Lessons from the desert: What we can learn from G-d’s chosen place

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1−4:20)

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah entitled “Bamidbar” which means “In the Desert.” It is well worth exploring the importance given to the desert in the Torah. After all, the majority of the Torah takes place in the desert from the lives of our forefathers in the book of Genesis, to the travels of the nation after the Exodus from Egypt, to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is no coincidence that an entire book of the Torah is entitled “Bamidbar: In The Desert.” For us who spend so much of our time in the city it would be worth the effort to discover why the Desert is G-d’s chosen place.

In this week’s Haftarah this theme is most emphasized. The Haftarah is taken from the second chapter of the Prophet Hosea. The beginning of the Haftarah compares the Jewish nation to a wife who has abandoned her husband for other men. In her betrayal of her husband she seeks fulfillment elsewhere only to realize at the end that her real love is with her husband. The Prophet compares the Jewish nation to the unfaithful wife. They too have betrayed G-d (the husband) and worshipped other gods. But in the end they too realize where truth and fulfillment really are. They seek to return to their one and only G-d.

Will Hashem take such a nation back after such betrayal? In a moving narrative this is what G-d answers, “Behold I will allure her (the Jewish nation) and bring her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her…And it shall be on that day that you shall call me your husband and you shall no longer call me your master…And I will betroth you to me forever and I will betroth you to me in justice and judgment and in loving kindness and compassion. And I will betroth you to me in faith and you will know G-d” (Hoshea 2:15-22).

Hoshea’s words are moving! Hashem will forgive the nation for the greatest of all betrayals. The Prophet describes a wedding ceremony with betrothal and renewed love. Where will that wedding take place? Where does Hashem find as the most appropriate setting for this wedding?

The answer is in the desert where the nation of Israel finds Hashem, and where Hashem finds the Jewish nation. So, let’s figure out why the desert is so significant in this encounter. Here are three possibilities:

Our Rabbis offer one explanation as to why the Torah was given in the desert. They state the following, “What is the meaning of the verse ‘and they traveled from the desert (to a place called) matanah (gift)’. This means if a person makes themselves like a desert then the Torah will be given to them as a gift” (Talmud Eruvin 52a). In his commentary on this passage Rashi explains that making oneself like a desert means acquiring the trait of humility. The desert teaches us humility, which is the first pre-requisite in finding G-d.  

Living in the city does just the opposite. Cities are the creation of humanity. When we stand next to the tall skyscrapers, large shopping malls, and busy airports we cannot help but be impressed with what we have created. The city crowns human accomplishments and puts humans in the middle of the picture. In the city we attempt to control everything Hashem created. If it is hot outside we turn on our air conditioners, and if it is cold we turn on the heat. In the city you don’t have to go to the lake for your water you simply turn on the tap. Yes in the city it is so easy to be impressed with human accomplishment and forget about G-d. Not so in the desert, there we are humbled. We see its vastness and we recognize who is really in control. The desert allows us to recognize our limitations. It is when we realize that we are not all powerful that we have the ability to meet Hashem and realize he is all-powerful. 

There is another idea the desert offers us. Maimonides (Rambam) in his code writes that one who seeks a life of pleasure and material comfort may end up living a spiritually unfulfilled life. In the Laws of Torah Study chapter 3:3 he writes the following, “One who truly wishes to be a student of the Torah should not think that it can be accomplished by pursuing wealth and honor”. To pursue a life of spirituality means that one must be focused on that goal and not be lured by the many distractions that the material world offers.

If we shop and look at the different options on new computers, or new cars, or new cell phones, or new washers and dryers, and how they fluctuate in price by their options it becomes mind boggling.  When we are finished figuring out what to buy and how to make the money to buy it, how much time is really left over for what really counts; Torah study, spirituality, and family? Maybe that’s what Maimonides meant. How sad when people don’t show up at shul on Shabbat because the hours of the services were the only time they could go shopping, or catch up on their sleep. Indeed the lesson of the desert is to be able to understand that sometimes less is better. The desert teaches us to get by with less so we can have more time for Hashem.

Let me share one last answer. The Midrash gives yet another understanding of why the Torah was given in the desert. It states the following, “Who is worthy of a life of Torah? Only one who makes themselves like a desert and separates themselves from the community
in solitude.” (Bamidbar Rabah 19:16)

This Midrash presents us with a dilemma since on the one hand Judaism rejects separation from the community. In fact Maimonides rules that one who separates themselves from the community forfeits their place in the world to come. What then does the Midrash mean? I think that the answer is that even though we must all be active members of a community, the religious experience requires at times to be in a state of solitude. There are times where we must be able to escape from the noise around us and find a moment of solitude. In this moment we are able to find G-d, as Hashem told the Prophet Elijah “G-d is not found in the noise” (1 Kings19:11). The desert teaches us solitude, it allows us to reflect and search. In the quiet of the desert we are able to find Hashem. Here too the city offers us little refuge. We live in a society of “noise pollution.” The city is filled with the sounds of cars honking, workers drilling, venders yelling, phones ringing, jet planes zooming by, and alarms wailing. The desert is filled with quiet and solitude. It is G-d’s chosen place to give the Torah and to renew the wedding vows with the Jewish nation.

I know that after reading this column few of you will hop into your cars and head for Death Valley, The Negev, or Sinai, but perhaps by at least recognizing the message of the desert we can use the message to help us live more meaningful and spiritual lives. We certainly could all learn to be more humble, we could all learn to live with just a little bit less, and we could all certainly learn to have a little more silence and solitude in our lives.

Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, Chaplain for Home Bound Hospice, and hosts the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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