Noah Leavitt

A New Home for the New Year

In 2011, with the country still struggling to recover from the great recession, Chris Arnade, a Wall Street bond trader, embarked on a new project, one that would ultimately become a book entitled Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Arnade, had grown up in a small rural town with a struggling local economy and it was a given for him growing up that people should always move if there are better opportunities to be found elsewhere. But now Arnade was curious what was the town and people whom he had left behind like? What about those who simply did not want to move?

Throughout Jewish History from the time of Avraham to the recent eastward expansion of the Beachwood Eruv, we have always been a people that moved. The Avot moved to the land of Israel and then when faced with drought and famine moved to Egypt. Millenia later our ancestors left the land of Israel because of persecution and over the ensuing centuries our ancestors would move again and again, sometimes fleeing oppression but just as often, seeking a better life and more opportunities. This pattern was repeated again here in Cleveland. As neighborhoods changed, the Jewish community moved from areas near the Central Market to Kinsman and Glenville into Cleveland Heights and then into Beachwood and points even further east. We all know that Cleveland is a great place to raise a family, but even the most committed Clevelander here can imagine that their child might live somewhere else one day. This sentiment is in keeping with our historical moment which celebrates the fluidity of globalization, urban cosmopolitanism and sees airports as part of daily life. A fundamental element of our incredible ability to endure and thrive as a people has been our willingness to move.

Yet, despite this history of movement, sometimes forced but often not, our tradition takes a surprisingly dim view of moving and wandering. Being forced to wander is one of the first punishments that God metes out in the Torah. After Cayan kills Havel God tells him נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ׃ “wandering and waving shall you be on the earth”. The words na v’ nad here are a curse, Cayan, God says will never be able to remain permanently in one place, in one home, in one community. In this context being a wanderer appears to be an objectively terrible fate.

This negative view of wandering is emphasized in the words of Unetaneh Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” we read today “- how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, m’yanuach u’m’yanua, who shall have rest and who wander.” Wandering, moving really, is considered a curse in Unetaneh Tokef not a blessing. To be home, this tefillah is saying, is to be guaranteed rest and peace, while to move is to face only uncertainty.

Although an old tradition dates Unetaneh Tokef to time of the First Crusades, it is in fact at least 1200 years old. An eighth century version of this tefillah was found in the material taken from the Cairo Genizah. The eighth century was a period when Jewish communities in some parts of the world faced persecution, but certainly not one of parochialism and provincialism. It was a time when the great trade routes of the Middle Ages were being established, when Jewish merchants crisscrossed the Arabian Peninsula and even the Indian Ocean, and when Jews were more likely to be what we would now call economic migrants than refugees. If Jewish communities moved at all in this period, they did so far more often because of the pull and attraction of foreign lands than any push from an oppressive government. So why in this context did the author of this tefillah exhibit such disdain for moving?

The eminent psychiatrist John Bowlby helped to revolutionize our understanding of psychology when he suggested that our behavior throughout our life is modeled off our earliest relationships. An infant seeks to explore the world around them, but when scared or distressed they immediately seek the comfort of their parents’ arms. Their parent is their secure base, in Bowlby’s words. Throughout our life we are always seeking to have the same experience of knowing that we have a secure base, a place to which we can return that will protect and sustain us if need be. As we grow older we hopefully find this secure base most strongly in our relationships, but even objects and institutions, Bowlby says, can offer the feelings of a secure base. To be forced to move is lose some sense of security, to lose the feeling of safety that a familiar place gives you. To be condemned to wander and to be alienated as Cayan was and Unetaneh Tokef warns is to be condemned to live without a secure base.

But our tradition also includes a strikingly different image of wandering, in fact in some ways it celebrates it. Avraham was after all perhaps the world’s greatest nomad, hearing God’s call and leaving his home. “A prophet,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains “is [by definition] a wanderer, na v’nad, a nomad. He dwells where God wills him to abide. He must not be a man of property and rest. ‘And the Lord said Avram, Go forth from you land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house’ Be always on the go, move continually from place to place don’t settle down. You have a task to fulfill, a message to put across. You must keep moving. Do not wait for people to come to you.” Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the words na v’nad, wander and move, to describe the task God gives to Avraham. When God uttered those same words to Cayan after he killed Havel they were a curse, but here they are not a punishment but a task to fulfill and a means to spiritual growth.

Our tradition offers a complex and nuanced view of wandering and moving. It recognizes its potential pitfalls and its opportunities. When Chris Arnade embarked on his journey back to his hometown in 2011 to see the people he had left behind years earlier, he found the people he had grown up with who had decided not to leave but to stay, people he had long ago written off as lazy or lacking ambition, had actually made a calculated decision, one based on a recognition of what they would lose if they left. Their community and familiar neighborhoods provided them with a sense of meaning and security no economic opportunity could make up for. When an individual or community picks up and moves, some feeling of security is always, if only temporarily, fractured. It is part of the reason why even the smallest of moves can be disorienting. But despite this knowledge, our community, the Jewish People, has always been one that has moved. We have moved at times because we have been forced to and other times for better opportunities. So, while we can appreciate those that choose to stay, the question that faces us will generally be, when we move, when we wander as individuals or as a family or as a community, how do we do it?

When Avraham left his home, he did not merely leave something behind, he also journeyed with a destination in mind and a sense of purpose. Wherever Avraham went, he built a home for himself out of his values and deepest held beliefs. What he did, wherever he went, reflected his special mission, his relationship to God and ultimately his identity. Avraham left behind a home but with intent and care built a new one. Unlike those who move and feel rootless today, Avraham understood that roots do not come about on their own but have to be built and fastened with purpose and intent.

Today, our communities and families are more spread out than ever before. Even as individuals we are likely to find that we move far more often than generations before us did. In this world, where we all in one way or the other live lives of na v’nad, we have to decide if we make that existence into a curse or a blessing. Do we allow a sense of rootlessness to overtake us or do we, wherever we are and wherever we go, build a home for ourselves with intention and purpose filled with that which reflects our deepest held values? Are our Jewish institutions and this shul, a home for us, or just another place we pass through in our all too busy lives? And are we comfortable with our answers to these questions? Some of us may may move to new physical homes in the coming year, but all of us right now are building from the ground floor up a spiritual home for the coming year. Let us build this home not based on happenstance or ease, but with intention and purpose and may it be filled with and reflect our deepest held values, and may our spiritual homes be ones in which we experience a year of health, happiness, and peace.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.