By Josh Yudkin
Sitting in the desert, the same desert to which our ancestors went for inspiration, I facilitated a meditation for Birthright participants many times. I shared how the word for desert, midbar contains the same letters as medaber, to speak: I do not believe that this is a coincidence, as, going as far back as our ancestors in the Torah, we Jews have gone into the desert for inspiration. Perhaps, the desert is a sacred place where we can hear God speak. Now, it was their turn to go into the desert – it was their time to hear God speak.
While some participants enjoyed looking at the constellations of stars, other reflected that they heard the Shema in the wind. One man, in fact, returned with puffy eyes saying that he had lived in a city his entire life and had never heard true silence. The desert awakens the senses and can be a deeply spiritual experience.
It had been four years since I have wandered into the desert, and about four weeks since I departed the Promised Land. Yet, I found myself, once again, in the desert, but this time sitting around a Shabbat table surrounded by dozens of Jews singing “Shalom Aleichem.” Sitting in a villa in the middle of the United Arab Emirates, I heard a Sephardic rendition of Kabbalat Shabbat and an Ashkenzaic melody for “Shalom Aleichem.” I participated in a dinner conversation that contains phrases ranging from Yiddish to Arabic. Living out the dream of Ahad Ha’am, secular and religious Jewish polyglots from six out of seven continents broke bread and rejoiced in the Sabbath.
My mind began to wander during the Kiddush. I reflected on the past week when I met Israeli celebrities who star on the Netflix original “Fauda.” The smell of the oud cologne on the man next to me reminded me of the rich and unknown fragrances from the Grand Souq in Bur Dubai. I felt radically grateful to be taking the first ever commercial flight from Dubai to Tel Aviv on Sunday.
As I was about to take a bite of challah, I felt a cool breeze begin to massage my neck. As it moved across my shoulders, the woman next to me commented on the beauty of the wind’s Shabbat nigun. Underneath a sukkah of lights and a literal blue moon, I reflected on that same framing to the Birthright desert meditation. I felt awake.
When we celebrate Passover, we often say that God took us out of Mitzrayim, which we translate as Egypt. However, the shoresh, the root, of the word Mitzrayim is tzar, or narrow. When we say that God took us out of Mitzrayim, what we mean is that God took us out of a narrow place, a place filled with repression that stifled our identities and existence.
It was around this Shabbat table in the middle of the Emirati desert that I could say I witnessed a miracle. In celebration of our tradition, I could say that God has taken us out of a narrow place and allowed us to offer thanks and rejoice. The Shabbat table in the middle of the Emirati desert is a symbol for the beginning of a new chapter for the Jewish people. It is a chapter filled with unity, dynamic discussion, illuminating ideation and relentless respect for all. It is a chapter where we can sing “Hatikvah,” together.
As we retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt on Passover, let’s celebrate the miracles — big and small — that happen every day.
Moreover, whether we look in our religious tradition or national history, we have an obligation to be a light unto other nations or to [build] a city on the hill that will shine its light onto the rest of the world. We have an opportunity to leave this era of divisive language in the past and engage with one another with a relentless respect. As we welcome the season of spring and the true Jewish New Year, we have an opportunity to elevate and empower. Let’s express radical gratitude and actively welcome in this miraculous new year and this era built on relentless respect, together.
Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.