Next week for Shavuot my family and I are going to the wilderness to receive the Torah. Not just any wilderness, I might add, but a wilderness that, while not Sinai, I often refer to as my Zion of the West: our family’s home in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. It’s not a desert, to be sure – the lakes and mountains of the region are legendary. But it is a place away from the bustle of the cities and towns in which we spend most of our days. A place where, for me at least, the voice of the divine takes on a pitch and clarity that is hard, though not impossible, to replicate.
In Judaism, the wilderness – in spite of the sacred exchange that took place there at Mount Sinai – is often reflected upon as a place of failure and chaos. This week’s Torah reading begins the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “In the Wilderness – which chronicles the 40 years of wandering our people had to endure in order for a generation of incurable rebellious slaves to die out before we were permitted to enter the land of Israel.
Not a lot of smiling faces in the photo album from that trip: Here we are complaining about the food. There’s Miriam and Aaron speaking badly about Moses. Here’s a group photo of the spies who discouraged everyone about Israel. That’s Korach leading a rebellion against Moses. Oh, and here’s Moses hitting the rock to get water for the people who were complaining. You get the picture.
Not surprisingly, the wilderness isn’t always remembered fondly.
Linda Hogan, a novelist and poet who has written about the Native American connection to land, wrote:
“The wilderness, mentioned in the [Jewish and Christian] Bibles 300 times, is almost always referred to as the place of evil, the devil’s place. It is seen as a dangerous realm, the untouched places of demons. It lives at the edge of the civilized world, and in the human mapping, it is the place inside humans that behaves according to instinct and inner drive and cannot be controlled by will. Wilderness is what the dominating have tried to push away from themselves, both in the outside world and inside their own bodies.”
Or, as Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch put it, the wilderness is the “uncontrolled might of sensuality.”
The Sefat Emet agreed. And for that reason, he thought the wilderness was the most sacred place on the planet.
In a magnificent teaching about Sefirat Ha’Omer, the tradition of counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, a teaching shared with me by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the Sefat Emet helps us understand why, if we’re so eager to get to Sinai and receive the Torah, do we count the days of the Omer up and not down? Everyone knows that when we’re eager to reach a certain date on the calendar, time moves faster when we count the days down rather than up! If the wilderness were such a toxic place, wouldn’t we be trying to rush through it?
Recalling the earlier days of wandering before the rebellions of the book of Bamidbar, the days even before the giving of the Torah, the Sefat Emet suggests that those days of wandering through the wilderness were not merely ones to “get through” as quickly as possible, but were days to savor slowly and deliberately, which explains why we count them up and not down – to actually slow down the pace with which we feel them passing. And more: Those days in the wilderness provided a corrective to the more difficult ones that followed.
Quoting Jeremiah, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me like a bride, how you followed me into the wilderness, into a land not sown,” the Sefat Emet says those words of God to Israel describe the days in the wilderness before the giving of the Torah. Those were days – before any contract of obligation and responsibility defined the covenant – that were filled with unfettered love between God and Israel, a time of becoming, of freedom, and of possibility.
“For after they received the Torah, they sinned. But even though Israel ruined [things], nevertheless there remained forevermore something (“mashehu”) from before the period of the sin. And through this, strength is carried through for what comes later, for one can always hold tight to these days.”
Far from the wilderness being a place of danger and failure, the Sefat Emet sees it as a place that precisely because it lacked structure, definition, or expectation and was instead a place of openness, it allowed for a deep and abiding love to grow between God and Israel. And not just any love, but a love that would contain within it the redemptive and healing seeds of possibility and freedom. For possibility and freedom are the essence of tikkun, of repair, without which no love, human or divine, could ever exist. For only on the possibility of change and the freedom to evolve can a meaningful life and lasting relationships rest.
Certainly our days in the wilderness that followed were days filled with failure and betrayal. But despite all this, the relationship between God and Israel corrected itself and we found water to drink, salves for our wounds, and victories against our enemies.
What led to the healing of the relationship? The time in the wilderness prior to the receiving and giving of the Torah. What saved the relationship, and what continues to ensure it, are the early days God and we spent discovering in one another the capacity to be loving, loyal, and courageous. And, equally important, discovering the forgiveness to extend to each other when we aren’t.
How powerful to have on a single Shabbat the convergence of the opening of the book of Bamidbar, the final days of the Omer leading up to the revelation of Sinai, the recent celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, and the anniversary of the termination of the British Mandate in 1948. None of these seminal events in the history of our people could have taken place without our unwavering embrace of the possibility and the freedom of the wilderness. And none of our glorious destiny that awaits us will be possible without it either.
So I’m heading with my family to our wilderness next week to receive the Torah. Not because we can’t find God in a synagogue. But because before we rise to receive the Torah once again, I want us to be reminded of the possibility and the freedom that will ensure our eternal devotion to it, and that will help us find our way home should we get lost.
Our family enjoys encountering these gifts out in the country. But we also find them in the heart of our busy, dynamic community. Wherever your wilderness is, make sure you take a few minutes there before Shavuot next week, so that when you take your leave of Sinai with the Torah in hand, you can journey on with confidence knowing that wherever your path takes you from there, you’ll always be heading home.
And be sure to take pictures.