Any of us who have ever looked for a property knows, after a while of trawling through the property sections you become a bit of an expert at reading the real estate advertisements. You learn that a “renovator’s delight” is a place which is lucky to be standing, possibly a health hazard and definitely not inhabitable. “Scope for improvement” tells you that it probably has fluorescent pink walls and green carpet with a bathroom that was built just after the invention of plumbing. “Price on request” means really expensive, “ocean glimpses” means if you stand on the toilet, lean out the window, and wait for the breeze to blow the tree a little to the left you may see the ocean. You get the picture. So when I read in this week’s parasha “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” “How lovely are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places Israel!” I wondered what it meant. What kind of real estate-speak was this? “Lovely” tents, does that tell us that the Israelites had “room for improvement” or were living in “renovator’s delights” How much would those tents fetch at auction?
Well the commentators tell us that there were a number of things which made the Israelites’ tents lovely and the ad would probably go something like this: don’t miss this opportunity to buy into this tightly held enclave. Fabulous, quiet, private location in the heart of the desert. Community feel, close to restaurants, 24 hour access to prophet of God. Strata fees: 613 mitzvot per annum. Price on request.
We are taught that the Israelites merited the glowing report about their tents, their homes in the desert, because even though they were temporary dwellings, they were homes. The tents were arranged in an incredibly ordered fashion, with no tent looking into another, no ones privacy was compromised despite the close living quarters. Yet they were not distant from one another. Each person cared for the other and was aware of what those around them needed. It was a true community and their homes reflected who they were and what was important in their lives; community and family, a place to be together and also the space to be alone with those you love most dearly.
Today we are very good at creating homes with privacy. The doors to our tents definitely do not open to the street for people to see inside. We build walls and barriers between ourselves and our neighbors and we are losing the sense of community so valued by our ancestors. And at the same time we are building physical walls to shut others out, we are inviting them into our private worlds through the internet, Facebook and reality television. The barriers between public domain and the private one are so blurred as to be almost indistinguishable. Even though we cannot look into each other’s homes, we have access to each other’s most intimate secrets and thoughts. So ironically, as we are creating more physical distance between one another we are dissolving the personal barriers. But it is not giving us the sense of community that our ancestors felt. It is not providing us with the balance that the Israelites managed to forge in the desert.
Researchers who have studied happiness suggest that one of the major sources of happiness and contentment is to be part of a community with shared values and goals; to be involved in something which is larger than each of us as an individual. We need to find that again, to recognize the value and importance of caring for those around us and connecting with them. And we also need to find the private space and time too, moments where we can connect with those closest to us, to have personal space and place to be. I hope that we can be like the Israelites, our tents pitched together in community but with our own privacy and special space too, so that our synagogues and homes will truly merit the blessing “How beautiful are your tents Oh Jacob, your dwelling places Oh Israel.”