Simcha l’Adam b’sha’ah she’hu dar betoch shelo – It is a joy to live in one’s own home.
This text from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 2:4, says it all. That doesn’t mean however, that we cannot say more about it.
Home. A word dripping with rich, nostalgic meaning. We have plenty of English sayings to designate the place of ‘home’ in our culture: ‘home is where the heart is’ and ‘charity begins at home’. Our tradition too, is filled with verses that speak highly of domestic life. The 31st chapter of the Book of Proverbs comes to mind – ‘Eishet Chayil’, ‘A Woman of Valor’, traditionally sung at the Sabbath table. A particularly contemplative verse is from Proverbs: ‘by wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures’ (Proverbs 24:3-1).
It is not surprising that a people who have endured exile upon exile, have a Prophetic tradition that speaks tenderly of the home. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. (Is. 32:18)
There’s a polarity between the Jewish conceptualization of ‘home’ that is both rooted and dynamic. The Rabbis spoke lovingly and daringly of the Mishkan Me’at, the Small Sanctuary, of the home. It is noteworthy that they chose the metaphor of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, when referencing the Beit haMikdash, the Temple. One of the great rabbinic innovations was to transfer the sacred cult of the destroyed Temple to the Jewish home. I am theorizing that their choosing of the word Mishkan over Beit haMikdash was intentional, perhaps to signify that sanctity and intentionally is not static; is not captured in silver and gold, wood and stone, but rather in the ability to create and recreate Home wherever we go. Home is about the values we espouse and the culture we build, not the buildings in which we dwell. Perhaps the Torah herself is wary of such a fixed, and dare I say, petite bourgeois notion of domesticity, warning us against the arrogance of prosperity and the idolatry of possession.
We see this polarity play out beautifully in Parashat Behar, this week’s portion. Behar opens with some of the most stunning verses in the Torah, verses that have made it onto the Liberty Bell: ‘freedom shall you proclaim throughout the land’. The verses surrounding that famous clarion call, however, speak extensively on the idea of home in the form of Shmitah, the Sabbatical Year.
In an almost-completely agrarian Israelite economy, the exhortations concerning the land and its produce aren’t just idealized romanticism but lived reality. Apart from letting land lie fallow being a sensible agricultural practice, there is a deeper mechanism at work. All creatures, even the land itself, is entitled to rest. Kal v’chomer, all the more so, the people – those who were free and those enslaved – who worked it.
V’haitah Shabat ha’aretz lachem, le’ochlah lecha ul’avd’cha v’la’amatecha v’lis’chir’cha ul’toshav’cha hagerim imach – And the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you (Lev. 25:6).
Try to imagine that economy. Rashi does: he states that no-one make claim ownership over the Shmitah produce but that everyone may benefit from it. It is a time for celebrating abundance and egalitarian relationships, even with those enslaved or considered outside the Israelite polity (non-Jews). It is hard to appreciate the gentle radicalism at the heart of the verse, the space for dreams and love that dwells between the black letters. Truly, this is a version of ‘home’ that we can cherish. Home being the place where we can be our truest selves; where judgment and hierarchy falls away, where social ambition is replaced by genuine concern and affection.
We know, of course, that Behar’s message doesn’t end here. In the next verse, we amplify the message of the Shmitah year with that of the Yovel (Jubilee) year. Seven times seven, on the fiftieth year, all debts go into remission and all holdings are returned. It is in this context that the Torah commands us:
v’kidashtem et shnat ha’chamishim shanah u’kratem d’ror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveiah yovel hi, tehiyeh lachem v’shaftem ish el achuzato v’ish el mishpachto teshvu… – And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.
We are home and yet we return home. This is the beautiful dynamism in the Jewish concept of home. ‘You are resident aliens with Me’, God proclaims only a few verses on. Home is about rootedness and restfulness, but also about wandering, journeying and return. Home is carried in the sanctuary of our heart, regardless of where our exile leads, just like the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, carries all of us in Her heart during Her exile. And every seven years, we get to press the reset button: evaluate our priorities, loosen the self-imposed restrictions that deny our souls oxygen. Every fifty years, we get to wipe the slate clean and reinvigorate the loving bonds between generations, not constrained by ownership, possession or social status. For it is in freedom that we find our truest home.
And now, I want to make this sermon a little more personal.
Jon and Susan, this is your Yovel, Jubilee, year. This is your chance to reinvigorate those loving bonds, to re-evaluate what matters most to the home in your heart. You came to Iowa City exactly fifty years ago, in 1959. For fifty years, you were part of the Agudas Achim family, bringing to us your unique gifts and spirit. For fifty years you found a home among us and provided a home for so many others – myself included.
I will never forget when I came to Iowa City for my interview week. It was January 2016, and zero degrees Fahrenheit. I’d never experienced anything like it! We came from the airport after a gruelling 16 hour, three-transfer intercontinental flight. Our daughter was still a baby and we struggled to get the car seat in the car as the cold bit into our skin. Yet, you welcomed me beside you in that warm car and despite the exhaustion and the healthy dose of nerves that comes with an interview process, I knew that we had found a little piece of home with you.
We kept in touch for the 18 months that would follow before we could relocate. Your kind emails made us feel at home and awakened us to the possibility of home despite the uncertain visa process. With every email, you affirmed: we are here for you. I cannot express how much those little notes from members in the community meant to us. And when we came, in that beautiful Midwestern September, in 2017, the congregation was there to welcome us ‘home’. And home it has become – including your piano that now graces our home, with our framed family photos on top. Home to me will always be the gentle hugs Jon gives me after services where he always gives a thoughtful comment on my sermon. Home will always be Susan’s tachlis wisdom and advice. Home is where our kids would come and play with the toys of your grandchildren.
If I, after a mere two years, already feel so much bitter-sweetness over your departure, I cannot imagine how it is for our fellow congregants who have journeyed with you for decades. What it is like for our Emeritus Rabbi, who will offer his own words. As we prepare to honor, celebrate and bid farewell, let us find comfort in the words of our tradition, in the knowledge that ‘home’ is not any one fixed place, but Iowa and Baltimore, the past, present and future, in the intensely Jewish values of chesed, lovingkindness and limmud, transformational learning, that you have gifted us with.
I want to close with a last verse. ‘As for me and my House, we shall serve the Eternal’, Joshua proclaims. (Joshua 24:15). In your own gentle way, you have done exactly that. You’ve served our communal home, the synagogue. You have built up a beautiful, strong, thoughtful, compassionate Jewish family. The generations that succeed you are your legacy. Your Yiddishkeit and your openheartedness have been exemplary. And you’ve made this foreign-born Rabbi and her husband feel right at home.
By wisdom a house is built. May you be blessed to rebuild your house with only goodness, truth and beauty in this next journey. May your Yovel bring you a fresh, new perspective, a new chance, open a new chapter. Just know, we will be here, always, for your visits and return. May all of us find the joy of home, be blessed with the power of building and coming home – in our hearts and through the bonds between us.