The traditional Jewish blessings given to a bride and groom have everything to do with building a home. The new couple is blessed to build a bayit ne'eman b'Yisrael (a faithful home among the Jewish people); to create a binyan adei ad (a home that will withstand the tests of time); and to enjoy shalom bayit -- domestic tranquility.
As a new bride, I was dreaming of having my own place at last: a little nest to organize, a home to fuss over and be in charge of. In short, I wanted to set up a comfortable place to come home to. I had found the right-sized apartment, in the right neighborhood, at the right price. The landlord was honest and our neighbors were friendly. The picture was rosy. So it was quite surprising when, only a few days after the wedding, unforeseen allergies made our perfect new home uninhabitable. Overnight, our apartment was transformed into a place that was no place -- completely ideal except for the niggling detail of our not being able to live there.
So, still in the newlywed whirlwind after a whole four days of marriage, my husband and I moved out of our wasn't-meant-to-be home in a daze, accompanied only by our overnight bags and a sense of humor. We began an odyssey of packing, unpacking, and repacking through a series of short-term living solutions. Most of our worldly belongings stayed behind in boxes, but now we didn't know where -- or when -- we would be able to permanently unpack them.
Our stuff was living happily within the four walls, while we had turned nomadic. The potential was maddening.
As the weeks went on, the freshly-painted, unlivable rooms of our apartment took on a strange quality. Although the home felt like ours, it remained just out of reach, like something in a dream. Our periodic trips inside were only to retrieve necessities, and these brief visits -- digging through boxes of clothes and stumbling over half-unwrapped wedding presents -- only heightened the disorientation. Our stuff was living happily within the four walls, while we had turned nomadic. The potential was maddening.
A friend of mine who has lived on the east coast for five years still rents a storage facility in her native California. During her periodic visits home, she usually makes time to go to the storage room -- a pilgrimage she refers to as "visiting my stuff." This reluctance to part with items from the past is a peculiar phenomenon. We know we can live just fine without it all -- in fact, we don't even remember what we've left behind -- but once we see our stuff again during visiting hours, suddenly it's not just relevant; it's vital. We NEED our third grade report cards and our emotionally symbolic T-shirts. It's unbearable to think of throwing any of it away.
So we pretend to be systematic, and we flip through old photos and act as though we're organizing our papers, and after a few hours of drifting through memories we shake ourselves out of our nostalgic haze and decide that we'll organize it all another day.
My husband and I had already done this first stage of selection. Moving to Israel from another country, most of the stuff stays in storage somewhere -- in the basement, the garage, or at mom's house. Even so, we now had rooms full of boxes in our empty apartment, and we found ourselves living quite happily without them. What had seemed so crucial a few weeks ago (sheva brachot outfits) now ranked far below other items on the list of priorities (clean socks; a pen). Our stuff was irrelevant; in fact the more we had, the more we were encumbered. Any comforts of home we acquired (tablecloths, Shabbos shoes, additional toiletries) had a short-term benefit that was soon outweighed by the schlepping factor.
How can you build a Jewish home in a hotel room? By knowing that the person you love most in the world has also been wearing the same clothes for three days.
Yet, as we moved from hotels to friend's houses to short-term rentals, the true foundation of our home began to be built. Nothing had prepared us for our current situation -- so we had to create, from within ourselves, the stability and security that we had expected to feel from the four walls around us. The frustrations and upheavals of our homelessness made it absolutely crucial to find the joy in each other, and to build that joy into the cornerstone of the home we didn't have.
Our suitcase-and-duffel-bag existence forced us to re-evaluate our understanding of a home. How can you build a Jewish home in a hotel room? By having each other to share the absurdity with, and by being able to pull each other out of the frustration. By knowing that the person you love most in the world has also been wearing the same clothes for three days, and that somehow, for some reason, it's out of your hands. By knowing that you are doing the best that you can under the circumstances, and that no amount of stuff has any impact on that. By starting to realize that the organized pantry and the books on shelves and the clothes on hangers in a closet (remember closets?) are a fantasy for now, but that NOW is a reality, and HERE is a reality, and your spouse is the priority, no matter what.
The direction to invest your energy is toward the relationship, not the frustration. When you've done all that you can to change your circumstances, all you can do is change yourself.
So we have been learning to build shalom bayit without a bayit. But perhaps that is ultimately the point. God tells Moses, "Build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in them" (Ex. 25:8). Why didn't He say, "And I will dwell in IT"? Perhaps God was saying something more profound -- that once you truly invest effort into building a home, then He will come and dwell in YOU.
The essence of a home is the level of sanctity and godliness that can be achieved by the people who inhabit it. The home is merely a vessel; the point of the vessel is that it can contain something. Inside the Sanctuary - God's home in this world -- the Divine Presence rests in the soul of each Jew. So, too, in our own homes, God's presence is said to dwell between a husband and wife. In fact, in Jewish literature, the wife herself is called the home. A woman's love and loyalty and inner strength creates the essence of the Jewish family. The physical home is expendable; the interpersonal home is where we really live. This is the faith and the trustworthiness of the bayit ne'eman: a stability that is firmly rooted and completely unrelated to the physical structure that contains it. This is the priority, the first home to build. Nobody blesses a bride and groom that they should have keys to the front door.
By working on the contents of the vessel before the vessel is prepared, my husband and I have been forced to focus on the essence, not the extras. We have been compelled to live in the moment, to appreciate each other, and to recognize the blessings within every inconvenience. (After we visited one short-term rental, the elderly landlord, overcome by sympathy for the homeless young newlyweds, offered us a room in his own apartment, free of charge, "Just so you can have a roof over your heads for a night or two.") We have learned that a home can be built even while reading rental postings on bus stops, and we have gained confidence in our ability to create a strong internal place to dwell regardless of our surroundings.
Although we have finally found a new home in the material world, and I am grateful that our wanderings will be coming to an end, I have seen that the true stuff needed to build a home -- patience, humor, gratitude, faith -- is not what we had stored in boxes, but what we had stored within ourselves.