Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Model Jewish Home

There are many laws and customs pertaining to setting up a Jewish home.  Some of them are fairly well-known, such as carving up your kitchen between meat dairy and pareve, or attaching mezuzot to all the doorways that have lintels and posts.  Others must not have the same PR people working for them – like the mitzvah to build a guardrail around a flat roof (Deuteronomy 22:8).  When you build a new house, you shall make a guardrail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, for the faller will fall from it [the roof].    

On one level this seems like good, practical advice: make sure your home is a safe place to be, as the verse there continues, beware and watch yourself [lit. your soul] very well.   This obligation includes putting up sturdy kid-proof fences around swimming pools, ditches, removing or fixing rickety ladders, and not keeping vicious dogs.  But I think we can also deduce that a model Jewish home is one that is emotionally safe, as well.  The care we must take with the physical environment sets a model for the care we must take with the spiritual and emotional environment.
What does an emotionally safe home look like?  One of the most important ingredients is that home is not a place of unbridled anger. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) says, he who wreaks his vengeance destroys his own nest.  Anger is a fire that obliterates everything in its path.  It does not open bridges to communication or understanding, it annihilates them.  In the same vein, intimidation of any kind – ridicule, name-calling, or threats of physical harm – are absolute poison to the foundation of the home. 

A second crucial ingredient is unconditional love.  Not unconditional like, but unconditional love.  This lets your family members know that they are inherently valued and respected simply because they exist.  No one should have to earn this.  There are many other additions which can enhance this basic recipe, such as being allowed to make mistakes, encouragement and back-up, recognition of one’s talents and skills, consistency, responsiveness to people’s preferences and needs, being fully “present” to your family members.

Did you notice the curious phrase “the faller will fall”?  The foremost Torah commentator, Rashi, explains: even if it is Divinely ordained that this person fall, you should not be the causal party.  In our righteous crusade for justice we often feel justified in punishing – “he deserves it!”  Ever notice how some kids seems to attract negative attention?  But, just because they’re a magnet for it, doesn’t mean we need to give it to them.  A person’s struggle with a weakness isn’t an excuse for us to exploit it.  Our job is to bolster them by assisting – or prompting – them to build their own personal guardrail.  (For a beautiful metaphysical explanation of the mitzvah of building a guardrail see here.) 

This partnership in building a healthy and safe home is captured in another ancient Jewish custom:  in Medieval Germany and France Jewish men would give their brides a wedding ring with a house on top, to symbolize the home they would build together.

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