9 December 2011
13 Kislev 5772
Earlier this week I visited a ninth grade English class and found the students engrossed in a discussion about Robert Frost’s classic poem “The Road Not Taken.” I was impressed by the closeness and depth of our students’ reading and the ease with which they identified themselves and their lives in Frost’s work. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveler, long I stood… Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”
Reading this poem through the eyes of an adult and an educator, I immediately see its relevance for the intellectual and character formation of children that is at the heart of our educational mission. From a “grown-up” perspective, Frost’s poem evokes the existential questions we face when we realize that we stand at a crossroad in our lives or, perhaps, that we are always standing at a crossroad. What amazed me about this English class was that these sensitive ninth graders seemed to grasp this notion of crossroads and the power of making life choices.
To paraphrase one student’s comment, “This reminds me of our choice about where to attend high school. Had we chosen to attend our local public school or another school, our lives would be totally different.” The decision about which road to travel during these formative years, she implied, “makes all the difference,” and profoundly shapes the people and the Jews that our students become.
So often, many of us travel through life giving little thought to the choices we make and the roads we travel. A life of meaning and responsibility calls us to raise our awareness about the roads we travel—about how we choose to live and whom we choose to be. This is not only one of Frost’s messages but also one of the core values of Judaism.
In a commentary on this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik echoes this message in a beautiful close reading of the questions that, according to Yaakov, Esav will ask Yaakov’s servants: “. . .l’mi ata v’ana telech u’l’mi eileh l’fanecha – . . .Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you?” (Genesis 32:18) In Reflections of the Rav, Rav Soloveitchik suggests a deeper meaning behind each question: “’Whose are you?’ – To whom do you pledge your ultimate loyalty? ‘And where are you going? – What objectives and goals do you seek for yourself in the future? . . . ‘And whose are these before you?’ – Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities, and material resources toward the material and cultural welfare of general society?” For Rav Soloveitchik, these questions are paradigms of spiritual and existential questions with which every generation will need to wrestle.
I believe that Rav Soloveitchik’s reading extends beyond even these three paradigmatic questions and sheds light on the power of our students’ reading of Frost’s poem. It is the roads that diverge and the roads that we travel, the questions we ask ourselves and, ultimately, our answers to those questions that help determine who we will become—materially, ethically, spiritually—and the contributions we will make to our world.
Rabbi Marc Baker