Thoughts on the “Wilderness”

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, “in the wilderness”. I’d like to reflect a bit on the theme of wilderness and what it might mean to us today. I’d like to drash it, literally, play with the meaning of the word “wilderness”, in three ways.

This was the Bemidbar/Shavuot dvar torah delivered to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) on May 17, 2021. 

Aleph: Wilderness seems to be an apt metaphor to describe this past year of Covid-19 lockdowns and retreat from life as we once knew it. Often, we get a better perspective on an experience only when it is in our rearview mirror. This past week, I had my first, in-person gathering with a small group of people who are not family members. It felt a bit illicit, but wonderful. This weekend restaurants are opening back up at full capacity in Montgomery County. And starting next shabbat, we’ll have regular services at Adat Shalom for up to 110 people, while others can participate through Zoom. We are indeed emerging from a wilderness.

So, what have we learned? I went back yesterday to a British video that made its way around the world back when the pandemic first started. It was called the Great Realization. It shows a fable being read to a small child as he is put to bed by his older brother. Some of you may recall seeing the video when we had no idea whether the lockdown would last a month, a year or longer. The tale is read to the child decades into the future and it reflects on all that the world learned from the 2020 pandemic. It casts the pandemic as a consequence of all the ways that human civilization messed up in the first two decades of the 21st century. Environmental degradation; callousness to the poor and vulnerable; obsession with materialism; and addiction to mobile phones at the expense of human relationships. The “happy ending” of the fable is that, coming out of the pandemic wilderness, the world pivoted to a more human-centered, ecologically conscious, compassionate world. It should only happen to us!

It turns out that the wilderness/the pandemic became a moment of a great revelation. It is worth each of us taking stock of what we learned this past year. As difficult as it was, the radical change in routine was clearly a learning opportunity. It is important that we take some time to harvest that wisdom as it might change the way we live our lives going forward. Revelations, after all, come infrequently. They should change us.

Bet: Speaking of revelation, tomorrow night we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Many Reconstructionists get hung up on whether or not the Torah was actually given by God to Moses as recorded in Exodus 19. That misses the point. Some of the biggest Truths in life, never actually happened. They were “realized”. And so it was, so it is, with the concept of revealed Torah.

Regardless of how observant you are (or are not), the “big reveal” of Torah is not the particulars of the 613 mitzvot, it is rather the notion that an ethically-driven, morally based society depends on people accepting that they need to surrender some autonomy for the common good. A society obsessed by individualism, untempered by a commitment to the common good will, ultimately, unravel. We have seen that, big time, during the pandemic. The people who refused to put on masks; who did not refrain from being in large gatherings; who called for the firing of public health officials for doing their jobs. And because of their selfishness, because of their refusal to surrender some of their autonomy for the common good, thousands died.

There was a piece in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago by an Israeli named Orly Halpern. She talked about how Israeli society accepted intrusions on their liberty for the sake of the common good. Centralized health records were shared with Pfizer in a deal cut early in the pandemic that assured that Israel would get a fast and plentiful supply of vaccine in return for data Pfizer wanted in order to study the vaccine’s effectiveness. Israelis respected the lockdown necessary to curtail the spread of the virus. Israelis were even OK with the national security services tracking every Israeli through their mobile phones in order to help with contact tracing. None of this could have happened in America. Israelis have learned that to survive, they need to accept limits on their rights and accept obligations that insure the survival of the state. It is called brit, covenant. In English, mutual obligation.  This is one of the key lessons of Shavuot and of Torah and perhaps, it is one of the gifts that Judaism can offer the world—how we need to surrender some of our autonomy in order to protect and preserve the common good.   

Gimmel: Throughout history, people withdrew from society and sought out the wilderness to find themselves, to hear some call or vocation and to discover their destiny. A sojourn in a wilderness was a common element to the life stories of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and countless others who brought wisdom into the world. The Morrocan-Israeli singer/songwriter, Shlomo Bar, has a song called Hamidbar Medaber, The Desert Speaks. What is so clever about the title of the song is that each Hebrew word has the same letters. Without vowels, they look identical. But this is more than a word play. The song title suggests that only in the quiet of the desert can we hear our inner voice, which may well be what our ancestors called, the voice of God.

The rabbis taught that the reason the Torah was given in the wilderness is so that no one could claim that Torah, Eternal Truth, belongs to any one people or any one place. Tour books notwithstanding, we don’t even really know where Mt. Sinai is. And that is as it should be. We don’t need to create a Temple in the place where Torah was given. We don’t need to plant a national flag. Torah is universal. It is without time and without place. It happens when we empty ourselves of all of our assumptions and open ourselves up to the universe and the universal Truths that the universe holds for us.

Even as I speak, the Holy Land of Israel is desecrating all notions of holiness. This is what happens when small-minded people and small-minded leaders make decisions and take actions that violate the deep wisdom of the Hebrew prophets. It is what happens when the children of Abraham forget the reason why Torah was given in the wilderness, not tied to any political entities.

Let us pray that we, that the world, can re-discover the holiness of the midbar, of the wilderness, and that in that wild but quiet place, we can find a Mt. Sinai that will teach us how to live more compassionately with one another and in harmony with our planet.