Leaving Home to Come Home

When people ask about my experience growing up in the Orthodox community and making my way to the Conservative rabbinate, I often hear myself saying, “I had to leave home in order to come home.”

What takes me ten words - and then invariably a longer conversation -  to explain, the Torah captures in just two, conveying great depth about a journey I suspect many of us have made. 

Our parasha today opens:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃ Jacob went out of Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב 

Why, wonders Rashi, does this opening line of our parasha use such a strange expression to tell us that Yaakov went to Haran? 

Towards the end of last week’s parasha Yitzchak and Rivka sense the impending doom between their two sons Yaakov and Esav over the incidents of the birthright and the stolen blessing, and they urge Yaakov to flee to Haran:

ק֧וּם בְּרַח־לְךָ֛ אֶל־לָבָ֥ן אָחִ֖י חָרָֽנָה

 Get up and flee to my brother in Haran, says Rivka

ק֥וּם לֵךְ֙ פַּדֶּ֣נָֽה אֲרָ֔ם

Get up and go to Padam Aram, to your mother’s brother, says Yitzchak

So why doesn’t the opening line just say וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ יעקב חָרָֽנָה –Yaakov went to Haran? Or, ויברח יעקב חרנה– Yaakov fled to Haran? Why does it say וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע - he went out from Be’er Shava?

Rashi then teaches us something profound about the presence of absence. Referencing a classical Midrash, he explains how when a righteous person leaves a place, their absence is keenly felt by those left behind. Hence, the Torah’s emphasis on Jacob’s leaving, וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב.

Avivah Zornberg deepens Rashi’s comment to offer an insight into those of us who are not tzaddikim, but just regular people trying to find our place in the world:

She says, “Rashi speaks of a void left behind Jacob as he begins his journey. But perhaps the void is in Jacob as well. As he ‘goes out’ of his place, a vacuum separates him from his origins, a kind of necessary detachment.” As Zornberg puts it: he doesn’t simply “go”; he “leaves”.

I often think about my own “necessary detachments'' from many decades ago; I think about all I had to empty myself of in pursuit of the fullness I believed was possible for me: the familiarity of my community and the norms and patterns that connected us; the theological and halakhic boundaries that kept us grounded. I had to let go of these in search of the spiritual and intellectual diversity that I knew was at the heart of my own Jewish calling. I had to leave home to come home.

One year, in my study of this week’s portion, I instinctively reached for my grandfather’s book of sermons on Sefer Bereishit called Beyond the Moon, by Rabbi Mendell Lewittes, z”l. It’s inscribed to me by my late grandmother, z”l. Opening the cover, a laminated card fell out. It was the description written by my son Aaron when he was in 6th grade (he’s now 27) and he submitted this book of my grandfather’s writings, his great-grandfather’s, for his school’s Jewish heritage project. In it he wrote of how I, his mother, also a rabbi like her grandfather, turn to this book regularly in preparing my own Divrei Torah. Holding this one volume in my hands together with this laminated card, my past and my future came together. But this reunion could not have happened had I not left.

The opening scene in today’s story describes Yaakov “bumping into'' what he would come to see as a holy place, וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם, he “bumped into” God whose name is hamakom, the same place, Hazal explain, where his own father and grandfather encountered the Divine - Har Hamoriya. He lies down and dreams his famous dream of the ladder and the angels and of God blessing him saying: this land will be for you and your children, וּפָרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה - you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.

Rashi understands וּפָרַצְתָּ֛ to connote strength which Zornberg amplifies to explosive, sometimes even destructive power. God blessed Jacob with the ability to push through limits; with the strength to shatter paradigms.

When Micah says, עָלָ֤ה הַפֹּרֵץ֙ לִפְנֵיהֶ֔ם One who makes a breach goes before them, the Midrash says he’s talking about Jacob, by whose merit God broke open Yam Suf for his descendents escaping the confines of Mitzrayim, literally the narrow places.   

Zornberg notes the paradox in Yaakov: the quiet, inner-directed tent-dweller becomes the agitator and the boundary-breaker in order to come fully into himself as a husband, a brother, a son, and a builder of his people. To build Beit Yisrael, the house of Israel, he had to break out of his own home. To come closer to the holy One, he had to walk away from his beloved two. וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב/And Jacob left.

Zornberg’s analysis of Jacob is profound. It’s also, I imagine, achingly familiar to many of us.

Jacob leaves not only his parents and the home he knew, he leaves himself - at least the self who tried to be someone else before embracing who he really was. He had to abandon the masks (or animal skins) he tried on before finally looking in the mirror and liking who he saw.

The poet May Sarton put it sharply: 

“Now I become myself.

It’s taken time. Many years and places.

I have been dissolved and shaken,

Worn other people’s faces…

As if to underscore how bound up the experience of leaving home can be to coming home once again, the call to Jacob to return appears in our same parasha. After 20 years of love, heartache, children, hard labor, and, finally, the emergence of his independence and his evolved sense of self, Jacob hears the call: Go back to the people and places that formed and shaped you, but go back as you

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב שׁ֛וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ אֲבוֹתֶ֖יךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶֽהְיֶ֖ה עִמָּֽךְ׃

 Hashem said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I - Ehyeh, the God of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, who evolves with and within you, will be with you

Why else would our opening amidah blessing remind us three times each day, and Shabbat or Yomtov four and Yom Kippur five, that God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (and more recently that God is also the God of Sarah, the God of Rivkah, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah)? For a sacred text with the ability to say so much with so few words, this formulation feels endless. That is, if it was designed for style. Not so, teach our Sages. It was designed for authenticity. Each of ours.

Return to your people’s wells of wisdom and values and let their waters slake the thirst that lives deep within you.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rhor writes in his beautiful spiritual guide to living a well-considered life, a book called Falling Upwards, having to leave home in order to find home, of journeying away and of returning to your source, is the ultimate human story canonized in every religious tradition. He says, “Home is both the beginning and the end. Home is not a sentimental concept at all, but an inner compass and North Star at the same time. It is a metaphor for the soul.”

 In the shul of my youth, carved in big letters above the imposing ark at the front of the sanctuary are the Hebrew words דע לפני מי אתה עומד, “Know Before Whom You Stand!”. The words unnerved me as a child. “Know God”? I wasn’t even sure I believed in God! And if I were to make that leap of faith, I was sure my God wouldn’t be one of those who tried to scare me into line. 

The first time I toured the Heschel school in New York City where all of my children attended (full disclosure I sit on the Board of Trustees), I was stunned by the wording on the ark in their Beit Midrash, just one of many different spaces set aside for a panoply of morning minyanim offering different approaches to prayer: there was just one single Hebrew word: “Ayeka”, “Where are you?”. It’s the word God calls out to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after they defied God’s instruction not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But if God is God, surely God knew where they were in the garden, so why ask “Where are you?” The Hasidim explained that God must have been asking something else: 

Where are you at this moment in the story of your life? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Who are you? 

Rather than tell young adults who they ought to be, this single word reaching out to them in the space that’s likely to find them at their most reflective invites them to consider who and where they are in the unfolding of their own life narratives. At that moment I knew I had found the right school for my family.

I had the same conversation with each of my kids on their first day of high school: “I could have chosen a school for you whose educational mission is to teach you how to become me. But that’s not what I want for you. While it’s hard to relinquish the reins, I want you to be in an environment that challenges and inspires you to become you. I’m sending you to a pluralistic school where you’ll be witness to many different choices people and their families have made around Jewish values, spirituality and practice, and you’ll discover an array of choices you’ll now have to make. While I hope we’ll continue to share much of what I’ve tried to instill in you, I pledge that I will respect and support whatever choices you feel are most authentic for you. The only choice I will struggle to respect is if you choose not to choose.”

My four children are all in their 20s now. They have all left home. In many ways. All proud Jews, for now they have made different Jewish choices than I have made. That may change as they grow into their adulthood and settle into their own homes and families. And it may not. I’ve worked hard to honor the pledge I made to them. To understand that their choices are not an indictment of mine. To understand that continuity is not the same thing as replication. To extend to my children the same respect I received from my own mother and that I have extended to the people whom I have been honored to teach and lead who make very different Jewish choices from mine. I have staked my rabbinate on the notion that there are myriad ways to live a meaningful Jewish life. Or, as Rumi said, there are one thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Here’s how my grandfather put it in his sermon on Vayetze:

“I am not too much disturbed and I do not completely despair when a ‘young adult’ tells me that they don’t believe or they have serious doubts about the value of religion...If they left a positive and vital Jewish home, a reaction is bound to come...And when this reaction comes, we must welcome them back…”.

To his hopeful words I’ll just add that when the homes of our past merge with the homes of our future, when our children and grandchildren return to our homes by land, by love, and by outlook, in their many and varied forms, I hope we have the strength and the courage to say, as did Yaakov:

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃

 “Surely this place is Divine, and I did not know it