Keep the Home Fires Burning

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 28, 2022 / 26 Shevat 5782

Summary: This will be the last Oasis Songs column while Rabbi Kosak is away on sabbatical. Oasis Songs will return on May 6th, 2022.

Reading Time: Four minutes

This will be my last Oasis Song until I return from sabbatical. It got me thinking. There are many ways to say bon voyage to someone about to depart on a journey: Godspeed, have a good trip, an easy flight, happy landing, hasta la vista, and so on.

But what does one say to those who continue with their day-to-day affairs? Interestingly, there aren’t many options in the English language. “Keep on keeping on?” That paucity of expression is a glaring omission when you consider how rich English is, possessing a larger vocabulary than any other language. For any of us who have been left behind (and who hasn’t been left behind at some point?), we know that there are a host of emotions we can feel when someone heads off. Yes, we might feel happy for the person who is leaving. But I can also recall feeling jealous when my parents went on a wonderful river cruise while we kids stayed at home. Some might find feelings of resentment or sadness bubbling up.

The most powerful phrase in English that recognizes the experiences of those who remain comes from a popular song that was penned in World War I, “keep the home fires burning.” That song gave voice to the fears of parents who might never see their soldier return from the front line. In a period of collective purpose, the lyrics both recognized that heartbreak while encouraging the civilian population to see themselves as part of the cause of freedom. The song struck a nerve. By February of 1916 over a million copies of the sheet music had been sold. In those days, sheet music was what made a song into a best-seller.

Let’s expand on that. A best-selling song was not based on the performance of the composer or popular figure; rather, what gave the melody legs was how countless people would learn how to play and sing the song themselves. In 1916, the “parlor” was still an important room in a home where friends and families would gather to sing together. Art wasn’t outsourced to the professionals but was a communal endeavor. There is something rather profound in that. Karaoke and houses of worship remain the last places where people routinely sing together.

Last week, a group of us concluded “How Jews Read the Bible—A Sermon Writing Class.” Together we learned the close reading techniques of some of our greatest commentators, from Rashi and Ibn Ezra up to more contemporary scholars like Nehama Leibowitz. As part of crystallizing this book knowledge, students committed to writing a sermon of their own that employed these techniques. While I am gone, there will be opportunities to hear from many different congregants during our Shabbat services. Let me add that many of the already completed talks are quite powerful and interesting. Information on who is speaking will go out in the synagogue communication. I hope that you will gather in our synagogue “parlor,” either in person or virtually, to support and learn from our fellow congregants.

The composer of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” was a Welshman, Ivor Novello. While I don’t know what inspired that choice of image, we don’t have to go far to find a Biblical source. In two weeks, the Torah selection will be parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10). The reading opens with the commandment for the ner tamid, the “eternal lamp” that burns constantly in synagogues all over the world. Could there be a more concrete example of keeping the home fires burning?

The symbolism of the ner tamid is as profound as it is simple. We all need to keep the flame of Torah alive. Elaborating on this concept, a 19th century Polish rabbi, the Sefat Emet, stated that it “is asked of each of us to preserve our internal sense of spirituality” (Sefat Emet on parshat Tetzaveh). Each of us is asked to keep the faith. I encourage you to pick up a Jewish book or two to read during these winter months.

As I prepare for this personal shemitah, this lying fallow to recharge, I know the synagogue is in good hands—and not just because we have a capable clergy team and professional staff! What makes my going forth easier is the knowledge that each of us will keep our own flame going. Sometimes the flames may die down to a coal and need some tending, but the spark remains. Because it does, Hebrew has never struggled with an answer to bon voyage. Instead, we are reminded, “barukh atah b’vo’ekha, u’varukh atah b’tzeitekha.” We are blessed in our comings and in our goings. I will look forward to hearing about the blessings you received when I return.


Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When did you first leave others behind? Was it summer camp? A gap year? Heading off to college? What was that experience like for you?
  2. When did you first learn about or see a ner tamid? Do you recall how you felt?
  3. Which of your passions needs tending to currently, and which is providing you warmth and light?

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