What does it mean to be at home? Home is where we come from — unless where we come from makes us feel alienated or unsafe, in which case home is anything but there. Home, the saying goes, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — so maybe it has something to do with belonging.
To be at home, I need to feel safe being authentic. If I have to hide part of who I am, or leave part of myself outside the door, then that’s not really “home.” I also need to feel able to try new things. A “home” in which I don’t grow or change isn’t a permanent home: it might be a useful cocoon, for a while, but it won’t be satisfying in the long term.
Home can be portable: a set of qualities or practices or ideas that go with me wherever I go. Home can be people: the friends and loved ones with whom I feel most myself. Home can be a place, of course — or maybe many places over the course of a lifetime. Home is something we receive from those who came before us — and home is also something we build for ourselves.
One of my most enduring homes is Judaism. I find home in the spiritual technologies and stories and teachings that go with me wherever I go. I find home in the sense of community that arises between me and my fellow travelers on my journey. I find home in receiving traditions from those who came before me, and in building my own traditions and interpretations in conversation with what came before.
The thing that makes Judaism feel most like home for me is that balance between receiving and building. I receive the words of this week’s Torah portion, via reading the text and seeking out commentaries (and admiring the ones that open the text up for me in new ways, like Steve Silbert’s Visual Torah sketchnotes) — and I write my own commentary, or root a new poem in Torah’s fertile soil. I receive the festival calendar like a sparkling web of gems strung across the year — and I interweave my own practices with ancient traditions to bring those festivals to life.
Judaism has always been a read/write tradition. Torah calls each of us to write our own Torah (Deut. 31:19). This can be read simply to mean that we should learn the scribal arts (or should fiscally support a Torah scribe). But it can also be read to suggest that it is our job to add our voices to the tapestry of tradition. Judaism calls us to roll up our sleeves, dig in our hands, and make the tradition our own.
The Talmud draws a connection between children and builders. (The connection relies on a Hebrew pun between two words that sound almost the same.) All of us are tradition’s children, inheritors of richness from those who came before us. And all of us can be tradition’s builders. We have the opportunity (maybe even the obligation) to take up our tools and build the Judaism that the future most needs.
The first time I went out on a Habitat for Humanity job site, I was nervous. My carpentry skills are minimalist at best. I was worried that I didn’t know enough to be helpful. What if my ineptitude with a hammer made things worse? Of course, the supervisor on that job site had worked with plenty of people like me. He taught me enough that I could pitch in without anxiety. By the end of that week I felt proud of what I had done — and empowered to try to do more.
As a rabbi, I want to be like that Habitat supervisor. My job is to give people enough skills, familiarity, and comfort with the tradition that they can pick up a hammer and tinker. Maybe they want to put up nails and hang a few photos. Maybe they want to build a whole new room onto the place. Maybe they want to build an entirely different structure out of the pieces of the old, remixing what they’ve inherited into something simultaneously old and new.
Judaism is a home we both inherit, and get to co-create. The work is satisfying, and the crew of collaborators is endlessly diverse. And when we build a spiritual home for ourselves with our own hands, we can help others make it theirs, too. The more we build, the more empowered we become to keep building.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).