Sense of place. It’s a concept in the world of ecology that I was introduced to when I was 19-years old and majoring in Environmental Studies in college. At the time, I really had no idea what it meant. Even as professors and other students unpacked the idea to me, I found it very hard to relate to. What did it mean to feel connected to a specific place? Though I had lived in the same town for the first 17 years of my life, I felt no sense that that place, or any place, was truly my place.
This idea didn’t begin to make sense to me until I was 22 years old when I traveled to Israel for the first time. I had spent the previous two months traveling in West Africa and during my time there I recorded my experience on 13 rolls of film and the pages of three entire journals. My African friends wondered why I was always writing. However, upon arriving in Israel, something strange happened. Even though it was also my first time in Israel, I suddenly found myself no longer taking pictures and no longer writing in my journal. I couldn’t figure out why until one day it hit me. At home in New York, I didn’t take pictures and I didn’t write in my journal because these were things I only did to document time spent in new and foreign lands. While Israel was in so many ways new and foreign to me, I didn’t feel the need to document my daily experiences because I felt something there I had never felt before, not even at “home” in New York. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of place.
While I’m not the only one to experience this phenomenon, the question still begs to be asked: how does it make sense that a land I’ve never been to felt more like home than my hometown in America did within just a few days of being there?
To begin answering this question, I have to share that I am an Israel Studies educator and I have worked with groups of students visiting Israel for 13 years. Each group began their studies at the very beginning of the Jewish story as we learned about our patriarch Avraham. In class, we talked about him as a man who was completely alone in his beliefs, an individual going against the grain of an entire society. Then finally at the age of 75 he hears his first confirming voice from the one G-d who he’s believed courageously in his entire life and the first thing he is told by this one G-d is to pack his bags and get out of town. And to where? To “a place that I will show you.”
We’re not given access to Avraham’s mind and thoughts at this point in the story; we’re just told that he obediently leaves with his wife Sarah along with a following of disciples and students. At this point in my lesson, I would pause and ask my students, “What do you imagine Avraham was thinking when he heard these words? What do you think he was expecting to see in this new land to which he was being led?” They shared all kinds of answers and inevitably someone would say that Avraham is probably expecting to be brought to a paradise-like land with people who, like him, are all monotheistic and where he can fit in, feel at home and no longer feel like society’s outcast and renegade. With that in mind, we continued our learning and, using the text along with historical and archaeological evidence as our guides, would discover that the new land that Avraham is lead to is no haven for monotheism but rather a land of idol worshippers even worse than the ones he left behind.