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May 22, 2009 2:42 pm

Bamidbar: The Modern Jew in Wilderness

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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A Can of Beans

Three guys are alone on a desert island: an engineer, a biologist and an economist. They are starving and don’t have a thing to eat, but somehow they find a can of beans on the shore.

The engineer says: “Let’s hit the can with a rock until it opens.”

The biologist has another idea: “No. We should wait for a while. Erosion will do the job.”

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Finally, the economist says: “Let’s assume that we have a can opener”.

The Desert

What was the significance of the fact that Torah was given in a wilderness, in a barren and infertile desert, not in a civilized terrain, nor on soil conducive to human living and nature’s blessing. Why did G-d communicate His blueprint for life and enter into an eternal covenant with the Jewish people in the aridity and desolateness of a desert?

In a past essay, we discussed three explanations. 1. The Torah was given on soil not owned by any particular people or community, to signify that the Torah belongs to every single Jewish soul. 2. The giving of the Torah in the wilderness represents the idea that Torah is not a product of a particular culture and genre. It enriches all cultures, but transcends them. 3. The function of Torah is to confront and refine the “barren wilderness” within the human psyche and the world.

Today we will explore a fourth and deeper dimension, articulated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a pre-Shavous address, 37 years ago. It is a message that may be particularly relevant to the modern Jew.

Feel-Good Religion

One of the errors that a Jew living in the modern era is likely to make is that Judaism makes no existentially profound demands on its believers. Judaism is a feel-good religion, and its objective is to make one feel comfortable about ones self. For many religious leaders and teachers today, the primary objective is to present a version of Judaism that will fit nicely in to the mind-set and living patterns of their constituents and will reassure them that they are wonderful people. Many rabbis are committed above all to teach a Judaism that will not shake up our comfort-zones.

In many ways this has become the hallmark of the American version of Judaism – designed to conform to the paradigms of modernity. “In the image of the modern, American Jew, have we created Judaism.”

“My goal is to study and practice a Judaism that does not interfere with my conveniences,” a man once told me. “I have my lifestyle, philosophy, schedule, habits, and social patterns; as long as Judaism can fit into this, I will make room for it and enjoy it too.”

But if we communicate a Judaism just to make people feel good, why do we really need it? Why not just figure out what works best for our lives and pursue that? Therapy, yoga, exercise, suburban living, meditation, nutrition, sports, the arts, music, etc. If Judaism is merely here to nurture my pre-defined identity and satisfy my ingrained appetites, why bother with it all together?

And can the feel-good Judaism inspire a future? Can such a type of Judaism take root in the hearts of the youth? Can it appeal to the idealistic dimension of the human soul, searching to touch the Divine?

A Tale of Two Images

But suppose that Judaism was real — it was the authentic blueprint for life from the living G-d — then the question should not be, “How do I find a Judaism that does not disturb me too much,” but rather – what does Judaism really say about my calling? What does Judaism believe about life, death and everything in between? What does Torah have to say about the most important question and dilemmas facing the human mind and heart? The question must be not how I can mold Judaism in my image, but how I can mold myself in the image of Torah? How can I revisit my image and recreate myself based on the visage of man articulated in Judaism?

If Torah is true, I must have the courage to take a hard, deep look at my preconceived notions, thoughts and behavior patterns, ready to discover truth that may challenge me.

This is why Torah was given in the barren desert, in uncivilized wilderness, where it had no predefined culture to contend with and to be compared with. Only in the physical and artistic silence of the desert can we open ourselves to a radical search for truth. Only in a desert, can we walk into something with our whole being, ready to find anything.

If Torah would have been given in a city or amidst a beautifully natural terrain, it would have, by definition, conformed to the culture prevailing in those particular areas. In the great river lowlands where civilization began (the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and the Nile), the eye is captivated by the shifting scenes of nature; in cities, the eye is overtaken by the works of man — art and architecture. In such environments, the Israelites would only be able to absorb a religion that would fit into their psyches, patterns, and sensibilities, like all the Pagan religions of the time. The Jews could never attune themselves to the word of a G-d who transcends nature.

Sinai challenged the Jewish people to revisit all of existence from its deepest genesis; to reexamine life and history from its very nucleus; to see the world not from the human perspective, but from the perspective of G-d who cannot be confined in human modalities. A revolution of this magnitude cannot take place in a populated environment, not even in an environment where life blossoms and nature flourishes. Only in the emptiness and desolateness of the wilderness is the ego subordinate to the search for truth. Only in the silence of the desert, can a person bid farewell to all of his or her paradigms and allow his soul to absorb radical transcendence.

A Rash People

This explains a deeply enigmatic episode which occurred at Sinai.

The Bible relates that when Moses presented the covenant before the Israelites, they responded, “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). This expression has always been a source of wonderment and surprise to rabbis and a refutation of the anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as calculating and self-protective. “We will do and we will listen” implies a commitment to observe the covenant even before the Jews heard its details and understood its ramifications.

The Talmud (Shabbas 88b) tells a story about a Sadducee who once saw one of the great Talmudic sages, Rava, so engrossed in learning that he did not attend a wound in his own hand. The Sadducee exclaimed, “You rash people! You put your mouths ahead of your ears [by saying “we will do and we will listen”], and you still persist in your recklessness. First, you should have heard out . If it is within your capacity, then accept it. If not, you should have rejected it”!

His argument was logical. Imagine somebody offers you to invest a large some of money in a developing company. To respond, “Sure, here is the money, and then afterward I will listen to the details,” is ridiculous. If you do not know what the company is all about, why subject your money to possible loss? And yet, in this case, the Jews declared that they were ready embrace a life-altering covenant, even before they heard all the details and knew what Judaism was all about! Why? How?

Rava answered the Sadducee with these words: “We walked with our whole being.”

What Rava meant was this: By definition, a relationship with G-d cannot be created on our terms; it must be on His terms. If there is something called Truth, if there is something called Reality, we cannot define it; it must define us. We cannot accept it on condition that it suites our senses and expectations. On the contrary, we must realign our condition to it. Once the Jewish people knew that G-d was communicating with them, they did not want to fit religion into their imagination; they had no pre conditions for a relationship with truth. It was in the desert that the Jews can declare, “We will do and we will listen.”

This process must occur each year anew. To receive Torah, we must have the courage to walk into a desert; we must strip ourselves from any pre-defined self-identity. We need to be ready to hear the sound beneath the sounds we are accustomed to. Torah is not merely a cute and endearing document filled with rituals, to satisfy nostalgia or tradition. Torah demands that we open ourselves up with our whole being and declare, “We shall do and we shall listen!”

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