Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thinking About Home

[Note: this is an effort to reconstruct my d'var Torah to my synagogue's sisterhood Wednesday night. Those who were there might remember things I've forgotten, but such is life.]

Home. It's a subject I've thought about a lot over the last couple of decades. Since leaving my home in Anaheim to pursue ordination, and then to serve a number of congregations on the east coast, I've wondered what "home" really means. I've even written a number of poems, the first titled "Home," then "Home II" and then "Home III," trying to sort out what the word means, objectively, and to me. I'm still not sure I've come to a comfortable place. My head is satisfied, but my heart is still unclear.

This is a good week to consider "home." In the parasha this Shabbat morning, Jacob finally returns home, after 20 years of working for his father-in-law and amassing family and livestock. Homecomings should be a good thing, right? But let's consider: Jacob returns with trepidation - he is still fearful of his brother, whom he cheated badly long ago; we learn his mother's nurse has died, and some commentators believe this is a euphemism for the death of Rebecca herself; Jacob's beloved Rachel dies in childbirth; his daughter Dina is raped and kidnapped; and when he finally returns home, he and his brother Esau must bury their father Isaac.

Welcome home, Jacob.

I suspect many of us have tried to go home, perhaps for a visit to the old neighborhood, and found it completely changed. Or you've changed and it hasn't. I remember a trauma to my old community in Anaheim, and two years after, when I returned from school for a summer visit to my children, I found the congregation still stuck. I had moved on, the person at the center of the trauma had moved on, and the community was still talking about "The Thing." Sometimes you can't go home again. Sometimes you can and wish you hadn't.

But even if you could return home, what would that mean? Where is home? Is it where you live today? Where your books and dishes are? If you've moved a couple of time zones away from your children, is home where you are or where they are? Is home where your memories are, fuzzy as they may be? And if home is where your stuff is, and your stuff is in a warehouse in Memphis, where then is home?

I saw a sign in the window of a gift shop in Ventura a few years ago: Home is where you are right now. OK, maybe that's what it is. And like Hillary Clinton says, "Grow where you're planted." Stop "dreying your kup" - stop making yourself crazy about semantics and just be, in this moment, where you are. Maybe.

Our sisterhood program tonight is about relocation. The women on our panel were all born somewhere else - France, Siberia, Israel, Cuba, Uruguay, Iran. They came here when they were old enough to know they were leaving what they thought of as home. Was that a good thing? Were they fleeing persecution and grateful to be here? Were they happy where they were and miserable here? We'll soon learn. But I wonder: where is "home" to them? Where they were born? Los Angeles? And at what point did "home" change meaning for them?

I must tell you, though, that two years ago I had an "aha!" moment. I had come to this synagogue to observe my mother's yahrzeit [anniversary of her death]. I'd never been here before, and when I came to morning minyan [daily service] I didn't know a soul in the room. But I stood to say Kaddish and realized something stunning - I'd been here before. There was an ark with a Torah scroll in it. There was a ner tamid [eternal light]. The words I was saying, I'd said in communities around the world. And everyone knew where to respond "amen."

We Jews are turtles. Home has become such a transitory notion to us, having been expelled from one country after another, then having had to flee persecution from countries who didn't expel us so much as make the water too hot for us to stay, that we have had to narrow the definition of home. And we carry our homes with us. Our candle sticks, our Torahs, our talleisim [prayer shawls] and prayerbooks and Bibles, our values and our national memories are all portable. And wherever we are, we can reconstruct our homes with the things we brought with us. I live in a house where nothing speaks of my history and memories. Yet, in my room, there's a mezuzah on the door (and I can tell you who gave it to me) and candle sticks on the dresser and a prayerbook and Tanakh [Bible] in the book case. They go everywhere with me. They create my home for me. And the blessing of being Jewish, born of the curse of our constant wanderings, is that we do rebuild our home, wherever we are, as individuals and as communities.

The sign was right: Home is where you are right now.

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