Growing up in the 1980s, I was raised on a rather immoderate cultural diet of popular TV shows such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” The heroes of these shows inhabited houses that were architecturally grandiose and aesthetically pleasing to the eye of the flesh. These towering structures were indeed, in Hemingway’s immortal words about Paris, a veritable “Moveable Feast.”
In retrospect, I now realize that these luxurious mansions were indeed beautiful houses, but in no way were they homes. For a home is where you find a sacred and blissful reprieve from the material and psychological demands that life constantly thrusts upon you. Home is the dwelling place of mutual acceptance and unconditional love. It is where we lovingly make at times painful individual concessions for the sake of the family writ large.
The mansions which the Carringtons and the Ewings inhabited in “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” respectively, were fraught with duplicity, disloyalty and dubious intrigue. In my eyes, they were no home, but merely a house — a material structure devoid of true and enduring soulfulness and intimacy.
Judaism has always focused more on the architecture of the heart than on the expansiveness of a mere physical structure. That’s why our houses of worship have historically been so architecturally humble and minute when compared to European cathedrals or Egyptian pyramids.
I was reflecting upon this pervasive dissonance between the material and the spiritual, the emotive and the concrete, inherent in countless American TV shows, as I was reading two striking commentaries on this week’s Torah portion.
In our parshah, two members of a family, Nadav and Avihu, abruptly and tragically perish. Their father, Aaron, is so grief-stricken that he remains utterly silent, crushed by the numbing agony of bereavement. According to the Yalkut Shimoni, Nadav and Avihu perished because they exhibited no respect towards the elders of the family. In Vayikra Rabah, the midrash postulates that Nadav and Avihu were also contemptuous of the prospect of cultivating intimacy with a spouse or raising a family. Simply put, Nadav and Avihu personified the radical individualism symptomatic of our time in the secular West. They were utterly focused upon their priestly careers and made no significant time or inner space for loved ones to inhabit their hearts. They perished because they did not prioritize love and family.
In the sublime words of the English medieval mystic John Donne, Nadav and Avihu forgot that “No man is an island entire of itself.” And in the exquisite words of Rumi, they forgot that a fellow human being is not merely “a drop in the ocean” of human demography, but rather “the entire ocean in a drop.”
The story of Nadav and Avihu is a stern warning as to what occurs when we invest everything in physical and material endeavors (the building of the Mishkan/portable sanctuary), and very little in cultivating soulful and altruistically-based relationships of enduring love anchored upon reciprocity and mutual respect.
Throughout the Bible, the Hebrew Prophets remind us time and again that even the Mishkan and the Temple constitute no worthy repository for the Shekinah (divine presence), once corruption, hatred, egoism and violence become all-pervasive.
Tragically, our Torah portion implies that a house, even a glorious house intended for pristine spiritual purposes, is not always a home. And a home is sometimes not even a house. Abraham and Sarah lived in a mere tent, as did hundreds of thousands of Jews returning to Israel in the 1950s after millennia in exile. In many of these tents, love and soulfulness reigned supreme.
To be a Jew is to focus on establishing a spiritual and emotional home more than on building a mere physical house. That’s what Abraham and Sarah endeavored to do at the very dawn and genesis of Jewish textuality, and this is what we, at our finest moments, have been demonstrating and preaching to the world ever since.