Miles to go before I sleep… Rabbi Kahn’s Sermon on Parshat Masei, August 2, 2019

Whose woods these are – I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

 

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

 

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sounds the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

 

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.

 

In his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost reminds us that sometimes we must take moments to pause and recognize the beauty and wonder around us.

In the poem, it’s the quiet, the wind, the darkness and the snow that all majestically fill the woods with a special glow. 

Ultimately though, Frost also teaches that we must continue our path until we’ve completed our work, fostered meaning, and are truly ready to stop for good. 

No matter how dark, lovely and deep the woods maybe – we must continue journeying on and living up to our promises and potential.

In the second part of our Torah portion this week, we read a recap of our ancestors’ journeys throughout the dessert. We take a moment to stop, to pause and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. Our Torah notes in each verse, where we embarked from and where we set up camp. We remember 40 years of wandering, and 42 stops along the way. However, this is not where our story ends. For we have yet to reach the promised land, and thus have miles to go before we sleep.

Our portion, like Frost’s poem, reminds us that life requires both journeying and pausing. 

The Torah tells of our moving from one stop to the next, and then on again, and again and again. 

We pause for a moment, but then we pick up and continue on. 

This is one of the lessons we gain from our Torah’s recap of the Israelites’ wanderings. There is something precious both in traveling and in resting moments. 

This portion summarizes a great part of our Torah and recaps steps along the way.

One notable stop on the journey is missing from the recap though. 

While wandering in the desert, one of our most formative moments is receiving Torah at Sinai. Strangely, this stop is left off of our reflective itinerary. 

In sighting a quote on the timeless nature of Torah, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes, “In effect, it (Torah) became embedded in each step of the journey and didn’t need to be separated out. Once revealed, the Torah became the roadmap for the journey – as it is for us today.”

If our moments at Sinai are rewritten as encompassing a timeless act of revelation that is present every day, all day long, how do we read this revelation back into each stop along our journey? How do we incorporate an overarching narrative into the stops and breaks of reality?

This too teaches us an important lesson about how and when we stop and reflect on the journeys we’ve taken and what values and lessons move with us from place to place.

The lesson here is the gift of reflection. How we frame, retell, focus and teach the story of our lives can shape the lessons learned from the experiences lived.

It’s timely to reflect on how we tell the story of our lives, what guides us and the steps we’ve taken along the way. 

Today is the first day of the month of Av. A month with a holiday celebrating love and also the saddest day of the year. A month that is mostly known for our memories of pain and sadness. A month that precedes the month of Elul, our time of pre-high holy day reflection and soul searching. Yet standing here, two full months away from Rosh Hashanah, our Torah portion reminds us of the importance of pausing and reflecting on where we’ve been before we can get where we’re going.  

Our Torah reminds us that life’s journeys are often not linear – moving directly from point a to point b, but rather that we wander and curve and pause and start again. And every step along the way is valuable.

In the Torah, where details are limited and recaps are precious, we take time to recount the journey because we know that in order to move forward we must know where we’re coming from. 

Moving forward is often easier than looking back. Looking ahead is filled with possibility.  But our human minds and hearts don’t allow us to simply let go of where we’ve been; rather, it’s important to pause and recall the journeys that have led us to where we are, so we may truly feel ready to journey onward when it’s time. 

So while journeying ahead is a continual goal, each step along the way is a precious moment as well. 

It reminds me of a liturgical poem written by Rabbi Alvin Fine that I used to read in Gates of Prayer, the old reform prayer book. It states: 

 

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;

but life is a journey. 

A going, 

a growing 

from stage to stage: 

from childhood to maturity

and youth to old age.

from innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;

from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom. 

From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again. 

From health to sickness and back – we pray – to health again.

From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,

from joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.

From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;

from defeat to defeat to defeat, 

until looking backward or ahead: 

we see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, 

but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;

but life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,

made stage by stage…to life everlasting.

 

Rabbi Fine’s words here echo the lessons of our Torah portion. Yes, the journeying itself is what is precious. AND – yes, each stop along the way is worth reflection, celebration, and contemplation. 

In our Torah portion, Egypt is our beginning and the land of Israel our destination, but our story happens on the journey in between. Each stop, a new lesson to be learned, a new story to share. 

From this, we learn to appreciate the stops, the breaks, the beauty that surrounds us. From this, we learn to take opportunities to pause and appreciate the moment we’re in. 

Yet, we must not get lost in thinking that any given stop is the ultimate endpoint. 

This is not how our story ends. Our journeys continue on. For we continue to have miles to go before we sleep. 

Miles to go before we sleep.

Shabbat Shalom.