Life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage

Life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage

At Rosh Hashana, we begin a new journey — a journey into the new year of 5770. Even as we look ahead to what we hope the New Year will bring, we set aside some time to look back on the last year. This is the time to review and to reflect upon what we learned, who we met, what we accomplished, what we left undone.
As a people we are well acquainted with journey. Abraham and Sarah, guided by their faith in the one God, left home to journey together to a new land. Generations later, our ancestors traveled in the wilderness for 40 years after being redeemed from slavery in Egypt. We often focus on the beginning of that journey (redemption from slavery) and its end (entrance into Eretz Yisrael). But our Torah teaches that it was not only the endpoints of the journey that were important, but the journey itself. In the book of Numbers (chapter 33) we find a tribute to the entire wilderness experience, a record of the 42 steps of Israel’s journey from Ramases in Egypt to Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Canaan.
The Torah commands us to remember the Israelites’ travels because the journey is also a metaphor for our lives, as all of us are on our way. Through our narrative, we learn an important truth. When we embark on a journey, we not only end up in a different place from where we started, we are different because of the journey itself. We are changed by every event, every person with whom we interacted, each book we read, prayer we uttered, mitzva we observed. The person who enters a particular space or time or experience is not the same person as the one who leaves. The poet Alvin Fine teaches this lesson within the lines of a poem many of us hear only at funerals. But it has much to teach us today:

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 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,
And 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.

What will we do this year to ensure we make our journeys sacred? This is the time to commit ourselves to a year of growth, of learning, of the pursuit of holiness, to the pilgrimage, day by sacred day.
Shana Tova umetuka. May the New Year be sweet for you and all of your loved ones.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)