Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Ki Tavo 5775

Rabbi Charley Baginsky
4th September 2015

There is a post doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment which lists words in other languages that are supposed to ‘perfectly describe what it’s like to feel truly homesick’. One of them has been circulating around my head, even if I struggle to pronounce it: “Hiraeth (Welsh) – A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was: the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of the past.”

Having recently come back from Israel, where I lived for many years, I have been thinking a lot about what ‘home’ means. It is a topic which has preoccupied me for years and formed the basis of my rabbinic thesis, some moons ago. However, in many ways homesickness, a longing for home is part of the Jewish psyche. We are after all the people who read a book year after year whose main location is the wilderness, the people who long for a Promised Land and end their sacred text continuously on the edge of it.

Last week’s portion and this one epitomise some of the irony of this position. The first – Ki Tetze, when you go out, the second – Ki Tavo, when you come in. Before we can focus on entering a new land, a new beginning, a new reality –we must deal with what we are leaving behind. As we stand in the month of Elul, preparing to enter the New Year, this idea takes on a real poignancy.

A friend told me recently about an advertising campaign in the United States in the 1970s that featured people looking into the camera and saying: “I found it!” The adverts would end with a voice over stating: “you can find it too”. The·it they were referring to were the teachings of Christianity. The ads were accompanied by bumper stickers which said: “I found it”. Jewish groups responded with their own stickers: “We never lost it!”

It made me laugh, but it misses the point for me of Judaism. Our literature and history is of a people lost and wandering, seeking not perhaps an ineffable it, but a way out of the wilderness. This week’s portion contains the famous words of the Seder: “Arami oved avi”. Translations render the Hebrew in different ways, traditionally it is often seen as “My father was a wandering Aramean”. Other translations, however, see it as saying: “A Syrian had nearly caused my father to perish” or “An Aramean attempted to destroy my father.” These different translations reflect the ambiguity of the text; who is the Aramean of the verse and what does the word oved mean. I like, however, the commentary from Rashbam who suggests that Abraham is the Aramean. Abraham is from Aram and therefore leaves his homeland during the stories of the Torah and at least once refers to himself as being lost and wandering at the request of God. I take great comfort in thinking that the Abraham who braved the greatest of journeys and talked with God, also felt lost.

There is a temptation to believe that we need to be certain about what we are doing, to come in before we have dealt with the going out, to think we have found·it or never lost·it – that we need or even have all the answers. The challenge of Elul and of this portion is perhaps to remember the phrase ‘Arami oved avi’, to rest a moment in uncertainty and searching. Home can be the physical place where we lay down our heads to sleep, but it can also be the sense of being at one with ourselves, of coming to the end of a journey. As the word “Hiraeth” suggests the longing for this is often a false dream, but the journey towards it is nevertheless essential. The grieving for what we have lost, of who we once were, a recognition that we can never go backwards is an important part of being able to come into a new land and a new year with hope for new beginnings.