For all can see that wise men die, that the foolish and senseless all perish and leave their wealth to others. They think their houses will remain forever; their dwellings for all generations; they give their names to their estates. But man, despite his splendor, does not endure. [Psalm 49]
Derek Penwell wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “What if the Kids Don’t Want our Church” and it cuts to a question that every generations asks each other; “Will our children really care about the things we value most?” it is a hard question. I look at the things my wife, Michelle and I have collected over the years and to almost all of it we have meaning and memories attached to it. We must only remember that these meanings and memories are our own, and our stuff may not have the same meaning or memory to our children who are now finding meaning and memory in their own lives. I admit to a certain curiosity of what things my children may want from the stuff we have collected and when, someday, I have grandchildren, I know that they will have their own memories of stuff they played with and saw at their grandparent’s house and perhaps our grandchildren may keep some of our stuff for their own reasons.
But there are things that I am sure my children will keep for as long as they are alive. They will keep our insistence on honesty. They will treasure our lessons on kindness. They will remember for a long time the lessons we tried to teach them about life and they will bring their own interpretations of our practical wisdom to meet whatever new situations in which they may someday find themselves.
We fool ourselves when we believe that the stuff we accumulate will live on after we are gone. The symbolic meaning we attach to it is very personal and perishable. The late Rabbi Jacob Chiel in one of his books tells a story of a mother who valued her stuff over her children, banishing them from the living room lest they break her valuable treasures. Now her daughter is sitting in the house while her mother is dying at the hospital and she looks around at all the stuff that her mother worked so hard to preserve and it has no meaning for the daughter at all. In fact, she has learned to despise all the things her mother scolded her to not touch all the years she was growing up and again when the grandchildren came over. Now, at the end, the stuff her mother had ‘saved’ was all “for nothing.”
This applies to our homes, and it applies to our churches and synagogues. What good are all the things we leave behind if we don’t leave behind memories, ideas and lessons for living? The next generations will not care about stained glass windows or who donated them if they never did anything worthwhile in their shadow. Why should they care about a building if nothing of substance was ever done inside?
I have said many times in my own sermons and on this blog, it is not about the stuff, it is about the relationships. We treasure the people we love and the meaningful activities that make a difference in the world. Rabbi Akiva once said to the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon that he had a good investment if Tarfon was willing to put some money in. Tarfon agreed and Akiva then gave all the money for scholarships for students. Later Rabbi Tarfon asked about the investments and when he might see the return on the investment. Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon to the academy and showed him the students who were learning there. “Here is the return on your investment”, Akiva said. Rabbi Tarfon had to admit that his investment in Torah learning would pay important dividends even if it did not put more money in his pocket.
Our children don’t need our buildings, our architecture or our pews. They need to know about our faith, our acts of Hesed (kindness) and the important lessons of our religion. These they will carry no matter where they may go and no matter what they may do, and they will treasure in their own hearts and in their own way these moral values no matter if the buildings we build will survive or not. The most important part of the building is what the people are doing inside.
It is interesting to see what happens to a building over the generations, the transitions it goes through and the transformation of its neighborhood. Israeli archeologists have uncovered some extraordinary ancient synagogues and a great many dedication inscriptions that are an important part of Jewish history. These synagogues were all lost and forgotten. The faith practiced in those buildings, however, has remained eternal though the buildings have not. Our ancient faith is still being taught, not in the old ruins but in new places. It would be a real tragedy if our children don’t find their own love of the values and lessons of faith they learned in our synagogues and churches. Our stuff comes and goes but the lessons of life are eternal. Our buildings and our “stuff” are only as important as the relationships to God that are forged inside.