Some twenty years after putting away my paint brush and ladders for what I assumed was the last time, I resurrected my painting company last week. No, I’m not going back into the business. But my wife and I decided that our home was ready for a fresh coat, and – after getting an estimate that made me temporarily lose consciousness – I volunteered to do it myself.
We’ve owned our home for five years now, just the fourth owners since it was built 96 years ago by the Gammino family – whose name adorns the historical plaque by our front door – in a newly-expanding neighborhood. The previous owners, in fact, gifted us with a folder full of articles, photos, blueprints, and official documents that trace our home’s history as it passed hands from family to family until the day we moved in.
From the first time we turned the key and stepped into the home, I’ve felt surrounded by each of these souls – by the hopes they held when they first stepped in, by the memories they made in each of the rooms, the losses they mourned by the fireplace, the games they played with their kids in the backyard, the underground parties they hosted in the (then illegal) speakeasy in the basement. For better and for worse, I’ve had this lurking feeling that I was actually living in someone else’s home all along.
But over the years, I’ve made myself a student of our home, ever so slowly mastering each of its quirks, teaching myself a little bit about electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry along the way. And with each circuit closed, drain unclogged, and repair I’ve made, I’ve felt more and more like the home was becoming ours. Like we were beginning to write ourselves into the history of this home, too. So as a little ritual to mark these moments, I began documenting each of these moments and putting them into the growing folder about our home, adding my handiwork alongside the architects of yesteryear who first put pen to paper and the builders who first put hammer to nail.
And as the file folder has grown, so too has my sense that we not only own this home but that we are beginning to belong here, too. We have built our family in its four walls, attained mastery over the home’s various elements, and woven ourselves into its fascinating history.
The biblical daughters of Zelophehad know a thing or two about the connection between ownership and belonging, too. Interrupting another story about Moses taking a census to assess the losses after a devastating plague, the five daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – approach Moses at the Tent of Meeting and declare:
“Our father died in the wilderness…and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost…just because he had no son! Give us our share!” (Numbers 3-4)
Conventional wisdom held that daughters were not eligible to inherit their father’s land, and they pushed back against it to demand what they felt was rightfully theirs. Not only are they women of courage, but – as a midrash on this text emphasizes – they were “women of intelligence,” too (Sifrei BaMidbar 133:4). How do we know this?
As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out: “
Whether or not they receive a share of their father’s land to own it, they would still be eligible to live there. Why, then, insist on owning the land? What it comes to teach us is that if one truly loves something, one should want to have a sense of ownership over it (as it creates a deeper connection).” (Darash Moshe)
Zelophehad’s daughters did more than just own the property; they were the bearers of its lineage, the witnesses to its history, and the students of its teachings. Not only did they deserve to inherit it, they were the only people on earth poised to truly belong to it.
Today I put the finishing touches on our home, cleaning off my brushes for the last time after a week of giving my full attention to every square inch of its 96-year-old, weather-worn clapboard. I ran my fingers across the nail heads that were first pounded into place almost a century ago. I sanded down the drips of paint from a previous painter who long ago left our world. And after putting the ladders back into the garage for the last time, I stepped back to witness my handiwork and realized that – after five years of living here – I finally feel like I belong.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck is committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate and connected than the one he found. In pursuit of that commitment he serves as the Executive Vice President at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Executive Director of Glean Network, which partners with Columbia Business School. He was ordained in 2012, and earned his MBA that year, as well.
A sought-after thought leader, he has delivered keynotes at stages ranging from TEDx to the US Army’s General Officer Convocation, published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Religion News Service, has a column for The Wisdom Daily, contributed to Meaning Making – 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020, St. Mary’s Press) and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (2023, Fortress Press).
He also serves as:
- a Founding Partner of Starts With Us, a movement to counteract toxic polarization in America,
- a Research Advisory Board Member of Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spirituality, mental health and Gen Z,
- a founding board member of Beloved Network, a network of startup Jewish communities, and
- a member of the Board of Advisors of the Changemaker Initiative.
He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife, Lizzie Pollock, and their three children: Micah, Nessa, and Ayla. In his spare time, he finds sanctuary while climbing rock walls around New England and tending to his backyard garden.