Think about your favorite room. It might be from where you lived growing up. It might be a nook in your current apartment. It might be your front porch. Walk through it in your mind. What is it about this spaces that resonates with you? What does this space tell you and the world about who you are? What does this space encourage you to be?
In 1973, the scholar Fred Steele helped the world understand that physical settings and behavior were strongly linked. His work has become particularly important to educators as they think about what type of environment they want to create for their students in the classroom. Steele wrote that there are six basic functions to physical settings: security and shelter, social contact, symbolic identification, task instrumentality, pleasure, and growth.
It is with this insight in mind that we can unlock multiple layers of significance to one of the mitzvot found in this week’s Torah reading, parshat ki tetze. In Deuteronomy 22:8 the Torah instructs us, “When you build a new house, you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” With this commandment, the Torah reminds us that we need to be intentional about the structures we build, in the very least about their “security and shelter” aspects.
Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai (18th C. Israel and Italy, known as the HIDA) in his work, homat anakh, comments on this passage and introduces a psychological dimension. “When you engage in repentance and build up the houses of your soul that you had once torn down, ‘make a railing’, for the main factor in repentance is to make a boundary and fence so you do not arrive at that which is prohibited”. While the HIDA ‘s psychological comment is clearly addressing the verse in question metaphorically, Steele’s work helps us understand that he is simultaneously talking about something like the “growth” function of the literal, physical space. Considered in this way, we see that it is precisely through something like creating an exterior railing that one can also do the internal work of creating healthy boundaries.
The summer’s departure has begun, the occasional cool breeze announces the coming of Fall. Many of us are beginning to change the environment of our homes in anticipation of the changing season. And of course, the Jewish High Holidays are right around the corner. This is an ideal time to consider the spaces we inhabit. How can we design them with intention for the various layers of our being like shelter, symbolism and growth? Can we make certain books more accessible? Tuck away televisions? Perhaps we can place inspirational quotes or art in places we cannot ignore or pictures of people we need to call more on our desks.
Whatever it looks like for each us, let’s build up our rooms as environments that support the greater aspirations of our lives. In the end, our rooms and physical spaces give us a view into who we are at this moment and into the possibilities of who we can become.