By Jonah C. Steinberg, Harvard Hillel Chaplain
“Thus all the work that King Solomon did building the House of the Eternal One was completed...” (I Kings 7:51)
If, as according to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel, “Israel had no greater days of joy than the fifteenth of the month of Av and the Day of Atonement,” (Mishnah, Ta’anit4:8) it can similarly be said that Harvard College has no greater days of joy than Commencement and Housing Day.
On Housing Day, our freshmen, in their blocking-groups of mutually selected fellows in fate, are apportioned—as though by some all-knowing, Solomonic sorting-hat—into the twelve residential Houses (not to say tribes) that become, respectively, not only their homes, but also the principal sources of essentials ranging all the way from academic advising to coffee, for the remaining three years of their undergraduate careers.
Faculty Deans—until this year known as the Masters of each House—become mascot—if not Moses-like figures in the student experience. Instantly, and virtually without exception, each rising upperclassman joins an ages-old tradition of insisting that her or his is the best of all possible Houses. Immediately, one sees the incipience of personal identification with the semi-official polar bears of Pforzheimer House, the hares of Leverett, the stags of Dunster. Jewish students join with peers of all origins in the strains of a song about being “forever Lowell,” which—for those who know anything of the late, eponymous Harvard President’s attitude toward our people and other others—is how I like my irony.
All of this is all the more fascinating for the assignments’ being, for some generations now (and in spite of various conspiracy theories), entirely random. And all this has now taken place—just yesterday—even as we arrive, in the Jewish cycle of Torah-readings, at the end of the book of Exodus and to the story of our people’s completing, in the wilderness, the construction of a Dwelling Place for the Divine Presence.
“Life is with people”—as Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog aptly title their book about the culture of the Shtetl, the intensely cathectic town or village that is the subject of so many wistful Yiddish songs. Harvard gets that right. The medieval Jewish mystical tradition goes so far as to consider the community of the people as one way to conceive of the Shekhinah, the indwelling imminence of Divinity in the world, at least in the ideal. The point is that, for most of us, the essential and most influential experiences of life are relational.
The universal reprieve of Yom Kippur, and the ancient account of how, on the fifteenth of Av, the maidens of Jerusalem, ready to find their mates, would go singing and dancing into the fields, wearing white garments they had borrowed from one another to obscure distinctions of wealth and privilege, indicate an essential equality in the sacred joy that comes of constituting community together. One does not expect a thick cloud of mysterious, heavenly glory to descend and fill Mather House, or Cabot, or Currier, or Eliot—which is what happens in the Tabernacle, according to the scriptural verses we read this week, as God becomes manifest in the heart of the Israelite camp—but I will venture to say that something somewhat of that ilk does happen in the atmosphere of Housing Day.
It is to do with a convergence of people and of purpose. In the Shtetl, likely one hasn’t personally appointed the baker, the butcher, the grocer, even the matchmaker or the rabbi—but one finds oneself saying, this is my butcher, my baker, my grocer, my Faculty Dean, and so forth, and we are in this together. This is the vehicle in which we travel for a time through life—not perfect, perhaps—perhaps in some ways rickety and peculiar—perhaps even, at times, precarious and less than perfectly comfortable—but ours together. I’m a sophomore in Adams, in Winthrop, in Kirkland, or in Quincy, our students discover themselves saying—and, happenstantial as that may be at root, it is a true statement about oneself, entailing a sense of belonging and rightful connection to a structure that helps one get somewhere.
Prophets of the biblical tradition remind us that a House can all too easily be an empty thing, if one considers the mere physical shell sufficient in itself. On the other hand, when we are mindful of what the House is intended to house—what it is meant to make possible, in a relational sense—then one can discover in the House a threshold of transcendence.