Parshas Terumah (5769)
Imagine for a second that G-d wanted to furnish His “pad” up in Heaven and He went into the local Home Depot to look around ... what kinds of furniture pieces do you think G-d would choose? ... A nice La-Z-Boy recliner to rest in every seventh day? White Formica bookcases in which to hold the Five Books of Moses and His other best-selling titles? Extra beds for when the angel Gabriel and his friends come by for an extended visit? Kind of hard to know, eh?
The truth is that we know exactly how G-d likes to furnish His “home”. And it’s all recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Terumah, where G-d tells his “contractors” Moses and Betzalel to build for Him a beautiful Mishkan, or sanctuary, and to furnish it with an Ark to hold the Tablets of Testimony, a Menorah for lighting, the Table to contain the Showbread, and an Altar for burning incense [see Exodus 25:1-40 and 30:1-10].
The Torah, in sharing with us G-d’s taste in home décor, is teaching us an extremely important lesson in building our very own Mishkan – the Jewish home.
You see, for many people, it is the synagogue in which we pray or the hospital at which we volunteer that is the place for spiritual growth and connecting with G-d. The home in which we live, on the other hand, is our downtime – a place that we carve out for ourselves in which we can “chill out” and “do our own thing” and “get away from it all” (whatever it is).
However, to consider our homes merely a place for spiritual downtime is to cheat ourselves out of an incredible opportunity for learning and growth. The fact is that we spend so much time in our homes (and so little time in synagogues or hospitals). And if G-d wants us to live and grow Jewishly 24/7 in order to elevate ourselves spiritually and to be a light unto the nations around us, He most certainly needs us to use our home time – and not just our shul time – for spiritual growth, if He ever hopes for us to fulfill His objectives. We need to turn our homes into “mini-sanctuaries” in order to utilize them to their maximum potential.
But it won’t happen on its own. We need to plan that the home becomes a sanctuary – we have to put our hearts into it to make it happen. Interestingly, the gematria, or numerical value, of the Hebrew word for home – bayis - is 412, while mikdash, or sanctuary, equals 444. The difference between them is 32 – which is the numerical value of the word lev, or heart. If we put our hearts to the task, we can turn our home into a sanctuary.
And to accomplish this lofty goal, we have only to look at the way G-d furnished His place, and to build our own homes accordingly. We can do it, He can help. In fact, to the extent that the home we build approximates a Mishkan, that is the measure of a successful Jewish home.
The Torah teaches us that G-d’s home has four pieces of “furniture”: the Ark, the Menorah, the Table and the Altar. Each of these represents a different aspect or function of the Jewish home.
The Ark, which held within it the Tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, represents the G-d-given Torah values which are the very foundation upon which the Jewish home is built. Any Jewish home must be grounded in a belief in G-d and guided by the absolute values of the Torah if it is to be a place where meaningful spiritual activity is to thrive.
The Table of the Showbread and the Menorah represent material prosperity and Torah study, respectively. They are placed inside G-d’s Sanctuary (not far from the Ark) to teach us the two major ways in which we can utilize our homes for spiritual growth as guided by the Torah. We can invite poor people – or any other guests, for that matter - into our homes and turn our homes into centers of chessed and giving. And we can invite Torah wisdom and knowledge into our homes, so that our homes become “mini-Yeshivas” and centers of Torah learning.
These twin ideas for Jewish home living are reflected in a beautiful, yet often misunderstood, teaching in Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avos 1:4-5):
Yose ben Yoezer Ish Tzreidah and Yose ben Yochanan Ish Yerushalayim received (the tradition) from them. Yose ben Yoezer says: Your house should be a meeting place for wise people. Attach yourself to the dust of their feet. And drink thirstily of their words. Yose ben Yochanan Ish Yerushalayim says: Your home should be open with abundance; poor people should be members of your household; and don't carry on excessive conversation with a woman. This was said in relation to one’s wife …
The first teaching by Yose ben Yoezer exhorts us to open our homes to Torah wisdom by making them available as a gathering place for Torah scholars. This can be accomplished by inviting local or visiting Torah scholars to teach Torah in our homes – which is a great way to learn plus it sends a message to our kids about how much we value Torah wisdom and growth - or simply by furnishing our homes with assorted Torah books (and reading from them of course) and making these books the centerpieces of our living space. By so doing, we will have harnessed the power of our homes for much-needed wisdom and inspiration, thus setting the spiritual tone for everything else that goes on in our homes outside of that learning.
Yose ben Yochanan is teaching us how to use our homes for the other aspect – to turn them into spiritual centers of chessed and philanthropy. Invite poor people into your homes – let your kids see how you share your Shabbos meal, or your money, with guests and with the poor. Realize the power of your own home as a place for “volunteering” and for chessed projects – as opposed to only doing it elsewhere.
And here is the most important idea that he teaches us: don’t engage in excessive sichah, or idle conversation, with your wife. While this teaching is often distorted by those who don’t appreciate the depth and brilliance of the Torah, it is in fact the greatest compliment to the Jewish woman, as well as important advice for utilizing our homes for maximum spiritual growth.
We spend so much or our precious time at home engaged in conversation with our wives – and much of it is of a frivolous or mundane nature. As Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch writes in his commentary to Pirkei Avos: “A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than idle chatter for her amusement. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel.”
Was it not the great Torah genius and saintly leader of 19th-century European Jewry Rabbi Akiva Eiger – whose brilliant works of Torah scholarship are studied and revered in all the great Yeshivas to this very day – who wrote in a letter to his children about their mother after she had passed away: “With whom shall I share my worries and find some respite? Which human being knows better than I of her righteousness and modesty? Many times we held deep discussions on topics related to the fear of Heaven until the middle of the night”.
How enlightened and progressive a perspective this is for a Torah teaching from over 2000 years ago! Don’t cheapen and diminish your relationship with your spouse by sharing only mundane matters and “casual” conversation with her. Spending time watching a movie together might be great for emotional bonding in your downtime, but if this is the person with whom you will be spending so much of your time with at home and elsewhere for the rest of your married life – then you must remember as often as possible to use the power of that relationship to discuss deep, spiritual matters which will help you and your family grow together. You can plan to read a book of Jewish wisdom together at mealtime or before you go to bed. Or you can follow Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s lead and stay up late at night talking with your spouse about really important things … the main thing is to utilize your home and your relationship for all the spiritual growth they have to offer.
Finally, G-d’s home had an Altar right in the center of the Sanctuary between the Menorah and the Table. The commentaries explain that the Altar, which represents divine worship, was placed where it was to convey the concept that man must subjugate every facet of his existence to G-d. So, too, in our own mini-sanctuaries we need to be reminded that, at the end of the day, all the chessed that we do at home as well as all the Torah wisdom that we invite into our homes, is all for one ultimate purpose – to grow closer to G-d. True, we might feel really good and even fulfilled by doing all these spiritual activities in our homes, but it is not about us. It is about the ultimate relationship with G-d that we attain when we grow closer to Him by emulating His acts of chessed and learning His Torah’s wisdom.
So the next time you’re in Home Depot looking for crown moldings or a new set of bookcases for your home, just remember the four most important pieces of furniture your home will ever need – and which you won’t find at Home Depot – and plan to turn your home into a Mishkan.
[For a hilarious video clip about Jews in Home Depot, Click Here]