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Every Home Renovation Needs Holiness in the Foundation

Every Home Renovation Needs Holiness in the Foundation

After 10 years in our home (which bore more than a passing resemblance to the rustic bunks at URJ Eisner Camp), my husband and I decided to renovate. In the end, we learned about framing and municipal engineering permits, but even more about patience and flexibility.

With the work well underway, loose wires dangled from the kitchen ceiling, and our once-tidy garage looked like a dump, with mounds of sawdust, paint cans, and abandoned coffee cups littered everywhere. A port-a-potty and a trailer adorned the lawn, which sported a bald spot where workers excavated a dry well.

According to Jewish tradition, the home should resemble a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary that echoes the holiness of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Renovating this home, however, did not feel entirely sacred.

When I bumped into an architect friend, telling her about our project, she said “It’s never just about whether or not to choose the blue glass tiles for the bathroom. Renovations are about how you see yourself and how you want others to see you.” Issues of identity, dislocation, financial compromise, and division of labor color the myriad decisions involved in a home upgrade.

Even if couples agree about an architect’s blueprints, one will notice every resistant closet door, banged-up gutter leader, and toilet screw that’s missing a cap, while the other counts the days until clarinet lessons can move back to the living room from their temporary quarters in the kitchen.
After months of sneezing through the layers of dust that continue to settle, I’ve concluded that the process of constructing the Tabernacle (the Israelites’ traveling sanctuary) offers insight into our more humble domestic renovations.

God instructs the Israelites to make a sanctuary so that God may dwell “in them” (Exodus 25:8). The Hebrew grammar is a bit odd, as one might expect the biblically anthropomorphic God to dwell “in it” (the sanctuary). The 19th-century scholar and commentator, Malbim, explains that God does not actually live in the Israelites’ exquisite sanctuary, filled with acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, flanked by cherubim and high-end lampstands.

Indeed, God dwells “in them,” in the hearts of the people who build the sanctuary. Gorgeous backsplashes are impressive in the Tabernacle, but God would rather spend time with human beings than appreciate a pretty building.

For the mystics, the Tabernacle’s altar symbolized domestic tranquility. Playing with the consonants in the Hebrew word for altar, mizbeach, the Kabbalists mapped out a formula for instilling holiness into the home: mechilah (forgiveness), zechut (merit), brachah (blessing), and chaim (life). Although Moses and our architect might have agreed about the importance of excellent materials and quality craftsmanship, the rabbis understood that a house without forgiveness, merit, and blessing cannot sustain chaim. As much as wood, nails, and cement hold our home together, it could not stand without these other underpinnings.

As the grass begins to grow back on our lawn and we enjoy the increased sunlight and new floor plan in our home, I hope that the next time we agonize over paint colors, we can say that life in our home is sustained by forgiveness, merit, and blessing. And the extra light in the front hallway? That doesn’t hurt, either.

Rabbi Sharon G. Forman was raised in Norfolk, VA, and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994. She works in the field of Jewish education, and has served as a b’nai mitzvah teacher at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY for the last 12 years. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions and The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings, which makes the seder accessible for lovers of these two springtime rituals. Her essays on motherhood have appeared in Literary Mama, Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, The Bitter Southerner, Kveller,, and She resides in Westchester County, NY, with her husband and three children.

Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

Published: 5/02/2016

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