Galilee Diary: Desert paradise
…Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His harvest… -Jeremiah 2:2-3
Recently I was invited by Kibbutz Yahel, the more veteran of the two Reform kibbutzim in the Aravah desert (the other is Kibbutz Lotan), to spend a Shabbat there and lead a couple of study sessions. Tami and I try to make at least one excursion to the desert each year, so this was a perfect opportunity. The Shabbat was very pleasant, and it was interesting to compare the experiences and dilemmas of Yahel and Shorashim, two small, liberal communities in the periphery.
We left home early on Friday morning so we'd have time to hike in the desert en route, and spent a few hours on a beautiful section of the Israel Trail in Makhtesh Ramon, one of the three huge craters that are major features of the geography and geology of the Negev. Formed by a unique combination of tectonic activity and erosion, these are vast depressions surrounded by cliffs and punctuated by striking and colorful rock formations. Descending the steep switchbacks of the mountain road to Eilat, within a few minutes you find yourself at the bottom of the crater, driving through what could be the backdrop for a science fiction film set on another planet. It is early spring; the rest of the country is still in full bloom from the winter rains. Not here. The palette of the landscape is every color but green: black crystallized lava, red and yellow sandstone, beige limestone (full of undersea fossils), browns and grays and pinks. The trail we chose cut inward from the highway and over a ridge, and then ran parallel to it in a different valley. So we hadn't been walking many minutes before we were completely cut off from the sounds and sights of civilization, just us and the desert. There is something refreshing, it seems, in being made to feel really small every once in a while. Maybe that's why Abraham and Moses and Elijah, and all the Children of Israel – and Jesus and Mohammed – had formative religious experiences in the desert. There's something about the physical confrontation with the absolute that puts things in perspective.
Perhaps that's why Jeremiah portrays the years in the desert, which were, after all, a punishment for the spies' lack of faith, as the honeymoon of Israel and God: just us and God, with no distractions. Indeed, when we entered the promised land the mannah stopped and we had to work for a living; and we had to implement all those laws and institutions that had been prefaced, at Sinai, with "And when you come into the land, you shall…" Leaving the desert, we may have come into a land of milk and honey, but we had to work it and rule it and take responsibility for every aspect of life in it: social justice, environment, war and peace. We left the absolute in the desert, and now had to live real life, where everything is relative, where there are never easy answers.
It is interesting to consider the parallel between leaving the desert and leaving Eden. In both cases the move was from a life with God to a life with people; from perfect to imperfect, from infinite to finite; from dependence on God for everything to the privilege/punishment of being responsible for our own sustenance, our own decisions, our own social and political structures.
Since the dawn of civilization humanity has dreamed of leaving civilization and returning to Eden. If we could only get past that flaming sword… But do we really want that? Jeremiah longs for the good old days of the wandering in the wilderness; but does he really mean it?
The trail brought us back out to the highway about a mile from our car, and we were soon on our way to a peaceful Shabbat at Yahel. A hike in the Negev is enough of a return to the desert for me – and Shabbat is enough of a return to Eden.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah