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