Of Wilderness and Wonder

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, July 1, 2024

In late June I met up with longtime friends for a short vacation in Colorado. As we hiked and scrambled over rocks in the 90+ degree dry heat, we reflected on the beauty surrounding us – the vast blue sky, and the vistas of the mountains. At times we saw mountain goats climbing easily as we reached carefully for each handhold and foothold. When we venture into the wilderness, we go well equipped – sunscreen, hats, lots of water, a few snacks, good hiking shoes. We have maps and look for trail markers along the way.

While we were hiking, I reflected on the journey of the Israelites detailed in the book of Torah that we are currently reading in our annual cycle, the book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. Bamidbar literally means “In the wilderness,” referring to 40 years that the Israelites journeyed towards the eventual return to the Land of our ancestors. Our ancestors did not have a map or trail markers. Their journey was fraught with challenges. While their destination was certain, the path to get there was not. They relied on the leadership of Moses, and their faith that God would guide them. The wilderness can be frightening. It is a place of extremes—extreme heat and cold, scarce food and water, and dangerous animals. A minor incident can quickly become a life-threatening emergency. The wilderness is a vast, open place, without the familiar structures in place, and the Israelites complain to Moses many times. They cry out – “why did you take us out of Egypt, we would have been better off remaining there as slaves.” In comparison, the known seems to them to be preferable to the doubt, uncertainty, and fear that the wilderness journey brings.

Yet the wilderness is also a place of revelation. While the discomforts and challenges bring the people’s character flaws to the surface, it is only by going through them that our ancestors are able to discern the voice of God and their national mission. The great emptiness of the desert, the revelation of the bush that burns but is not consumed, the cleft in the rock, all these are the fleeting glimpses of God’s eternal Presence, both infinitesimal and vast at the same time.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the costs in terms of personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.” (Eyes Remade for Wonder, p. 66)

We are living in challenging and bewildering times. The wilderness held then, as it does for many today, confusion, potential threat, a sense of longing for what seemed to be the security of the past and hope for what will be in the future. Bamidbar is where many of us are living today, as we seek a Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace for our minds and bodies.

We are drawn to these stories because they are a part of us, they live in us. Through the retelling, we understand who we are – not as individuals but as part of a people, bound to God who guides us through the wildernesses and wonders of life. We re-read the stories of the past, and they become inspiration for us in the present and hope for the future. In re-reading the stories of our own lives through the stories of our people, we uncover themes that are not only in their stories, but in ours as well. It is not only that we read the Torah, we also read Torah into our lives.
That wilderness exists inside all of us. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by. The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity. New York: MacMillan, 1987, p. 128)

In a world that all too often seems chaotic and empty of God’s Presence, Bamidbar reminds us over and over that “God was in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). For all the doubts, fears, and questions that wilderness can evoke, it is essential to remember that it also holds wonder. This is the great message of hope that Torah brings to the world.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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