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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

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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