The journey of the past year has now ended and the journey of the New Year has just begun. The language of journeying has become so overused in recent times – both in the context of Jewish life and in the wider world – that it seems to have become empty of meaning. Another cliché to add to the thousands of clichés with which we reduce the complexity of life to a set of palatable truisms. And yet, one of the reasons that we speak so readily and repeatedly of taking journeys is because we understand deep in the core of our beings that, ultimately, we are all on an inescapable one-way journey from birth to death. Our way of speaking may have become overtaken by clichés, but the challenge of being alive and making our days meaningful during the finite span of our lives is very real. So, how can we find a way of reflecting on our life’s journey that helps us to live more fully and deeply?
This evening, at the dawn of this New Year, I’d like to suggest that we might begin to respond to this question by burrowing back to the roots of the metaphor of journeying. Back to the simple act of walking. Three months ago, I started to go for a thirty-minute walk first thing each morning – for the benefit of my back and lungs; and, as it has turned out, for the good of my soul, too. Apparently, ahead of any other form of exercise, walking every day, for at least half an hour, is the best way of ensuring our bodies remain healthy as we get older. If you think about it, walking upright on two legs and two feet is what distinguishes homo sapiens from all the other creatures – including our nearest cousins, the apes. Walking is integral to our human nature.
Interestingly, walking also plays a very special role in the story of the Jewish people, from the time that our first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, left home in response to the challenge of God. We read at parashat Lekh-L’kha, Genesis chapter 12, verse 1:
Va-yomer Adonai el-Avram, Lekh-l’kha mei-artz’ka, u’mi-molad’kha, u’mi-beit avikha, el-ha-aretz asher areka.
The Eternal said to Avram, go for yourself from your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
We read further at verse 4 that Avram responded decisively: Va-yeilekh Avram – ‘So, Avram went.’
You might think these verses don’t say anything about ‘walking’ as such, but the Hebrew root Hei Lamed Kaf means, both, to ‘go’ and to ‘walk’. Importantly, ‘going’/‘walking’ is very different from ‘going out’ – the Hebrew root Yud Tzadi Alef – which is the language of flight and exile, as reflected in the Torah, both, in the story of Jacob and in the narrative of the Exodus. Of course, Jews have taken flight many times; the world is crisscrossed with the flight-lines of the Jewish people. And Jews have also walked as an expression of our commitment to our way of life. Think back to our agricultural forebears, who went on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem three times in the year, at Pesach, in the spring, at Shavuot, in the early summer, and at Sukkot, in the autumn, bringing the fruits of their labours as sacred offerings. These three festivals are known as shalosh r’galim, literally, ‘three feet’. Interestingly, the word for ‘festival’ in Hebrew, chag, designates these three festivals as pilgrimages – plural, chaggim. You might notice the connection between chag in Hebrew and haj in Arabic, the word used by Muslims to refer to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Strictly speaking, the term chag, and consequently the greeting, chag samei’ach, ‘happy festival’, only applies to the three pilgrim festivals.
Jewish life did not stop centring around walking after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and our ancestors no longer went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The first rabbis responsible for reconstructing Jewish life after that catastrophe, created a system for regulating Jewish observance that became known as halakhah. Halakhah is usually translated as ‘law’ or ‘Jewish law’, but the word is based on that same Hebrew root, Hei Lamed Kaf – to ‘go’ or to ‘walk’. So, in place of walking to the Temple, Jewish practice as walking.
Of course, the halakhic system first outlined in the first rabbinic code of law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE, is rooted in the legal codes of the Torah. And not only in the Torah’s legal codes as such, but also in the language used in the Torah to convey what it means to be true to the Eternal One. And so, we read at the beginning of parashat B’chukkotai, at Leviticus chapter 26, verse 3, in a passage that relates the rewards due for obedience to God:
Im b’chukkotai teileikhu, v’et-mitzvotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam…
If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments and do them …
As you can see here, ‘walking’ is equivalent to ‘keeping’ and ‘doing’. But why is this? Perhaps, ‘walking’ has transmuted into ‘following’, which captures the sense of observance reflected in ‘keeping’ and ‘doing’.
The first paragraph of the Sh’ma, on the other hand suggests a more down-to-earth sense of walking as ‘walking along the way’, being integral to Jewish life. We read in parashat Va-etchannan, Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verses 6 to 7:
V’hayu ha-d’varim ha-eilleh asher Anokhi m’tzav’kha ha-yom al-l’vavekha. / V’shinnantam l’vanekha, v’dibbarta bam; b’shivt’kha b’veitekha, u’v’lekht’kha va-derekh, u’v’shokhb’kha, u’v’kumekha.
These words that I command you today [shall be] upon your heart. / You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking along the way, when you are lying down, and when you are rising up.
Speaking, sitting, walking, lying down and rising up: ultimately, halakhah is about the rhythm of our daily lives.
So, is it possible for us as progressive Liberal Jews to reclaim halakhah from the absolutist, prescriptive and non-negotiable edifice of Jewish law? The answer to that question is ‘yes’, according to the late great Rabbi John Rayner, Zichrono livrachah, May his memory be for blessing, who died twelve years ago yesterday, on 19 September, 2005. Rabbi Rayner understood that Liberal Jews need a framework for our lives as Liberal Jews.
Given that Liberal Judaism is non-prescriptive, it might not surprise you to know that there is not unanimity on the issue in the Liberal Judaism Rabbinic Conference. It is for this reason that although the Rabbinic Conference has considered producing guidance on Shabbat observance, this has not come to fruition. As it happens, I, like some of my colleagues, including Rabbi Rachel Benjamin, with whom I co-led two workshops at consecutive LJ biennials on the theme of creating a Shabbat booklet, feel that it is possible to offer a Liberal Jewish approach to Shabbat, without resorting to a series of dos and don’ts. In fact, in the absence of a booklet published by Liberal Judaism, the synagogue will be producing one in time for Chanukkah. Satisfying the much-repeated request for the Hebrew text, transliterations and translations of the items included in the CD of Shabbat songs and blessings I created 10 years ago with Andy Cable, the booklet also will also include my thoughts on keeping Shabbat as Liberal Jews.
The cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am, argued that ‘More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.’  Obviously, the regularity of the weekly Sabbath has played a part in this. It’s also true that Shabbat is emblematic of the Jewish approach to life as ‘walking along the way.’ Our lives are not simply led in an endless daily round, interrupting the cycle of the days, the seventh day creates an opportunity, both for ceasing and for letting go, and for reflecting and looking forward. Aware that the festivals and the ’Days of Awe’ break into the cycle of daily life each year, offering us sacred days for remembrance and renewal, we tend to forget that Shabbat is a gift of time out of time on a smaller scale every week – a gift, which, increasingly, in our 24/7 world, has become a much-needed lifeline.
I began with the metaphor of the journey, and have taken us, metaphorically, on a walk into the terrain of Jewish life. I want to conclude by bringing us back to the actual phenomenon of walking as a way of keeping physically healthy and spiritually attuned. And so, I offer this poem, ‘A Walk’ by the Bohemian-Austrian novelist and poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th:
My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance –
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
Rilke reminds us that even a modest walk, the kind of walk that we may take every day, or once a week, in it’s simple, elemental way transports us to a realm that offers us a perspective on our transient lives, even as it immerses us in the passing moment; in the feeling of ‘the wind in our faces.’ As we embark on a new year may the wisdom of the poet reflecting on his walk, combined with the wisdom of Jewish practice as halakhah, walking, encourage us to look forward, and to journey onward each day into the landscape we may not reach. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5778 – 20th September 2017
- The words of the poet and leader of cultural Zionism, Asher Tzvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927), known as Ahad Ha’am, which means, literally: ‘one of the people.’ ↑
- Rainer Maria Rilke (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926). ‘A Walk’ is translated by Robert Bly.https://allpoetry.com/A-Walk↑