The Impossibility of Going Home
This piece was delivered as sermon to Liverpool Reform Synagogue on Sukkot morning 5784.
My heart lives in so many places. Maybe yours does as well. My heart lives wherever the sea laps at the land. My heart beats at my parents’ home in Manchester when their jukebox is on and the family dances and laughs. It lives at the dining room of my in-laws as course after course is served. My heart lives in Scotland amongst the rugged, friendly, awesome landscapes. My heart leaps in London - the aliveness and possibilities of the city with my friends just one tube ride away.
And yet, because my heart lives in so many places I am never at home, fully. I long for each home, arriving nowhere. Whenever I leave the sea I leave part of myself on the shore. Whenever I pull out of Euston station I am waving to part of myself left on the platform. Whenever I’m away from Manchester I yearn for my home, my bed, my family.
The divine call received by Abraham deeply resonates with me:
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you….”
The piece in our Yom Kippur Machzor by Franz Kafka (who played with the idea of home) speaks to this sense on being not at home or having too many homes:
I called for my horse to be brought from the stable. The servant did not
understand me. I myself went into the stable, saddled my horse and mounted.
In the distance I heard a trumpet blast. I asked him what it meant but he
did not know and had not heard it. By the gate he stopped me and asked
"where are you riding to sir?" I answered "away from here, away from here, always away from here. Only by doing so can I reach my destination." “Then you know your destination" he asked. "Yes" I said "I have already said so, Away-From-Here' that is my destination." "You have no provisions with you” he said. "I don't need any" I said. "The journey is so long that I will die of hunger if I do not get something along the way. It is, fortunately, a truely immense journey."
We hear that shofar blast now - the trumpet blast - the note still vibrating in the air from the end of Yom Kippur at Ne’ilah. We’re called Away-From-Here - towards Sukkot - the festival of ‘Away-From-Here’, in our temporary huts, our flimsy structures where the sky can be seen, the leaves line the walls. We start our New Year at home yet not at home, settled but hearing the call of Lech Lecha rustling through the leaves - being called Away From Here.
My teacher, Rabbi Sheila Shulman, used a German term to try and encapsulate this most Jewish of feelings - that of being unheimlich - not at homeness.
Our tradition, liturgy, stories are built on the story of being called/forced away from home, of exile.
From leaving the land of slavery in Egypt and still looking back and yearning for the familiar world (the cucumbers were so good the Torah recounts our ancestors kvetching over), 40 years in the wildness, finding home in the Temples and then moving on once again to the rivers of Babylon, to Poland, from Spain, to Israel, from Russia, to America, from the York, to Liverpool. We wander from home to home - so many homes and none at all. We are perpetually in exile.
Even our foundational text - the one text that is common to our most diverse, eclectic mix that is the Jewish people - the Torah, is ever-changing. The letters stand without the support of any vowels. No punctuation marks helping us navigate its meaning. The white spaces between the letters leave us room to wander, to find our home in the vast wilderness of the parchment. We wander, at home, not at home.
And maybe, just maybe, this is the greatest gift of being Jewish. For if we can fully inhabit the reality of living in the sukkah - of inhabiting many homes and none at all, we can ironically and spiritually, find our home. We are free. Not stuck in the quicksands of certainty, worshipping the idol of capital T truth. We cannot hold a fundamentalist attitude for we wander - we know, deep within us, that nothing lasts, everything is impermanent and, therefore, possible. We are free. That is joy. Not to hide from this reality but embrace it. To use our unheimlich nature to find other wanderers, to invite them along, to stand with them. From the margins, looking in, we can see the brokenness and seek repair. What freedom. What joy. Lech Lecha, Lechi Lach, Away From Here. Zeman Simchateinu.
Ken Yehi Ratzon - May this be God’s will - Amen.