“Birth is a beginning/ and death a destination./ And life is a journey.” The notion that our lives are a journey, and that we, in our fallibility, might have gone off course, haunts us each Yom Kippur.
On eight separate occasions this Yom Kippur we will recite the vidu’i, the confessional prayer, a prayer replete with journey imagery. We confess sarnu, we have gone astray. We implore God v’ten b’libeinu la’azov derekh rasha, inspire our hearts to abandon the evil path, and hakhna arpeinu lashuv eilekha, bend our stiffness so that we turn back to You.
This Holy Day repeatedly reminds us: we are each of us on a journey. We have each of us gotten off course. The challenge of this day, then, is to rediscover the way and to turn back to the right path.
But what is the way? How do we get there? And how do we stay on course?
I cannot claim to have all the answers. But I do know that any answer must include three things, three essentials each of us must pack for our journeys. They are: cultivating imagination, paying attention, and seeking wisdom. That’s what I discovered this summer, in a place I wasn’t expecting.
Back in June, Adira and I took the kids to visit family in St. Louis. While there, we made the obligatory visit to the “Gateway Arch.” If you’ve never been to the Arch, you are missing out on a true marvel, a stunning structure whose simple design belies the magnitude of the creativity, ingenuity, determination, and bravery it took to erect it.
In this way, it is the perfect physical expression of the achievement it seeks to memorialize: the Lewis and Clark expedition, which began near where the Arch stands today, on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Like the Gateway Arch, the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the first American passage across our continent, was a deceptively straightforward idea: Find an all-water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific, learn about the nature of western North America, and identify how to extend American sovereignty across the continent.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The terrain itself was treacherous. There were threats from wildlife that Americans had never encountered. The British, Spanish, and French all vied to claim pieces of the territory and saw the American expedition as a threat. And the land’s original inhabitants, the Native Americans, saw those lands as their sovereign possession and were not inclined to give Americans a free pass at expansion.
Adding to these challenges, in the early 19th century there was literally no way of moving people or objects or information from one place to another apart from the exertion of human or animal muscle, the harnessing of wind by sail, the force of gravity, or the power of a river’s current.
Apart from what they had taken with them from St. Louis, the men of the expedition had to hunt or trade for all their food, clothing, and other provisions. There was no medicine in the modern sense, which made diseases like malaria and dysentery, illnesses almost guaranteed to befall men on the frontier, much more likely to be lethal.
Thomas Jefferson and his young captains didn’t anticipate all of these challenges before the expedition set off, but they certainly knew the limitations of their age.
Given these realities, it is astonishing that Jefferson, a man revered then as now for his intellect, would have deemed it wise or practical to explore the western portion of the continent, much less to expand American sovereignty over a territory that couldn’t possibly be governed from Washington, D.C.
But Jefferson had a unique gift: an extraordinary imagination. Jefferson was able to see beyond the limitations of his present. His ability to read what was not yet on the page empowered him to shape new realities. That he could imagine a nation spanning a continent, despite no such nation ever having existed, and despite there being no suitable transportation or communication mechanisms to sustain such a nation, fueled his drive to build it.
Without Jefferson’s imagination, there might have been no Louisiana Purchase, no Louis and Clark Expedition. The United States as we know it might never have come to be.
Jefferson’s example reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Knowledge, by definition, is restricted only to what is and what was. It might be possible to guess what will be, but it is impossible to know. Progress, therefore, can only happen when one is able to look past what was and what is – the way things are and the way things have always been – and to think about what might be. Progress requires looking past reality and seeing possibility.
Virtually all the great leaders revered by our tradition possessed this quality. Abraham, Moses, and King David readily come to mind. But personally, I’m taken with the example of a scholar named Yohanan ben Zakkai.
For many centuries, all the Jewish people had known of religion was a sacrificial cult, overseen by a hereditary caste of priests and Levites in the Jerusalem Temple. When the Roman legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and disbanded the priesthood, most Jews assumed that this signified the extinction of their faith.
But Yohanan ben Zakkai imagined something different: a religion of text and tradition, led by a meritocracy of the learned, able to be practiced anywhere and everywhere. As the people of Judea were panicking and mourning, Yohanan ben Zakkai was preparing for a different future. He arranged a daring escape from the besieged city of Jerusalem and appeared before the Roman general Vespasian. Yohanan implored Vespasian to spare the city of Yavneh as a haven for Torah scholars. Impressed by the rabbi’s courage, Vespasian agreed.
Yohanan ben Zakkai’s imagination not only saved Judaism but also reshaped it into the religion we recognize and practice today, a democratic and portable faith focused on prayer, study, and action.
The core practice of the High Holy Day season, teshuvah, is rooted in the same quality. Teshuvah, which is usually translated as repentance but really means turning, as in turning from the path you are currently on and following another way, is only possible if our lives as they are are not our lives as they must always be. Teshuvah only makes sense if we truly have the capacity to change ourselves, our relationships, our lives, our world; if we are not bound by any course of action. Teshuvah invites us to imagine a different reality for ourselves, to see beyond our lives as they are and our world as it is, to what might be. If we relied only on our knowledge, we would never change. Only by envisioning something totally new can we set ourselves on a course for a better future.
Of course, just because we imagine novel possibilities and act to realize them doesn’t mean we will always be successful. But it matters less whether we fully achieve our dreams than whether we allow ourselves to have them and pursue them in the first place. Imagination alone doesn’t guarantee the envisioned possibility will come to fruition. But a lack of imagination guarantees the persistence of the status quo.
Equally important is how we approach the journey itself. We must be careful not to be too fixated on the destination, too focused on the future. The journey itself has much to offer, if only we remain mindful as we travel.
True, Lewis and Clark were focused on their ultimate objectives. That dogged sense of purpose enabled them to endure the unthinkable hardships and obstacles along their route.
But Lewis and Clark were not single-minded about reaching their destination. They paid attention along the way, taking time to witness, appreciate, explore, study, and most importantly, record, the details of virtually everything they experienced along the route.
For that reason, even as the mission failed to find an all-water route to the Pacific, it was an unparalleled success. Lewis and Clark discovered and described hundreds of species of plants and animals previously unknown to science, and made other invaluable contributions to “the fields of zoology, botany, ethnology, and geography.”,
We tend to celebrate Lewis and Clark’s expedition because they made it to the Pacific and back. But in truth, what ultimately made the expedition successful was the fact that the captains paid attention, observing, and recording in vivid detail everything they saw and did.,
How many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, journey through our lives oblivious to the wonder that is all about us – yes, even right here, right now, in this very place? How many of us fixate on yesterday or tomorrow and ignore today? How many of us obsess about our destination and disregard our location? How many of us dwell upon what we don’t yet have, spurning the gifts we already possess?
Our tradition emphasizes that our journeys are at least as important as our destinations. Each and every day in the amidah – even on Yom Kippur – we acknowledge
נסיך שבכל יום עמנו…נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת, ערב ובקר וצהרים,
God’s miracles accompany us each day; God’s wonders and gifts are with us each moment, evening, morning, and noon.
If each moment is pregnant with the miraculous, if each place pulsates with blessing, then our lives are diminished when we dwell on our future, concentrate on where we’re headed, or focus on what we lack. To combat these tendencies of ours, the Jewish tradition offers us tools to help us lift up our eyes and see, to help us pay attention to the present, to appreciate where we are, and to be grateful for what we have.
Consider the practice of reciting b’rakhot, blessings. Our tradition has blessings for just about everything: when we take a bite of food, when we see a wonder of nature, even when we hear bad news. Reciting a blessing is an opportunity to acknowledge the miraculous nature of what we normally experience as the mundane, to cultivate awareness, wonder, and gratitude. In fact, we’re supposed to recite 100 blessings every day. 100 moments to pause. 100 moments to become aware. 100 moments to appreciate, to be present and mindful.
And make no mistake: mindfulness matters. On average, each of us only has about 600,000 hours on this earth. That may sound like a lot. But the clock is relentlessly ticking. If, for the sake of argument, you’re right at the halfway mark of the average lifespan, and you sleep the recommended 8 hours a night, you really only have about 200,000 waking hours left. Tick, tick, tick.
At the end of our days, our lives will equal how we’ve filled those hours. How many of those hours will you spend at the office? How many with your children? How many with your partner? How many in front of a screen? How many outdoors? How many engaged in acts of justice and lovingkindness? Do you know? Are you paying attention?
Our days are limited, they pass speedily, and most of us walk through them in darkness; asleep, like the prophet Jonah, despite the excitement surrounding us; oblivious to the preciousness of each moment.
If we are not aware, if we are not observant, if we are not deliberate about what we pay attention to, about what deserves our attention, about where we put our focus and our energies and why, we risk giving away our singular, priceless life. We’d better start paying attention.
And yet, imagination and attention, while important, are not themselves sufficient. Ask any seven-year-old boy who has broken his arm trying to fly. Imagination without wisdom can be dangerous.
Similarly, attention alone is not enough. We must discern what deserves our attention and what does not.
That’s why wisdom – the insights, borne of experience, of those who have journeyed before us – is at least as crucial for our life’s journeys as imagination and attention.
While the men of the Corps of Discovery were the first Americans to explore the West, Native Americans had dwelled for millennia in those lands. Time and again, Lewis and Clark relied on guidance from Native Americans on how to best navigate their route. Most of us know about Sacagawea, the incredible Shoshone woman who accompanied the expedition, translating for and guiding the Americans. And the expedition would never have been able to pass through the Rockies without the guidance of Shoshone chief Cameahwait and warrior Swooping Eagle. They would never have made it to the Pacific without a Nez Perce chief named Twisted Hair.
Lewis and Clark were confident and proud. But fortunately, their confidence and pride did not blind them to their need to heed the wisdom of those who had already been where they were going.
Our tradition repeatedly advises us to seek guidance from those who have come before: “Remember the days of old,” instructs the book of Deuteronomy, “Consider the years of ages past; Ask your parent, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you.” Similarly, Rabbi Akiva once taught that “The Jewish people is compared to a bird: Just as a bird can only fly with its wings, so the Jewish people can only survive with the help of its elders.”
Throughout our history, the wisdom of our ancestors has been the wind beneath our wings. How can the Jew fly without Moses’ laws, David’s Psalms, or Solomon’s proverbs? How would we know the way without looking to Rabbi Ishmael’s legends or Rav Ashi’s Talmud? We rely on our ancestors not because they were better, smarter, or holier than us. Rather, we revere their wisdom because we know that they have already walked the same paths, and therefore must have insights about the way forward.
In many ways, Judaism’s insistence on heeding the wisdom of our ancestors, on conserving tradition over embracing innovation, is profoundly countercultural. Our society exalts youth. But a society that values novelty over heritage, creativity over experience, and ingenuity over expertise, can easily become dislodged from reality. And a society possessed by fantasy is dangerous. Einstein may have been right that imagination is more important than knowledge, but imagination untethered from knowledge is madness. To thrive, we need both.
So seek out your parents’ advice. Ask your grandparents to share what they’ve learned. Get to know the elders of our community, and absorb what they know. Immerse yourself in the study of the texts and teachings of our Jewish ancestors. They know the way. They’ve travelled it before.
Imagination and knowledge. Wisdom and awareness. Attention and vision. Learning from where we’ve been, paying attention to where we are, dreaming of where we want to go. Holding at once past, present, and future. Like the perfect balance of the Gateway Arch, as wide as it is tall, these elements, held in harmony, are what made Lewis and Clark’s journey a success. And if we are mindful of them, we too can make successes of our own life’s journeys.
On the long car ride home from St. Louis, the kids nestled quietly in the backseat, clutching their souvenirs. Lilah came home with a stuffed fox she named Louie, while Shemaya scored a bear he named Clark. They watched the recent Disney film, Moana, on loop. I couldn’t help but listen in. [I now know this movie by heart. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll be happy to act it out for you during the break this afternoon.] The movie follows a young Polynesian princess on a quest to save her native island.
At first, Moana is hesitant to undertake the mission. As far as she knows, no one has ever travelled more than a few hundred feet from the island’s shore. But then, she has a vision of her ancestors. She learns that they were actually explorers who would sail across the vast ocean to discover new islands.
As I listened, I recalled the awe I felt gazing westward while standing atop that exalted Arch, and I reflected on the story of Lewis and Clark that inspired it. In that moment, it struck me: we, like Moana, are also the heirs of great explorers, though we may not have known it.
As we today consider our journeys, let us hold them in the light of that heritage. Let us recommit to imagining the brand new, remaining aware of where we are, and heeding the wisdom of our elders. If we do, then in the year to come, and all years hence, we will always know the way.
Rabbi Alvin Fine, “Life is a Journey,” p. 241 in Mahzor Lev Shale
Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
B. Gittin 56b
Tal Ben Shahar, Happier
Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
Mary Oliver, “The Summer’s Day”
Sh’mot Rabbah 5:12