Why do we fear the wilderness?
I got the idea for this blog partly from my current life’s experience, and partly from the Reform Judaism.org page. It was Steven Kusher’s article, “When Do We Read B’Midbar – Becoming Midbar” that got my attention. The article noted the three places in the Torah that refer to B’midbar, “in wilderness” or in more general terms, in the middle, the unknown empty space. Or in my less poetic version—the peculiar pause.
The human desire to get out of that pause state, that empty wilderness, and as fast as we can seems to be universal. Many of us are in this state of being at the moment. Some of us are not comfortable being confined to home base but may not be ready to go back to the workplace and risk a higher level of exposure to this terrible virus. So, we wait until something or someone makes a decision for us. This type of pause is the most stressful—waiting and having little control over what the next step is or when it is coming. Most of us have not been faced with this kind of unknown empty space. What shall we do in our personal wilderness? We hoard toilet tissue and eat too much junk food, and try to work, of course. Do we let our exercise slide, or our sleep routine get off track, and binge watch Netflix (or in my case, Acorn TV)? Yes, some of us do, and I think it is not such a tragedy, as long we don’t do it every day.
The wilderness seems to have gotten a bad name, at least on the surface. It can be scary, a place where we wander, unable to go back, and we can’t yet see the way forward. But as Kushner reminds us in his article, the wilderness, midbar, is a necessary place and time, a time of transition. In this time of neither here nor there, what do we do? It is possible to see this pause as a time to discover new things and re-discover some old things. It can be a place of growth, a time to stretch, and just be, or in most cases, just be different. That unknown empty space becomes less scary if we change the way we think of it.
If you have a meditation practice you know what it means to stay in the moment, to rest in that pause, that time between the breathing in and breathing out. I wish I could say I have mastered this, but I have my good days and bad days even after many years of meditation. But I have learned to rest in that wilderness more often as the years have gone by. That is not to say I am loving this enduring isolation and being away from family and friends. I am thankful that meditation has taught me to live in the second, the minute, the hour, and I’m especially grateful in this time of anxiety and fear of the unknown that I have this tool.
I used to envy all those people I knew who worked from home all the time, no interruptions, or rigid schedule (I thought), and now that is what I do, or have done since late March. Of course, I have found that too much of any one thing loses its appeal after a while. If you have chocolate cake at every meal, it ceases to be special. Like everyone else, I have made my adjustments. Sometimes I like my wilderness and sometimes I think I must be in a never-ending nightmare, or I have fallen into some alternate universe—or I’ve found the real “twilight zone” and I don’t like it at all.
On my good days I know that we can choose to make the most of our pause by changing our focus. Who will you be as you walk out of the wilderness? What will you have learned? What will you do differently in the future (besides continue to hoard paper products)? How is this time changing you? We all know there really is no literal “land of milk and honey” out there waiting for us, but we may certainly find that getting back to normal, even a new normal, is pretty close. We each carry a personal responsibility for our own “promised land” journey.
I wish you well as you endure your peculiar pause, your own wilderness. If you have already stepped out of your wilderness, and are making that transition, I wish you peace and comfort. For those of us who wait for our time, let us use this middle space, this pause, wisely because it can be a sacred place, but we have to make it so.
I have no doubt that just when I “master” this pause, and learn to enjoy the wilderness, I will be required back in the office. Nothing stays the same, and that thought should bring us hope.
When do we read B’Midbar, you may ask? May 23rd, 2020, May 15th, 2021, and June 4th, 2022. Exodus 3:8, 33:3; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 31:20. I hope you will do the reading and that the words will mean something different to you after this experience.
And don’t forget, be a mensch—even when it’s hard.