By Rav Hanan Schlesinger
The desert. A place of emptiness, of desolation. That is the name of the book of the Torah that we begin reading this Shabbat. In English we call it the Book of Numbers, but in Hebrew it is the Book of Bamidbar — “in the desert.”
The Torah was given in a deserted wilderness. Just about all of God’s formative commands to the emerging Israelite nation were promulgated in the desert; many of them appear in this fourth book of the Torah whose name connotes barren nothingness.
What’s the significance of meeting God in the desert? Near the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy we find a pointed contrast between life in the desert and life in the land of Israel. While the Israelites trekked through the desert, everything was handed to them on a silver platter and all their needs were taken care of without any effort on their part: Miraculously, their clothes never wore out and their shoes never needed replacing. The manna fell from heaven; water burst forth for them from a rock. The people were no more than passive recipients. Subsequently, however, when they enter the land of Israel they will have to toil and work to satisfy their needs.
To encounter God in the desert may be indicative of the passivity that is necessary to sense the presence, and to hear the message, of the Ultimate Other, He who cannot be fathomed. As the Talmud says, to grasp Torah one must make himself ownerless like the desert. One must nullify himself, abandon himself as it were, and simply allow whatever happens to happen — just let the Divine light flow in.
One must put aside critical thinking … but not forever. The desert experience was but a blip on the radar screen of Jewish history. After the desert comes the entrance into the land of Israel. There passivity gives way to activity: Fields must be plowed and sowed, tended and harvested. And from the raw produce bread must be baked, food must be prepared. Sheep must be pastured and wool sheared, combed, spun, until clothing can be fashioned.
The message of God that was handed us in the desert must later be critically processed; it must be run through the minds that God bestowed upon us. It must be digested, understood, weighed and finally applied to our present circumstances.
What this all means is that there are two modes of living. The critical discerning mode is second nature to most of us. All new information and unfamiliar experiences are run through the spell-check of our intellects, and that which does not conform to the rules is rejected. But perhaps we need, as well, a “desert” mode of dealing with life. If everything is to be immediately filtered through our critical faculties, we will never truly encounter anything but the expected and the normal. We will always stay within our own skin and will have forfeited too many growth opportunities.
Critical thinking is crucial … but not at all times and not as an initial knee-jerk reaction. Be open to the new and the unknown, the impossible and the foreign. Allow otherness to break through the shell. Suspend disbelief and try something else out for size. Afterward you can see how it fits, and put it aside if it doesn’t. But let’s not deny ourselves those oh-so-important revelations — Divine and otherwise — that may perhaps be experienced only in the desert. The Book of Numbers — and the Book of Life — is full of them.
Rav Hanan Schlesinger is director of community education and community rabbinic scholar of the Community Kollel of Dallas, located on the Schultz-Rosenberg Campus. He can be reached at 214-789-7241.