Category: Rabbi Heschel

Sidewalk’s End

47b62-screenshot2014-01-21at19-26-43.pngIt’s sometimes disturbing to reflect on the fact that there is a smorgasbord of belief systems here, all of which wave their flag, sometimes stridently and even belligerently. Finding one’s own path through a tangled and frequently contradictory clamour of voices, each with their own vocal champion waving a version of the banner of truth is sometimes like cutting a path through a thorn bush, or wading through a glutinous, almost impassable quicksand.

Far from reinforcing one’s own set of beliefs, one often finds oneself questioning their validity in the face of so much strident certainty. I listened to a speaker at a ‘healing meeting’ who was manifestly not healed. I spoke the other day with someone for whom the Word, emphatically capitalised, was the beginning and the end of their belief system and all preaching without it as the primary focus was of no value. I murmured unthreateningly about the perils of translation and interpretation in the light of modern findings. I was rounded upon and accused of ‘Greek thinking’ as compared to ‘Jewish thinking’. I pondered this for awhile and came to the conclusion that a Jewish way of approaching the world is well wrapped in Shel Silverstein’s poem. ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’.

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”
There’s a metaphor implicit in his writing. The place where the sidewalk ends is intellectually messy, confused and sometimes appears to lack meaning. It’s a turbulent, uncomfortable place where the smoke blows black, obscuring the view of the horizon. Sometimes, all that is left to us is to try as best we can in the twilight of our doubt to follow the white arrows, not really knowing where they might lead us.
I wondered , if my ‘religion’ had lost its lustre, my lampstand removed from its place, whether this was my fault, not God’s. Had I held others to blame for my own strange bewilderment? 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote at length about man’s metaphysical loneliness, with which to some extent – even as a non-Jew,  I can identify. He opens his major philosophical work, ‘God in Search of Man’, with sharp words.

‘It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.’
Enough, then, of religion with all its false certainty, behaviourism and external piety. Pursuing the chalk arrows is less predictable, but perhaps more like it’s supposed to be.