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Rabbi David A. Lyon
October 19, 2012
3 Cheshvan 5773

“Making a Jewish House a Home”

                After Jewish families move into new homes, they are supposed to affix a mezuzah on the doorposts within 30 days. The mezuzah contains words from Torah, specifically the Shema, which declares God’s unity and the actual commandment to affix the mezuzah. The brief ceremony to affix the mezuzah includes words from Psalms 127. In Hebrew, “Im Adonai lo yivneh vayit, shav amlu vonav bo,” translated, Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders toil in vain. This is not a criticism of contractors; it’s an insight into the deepest purpose of building a home.

                That purpose was once reflected in the halcyon days of American family life depicted on television. The Cleavers and Ozzie and Harriet were reflections and models of American family life in their days. Later, it would be the Bradys and the Huxtables whose families reflected family life in America. No television family can permanently reflect the image of American family life. Family life is always in flux and expectations for children and parents are constantly emerging.

                In recent years, experts cautioned that children are over-programmed or over-parented. Children might have too few hours to play creatively. And, if both parents work, the children might be deprived of “quality-time.” Or, some children are protected by helicopter parents. They hover around everything their children do, especially in school. The reports can sound ominous to us. Sometimes we respond by making changes at home; or sometimes we maintain that we are just fine and with no ill-effect on the family.

                If we look into Jewish homes, we might find large changes from the past to the present. Traditionally, Jewish men and women held separate roles in the family. Ironically, it was the woman who worked to provide for her family. The husband, if he was able, studied Talmud all day. When Jews came to America, in large waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, family patterns were turned on their heads. Jewish families quickly struggled to resemble American families. Fathers went to work and mothers stayed home.

                In the 1970s, when women were inspired to enter the workplace, Jewish women were among the leaders who began new careers. Naturally, some families were threatened by it. I’ll never forget the “discussion” my own parents had in the mid-1970’s at the kitchen table after dinner. My mother shared with my father that she wanted to return to school to finish her degree that she postponed when they started a family. She intended to become a teacher and work full-time. My father resisted. His first reaction was that he couldn’t endure the shift in the family model; he used the word divorce. It was at that moment that I entered the room. I looked at both parents and said, “If you divorce, I’m not going with either one of you.” My parents didn’t divorce and not because their budding rabbi made any difference. But, it was a sign of the times; and so was the decision by the Reform movement to ordain the first woman rabbi in 1972. Changing family patterns were opening the way for new roles for family members at home, in the workplace, and on the bimah.

                Published studies have tracked the results of changes in American family life. Robert Inchausti, a sociologist from the University of California, wrote in his book, The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People, that “The institutions of family life we have inherited --- have been badly damaged by the forces of industrialization that separated domestic values from economic worth.” His point is this: when a farmer harvested his crop and brought it to market, he knew instantly the value of his work when he exchanged his crop for money. When the crop was good, the family thrived; when the crop was not so good, the family pulled together. Their family values were directly related to the land and its produce.

                The sociologist explains that the ease with which we can acquire the same goods --- food, clothing, and now technology --- deprives our families from the value-laden step that once contributed to a family’s sense of worth. How does buying a chicken from Rice Epicurean, already seasoned and cooked, compare to the process of raising a chicken, butchering it in the barn, plucking its feathers and roasting it at home in the oven? I’d take a chicken from Rice Epicurean any day, but the point is that the immediacy of food, clothing, and technology, just to name a few of our conveniences, has changed our ability to connect work and values.

                The solution has not eluded us completely. But, we have to be aware of the signs of potential damage. The sociologist suggests that in the place of farm-raised chickens and homemade meals, industry and media have, to use his terms, “sentimentalized, and thereby, dispirited family life, turning it into some kind of transgenerational hobby requiring snapshots and group vacations…” He cautions, that unless we are careful, we will become the reality depicted in advertising, we will live up to standards set for us by commercials, and we will seek merely Kodak digitized moments instead of sincere occasions that come from our own family life and its values.

                The sociologist’s solution follows. He contends that the “family unit can [in fact] be a [powerful force]…against the alienation produced by society-at-large.” At their best, every family can be “preserves of intimacy, disclosure, forgiveness, self-discovery and renewal.” Who wouldn’t strive to reclaim such precious values for their family? How do we do it?

                The sociologist claims that we can enrich our families by discovering the wisdom of our traditions and cultures of origin. In Judaism, enduring values for Jewish homes are found exactly where they have been found for centuries. It would be too simple to say that they are all found in Torah. Torah is only the origin of so much of what our families cherish. In Jewish homes, traditions originate in a Torah teaching, but flourish in ways every Jewish family interprets and lends meaning to them; and, eventually passes them on to the next generation.

                One example is Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It reflects everything needed for a binding ritual that enriches family life. Set apart from the secular world of 13-year olds, Bar Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for a young Jewish person. For the first time, through hard work and study, and sacrifice of other interests, young Jewish boys and girls invest in a sacred project, toil meaningfully in the field of Jewish thought, and later reap the benefits reflected in personal achievement, pride, and the pathway to Jewish adulthood.

                When a 13-year old and his family come home from synagogue after the Bar Mitzvah, they feel enriched by their participation in the rhythm of Jewish time. They discover intimacy between family members who travel from far and near; disclosure is realized through real feelings shared between family; forgiveness for childhood mistakes is given and received unconditionally; self-discovery is observed in our children on the bimah; and renewal in the family’s faith is celebrated.

                The whole family is moved by the experience. Together, they reclaim through the wisdom of our tradition and culture of origin the powerful force of family life at home. But, we must balance the ritual matters of bar mitzvah with the ethical deeds of everyday life. Ethical deeds are essential to focus the families’ priorities toward the highest values of our tradition and culture of origin. So, we include daily acts of loving-kindness called mitzvah --- feeding the hungry, studying well, honoring parents, celebrating with bride and groom and comforting mourners, for example. Like the walls of the house that protect us, mitzvot --- all our Jewish obligations --- provide the scaffolding we need to reach the highest levels of meaning and purpose of our home. We should all build beautiful houses; but, unless we model our Jewish obligations there, we will lack the reasons why.

                Remember the Psalm verse, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders toil in vain.” The verse isn’t about lumber and nails, after all; the verse is about inviting God inside as a reason to live by the wisdom of our traditions and customs.

                May the houses we build for our families be built of strong materials to protect us from harm; may the mezuzah on our doorposts remind us that God’s presence builds the families that make a house a home.  AMEN.

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