As a college student at the University of Michigan, some of my best memories were in the Big House. (The “Big House” is the nickname of Michigan Stadium.) Saturdays in the fall in Ann Arbor are an experience like none other. There is an electric energy around the city, and deep-rooted traditions abound. As a college freshman, I received a single ticket in the end zone about 50 rows up. I sat with a group of fans who had become family with one another, as they’d had the same seats for nearly three decades. This was “their house.” The stadium, while regularly the largest live crowd watching a college football game on a given Sunday, felt homey and familiar. It certainly is the “Big House” as it united each of us as Wolverines for those four quarters of play, unless you were rooting for the other team, in which case . . . boo!
With an attendance capacity of more than 100,000, it’s easy to see why it was nicknamed the “Big House,” but it always led me to wonder if this “house” was also a home. At what point does a house become a home? Is it enough to be a gathering place? Does one need to feel a connection to it? Is there some uniting cause that represents the house? While I certainly never slept in the Big House, I do still count it as one of the many homes in my life.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are first asked to consider what makes a house. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.
As this parshah begins, we read the verse “Go, take yourself, from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I’m struck by the notion of the specifics in saying “from your father’s house.” Of course in the ancient world, people were identified as coming from this family or that family. And since families generally lived together, it would make sense to specify “from your father’s house.” But why from the “house” instead of simply “from your father” or “from your father and mother”? Later, we see the word bayt (house) used to talk about places of study, like “the house of Hillel” and the “house of Shammai.” What does it mean to use “house” as your identifier?
In recent years there’s been a shift in how we identify ourselves and others. For example, we’re normalizing the use of identifying pronouns like she/her or they/them on name tags and Zoom IDs. However, Hebrew is a gendered language, and as such, it makes it much harder to move into a non-binary identity system. One prominent example comes from when we use our full Hebrew names. The traditional formula is your name, then son or daughter of your parents’ names. We use this on Jewish legal documents for weddings, and we use it when we’re called to the Torah for an aliyah. But, what happens when something other than that binary distinction is preferred?
One way we’ve addressed this is by starting to use mi-bayt, which means “from the house of,” in place of “son of” or “daughter of.” What makes this an appropriate fix? For one, it goes back to the Torah; we are all from the house of Abraham and Sarah in one way or another. Also, your “house” is the one of your choosing. It can be the house or family you grew up in, or the house you’ve made with your own family. It can even signify a global house (a “big house,” if you will). Mi-bayt olam means “from the house of the world,” and that certainly applies to all of us.
What you consider a home or house may look different from everyone else’s. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we all come from somewhere, whether your “somewhere” is a specific block in a suburb or the whole planet, but even more important is the somewhere you make for yourself.