Thursday, May 18, 2017

Parsha Bechukotai: Our Homes as a Sanctuary for Holiness

Some think that to find holiness, you have to venture halfway across the world to a monastery to seek solitude or some other holy site to feel inspired. For others, going to a house of worship is what gets the spiritual juices flowing. This week's Torah portion suggests something different:

יאיש כי יקדש את ביתו קדש להי והעריכו הכהן בין טוב ובין רע.
-When a man consecrates his house to be holy unto G-d, the priest will valuate it, whether it be good or bad. - Leviticus 27:14

What we observe here is an ancient practice of valuation for someone who wants to donate their property to the sanctuary as a form of thanks. The priest (Kohen) would come by to inspect the house and conduct an assessment. If the owner of the property wants his property back, not only does the property owner have to pay the amount for which it was assessed, but they have to add an extra twenty percent to the price (Leviticus 27:15). With the sacrificial system no longer in place and a non-existent Third Temple, this verse seems to be irrelevant to anything in modern times.

The Kotzker Rebbe thought differently, and viewed the passage more homiletically. For the Kotzker Rebbe, the true sign of one's holiness is not found in the holiest of synagogues because it's easy for someone to pursue holiness in a sanctified setting. Based on this passage, the Kotzker Rebbe commented that "true holiness sanctifies the seemingly mundane activities of running a household. One who behaves in an elevate manner in one's own house is truly a holy person." There are a few takeaways from the Kotzker Rebbe's homily.

  1. True spirituality is found in our daily lives in the most seemingly mundane of places.
  2. The home is meant to be a true center of spirituality and holiness. It is the place we keep a kosher kitchen and take something as mundane as food and elevate it to holiness. The Jewish home is the place where we have guests over, have Shabbat and holiday meals, and fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality. As Pirkei Avot brings up (1:4-5), it is the place open for Torah scholars, i.e., the Jewish home is a center of Torah study and good deeds to help others in need. The home acts as a fulcrum for many mitzvahs and Jewish events. 
  3. The home tends to be a more private place than the synagogue or the work office. It is easier for anger, impatience, sloth, or other shortcomings to be concealed in the home. By being able to improve upon one's shortcomings in a place where it is easy to hide one's flaws is all the more praiseworthy.
  4. We've heard the phrase "My house, my rules." The house is meant to be one's dominion. It is easy to let the sense of ego and entitlement that comes with that territorial dominion come into play. There is a good parable from R. Salanter regarding this idea. R. Salanter was on tour, and went to someone's home for Shabbat. The host berated his wife for not covering the challah. The wife was embarrassed and ran to the kitchen. R. Salanter then asked the host, "Do you know why we cover the challah?" The host said that we cover the challah so they are spared the "embarrassment" of having the ritual attention be focused on the wine first. After that explanation, R. Salanter gave him grief because the host was more concerned with the metaphorical feelings of two loaves of bread (which are inanimate) instead of the actual feelings of his wife. If it weren't for the fact that the man went to the kitchen to beg his wife for forgiveness, R. Salanter would have left the house. The moral is that while the house can give us a sense of entitlement or ego, we should remind ourselves that our domain does not exempt us from good character
  5. The Kotzker Rebbe brings up how it is seemingly mundane activities that are the holy ones. If that is true for getting ready for Shabbat dinner or cooking kosher food, all the more it is for something as mundane as vacuuming, doing the laundry, or making the bed. 
The house is a reflection of our holiness. It is a particular test because how we behave in our homes opens us up to certain vulnerabilities that do not exist when we are at work or at shul (synagogue). The Kotzker Rebbe not only reminds us that holiness is to be pursued in all facets of our life, but also that true holiness is to be found where we least expect it: in our homes. 

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