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The Book of the Desert
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A period of forty years separated between the exodus from Egypt and the conquering of the land of Israel, were spent in the desert.

The Book of the Desert

Based on an Article in Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

By Braha Bender

 

The desert sands grow cold at night. I lie on my back looking up at the stars.

The sky splashes like a wave of light, galaxies rippling above me in layers. Sands mirror the symphony of stars. Untold grains dance to form vivid undulations of hard rock face and soft sand bank. On one of these I find my perch, prone and level with the earth and sky around and above me. Who I am amongst all this? In the absence of distractions, the fundamental elements of nature, including my human nature, grow vivid and defined. A deep quiet enters my head, my breath, my body, and I seem to float between the great yawn of barren earth and the music of the galaxies.

This environment was the true melting pot of the Jews. New York in the 1920s screamed and echoed with anxieties and distractions, turning many away from the voice within. Egypt, with its wild-eyed gluttonousness and graceless cruelty, did the same. We lost ourselves in these places. The original melting pot, where the impurities of the gold of our hearts burned away, was the desert. There were no distractions there.

After receiving the Torah in fire and light at Mount Sinai, the Jewish People were still not ready to re-enter the fray of ancient society. Israel was the promised land, but the promised land at that time seeped with the sickly-sweet odors of incense and burning flesh: the scents of idol worship. From human sacrifice to institutionalized sexual abuse to petty crime and rampant violence, Canaan of the ancient world was not a pleasant place before the Jews inherited the land. The Children of Israel would have to face these harsh realities and cut them down – but not yet. They weren’t ready.

A period of forty years separated between the exodus from Egypt and the conquering of the land of Israel. These forty years were spent in the desert. It wasn’t a settled existence – constant travel and upheaval characterized Jewish life at that time, yet incredible miracles didn’t allowed this instability to become too much of a burden. Water flowed from rocks. The people were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. All common desert dangers and maladies were warded away by divine protection. Manna rained down from heaven, a source of nutrition so perfect that the human body produced no waste. It was a womb-like experience that allowed us to take a national deep breath and process who we had become and who we would choose to be.

Who are you today? Are you who you want to be? Are you whom you believe that you can be? The desert, in moments of quiet, in moments where stillness asks great questions in a voice of loud silence, allows us to become our potential by finding it within.

Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers) literally means “the book in the desert”. Thirty-two parashos (portions) in this volume of the Five Books of Moses map the way the Children of Israel journeyed from broken slave nation to empowered, unified people. We journeyed through the desert, a place of deep quiet, neither here nor there, blowing sands and the insoluble structures of earth and sky speaking volumes without words. Identity is forged when listening and thinking and breathing grow like seeds in the fertile soil of noiselessness.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Visit the desert, where sand and sky roll on forever, and who you can become is masked by nothing. 


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