This summer, I visited Israel for the first time in 13 years. For someone like me — a product of Jewish day school and summer camp, alumnus of various Israel educational programs, employee of a Jewish nonprofit — it was a long time to be away. When I would tell people I was heading to Israel after an absence of so many years, their eyes invariably grew wide with surprise. Not visiting Paris for a decade or more hardly demands explanation. But with Israel, I felt compelled to provide one.
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, Israel is a complicated place for me — and that has little to do with politics. It’s a country whose language I speak, but not with the fluency to communicate with ease and depth. It’s a place whose people are obviously my kin, yet the cultural chasms between us seem to broadcast only difference. And at a time when a resurgence of nationalist xenophobia is shaking the foundations of the democratic order, the comfort my younger self once felt surrounded by throngs of my coreligionists has evolved into a stifling sense of tribalism dangerously out of step with where I believe the human family must be moving. There’s a feeling of being home there, but it’s clearly not home.
Perhaps ironically, this is actually quite a Jewish feeling. Jews are the consummate wanderers, consigned by history to life in exile, the ultimate ingathering to the promised land delayed until the messianic age. This was as true in ancient times as it is today. Abraham’s journey begins with God’s command that he leave his father’s home and go to a land that God promises to show him. That’s the better-known part of the story. Less noted is that just a few verses later, Abraham leaves again, driven to Egypt because of famine. The land God directed Abraham to could not long sustain him. He soon found himself in the land in which his descendants would be enslaved.
Abraham’s descendants were no luckier. His grandson Jacob fled home after stealing the birthright from his brother. Moses led the Israelites from the Egypt of his birth through 40 years in the wilderness to the edge of a promised land he would never enter. Following the destruction of the Temple twice built in that promised land, Jews lived in countless other places that were never truly home, a fact reinforced by the expulsions and persecutions that kept them endlessly on the run. Even the establishment of Israel, meant to be the answer to 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness, hasn’t fully delivered on that promise, its borders still indeterminate, its enemies still intent on its destruction.
For Jews, home is elusive. And that might be precisely the point.
The central theme of this time of year is teshuvah, commonly translated as repentance, but which literally means return. The common understanding of this linguistic turn is that repentance is fundamentally a return to our true nature. But as Rabbi Alan Lew beautifully puts it, it can also be understood as a journey home. The High Holiday season is bracketed by two holidays focused on home: the fast of Tisha B’Av, which mourns the destruction of the ancient Temple (the beit hamikdash, literally “house of sanctification”) and with it the exile of the Jewish people from their ancestral home, and Sukkot, whose central ritual is the building of a temporary hut in which for a time we do the things we normally do in our homes, taking meals and maybe even sleeping. The sukkah has the trappings of a home, but lacks the solidity and security of a real one.
Framed this way, the message seems to be that the journey we pass through this time of year (and perhaps more generally in our lives) is a movement from home to “home,” from the faux-security of a Temple that ultimately failed to provide it, to the more enduring sense of security we can find even in a sukkah exposed to the wind and rain. The latter kind comes not from external fortifications, but from internal ones, from the edifices we build inside ourselves. And it occurred to me as I strolled the streets of Jerusalem in the August heat and paid my respects to the last remaining wall of that felled ancient Temple that the sense of estrangement I feel so acutely in Israel (of all places!) might be a product of seeking a sense of home in precisely the wrong place.
After two weeks in Israel, I returned last week to a town that I’m the first in my family to live in. My ancestors did not walk these streets or plant their crops in the surrounding fields. My neighbors are fine people, but they are not my people in any deep sense of the word. And as safe as I feel here, I’m under no illusion that the predations that have marked Jewish history — not to mention the upheavals, political and climatic, now destabilizing the world — will somehow fail to reach me in my western Massachusetts idyll.
And still, for now anyway, this is home — or at least “home,” another waystation on the real journey home.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on September 10, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.