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Closer to G-d in the desert

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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. 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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