For the past four years my wife and I had the privilege of working as the OU-JLIC rabbinic couple at Princeton University. There were many fun and exciting elements to our job, but our favorite aspect by far was hosting Shabbat meals. Planning for the meals generally started on Tuesday or Wednesday. We would sit down and go over our notes to figure out who to invite. This was more complicated than it may sound. We tried to invite every student from the Jewish community at least once a semester. We tried to make sure that students felt comfortable at the meals and would be able to enjoy a meal with their friends. We didn’t want a graduating senior stuck at a meal with first year students, nor did we want to forget anybody. At some point we even had a student write a computer program that helped us figure out who we should invite next!
Next came the shopping. Every week was like shopping for Thanksgiving. We tried to host between 10-20 students every weekend and would prepare all of the food ourselves. Invariably, when I would reach the checkout aisle at our local ShopRite somebody would roll their eyes at me and maneuver their cart so they would not get stuck behind the guy with the overflowing shopping cart. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed the opportunity to cook and prepare home-made meals for students who did not have their own kitchens. By the end of our time at Princeton we were proud of our ability to prepare a Shabbat dinner for fifteen guests in just under three hours.
The best part, however, was when the students would arrive. “When are our friends coming over for Shabbat?” our son would ask excitedly every week starting on Tuesday. Some of our best and most meaningful memories from our time at Princeton were around our Shabbat table. Shabbat and holiday meals were an opportunity to create friendships, forge community and explore new ideas. We would sometimes have specific questions that we wanted the students to talk about, but frequently we let the conversations meander. In four years on campus we calculated that we served thousands of individual meals to hundreds of students. When we left campus last May, many of the students no longer felt like guests but more like old friends. They would help cut the salads, wash dishes and play with our children. The students became part of our home.
This was also one of the things that we knew we would miss the most when moving to Senegal. Community and Shabbat meals was such an integral part of our family life, what would we do without them? This was hardest for us for the few months that we stayed in Princeton after graduation. Our son, who was too young to realize that students had left campus, would continue to ask us, “When are our friends coming over?” It broke our hearts to remind him that we were leaving, and they would not be coming over to our home in Princeton anymore.
Amazingly, on our second Shabbat here in Dakar we were not only ready to host a Shabbat meal, but we found three Jewish guests – two of them recent Princeton alumni – to come over for Shabbat dinner. Since then we have hosted Shabbat meals almost every weekend here. Many of our guests have been Jews that we have met in Dakar, and others have been wonderful non-Jewish neighbors, some of whom have never had a Shabbat meal before. Nevertheless, Shabbat meals and our dining room table remain the foundation of our ability to create community and friendships here. While our lives are so radically different than they were when we were living in Central Jersey, in some ways the consistency of Shabbat and having guests every week has made it feel the same. Our son still asks us which friends are coming over every week, but now instead of college students we are hosting our new friends here in Senegal.
Creating community around food and shared meals is of course central to many religious traditions and cultures. Here in Dakar meals are shared out of a large serving tray. At lunch time, especially on Friday afternoons, you can see people taking a break from their work to share meals with their friends and co-workers. The most interesting example of this is seeing laborers huddle around a tray, everyone with their own spoon, sharing a Senegalese lamb and rice dish, laughing and eating out of their shared platter.
In Judaism, there is also of course great religious significance to sharing meals, the kitchen and the home. I have always been fascinated by this week’s parsha for that reason. In this week’s Torah portion God instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people, “Make me a Sanctuary so that I can dwell amongst them.” (Exodus 25:8). I have always been intrigued by the fact that the sanctuary that God commands to build really resembles a kitchen and a dining room. It has in it a beautiful menorah to give light, a table with bread on it, a basin of water for washing hands, an area with nice smelling spices, and an area to prepare and sacrifice the meat. What does it mean for God to reside amongst us? And why specifically does he need a sanctuary that resembles a glorified kitchen?
While there are many ways of thinking about this, I think that the Torah is teaching us something very important about our own homes. When we eat, prepare food and share meals with friends and family, we are not just creating community, we are creating our own versions of the Temple in our homes. Meals and shared food can both create community and also invite God into our lives and homes. I think that this is best exemplified in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:3) where Rabbi Shimon taught: “Three people who have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at God’s table.”
In another formulation of this idea Rabbi Yoḥanan and Rabbi Elazar, both rabbis who lived through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, taught: “As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for their transgressions.” (Berachot 55a). This is a truly radical statement. Our tables and our homes have replaced the Temple in Jerusalem. How can this be true? I think it speaks to the lesson that my wife and I learned as a campus Rabbinic couple in Princeton. Hosting people in your home can be a truly transformative, holy experience. It is an opportunity to create community, friendships and relationships, as well as an opportunity to create space for God in our lives. God commanded us to build a sanctuary so that God can reside amongst us. Every one of us can do that simply by opening our homes to guests and sharing with them a Shabbat meal.