I was a remote worker long before the pandemic made it a thing, but it was only this year that I really took advantage of it. Early on the morning of New Year’s Day, I boarded a plane from Connecticut bound for Mexico, where I spent a full month sleeping in thatch-roofed palapas, eating more tacos than was probably wise and bathing every day in the Pacific. I’ll spare you the glorious details, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a January.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found myself again and again coming into contact with expats who had traded in their urban lives in northern climes for a more laid-back life in the tropics. There was the recently divorced motorcycle enthusiast slowly wending his way southward by bike as he continued to work a design job for a major American bank. There was the yoga instructor born not far from where I live in Massachusetts who owned an open-air rooftop studio just steps from the waves. There were the countless couples who had chosen to spend their days running beachfront bars or small hotels on the sand. And then there were the seemingly endless number and variety of middle-aged northerners rebooting their lives in perpetual sunshine.
Such people have long mystified me. It’s not hard to understand the lure of beachside living, and part of me envies the freedom to design your own life from the ground up. But there’s also something scary about it. Arriving in middle age in a country where you know nobody, whose language is not your own, whose laws and cultural mores, seasons and flora, are all unfamiliar — it feels like the essence of shallow-rootedness, like a life devoid of all the things that give one (or at least me) a sense of comfort and security and place. The thought of exercising the right to live literally anywhere and any way I choose opens up a space so vast and limitless it provokes an almost vertiginous fear of disconnection and a life adrift.
Clearly, this feeling isn’t universally shared. And the fact that I have it probably owes a lot to my upbringing. I grew up in an Orthodox family, which by necessity meant life was lived in a fairly small bubble. Our house was within walking distance of our synagogue, as it had to be since walking was the only way to get there on Shabbat and holidays. I attended a small Jewish day school, where virtually all of my friends came from families with similar religious commitments. Keeping kosher and the other constraints of a religious life had a similarly narrowing effect on the horizons of my world and thus my sense of life’s possibilities. Or at least that’s how it often felt.
What must it be like — pardon the non-kosher expression — to feel as if the world is your oyster? That you could live anywhere, love anyone, eat anything and make your life whatever you want it to be? Thrilling, yes — but also frightening. The sense of boundless possibility I could feel emanating from those sun-baked Mexicans-by-choice was seductive, but tempered by aversion to a life so unmoored.
The tension between freedom and obligation is baked into Jewish life. The twin poles of our national narrative are the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, each commemorated by festivals separated by exactly seven weeks in the calendar, starting with Passover. The conventional understanding is that this juxtaposition isn’t accidental. God didn’t liberate the Israelites from slavery so they could live free of encumbrances on the Mayan Riviera. Freedom had a purpose, expressed in the giving of the Torah at Sinai, with all its attendant rules and restrictions and obligations. Freedom is a central value of Jewish life — Jews are commanded to remember the Exodus every day. But Jewish freedom doesn’t mean the right to live however you want.
Except it might mean the right to live any place you want. In the 25th chapter of Leviticus, God gives the Israelites the commandment of the Jubilee year, known as yovel in Hebrew. Observed every 50 years in biblical times, the Jubilee has many similarities to the shmita (sabbatical) year, but with some additional rituals. The text instructs: “And you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”
Among the requirements of the Jubilee was that ancestral lands be returned to their original owners. Yet the word for liberty is a curious one: “d’ror.” The Talmud explains its etymology this way: “It is like a man who dwells [medayer] in any dwelling and moves merchandise around the entire country” (Rosh Hashanah 9b).
The liberty of the Jubilee year could thus be said to have two contrary meanings — individuals had the right to return to their ancestral lands, but they were also free not to. They could live in any dwelling they chose. The sense of liberty connoted by the biblical text is a specifically residential one: the freedom to live where one chooses. Which pretty well describes the world we live in today. Jewish ancestral lands are freely available to any Jew who wants to live there. And roughly half the Jews of the world choose not to.
Clearly, I’m among them. And while I technically could live anywhere, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. I like where I live — not because of any particular qualities of this place, though I do love its seasons and its smells and its proximity to the people I care about and the few weeks every fall when the trees become a riotous kaleidoscope. But mostly because it’s mine.
Ben Harris is the managing editor of My Jewish Learning, where a version of this essay first appeared.