The Power of Wilderness

Why was Torah given in the wilderness? Amazing things happen in the wilderness. It is a place where awe, openness, heat, thirst, beauty, vast emptiness, soaring cliffs, discomfort, mystery and magic all fuse together.

I had a history class at UCLA where we learned all about American history post Civil War through World War I. I did all the reading, reviewed my notes and was ready for the final exam. When I opened up the exam, the question was: What are the most important questions that emerge from this era?

I wasn’t prepared for that. I was ready to regurgitate all kinds of facts and analysis – but had not idea how to respond to the exam question.

In retrospect – it was one of the greatest lessons I could learn. We need to learn to ask and explore the questions that emerge in life. It is the essence of Jewish life – we read a holy text and ask questions, we wonder why certain words are used and details included, our questions open up new understandings and insights.

This week’s portion begins with the detail that God revealed Torah in the wilderness – Midbar. The question that commentators ask is: Why was Torah given in the wilderness? And the scores of answers given open up spiritual insights and communal challenges that speak to us.

Amazing things happen in the wilderness. It is a place where awe, openness, heat, thirst, beauty, vast emptiness, soaring cliffs, discomfort, mystery and magic all fuse together. Take a look at the picture on the front of the program – what is it that Midbar inspires?

When Nathan described the trip to the desert with his dad, one of the first things he described was the quiet in the Midbar – especially poignant in contrast to the energy, noise and stimulation he experienced Las Vegas. Let’s explore the power of quiet.

Ours is a culture of noise and distraction. We are connected to our technology. When is the last time you truly experienced quiet? Maybe Torah was given in wilderness to remind us that when we quiet our souls and minds, we open ourselves us to insights and understandings that change us.

In a commentary on this portion, Rabbi Barry Leff, who belonged to this synagogue and was a Silicon Valley businessman before going to Rabbinic school and eventually moving to Israel, described walking the Israel trail that crosses the entire country from north to south.

He was out on the trail with his daughter, Katherine, and writes: “After setting up camp, fixing dinner, etc., we got into our sleeping bags by around 9pm, and I felt it was the quietest place I had ever been in my entire life. It was eerily quiet. The only thing I could hear was the ringing in my ears. No cars or planes, no birds, no bugs, no animals, nothing. At first the moon was out and things were pretty bright, but when I woke up in the middle of the night the moon had set and the stars were just unbelievable. The only other time I’ve seen as many stars was when I was flying a small plane over the Arizona desert at night on a moonless eve and I turned the cockpit lights all the way down. It was definitely easier to somehow feel the presence of God among the stars and in the silence.”

I often write sermons about my own spiritual journey that I also believe will speak to you, and I am aware the silence is not easy for me. While I make spiritual time to listen to myself, to pray, to express gratitude, to appreciate nature – I want to learn the ability to create quiet – because I know the power of quiet is that it possesses the potential to feel the presence of God in a different way. Torah was given in Midbar because in the quiet the Israelites could feel a deep sense of God’s Presence. It changed them. It reminded them that experiencing God was not just a moment in the past, but an ongoing process. It can be a powerful piece of our spiritual experience.

A corollary to this is taught by the Midrash (Pesikta de’Rav Kahane) which teaches that the Midbar is a place of surrender. You make room in your own heart in order to receive Torah. That is a spiritual challenge. Can we make room in our hearts for receiving Torah?

Another explanation why Torah was given in Midbar is that it inspires awe. Far from desolation, Midbar pulsates with the novelty of creation – there is an energy there and unsurpassed beauty. Awe may be one of the most important religious ideas that we can cultivate.

Listen to the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitik: “I remember how enthused I was the first time I saw the Baltic Sea. I was born in Russia and never saw a major body of water in my youth… I remember that the water was blue, deeply blue. From afar it looked like a blue forest. I went closer and realized it was the sea and I was overwhelmed by its beauty. Spontaneously, I began to recite the Psalm, Bless the Lord, O my soul. I did not plan to do this. Yet the words flowed from my lips: ‘There is the sea, vast and wide.’ It was a religious reaction to viewing the majesty of God’s creation….The experience welled out of me.”

One of the challenges religion faces is that it becomes rote and routine. Spiritual boredom is overcome by the experience of wonder and awe. Perhaps Torah was given in the wilderness because the wonder of Midbar allows us to consider the existence of order, purpose and meaning. Wonder connects us with the spiritual impulse inside of us and helps us align with our best self. Can we allow the awe of Midbar to be part of our spiritual practice and cultivate a deep sense of wonder at the world that surrounds us? I have begun to pause before saying a blessing – for there is so much wonder that surrounds us that we overlook. Cultivate wonder.

The Midrash suggests that Torah was given in the Midbar, because it belongs to no one. The wisdom contained in the Torah is the property of all humanity. No one owns the wilderness – it stands outside the boundaries of any nation-state. No one ever owns God’s love, loyalty or concern in a way that others do not.

Why was Torah given in the wilderness? To remind us that God is accessible to all people. At a time when people are looking for connection and community, the doors of community need to be thrown wide open. As Torah is shared, our knowledge of how we can understand Torah grows – more interpretive voices deepen its message and relevance. In fact, the lesson of Torah belonging to the world calls upon us to reach beyond our walls and create communities where people feel welcomed and embraced, invited to join in our conversation with sacred text.

Quiet, awe, openness – each of these aspects of Midbar inform our spiritual potential as individuals and community. The Midrash says that in order to receive Torah we need to make ourselves like the Midbar. That’s our spiritual challenge!

The Hebrew word for wilderness – Midbar – is the same Hebrew letters as the word Medaber – speech. As we make ourselves like Midbar – listening to the quiet, experiencing the awe, open to all, we start to hear the words of God speaking, which well up from our own souls. May we let the Midbar speak to each of us. Shabbat Shalom.