A home and a garden. Sounds biblical. After all, one of the first chapters in the Torah is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But where was their home? Only the garden is mentioned.
Sadly, this is a question that applies to many people in our society: Where is their home?
The other day, at a community meeting in Newport, someone pointed out that there are quite a few children living in a Motel 6. Imagine going back to a Motel 6 room after a day in school. This is not a put-down of Motel 6, it’s just not a substitute for a home.
A few minutes later, at that same meeting, someone wrote in the chat that affordable housing might just be Newport’s biggest challenge. Perhaps this is why Cain and Abel couldn’t live in harmony; Adam and Eve tried to be good parents, but without a home, there were too many obstacles.
Noah had the opposite problem. He had a home but no garden. Stuck on the water, he had no place to relax with nature, to help him take his mind off his problems. No wonder he had a drinking problem after the flood.
The word “home” (bayit) doesn’t start appearing in the Torah until we are introduced to Abraham. He had a home, but he had to leave it – so he too dealt with the challenges of finding a home.
We just finished celebrating Passover. Little is mentioned in the Haggadah about the idea that after the Exodus, the Jews journeyed through the wilderness, homeless, for 40 years. People don’t like to talk about homelessness. It makes us uncomfortable and uneasy.
But the Torah seems to be nudging us to open our eyes to this critical issue.
I have always been struck by a custom that many synagogues have of reciting the Kiddush on Friday evenings after the prayer service is completed. What is the origin of this custom? Want to take a guess? The custom of reciting Kiddush on Friday nights in synagogue originated at a time when there were people who had no home and lived in the synagogue. The Kiddush was recited for them, since that was their home.
The Torah instructs us that a poor person should be granted “sufficient for what lacks, according to what is lacking.” One Talmudic text interprets this as a house.
For many of us, there is a perception that Jews in America have done well economically and could not possibly experience such a thing as homelessness. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The predicament of housing instability and homelessness are major challenges for our society, and the pandemic has only made things worse.
Let us continue to learn from the Torah how and what each of us can do to help alleviate this issue. Chazak! Be strong!
MARC MANDEL is the rabbi at the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, the oldest synagogue building in the United States. For more information, visit www.tourosynagogue.org.