystery that is Shavuot.

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Let's be honest: Shavuot is sort of a mysterious holiday. In contrast to Sukkot and Pesach where there are very clear guidelines regarding what we're required to do, on Shavuot we have options and tasty food, but none of it is required/a mitzvah on the level of dwelling in the sukkah or having a seder and eating matzah.

As Ezra (4 years old at the time of this story) once asked me, Mama, is Shavuot actually about anything? 

At our recent Shavuot prep event with Oakland Hebrew Day School for parents and children we tried to get a handle on some of that mystery through our learning and tinkering.

We grounded our investigation by learning b'chevrutah (in pairs) the original account of Matan Torah in Shmot/Exodus 19:1-20:18, the giving/receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event which is traditionally and calendrically linked to Shavuot. We also looked at two Hasidic reflections on the Jewish people's experience of this event.

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The giving/receiving of the Torah can also be described more broadly as Revelation -- becoming aware of God's presence, and of our personal relationship with God. The Torah can then be understood as a framework for scaffolding or giving structure to that personal relationship.

Shavuot, like every Jewish holiday, returns us to a singular moment in our history and invites us to reenact that in some way. It also provides the opportunity for reawakening to the continuous re-occurrence on a spiritual plane of that singular event. On Shavuot we received the Torah way back in the desert, but our tradition teaches us that that giving of the Torah happens anew (or continuously) all the time. (The source for this got bumped from our source sheet, but take a look at Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:19 and accompanying Rashi if you're interested!)

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As we learned the Matan Torah biblical text, each chevrutah reflected on the following question: What are three central elements that contributed to the experience of Revelation at Mount Sinai?

One parent noted that initially the introductory text to the Ten Commandments felt confusing. "There's so much going on, smoke, people being told to do this and that, and everyone is just waiting to hear the ten commandments."

To which I say, exactly! What is the story with all that smoke, the loud shofar blasts, the very specific choreography and instructions? 

Another person noted that we were there alone. On our own as individuals? No, alone together. 

Everyone arrived at their own nuances in answering the question of what three components were central to the Revelation experience. Torah, community, majesty of nature. Fear, Torah, Commitment/relationship.

We also wove into this the insights from the Maor V'Shemesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Krakow) and the Derech Hamelech (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, great-grandson of the Maor V'Shemesh). Each of these Rebbes reflect on how how our access to revelation arrived (and continues to arrive) through each other.

From that foundation we dove into making, with the goal of creating items that reflected our personal understanding of revelation. Ways we access that awareness already, and ways that we'd like to be more receptive to it. Reflecting on the singular event of Matan Torah, and the ongoing continuous revelation. 

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And then...after some mysterious alchemy involving lots of hot glue guns working over-time; delicious smelling cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and assorted greenery; many colors of clay and paper and tape; with an increasingly Master Chef level of energy; and especially, with some amazing conversations happening...we were suddenly in the presence of a whole host of wonderfully rich and unique 3D reflections of Shavuot and revelation.

A newly beloved book in our household (Beekle, by Dan Santat) concludes: And together, they did the unimaginable. 

To which Ezra (now 5.5 years old) asked, what does the unimaginable mean?

While I came up with some answer at the time, these creations would have been the prefect means of explanation, as they were literally unimaginable. I could never have dreamed up what each chevrutah arrived at, and neither, I believe could they have before actually just rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, learning and creating with hands heart and brain all together.

All of which feels quite fitting for Shavuot. The great mystery remains, the impossibility of totally understanding how we are in relationship with God, even the fact that the Torah is on some level unimaginable. And yet being aware of the access points through Community, Nature and Torah, or whatever components of revelation most speak to you, allows us to walk into Shavuot and the mystery of revelation with the excitement and energy of an explorer, as we each search for the doorways that speak to us in this moment, and connected through history.

And with that, I'm just about to send you on your way into the last few days of the omer. But I can't leave you without giving a few notes on each of the creations, because they were not only unimaginable, they were also totally fabulous in ways that a single photo can only begin to convey.

 Juliet and Leif: We're on our way to Shavuot, always striving to get ever closer. The contents of the baskets represent the 7 species of the land of Israel that would have been brought as bikkurim. The elements above the box represent the 10 plagues that finally touched off our leaving Egypt, and walking towards receiving the Torah and entering the land of Israel.

Juliet and Leif: We're on our way to Shavuot, always striving to get ever closer. The contents of the baskets represent the 7 species of the land of Israel that would have been brought as bikkurim. The elements above the box represent the 10 plagues that finally touched off our leaving Egypt, and walking towards receiving the Torah and entering the land of Israel.

 Tania and Daniel: (Quoting from Tania's Facebook post, because she'll say it best:) "We learned the text about Matan Torah, then chose three essential elements of Revelation and represented these concepts in our collaborative 3D triptych. The first window shows the beginnings of a clay vessel, just emerging from the earth/slavery/wilderness. The second window features a formed vessel in the fire, in a state of awe. The final window’s vessel is adorned, colorful, ready to engage in holy relationship/mitzvot.

Tania and Daniel: (Quoting from Tania's Facebook post, because she'll say it best:) "We learned the text about Matan Torah, then chose three essential elements of Revelation and represented these concepts in our collaborative 3D triptych. The first window shows the beginnings of a clay vessel, just emerging from the earth/slavery/wilderness. The second window features a formed vessel in the fire, in a state of awe. The final window’s vessel is adorned, colorful, ready to engage in holy relationship/mitzvot.

 Ruth and Sara: A tree of Torah, with many doorways and access points in. There's even a person parachuting in!

Ruth and Sara: A tree of Torah, with many doorways and access points in. There's even a person parachuting in!

 Vered and Be'eri: Vered noted that for her the most powerful component of Shavuot is the extra time learning Torah. But one also wants to feel that fire of a communal experience. So Vered and Be'eri depicted that as arising from the sefer, the holy book, where one arises from the other. They had originally hoped to do a pop-up book, but decided to do this version to make something that could be accomplished within the time we had.

Vered and Be'eri: Vered noted that for her the most powerful component of Shavuot is the extra time learning Torah. But one also wants to feel that fire of a communal experience. So Vered and Be'eri depicted that as arising from the sefer, the holy book, where one arises from the other. They had originally hoped to do a pop-up book, but decided to do this version to make something that could be accomplished within the time we had.

 Vered and Tamar created a personal image of Mount Sinai.

Vered and Tamar created a personal image of Mount Sinai.

 Pilippa, Jakub and Aidan: When we were all reflecting together, I asked, what surprised you in the process of creating? Jakub said he was surprised that their creation centered around the story of the golden calf. 

Pilippa, Jakub and Aidan: When we were all reflecting together, I asked, what surprised you in the process of creating? Jakub said he was surprised that their creation centered around the story of the golden calf. 

 Naama, Melia, Chana Ella and Dovid: The mountain has a mechanism in the back that causes it to shake, which reflects the midrash. The luchot at the top of arch represent our ketubah/marriage contract with God that is the Torah. The bottom section is an interactive 10 commandments that you can scroll through, 

Naama, Melia, Chana Ella and Dovid: The mountain has a mechanism in the back that causes it to shake, which reflects the midrash. The luchot at the top of arch represent our ketubah/marriage contract with God that is the Torah. The bottom section is an interactive 10 commandments that you can scroll through, 

 Nechama, Adi and Ori created an image of standing at sinai, where everyone is an individual, but collectively make up Yisrael, the people of Israel dancing together.

Nechama, Adi and Ori created an image of standing at sinai, where everyone is an individual, but collectively make up Yisrael, the people of Israel dancing together.

 Judah, Jacob and Zach: An image of mount sinai, surrounded by greenery and the names of this item's creators. the Moshe figure has a mechanism in the back that allows him to move up and down the mountain. Pretty awesome.

Judah, Jacob and Zach: An image of mount sinai, surrounded by greenery and the names of this item's creators. the Moshe figure has a mechanism in the back that allows him to move up and down the mountain. Pretty awesome.

Imagine, create, share, play

Hey dear readers! As promised, we wanted to share some of the fruits of our work during the Pesach Prep Maker Beit Midrash series. Immense gratitude to the adventurous and creative makers who comprised this first BNA Maker Beit Midrash Cohort. Their work and willingness to experiment was incredibly inspiring!

To start us off, we're so excited to share this video we produced with talented filmmaker Ellie Lobovits, which takes you inside our process at the Maker Beit Midrash.

We're also really excited to highlight two projects that you can help us test out and develop further! To that end we have two printables for you. Print them, cut out, tape or staple together and use at your seder. If you do we would LOVE so much to hear your feedback -- what worked, what didn't, how did you extend the basic idea?

Ok, to the projects... One theme we discussed in this cohort: dualities.  The big one we started with: we're supposed to inhabit an experience of leaving Egypt, and yet it's also clear that we're supposed to be seeing that experience from a birds-eye-view. 

Two chevrutot really took up the dualities theme and designed ways to actively engage with the various haggadah dualities during the seder. 

Eliezah and Andrea designed these little lift-the-flap windows that can be passed around the table, and serve as discussion prompts, either as a group or amongst seat neighbors.

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The basic framing questions: What's the connection between these things? How are they similar? How are they different? What relationship do I have with this duality?

They created felt and glitter versions, designed to be durable and fun. Your paper and staples print out version will be a bit more modest, but feel quite encouraged to color them in, add drawings, etc.

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Ariel and Aliza created duality themed mobius strips. They had initially considered linking them all, having a chain where seder participants could hold each hold a link. In the end they created individual elements that could be placed throughout the seder table. The dualities they chose are: exile/redemption; slavery/freedom; future/past; pain/praise; nation/broader world; celebration/mourning; cleaning/mess; biblical/historical; structure/flexibility.

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These mobius strips can invite seder participants to reflect together on the creative tension embedded in the seder and throughout Pesach. What is being asked of us when we're called to hold these dualities in our sights at once?

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A note about creating these mobius strips: You're gonna print them out, cut out each pair (leaving the center line intact), fold and staple. Mobius strips are a bit fiddly to get into position. I checked out this how-to, but ultimately success came just from testing it out a few times.

The other projects were inspired and amazing but slightly less sharable in print-out form. Chana Ella and Desmid created a shadow puppet theater, in which a grandparent tells the Pesach story to a grandchild, by way of shadow puppets. They created all the puppets and wrote out scripts for each scene. One interesting aspect of their work was that the shadow puppets were a lot more intricate and detailed than would be typical for that form. Desmid's response to my wondering about this: Since Chana Ella will be using this live at her seder, I wanted to really just enjoy the process of creating the components themselves, and putting a lot of care into the details 

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Now let me tell you, shadow puppets are magical, there's no two ways about it. If you feel inspired to whip up your own version, know that even something fairly simple can accomplish a lot. We got some inspiration from this how-to on the Eric Carle museum blog. The blog is worth checking out in any case if you haven't seen it yet. 

Leah was working on what got titled "The Introvert's Haggadah," which is essentially an interactive haggadah that could engage even one person one their own. (I know introverts don't only like spending time on their own. Believe me, I wave my introvert flag high, and I love being around people. Neverthless...) At any rate, the components thus far included some sort of magical decoder ring style layered dvar Torah. It was mid-way towards become manifest when the series ended, so I hope to be able to provide updates post-Pesach.

Mira and Eli were working on a few items, but the one that especially stood out was a woven basket, for people to pass around and share a blessing or wish for future blossoming. One of the themes we had tracked during the series was that some of the seder text is actually from the Bikkurim/first fruits declaration in the Temple. While we bring the first fruits at Shavuot time, we mark of the first flowers of the fruit trees in Nisan, the Jewish month that Pesach occurs in.

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Jonathan created a wire centerpiece that symbolized youth and renewal, but the group also helped him make progress on an incredible multi-layered papercut seder plate he was working on.

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Jonathan notes: These papercut seder plates are available by special order! Email him to hear more details and snag one for yourself at jvlyon@gmail.com.

Each of these projects, in their own ways, are still definitely in process. In so many ways, this is at the heart of the work that we're doing here at Beyond Noah's Ark. Tinker, create, share, tinker some more, etc. etc. etc.

Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk of the MIT Lifelong Learning Kindergarten group have this great diagram in that spirit which they call the Creative Learning Spiral.

 Image courtesy of Mitchel Resnick

Image courtesy of Mitchel Resnick

Veering just a bit from their diagram, we've done the imagine and create, and now we're excited to share with you. At the seder we'll play, and then time to reflect, and dive back in to imagining.

See you on the flip side!

I wonder what this could really be?

Friends, it's so great to have you journeying along with us here. To be perfectly forthright, it's been an interesting challenge to play the roles of facilitator, chevrutah partner, and documentor all at once. Then again, how appropriate for a series leading up to Pesach and the Seder, right? Ideally, at the seder we get to be leaders and participants, and in some sense, documentors of our own experience, all in one staged and planned, yet unanticipatable journey. 

We've now been learning and creating together for a few weeks, so at the start of our fourth session we were ready to do a little reflection on where were in our process. Aliza designed a project diagram for us to concretize what we were working on, and we'll use our notes as a guide as we move forward. 

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To start us off, here's a little video, just to give you a sense of the focused energy in the room as we tinker our way into exploring the existential questions within the Pesach experience.

A few of the chevrutot have been exploring the ways that we're both in the story and above the story, almost watching from a bird's-eye view at various points in the seder. We see this in the choice of the Vidui Bikkurim (the concise retelling of the Exodus story when bringing  first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem) as one of the central texts that the Haggadah is spun out from. We might have expected that the whole text of the haggadah would be based around a more present-tense statement of the drama, so it's meaningful that this isn't wholly the case. We also see this in the Talmud's declaration that "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים" (Psachim 116b), "In every generation one but see themselves as though they themselves had left Egypt." There's a wonderful multiphonic situation being set up here, in which we are enjoined to both see experience being actors in the drama, but also recognize that we are constructing that experience of the drama -- we are tasked with seeing ourselves AS THOUGH we had left Egypt. 

On this basic foundation, Aliza and Ariel have been testing out different prototypes for tangibly illustrating multiphonic themes or dualities that we are asked to hold at once during the seder. They've been playing with the idea of interlocking mobius strips, which might have various dualities written on them, or perhaps related questions. The materials used to make each mobius strip will signify the themes it speaks to in some way. Participants in the seder might hold on to a link in the mobius strip chain, and this could serve as an entry point for conversation -- they're still figuring out how that might work!

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Andrea and Eliezah are working on two projects simultaneously. The first they see as a framed set of prompts that, as above, explore dualities in the seder. They do this by means of little durable framing squares, with a reveled word, and its pair word hidden underneath the flap. Participants hold up the squares, and as a group, guess what the pair word might be. When it is reveled, discussion can ensue as to what the significance of that pair or duality is to our Pesach experience. They've been experimenting with what materials would feel fun and be durable, but would also convey a sense of meaning with regard to the themes they're highlighting, and a sense of beauty. (Also, there's an abiding love for glitter paint in this group, which I initially didn't understand, but am grateful for the opportunity to grow.)

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Andrea and Eliezah's second project is much more open ended. They're constructing a number of objects, each of which highlights a key element of the seder. The objects will be placed along the length of the seder table. Participants can pick up an item, and use it as a prompt for discussion of its possible significance in the seder amongst the group of people sitting near them.

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Jonathan (and, when she graces us with her presence, Rena) describes his project at this stage like this "Minimalistic Baby Face with one piece of wire symbolizing unlimited potential, interest, experimentation, and Freedom - getting ready for Passover with “Reishit”." We had a few minutes last session to ask each other questions about our projects (which remained unanswered, thus far, by design), and the questions Jonathan was asked included, "How will this be used at the seder? Do participants engage with it in tangible ways? Or is it intended to be looked at and discussed?" and "This seems like a very fragile piece. Is that intentional, and have you considered exploring what might happen by making it more durable in some way?"

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Eli and Mira are have been in serious tinkering mode, starting from a real enjoyment of testing out what various materials might shape up to be, and from that foundation considering exactly how those speak to the themes they'd like to explore. They're still investigating what exactly the box with semi-translucent paper is and how it will be used. Eli was experimenting with watercolor painting on the tracing paper, while Mira was weaving a bikkurim basket out of wire and cardboard. Can't wait to see what comes of all this tinkering!

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Desmid and Chana Ella started with a really clear idea early on, and they've been building the components ever since. They're working on a shadow puppet theater, which will tell the story of one family's journey across generations and places, but in a way that strips away certain details in order to highlight universal themes. 

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Laya and I have the least to show since our chevrutah formed a bit late in the game, but we are excited to begin creating on the basis of our learning and discussion this past week. We've been discussing how we process the Mitzrayim/Egypt experience as one which is described as
אנוס על פי הדיבור, forced by way of Divine command. How do we process experiences that we seem destined to go through, but that we also need to get something out of, and to have some sense of agency in the experience. What did we need to get out of the MItzrayim experience? How do we gain access to that through our experience of the seder, and what might help us do that?

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And so here we are. I'm super excited to be continuing to bring these projects to clarity, and just generally be asking big questions by way of cardboard and hot glue guns with these beautiful makers. 

Let us know what you're working on, what you're thinking about in advance of the seder, or wanting to change or keep from seders past. We'll check back in soon with more updates.

It's alive!

What a thrill to experience this dream of study and chevrutah creation within a community of makers come to life! 

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This Maker Beit Midrash section will be a place where you can get an in depth look at what we're learning and working on as the Pesach Prep series progresses. We're also hoping some folks might join us in creating from afar -- convince a friend to be your maker hevrutah (creative partner), learn the texts, and get to tinkering! If you do please share picture of your work with us! Send any images and explanations to bnacollaborative@gmail.com, or share on our Facebook page!

We kicked off the first session of our 6 session Pesach Prep maker series with introductions from cohort participants (such shining wonderfully interesting people, all!), and an overview of Beyond Noah's Ark's mission and values

We then broke into hevrutah pairs to study our central text for the evening, and the central biblical text that the Pesach Haggadah is based around. Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:1-11 is a concise retelling of the story of redemption from Egypt and the first Passover. It is also the Biblical formula to be recited by a farmer bringing first fruits (Bikkurim) to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on the holiday of Shavuot.

Why, we wondered, was this the text chosen for the central Maggid section of the seder? What's the significance of drawing upon a collection of verses that are located in future from the perspective of the seder, as opposed to those from Exodus/Sh'mot, that present a more present-tense version of the story.

We also took a quick look at the Mishnah in Pesachim 116b, which we'll look at in greater depth during the second session. This Mishna contains the central spiritual posture of the seder -- that we are each enjoined to see ourselves as having personally left Egypt. What resources or experiences might help to further our ability to feel that we are, in this generation, at this time, in our lives, leaving Egypt?

After some really interesting discussion as a group, we were ready to turn to the art and tinkering portion of the evening. Unlike how the other sessions will be, everyone was invited to work on one specific type of interactive object, the cardboard automata, as a foundation for creating and following a thread of inquiry b'hevrutah (paired/in a creation team). This provided a shared and hopefully fairly comfortable project to begin experimenting from.  

The Exploratorium just closed an exhibit on the most wondrous intricately crafted automata.

They developed a do-it-yourself explanation sheet for creating cardboard automata, and we used that as a roadmap to help guide us. 

All that having been said, a number of hevrutas ended up interpreting the prompt in quite diverse ways. Eliezah was hard at work on a complex system of automata levers out of which she was constructing an opening and closing red sea. Desmid was following the thread of personal history by creating an enclosed Torah scroll, upon which she handwrote her father's life journey.

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Mira and Jonathan followed the straightforward automata path to arrive at a poignant encapsulation of the Jewish people's cycles of redemption and exile.

Andrea and Laya, and Aliza and Sarah were in the midst of constructing some very interesting looking contraptions when we paused our work until the next session. 

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When we pick up at session two we'll hear a recap of what everyone worked on last session, and meet the handful of new people that are joining the group. We'll learn some more text together as a group and b'hevrutah and we'll match up into the hevrutah pairs that we'll hope to stay in for the next five sessions. The main task set before each hevrutah is to choose a thread of inquiry, a particular question they'd like to explore with regard to Pesach, and then investigate how to bring those explorations to life in visual, accessible form. 

As we begin our tinkering we'll consider a variety of possibilities for interactive objects, interesting storytelling devices, etc. as potential frames for creating.

Some on the list so far:

Kavaad: A traditional Indian unfolding storytelling box

 This is a modern adaptation of the form, a version by artist Bruce Handelsman, which will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in their exhibit "Contraption." Image courtesy of the  Contemporary Jewish Museum .

This is a modern adaptation of the form, a version by artist Bruce Handelsman, which will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in their exhibit "Contraption." Image courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Shadow puppet theater

Zig-zag 

 Photo of a work by Lynn Avedenka which was on view at the YU Museum

Photo of a work by Lynn Avedenka which was on view at the YU Museum

 Zig Zag books at the Eric Carle Museum

Zig Zag books at the Eric Carle Museum

Interactive Scroll

 Purim story scroll created by Tammy Edell Gottstein and her kids

Purim story scroll created by Tammy Edell Gottstein and her kids

Story Boxes

 Steve Light/ Guidcraft storyboxes. This is Hansel and Gretel

Steve Light/ Guidcraft storyboxes. This is Hansel and Gretel

 Another Steve Light storybox, The Girl Who Loved Danger

Another Steve Light storybox, The Girl Who Loved Danger

Illuminated storybox

 These are by artist  Karishma Chugani Nankani . Images courtesy of the artist's website.

These are by artist Karishma Chugani Nankani. Images courtesy of the artist's website.

All sorts of other paper engineering storytelling ideas

 Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium 

Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium 

 Image courtesy of  Brain Pickings , from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium

Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium

Whew. And with that, adieu & shalom for now. Can't wait to check back in after tonight's session. Excited and nervous for the hevrutah pairs to solidify. We'll spell out in a bit more detail in the next post why doing this work b'hevrutah is a key component of the vision.

Until then, happy tinkering!