I have been teaching this week–as I will be for the next four–for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a group of 26 remarkable North American 17-year olds who spend the summer together in Israel learning, discussing, and exploring Jewish life. It is a tremendous privilege to work with these students, who are exceptionally intelligent, creative, and articulate.

Every morning we begin with text study, and each of the other faculty members (Rabbis Andy Bachman and Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, and Ilana Kurshan) and I teach a class to a quarter of the fellows. The subject of my course–no surprise to regular readers of my blog–is “Where is home?”

Among the texts we’re studying together for this course is an essay by Viennese writer Jean Amery, born Hanns Chaim Mayer, who survived concentration camps and became a philosopher and literary critic. In particular we’re reading an essay entitled, “How much home does a person need?” In the essay, Amery recounts his experiences leaving Vienna and arriving in Antwerp, using his memories as a departure point for insightful and challenging reflection on what it means to lose one’s home.

Amery meditates on a number of powerful dimensions of home, homesickness and homelessness, including place, time, memory, childhood and aging, and technology. He fundamentally identifies home with security–both physical security and the security of language, of knowing and being able to express what is going on in one’s surroundings: “Every language is part of a total reality to which one must have a well-founded right of ownership if one is to enter the area of that language with a good conscience and confident step.” But Amery also recognizes that while homelessness is awful, having a home is also problematic. Home, when imbued with nationalistic fervor, can become an obstacle to being able to live in the world. And in the modern world, particularly in America, home has become a consumer good–not about deep attachments to people or places or dialects, but simply the place to put one’s stuff.

After its opening passage about the laws of the Red Heifer, Parshat Chukat becomes a travelogue of the Israelites’ journey in the desert. There is complaining, searching for water, war, and wandering so as to avoid the Edomites who refused Moses and his people safe passage. In many ways, this is the lowpoint of the homelessness of the Israelites: their utter dependence on foreign entities, their continued despondency that they will ever reach the land of grain and figs, grapevines and pomegranates,” and water to drink. This is a powerless people, a homeless wandering people, whose powerlessness will be even further highlighted next week in the story of Bilaam.

And yet, as the Bronfmanim and I have discussed in our class, the Torah seems to be communicating a powerful message to us about what it means to have a home and to be at home by the story that it tells. The consciousness of exile is woven into Jewish life from the very beginning, when God tells Abraham that his descendents will be “strangers in a land not theirs,” persecuted and ultimately rescued. The 40 year interval in the wildnerness, which we witness this week as Miriam and Aaron are laid to rest, is meant to rear a generation that does not identify Egypt as home. “Home is the land of one’s childhood and youth,” says Amerie. This generation, then, will identify their youthful home as the wilderness, a no-man’s land, a place by definition incapable of being a home.

Yet home they do create. It will take Bilaam to remind them–us–however: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings–your homes–O Israel” (Num. 24:5). Our dwelling places are sufficient. Home can be where we make it, provided we can see it that way. The land of Israel is certainly our home. But to be at home in the land of Israel, we have to remember the consciousness developed in exile and wandering. We have to stand outside home to recognize where home is.

Shabbat shalom.

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