Probably the smartest thing that my wife and I ever did was to buy our own home.
I’m not referring to the rental-versus-ownership debate, or reflecting on property prices and interest rates. Rather, I’m commenting on the effect that living locally has had on our relationship with the local Jews.
We were itinerants with no serious rootsWhen I was appointed rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation in Moorabbin, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and was first getting to know people, my family would commute every Shabbat from where we lived, a short distance away in Caulfield. Friday afternoons would be spent packing kids’ clothing into traveling bags, and chicken soup and cholent into spill-proof containers. We’d pull in ten minutes before Shabbat, spend a pleasant 25 hours ministering to the natives, and, the moment Shabbat came to an end on Saturday night, we would reverse the process, ready to hightail it back to the eastern suburbs.
We were itinerants with no serious roots. Sure, we would spend time in the area during the week, and honestly strove to give off a veneer of stability, yet we’d made no real commitments to the organization or the people, and could theoretically have pulled the plug whenever we wished.
The moment we signed a mortgage, we demonstrated to all concerned that we were thinking long-term. We were here to stay, and people could begin to invest in us emotionally.
To prove your commitment, you’ve got to act committed.
I recently heard a story that demonstrated this principle in a particularly stark fashion. In the early ’90s, as the effects of glasnost and perestroika first began to be felt throughout the former Soviet Union, a small wave of rabbis and communal workers from Israel and the U.S. began to arrive in Russia and the Ukraine. Typically, the newcomers would stay for a while, and then head back to the comforts of home in the Western world.
The local Jews, so long abandoned to assimilation and ignorance, were largely reluctant to trust themselves to the blandishments of these “temps.”
One young couple was determined to challenge this negative perception. Their first act upon arriving in town and assuming their posting was to register themselves with the local burial society and buy themselves plots in the Jewish cemetery.
Thank G‑d, in the 20 years since their arrival, they have gone on to build an empire of Judaism in their adopted town. Yet it all started from an initial public affirmation of intention.
A mentor of mine once told me that whatever we do in life should be done as if that’s what we’ll be doing for the rest of our life. Sure, different opportunities come up, and people do occasionally change jobs, but right now, focus only on the job at hand and do it to the best of your ability.
What about Israel?
“My devotion was not to you, but to G‑d!”But is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life? Who are we fooling? Aren’t we really just marking time while waiting for Moshiach? We finish our Passover Seder with a rousing rendition of “Next Year in Jerusalem.” We pray to G‑d dozens of times every day to help us leave here and return us to Israel. Surely, this is only my temporary home and short-term job, till I can make it to the major leagues!
Is life a journey or a destination? Is this a process or a product? How can I live my current life to the fullest, while holding out hope that this is nothing but a temporary assignment?
It was this dichotomy that was the subject of a fascinating discussion between our forefather Jacob and his evil father-in-law, Laban.
Jacob and his family are on their way back home to Israel after two decades of working in Haran. Laban gives chase, catches up with the traveling party, and accuses Jacob of disloyalty: “Why did you deceive me? You never stopped longing to return to your father’s house. You robbed me!”
Jacob is having nothing of that. “I worked for you for more than 20 years without rest,” he replied. “Day and night, in the heat and the frost, I was devoted to your employment. I have stolen nothing from you.” I worked for you, but you don’t own me.
And they were both right. Jacob consistently gave more than an honest day’s work for less-than-fair wages. He was totally devoted to his employer’s interests, often at the expense of his own family’s wellbeing. Jacob’s word was his commitment, and he more than lived up to his side of the bargain.
But this dedication to the cause that lay in front of him did not preclude his aspiration towards a higher goal. “Why do you think I come here in the first place?” asks Jacob. “My devotion was not to you, but to G‑d! Even as I toiled away at your tasks, no matter the hours I put in, and irrespective of the prevailing weather conditions, my true focus was to return to my ancestral home.”
Wherever a Jew finds himself in life, whatever the task that lies at hand, he has two symbiotic responsibilities: to give of himself to the best of his abilities, putting down roots and committing himself totally to the cause, while simultaneously praying and longing for the time to come, when the reward for our effort will fall due and we can “return in peace to our father’s home.”