The Wilderness Is Speaking to You

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It’s always fascinating when something that seems ancient and irrelevant to our lives today is shown to in fact, relate a powerful message for our times.

In this week’s Torah portion BaMidbar, we find the tribes of Israel having escaped from Egypt, now marching through the wilderness of Sinai on their way to the “Promised Land.”

First, let’s note that the word for wilderness in Hebrew is Midbar, which comes from the root “to speak” and also has the added cognate meaning of “to lead or guide” as well as “to pasture sheep and cattle.”

The wilderness by definition is a place where few people live or even pass through. Which is kind of what it felt like during our quarantine period in our neighborhoods and on our roads and highways. They were so very empty.

I’ll never forget during one of my evening walks I went to cross what would normally be a very long and busy street, and there was not one car coming in either direction. So I decided to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and walked down the middle of that street for 10 whole minutes with nary a car in sight!

The wilderness is also by definition a liminal space, someplace that is in between one thing and another-- in this case, between Mitrayim/ Egypt, that narrow, constricted dark place of slavery and Eretz Yisrael/ The Land of Israel, vibrant and teaming with life, flowing with milk and honey.

And our time in quarantine felt very liminal indeed. We were in between the life we used to know free from the fear and impact of this pandemic and the life we are about to experience after quarantine, which none of us can predict.

And during this time, the wilderness, the Midbar, the place of speaking, spoke to each and every one of us. What do I mean by the wilderness is a place of speaking?

Well, there’s an interesting feature in Hebrew that I want to share with you—when you want to create a noun related to a physical place, you take the verb and put a “mem” on the front and repoint the vowels in a particular way and voila, you have a place noun. It’s a very cool feature of Hebrew, at least cool for language nerds like me. So for example, “tabach” is the verbal root for cooking; “mitbach” is the word for a kitchen. “Gadol” is the verbal root for large or great; “migdal” is the word for a tower. So by extension, since “dabeir” is the verbal root for speaking or guiding, “midbar” is the word for a place that speaks or guides us.

And as I related to you earlier, we’ve all been, like the Israelites as they crossed from Egypt to Israel, in the wilderness these past few months. That wilderness was very empty of outside activity and people. That wilderness was a liminal space between the life we lived before coronavirus and the life we’re going to be living now.

And as I mentioned before, the wilderness spoke to us over these past few months as any experience we have does, but particularly liminal or transitional experiences.

During our journey, some of us, like many of the Israelites in the Torah, just wanted to go back to Egypt— the way things were, the good old days.

And some of us, just like the Israelites, are looking forward to entering the Land of Israel, hoping for changes, and a better future to come.

And some of us might just be living moment to moment, trying not to look back or ahead but be fulling present as much as possible.

And sometimes, we might be in all three places in the same day or hour! That’s so human, right?

So again my question to you is: What did you hear during these days of quarantine that you want to take with you into the journey ahead? Take a moment to think about it.

I firmly believe that every experience in life, good bad or indifferent, is an opportunity to learn… but only if we let it.

And let’s note that the status quo is rarely what teaches us. It’s almost always the difficult times in life from which we learn the most. Again, if we let it. Otherwise we stay stuck in bitterness, anger and all kinds of other negative emotions.

But as you’ve no doubt realized, there was a fair amount of learning to be had from our collective Midbar experience, which we are probably still going to be living in for many more months, even if we are not on lock-down.

So let me conclude with some parting words of wisdom from political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of Exodus and Revolution (a classic!):

First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt.
Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive,
a promised land.
And third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together
and marching.

As we re-enter the world after Shelter-at-home, let us remember the messages that the Midbar has spoken to us, that might guide us into a future “promised land.”

And let us always remember that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together— striving for a positive, vibrant community— and marching, i.e., acting to make that so.

Shabbat Shalom


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