Saturday, December 5th | 19 Kislev 5781

July 11, 2018 1:10 pm

Parshat Matot-Masei: Miles to Go Before I Sleep

avatar by Jonathan Sacks


A Torah scroll. Photo:

“To be elsewhere — the great vice of this race, its great and secret virtue, the great vocation of this people.” So wrote the French poet and essayist Charles Peguy (1873-1914), a philosemite in an age of antisemitism.

He continued: “Any crossing for them means the crossing of the desert. The most comfortable houses, the best built from stones as big as the temple pillars, the most real of real estate, the most overwhelming of apartment houses will never mean more to them than a tent in the desert.”

What he meant was that history and destiny had combined to make Jews aware of the temporariness of any dwelling outside the Holy Land. To be a Jew is to be on a journey. That is how the Jewish story began — when Abraham first heard the words “Lech Lecha,” with their call to leave where he was and travel “to the land I will show you.”

That is how it began again in the days of Moses, when the family had become a people. And that is the point almost endlessly repeated in parshat Masei: “They set out from X and camped at Y. They set out from Y and camped at Z” — 42 stages in a journey of 40 years. We are the people who travel. We are the people who do not stand still. We are the people for whom time itself is a journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.

In one sense this is a theme familiar from the world of myth. In many cultures, stories are told about the journey of the hero. Otto Rank, one of Freud’s most brilliant colleagues, wrote about it. So did Joseph Campbell, a Jungian, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nonetheless, the Jewish story is different in significant ways:

  1. Our journey — set out in the books of Shemot and Bamidbar — is undertaken by everyone, the entire people: men, women, and children. It is as if, in Judaism, we are all heroes or at least all summoned to a heroic challenge.
  2. It takes longer than a single generation. Perhaps, had the spies not demoralized the nation with their report, it might have taken only a short while. But there is a deeper and more universal truth here. The move from slavery to the responsibilities of freedom takes time. People do not change overnight. Therefore evolution succeeds; revolution fails. The Jewish journey began before we were born, and it is our responsibility to hand it on to those who will continue it after us.
  3. In myth, the hero usually encounters a major trial: an adversary, a dragon, a dark force. He (it is usually a he) may even die and be resurrected. As Campbell puts it, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The Jewish story is different. The adversary that the Israelites encounter is themselves: their fears, their weaknesses, and their constant urge to return and regress.

It seems to me, here as so often elsewhere, that the Torah is not myth but anti-myth. It is a deliberate insistence on removing the magical elements from the story and focusing relentlessly on the human drama of courage versus fear, hope versus despair, and the call to all-of-us-together.

The Torah is not some fabled escape from reality, but reality itself, seen as a journey that we must all undertake, each with our own strengths and contributions to our people and to humanity.

However, we must all rest from time to time. There is a time for Nitzavim, standing; and a time for Vayelekh, moving on. Rav Kook spoke of the two symbols in Bilaam’s blessing, “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, Israel.” Tents are for people on a journey. Dwelling places are for people who have found home.

In life, there are journeys and encampments. Without the encampments, we suffer burnout. Without the journey, we do not grow. And life is growth. There is no way to avoid challenge and change.

The late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l once gave a beautiful shiur on Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” with its closing verse:

The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

He analysed the poem in terms of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of life. The poet is enchanted by the aesthetic beauty of the scene, the soft silence of the falling snow, the dark dignity of the tall trees. He would love to stay here in this timeless moment, this eternity-in-an-hour. But he knows that life has an ethical dimension also — and this demands action, not just contemplation. He has promises to keep; he has duties toward the world. So he must walk on despite his tiredness. He has miles to go before he sleeps: he has work to do while the breath of life is within him.

Hence the life-changing idea: life is a journey, not a destination. We should never stand still. Instead we should constantly set ourselves new challenges that take us out of our comfort zone. Life is growth.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.

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