When I open the front door of my house to let you in, after you've kissed the mezuzah, the first thing you see is the dining room table. When we rebuilt our home, to maximize space there are no hallways downstairs. Every room is an offshoot of the dining room, and so to get anywhere, you are constantly walking around the dining room table, like a revolving door. Before the renewable bamboo floor was finished, we sketched a giant circle on the floor of the dining room and put chairs around it. Everything was built around that circle.
For me it had to be a circle. My mother told me that her whole life changed when she switched to a circular dining room table, and I can't count the number of parties that were thrown there, every guest at the head of the table.
My table is a circle within a circle,
as it has a great Lazy Susan in the middle. Sometimes, at its best, the Lazy Susan is loaded with warm serving bowls, and sometimes on Shabbat, the table is circled with guests, reaching their hands inward, whirling the Lazy Susan, and it feels wonderful and Jewish, like we are dancing a happy culinary hora.
It is believed that when the ancient Temple was destroyed, the holiness contained within its walls was dispersed on the backs of the exiles. Each home suddenly became a sanctuary, every table became an altar, and the words spoken around it, sacred offerings.
Whenever I officiate a wedding, I say a blessing over all the couple's future tables, so many words pass between us at the table, tales of our days, stories, silences.
"May all your tables be altars to your love," I say. "May your hearts swell with gratitude for each other's companionship, and as you find nourishment for your body at your table, may you find elation for your soul in each other."
I love coming home, opening my door, and being greeted by this table, the heart of our home, thinking about the Sabbaths that have been enjoyed here, the people who have become acquainted around this table.
There is an Ashkenazi custom "of the Middle Ages that involved building one's coffin from the wood of the dining room table. Jews of that time believed that the way they behaved around their table--the manner in which they invited people to partake of their hospitality and their generosity--could be carried to the next life through the wood in the dinner table. The wood contained the spirit of their good deeds and the love of their friends, family, and neighbors."
At its best, the table represents all these happy things. The truth is, however, that most days, the table looks more like this.
As much as I try to keep my stuff, and get everyone else to keep their stuff, off the dining room table, even to the point of buying lockers for everyone by the front door, still, the kids throw their backpacks and lunchboxes, books, accumulated papers and bills, someone set up a Littlest Pet Shop display, and then there are the cats.
Rabbi Deborah Glantzberg wrote, "Jewish homes are many things: places of celebration, education, comfort, and sustenance. But we would be remiss to mythologize the Jewish home, or to suggest that all spaces that Jews inhabit are characterized by an atmosphere of joy or security. Our kitchens are full of delicious food, but we also have daughters who starve themselves, or struggle with other kinds of disordered eating. Our dining rooms host celebratory meals that flow with wine while some of our uncles fight substance abuse in secret, ashamed to bring their truths to the table...Our bedrooms are places of powerful intimacy but also sites of physical and emotional abuse."
Our homes are not perfect. All of our homes are filled with joys, sorrows and private afflictions.
Every year on Passover, however, in my home, we kasher our kitchen, packing everything away. Everything is scrubbed, and before we begin unwrapping all the Pesach dishes and cookware which has been stored in the garage all these months, we boil a big pot of water, and carefully ladle the boiling water over all the surfaces used for cooking or eating. The last surface I kasher is the dining room table. I clear off all the clutter, and ladle the boiling water, watching it slide across the surface,
spilling over the sides, and as it does, I imagine it not only cleaning, but restoring the table, and all it represents - our hopes and intentions to have a home that is open and inviting and filled with love, love that outshines the clutter and chaos - restoring not only the table, but me. In many ways, even more than the fasting on Yom Kippur, this simple Jewish act of koshering surfaces with boiling water, sopping it up with a fresh towel, reminds me of my resolutions, and inspires and emboldens me to strive anew toward becoming the person I want to be.