Many years ago, returning from India on a day time flight and sitting in a
window seat, I was lucky enough to over fly the Rub al-Khali in the southern Arabian peninsular. Rub al-Khali means Empty Quarter in Arabic, and it is the largest area of continuous sand in the world, covering some 250,000 square miles, which equates to more than Belgium, Holland and France combined!
Noon time temperatures rise to 131 degrees Fahrenheit and it has sand dunes that are up to 325 metres high; it is known as one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth and is entirely uninhabitable, apart from a few hapless oil workers working on some very large wells. The Rub-al-Khali, which is 600 miles long and took just over an hour for my aircraft to traverse is an unbelievable sight, and is the absolute epitome of ‘desert’ in its harshest form.
This Shabbat we continue to read from the fourth of the five books of Moses, be-midbar, which means ‘in the desert’. The book itself is set largely in the desert of the Sinai peninsular during the Israelites’ wanderings after their Exodus from Egypt, a sojourn that was to last, due to their own faithlessness, for forty years. It is a rich book with much important material in it and takes the Israelites from the Sinai to the plains of Moab, just before entering the land of Canaan. It is a book full of consolidation and division, religious cohesion and revolution, internal and external threat. Yet, sandwiched as it is between the legally important book of Leviticus and the portentousness of Deuteronomy, which concludes with the death of Moses, it can easily become the one book of the Torah that we drift through making few connections, an almost irrelevant pause before the fifth and final work attributed to Moses the man of God.
It is just as easy to treat the name of the book, taken from its fifth word, as similarly unimportant: be-midbar is in Hebrew not even an absolute form, standing alone, in its own right, it is a construct, linked to the word that follows which is Sinai, thus yielding a phrase – In the wilderness of Sinai.
But the word midbar, which has cognates in many other Semitic languages, such as Ugaritic, Akkadian and Syriac, and which means wilderness, desert or steppe, is figuratively and actually extremely important.
Deserts, as we all know from school geography classes or television nature documentaries, are harsh and unforgiving places. Deserts are not congenial places for human beings to inhabit, and those that do, like the animals, reptiles and insects that also live there, have evolved unique ways of existence to ensure their survival in harmony with nature at its most capricious and cruel.
The Israelites hated wandering in the desert, they moaned and groaned the whole way through, they behaved abominably, they treated Moses and Aaron with quite appalling disrespect, and on several occasions they came within a hairsbreadth of being wiped off the face of the earth by an angry God. It was not a happy time. In many ways it was a terrible time. It should have been an opportunity for the Israelites to unite against a hostile environment, to pull together, to use their common resources and strengths for everyone’s well-being: yet the reality was completely the opposite. In the desert the Israelites split in multiple ways, they showed contempt for their leaders and for their God, and they showed contempt for themselves. What should have been a crucible in which they were tested and refined became a place of division and weakness.
This is so contrary to what we might expect – as well as being contrary to what God may have intended – that we cannot avoid asking the question why? But before we attempt to answer it let us remain, for a little while longer, in the desert.
As Jews we have left the desert long behind us, it is now merely an historical echo of Israel’s beginnings, lost in the mists of time. Yet is it? I am not so sure. Our ancestors may have left the desert but did the desert ever leave them? My answer is no.
When the Israelites ceased to be nomadic wanderers and became settled urban dwellers they were never allowed to forget their four decades in the wilderness, because it was the place where all of the most formative of their experiences occurred.
And even now, when we think about our earliest ancestors our most common image of them is of a ragged and worn bunch of nomads trudging through the desert, assailed by sand storms and dust, snakes and scorpions, and the demons in their own souls.
We too carry the desert within us; it is a dry, arid place deep within almost every psyche, a frightening place, a dark place, a place of extremes, harsh and unfriendly. Our own desert is the place that sucks us in when we are at our lowest ebb, when we feel battered and worn by life, when we feel at our most alone. Our own desert is a place that goes where we go, frequently ignored or forgotten but always ready to drag us in when we are at our most susceptible. The desert for us is not just a physical place but a state of mind.
Why was the desert so bad for the Israelites? And why is it such a disturbing place for us? The answer is the same. Because the desert is a place devoid of hope! When the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness, in spite of the fact that they had remarkable leaders, in spite of the fact that they had the support of a powerful God, who enacted miracles for them whenever necessary and who had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, they lacked hope. Now the text never says that they lacked hope but actions speak louder than words and at almost every step of the way you can see all too clearly that the Israelites were strangers to hope.
There is no other acceptable explanation for their behaviour: only those without hope are so self-destructive, so negative, so punishing, and the Israelites raised these things to the level of an art form. Why they were lacking in hope is a more difficult question to answer, and perhaps it is just as well, for I suspect that each of us might have a valid response which should not be influenced by anyone else.
Why we get trapped from time to time in our own personal desert is also hard to explain, but we too find times when we feel alone, dry, adrift in a hostile environment and though we may seek hope we find it hard if not impossible to locate.
In these times, however, unlike the Israelites, we do have a means of escaping from the desert and recapturing the hope that is essential for every human soul.
We have a rich and glorious tradition of triumph over the odds, we have a seam of spiritual resource that is richer in compassion, sympathy and hope than any other, and we have our community family, our own little tribe, which cares for us.
We may never be able to escape the desert completely but we more than have the means of keeping our time in it to a minimum.
The 20th century Israeli poet David Rokeach understood these things and expressed them better than anyone else I know in these words:
Only the hopeful earn the glory,
For the future is theirs;
Those who stand unflinching against the mountain
Shall gain its summit.
So hopes the river, running to the sea,
To fulfil its dreams in the crash of waters.
So longs the tree, branching skywards
At last to touch the palm of sun.
Therefore we love dawn as promise of day,
The nightingale’s love-song as longing for birth,
The flowing of streams as beat of dreams made real,
Streams cutting channels for rivers of the future
And never growing weary.
And all who join hands, trusting creation—
These are the companions of hope.
Forge, then, the vision of days to come:
As the waves shape the rocky shore,
As the smith moulds white hot steel to his purpose,
Form dreams of faithfulness.
Desolation will not leave the desert,
Until it leaves the heart.
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.