God doesn’t want to be lost among distractions

We start the Book of Numbers this week, and the first verse states, “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”
What is it about the wilderness that God always appears there? Why not, say, in my den while I’m lying on the couch watching the ball game? My den: nice and comfy. The wilderness: less so. What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a great meeting place?
I am reminded of my teacher, Dr. Leonard Kravitz, who used to talk about the temptations of the world as you went out to seek knowledge. From where Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion used to be located, to get to the New York Public Library, that great repository of human knowledge and wisdom, you first had to walk past the distractions of Times Square. All of human knowledge is there at the New York Public Library, free for the taking, if only you can successfully make it past Times Square without being distracted.
Imagine that instead of walking past Times Square, you had to walk through the wilderness instead. You’d probably make it to the library without any incident. The wilderness is a place without distraction that lets you concentrate on the task at hand or to speak to God without interference.
Elijah, when he was pursued by Jezebel, fled into the wilderness and prayed for death. God passed by Elijah, and we are told, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still small voice.” Do you really think that if you were traveling through Times Square, you would be able to hear God’s still small voice?
Today we are bombarded with distractions. We work at our computers with music playing, an instant message conversation or three taking place on the side, while updating our Facebook status or Tweeting. We sit in meetings while texting and surfing the web to check up on something someone just mentioned. We’re driving in our cars while talking on our cell phones either legally, using a hands-free set, or illegally. We are becoming experts at multitasking.
But I don’t believe it. I love my friend, but she really scares me sometimes. She calls me when she’s in the car going from one appointment to another. We’ve got to fit in as much as we can into every second of our day, after all. But as she and I are talking on the phone, she’ll be in the middle of a sentence and she’ll say, “Oh, I wanted to turn there.” Or, when she says to me “I am totally listening to you,” I know that she was multitasking and suddenly realized she had missed a portion of our conversation. I don’t believe in multitasking. I believe we can learn to switch rapidly between tasks, but I don’t believe that we can actually concentrate on two things at the same time. We miss something when we divide our attention.
Why does God appear in the wilderness? Because God demands our full attention. God demands our complete being. We think we accomplish more by switching rapidly from task to task, but in reality, we actually miss vital elements when we divide our attention. How can you hear the still small voice, when your smartphone keeps dinging? There is a Zen proverb that shows us the way to encounter God and each other:
In walking, just walk.
In sitting, just sit.
Above all, don’t wobble.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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