Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Homeward Bound

My family in our parents' living room, May 2018. (courtesy)

My family hit a life milestone this week: We helped my mom sell our childhood home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

My parents moved into the house in 1968 and lived there for a half-century afterwards. My two brothers and I grew up in it. We knew the house’s best hiding spots (behind the shrubs in the backyard; the closet above the stairs we used as a clubhouse), its strange quirks (no central a/c, but a giant attic fan), and its best attributes (for my parents: the fact it was a ranch; for me: the fact that it was directly under the flight path of the Goodyear blimp when it came to town for Michigan football games).

The house aged with us. We came home to it during breaks from college. We brought our children there for visits in the summer. We sat shiva for my father there. And for the last several years, through pandemic and the reality that none of us live in Ann Arbor anymore, we hired people to mow the lawn and make repairs, and we gradually cleaned it out. With the help of a neighbor, we found a buyer, and earlier this week my brothers went there to retrieve and dispose of some final items and close the sale.

Even though we’ve all been gone for well over half our lives, and even though I think we all feel tremendous relief from the burden of responsibility for the house, it’s still a strange feeling: for the first time, none of us has a home in Ann Arbor.

The double-parasha of Matot-Masei is suffused with questions of home. Most prominently, it recounts the story of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe, who, just as the people are finally about to enter their homeland, announce to Moses that they’d rather stay on the eastern side of the Jordan. To me, this story perennially raises the question: What does it mean to be a Jew and live outside the land of Israel? Am I living fully at-home if I’m not living in the homeland? And, is there anything I want to do differently as a result of my answer?

But the question of at-homeness comes up even earlier, in the discussion of vows that opens Parashat Matot. Today, this section mostly seems to have the effect of preparing our ears and hearts for Yom Kippur, directly evoking the language of the Kol Nidrei prayer. But buried within it we find a profound reflection on home, childhood, and growing up.

“If a woman makes a vow to YHVH or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household in her youth” (Num. 30:4). For our purposes, I want to set aside the issues of gender here and focus on the ides of home and youth. Explaining “household,” Rashi comments: “under her father’s control—even if she is not literally in the house.” Home here is, among other things, a site of power. In this case, home is a place where the parent—the father—both provides for a family and, it would seem, also exerts control. That makes it both a place of safety (hopefully) but also the possibility of unskillful use of that power. That bargain, between the power that makes for safety and that same power’s potential for misapplication, is, it would seem, a fundamental dynamic of home.

Rashi continues: “In her youth: not when she is a child, nor when she is an adult.” As he explains, according to the Talmud a child is not capable of making vows, and an adult is not under the control of their parents. So this verse is specifically referring to the time in between childhood and adulthood, a moment when one is capable of making one’s own commitments, but not fully capable of assuming responsibility. (If you have paid for car insurance for children between 16-25, this concept may resonate with your bank account.) Another way to put this, aligned with Rashi’s earlier insight, might be: For an adult, being at home means having the power to chart one’s path—and bearing the responsibility of doing so.

It goes without saying that we see these dynamics of home playing out right now in Israel. The capacity to exercise power and the responsibility that comes with it are, fundamentally, what this extraordinary 75-year (so far) experiment of the Jewish people are all about. Today we see them coming to a head in unprecedented and powerful ways that, for me, are both inspiring and nerve-wracking. The same questions of power animate diaspora Jewish life just as much: How are the countries in which we live places in which we are at home, and how, if at all, are they not? How does our understanding of our at-homeness shape our sense of responsibility? And, I would suggest, these questions are ones we ask, consciously or subconsciously, with regard to the planet itself: Given that this is our home, then what is our capacity for sustaining it, and what is our capacity for abusing it? What power do we have? What responsibility?

I mentioned earlier that it was my brothers who did the lion’s share of the work of emptying out and selling the house over the last few years. The last time I was in Ann Arbor was before Covid. Some of the reasons for my not going back have to do with life stage: I still have a younger child at home; I’m the primary person caring for my mom, the one who takes her to doctor’s visits and buys her groceries. (And, a la our discussion above, there’s a whole conversation to have about being an aging adult who now lacks the capacity to take full responsibility for oneself. For another time.) Between those parts of my life and my professional work, I feel like it’s as much as I can handle.

But if I’m honest, another reason I didn’t go back is because I had pleaded with my parents for decades to clean out the house and move before it was too late. I didn’t want my brothers and I to carry the burden of going through their things. I’m sure they didn’t want to leave us that burden. But the fact is they did. Going back to the house brought up a lot of anger and resentment and sadness—and I didn’t want to have to deal with those strong emotions so directly.

On the Jewish calendar, we’re in the orbit of Tisha b’Av, the day when our people’s home for the Divine was destroyed and, with it, our ability to be at home in our ancestral homeland.  That day kicks off a two-month journey to Yom Kippur, a day which looks outwardly so much like Tisha b’Av—they are our only two 25-hour fasts—but which, at its essence, is its polar opposite: A time of repairing relationships, of realigning and re-embracing our relationship with power and responsibility; a day which ends with a longing—or is it a statement?—of a rebuilt Jerusalem. Yom Kippur then spills out into Sukkot, a moment of a renewed and deepened sense of being at home in ourselves, our community, our planet.

The journey of this time—the eternal journey—is one of homecoming. It begins by confronting the brokenness that lies within our hearts. May our practice aid us in coming home.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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