Going Home

Friday, July 6, 2018 / 23 Tammuz 5778

Summary: As Rabbi Kosak prepares to head to Israel on a rabbinic mission, he reflects on the meaning of home–in our society, in Biblical and Talmudic times, and in Israel today.

Home. There’s so much power in that single word. Even in an age where opportunity seems out of reach for many, the American dream remains strong. It may no longer be a white picket fence, but for a vast majority of folks, getting a place of one’s own is still a compelling desire. It’s a primeval impulse, really.

Few of us will ever forget the first apartment or living arrangement we managed on our own as young adults. Finding that shelter was a major accomplishment. If you hang out with people suffering from dementia, tales of those early homes will inevitably bubble up. That’s a memory which is reluctant to fade. We managed to keep my maternal grandmother in her home till the end. Excruciatingly, while her memory of home remained strong, she couldn’t recognize where she currently was as that same place she recalled.

A month or two back, I was cleaning our pergola, the one where we build our sukkah, our tabernacle, in the autumn. There under the eaves was a substantial bird’s nest, causing havoc. I climbed up and examined it. It seemed abandoned. A couple of days later when it was clear no one still lived there, I took it down. I guess I would have absorbed the property damage and staining if it had still been occupied, but who knows?

Most of us grew up somewhere. A few of us–perhaps military children, perhaps a global refugee, got pulled to a new location periodically in a manner beyond their control and lack a place they can call their own. But we don’t need to travel so far. Interacting with the homeless population of Portland when we bring “soup to the streets,” I’ve learned how many different forces land someone in a blanket or tent. Abusive family or partner, addiction, mental illness or cognitive impairment, impossible housing costs–those are the main reasons of homelessness in our city. Only twice, though, have I encountered the rarest breed–an ancient nomadic soul who refuses to shift their nature to mesh well with society’s demands. They live outdoors because, well, their wanderlust is as deep in the bones as most peoples’ wish for a home.

Home in the Torah

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) describes issues of homecoming, displacement, and the struggle to build social systems that provide a home and are just to all concerned. This is enumerated by a census of tribal units.

לָאֵ֗לֶּה תֵּחָלֵ֥ק הָאָ֛רֶץ בְּנַחֲלָ֖ה בְּמִסְפַּ֥ר שֵׁמֽוֹת׃ לָרַ֗ב תַּרְבֶּה֙ נַחֲלָת֔וֹ וְלַמְעַ֕ט תַּמְעִ֖יט נַחֲלָת֑וֹ אִ֚ישׁ לְפִ֣י פְקֻדָ֔יו יֻתַּ֖ן נַחֲלָתֽוֹ׃ אַךְ־בְּגוֹרָ֕ל יֵחָלֵ֖ק אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ לִשְׁמ֥וֹת מַטּוֹת־אֲבֹתָ֖ם יִנְחָֽלוּ׃

“Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment. The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made according to the listings of their ancestral tribes. Each portion shall be assigned by lot, whether for larger or smaller groups.”

Land in Biblical Israel, in other words, is held in a perpetual trust, and the trustee is the tribe, not the individual. The location of those tribal holdings, however, was determined in a randomized manner–by lot. That way, presumably, no tribe could claim that another one unfairly received higher valued land.

While the notion of group ownership of land was rational and just for a tribal society, it could create injustice for individuals who didn’t fit within the normal structures of society. We see this in the episode of the daughters of Tzelophehad, who approach Moses after their father died. His death meant that they would not receive a landholding, since within a tribe, land was assigned through the patriarch.

Moses is unsure of the correct response. After all, he exists within a tribal framework yet is being asked to adjudicate a case that lacked legal precedent. In one of several instances that demonstrate his humility, Moses approaches God for clarification rather than winging an answer. God in turn extends case-specific property rights to women. Women who have no male next-of-kin may inherit land, but they are restricted to marry within their tribe. Otherwise the original and fair distribution of land by tribal size would be upset. Justice would tilt toward the individual while harming the group.

By the time of the Talmud, however, the tribal system has dissolved, and a form of land ownership that is equitable to individuals is required. This, of course, is much more palatable to our own conceptions of fairness. After all, we tend to locate the moral center on the individual and less on groups, though there are exceptions (affirmative action and other quotas for example). Regardless, sometime after the 2nd century CE, women gain an unrestricted right to own property in Judaism.

Israel and Home

Any Jewish discussion of home ought to consider Israel. It is our historical homeland. Throughout our history, any group which severed its attachment to our national identity and our land of origin has faded from the both the stage of history and from Jewish significance. It is Jewish peoplehood, not religion, which has been the stickiest connector and kept us united through the ups and downs of history.

Yet ours is a particularly charged time. Jews recognize that two peoples have laid claim to the land, and that the status quo brings suffering to both Palestinian and Israeli alike. How to move past this paralysis divides American Jews in ways that threaten to untether the historic link between Jew and Israel. Ours is the age of polarization after all. I have Muslim friends who believe that this corrosion will benefit the Palestinian cause, imagining it will erode support for Israel here in America.

I read things differently. Should that connection wither more, I worry that it will result in greater intransigence on both the Israeli and Palestinian side and thus spell disaster for the Palestinians. Israeli extremists who feel abandoned by their American compatriots will only be emboldened to maintain the current situation. Additionally, as American Jews lose interest in Israel, their perception of the country will grow even more hazy than it currently is. As a result, Israelis will have less interest in listening to a Jewish community that doesn’t understand it. Does anyone want to accept advice from those who don’t see them as they are?

This weekend, after Shabbat, I will be traveling on a rabbinic mission to Israel and will return on July 20th. We will be meeting Palestinian and Israeli leaders as we deepen our own understanding of what home means to each population. I look forward to sharing my insights, experiences and perspectives with you as I return to my soul’s home after a three year absence.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What does home mean to you? What is your ideal sense of home?
  2. To what degree does your current home fulfill those ideals? What is missing?
  3. Consider sharing stories influenced by your different homes. Very often, we tell these sorts of stories to a significant other in early days. There is value in returning to some of these formative events.

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