It won’t come as a surprise to any of the Birthright participants I have had the privilege to guide over the past thirteen years that my personal favourite place in Israel is the desert. To see the look of awe and wonder on the faces of urban college-age participants as they grasp the unique spirit of the desert never ceases to amaze me.
The huge storm Sandy that hit the east coast of the United States this week reminded us of the power of nature and of the fact that we humans are just small cogs in a vast universe. It humbled both those who were affected and those who witnessed the apocalyptic images.
The desert has a similar effect. One of the experiential activities I do with my Birthright participants is to have them walk in single file in complete silence through the desert. All one hears is the beating of ones heart, the sound of ones breathing, and the crunch of ones feet on the sand. As the participants feel the wind in their hair and the sun on their face they begin to enjoy the “sound of silence.” It is a sensual experience.
As we literally follow our ancestors’ footsteps in the desert, I remind them why we became a nation by receiving the Torah davka in the desert. The desert reminds us of how small we are in the cosmos – the lesson of humility. It reminds us of the importance of family and friends – the lesson of community. Being in the desert exemplifies the importance of taking the opportunity to “clean out our heads” – the lesson of making time to reflect.
Our Birthright as a people started in the desert. It is important to take time in our lives by either literally returning to the desert, as our people have done from the time of David and Elijah, to reflect and recharge our spiritual batteries, or figuratively by celebrating Shabbat with our family and friends.