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Closer to G-d in the desert

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Religion

It’s no coincidence that Shavuot takes place just after we read the portion of Torah called Bamidbar (In the desert). It’s the beginning of the book of that name, a book that’s filled with the difficult coming-of-age of the Jewish people. But it’s also the place that the Jews went to from Egypt. What’s this desert experience, then?

Desert is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand.”

I’ve been in many a desert, and I must beg to differ with the OED (with all due respect to that august work) and its adjective of “desolate”, which has a distinctly negative connotation. For naturalists, the desert has a different definition. Deserts cover about one-fifth of the earth’s surface, they usually get at most 50cm (20 inches) of rainfall a year, and the organisms that live in them are adapted to this extremely dry climate. (Courtesy National Geographic).

So, the desert, while not being easy to live in, is in fact a place of plants and animals that have overcome its difficulties, not just to survive but thrive.

How does Jewish thought see the desert? The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) questions the phrase “bemidbar Sinai – in the Sinai Desert” – “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Desert? From here, the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know it was given through desert? As it says above, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as (fire, water, and wilderness) are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them. Another explanation: “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert” is that anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore, it says, “the Sinai Desert”.

The idea of desert, then, is vital to the idea of Torah. In ancient times, no-one owned the desert – it was free to all who wished to walk it. Just so, the Torah belongs to all who seek its wisdom. Further, no-one can claim to own the true meaning of the Torah, saying “I, and only I, know what the Torah is saying”. After all, as the Talmud in a number of places states, “These and these are the words of the living G-d.”

Moreover, there is a psychological element to the statement, “Anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless (hefker)…” True learning of the Torah requires one to rid oneself of ego, to remove all sense of one’s own intellectual capabilities, pride, or arrogance. It’s so easy to feel that one has learnt “a lot” of Torah, spending time in a yeshiva or school to do so. But the Torah is vast, its horizon a mirage, which makes it difficult to navigate.

Just like a desert.

In the middle of the Kalahari Desert, I was struck by the vastness of physical space as well as the enormity of the silence. Indeed, the silence was so loud, I felt I could hear the earth spinning on its axis. I was humbled, struck by my smallness in the midst of the power of the desert. This is the mindset that the midrash demands of the students of Torah.

Finally, it’s in the desert that one can talk to G-d. Life is cleared of all extraneous detail, whittled down to its essentials. It’s only earth, and few creatures and plants. All baggage is cleared, and it’s just you, the stillness of the rocks, the wind sifting the grains of sand – and G-d, waiting to speak to you in the silence.

  • Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mandy

    May 14, 2021 at 10:54 am

    As always, Ilana Stein’s writing educates and inspires.
    I’ve never really liked the desert – all that brown – but next time I’m there I’ll appreciate speaking to God in the stillness.
    Thank you Ilana.

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Religion

Tradition in transition

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They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.

Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?

The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!

Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.

Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.

Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.

Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.

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Religion

The key to unlocking blessings

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What’s the key to the blessings we need from Hashem? One such approach is hinted at in the opening words of this week’s portion, “Vayigash eilav Yehudah”, “and Yehudah approach him” or more accurately, “And approached him Yehudah”.

Contained in these three words are a hidden message. The verse merely says “him” (without specifying a name) and consequently, we can see a deeper hint here. “Him” can allude to the true Him – Hashem. So the verse reads, “And approached Him [Hashem] Yehudah.” What does Yehudah mean? The name comes from the root word “Hoda’ah” (gratitude).

Thus, we uncover a secret in this verse: how do we approach Hashem to bring down the blessings we need? “Approached Him [Hashem] with gratitude [yehudah-hoda’ah].”

We often focus on what we lack, and appeal to Hashem from that consciousness to fulfil our needs. Yes, we must ask for our needs to be fulfilled by Hashem, but what’s the posture or position most effective in approaching Hashem? This verse alludes to approaching through gratitude. By acknowledging and appreciating the many things we are blessed with, we create a channel for even more blessings.

Rabbi Moshe Schnerb recently told a story on ChaiFM that illustrates this. A family of many children had successfully been able to find marriage partners for all their children yet for some reason, was unsuccessful with one daughter in spite of the fact that she was full of chein (grace) and beauty and was certainly eligible. In spite of many attempts, there was no success. Repeated disappointment and heartache caused concern and frustration. The parents davened and prayed, asking Hashem “Why, why” she wasn’t finding her bashert (soulmate). Their mood was bleak.

Soon afterwards, the girl met another candidate, everything seemed to be going well, and the good news was expected. At the 11th hour, however, the matchmaker called the parents with a heavy heart saying that the potential chosson (groom) had decided to turn the marriage down. The girl and her parents were devastated.

The father turned to his wife and said, “We must be doing something wrong. Look at us, so blessed with children all happily settled with families and health yet all we are focusing on is what we don’t have – our daughter’s success in finding her match! From now on, we approach it differently – with gratitude. We thank Hashem for all we have been blessed with. That’s our stance!”

Rabbi Schnerb continued that within an hour, the phone rang and the matchmaker said in excitement and disbelief, “I have no idea what happened, but the family called me back to stress that they definitely wanted to pursue the arrangement and didn’t want to lose this special girl.”

The change in focus to gratitude opened the gates of heaven, and the brocha flowed.

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Religion

A shining light

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I’m writing this only hours after watching the online kindling of the Menorah at the Kotel on the second night of Chanukah, which was dedicated in memory of Eli Kay z”l (who was killed in a terrorist attack near the Kotel on 21 November), and which has inspired what follows below.

The shamash (the attendant candle) on the chanukiah is not included in the mitzvah candles. Yet, without it there can be no light. It’s the enabler that creates the environment for mitzvah performance. Like the shamash, Eli brought so much light to those around him with grace and humility. King Solomon wrote, “the candle of G-d is the soul of man”. Within each of us is a divine spark, which connects us to Hashem and which, importantly, allows us to ignite and inspire others. By sharing his flame so magnanimously and selflessly, Eli was able to bring the light of others to the fore.

This “shamash effect” did not cease upon Eli’s passing. If anything, it only intensified. Eli’s passing has been the catalyst for the performance of mitzvot worldwide, whether it be a commitment to wearing tefillin, or the lighting of Shabbat and Chanukah candles. People have rededicated themselves to their Judaism in a powerful and tangible way. And surely this is what Chanukah is all about. More than merely commemorating a great miracle and the rededication of the holy Temple (from which the holiday gets its name), Chanukah affords us the opportunity each year to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and to commit once again to our relationship with Hashem.

Pirsumei nisa (publicising the miracle) is an important element of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It’s for this reason that we place the chanukiah in the window or in a public place. We want the light of Chanukah to be visible to all.

Publicity, though, it’s not something we’re all necessarily comfortable with. We may feel an internal connection with Hashem and with our Judaism, but do we openly and proudly display it?

Eli had no such problem. Eli was a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. He was not just a Jew at heart or an idealistic Zionist. He directed his feelings to action.

This year, when the world seems so dark to so many, let’s try to emulate the shamash candle. Let’s emulate Eli. Let’s be the light unto the nations – starting with our own nation. Let’s help those around us to rediscover their light. Let’s stand tall and proud. Let’s ensure that our fresh commitment to mitzvot endures.

May the memory of Eli continue to be a guiding light to us all.

Chanukah Sameach.

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