Travelling through Israel on an AIJAC clergy trip recently, I was again struck by the haunting beauty of the desert. I was also struck by how large a proportion of the country is covered by it: The Negev desert makes up more than half of the land of Israel.
The desert has always dominated Jewish consciousness: First there was the journey of Abraham followed by the wandering of Isaac and Jacob across the south of Israel and the numinous Negev. Then there was the Sinai wilderness and the integral part it played in forming the new nation of Israel. It was here that Moses discovered his destiny in a burning bush. It was here that the burning words of God were conveyed to the Jewish people.
Unlike Egypt where the Nile River dominates or much of Europe, where the forests and mountains capture the imagination, in Israel it’s the desert that shapes the people’s psyche. It is certainly a space that stirs my soul; I love that first glimpse of the desert hills of Judea as you leave Jerusalem; the way they unfold like a luxurious but crumpled blanket; I love their golden brightness.
It happened that the very week I was in Israel, we began to read the forth book of the Torah (in our weekly reading or parasha) the book of Bemidbar or wilderness. It was also just before the festival of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in the desert. This got me thinking about how the desert not only formed but also continues to cultivate Jewish consciousness.
The desert may be a beautiful place but in the words of the poet Gerard Hopkins, it is one of brute beauty. It is not a place for the faint of heart, you need a toughness of mind, resilience and good survival skills. Perhaps this is precisely why God chose the desert to test the nascent nation and deliver his fiery covenant .It would prepare the Jewish people for a future fraught with challenge, deep with suffering and many dry ,white and friendless seasons .It would help them survive and it would help them rebuild a country in the twentieth century. Blessed with few natural resources but with a plethora of creativity and talent, the Jewish people would make this place a high -tech hub , a start-up nation on steroids. And they would also become leaders in water conservation, recycling, desalination and now exporters of the precious commodity.
The desert is also a place that makes you very aware of your physical needs – where will the next meal come from, are you close to a water -source. In the Sinai, the new nation are often obsessed by food – they kvetch and complain about it; they fantasise about how delicious and varied it was in Egypt (forgetting the numbing cost of it); they deride the miracle manna bread and demand meat. They also understandably worry constantly about water. Perhaps this accounts, in part, for the glorious foodie culture of contemporary Israel. Think Ottolengi and the astonishing range of innovative restaurants especially in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s also a joy that quality kosher cuisine has become so readily available even in the secular sin city!
If the desert makes you focus on the physical, it also paradoxically helps you centre on the spiritual. The desert forces you to consider what is essential and what is superficial and unnecessary. This is why Moshe discovers who he really is and what his purpose is only when he takes off with his sheep into the wild wilderness. This is why the people of Israel discover their purpose, their global role only when they are in the haunting and harsh territory of the midbar (desert). It has been said that what draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote, infinite in the desolate. And Dan Allender suggests that the desert shatters the soul’s arrogance and leaves body and soul crying out in thirst and hunger. In the desert, he says, we trust God or die.
Standing in the dry border town of Sderot gazing at Gaza from where rockets are fired giving you just 15 seconds to seek shelter, this existential lesson from the desert was stark and sobering.
Author of The Little Prince de St. Exupery, writes that what makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well. Not only is the Negev that kind of place (as discovered by Abraham and made famous by Isaac) but the State of Israel today is that kind of country. Despite the intractable conflict and debilitating politics it constantly surprises; there’s always a refreshing well, a startling stream, an evocative oasis to discover.
And that’s why I will keep on going back there – it energises and nourishes, excites my body and nourishes my soul…