Lost in the Woods

Here is the opening from Robert Frost’s great poem, “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, there I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth.

This past summer, Frost’s immortal words hung heavy on my head and in my heart as I faced what could have turned into one of the most momentous path choices of my life. A dear high school friend of mine and I were on a long-awaited hike through what was supposed to be a simple trail loop in a large New York State Park, when we literally came to not two, but three, diverging roads in a green summer wood.

Try as we might, we could not see a single trail marker anywhere. We wound up trying every one of the three possible paths to see which one would bring us to the summit overlooking what promised to be a beautiful valley, as well as cars whizzing by on the New York State Thruway, one the busiest highways in the world.  Adding a full hour to what was supposed to be our five-mile hike, we chatted away about our lives and sweated away our slowly diminishing water supplies.

Each time we would walk for 15 minutes into dead ends or power grid towers sloping towards the thruway. Each time I looked at my friend, who is an amazing triathlete, for reassurance that we would figure out where to go. Each time, he just smiled and said, “You brought a trail map and a compass. I just assumed you knew what you were doing.”  I had vaguely feared encountering bear in these woods on my car ride down. Now I was worried, a bit not a lot, about making it home before dark. My friend and I finally returned to that three-road junction and decided to head back on the trail we had been able to follow into those woods.

Alas, ahead of us on the return trip lay three paths. Clearly we had come out of one of them to arrive at this junction, but which one that was, we both forgot. So, we tried all three as the day grew hotter. I said to my friend, “Note to self: Always leave a marker of some kind when coming off of a trail, so you know where you came from, right?”  He just smiled, which at that point could have meant anything. All this time, amidst the frustration of getting literally nowhere, we continued to enjoy each other’s company, discussing all matter of things personal and political.

Finally, my friend said, “Listen to the cars on the highway just below us. If we keep walking downward, we’ll ultimately get to the thruway, and we can walk back to the trail head from there.”

Well, we did finally get to the thruway, not exactly a natural thing of beauty. As the cars sped past us near that glorious bit of paradise, the mile marker for a major exit we recognized how much further we were now than we had been when we were lost all the way up on the trail.  My friend said, “I’m gonna call Uber to have someone come get us.” Uber? What a big city solution. We can’t even get Uber where I live in upstate New York. Getting an Uber driver to pick us up on the side of the highway? No way. His Uber app wouldn’t work, so we called a taxi cab service. Over the unbearable traffic noise, the taxi dispatcher told us it would take his driver a half hour to get to us.

“Tell you what,” I finally said to my friend, “We’re tax-paying New York State residents.  Let’s call the state police!” And call them we did, all the while chatting away as we waited for them to come. The trooper who arrived was lovely. We talked about hiking, why she would never hike, for fear of getting lost, about her trip to Jerusalem with her family, and about some of my daring hiking feats when I was a much younger man.

As she dropped us off near the trail head parking lot, we thanked her profusely. “You really have quite a story to tell now,” she mused aloud. “Officer,” I responded, “I’m a rabbi.  I’m getting at least five sermons out of this debacle.” This essay was originally the first of them. My poor congregants have four more to go.

As well as I prepared for our hike, my directionally-challenged self once again just could not figure out how to get through those woods.  My friend, who has literally run the 23 miles between the southern and northern rims of the Grand Canyon in the dark, was no more prepared for this trek than I was.

The hike was a disaster, but the day wasn’t. That is because my friend and I had six hours alone to talk, catch up, get lost in the woods, and just be friends. Thinking about this, I have come to understand much better the significance of one part of Moses’ speech to the Israelites that we read in Deuteronomy:

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees. (8:2-5)

I suggest that the most important part of this Torah passage is not Moses’ recounting of all the hardships through which God put the people, a journey that turned from an eight-day backpack hike into a 40-year desert trek. The most important part of the passage is his commandment to them to remember that they wandered for 40 years, braving harshness and hunger.

Memory is what helps us to create meaning. By remembering their experience as wanderers who survived the journey, the people would understand how much God made the difference between their success and their failure. Some of the medieval Torah commentators take this idea one step further. They teach that the people’s memories of having survived well on manna, not exactly gourmet food, for 40 years, would persuade them that being in community with God and each other, and not material comforts, are what kept and could keep them, going all that time.

When we are young, we convince ourselves that we can and should chart our life paths down to the last degree on a compass. As we grow older, we try to come to terms with that inevitable mix of calculated, willed self-direction and clueless wandering making up any life. What we need to remember are the values and the relationships, the love and the friendships, that have sustained us and that continue to sustain us on those journeys.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020.)