A house is where you live, a home is where your journey ends


Exodus 38:21-40:38

I Kings 7:51-8:21

The last few words of this week’s Torah portion shed light on the distinction between house and home: “The cloud … and the fire … were visible to the entire Jewish people, in all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38).

Even though during most of the 40 years in the desert the Jews were stationary, the Torah nevertheless refers to the desert experience as a “journey.” Rashi explains that the series of dwellings collectively make up a journey, because the Jewish people never intended to stay any one place they stopped. They knew they’d soon be moving on.

This suggests there are two fundamental lifestyles: In one, a person moves to a place because this is where he or she ultimately wants to live; in the other, a person moves but never intends to stay permanently.

When does a house become a home? When does a job become a cause? An obligation become a responsibility? An acquaintance become a friend? A teacher become a mentor? Affection become love?

With everything in life, definition is the key. Definition is the first step to living as opposed to existing, of finding purpose in life as opposed to going through the motions. Otherwise — house, home — what’s the difference?

Definition is always difficult before experience. If you have never had a true friend, it is difficult to define one. But it’s a big mistake not to define a term before the experience. Otherwise, the experience may form a definition different from the reality — for example, people who are infatuated often mistake the experience as love.

How do you know whether you have a house or a home? How do we define the difference?

The Torah lists all the journeys the Jewish people experienced while wandering in the desert (see Numbers 33). In 38 years the Israelites traveled 20 times. If you travel 20 times in 38 years, then you are experiencing a “journey” and not a series of homes.

Does this mean to suggest that the essential difference between a journey and a home is whether or not you move once every couple years? I believe the difference between house and home has more to do with the outlook of the one living there than the actual time spent.

Living in a house is like living out of a perpetual suitcase. Houses are great for holding families, or storing our clothes and books. But they are rarely used to “live” in. Houses are often only fancy bases from which to vacate, or from which to leave for work — a sort of base camp for the summit. We stay in them until they get too small for the new family, or too big for one or two, or too far away from the new job, or too close to the new enemies.

It could very well be that your home is really just a house.

It’s analogous to wearing someone else’s clothes. They never quite fit. If you are living in a house and not a home, it’s like living in someone else’s clothes. You call it your home, you go home to it, but it’s just an address and somewhere to hang your clothes and sleep at night. It’s an estranged feeling of not quite fitting; you can ignore it, but it underpins everything.

No one likes to think of oneself as a wanderer, transient, passer-by, drifter or nomad. To do so is to realize you have no place called home. We like to think of our houses as homes, because it’s far more comforting.

The kabbalists say that our desire to travel and move is actually an expression of our soul’s yearning to find its place in this world. So really we are not running from, we are running to! We aren’t fleeing, we are searching; we are looking not hiding, questioning not disappearing.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.