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Highways, byways, and pathways

We are rabbis who labor on the ways of derekh even as we search for paths of orakh. We travel together with our community on life’s highways and remind people to slow down long enough to appreciate the access roads nearby
Rabbi Mark Diamond, Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Los Angeles, California Rabbi Mark Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. In that position, he directs a multi-denominational organization of 290 rabbis, and serves on the senior management team of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Prior to assuming this position in August 2000, Rabbi Diamond served as rabbi of congregations in metropolitan San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and


In July I had the good fortune of continuing my rabbinic fellowship studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Once again I learned Torah with some of Israel’s finest teachers, including David Hartman , Donniel Hartman , Melila Hellner-Eshed , Micah Goodman and Adam Afterman . When friends and colleagues ask me how my sabbatical was, I answer, “What could be bad about three weeks of great talmud Torah in Yerushalayim?”
My learning this summer in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative was especially inspiring, because it opened my heart and mind to the pearls of the Jewish mystical tradition. Thanks to Melila Hellner-Eshed, I gained a new appreciation for serious Kabbalah study. I choose the adjectives “new” and serious” knowingly and deliberately. My appreciation of Zohar is “new” because we didn’t study Jewish mysticism 30 years ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The learning is “serious” to distinguish Melila’s engaging, scholarly approach from the pseudo-Kabbalah that is increasingly popular in our society. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that it is best to possess a basic vocabulary of Jewish life (Hebrew, Aramaic, Bible, Talmud, and Midrash) before delving into the complexities of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works.
One of the texts I learned with Melila this summer distinguishes between orakh and derekh, path and way. This passage from Zohar 2:215a is especially relevant for our work as rabbis in synagogues and in the community:  
When they reached Rabbi Shimon (bar Yochai), they arranged all these words before him, all that was said on that way. He opened and said: The path of the righteous (Proverbs 4:18) – what is the difference between path and way?
They have already clarified the matter, but a path is that which has just now been opened and revealed, and was made in that place a path, where no feet have trodden before.
Way (derekh), as it is written, as one who treads (dorekh) in the winepress (Isaiah 63:1), where the feet of all who wish tread.
That is why the place where the righteous walk is called path (orakh), since they were the first to open that place. And even where others, the people of the world, walk in that place, now that the righteous walk there, it becomes a new place. For now that place is new as though it had never been trodden on by anyone before, because the righteous innovate that place through the sublime words in which the Blessed Holy One delights.  And what’s more, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) goes in that place, which was not the case beforehand. This is why it is call the path (orakh) of the righteous, because the sublime, holy guest (ore’akh) visits there.
Way (derekh) is open to all, and all who wish to tread (dorekh) there, even the wicked…
And you sublime, holy ones, [concluded Rabbi Shimon] have entertained a holy, supernal guest and sublime, supernal words were arranged before the Ancient of Days. Happy is your portion!
Derakhim are the ways of the many, the highways we travel in our lives. Derakhim are not inherently bad, despite the admonition of Proverbs 4:19, derekh resha’im ka-afaylah ("the way of the wicked is as darkness"). There is danger on the derekh, but there is much good as well.
Most people travel on highways to get from point A to point B. These derakhim beckon with their lure of speed, efficiency, and familiarity. To drive from the southland to the Bay Area, Interstate 5 is the preferred road for most motorists. They expect to arrive at their destination quickly and with minimal stops and distractions. Traffic congestion, road closures and accidents are among the dangers along I-5. Yet we travel this way time and time again safely and speedily.
We gain time and convenience when we select I-5 as our route. What do we gain when we select an alternate path between the southern and northern parts of our state? 
  • An appreciation of the sites along the way
  • Spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean
  • A sense of the slower pace of life in the towns and small cities of the Central Valley and/or the Coast
  • A reminder that there is more to California than the urban centers of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
Proverbs 4:18 comforts us, orakh tzadikim ka-or nogah, “The path of the righteous is as a shining light.” Orkhot are the paths less traveled, or perhaps never traveled before. Think of the beloved introduction to the Star Trek series, with William Shatner intoning the sacred words of the Enterprise’s mission, “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” (Click here, "Star Trek" fans, to see a video clip of the famous introduction.) Zohar meets Captain Kirk in a time warp worthy of both science fiction and Kabbalah.
With apologies to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, no one I know devotes his or her entire life to going where no woman or man has gone before. Rather, our life journey takes us on a convoluted, ever-changing network of derakhim and orkhot. We are sorely tempted to spend all of our time on the derekh, where we enjoy many companions, familiar scenery and a relatively comfortable route. Derekh is the way of least resistance, offering fewer dangers andfewer rewards than other routes.
Traveling day after day on the derekh can become boring and monotonous. Orakh is the alternate path that promises novel adventures and fresh vistas. Derekh is the public thoroughfare; orakh is open to daring souls that yearn to blaze new trails. However, great dangers lurk there as well. Trailblazers may emerge wounded or injured from their perilous journey on the orakh. Or they may become lost and never return to/from the path.
To my mind, life is an intricate, colorful tapestry of derakhim and orkhot. I like to think of orakh as the byway that runs next to derekh, the highway. Spend some time driving on interstates as they pass through rural areas, and you will spot an access road alongside the highway. It parallels the main road, but diverts on occasion as it meanders next to fields, crosses over and under intersecting roads, and follows its own path. From time to time one can exit the highway in order to secure entry to the access road. As well, there are intermittent entrances from the byway to the highway.
We travel on highways most of our lives. Every now and then we summon the imagination and good sense to slow down, leave the highway and journey on the byway. The orakh promises to be bumpy and full of twists and turns, much like an amusement park rollercoaster. When we have sated our appetite for excitement and adventure, we exit the orakh and return to the derekh.
Perhaps this is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had in mind when he taught the hidden meaning of orakh and derekh to his disciples. Paths and ways are not totally separate and incompatible means of journeying through life. Derakhim and orkhot run parallel in some places but intersect at others. Derekh sojourners do well to leave the highway and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the byway. Likewise, orakh sojourners need to leave the narrow paths and reconnect with their community on the well-traveled derekh. Blazing a new trail on the orakh is a commendable endeavor. Pioneering a new orakh in the middle of the derekh is even more compelling and rewarding. Who can predict the wonders and miracles that lie ahead for sojourners who create orakh in the midst of derekh? None other than the Shekhinah herself awaits us on the journey.
Are we a community of “derekhites” or “orakhites”? Are we orakh rabbis or derekh rabbis? In truth, we must be skilled in traversing paths and ways. As rabbis serving congregations, schools, institutions and organizations, we devote most of our time and energy to matters of derekh. This is the shared way of rabbis and congregants, teachers and students, leaders and followers alike. Derekh fills our days with appointments, meetings, classes, services, bar/bat mitzvah training, luncheons, budgets, fundraising, and a myriad of other tachlitic matters.
We pray and yearn for the orakh moments in our rabbinic careers. They may include:
  • The small class of advanced students who study Talmud or Zohar with us and share our appreciation of lifelong Jewish learning
  • The joyful and sorrowful life cycle events in which we truly connect with others on an intense, deeply spiritual plane
  • The unexpected occasions when, years after delivering a sermon, teaching a class, or officiating at a milestone, someone remarks how something we said or did changed their life
We are rabbis who live and work on derakhim and orkhot. We labor on the ways of derekh even as we search for paths of orakh. We travel together with our community on life’s highways and remind people to slow down long enough to appreciate the access roads nearby. Above all else, we journey hand in hand with our ba’albatim (laity) to discover and explore pathways of orakh in the midst of derekh.
Derakheha darkhay no’am v’khol netivoteha shalom.
May your ways be ways of pleasantness;
May all your paths be paths of peace.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a Hartman Institute Rabbinic Fellow

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