Jewish Wisdom for Walking into the Unknown

By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Special to the BJV





From one of my favorite poems, written by Marge Piercy:

The courage to let go of the door, the handle…


The courage to walk out of the pain that is known

into the pain that cannot be imagined,

mapless, walking into the wilderness, going

barefoot with a canteen into the desert….


We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes

under our pillows…

These excerpts from her poem “Maggid” remind me that walking into the unknown is something the Jewish people have been doing from the very beginning. Throughout history, from the moment that God leads Moses and the mixed multitude the long way around, to the stories of Jewish migration that brought each of us here, we have been a wandering people. We know what it means to put one foot in front of the other, without guarantees that our destination will indeed be that promised land.

As we approach six months of this new reality, I find this very comforting. We too, are walking into the unknown, but that does not mean we have to walk forward, unknowing.  Even as we try to soak in the small pleasures of summer, finding joy in all that we do have, there is an undeniable shadow, cast by all of the many unknowns.

The heart of our tradition is wise, and offers us sustenance for the journey ahead.

Choose good walking companions

If there was ever a prayer for walking into the unknown, it’s “Hashkiveinu”: that prayer for protection that we say each evening, cushioned between our prayers for redemption and our personal prayers. I imagine our ancestors, walking into the unknown, watching the sun set on another day of journeying, and uttering those words, “Shelter me beneath the canopy of your peace.”

One of my favorite creative renditions of the prayer Hashkiveinu adds:

Adonai, help us to walk with good companions, to live with hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts, that we may lie down in peace and rise up waiting to do Your will.

                                                                                                                (Mishkan T’fillah, p. 161)

Part of living with fear, is to be surrounded with good companions. We make our way through the darkness, ready to face another day, when we are surrounded by love, comfort, encouragement, and hope.

Lighten your load

We can’t carry it all, and we certainly cannot carry it all by ourselves. I am reminded of the verses in Exodus that describe the way that the Israelites went forth:

So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders. The Israelites had done Moses’s bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.

                                                                                                                (Exodus 12:34-35)

How do we decide what is essential for this time of walking into the unknown? Perhaps, like me, you have had the experience of shedding that which is not essential. In light of the reality we are living in, we are doing more with less – traveling less, moving about less – and as a result, at least for me, I am accumulating and consuming less. I think of the Israelites setting forth into the unknown — “mapless, walking into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert,” as Marge Piercy writes; and I can’t help but think there is great wisdom in lightening our loads. For some of us, it will mean fewer professional and social commitments. For others, it will mean accumulating and consuming less in the world. Like the Israelites, who move through the wilderness toward a far-off promised land, I believe there will be wisdom in loosening our grip on those things that once seemed essential.

Keep your eye on the destination even when you don’t know exactly what it looks like

We have already “let go of the door, the handle” that Marge Piercy describes. We are no longer at the beginning of this journey, though we have no guarantees for a timeline to our destination. We are living in that wilderness now. Like the Israelites, many of us (myself included) have moments of wishing we could go back to Egypt, so to speak, for a return to “before.” This experience has illustrated for us just how unsustainable “Egypt” (i.e., life pre-pandemic) is for so many people: the inequities in access to food, medical care, and education, and the deep isolation and disregard for the sick, the elderly, and others who wind up on the margins of our communities.

Walking toward this unknown future is a fearful prospect, to be sure. There are days when the sheer magnitude of how much we just do not know is stunning. But there is also gratitude, and there is hope.

Remember, “We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes under our pillows…”

Hope need not be a passive enterprise; in fact, our Jewish tradition commands us to pursue hope, to work toward it, and to reach for it. Later this summer, we will mark Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of a monthlong journey toward the start of a new year. Our tradition gives us the words of Psalm 27, as a kavannah for that journey. The last verse of Psalm 27 reads:

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

My colleague, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares this rendition of the Hebrew text:


Keep hope, keep hope – keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

My hope and prayer for our entire Berkshire community as we continue this journey together, is that we will be for one another, good companions. May we help to lighten each other’s loads, sharing in our abundance where we are able and offering listening ears and helping hands to those who struggle. May we keep hope in our hearts for better days to come, in a more just, equitable, and peaceful world.

Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington and also director of the Religious School.