Abraham, Robert Frost, and Kol Nidre

I’m back! Did you miss me?

First, what have I been doing? Well, the holidays completely wiped me out. Rabbinical classes at IISHJ started up again, and then we moved offices at my job, so it’s been a busy month or so.

Then, last weekend, I went to the board meeting for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. I’m not a board member per se, but was there in my capacity as co-editor for the Society’s journal, Humanistic Judaism. (I’m new–so new, that the first issue I’ll have been involved with isn’t due for publication until January.)

All of this means that I’ve not really done a heck of a lot of thinking about other things. But the Torah portion for this week, Vayeira, actually includes pretty much all of the material I discussed in my sermon in Tucson, Arizona, for the Rosh Hashanah services I led for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there. Below, then, is the text I wrote for the sermon. The actual delivered version was not slavish to this text; I might make the audio of it available at some point, though I’m not in a terrible hurry to edit that much audio.

So, here’s the text. You’ve been warned: it’s long. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with other stuff!

….

A little after the shofar’s blasts—those shrill, piercing tones, calling us to hold ourselves accountable for the prior year—we shared a reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a fixture of high school literature classes. And it is perhaps one of the few poems known widely among generations of Americans of many walks of life.

But for all its notoriety, it turns out that the poem has been a little …misunderstood.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story about four years ago that looked into how the poem came to be in 1913. And I’d like to tell you a little bit of that story.

Robert Frost was a struggling writer who just couldn’t make a go of it in the American literary scene. So he moved to London. Remember, this is before the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Williams, and other 20th century greats. London was, if you wrote in English, pretty much the literary place to be.

While in England, Frost met a poet named Edward Thomas. The two would go on walks in the woods together from time to time.

As it turned out, Thomas was indecisive when he got to a split in the path. He would hem and haw about which road to take. The beaten path?, or, as Frost put it, the road not taken. Keep in mind that it didn’t really matter which way they went. They would always end up at home.

Finding this at once amusing and perhaps a little annoying, Frost wrote a poem jabbing at Thomas’s indecision over this inconsequential choice.

The problem, as it happens, is that the only person who got the joke was Frost.

The poem was published, and Frost rocketed to literary fame. He returned to the United States for a time to do a literary tour and readings at American universities. Largely because of “The Road Not Taken,” people took Frost to be a very serious poet. And they took his poem to be a very serious comment on the importance of individualism.

Moving to London had exactly the effect Frost had hoped for his literary career.

Frost’s fame did not, however, come without consequences. You see, there was one other person who took the poem about Edward Thomas’s indecision very, very seriously.

That person? Edward Thomas.

As it happened, Thomas was more than a little insecure about his indecisiveness generally—forks in the road aside. And by the time Frost’s poem become popular, it was 1915. Thomas was British, and World War I had already begun swallowing millions of men of his generation.

German Zeppelins were already floating over the English Channel. It really was possible for bombs to fall on London.

Thomas was already insecure. And, in the midst of an unprecedented threat to England from abroad, Frost’s perhaps not-so-gentle nudge was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thomas joined the army.

He was killed in battle two years later.

As we opened our service, we lamented that the year past was over too fast. We feel pressure—so much pressure—to decide now, to speak now, to do something. NOW.

How often do we hear, “Act now—tickets are going fast!”? Or, “I need this now”?

Very much in this vein, Thomas took Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to be an instruction to choose. NOW.

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