40 Days: Some QuarinTorah

I’ve now been in lockdown, quarantine, social isolation, call it what you will, for 40 days. I’m past the panic of the first weeks, I’m over the optimism that followed, that maybe it won’t be so bad, or so long. I’m dawning to the realization that 40 days may just be a taste of the 40 years to come.

There is little in the Torah more frustrating than the sin of the Golden Calf. Sure, it shocks the conscience that Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, but 17-year old Joseph was a twerp, and anyway things turned out as predicted and predestined. But the Calf? The Calf didn’t have to happen. Nobody promised Abraham a Golden Calf.

One day. Just one stupid day. The midrash explains that Moses told the people he’d be gone for 40 days and nights. He intended them to count from the evening following his departure, but they counted from the morning of his leaving, and thus, in the short time between his expected arrival and his actual appearance, the people lost faith.

That story never really satisfied me. Numbers are wiggly, and the number 40, in the Torah, is among the wiggliest. The precision of the midrash’s tale certainly doesn’t match my own experiences. Year after year, I’d try to count the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, with little luck. I even ran an SMS reminder service called OmerBuddy to help complete the count. But most years I’d miss a day, or count a day tiwce, and lose track. When we entered quarantine, I began to count the days, marking them with a pencil on the wall in my office, like an inmate in solitary confinement – though with three kids aged 6-12, my confinement is anything but solitary.

Counting is hard. I discovered early on that four lines and slash, the way you see it in the comics, is a really dumb way to count weeks. I adjusted. Six lines and a slash. It helped to break the count into weeks: today is 40 days, which is 5 weeks and 5 days, to the COVID. Some days I missed adding my mark, and reconstructing it was trickier than expected. Over the last 40 days, we’ve all lost track of what day of the week it was sometimes. We’ve all learned, again, how easily the days blur, and how important Shabbat is to make a week out of our days. I do feel closer to our forebears, who lived these rhythms, whereas, until now, we simply observed them.

Moses climbs the mountain, leaving the Israelites in a kind of national distancing. Alone, in the desert, camped beneath a fiery mountain, away from all peoples and polities, they sat and waited. How long can a pregnant pause last before it gives birth? What are the economics of waiting for 40 days? In the Sinai desert there is little pasture, certainly not enough for the Israelite flocks. Did goat stocks plunge, as shepherds culled the oldest animals, and furloughed their herdsmen?

The Israelites left Egypt knowing that nothing would ever be the same. They saw the plagues, the geometric escalation of unimaginable tragedy. Like Wuhan. Like Lombardy. Like New York City. Isolation is one kind of test, but on the other end of this lockdown would be the start of a new world. Moses would descend from the mountatin with a new vision, a new Law, a way out. Two tablets that would cure the uncertainty.

After 40 days, the rumblings are unmistakable. Even while some foolhardy governors and mayors line up, Nachshon-like to be the first to re-open their states and cities, the most prudent governors are nonetheless also planning, weighing, and considering re-opening. Modern-day Aarons, preparing for a Golden Calf they know they ought not build. But how long can they hold? A sea of pent up anger, grief, frustration, and yearning continues to swell. People are losing loved ones, but also jobs and businesses – and even these seem to be details in the face of the loss of a whole world, a way of life, a sense of identity. Perhaps we will not be slaves again to the 9-5, the commuter train, and the college tuition. But what will we be? What should we enslave ourselves to? What might enslave us?

The festival of the Golden Calf is classicaly depicted as an orgiastic explosion, a Luciferian plunge into lust and sin, a people drunk on freedom and survival. But maybe we’re misreading the situation. It was not a celebration of life, or redemption. It was a cry of frustration. It was the damn of tears bursting. Abandoned by all certainty, alone and adrift, this was the party at the end of the world.

אלה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים

This is your god, Israel, who brought you out from the land of Egypt.

We’ve thrown all we had into the flames, and all we got was this stupid calf. Eat, drink, and make merry. Tomorrow we might still have nowhere to go, tomorrow we might still be no one, tomorrow we might just count 41.

It might be worth asking what we’re hoping for. I mean besides for a treatment, a vaccine, an end to the plague. It might be worth thinking about those tablets, and what we should write on them. God already wrote them out twice, and my guess is that God won’t be writing them out a third time. The world ahead is viscerally scarier than the world behind, but it’s not, in broad terms, much deadlier. COVID19 is not an extermination-level threat. We’ve become as numerous as the sand and the stars, and perhaps that are not enough graves in Egypt to contain our dead. But it’s still only 1% or 2% or 3% of us who might fall before the crown. Climate change, environmental collapse, and nuclear weapons are the horsemen of our Apocalypse, not this pestilence.

Yes, our world is changed. But we can’t afford to waste this crisis. The tablets? They’re going to have to say much the same thing as before. Reject false idols and insist on truth. Restore dignity, honor and respect in our leaders and our institutions. Rebuild a just society and reject consumption and greed as guiding values. And don’t forget to count each week, to remember it, and to mark it. Or you’ll go mad.

Noah and the Coronavirus

Ten days after the WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about Noah. His story reads as well, or even better, as the story of a global pandemic, rather than a global flood. In practical terms, one could readily imagine how the story might have developed. A pandemic, sweeping through the Fertile Crescent, forced people to ever more remote and isolated locations. Someone like Noah might have taken their family and flock and ventured up into the mountains, perhaps settling on Mount Ararat, to await a receding of the terrible plague. Upon returning, the land must have appeared devastated, as human absence resulted in a rapid re-wilding. The bones of the story of Noah may well have been in a pandemic rather than a flood.

But historicity is a dimension of bible study that holds little attraction for me. I look to religious texts, and the generational conversations around them, for wisdom and guidance, not facts and figures. What struck me most about the story of Noah in the Coronavirus Era was the ark.

Ark. What’s an ark? It’s an unusual English word. Modern dictionaries show no translation for the word other than in its biblical and Jewish contexts. An ark is either Noah’s boat, or the sacred container for the Ten Commandments, or the cupboard in a synagogue where Torah scrolls are kept. All these usages are captured by the Hebrew word ‘Tevah’, which means not a boat, but a box. The Noah story reads quite differently when we revisit it and realize that God commands Noah to build, not a trusty boat, not a seaworthy vessel, but a box. A container, not a ship. A coffin, not a life-preserver. 

The midrash picks up on this box and its terrifying darkness and loneliness. One midrash explains that the mysterious “Tzohar” that Noah is commanded to place into the Ark was a sparkling, incandescent gem, to light the interior. Other midrashic passages focus on the solitary nature of life in the closed Ark, and the sexual separation observed by nearly all the pairs of people and animals aboard. The Ark was a stark retreat from the normal order of life, in response to the catastrophe raging outside.

COVID-19 has put us all into arks these last few days and weeks, as we’ve practiced social distancing and shrunk our worlds down to our rooms, our homes, and our immediate families. An invisible enemy rages outside, overtaking communities and undermining the religious, economic and social fabric of our society. Though the Coronavirus will not kill us all, or even more than a very small percentage of all whom it infects, we are nonetheless drowning beneath its mighty waves. 

Jewish sources speculate about what manner of sinfulness irked God and led to God’s regret over creating humankind. One midrashic opinion offers a seemingly incomprehensible explanation: “If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value.” How could petty theft of this sort lead to the world’s destruction? Yet, how can the world survive in the face of such conduct? Each individual’s sin is almost imperceptible, but combined, they overwhelm society. In a sense, the sins are similar to the punishment. A flood is but a series of tiny droplets of water, each one irrelevant and almost unnoticed. But combined, they wash over everyone and sweep everything out of their path.

The Coronavirus is also a plague of droplets, transmitted almost imperceptibly from person to person, quietly at first, but then in a storm. The waters rise as the initial infection spreads exponentially, but even after it is contained, there are many days of quarantine, closures, and economic distress. It will take a long time for the waters to recede, and for a new world to emerge from the waters.

And that means we may spend a long time in our boxes, in the arks of our homes. Like Noah, we are consumed by the demands of this incarceration. Some of us are struggling with meeting the demands of our jobs while working from home, others by the sudden absence of work and income. Parents are stretched by their children’s needs, children pick up on their parents’ stress. And most of all, we are tested by fear. 

I don’t know if Noah truly took any comfort and security in God’s promise that he and his family would be saved. Survival might have been the least of his fears, and it is  only the first of my fears. I don’t want to catch the virus, though I rationally know that many of us will, and that individually, our chances of suffering severe consequences are miniscule. But what about the world around us? Will our jobs survive? Our economy? Law and order? How far will our world spin out? The dangers facing us are too many to name, and the scariest ones cannot yet be named. We’re watching our world be erased, right before our eyes.

There isn’t really a happy ending to Noah’s story. Yes, eventually, the flood subsides, and after waiting a week, and another and another, Noah eventually emerges from the Ark. God blesses Noah, places humankind back at the pinnacle of Creation, and reorders the universe once again. But for Noah, this is the end. The Torah suggests that he dies a disgraced drunk, a tent-bound invalid, huddled in darkness, cloaked in shame. 

The coda of the broader story is similarly melancholy. Who can soon forget such a trauma, and who can fail to impress it on their children? The people of the world repopulate, yes, but with the fear of erasure branded upon them. Never forget. They build a city, and a tower up to the heavens, to make a name for themselves, a permanent memorial, perhaps, but also a refuge. They would not enter a box, surrounded by darkness, again. They would climb. But like most human institutions, the people respond to the last tragedy, they strategize how to win the last war, not the next one. God dispatches the humans, scatters them, ejects them in a manner reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden. It’s not clear precisely what sins these ancient people committed, and why God found their conduct distasteful. The text is equivocal, evasive, inconclusive — but the outcome is not. The people scatter in disarray to inhabit many lands, and to speak many languages, and to descend, again into Divine disfavor. 

But history is not destiny. Today, even as we crowd together in our arks, so physically distant from one another, we don’t huddle in darkness and despair. Our Tzohar, the light that penetrates the cracks in everything, is in our connection to one another. Noah lived in a box, a Tevah, but Tevah doesn’t only mean box. It also means Word. Our boxes today are Tevot, words. We may not be able to physically connect, but we speak with one another by phone, by video, by text and by email. We unleash a flood of words, a deluge of diction, a torrent of talk. 

We are not alone. We are together with one another, living the experience through connection and reconnection, expressing our love and care for one another. We are not building a tower to the heavens, but we are trying to speak the same language, and to remember each other’s names. When we emerge from these arks, from this period of incubation, we can share a purpose, a vision, a strength and a unity. We will remake our world on the principles of mutuality, of shared responsibility, of resolve in the face of enormous challenges we’ve hidden from for far too long. Until then, be healthy, be safe, and be in touch.

The Subversion of the Ninth of Av

On a phone call with my father, he commented that the 9 Days are now the days when Orthodox Jews eat the most meat. The 9 Days are part of an escalating practice of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. During the first eight days, traditional Jews do not eat meat, and on the 9th day, Tisha B’Av, they fast for 25 hours, from sundown until nightfall of the following day. Yet today, it is not unusual for people to hold a siyum, a celebration for finishing a tractate of Talmud during the 9 Days, so that they can eat meat in honor of the siyum. And since it’s summer, why not have a barbecue? Kosher restaurants are asking local rabbis to make a siyum at the restaurant, enabling patrons to order whatever they wish.

The growth of the siyum workaround is simply the latest in the ongoing subversion of Tisha b’Av. Prior to the spread of this practice, frum Jews replaced daily meat consumption with non-meat delicacies like Chilean sea bass, halibut, and, naturally, sushi. One restaurant advertised a special: order a platter of Sushi for your pre-fast meal, and receive a discount on a 2nd platter for your break-fast meal. Could anything more perfectly capture the idea that the 9th of Av has no real meaning anymore? Eat the same meal right before and right after the fast day. The day itself will have no impact on you.

Even well-intentioned Jews can’t seem to get it right. My father continued to comment that just as the 9 Days had become a meat festival, the 9th of Av itself, a day in which Torah study is forbidden, or at least heavily circumscribed, has become on a par with Shavuot for the amount of Jewish learning it engenders. Whether at synagogue or on the internet,rabbis and teachers expound on the 9th of Av from every possible direction. Some study Eichah and the Kinnot, the traditional lamentations read in synagogue. Others offer modern interpretations on the meaning of Tisha b’Av today and how to connect to its rituals of mourning.

For many, Tish B’Av is the time to commemorate the Holocaust, and to learn its stories, to relive its horrors and to mourn its victims. Tisha B’Av has served as a catch-all for the tragedies the Jews experienced throughout 2,000 years of exile, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. The Holocaust is both the most recent and most horrible of these tragedies, and despite having its own days of commemoration, for Orthodox Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most resonant. Yet, as memory slips into history, even the Holocaust loses its power to bring Jews to an appreciation of the destruction of the Temple. It’s just another historical experience, one that cannot move the heart as readily as the stories of our grandparents once did.

The reality is that Tisha B’Av mourns a loss we have long since regained. The land of Israel is governed again by a powerful Jewish state, approaching its 70th birthday in a position of strength and relative security. Jerusalem itself has been built and rebuilt. Home to a million people, Jerusalem is once again a city of gold and white stone, the seat of the Knesset and the Prime Minister, the center of worship for the Jewish people (and others!) yet again. The prophecies of Jerusalem’s rebirth describe the city today. The absence of the abattoir-Temple of 2000 years ago makes few hearts grow fond for it. Instead of one Temple, Jerusalem is a honeycomb of synagogues, yeshivas, houses of study, ritual baths, and holy sites. No greater temple has even been built by human hands.

And that, ultimately, is why we subvert the Ninth of Av. Mourning is not the right course for a city that has risen from the dead. To recite Eichah, to try and conjure tears and sorrow for a city that is once again the crown of its people, doesn’t make sense. But Orthodox Jews are slow to change their laws. Instead, they change their meanings. Refraining from eating meat on the 9 Days makes no sense, so instead, we demonstrate to God that we are rich in learning enough to make a siyum on each day, in homes and restaurants, and eat meat. And if not meat, then rich dishes that show that whatever measure of sadness there might yet be left in us for the last temple, we have built a third temple to replace it. And on the day itself, we fast and observe mourning rituals, but we are not saddened. We are learning Torah.

Palestinian Dependence Bid?


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Jeff Goldberg suggest that Palestinians should ask the UN not for greater recognition of independence, but to concede their nationalist aspirations for the right to vote in Israel instead. He suggest it as a strategy, not a sincere change of direction, and believes that it will yield a two-state solution:

Reaction would be seismic and instantaneous. The demand for voting rights would resonate with people around the world, in particular with American Jews, who pride themselves on support for both Israel and for civil rights at home. Such a demand would also force Israel into an untenable position; if it accedes to such a demand, it would very quickly cease to be the world’s only Jewish-majority state, and instead become the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. If it were to refuse this demand, Israel would very quickly be painted by former friends as an apartheid state.

Israel’s response, then, can be reasonably predicted: Israeli leaders eager to prevent their country from becoming a pariah would move to negotiate the independence, with security caveats, of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, and later in Gaza, as well. Israel would simply have no choice.

But would it? Perhaps another outcome would result? What if Israel found itself unable to turn the clock back to a 2-state solution, for all the same reasons that a 2-state solution hasn’t worked thus far: an implacable Hamas, a corrupt and inept Fatah,  a distrustful Israeli Right and a powerless and directionless Israeli Left.

Can we imagine an alternate future, where Israel found itself unable to avoid a transition of some kind into a civil state for all of its citizens? I wonder… would the masses of Diaspora Judaism in-gather themselves to defuse the demographic Palestinian time bomb? Would secular, American Jews arouse themselves to come to Israel and struggle for its liberal democratic soul? Would comfortable Orthodox Jews be seduced by the dream of the Biblical Land of Israel, to go along with the more prosaic temptation of affordable housing and religious education? And perhaps Palestinians would find that with voting rights and equal citizenship, political alliances across the religious and ethnic divide could yield better results than insurrection and resistance. To say nothing of the right, at long last, to move out of Gaza and out of refugee camps, and out of the indignity of border checkpoints and work papers.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about it in almost exactly the same terms three years ago, prior to the last election in Israel. Three years later, not much has changed.

Jewish Education, Brought to You By…

A quick idea. Everyone’s been throwing out different models for delivering Jewish education, and even experimenting in different models for funding it. Has anyone tried to implement an ad-sponsored model?

Most day schools today charge a tuition that is higher than the marginal cost per student, but lower than the actual cost. In other words, they charge more than it costs to educate one more child, but less than the total annual budget divided by the number of students. In essence this means that everyone is on scholarship. Even if every parent paid full tuition, the schools would not meet their expenses without additional fundraising.

There’s not anything wrong with this, in my opinion. This is just another way to implement a differential pricing plan. The goal of differential pricing is to get each customer to pay the maximum that they are willing to pay for a good or service. In the case of schools, a tuition number is set, and anyone who wants to pay less has to submit to an invasive (though justified) financial aid process and then bear the stigma of being ‘scholarship’ families. Those who can afford to pay more are incentivized to do so by having those payments be in the form of donations. Those donations come with tax deductions and suitable honor and recognition.

Every idea that I’ve seen so far has suggested shifting some of the burden of funding schools onto the government, or onto people who are no longer parents of school-age children. What about an ad supported model?
Whether we think we’re in crisis or not, the challenge of affording private school is what most people would consider rich people problems. And there is a world of advertisers who would gladly pay good money to pitch ads at the owners of all those luxury SUVs in the parking lot of your school on PTA night. Can schools monetize this attractive audience more effectively? Some of the suggestions may sound silly, or even tone-deaf, but I’m going to list them anyway as actual ideas for new revenue for schools that could be quite significant:

  • School snail mail and email should feature ads
  • Every school event that includes parents in the audience, from school plays to welcome nights, should have a corporate sponsor
  • School fundraisers should have a wine and/or liquor sponsor
  • Strategic exclusive partnerships with Staples or other school-supply stores to provide special offers to parents
  • Specialists like psychologists, speech therapists and other professionals should be listed (for free) in a school-published web directory. Those who pay could receive a featured listing.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. A real professional in the industry would have dozens more ideas. And no school should do this alone. Schools should work together under a single umbrella marketing arm that would be able to work with advertisers to advertise across a broad network of day schools, increasing scale and making an ad package more attractive to the buyer.

While some of us may feel uncomfortable inviting corporations to advertise through our schools, I would personally prefer that to allowing government to dictate our curriculum in exchange for money. Is it time we consider an ad-supported model for funding Jewish education?

Rebuilding the Temple of Jewish Education

It’s Tisha B’Av today, but instead of mourning the destruction of the Temple or remembering the Holocaust, I’m thinking about how we can rebuild our Jewish community. Many of us believe that the key to a brighter Jewish future is Jewish education that is better, that reaches more people, and that is more relevant and applicable to our lives.

Today, Jewish children receive a Jewish education through Jewish day schools, Jewish supplementary schools, or Jewish camps. And of course, some Jewish children receive no Jewish education at all. There’s plenty of research out proving that day school is an effective way to deliver Jewish education for those who are willing and able to access it. The costs of accessing day school education, both in dollars and in lifestyle choices are very high, and even stipulating that the content of that education is terrific, day school will not be a realistic solution for many Jewish families. Camps, on the other hand, may be a fine complement to education received during the school year, but few would consider it to be an effective way, by itself, to provide Jewish education.

We must instead consider supplementary Jewish education – Hebrew school. Today’s Hebrew school is not the Hebrew school of the past, as caricatured in such films as A Serious Man. The days of uninspiring teachers, rote memorization of Hebrew, and listless classrooms filled with bored students are behind us. Today, and for some years now, Hebrew schools have provided an enjoyable experience that students emerge from with a sense of pride in their Jewish identity, some community service credits, and perhaps some Jewish friends and memories. What they do not get is Hebrew literacy, or even much by way of Jewish knowledge. While progress has been made, claiming success would be a case of setting the bar far too low.

There are many challenges to doing Hebrew school right, but I want to focus on two big-picture issues. The first is content, and the second is distribution. In the non-Orthodox world, the primary values of Jewish life have been Zionism and Tikkun Olam – supporting the State of Israel philanthropically and politically, and perfecting the world through a variety of social, political and environmental initiatives. A framework of Jewish holidays, rituals and traditions that were at times harmonic and at times dissonant with these values provided the structure for Jewish communal living. Hebrew schools taught to this content – the values and the framework for their expression. However, over time, allegiance to these values has waned, and questions and doubts continue to emerge about the values and the framework of non-Orthodox life.

The result of these growing doubts has been a complete lack of confidence and conviction over the way to express Jewish identity and to live a Jewish life within a Jewish community. The very meaning of who is a Jew and what is a Jewish community continues to go through convulsive changes.  In the world of education, the question of what to teach is so toxic, so fraught with division and doubt that it is rarely broached at all. The absence of leadership is most evident when you consider that the newest thinking on this challenge is to privilege the consumer, and provide a plethora of options for the learner in a marketplace. Put another way, rabbis, educators and leaders are stepping away from the responsibility of defining a core set of content, values, rituals, and behaviors, and instead letting the market decide. No doubt, some curating of the vast sea of choices is happening, but nevertheless, it is astonishing how much Jewish leadership has conceded that it has no idea which way to lead.

Viewed in this light, the declining rates of synagogue affiliation and attendance reflect the declining interest in the type of Judaism these institutions stand for. Teachers continue to teach students how to live a Jewish life that most will find outmoded and irrelevant as they grow into adulthood. Students come away with vague good feelings about being Jewish but few Jewish habits or behaviors. Judaism becomes a more superficial identity that can be shrugged on and off, rather than the organizing principle for our values, our choices, and our life missions.

Is there hope in the emerging class of Jewish movements and organizations that are forging new paths in Jewish life? Perhaps, taken together, they are defining new possibilities for Jewish identity and community. Certainly, the growth, vitality, and passion in Jewish life is found more in the independent minyans, the new Jewish food movement, and radically open Jewish learning than in JCCs, Federations, and traditional synagogues.

Yet these new approaches face many challenges. Many of them haven’t even built educational material and pedagogies for teaching children and teens, and there’s certainly no comprehensive curriculum that existing schools could adopt or adapt. And let’s face it, so many of these celebrated young organizations are composed of no more than a handful of idealists who lack the requisite capital, expertise, and manpower to reach significant scale. Too many operate in such financially precarious states that they have to focus on making payroll instead of making change.

The truth is that we have no effective distribution mechanisms in the Jewish community. Our institutions, built to raise money and deliver social services to Jewish communities defined by geography and proximity, are struggling to reinvent themselves in the wake of the ongoing communication revolution. There are no national clearinghouses of educational programming, no open databases of comprehensive educational content, and a dearth of online programs of Jewish instruction. A consolidated online school? Not yet.

But can you solve the problem of distribution without solving the problem of content and conviction? I’m not sure. Why bother investing in a robust distribution mechanism when you have no confidence in your content? As a counter-example, take a look at Orthodox kiruv institutions. Chabad and Aish have invested themselves into building extraordinary distribution systems, from world-class websites with rich offerings across the full range of Jewish life and learning, to a world-spanning network of actual schools, synagogues and centers staffed by caring pastors and educators who serve their communities with tremendous dedication. The success of that system is predicated on the deeply-held convictions about how to be a Jew, how to live a Jewish life, and the nature and purpose of Jewish community.

There is no doubt that we need to build a better distribution system for Jewish education. But the only way we’re going to do that effectively is if we find our own commitments to Jewish life. I don’t think we all need to believe the same thing to build a good distribution system. FedEx doesn’t care what you put in your box, email is agnostic to the words you’re sending, and Google will find any webpage. Content-neutral networks can be enormously powerful. But paradoxically, they only exist because consumers of content are highly discriminant, and value some kinds of content much more than others.

Sina’at Hinam, baseless hatred, the Sages tell us, was the sin for which the Second Temple was destroyed, and only Ahavat Hinam, baseless, boundless love, can restore it. I believe that there is no better expression of boundless love than helping someone teach something to others, even if you disagree with it. Our love for the diversity of Judaism must be expressed by building a distribution network that helps share all those passionate and vibrant approaches to Jewish life with Jewish children and families – including those not attending school or synagogue – and all those interested in being enriched by Judaism. That’s the kind of Temple I pray we will merit to build, speedily and in our day. Amen.