Desert Silence

Z. describes himself as an ish hamidbarot, what we would call in English, colloquially, a desert rat. Now sixty-one, the veteran Eilat-based guide has, since the beginning of his army service at age eighteen, trekked repeatedly across the Negev desert in his sure and steady jeep, as well as by foot and by bike. Driving with him over the treacherous but beautiful pathways that hug the majestic Wadi Eteq in the Eilat Mountains, I learn quickly that he and the desert might as well be one.  My wife and I are spending a day in this part of the Negev with Z; he has given us the option of driving off-road into and over places we would never explore by ourselves and could hardly imagine.  This kind of jeep riding around narrow, winding and bumpy cliff roads is just beyond our comfort zone, but our trepidations (mine at least) are more than negated by the sultry desert heat, the stunning colors and rocky features of the deep wadi canyons, and a quiet that I suspect exists nowhere else.  Z. is an outstanding driver and guide, a classic Israeli moreh derekh whose knowledge is matched only by his superior ability to shepherd his students and guests through God’s wildest spaces in utter safety and in a state of wonder.

I have now lived in a small city in upstate New York for nearly a quarter of a century, but I know the manic rhythms of urban life, having grown up downstate in New York City.  Along Wadi Eteq, at least on this one day in October, nothing dares to stir. The sun splashes a flash flood of light across the landscape, an ibex eyes us with quiet wariness, the Acacia and the Juniper bush stand out, occasional, durable and mute royalty ruling over what the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley called “the lone and level sand.”  Z. reminds us that the desert’s apparent, almost flatline, equanimity should not fool us into assuming that it does not pulse with life.  As we drive, I ask him how people from big cities react to the desert.  He sighs, “There are some people who come out here with me, see nothing but rocks and sand, and declare, ‘Let’s get out of here, there’s nothing here.’  I look at all of this and see a place overflowing with life and creative power.  Out here, you come to understand what the biblical psalmist meant when he said, ‘How great are your works, Oh Lord, Your thoughts are so deep.’” (Psalm 92:6)

“Come,” the ish hamidbarot tells us, “We’ve arrived at the overlook of the Wadi.  Let’s get out of the jeep, take some water with us and just enjoy the silence.”  My wife, a great sport, has nonetheless been wearing her heart in her stomach up until this point in the ride, having been most unfortunate to sit in the back of the jeep with no seatbelt.  Each time Z. and I joke about whether or not she and I prepared our wills, given the challenging ride, I detect a subtle glare on her face that she throws my way.  Is she mad at me, given the fact that I hadn’t researched what desert jeep rides are like? Is she resigned to sweat out the ride, given her lack of a choice at this point, but prepared to hand me my head when we return to the hotel? Will we return alive and in one piece to the land of the living? As we stand in the purest silence near the edge of the canyon, all these anxieties melt into the cliff faces.

I have been in places like this before:  God’s palaces of the awful and the awesome, what John Keats called “the shore of the wide world” where, he wrote,

I stand alone and think

Till fame and love to nothingness do sink.

These are the places where wondrous beauty and wide-eyed terror stand paradoxically arm in arm; where, in that purest silence, I am filled with love for the majesty of what God has created, and I shrink in terror at my tininess before that same creation which would easily kill me without so much as a warning or a thought.  It is this paradox that the philosopher Maimonides was thinking of when he taught that a person contemplating God’s great, wondrous and endless creations comes to love God and to fear God as well.

Back home, on the other side of the Atlantic, a man deranged by hatred is brewing to a boiling point his twisted malcontent in the toxic noise of bigoted conspiracy theorists; soon enough, unbeknown to us at that moment, he will pierce the holy silence of a synagogue sanctuary with gunfire and the screams of innocent, dying people. Back here, a mere 120 miles away, the whistle of missiles from Gaza is once again beginning to violate the longed-for silence of respite and peace in the Eshkol region of Israel and beyond. I stand at the edge of the wadi, content to be utterly at a loss for words, listening to the canyon’s prayer of praise for a pristine harmony that lies just beyond the reach of human discord, in the land of hope, as yet unfulfilled.



About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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