One night in 1999, while I was living in the small Israeli city of Arad, I took a hike in the desert by the light of the full moon with a few friends. We had no flashlights. Maybe one of us had a cell phone. But that was truly one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever taken (and I’m an avid hiker, so that’s saying a lot), over the rolling hills of Judea and through a wadi, a dry riverbed. The moon provided ample light, once our eyes were adjusted, and I had the sense of ancient-ness, the primitive nature of this moonlit walk, in which the desert landscape stood out in bold relief against the dark blue shadows.
Was it dangerous? Maybe. Foolhardy? Probably. We had been given clear directions by our madrikh, a fearless young man from Arad named Yoni, who was skilled in guiding hiking, climbing, and camping trips of all sorts. But Yoni could not join us that night, so we were just a bunch of naive Americans twenty-somethings marching silently through the eerily powerful light, quietly challenging ourselves and hoping that nobody tripped and fell or got stung by a scorpion or ambushed by one of the seven remaining Arabian leopards in Israel.
No such horror occurred. But it was a transformational experience, one which I will probably never be able to repeat.
The desert speaks to me. Really, it speaks to all of us.
We started a new book of the Torah today, the fourth book: Bemidbar Sinai (in English, it is Numbers, which is a very poor title, since the numbers are really only found in the opening chapters. Then it gets much more interesting). Bemidbar is entirely set in the desert, as the Israelites are between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in Israel. The story of our wandering in the desert is as essential to who we are as the Exodus. We are a desert people. We received the Torah in the desert. Our patriarchs lived in the desert. Our prophets received their prophecy in the desert.
In the desert, you need stories to connect you to civilization. You need to connect where you have come from to where you are going. This is an essential part of who we are as Jews - we need those connective stories, which bring us together, which keep us committed to who we are.
The Torah is a desert document. Not only did we receive it in the Sinai desert, but we also actually had to leave the fleshpots of Egypt (see Exodus 16:3), the lush green of the Nile delta, and prepare ourselves as a people by purifying our physical and spiritual selves for three days in the desert before receiving it.
The story of Moses concludes in the desert; Moshe Rabbeinu, our Teacher, never enters the Fertile Crescent. And the prophets who follow him are desert-dwellers; Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the whole gang drew all of their prophecy from the power of the wilderness. For example, the haftarah we read on the Shabbat after Tish’ah Be’Av, known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, includes the following (Isaiah 40:3, Etz Hayim p. 1033):
קוֹל קוֹרֵא--בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה'; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵא-לֹהֵינוּ.Qol qore bamidbar: panu derekh Adonai; yashru ba’aravah mesillah leloheinu.A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!
And what does this Heavenly voice say? (Is. 40:6-8)
כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה... יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.Kol habasar hatzir, vekhol hasdo ketzitz hasadeh… Yavesh hatzir, naval hatzitz, udvar Eloheinu yaqum le’olam.“All flesh is grass / All its goodness like flowers of the field… Grass withers, flowers fade - / But the word of our God is always fulfilled.”
What I felt as I was walking through the desert in the moonlight, listening to that quiet wind, was the eternality of that scene. The desert is the same as it always has been, as it always will be. Just as the desert is eternal, so too is God eternal, so too is the Torah eternal, so too is the burning fire of desert heat; the unconsumed, flaming bush that Moses found in the desert is still burning. A hint of it is in that light up above the ark.
You may know that the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the primary rabbinical school and teaching institution of the Conservative movement, is a stylistic rendering (!) of the burning bush.
One idea that this symbol suggests is the eternal nature of God’s revelation, of God’s voice coming through to us. Our movement grew out of a group of 19th-century German-Jewish scholars known as the Positive-Historical school, and among the principles they espoused was the idea that history is an essential player in Judaism, that our traditions, our customs, our law - in short, our Torah - have continued to develop and change throughout the centuries. We have never read our text devoid of its historical context. And we continue to hear God’s voice, in our contemporary context, as we strive to interpret the Torah for today, acknowledging that although the ancient voice still comes from the desert, the rest of the world has changed
As contemporary Jews, with an eye toward history and the continuous unfolding of revelation, we continue to draw on the inspiration of Abraham, who pitched his tent near Be’ersheva, and welcomed in visiting angels in the desert. We continue to learn from the complaints and misbehavior of our ancestors as they trudged across the wilderness for forty years, driving Moses to the point of anger and thereby denying him from ever leaving the desert.
Once again, Isaiah tells us (12:3):
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה.Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’ayanei hayeshu’a.Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.
That is, the desert wells, from which spiritual nourishment continues to flow.
And hence the need for those ancient stories. Without our desert connection, we would be rootless. Hence the power of the State of Israel for us today. This is, perhaps, why David Ben Gurion insisted that he be buried in Sde Boqer, south of Be’ersheva, deep into the Negev.
Another brief memory: When I visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I remember being on a tiyyul in the desert south, hiking through Wadi Tzin, just south of Sde Boqer. Our teacher told us that this was the place where Moses struck the rock in anger to placate the Israelites, who were dying of thirst. I was positively blown away. How cool is that?
Did it really happen that way? I cannot say; I wasn’t there. But the very presence of this story, the residual vibrations after thousands of years, crept into my soul and have lodged there since. The desert stories are timeless and powerful.
And here’s another: not far from that location, at the “Bedouin tent” lodging for tour groups called “Khan HaShayarot,” Danny Mishkin and I took our Youth House group outside of the camp under the stars when we were there last year for a ma’ariv service in the desert that blew them all away. The desert is powerful, mystical; it resonates with stories. Its very emptiness enables you to hear yourself in the quiet wind.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because we can only merit the true acquisition of Torah when we have canceled all of our attachment to material things.
That is why we stay up late tomorrow (Saturday) night for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of dedication to our history, our textual heritage. The first night of Shavuot is a time that we put our physical desires aside to listen for that still, small voice emanating from the desert, calling to us from the wilderness.
Shavuot is not just a celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is a joyous time, on which we eat sweet, rich dairy foods to recall the sweetness of Torah and its connection to the land flowing with milk and honey. But it is also a sober festival, a reflective stretching of the mind to reconnect with our national tales, to bring us back, in some sense, to Mt. Sinai.
I hope that you will be joining us as we consider new perspectives on the Torah, which will connect our ancient words with who we are today. Come with us as we return, just for an evening, to the moonlit desert, to the burning bush, and to our unfolding tradition.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 23, 2015.)