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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Homeless I

Galilee Diary #375, February 3, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.
-Genesis 3:22-23

In the annual cycle of the Torah reading, we have finished with the Genesis narratives, gotten into and out of Egypt, and received the Torah. From now until Simchat Torah, we’ll be in the desert, blowing, by our faithlessness, our chance for a quick journey to our new-old homeland. Eight months of Torah readings, covering 40 years of history, about the wandering Jews. You might think that the Torah, being the basic, formative, document of our collective life, would have taken place in our homeland – and yet, ironically, after a few generations of the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ comings and goings in the region, we spend the next four books imagining the land, looking forward or backward to it – but not living in it. Indeed, I find it fascinating how central the theme of exile is throughout the Bible:

  • Adam and Eve
  • Cain (Genesis 4:12-13)
  • Abraham leaves home (Genesis 12:1) and then leaves his new home (Genesis 12:11)
  • Abraham and Sarah drive Hagar and Ishmael away from their home (Genesis 21:9-20)
  • Lot and his family struggle against the decree to leave their home in Sodom (Genesis 19)
  • Rebekah sends Jacob off to Haran after the deception regarding Esau’s blessing (Genesis 27:41-45); and he leaves again to go down to Egypt.
  • Joseph 
  •  …and the list goes on: Where is Moses’ home, exactly? The crisis of the spies and the sentence of 40 years’ wandering. David – and Elijah - on the lam. The prophets’ threats of exile – and the real exile in 586. Jeremiah. Ezekiel. Esther and the vulnerability of the exiles. Ezra and Nehemiah and the exiles’ reluctance to return.

Homelessness seems to be a powerful motif running through the Bible. It is the ultimate threat, the ultimate punishment – and, at the same time, a common experience. The Bible seems fascinated with the situation of being homeless, uprooted, without a place. Perhaps being homeless is so threatening because it means being powerless. The exile is always vulnerable, always dependent, can never unpack. Moreover, I think, place to a large extent defines our identity. If we have no place that is stable, if we have no address – then who are we? And yet, at the same time, being an exile makes you light on your feet. Never unpacking means you can be driven by your values, not just by the price of real estate. Not being committed to a patch of earth means you can be committed fully to God and God’s demands. Roots sustain you – but they also hold you down. To put the matter in a contemporary perspective, having a state is a great blessing – and a great burden of responsibility.

Isaac never leaves home. Moses never gets there. Between these two poles of experience live most of the leading characters of the Bible – and most of us: constantly seeking the balance between space and place, between being settled and being unsettled, between the need to be rooted and the need to move on, between the known – solid, secure, comfortable – and the as yet unknown – challenging, scary, yet full of promise.

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