A few years ago I went hiking with friends and with a Bedouin guide in the area around and behind Santa Katerina, in southern Sinai. Sinai is an extraordinary place, raw and grand. The peaks are majestic and whistling cold. The wadis are full of hidden crevices, shade and light, little crawly things, small shrubs and unlikely greennesses. On a hot day, moving slowly, we rounded a corner and came upon a pool, translucent blue, still in the windless day, ice-cold despite the heat.
As we read parashat Be-Midbar, and begin the book of Be-Midbar, that hike and that natural pool provide insights into two important questions: why was it necessary for the children of Israel to spend so long in the wilderness? And what message should we learn from that today?
Mayim hayim-living waters-is a strong motif in Jewish tradition. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma is about rain and its absence. On Sukkot we recite an extraordinary prayer for rain, paralleled on Pesah with a prayer for dew; in each case these prayers inaugurate a short addition to the daily silent prayer focused on rain and dew. The Talmud, in Ta’anit-a book about fasting-recounts the ascending series of fasts, individual and communal, which were inaugurated in ancient times if the rains didn’t fall in their proper time. And when we found a new community, we are enjoined to establish a mikveh, a pool of water, in which to cleanse ourselves, even before we establish a synagogue.
And water, where it comes from and what uses to which it may be put, defines the distinction between Egypt, the wilderness and Israel.
We know that Mitzrayim, Hebrew for Egypt, means “narrow places.” Existentially, when on Seder night we leave Mitzrayim, we are leaving our own narrow places, our places of constriction, to enter into the open spaces of our own freedom. The forty-nine day count, from Pesah to Shavuot, of which we are now nearing the end, is a contemporary existential journey into a wider and deeper sense of self.
But Mitzrayim also means narrow spaces in a more prosaic sense. Egypt is Mitzrayim because its civilizations arose in the narrow spaces either side of the River Nile. It is the superfluity of water-concentrated in those narrow spaces-which allowed Egyptian civilization to arise. Superfluity of water enables superfluity in other realms-mass society, slaves, pyramids, rulers of huge wealth and absolute power. (It is Nelson Mandela in our generation who has made most clear how the abuse of power enslaves those who wield it as well as those directly wounded by it; so too in ancient Egypt.)
When the children of Israel leave Egypt, they leave for the wilderness-a wilderness that does have enough water to support life, as I learned for myself a few years ago. Behind Santa Katerina our Bedouin guide introduced us to a hidden world, little changed since the days of our ancient ancestors-trails & tracks, goats, small orchards, wells (some with large stones covering them), camels, olive trees, small stone-built walls. One night we mixed flour and water and baked it on the fire. The wilderness will support life, but only simple life. No superfluities.
The wilderness-now, as then-is an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the slaveries, large and small, to which overabundance gives rise. Jewish tradition teaches that the generation who came out of Egypt all had to die in the wilderness before a new generation, untouched by slavery, could enter the land of Israel. The generation of slavery was also the generation of superfluity, the generation who took the Nile’s abundant waters for granted. The generation who entered Israel had been born be-midbar, in the wilderness. For them water was a treasure, never to be taken for granted, and life of necessity was focused on essential questions: How shall we live? How shall we mediate anger and jealousy, relations between the genders and the generations, so that we might pursue peace and seek to be holy?
And thus into Israel: watered more than the desert, but less than Egypt.
Watered from above, in rains that have rhythm but not ubiquity. Israel-literally and metaphorically-affords us the possibility of a deeper and richer civilization than was possible in the wilderness, but denies the superfluity that enabled slavery.
The wilderness speaks to us-the root of Be-Midbar refers to this directly, the verb l’daber is the simplest modern Hebrew word, to speak-and the question today is whether we can hear it. We live, many of us, amongst great superfluity, and there are fewer literal wildernesses on our planet today than there were when the Torah was young. We have been as resourceful as the ancient Egyptians in corralling our resources, and for the most part we engender freedom and not slavery. The deep lessons of the wilderness are important ones for our generation, and for generations to come. In a physical sense, will we go out into wild places, understand their importance to our own journeys, hear and learn those things that are obscured amidst our daily superfluities? And in doing so, can we learn to act upon the things we discover: that life is a miracle, that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and that our civilization should closer approximate the provisionality of ancient Israel than the certitude of ancient Mitzrayim…
[This dvar torah is in honor of Yoel Lessing, with whom I hiked in Sinai, and who two weeks ago devoted many hours to helping us out of a nasty patch of technological narrow places…]