"On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting . . ." (Numbers 1:1).
The wilderness experience constitutes more than half of the Torah and gives this week's portion, and this fourth book of the Torah, its Hebrew name. B'midbar means "in the wilderness."
Few of us have ever lived in a wilderness. Even those of us who reside in sparsely populated areas enjoy easy access to any comfort or convenience. After all, these words, composed a few miles outside New York City, reached you electronically at the click of a mouse.
It is not insignificant, however, that we came of age in the wilderness, for it is in the wilderness-where the Torah tells us we spent forty years wandering-that we grew into self-respecting Jewish people, slaves to Pharaoh no more. The Torah locates the bulk of its legislation and cultic observances in the wilderness experience. The authors of the Torah wished to suggest that the basic standards of Jewish life originated and were adopted before the people ever set foot in the Promised Land, in an open, ownerless expanse. Thus did the wilderness represent a source of wisdom for our ancestors.
The wilderness has wisdom to offer us, too.
In February, I traveled to Israel with a congregational delegation. We went as far north as Haifa and as far south as Eilat. We spent a day exploring the Negev, the majestic wilderness that comprises sixty percent of Israel's land mass and ten percent of its population. The Negev is not a desert of sand dunes like the Sahara. It more closely resembles the rocky middle of Arizona.
We explored Timna, an archaeological park of copper mines that date to the late second millennium b.c.e., when mining expeditions arrived from the south to smelt copper ore for the glorious temples of Egypt. We traveled north to the Ramon Crater, a geological phenomenon called a machtesh , in which a closed body of water gradually drains through a narrow outlet, the erosion creating a deep impression in the middle of a mountain. We hiked the canyon of the water spring Ein Avedat and marveled at the panorama from the top. (Our legs reminded us, the next day, of our accomplishment.) We looked out from the grave of David Ben-Gurion into the vast midbar that extends to the horizon. Ben-Gurion dreamed of a future Jewish state that would cultivate and settle the Negev. He put his money where his mouth was by retiring to the untamed frontier, most of which remains uninhabited-a land crushingly difficult and expensive to irrigate and populate.
In these desert experiences we could imagine ourselves in the sandals of our nomadic forebears-walking that rocky wilderness, camping by springs with laden camels, seeking cliff-side shade in the summer heat. From the wilderness we began to experience a spiritual awakening uniquely suited to the geography. From the wilderness we heard two Jewish messages.
The stillness of the midbar commanded our attention. Here, for the first time in our travels throughout Israel, we found it hard to get a cell phone signal. Here we escaped the traffic of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the dense thickets of apartment buildings and stores and restaurants, the gaudy shopping malls of Eilat. We walked, each at our own pace, to a private space in the wilderness and heard nothing but the stones crunching underfoot and the sound of our own breathing.
Each of us reported a transformative experience in those few minutes of wilderness silence. Heschel would have called it wonder or radical amazement. "Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward history and nature. . . . He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world, he would say, 'This is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes' (Psalms 118:23)" (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997], p. 45). Nowadays we are seldom granted this realization. Heschel observes that "[a]s civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines" (ibid., p. 46). For Heschel, radical amazement paves the way for all religious awareness; sometimes it takes a wilderness to awaken amazement.
The vast emptiness of the midbar made us feel small-not insignificant, but rather awestruck by the enormity of our surroundings. Recognizing the scarcity of unspoiled wilderness in the world compels our attentiveness to the harm we daily cause the environment. For a moment we felt humbled by the forbidding landscape, which painted a picture of a world untouched by human hands.
A remarkable recent book by Alan Weisman called The World Without Us (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007) envisions, with hard science and deft imagination, a world suddenly depopulated of human beings. Weisman explores "how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; what of our everyday stuff may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe" (from the book description on the Web-site www.worldwithoutus.com/about_book.html). Weisman's vision of a midbar relieved of a human presence is humbling, to say the least.
A sojourn in the wilderness recalibrates our perspective. We no longer feel like we're the center of the universe. In the wilderness we come to understand the poet:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
(George Gordon, Lord Byron, from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage")
When was the last time you enjoyed a few minutes alone, away from civilization? Take some time outside this week, away from buildings, cars, wires, and other people. Turn off your cell phone for fifteen minutes. Sit down by yourself. Who knows what you will discover!
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.