I finally got around to watching the second half of the final season of Mad Men on Netflix. For those of you who haven’t seen it, don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything. In one of the early episodes of the second half, Don Draper is moving out of his Manhattan apartment, and he hires a realtor to sell it.
But, the realtor is having trouble selling the apartment. And, this is true even though it is very spacious and it’s in an attractive location. And, the realtor is convinced that the problem is that the apartment is empty. She tells Don he has to put some furniture in it and make it look like it’s lived in.
Any of us who has ever tried to sell a house knows this is true. That’s because if we are the buyer, what we are buying is not the house itself, but the life that we imagine we can live inside the house. Don’s realtor thinks that having some more props will help the buyer imagine the life they could have.
Draper doesn’t agree. He says: I get what it is to sell a fantasy. I’m in advertising. I do this all the time. The apartment should be enough of a prop. If the realtor is a good ad woman, she’ll be able to help the customer imagine the house full of life. But, either way, both Draper and his realtor agree on the main thing: the house is just a frame. What we are buying is an imagined future.
That’s what today’s parasha is about. God says to the Jewish people: I want you to build a house. V’asu li mikdash. Make me a holy place. V’shachanti b’tocham. If the Jewish people make me a house, I will live b’tocham – within them, or inside of them.
For today, let’s substitute the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ for God, and see where that takes us. Because the search for God is ultimately about the search for a meaningful life. So, how do we get this meaningful life? How do we get the life we want? We need a frame. We need an apartment. And, the life we want is in the empty space inside the frame. We don’t have to be the ones to create the frame. But, only we can decide how to fill the empty space in the house.
This is what religion does. It gives us the frame. It gives us the house, maybe even the furniture. But, the most important part of the house is the empty space. What we do in that space is what transforms a house into a home. And, only we can do that. Only we can create a home. The personal memories that we create in this house are what gives meaning to this space.
Let me give a concrete example of how this works today. The holiest spot in the Jewish world today is the Kotel, the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem. There is something very helpful about having something tangible to which we can attach our deepest emotions. But, the most important part of the Wall is the part we can’t see, the empty space.
And, this is true on many levels. First of all, the Kotel/the Wall itself is only a very small part of the structure that once was. It is one piece of the retaining wall for the platform on which the Temple once stood. So, the Kotel is a kind of prop that enables us to envision what we can no longer see.
When we visit the Kotel, not only does our tour guide help us to envision the once complete Temple. She also helps us to imagine the life that was once there. And, that includes envisioning the most idyllic moment in Biblical history, a time of great contentment and peace.
When Israeli soldiers first liberated the Wall in 1967, they cried. They weren’t crying for the wall. They were envisioning 2000 years of Jewish suffering as a persecuted minority without our own land. That’s what filled the empty space inside the house we call the Western Wall. It’s like the feeling you or I might have if we revisited the home where we grew up. It’s not the frame that moves us. It’s what happened inside to make it a home.
The Western Wall represents that feeling of home to the Jewish people. And, not only the home of our past, but the home we imagine we can have in the future. Why do we Jews pray for the rebuilding of the Temple? Are we looking forward to sacrificing cows and goats again? I don’t think so. That’s not going to happen.
That’s not what that dream is all about. The Temple represents home. A home is a place you feel safe and secure. They don’t kill you in your home. You can be yourself in your home. A home is where you love and are loved.
That’s why we put little pieces of paper in the cracks of the wall containing our deepest hopes and dreams. It’s the space inside the Wall that’s most important. That’s where we live our lives. Judaism provides us with the frame. It gives us the walls of the house. It gives us a national story. And, we insert our own personal lives right into that national story.
And, that’s true of all of the structures that our Tradition gives us, not just the tangible ones. Every Jewish practice from Shabbat to studying Torah is a frame, a house, with space inside for us to live. We are the ones who make the house our home. We are the ones to personalize the structure.
A few months ago, about a dozen members of our congregation took on the challenge of wearing a tallit and doing five minutes of reflection in the morning – and doing it for forty days. For several, that included saying the modeh ani – saying: “thank you God for giving me life again today and for believing in me, for believing I have a reason to be here.”
And, the group was encouraged to share with each other by email the impact of taking on this practice. The responses were very moving. One woman, eighty years old, said she has been struggling with what is her purpose now. Her children are raised. She is retired from her job. Reflecting on the words of the modeh ani made her realize that she still has a purpose. It’s just different than it was before.
Another woman who is recovering from cancer said saying thanking God each morning for giving her life had special meaning to her at this moment, because she no longer takes that life for granted. One man has a father who is losing his ability to function independently. And, the son is mourning the loss of his father as protector, as he now becomes his father’s protector. The image of the tallit as a symbol of God’s protection gave him strength as he struggles to come to terms with his new role.
In all of these cases, Judaism provides us with the frame. But, we are the ones who can turn an empty house into a home by the way we put ourselves into the open space which has been left for us.
There is no better example of this than a bat mitzvah. We’ve seen it all before. We know exactly what the b’not mitzvah are going to do. Vanessa Bayer on Saturday Night Live even tells us what the Bar Mitzvah Boy is going to say. Yet, we never get tired of it. The frame is the same, but each child is different.
Our Tradition provides us with a virtual wall where we can insert our deepest hopes and dreams. Today is not only about what we see. It’s not only about Bella and Risa as they are now. It’s also about Bella and Risa as they were when they were little. And, even more, it’s about imagining the life that they could live in the future. The Bar/Bat mitzvah ceremony is the Mishkan. It’s the frame. What makes today so special is the part we can’t see – the part we can only imagine.
What I’d like to suggest is that we look at all of Jewish practice in this way. We are all Don Draper. We are all ad men and ad women. Life gives us a few props – an empty apartment, maybe some furniture. A Havdalah candle. A Seder plate. A mezuzah to put on our door.
Only we can supply the personal meaning. Only we can turn a house into a home. Only we can create a future that doesn’t yet exist, but like all futures, begins in the realm of our imagination.