I haven’t had many “only in Israel” moments to share on this blog recently. But now I have a great one. After stepping out of my comfort zone and into the desert, I participated in an all-night hike in the desert, by the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in a program run by Shaul David Judelman of the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash.
Shaul, along with fellow Bat Ayin resident Yisrael Hevroni, brought us back to nature Jewishly with poems and topics for discussion along the way. The entire trail winded through wadis that carved their way through desert sandstone, creating “flour caves”. I never walked upon anything quite like it. What looked in the dark like boulders and hard protrusions along the cliff was rock that would crumble apart when pressure was applied. The ground beneath my feet often felt like it consisted of hard-packed coconut.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah through the revelation at Mount Sinai. A large focus of our guided discussion centered on the desert, and why it was fitting that the Israelites received the Torah in the desert of all places. Some thoughts:
- While slaves in Egypt, we were steeped in a full-fledged culture, but a corrupt, carnal one of idol worship which was not ours. We needed to go to the barreness of the desert and wander there for 40 years before we could receive the Torah and build our own culture upon it.
- The sands of the desert form piles, tels, that seems to have a strict form that gives it order, distinguishes one area from the next, but the seemingly permanent features are clearly shaped by the laws of nature that God put into place. Water and wind change its shape and form, just as God’s laws for us change and shape us.
- The desert is a place of humility, a place where one feels fragile, needy. Even the life forms are clingy, preserving precious drips of water and places to take root.
- The Talmud says that we are to become like the desert, in order to merit receiving the Torah. Some thoughts about why that might be:
- The nature of the universe is more clearly revealed – just as there must be evil in order for us to recognize good, there must be barrennness in order for us to recognize the plenty which God has supplied us with
- After so many years of being slaves, and not thinking about how our sustenance was provided for by our masters, we had to be brought to the desert where it was clear that our physical sustenance was only provided for by the grace of God. Only then were we ready to have the spiritual sustenance of the Torah.
- The Torah is compared to water. In the desert one truly thirsts for and savors water.
Other highlights included being accompanied by several former participants of Livnot U’Lehibanot programs, including Pesach Stadlin, and running into a platoon of paratroopers who were mountain biking through the wadi for fun at 5 a.m.
It was beautiful to pray the morning Shacharit service outside in the desert. I think it’s a shame that so much Jewish life and learning takes place indoors. The Torah even says that mankind is like a tree: כי האדם עץ השדה (Deuteronomy / Devarim 20:19), and it seems right and proper to be out in nature on a very regular basis, and not just during explicit times like Kedushat HaLevanah (blessing of the new moon) and Sukkot. In Israel at least, the temperature range is such that the outdoors can be enjoyed almost all year round.
The silence of the desert at midnight and early morning was spiritually soothing. And now, I’m ready for some Shabbat menucha. May we merit to receive and absorb the Torah whatever our external or internal climate. Shabbat Shalom!