Finding Home: Building a Personal Sanctuary – Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur, Sep. 30, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso at the Congregational Yom Kippur Morning Service on Saturday, September 30, 2017. We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

Full disclosure: I’ve only been away from my smartphone for an hour, but I do miss the sense of security it provides me; it’s like a home-office bundled in a pocket-sized rectangle. Even better, it gives the mistaken impression that there is reliable permanence in a life of constant motion – and it’s all available to me at the press of a button!

One of the simplest and most practical elements of a smartphone is the “Home” function. On my iPhone, there is a round button at the bottom-center of the device. Any time I want to exit a function, all I need to do is press that round button, and I return home. Then, displayed before me, are all the beautiful apps perfectly lined up. I can begin again. If only life were the same way!

When things are not going as we would wish, wouldn’t it be great to have a special button to return us back to home?

The High Holy Days are just that: an annual opportunity to press the “home” button. Perhaps that is why so many of us come to temple during this season: it evokes a sense of home. Perhaps you have experienced a life-cycle event here, or a ritual moment you hold dear. Perhaps you draw strength or a sense of community from being within these walls, feelings that you might even carry along as the holidays draw to a close.

But these days are not just about returning to this place. The core of the word for repentance is T’shuva. T’shuva means to return, not only physically to this sanctuary, but also a return “to the land of your soul.”

Where is the land of your soul?

What do you want to return to?

What does “home” mean to you?

There is no perfect word in Hebrew for home, but “Bayit” is the closest. It means “household”. The word’s meaning goes beyond a mere physical place[1]; it’s an echo of how Jews have always been wanderers.

Even the word for Hebrews, “Ivrim”, means “wanderers”[2]. Isn’t that our history, crossing over and over again, on a continuous journey to find home?

The first Jewish journeyer, Abraham, was born and raised in Haran, his father’s home – but Haran turned out not to be Abraham’s ultimate home. After years of living in an idol-worshipping family, he was told by God to “Lech Lecha”[3], to leave his ancestral home. He was called to go out from the safety and comfort of all he knew to a land he did not know, a land that would become his true home.

Home is also embodied in those who draw us close. The first Jewish convert, Ruth, chose to make her spiritual home away from her ancestral Moabite home by joining her mother-in-law after the death of her husband. She famously said, “…wherever you will go, I will go; wherever you will lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”[4]. The Jewish people felt like home to Ruth, and she chose to follow those with whom she felt the truest connection.

Just as in the cases of Abraham and Ruth, when we head out into the world, we don’t know where our journeys will take us. Sometimes our futures do not take the direction we planned.

When King Solomon built the First Temple in the Holy Land, the Jews thought they had found their permanent home. It’s hard for us today, in our current experience of Judaism, to truly understand what it meant to the Jews of that time to build that Temple.

It represented more than just a physical home for the people of Israel – it was a spiritual and eternal home. No expense was spared to make this house of God extraordinary. The temple was built with huge blocks of the choicest stone, the beams came from the cedar trees of Lebanon, and the boards were overlaid with gold. According to Scripture the temple was 90 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high. Almost 200,000 people participated in the building. Phoenician artists and craftsmen from all over the Fertile Crescent made it beautiful. Gold, silver and bronze altars decorated the temple landscape. At the completion of the project, the community feasted for 14 days of celebration![5]

The most important feature of this grand accomplishment was the Holy of Holies, a sacred place where it was believed that God resided. The Holy of Holies was considered so exceptional that only the High Priest could enter there to pray – and only on Yom Kippur.[6]

The Holy of Holies was the spiritual center of the Jewish universe.

That temple stood for four hundred years, and – after it’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians – was replaced with a second temple a short time later. For close to 1,000 years we Jews knew where home was. But today it is hard to grasp just what the Temple’s destruction meant for our people.

When the Babylonians and Romans burned those cedars, trampled the altars, and turned over the stones—when the Holy of Holies was destroyed—the Jewish people were devastated. Lamentations were scribed[7], sackcloth and ashes marked us all, and we wept by the rivers of Babylon[8]. Today, we remember a vestige of this pain every time a happy couple hears the breaking of the glass under foot.

The fall of our temple was a turning point in the Jewish condition; the moment that determined whether we as a people would survive. We had to redefine what “home” meant to us. We no longer had a physical touchstone, we were scattered to the wind, but we still had a core that we could cling to. We still had our Torah, our beliefs, and our values.

We made Judaism portable, making wherever we lived a Mikdash Me’at—what the prophet Ezekiel coined a “temple in miniature—a small sanctuary.”[9] We learned that we are more than the worst thing that could happen to us. We learned that when we are lost, we can tap into the Mikdash Me’at, that portable sanctuary that we have created.

We really never know whether the home we have built for ourselves will turn out to be temporary or permanent. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book “Option B,” describes what she went through when the safe harbor she had built with her husband was gone after his sudden death. Without her husband, Dave, she was left standing in the rubble of a life she had once assumed would be hers forever. She writes:

Grief is a demanding companion. In those early days and weeks and months, it was always there, not just below the surface but on the surface. Simmering, lingering, festering. Then, like a wave, it would rise up and pulse through me, as if it were going to tear my heart right out of my body. In those moments, I felt like I couldn’t bear the pain for one more minute, much less one more hour.[10]

Sandberg could have allowed her life to become defined by lamentations, sackcloth, and ashes. Instead, she was slowly able to build a Mikdash Me’at, a small, personal sanctuary anew. She discovered that she could be a single parent and that she could still function at work. She learned that her family was right there for her, and she found out on which friends she could depend. She found that focusing on gratitude helped her to build resilience. She eventually gave herself permission to experience moments of joy. She said this:

The thing about happiness is I think sometimes we’re waiting for the big stuff to be happy…But happiness isn’t always the big things. Happiness is actually the little things, the little moments that make up our day. And in the face of Dave’s death, the big thing was not getting better, and it’s still not better. So if I wait for that to get better to feel any happiness, I’m never gonna feel it.[11]

Sandberg found her core, the internal strengths and values that she could cling to. In her darkest moments, she had the capacity to return, return to the new personal sanctuary that she never expected to have to build.

As you look back over the past year, you probably had many unexpected challenges. I can tell you that I had moments that surprised me, frustrated me, saddened me, and, yes, moments that even made me cry. Sometimes I was able to call on my resilience, while other times I felt I lacked it. I also found myself humbled by the strength of those who had lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a dear family member or friend – and yes, even some who had to bury a child. I witnessed people struggling with personal, professional, and social challenges. For many, even the fibers of this country we thought were so strong, seem to be torn apart. Our disappointments and fears may have rocked us, leaving us feeling unmoored.

At the same time, I spent the year proud of my kids as they continue to grow and evolve, often astonished at the great strides they take. I continue to learn from my wife, and remain wowed that she still puts up with me! I am often unexpectedly overcome with the great love I feel for my colleagues here at temple, and strengthened by the learning and support that we share. I am grateful for each moment of joy that life brings me.

The one thing we can count on is that what we thought was permanent—both sadness and joy—may turn out to be temporary, and what we thought was temporary may turn out to have lasting impact. Change is constant, and we must remain nimble to keep up.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes, “If you are the same as you were last year, you have died a little in the interim.”[12] In the face of this truth, when we are feeling unmoored, what can we return to as our core, our “home”? What does home look like for you?

I see “home” as being a state of feeling safe, valued, connected, and peaceful. It doesn’t depend on being with a certain person, or in a certain place, although those things may be part of it. You may feel at home when you are exploring a cherished talent, or knowing that you are doing a good job at work. It may be when you are performing a mitzvah and feeling gratified that you are making a difference.

It may be the pleasure of belonging to a community. It comes from knowing what matters to you and acting on it. It comes from knowing what it is about you that matters to others. It comes from being your best self. This is your personal Mishkdash Me’at, your core, and you can return to it no matter what challenges you encounter in your life.

I’ll close with a story…Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, told the story of his daughter, Hannah, who faced many personal challenges and tested her parents to their limits. After years of alternative schooling programs and therapies, they enrolled Hannah in a program called, ‘Urban Pioneers”. Each student in the program got rigorous training in wilderness skills.

On the last day of the training, Hannah and her mates were split up into small groups. Her group got caught in a fierce and sudden storm in the Sierras out west. They were lost. For days they “staggered through the mountains, pelted by high winds, rain, and snow, running out of food and water, soaked to the bone. Several of them came down with hypothermia. Hannah kept one of these kids alive by lying on top of her and warming her with the heat of her body for an entire night.”[13] Thankfully, a helicopter found the kids the next day.

When Hannah came back home her parents were astounded by how “radiant” she was – this was a kid who found resources she never even knew existed. Hannah had turned a corner. She learned that she is someone who is able to survive, and able to help someone else survive. She learned that day that she mattered.

Indeed, reaffirming what matters to us, and how we matter to others, is central to the High Holy Days. Each year we must create a Mikdash Me’at anew. Each year we must put ourselves through a reckoning. What tested us this year? What challenged our patience? What shook our lives at the very foundations? What did we learn about ourselves and about the others in our lives?

Who came through for us in ways we might not have expected? Where did we find comfort and joy? What made us feel like we have found our true home? How close did we come to being our best selves? What can we do to make amends for the times when we missed the mark?

Yes, the High Holy Days are an opportunity to press the “home” button. The capacity for T’shuvah, for returning to our best selves, is central to Judaism. May we use this opportunity to reset our lives in a way that makes us feel like we have found our true home.





[3] Genesis 12:1

[4] Ruth 1:16

[5] I Kings 6; II Chronicles 3



[8] Psalm 137

[9] Ezekiel 11:16

[10] Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

[11] ibid.

[12] The Jewish Way, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, p. 202

[13] The Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew