The chapters of history are written in our homes - opinion

This centrality of the home and of family comes into renewed focus on Rosh Hashanah.

A BOY prepares to eat an apple with honey, as is traditional on Rosh Hashanah.  (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
A BOY prepares to eat an apple with honey, as is traditional on Rosh Hashanah.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
Over the past few weeks I’ve held a series of public conversations with a variety of Jewish thought leaders. The objective of these conversations is to help process – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually – what we have all been through during these last six months.
A theme that emerged from these conversations is how, during these turbulent times, our focus shifted from the global to the personal, from the societal to the domestic. In a conversation with Rabbi YY Jacobson, a soulful, profound thinker, we talked about how the home has become so central to life at this time – that with the world outside in turmoil, our homes became a haven; a place of safety and peace, where we found refuge.
We also spoke about how being confined to our homes gave us the time and space we needed to reconnect with our families and nurture our most precious relationships. It would be a pity to leave behind these newly acquired insights and perspectives when our lives return to normal eventually. We can take them with us into the new year 5781.
This centrality of the home and of family comes into renewed focus on Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah is so global, so cosmic in its scope. As we say in the Machzor, the prayer book for the High Holy Days, “Our God and the God of our forefathers, reign over the entire universe in Your glory; be exalted over all the world in Your splendor ... Let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker.”
And yet, the readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – both from the Torah and the Prophets – deal with intensely personal matters: the struggle of two great Jewish matriarchs to have children and how their prayers were answered. The Talmud (Megillah 31a) teaches that the reason for the choice of these readings is that Sarah and Chana’s prayers were answered on Rosh Hashanah.
Our sages’ choice of readings for these awesome days reflects their understanding that God views these family matters as hugely significant. Our homes and our family life stand at the center of Jewish destiny.
When God tells the history of the world in the Book of Genesis, He does so through recording the lives of the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish people. It is the story of their families and what happened to them, and how they established their homes and carried their Divine mission in the context of their domestic lives. We are told at great length and in extraordinary detail of marriages and births and family dynamics and business transactions and agricultural endeavors.
THE MESSAGE is clear. The focus is not on the large, headline-grabbing events – the chapters of history are written in our homes. How we treat our loved ones, how we raise our children, how we live our Divine values at home are the crucial questions for us to face. The Jewish home has been the heart and soul of Jewish destiny. It has been the place where every new generation of Jews has been raised and given values and principles for life. And we have all learned that lesson so powerfully over this last year.
With the world in chaos, our home became a haven – not only from a health and safety point of view, but also emotionally and spiritually.
So as we make our resolutions to become better people in 5781, let us place our focus on how we can make our homes more Jewish, more inspiring and more loving, more filled with kindness and faith. There is one mitzvah in particular that can bring all these precious things into the heart and soul of our homes: Shabbat.
The Zohar compares Shabbat to Noah’s ark. During the great flood that devastated the world, the ark provided Noah and his family with a sanctuary from the turmoil raging outside. And the ark was not only a physical refuge from the flood waters, but a spiritual refuge. It was, most of all, a haven of kindness, where Noah and his family spent all their time caring for the animals within.
Shabbat provides a similar sanctuary. Like Noah’s ark, it is a tranquil space where we can find emotional safety and security. And, like the ark, Shabbat is a place of kindness and love. It is a day for parents and children to really connect with no distractions. It is a day for husbands and wives to be together without the burdensome daily administration of life to attend to.
It is a day of sacred time for love and relationships. It is a day we bond with loved ones in a spirit of openhearted kindness and care, nurturing our family on these loving foundations. It is a day of faith and trust in God, and a day for embracing all our most precious eternal values. It is a day we reaffirm our Divine mission and values.
The flood waters turned the world upside down, creating total disarray. We, too, have lived through times of chaos and confusion. But our homes have been havens, and Shabbat can ensure they remain havens – places of stability and security, of kindness and connection, of warmth and love, of faith and inspiration.
Now, while we’re looking back on the past six months, and looking forward to a brand new year, is our chance to seize this precious gift.
Let us make 5781 the year of the Jewish home. Let us make it the year of Shabbat.
The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project, which will be taking place this year on November 6-7.