Torah Imparts Timeless Message That There’s Truly No Place Like Home

As Perry Como crooned so beautifully, there’s no place like home for the holidays. He might not have had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in mind, but the sentiment still resonates as we head into the High Holiday season.

Parashat Ki Tavo
As Perry Como crooned so beautifully, there’s no place like home for the holidays. He might not have had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in mind, but the sentiment still resonates as we head into the High Holiday season.
Defining and relating to “home,” however, is more complicated than a song lyric.
Living in Spain and writing of the land of Israel, the medieval poet Yehudah Halevi displayed the tension between where we’re from and where we belong when he pined, “My heart is in the east, and I am at the end of the west.” More recently, Alan Jacobs reflected on his current residence in Chicago and his visits to family in Alabama, where he grew up, and “realized that we were always describing the place we weren’t as home.” In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz challenges common perceptions of what the American home looked like in the past, and exposes much of it as misplaced nostalgia that doesn’t match historical reality.
For these authors, home can be somewhere you’ve never been, somewhere always elsewhere, or somewhere that never existed.
We currently find ourselves in the final book of the Torah toward the conclusion of the long journey from one home, albeit a home rooted in subservience and slavery, to the cusp of entry to a new home in the Promised Land. Upon arrival, we are told, additional obligations will come into force, binding the Jewish people to the land of Israel and setting clear expectations of how to build a permanent society rooted in longer-term relationships with one place.
Among these obligations is delivering the first produce of the annual harvest to the priests at the temple in an act of gratitude. After the Israelites have come to “the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it,” an individual must bring these first fruits, proclaiming aloud that “I have entered the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deuteronomy 26:3).
The presenter continues: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt … and sojourned there … The Lord freed us from Egypt … and … brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:5-10).
This ritual reveals a deep connection and commitment to where one lives. Tending fruit trees long enough to grow, harvest and offer up their yield is predicated on a more settled idea of home. In contrast to decades of wandering, the text assumes staying in one location and grounding home in a geographic site, not in the people with whom one is wandering or in the items one carries.
Moreover, the juxtaposition of our unnamed ancestor’s refugee status and Egyptian slavery with an established, permanent residence hardly seems accidental. According to the prescribed text, the declarant recalls a time in our people’s history when home was elusive or oppressive, accentuating the difference between a fragile and nomadic past and a present shaped by relative security and stability.
In seeking to prod the children of Israel to follow this commandment, among others, Moses goes on to explain the communal choice between blessing and curse, going into explicit detail about what each option entails. Among the threats laid out for violating the divine covenant is the warning that G-d “will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers” (28:36). This possibility of exile implicitly reminds us that having a strong sense of home means that there’s more to lose; here, home comes with vulnerability, as any meaningful relationship does.
Put simply, our connections with home and with the people and places that are home to us can be extraordinarily complex. They can make us feel secure, exposed, grateful or frightened. They can awaken yearnings for homes we knew, lost or never had. They can remind us of what once was, help us appreciate what we have, or encourage us to consider what could yet be. And they can be and do all of these at once.
Recognizing this range of responses tangled up in the idea of home can make us hear Como’s song a bit differently. As we look toward the start of the Jewish new year and the fall holiday season, these diverse thoughts and feelings may come into play, unique for each of us and our home.
We’re better off if we acknowledge these complexities, restrain ourselves from projecting idealized expectations onto mismatching situations, and give ourselves permission to experience the emotions that flow from the reality of where we are, not where we or others think we should be.
However you’re spending your holidays, and wherever home may be for you this season, I wish you all a shanah tovah.
Rabbi Seth Goren is the cIty director of Repair the World: Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. 


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