Europe was our home, but we were never at home there

We must come home-- to the Synagogue, to Israel, to Judaism and to Torah. On that day, we too will finally be home.

A Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi reflects at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (photo credit: ADAM BEN COHEN / CHABAD.ORG)
A Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi reflects at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
(photo credit: ADAM BEN COHEN / CHABAD.ORG)
The story is told of a hassid who would travel on business to St Petersburg and return home to his Rebbe’s court. In St. Petersburg he would don modern attire and mingle with his business colleagues, at home he reverted to the Chassid’s garb.
Feeling uncomfortable with the constant switching, he decided to wear his modern attire at home. The Rebbe looked at him strangely and the hassid explained that this was his business attire. The Rebbe assured him that he had already deduced as much. “But,” said the Rebbe, “I thought you were at home in the hassid’s garb and the modern attire was your business costume. Now I see that the opposite is true. You are at home in your modern attire and the hassid’s garb is your costume.”
Divine Providence chose a path for us that place us in the big world. Whether we are in medicine, law, academics or business, we dress up every day; leave home and foray into the big world. We don a personality that suits our environment and work hard to succeed. We return at the end of the day, wash up and revert to our real personality. We go back to being a father, a mother, a member of the family. We learn Torah with our children, celebrate Shabbat and holidays, chant the blessings over our food and pray morning and night.
The question is: where are we at home? Where do we feel that we fit in and belong? Are we better suited to our secular professional persona or are we most comfortable in our Jewish selves? Which is the real me and which is the dress-up me?
When our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, they were unhappy in their distant home. They sat at the shores of the Euphrates and cried for Jerusalem. A mere seventy years later, when the exile ended, many Jews had grown so comfortable in exile that they had to be coerced to leave.
When we were exiled to Europe, we felt like foreign transplants. The Europeans didn’t welcome us; they discriminated against us and persecuted us. We built ghettos and strove to create "mini Jerusalems" behind the ghetto walls. We didn’t assimilate into the European culture. We lived in Europe, but its culture was foreign to us. Europe was our home, but we were never at home there.
Next came emancipation, and the entire culture shifted. We began to dream of liberty and equality. We began to speak the Gentile’s language and adopt Gentile values. We yearned for the gentile’s acceptance and aspired to full integration. We began to dream the gentile dream. But we never succeeded. The Jew was never embraced by Europe. They continued to hate us and discriminate against us. And when the Nazis came to slaughter us, our European friends conveniently “forgot” us.
This is reminiscent of what happened to our forefather Jacob. The Torah tells us that “Jacob settled, in the land of his father’s sojourns.” Jacob settled in and began to feel at home on his father’s land. Isaac was a sojourner on the land, he never felt at home there. He felt at home only in the synagogue and study hall. Jacob settled in on the land. He wasn’t a sojourner; he felt right at home.
Jacob was of a deeper bend. He was able to settle into the tactile and earthly lifestyle of field work without compromising his wholesome spirituality. Yet, Jacob was breaking new ground and all beginnings are fraught with risk. What came easily to Jacob had a corrupting influence on Joseph. The moment Jacob settled in and began to feel at home, he was beset by the tragedy of Joseph.
At first, Joseph had grandiose dreams of conquering the world with his Jewish ideals. He dreamed of the sun and moon prostrating before him. He had visions of sheaves in the field bowing to him. The workers and the nobles, the peasants and the rulers would all bow to Joseph’s teachings of Torah and Judaism.
When Jacob began to feel at home among the Canaanites, Joseph stopped dreaming Jewish dreams. He moved to Egypt and became self-absorbed. He stopped dreaming Jewish dreams and began to interpret Egyptian dreams. He associated with Egyptian royals, Egyptian dreams and Egyptian ideals.
We too must ask, where we stand? Are we Canadians or are we Jews? Are we ‘at home’ in the Synagogue and sojourners on the outside or are we ‘at home’ outside and sojourners in the Synagogue?
You can spend most of your day at work without your workplace becoming home. You can also spend most of your life in the Diaspora without making it your home. If we are Jewish, Israel is our home. We are in the Diaspora for a purpose. To help make these lands a holier and more Godly place. But that is our job. It’s not our home.
When the Diaspora becomes our home, when we grow comfortable with the non-Jewish culture, music, holidays and values, when we measure time by the secular calendar and forget the Jewish date, we slowly, without realizing, lose touch with our Jewish selves. We begin to identify more with our neighbors than our people. We adopt their dreams, their ideals and their values.
What happens next? Well let’s look at what happened to Joseph. He placed his hope in the hands of the Royal Butler and was bitterly disappointed. As the Torah puts it, the butler forgot him. Just as our European neighbors conveniently “forgot” us when the Nazis came to slaughter us.
The only way to respond is to do what Joseph did. He realized his error and returned to his abject faith in God. When he was summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams he gave full credence to God and to the message that God had sent through the dream. From this point onward Joseph became even more adept than his father at remaining true to his Judaism despite being integrated with Egyptian culture. Joseph succeeded in his work and transformed the whole of Egypt. Everyone bowed to him, but it wasn’t really to him. It was to his Divine message and Torah ethos.
Never again did Joseph think of Egypt as home. For him, Israel would forever be home. Indeed, before his passing he instructed that his remains be transported to Israel for burial.
And some two centuries later, Joseph was finally home.
We too must come home-- to the Synagogue, to Israel, to Judaism and to Torah. On that day, we too will finally be home.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]