Leaving Home: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

From my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon last Wednesday night:

So here’s my question for this Rosh Hashanah: how will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? In ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees? For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition: how might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense to create a doorway that leads outward?

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Two years ago, I gave a sermon in which I discussed the spiritual theme of “coming home.” I’m sure you’ve all long since committed that sermon to memory, but just in case you need a little reminding: I began by commenting how strange it was that we never actually get to read about the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land in the Torah.

This is what I said:

When you think about it, the Torah really is the ultimate cliffhanger. It starts with the promise of coming home, it brings the nation to the threshold, then it rewinds right back to the beginning and starts all over again.

If you do want to read about the homecoming, of course, you can. That occurs in the sequel to the Torah – otherwise known as Nevi’im or Prophets. But you know what they say about sequels. It’s never, or almost never, as good as the original. The homecoming is actually quite a messy business. Nothing really goes according to plan, and things go downhill fairly quickly. Those who have read on in Nevi’im invariably understand why the Torah ends where it does – and why only these first five books are invariably considered to be our most sacred of writings.

The reason, I believe, is because Judaism has always found redemption not in the homecoming itself, but in the process of coming home.  And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense: if you understand the world in terms of sacred history, homecoming represents the end of history.  Once you arrive home, the story is over.  (Anyone who has seen “The Wizard of Oz” knows this to be true).


Well, it’s two years later and I’m here to tell you I’ve reconsidered things.  I’ve changed my mind.  Since giving that sermon, I’ve come to believe that there is another spiritual theme that is even more compelling, more essential than the experience of “coming home.”  And strangely enough, it’s actually the polar opposite: that’s right: it’s the experience of “leaving home.”

Now, I realize that this might sound odd or at least counter-intuitive. “Leaving home?” What’s so spiritually comforting about that? Isn’t home where we want to be?  Isn’t home the epitome of safety and security?  At the end of the day, don’t we all yearn to find our way back home?

Maybe so – but I would also argue that it’s the moment we leave home that the true spiritual transformation occurs. When we leave behind the comfortable and the familiar, when we choose to go beyond the safe and secure. The moment we decide we’re ready to risk everything we’ve ever known for that which only might be.

Actually, when you come to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result of these moments, they are transformed in pretty fundamental ways.

The first leave-taking, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve are forced to depart from the Garden of Eden. And what does their departure represent?  I tend to believe that their exit from the Garden represents the moment in which they truly grow up. In Eden, they live a naive and childlike existence where they want for nothing. But when the eat of the fruit, when their eyes are opened to the truth of the world outside the Garden, they are transformed into adults, as it were.

Of course this transformation can only fully take place once they leave Eden and make their way in the world. And, yes one of the first lessons they learn is that the world is not a paradise. The world can be a difficult and challenging and harsh place. But on the other hand, unlike Eden, where each day is like the last, the real world is a dynamic place. A place of potential: where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.

Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their father’s house in their native land of Ur-Kasdin and head out to a land that God will show them. It’s notable that God doesn’t immediately tell them where they will be going. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the event in which they leave behind the known and the comfortable for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.

There are many, many more such moments. In tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, we’ll read a story in which Abraham casts his wife Hagar and his son Ishmael out of their home and into the wilderness, where they eventually experience a divine encounter and promise of their own. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, God comes to Abraham in the middle of the night and commands him to leave his home the next morning with his son Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountaintop that God will show him.

Still later in the Torah, Jacob has flees from his home to escape the wrath of his twin brother Esau. As he encamps in the wilderness, God appears to him in a dream amidst a ladder of ascending and descending angels. In the book of Exodus, Moses has to leave his home in Egypt after killing an Egyptian slave master. Shortly after, he experiences a divine revelation – again in the wilderness – from the midst of a burning bush.

The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. They escape, yes, into the wilderness – where God is revealed to them at Mt. Sinai. While it might seem strange to say Egypt was the Israelites’ “home,” one of the many lessons of this story is that we don’t always make our homes in the healthiest places.  As oppressive as it was, Egypt was indeed their home to during their enslavement.  In fact, the story indicates that they felt a little too much at home there. Just think about how reluctant they were were to leave – and how much they pined away for the comforts of Egypt during their wanderings.

One of the most powerful common denominators in these stories, as you have probably deduced by now, is that most of them involve leaving home and heading off into the wilderness. The wilderness, of course, represents the unknown, the uncharted, the place of potential danger – but, notably, that the wilderness is invariably the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.

In other words, it’s only when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, that we’re able to truly hear the voice of God.  In this regard, the wilderness represents an existential place far from the noise of culture, artifice and ego. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.

Another obvious common denominator between these stories is this: almost all of them involve a significant element of danger.  In many cases, leave-taking is a matter of life and death. Jacob runs away from home because his brother Esau seeks to kill him.  Moses escapes to Midian because Pharaoh wants him dead. Later, the Israelites will leave Egypt, and is immediately pursued by Pharaoh’s army.

So why are they all running for their lives?  My favorite explanation comes from the commentator Sylvia Boornstein, who writes:

They are running for their lives because without this kind of direct and mindful experience of our lives, it is as if we are dead. The bell continues to ring, but it is as if we are not there, as if we are not experiencing our lives, as if our lives are going on without us. So we see these biblical figures taking leave of a kind of living death. Entombed in habit and convention, they are dead to their lives. Taking leave, they are literally running for their lives – toward their lives – rushing toward on embrace of their actual present-tense experience. (From “Be Still And Get Going” by Alan Lew, p. 19)


In other words, while home and hearth might well represent comfort and tranquility to the traveler, once we reach home it invariably becomes a place we use to escape reality – a of place complacency, rather than comfort. And so, one way or another, we all have to leave home. We have no choice. If we don’t, our existence may well become a kind of living death. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside our front door, when we truly encounter the world – that’s when we truly live.

So what does this mean for us in realistically?  Obviously, most of us aren’t necessarily able to pack up, leave our homes and head out and go on a vision quest in the Kalahari.  Our existences feel so utterly wrapped up, so enmeshed in managing our complicated home lives. And now here’s your rabbi telling you that you have to leave your home in order to truly live?

The first thing I’d suggest is to think about this metaphor in existential terms. Whether we prefer to call it spiritual experience, inner growth, or personal transformation, we leave home whenever we depart from our comfort zones, when we leave the familiar and the known behind, and head out with no with no guarantees. Nothing but the promise – sometimes merely the hope of a promise – of a better future.

So no, we don’t need to pull a Kerouac to actually leave home. We just have to leave find a way to regularly challenge our sense of complacency, to resist what is safe and familiar –to welcome the unknown territory outside our door with openness and love.

In truth, we’re already doing this in a myriad of ways without even realizing it. For most of us in middle class America, the paradigmatic moment of leave-taking occurs when we graduate from high school.  This has, become in fact, one of the most central and profound rites of passage in our lives. We are all too familiar with the crazy mixed-up emotions that accompany this passage: joy, sadness, excitement, fear, elation, trepidation, mystery…

But when you think about it, when a child leaves home, it’s not only the child who is leaving home. In an experiential sense, the parents are leaving home as well. Just like their son or daughter, they are going through the very same process, traveling through the very same emotional terrain, only from the other side of the equation.

There are so many other examples of experiential leave taking in our lives. When we start a meaningful new relationship. When we start a new career. When we have a child. There are actually so many ways large and small in which we leave behind the familiar home we know and set out into uncharted waters. And in each case, these forms of “leave-taking offer us the opportunity for transformation: to face the truth of our lives and the reality of the world around us.

So here’s my question for this Rosh Hashanah: how will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? In ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees? For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition: how might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense to create a doorway that leads outward?

There are indeed ways we can consciously incorporate leave-taking into our lives. That is the essential function of worship and all forms of spiritual discipline, after all. Indeed, those who pray, practice yoga or meditate regularly – or even those who work out – will attest that these disciplines allow them to leave everyday consciousness behind and experience a deeper form of awareness – to dwell in the reality of the moment. We also know conclusively that these forms of spiritual discipline are not only important for our spiritual health, but for our physical well-being as well. So it turns out that we leave home in this way, we may quite literally be “running for our lives” after all.

Now I don’t mean to romanticize any of this for a second. Going forth is no easy matter. It’s not what you’d call “fun.” Going forth can often be brutal, especially when you are, so to speak “kicked out of the house.” It’s one thing to be an Abraham and a Sarah, bidden by God to set out on a spiritual odyssey with the promise that their family will become a great nation. It’s quite another to be thrown out and abandoned in the wilderness like Hagar and and Ishmael.

Pastorally speaking, I’d never dare for a second to suggest to someone who was going through this kind of pain that that’s actually an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.  I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all well and good for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.

But I will say this: those of us who are blessed with warm comfortable homes would well to realize that they are actually much more illusory than we are willing to admit – and that we dwell in them,  if you pardon the expression, “but for the grace of God…” I’d also suggest that the more we manage to leave the complacency of our comfortable homes, the more empathic we will become toward those who lack these kinds of blessings. I daresay the ones most likely to devote themselves to ending the injustice of homelessness, poverty and hunger are the ones who are willing to go beyond their comfort zones. The ones who with the courage to head deep into the wilderness and face up to the hard truths about our world.

It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t.  Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind.  But what is our our alternative?  Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.

It recently occurred to me that the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking.  In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future.  In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.

In so many ways, the High Holidays give us the opportunity to face up to these truths.  After all, Rosh Hashanah is the annual celebration of our rebirth. We leave the familiar home of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to enter a year that remains yet to unfold.

How do we do this? How do we reckon with the unknown territory of the year ahead? We proclaim as part of our liturgy:“Hayom harat olam!” “On this day the world is born!”  We call Rosh Hashanah the birthday of the world – which means that this the day in which we affirm that our own worlds can truly be created anew. Like newborns, we leave the home of the past and find the wherewithal to enter the wilderness of a new year.

Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will give us the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year some of us will live and some of us will die. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty? We will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will mourn those whom we’ve lost. And only then we will we be ready to take that step over the threshold of a year yet to come.

So here we are. Another new year has arrived. Another door has opened before us. The gates have opened wide. Let’s join hands, step forward, and walk through them together.

1 thought on “Leaving Home: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

  1. Kristin Lems

    great sermon Rabbi! As a parent of a kid who has indeed just “left home” for college, reading the article provided a deepening of the experience for me and help me put it into context. Maybe I’ll stop sniffling a little sooner, now.


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