In reading this weeks’ portion, I came across an idea I had never thought about before. The Torah portion discusses the construction of the Mishkan, the first sanctuary the Jews built. Outside of the Mishkan was the altar, which was used for sacrifices. The altar and sacrifices continued to play a central role in Jewish life until the Temple was destroyed in the year 70.
The Rabbis of the Talmud say that after the destruction of the Temple, the tables in our homes replaced the Temple altar. The Talmud cites a passage from Ezekiel, a book written by one of the prophets who lived during the period between the first and second Temples. In one of Ezekiel’s dreams about the impending destruction of the Temple, he refers to the altar as a shulchan, or table. Rabbi Yochanan, a third-century Rabbi in Israel, explains that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the altar offered atonement and allowed us to contemplate our relationship to God. After the destruction of the Temple, the tables in our homes came to represent the idea of becoming closer to God.
But how is this done? How can our kitchen tables make us holier?
The lesson is that when we sit down at a table to eat, there are numerous opportunities to achieve holiness. When we eat together with our families, it is not just about sharing food, but about sharing closeness and creating an atmosphere of sharing and communication. It is also an experience of connecting with God, by making blessings before and after the meals.
In particular, our tables create holiness when we invite others to be our guests and share food with us. It can be uncomfortable for us to go out of our way and open our homes to strangers. But the lesson of the altar is that we sometimes do need to sacrifice our own comfort to bring help and hope to others. Not only does the experience of feeding strangers in our homes bring a sense of closeness and caring, but it affects our own souls. This is the sense of compassion that makes us more human and godly at the same time.
This past weekend I had the honour of speaking at a very special bat mitzvah celebration. It was a bat mitzvah celebrated with MADA, a Montreal organization which helps to feed those in need of regular meals, as well as with providing many other essentials. The guests of honour included all of the bat mitzvah girls from the Akiva and Solomon Schechter Schools, and the event was sponsored through the generous efforts of a number of families. The girls brought smiles to the faces of the guests who attended; serving meals, delivering gifts, and being friendly to people whom they had never met. My heart was filled with pride for us as a school, and for our community.
When I spoke, my message to the girls was about the importance of becoming responsible, caring and active members in our Montreal Community. This message is age old, and goes back to the altar; when we break bread and sustain our bodies, make sure to share, even sacrifice, so we can connect to others and sustain our souls.
I watched with joy as our girls went from table to table, embracing the real meaning of becoming a bat mitzvah. And all of us in the room had experienced a moment of holiness, when our girls, and all of the volunteers, transformed mere tables into sacred altars.