“And when a person shall sanctify his house to be holy to the Lord…”
In ancient biblical days - and particularly in the days of the Temple - people consecrated the worth of property, objects and even themselves to support the Temple or to support Israelite leadership. One would evaluate what something or someone was worth (a complex process) and give that amount to a charitable cause. It was a way of evening out the economic playing field. If I buy a new house, I may translate this blessing into supporting God’s house, as we see from the verse above. Donations may have been consecrated by kings from spoils of war, giving back to the spiritual source that helped them achieve victory. The Talmud on the verse above proposes that “Just as one’s house is in one’s possession, so too anything that one consecrates must be in his possession” [BT Bava Kamma 69b]. You have to own what you give away, just as what you give away is often mirrored by what you own.
A house is an interesting choice of designation, and it shows how important a house is in the life of a human being; it becomes a marker of personal worth. In Jewish life, we use the Hebrew word “bayit” to signify not only a house but a gathering space for study - beit midrash - for prayer - a beit keneset - and for the center of our ancient community - a beit ha-mikdash, our holiest house. In Jewish life we move from house to house, imbuing sacredness to each space by virtue of the activities that take place there. A person needs a home, an anchor of stability; in this changing, chaotic world, every soul needs to be an island of repose.
In this spirit, it was very hard to digest this line in Matthew Desmond’s latest book: “Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions.” In his study of poverty in the American city, Evicted, he writes how much people are taken advantage of because they don’t live in homes they own. “‘Every condition exists,’ Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, ‘simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.’ Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate.” He traces the lives of people who have been evicted and the landlords who evict them. It is a gripping and heartbreaking read.
This vicious cycle is nearly impossible to break, especially when exploitation centers on the basics: food and housing. “If the poor pay more for their housing, food, durable goods and credit, and if they get smaller returns on their education and mortgages (if they get returns at all), then their incomes are even smaller than they appear. This is fundamentally unfair,” Desmond writes. Desmond tells us something we’ve always known about housing: “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their homes and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.” If this is true, then we understand the deeper costs of eviction: “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty.”
Perhaps this is what the prophet Jeremiah understood when he taught Jewish exiles how to live in their host countries. After the destruction of our shared spiritual house - the Temple - Jeremiah advised us to build homes and settle in exile, a counterintuitive message, to be sure. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'” [Jeremiah 29:5-7].
Historically, we may have been evicted, but we will and we have rebuilt. Now it’s time to turn our attention to those who haven’t.