"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in."
Robert Frost's elegant lines from "The Death of the Hired Man" have a wonderful ring for so many people. Thus, it is no surprise that there are so many aphorisms that speak of the place where we "keep the home fires burning," according to Lena Guilbert Ford.
Home is a place of protection, security, comfort and love. It is a concept well-established in the biblical text. Abraham, for example, was called forth from his ancestral home to establish a new home in a new land. He abandoned his nomadic ways and set up his residence in Canaan. That place has been called home to Jews ever since. "Hatikva," Israel's national anthem, expresses the Jews' longing to re-establish a national home, a hope of two millennia — "to be a free people in a land of our own."
Even among modern-day nomads, who regularly change domiciles, there is still a need to identify a location as home. When Bedouins pick up their tent stakes to move their flocks to greener pastures, they leave 2-feet-high mounds of rocks. Each family has its own distinctive design that notes who lived there, but the stacked rocks also let friends and relatives know the family's new location — a kind of forwarding address. It also marks the location of familial territory to return to when the change of seasons makes it possible to reoccupy that site.
In contrast to idealized views of home, this week's Torah portion, Metzora, makes reference to an unhealthy home and to the means of repairing it. In this section of Leviticus, a home that has some kind of bacterial or fungal growth on the walls must be purified before it is fit for human habitation (Leviticus 14:35).
Viewed metaphorically, this passage in the Torah leads us to understand that a threat to the physical well-being of a home often arises from more than just mildewed walls. A home requires a great deal of care and maintenance to keep away not only the external plagues but the internal ones as well.
Walls can be in repair while the heart of a home can be threatened by decay and rot. Families can live in shabby, poorly repaired homes, while internally their homes shine with love, affection, tranquillity and harmony. Others may live in palatial houses, but their homes are filled with recrimination, acrimony and sadness.
The appearance of the doors and windows does not reveal the true condition of a home. Only by looking at the people who live in a home and how they treat one another can its true nature be revealed.
Depravity and a vacuous emptiness in the majestic pyramids and grand stone cities of ancient Egypt made the Nile Delta inhospitable for our ancestors. The Israelites longed to return home to Israel. One by one, plagues inflicted punishment on Egyptian homes. Jews marked their doorposts with blood so that they might be spared the plague of death that descended upon Egyptian homes. To this day, Jews mark their doorposts with mezzuzot, to symbolize that houses are Jewish homes.
When we recite the Sh'ma or write those ancient Hebrew words "upon the doorposts of our houses and upon our gates," we are reminded that when God is present in our dwellings, our houses are more than mere stone, wood and glass. They are a mikdash me-at, a small sanctuary, filled not only with God's presence, but also with the glow of hospitality, charity and peace, for all to see — the center of a family and a protective shelter for friends and loved ones.
We create a place described in the oft-noted words of John Howard Payne's poem: "Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,/Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."