This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –
Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown. Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R. Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family. And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend. To one and all, welcome home!
The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore. Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place. But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore. But the truth is that is happening less and less. New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville. Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes. And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers. And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis. What we do for our children!
I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore. I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep. AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst. When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’ I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’ And her answer: ‘Washington DC!’ So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people. But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time. And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.
You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’ Anyone know what that is? It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds. And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world. So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family. The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.
On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children. One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa. Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18. For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all. They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents. That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.
I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion. Jacob is like an Amish youth or Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world. At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world. He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually. He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy. And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home. The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.
There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land. In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself. My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures. They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person. But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.
And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way. We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense. Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values. Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud. When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home. When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home. When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home. Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be. And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.
That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese . It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be. But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.