This past weekend I performed a wedding at the most amazing mansion I’ve ever seen. From the very top of Malibu I saw the mountains and rolling hills and the mists upon the sea. The wedding ceremony itself was on the house’s helipad – because Malibu. This being Los Angeles, I heard that movies had been filmed there. I’m not going to lie, it was stunning.
The wedding couple was so much fun to be with, and their family and friends were just lovely. But this wasn’t their house. They were renting the place for the wedding and the owners were nowhere to be seen. Here is where it gets weird. The owners don’t live there at all. There are no books on the shelves or photos on the wall. The rooms have furniture to sit on, beds to look at, but no one lives there.
And it gets stranger.
The owners insisted that none of the guests could use the bathrooms in mansion. The wedding couple had to rent (fancy) portable bathrooms and park them on the driveway. You spend all that money renting the place, bringing in tables and chairs and food, at a $60 million mansion, but you can’t use the bathroom? Weird.
It got me thinking about something much greater. Here is one of the most beautiful places on earth, celebrating life’s most beautiful gift to the soul – love – and we’re reminded again and again that we as guests we are suspects.
We didn’t belong there. That place is not for us. It’s not for the owners either. It’s an empty house behind a gate and up a mountain – accessible by helicopter. It’s not for anyone.
When it comes to religion, we sometimes have the same thing – a mansion-mentality. Where the sacred is made special by keeping others out. Where we say “This is for me and not for you.” The mansion-mentality of religion erects barriers to the soul just so someone can say it’s special.
To be clear, there are some necessary borders. This is true of anything we do. There are people who are in our family and people who are not. Soccer players play by one set of rules and hockey players by another. Without some spiritual chalk lines there would be no telling what something truly is. The rabbis teach us this idea by saying, “Build a fence around the Torah’ (Pirkei Avot 1:1).
But, I have met so many people who are in search of God and ended up on the wrong side of the fence. They don’t feel welcomed in synagogue or they are told that they were not Jewish enough to be part of the community. I have met some of the most spiritual people who are seeking to live fully in the light of Torah but feel judged because they can’t read Hebrew or don’t understand the service or don’t keep Shabbat the way I do. I have met the meek and the humble looking for a meal and are told to leave. This leads to so many questions – if we build a palace so exclusive could it be that it ends up like mansion on the mountain? A place behind a fence. A place where no one lives, not even the owners. An empty house.
The Torah has fences. All fences need gates. We need to open the gates.
What gives me hope is this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar. As we start the Book of Numbers in our weekly reading we are ready to leave the shadow of Mt. Sinai and head into the wilderness. This next book of the Bible opens with the verse “God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai from the Tent of Meeting..” (Num. 1:1). What makes this verse unique in the whole of the Torah is that God’s Presence is now on the move. No longer is God on the Mountain surrounded by smoke and fire. God comes down off the mountain to join the people as they journey.
The Midrash compares God’s move off the mountain to that of a prince who goes out into the countryside and comes to the city. At first the people fear the prince and run from him. Seeking a home among the people, the prince travels from city to city. Finally he comes to a city where the prince is welcomed with singing and open arms. “Here,” says the prince, “is where I will build my palace.” (Bamidbar Rabba 1:2)
God’s mansion is not on the mountain. God’s mansion is in the wilderness. It is among the people.
God hops the fence. God opens the gate. God is looking for you.
Judaism teaches that God wants to build a mansion that used by all. It’s the opposite of the mansion-mentality. Torah, God’s blueprint for our lives, belongs to everyone. We take it out of the ark, we pass it among the people to hold, to cherish, to kiss. The Torah is, as the rabbis teach, “free to all the world” (Tanchuma Bamidbar 6:1) “My House is a House of Prayer for All People.” (Isaiah 56:7)
There should be no unnecessary barriers to your encounter with God. Judaism shows us that God is willing to hop the fence and come off the mountain to be with you. All that God asks is that you open the gates of your own heart to begin your sacred journey together.
Religion is at its best when it reaches into the heart and unleashes what is fully human in each of us. Unlike the mansion-mentality that shows us what is special is what is exclusive, the God of the Bible wants to be with you and invite you into an encounter that can change everything.