Rabbi Eli's Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5777, Finding Ourselves At Home
Here we sit, beginning a new year and finding ourselves in a new place, literally sitting in a new home for our community. And a question comes up for me: What makes a house a home?
And I stand here, preparing myself for the coming new year, having just moved – not once, but three times, into temporary arrangements. While I am very grateful for the shelter offered me in other people's homes, I find myself reflecting on this question – what makes a house a home? Is it the people you share the space with? While that may be true, it is also true that many live alone in their own homes, so it cannot be just that. Is it familiarity and regularity – our own regular space, our own belongings, a place I simply call my own? Or is it when a house finally feels “lived in”?
I recall an old friend in my first years here in Santa Cruz, who was living like a student - though that would be an exaggeration, for he had even less than a student's budget. No matter where he moved to, though, he set up home. He was literally living in a windowless outdoor storage shed at one point. And yet, even though he knew it would be a very temporary arrangement, he fixed it up, with a cute little mailbox out front in the shape of a little house, and painted windows on the outside of his little home. It was adorable, and it was, in fact, his home.
During this time, so many songs about home have popped into my head. Like one I heard Holly Near sing many years ago. “Home is Where the Heart is... No matter how the heart lives.” Or Tom Paxton's “Home to Me is Anywhere You Are...” Or Simon and Garfunkel: “Homeward Bound, I wish I was, Homeward Bound...Home, where my thought's escaping... Home, where my music's playing... Home, where my love lies waiting, silently for me.” Many of these songs express depth and longing about home. But I also can't help singing, “Home, home on the range... where the deer and antelope play... where seldom is heard a discouraging word... and the skies are not cloudy all day.” While seemingly silly or irrelevant initially, even these words have something to teach us. “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.”
In Yiddish, the language of the parents, grandparents or great-grandparents of so many people right here in this room, there is a word that derives from the word for a home. “Haymish.” It means homey, but can refer not just to a physical home, but to an idea of warmth and homeyness. In fact, the term can even be applied to a warm and embracing person. (“Oy, such a nice haymishe person.”) And we have often heard it in reference to our Chadeish Yameinu community, even without having a home of our own.
And so I find it fascinating that, unlike English or Yiddish or so many other languages, Hebrew has no distinction between “house” and “home.” It is the same word. The distinction that we find in English and in other languages conveys such important nuance, that it both surprises me and even disturbs me that this is not found in Hebrew. You couldn't even ask the question – what makes a house a home?!?! And yet, on further reflection, this also has its own wisdom. For if a house is always a home, what does that teach us... About never letting a house NOT be a home? (Otherwise, it is just a structure, a
building). And what does it teach us about finding ourselves “at home”? Mi casa su casa, becomes not just my house is your house, but also my home is your home, or my house is your home, or as is my own situation right now, my home is in your house!
In Hebrew, this word, bayit – or beit – is exceptionally common. The apostrophe 's at the end of a restaurant's name for example, like Michael's, would be Beit Michael – House, or home, of Michael. A hospital is Beit Holim, house, or home, of those who are ill. A school is Beit Sefer, house, or home, of the book.
When I was a child in Hebrew school, I learned that there were three names for a synagogue: there is Beit Tefilah, house of prayer; Beit Midrash, house of study; and the regular form, Beit K'nesset, House of Assembly.... or, maybe, home in coming together.
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem is called Beit HaMiqdash. The House, or Home, of the Sacred. So another question comes to mind... What does it take to build a home for the Sacred? In the Book of Exodus, G-d says, “Va'asu li miqdash, v'shachanti b'tocham. Let them build me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst.” Let them build me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst. G-d dwells not in the sanctuary, but in the midst of the people as they work together for a holy purpose. (So what does it take to build a home for the sacred?)
We at Chadeish Yameinu are again in the process of building our sacred space. And while, yes, I do imagine what it would be like to have a big and beautiful synagogue building of our own, I also remember the bare-bulb shuls, the little storefront synagogues in Manhattan, and the haymishe communities transforming them into sacred spaces. And I remember that the first sanctuary the Jewish people ever built, the mishkan, the ark, was a traveling sanctuary. And that the word mishkan itself comes from the same root word as Shekhinah, the indwelling holy presence that can indeed be found everywhere.
Our sages taught that when the ancient Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah herself went into exile with the people. What a deep teaching... a reminder that wherever we go, we can find that holy presence within us. As a people, we have a long history of wandering, often having to pick up with little warning, and not knowing to where we would be going and for how long we would stay there. In the Torah itself, when our ancestors wandered in the desert for forty years, a cloud served as a sign. (Only for Jews would a cloud hanging over our heads be a sign of the holy presence!)
Called the Clouds of Glory, when the cloud lifted, it was time to move on. And when it rested, so, too, we would rest - often with little warning, and not always knowing to where we would be going and for how long we would stay. A pattern that became deeply embedded in our national and spiritual psyche, preparing us for the future to come.
Some of you may know that Chadeish Yameinu is now currently meeting for our Shabbat gatherings at the Vets Hall, downtown. Our first Shabbat there came at a time when we read the last Torah portion of the Book of Numbers, known in Hebrew as Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of the Wilderness. And the name of the final portion is Mas'ei, Journeys. It is a recitation of the 42 stages of our journey. “And they set out from Rameses and encamped at Sukkot. And they set out from Sukkot and encamped at Etham.
And they set out from Etham and encamped at Pi-haHirot. And the set out from Pi-haHirot and passed through the sea into the wilderness.” And onward through 42 places.
These place names today may not have the same impact as when they were more known and more associated with important events. But imagine that you knew the importance of what happened at each place. Or, even just an understanding of the name itself. “And they set out from Rameses / The Seat of Power and encamped at Sukkot / Shelters. And they set out from Shelters and encamped at Etham / The Edge of the Wilderness. And they set out from The Edge of the Wilderness and encamped at Pi-haHirot / The Mouth of Freedom. And they set out from The Mouth of Freedom and passed through the sea into the wilderness.
And so on. Our rabbis taught that there was a purpose to each one. A possibility of connecting with what was sacred in each place, and perhaps bringing about some tikun, some holy healing.
We could look at our own lives and perhaps see the same possibilities. For example, perhaps when you first moved to Santa Cruz, you lived on East Cliff. And then later you moved to King Street. And after that to the West Side or Aptos. In the Torah, often the places were named after something that happened in that place. Here, the places are already named. But what happened in your life in those places? Maybe East Cliff as your first home here brought for you a new start. Maybe King Street is where you moved to when your relationship broke up. Maybe the West Side was where you started living with a group of friends.
It would be interesting for each of us to reflect on the places we lived in this way. But more so, what was the tikun, the spark of healing that happened in each place. So East Cliff, your first home here, might really be about coming to a new way of looking at things. And King Street, after your break-up, may be where you began to feel free. And the West Side might be finally finding your community. In other words, these places would represent a new vision, being free and finding loving community.
In the Torah portion, the names reflected these sparks of healing. Maybe if you were to name these three homes, these three stages of your life, they might be: New Vision, Freedom's Door and Loving Community. “I moved from New Vision and settled at Freedom's Door. I moved from Freedom's Door and settled in Loving Community.” These names to others might seem random. To you, it is your life's journey. Each stage, each place, becomes an opportunity to turn what merely “happens” to us into to an uncovering of sacred possibilities.
If we at Chadeish Yameinu went through this process as a community, without being too literal on the timing of each place, it might look something like this:
We gathered in people's homes. And we moved from people's homes and gathered at the Society for the Abidance in Truth. And we moved from the Society for the Abidance in Truth and gathered at the beach. And we moved from the beach and gathered at the Legal Stenographer's Office. And we moved from the Legal Stenographer's Office and gathered at Senior Center.
And we moved from the Senior Center and gathered at the Aptos Fire Station. And we moved from the Aptos Fire Station and gathered at the Quaker Meeting House. And we moved from the Quaker Meeting House and gathered at The Garden Sanctuary. And we moved from The Garden Sanctuary and gathered at the Center for Conscious Living (which then changed its name to the Center for Spiritual Living). And we moved from the Center for Spiritual Living and gathered at First Congregational Church (which changed its name to Peace United Church). And we moved from Peace United Church and gathered at the Veterans Memorial Building. And we moved from the Veterans Memorial Building to ... the Masonic Temple Dining Hall, where find ourselves today.
Our 42 stages ... and here we are. You could say that each of these places also stand for a stage of our journey, a tikun or healing that calls to us from each place. We moved from people's homes (where we came to know each other and create community) to the Society for the Abidance in Truth (where we came to appreciate the sacred space of other traditions). We moved from the Society for the Abidance in Truth (where we came to appreciate the sacred space of other traditions) to ... place to place to place. In this same way, we moved and learned and hopefully found holy sparks and maybe did a little tikun and healing. And so we moved to the Veterans Memorial Building, a place that challenges us to help others without a home.
Indeed, our congregation's new Locations Committee renamed itself HaMaqom Committee.... HaMaqom, literally, The Place – and another ancient name for G-d, for the sacred Presence that can be found in every place.
In the mystical teachings of our tradition, the coordinates of spirituality (as our teacher Reb Zalman, z”l, called them) are said to be Olam, Shanah and Nefesh – Space, Time and Soul. The legendary teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, we build our greatest sanctuaries not as cathedrals of Olam / Space, but rather as cathedrals in Shanah / Time.
Only the Eternal is eternal, and here we find the holy. All else is impermanence – a theme we acknowledge through these High Holy Days, these Ten Days of Awe, right through Yom Kippur. The very impermanence of our lives. “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” And carrying on through Sukkot, where we acknowledge, even celebrate this impermanence, the very fragility of our homes and our existence, even as we celebrate the abundance with which we are blessed.
Perhaps this is why we as a community have been especially drawn to working with the homeless as our Tikun Olam / Social Action for the past year. Olam, Shanah and Nefesh – Space, Time and Soul. Our involvement with the Shelter Dinners is not just about dropping off food for a meal, but also sitting down to dinner with those who do not at this time have a home of their own. And in the coming year, we hope to connect with the veterans in their “home”, which is now our home downtown.
Let them build me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst. What makes a house a home? What makes our house of worship a home for the sacred? [As our friend and teacher, Lisabeth Kaplan, z”l, taught:] Where we use our arms to reach out to embrace,
and our ears to listen to another's story; where we use our eyes to see the truth of who we are, and our feet to meet someone halfway; where we open up our hearts to push through the boundaries of fear, and our hands to help; where we share our song, and build a space for all of us to gather in peace, there we find the Sacred. And there we find our home.