“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step on the road, and if you don’t keep your feet there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, chapter 3, the Fellowship of the Ring)
One of my favorite quotes, words of wisdom from the world’s most famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, to his nephew Frodo. Certainly journey is a theme that is at the very center of Tolkien’s world view. Remember that the title of The Hobbit was actually ‘The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.’ Bilbo’s quest is to find something, whether himself, or gold, or perhaps both. His nephew Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings is to lose something, or rather to destroy it – the dangerous, magical, and powerful ring of Sauron. But either way the narrative thread of both Bilbo’s and Frodo’s story is the quest.
But what the above quote brings out is that the journey is not linear. First of all, because when you set out you really don’t have any idea where you might end up. Certainly this applies to the self, to a person’s identity, for how can anyone know how the experiences of life, the experiences of the journey, will change him or her? It may very well be that at the end of the road we wind up as very different people than we were when we set out. A dangerous business indeed.
And on top of that, even the actual journey is not linear. There are detours along the way, unexpected stops, flat tires, strange encounters, wrong turns, and so often the journey that begins with the most structured plan ends up as being something entirely different than originally expected. Wasn’t it John Lennon who said ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans?’
Perhaps that is why the Torah is so grounded in the quest narrative. There are many examples – Jacob’s flight from Esau, Moses leaving Egypt to travel to Midian, even the fundamental narrative arc of the Torah is one of quest, the Israelites traveling through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. But it all starts with Abraham, the Torah’s first pilgrim. God calls to him out of the blue and he responds immediately, packing his things and leaving his native land. What is striking about his journey is that he had no idea where he was going. ‘To the land that I will show you,’ says God to Abraham. Most of the people I know probably would have responded ‘God, if you don’t mind, a bit more information please!’ But Abraham doesn’t say a word, instead turning his face to the west, and stepping onto the road.
My guess is at the time he had no idea where he was heading, or what adventures, trials, tribulations, and triumphs he would find along the way. Battling with the Army of Kings, Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of his son Isaac, Sarah’s death, the encounters with Pharaoh, the list could go on and on. These events, recorded in the three Torah portions that relate Abraham’s story, make up the substance of his journey. And somehow, in the midst of it all, in the course of traveling from place to place, facing the dangers he faced, being tested time and again, somehow he managed to become the very first human being to enter into relationship with God as a Jew.
In Abraham’s quest we see an echo of our own journeys, somehow still connected to his ancient travels. Looking back we think of how far we’ve already come. Looking ahead we realize how much further we have to go. And so we open the door, and step through, our own feet setting a course on the road, never fully knowing where we might be headed.
Here an old Irish blessing: May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft on your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.