The Undiscovered Country
My memories from high school are scattered and few. In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!” Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that. Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out. One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies. Indeed, I literally absorbed the play. As I read it, I instantly memorized it. If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared. Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.” I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could. There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.
Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy. That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”
“The Undiscovered Country.” What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about? I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now. When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death. After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die. But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text. For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?
Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me. For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”? One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” – and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”
Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future. For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd. Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future. Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and unchanging. Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.
So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians? Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it. It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.
When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives. Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.
These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews. This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the promise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people. Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.
All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear. Of course it does. There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears. As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold. Some may think they do, but they really don’t. None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life. They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations. They not givens. For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success. For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death. Which will it be for us? We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question. It may be one. In may be the other. And it can be anything in between.
And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control. There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands. Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster. We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon. I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty. Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.
Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives. Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it. At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control. But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality. Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold. That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands. Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well. That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands. Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them. Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge. We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.
When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control? We possess it over ourselves. We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become. That is our power. We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves. We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made. We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards. If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better. We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.
Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this. It begs us to do this. It weeps, pleading “Please! Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered. Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life. For there can! It’s in your hands! No one else’s.”
Rosh Hashanah is all about change. The year is changing. The seasons are changing. And it calls upon us to change as well. It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am. This is who I have always been. This is who I will always be.” But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe. And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change. Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others. We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.
So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace. And let us all say:
 Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.
Tags: Changing for the Better, Connecting with others, Fear of the Future, Hamlet, Helene Karp my daughter, hope, Jewish Holidays, Living a Fuller Life, Living a Quality Life, Love, Making Changes in Our Lives, managing change, Relationships, Rosh Hashanah, Shira Karp, The "To Be or Not To Be" Soliloquy, The Future, The Undiscovered Country, The Undiscovered Country as the Future, Values, William ShakespeareYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.