As we ponder the fate of a million fellow Americans suddenly forced out of their homes for an indeterminate amount of time by Hurricane Katrina, we do well to consider once again deeply what it is we mean when we say “home.”
What do you mean when you say “I feel at home?” What am I telling you when I say, “Make yourself at home?” And what is it I pine for when I realize I am homesick?
“At home.” “Away from home.” “Homeless.” “Homesick.” These are different ways people inhabit the world. Some of us seem to feel at home most everywhere. And some of us, alas, seem to feel at home nowhere. Most of us, I believe, have a memory or a sense, a dream or a vision, of being at home, of being safe, secure, at ease, comfortable, recognized, cherished, loved.
Consider if you will two different visions of home: First there is the impulse to build a place of your own that is protected, private, separate. A refuge or a sanctuary to which you may retreat, your own island of calm, a place you know so well you can forget it, a bounded area where you can walk barefoot with your eyes closed. A home in the world, a domicile in the context of exile. Home as escape, asylum, release.
There is a second vision of home — a vision captured in the thought that the world already is our home, that we are earthlings, creatures of this planet, denizens of this orb. But dragged in the wake of this thought is the harsh fact that although we inhabit this planet, earth for most of us is not our sanctuary, not a place where we feel cherished. For too many of us earth is a prison, a crowded refugee camp, a place of hunger, neediness, anxiety, despair.
But imagine if you will a world in which everyone feels at home. No strangers, no refugees, no displaced persons. Pilgrims, travelers, tourists, seekers, yes. But no one forced into homelessness. Imagine a world at peace, free of hunger and poverty, each of us sitting under our grapevine and fig tree and there is no one to make us afraid.
To the extent that I regard this vision as a wishful fantasy, I do well to build myself a fortress, a bulwark against the un-homed, the have-nots, the un-propertied. Home as bunker in a world doomed to eternal war.
But as my mind continues to absorb the images of thousands and thousands of homes and lives laid waste by wind and water, I cannot stop thinking about home in yet another way. What if home is not a privilege that some of us merit, but rather a human inheritance, a birthright, a legacy?
If home is a universal gift, then our world — filled as it is with so many people displaced, unplaced, un-homed — is broken and in need of mending, sick and in need of healing, grief-struck and in need of comfort.
It follows then that those of us fortunate enough to feel ourselves at home, are the ones who can mend, heal and comfort. We are the ones who can hold that home is the place where you can and do extend hospitality to strangers. That it is the guest room, the extra couch, the added space at the table that turns a house into a home. That you have not built yourself a home in the world until you can finally open the doors of your home to the world.
We can proclaim that no one can really be at home in this world until everyone is at home. And we can hear and accept the simple commandment: Make home happen.
Rabbi James Ponet is Yale’s Jewish Chaplain and the director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.