In The Road not Taken, Robert Frost’s celebrated poem of America, The poet suggests that the spirit of the American journey is embodied in the traveler’s choice of the road “less traveled.” Since the journey serves as a meta theme within Judaism, if we employ Frost’s metaphor, what then can be said about the choice of the road Jews have traveled for 3500 years? Have Jews taken the road “less traveled” or have they traveled a different kind of road that provides definition to who they are and how they act as Jews?
One of the both endearing and enduring habits Jews possess as they travel the Jewish road is to respond to questions by asking other questions. So in this tradition, I’d like to examine the nature of the Jewish road by asking seven questions.
- Why are Jews on the Jewish Road?
The theme of traveling, whether it be moving toward somewhere, moving away from somewhere, or coming back to somewhere has always shaped the Jewish journey. While there are stories of travel in the early sections of Genesis (Adam and Eve moving from within the Garden of Eden to East of Eden, Noah and his family in the Ark, the scattering of humanity after the flood), the Jewish journey commences with the command of God to Abraham to leave his father’s home and the comfort of his birthplace and to move to a new land that God will reveal to him.
While God orders Abraham to leave, Abraham is instructed to go and volitionally respond to the journey on his own. Thus, while the journey is set out for Jews because we are born Jewish or come to Judaism by choice and the journey is part of our inheritance, or because we see it as a central demand that defines us, our willingness to embark on the Jewish journey requires a personal response that says “I’m here, and I’m willing to take it upon myself.” And as we travel, Jews individually mold the terrain benefiting both those traveling with them and those who will come after on that same road.
- Who are the Companions on the Road?
A Jewish traveler does not travel alone. Abraham’s initial Jewish journey is not a Candide-like philosophical excursion where an individual meanders toward a vague destination, experiencing randomly other individuals along the way. Nor is the Jewish journey similar to the stereotypic American journey West in which the rugged individual travels away from people and looks for personal success and satisfaction for his own sake. Abraham did not start out alone – he had his wife, his nephew Lot, other family members and assorted servants and workers.
In other words, while each person on the Jewish journey begins with his or her own commitment and response, the journey is not alone, and it is purposeful. The Jewish traveler is part of a community traveling together, family, friends, even unknown Jewish strangers half-way around the world surveying and marking the shared landscape around them, surmounting obstacles together, sometimes suffering together, and almost getting to the journey’s end together.
- What is the Relationship Between the Actual Travels and Arriving at the Destination?
Within the Jewish journey, there is great value in and emphasis on “getting there,” and while “having arrived” may offer understandable delight and satisfaction, unfortunately there is no guaranteed permanence. Abraham arrives in Canaan, leaves for Egypt due a famine, and then returns to Canaan. For 40 years, Moses determinedly leads the Jewish people to the Promised land and dies immediately before their entrance. We all know subsequent Jewish history of nationhood, exile, return, exile again and Diaspora, and return just over 70 years ago.
The Jewish journey asks each traveler for a longer term view where there are sub-stops and starts on the road, both in the traveler’s own lifetime and in the lives of future generations. But always in the farthest scan of the road ahead, the Jewish journey is toward an idea of the promised land, toward an idea of living as a Jewish community in God’s image, and that idea is never ending. From the time of the first Temple’s destruction, Jews have transported with them their hopes and dreams, beliefs, structures, and laws and always keep traveling toward the idea of a promised land wherever they may find themselves.
- What keeps Jews Going on the Jewish Journey?
Even if family and friends come along, even if the road beneath is well paved and clearly lit, without any sound expectation of coming to an end, doubt and fear may very well set in. What then keeps the participants going, particularly when the going is arduous? Part of the answer is certainly a belief in a Jewish God and in the faith and adherence to the directions given by God, but we all may at some point feel abandoned and desire certainty.
As a counter to the lack of certainty, Jews gain strength and perseverance from God’s compassion and allowance for the very doubts, for the questioning, and even the challenges to God that the individual as part of his or her own commitment and the community traveling together on the Jewish journey experience as they try to achieve their goal. The questioning, biblical, Talmudic, and modern leads to answers that clear away the obstacles, concretely, psychologically, philosophically, and theologically serving not only as means for survival and often achievement for Jews but also contributing to the well being of all peoples with whom Jews interact along the way. While clear directions are abundantly available, Jews as individuals or communities are allowed the freedom to determine both the pace, means, and content of their Jewish journeys.
- What gives Value and Meaning to the Journey?
The reaching for what may be unreachable hones the Jewish experience in a sharpened drive to find God through actions and contributions that reflect the beauty and ideals of what God might be, a mirroring of God’s image. This reach toward the perfect engenders not just the avoidance of what is prohibited, but also drives constructive action that leads to a compassion for those along the way in need and a determined pursuit of justice. The Jewish response to wrong over the last 3500 years is not the apathetic “whatever,” nor is it the amoral “just do it,” but rather the conscience-based, proactive insistence to “do the right thing,” whether it be an injustice to be redressed within the Jewish community or beyond. Emma Lazarus’ words, Jewish at heart, express the sentiments for all tired and poor traveling across a vast ocean to reach America’s shores. Goodman and Schwerner came out of Jewish New York and extended their Jewish journey to drive down a rural Mississippi road with Chaney from Meridian because after identifying segregation as an evil that cannot stand, they felt compelled to “do the right thing.”
- How do Laws and Customs influence the Jewish Journey?
The Torah gives Jews the “what, when, and how” of their Jewish journey and creates dynamically the symbols and stamps of the Jewish culture. A God, or Shechinah, or cloud above the Israelites wandering in the desert serves as an inspiration and representation of what must be followed and reached for to achieve the journey’s promise, but below there are the earthly tasks, decisions, and logistics that need to be addressed so that the spiritual aspirations of those traveling don’t bog down in the mundane, yet intricate, details of life events. With no GPS available, the Israelites in the desert travel for 40 years. During this time, the Torah provides a “road map” with detailed instructions on how to journey toward decency through individual rectitude and communal responsibilities. There are instructions for contracts, torts, hygiene, medical care, home improvement, animal husbandry, and dietary considerations. So later does the Talmud and subsequent century after century of midrash, interpretation, and commentary on what was written previously refine the “road map.”
Jews journeying over 3500 years have not just been given the instructions on how to approach and worship God, they have also been imbued with the commandments, laws, and obligations for building a more perfect society that allows them to absorb the assaults and learn lessons along the way. The journey itself then changes and constantly rebuilds the person and community. Belief motivates and spurs the journey on, but in conjunction with belief, it is the laws and customs that allow the quest to continue and even succeed.
- How does the Jewish Journey Help the Traveler Learn, Grow, and Enjoy the Travels?
As noted earlier, there are a series of starts and stops, and if the journey never ends, how do the Jewish travelers reflect on what’s occurred, gain perspective, rest, and refresh themselves to continue? The Jewish journey incorporates not only the idea of reflection and perspective, but also makes it incumbent on the traveler to rest and become refreshed through the commandment of observing the Sabbath and other holidays with set observances, special meals, and emphasis on joy. Such rest and observance fit into the larger whole of the Jewish journey and existence. The Sabbath. for example, is both practical and intrinsically part of the ideal as it both fills out the reflection Jews try to achieve of being in God’s image and broadens the moral and humane concepts of doing the right thing for themselves, for their community, for their workers, and for their animals in a quest for holiness.
The Sabbath is more than just a one day concept. It is also reflective of there being a time to move on and a time to stop from moving on, to take stock, literally and representationally, and give a nod of the spirit to joy. In the desert, the Israelites stop for extended periods of time, rest, reflect on the past, contemplate changes, and fully “rested” in the broad sense, move on. And so over 3500 years, the concept of the Sabbath has taught the Jewish travelers that on a journey that never ends, rest and reflection, we may even call it patience, are indispensable traits for helping us get there.
The Jewish journey, therefore, travels not down a road “less traveled,” but rather a road “well traveled.” The road beckons all Jews, generation after generation, to walk that road, finding personal satisfaction and building stronger community along the way. With apologies to Frost devotees, I’d like to revise his poem’s last stanza as follows:
I shall be telling this with a joyous cry,
Somewhere ages and ages hence,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the Jewish one well traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A previous version of this article appeared in The Jewish Magazine, www.jewishmag.com.