I've been through the desert
On a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert, you can remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain
- America: A Horse With No Name
To Flourish in the Desert
The idea of the desert conjures up the feeling of a lonely place, of being completely forsaken. Bereft of food and water, there is only sand, and sun, and overwhelming heat — there are no trees and no safe shelter. The only signs of life are as deadly as the elements around you. In a desert, death is a constant companion. It is a dangerous and foreboding place.
However, a desert is also a magnificent locale, filled with majesty and full of its own kind of life. It is an area where many things can happen that would be impossible anywhere else.
Because the desert is an arena of savage silence, there is no distraction and no competition. It is the desert’s quiet that allows our inner voice to speak, and that voice cannot stand small-talk or innocuous conversation. Instead, a desert seeks truth from ourselves, even when many of us cannot recognize it as such. The desert takes exception to those who seek to find meaning and connection between thoughts, ideas, and concepts that share no relation. The desert is for truth not for desire.
Midbar מִדְבָּר in the Hebrew means “desert” (“wilderness or lonely place”). Dabar דָּבַר in Hebrew means “to speak” and is a word which is theologically suggestive — it is often used to express divine speech in biblical text. We can see the word “dabar” in the word “midbar” although most scholars tell us there is no etymological relationship between the two. However, taking hermeneutic liberties, a poetic license if you will, it could be argued that there is at least a semiotic connection, if not theological. It is often in these “lonely places” that G-d chooses to speak to His people.
“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”
- Edward Abbey
The Jews have a history of wandering. While Sukkot is a celebration and acknowledgment of the time the people of Israel spent traveling the desert following their exodus from Egypt, there have been additional periods — some lasting for centuries — where Jews have found themselves wandering in search of a home. Although this wandering has not always been through a literal desert, several authors, poets, and rabbinical commentators have referred to these periods as a spiritual desert, a “wilderness of the soul.”
In the silence and emptiness of the desert, an authentic inner voice could be heard while dwelling within the sukkah, the hut that symbolizes protection, but is no physical shelter. The roof leaks and the walls give way at the slightest breath of the wind. It is an unforgiving and fragile place. It can only be experienced by a people of the wilderness — a people who are not rooted in the substance of physical limitations or borders. A people who are not entirely fixed by an earthly point, even while they are living in a homeland. The spirit of these people reaches well beyond artificial borders. These are the kind of people who are never satisfied with their spiritual condition and are therefore always on the move, seeking for more, even while they live in a homeland, which they know, deep down, is nothing more than a trembling sukkah.
We are a wandering people that can never permanently land because there is no final destination. A people who always experience disruption because we carry a spiritual obligation that does not fit anywhere and so we wander in the existential state of an unending desert. A solipsistic experience that is unnerving because it’s rooted in the desert, where it becomes deadly if it is not properly and consistently tended to.
But the desert is more than simply unnerving. It is a place where nothing of substance can be tangibly achieved. In a desert, people cannot prove themselves, in the conventional sense. It doesn’t offer jobs that people can fight over and compete for. It has no offices, or factories, or shopping malls. There are no bosses to answer to and no co-workers with whom to compete. It is deprived of prestige. In a desert, there is no kavod (honor) to be received. There are no cities, neighborhoods, or homes. If it had these it would no longer be a desert. Human structures would end its status as a desert, and would compromise and annihilate the splendor of its potency and beauty. There is only the sukkah, a dwelling that lacks all physical security.
Manna From Heaven
In a desert, people can only “be” but never “have” anything. There is no food to be eaten but manna, the soul food, and one can easily walk in the same shoes for forty years, because authenticity does not wear out. People’s garments grow with them and don’t need changing or cleaning, because they are as pure as can be (Deuteronomy 8:4). And that which is pure continues to grow and stays clean.
Therefore the desert is a state of mind. It removes the walls within our subconscious, and through the holiday of Sukkot, even in our conscious way of thinking. It is an out-of-the-box realm. In a desert one can think unlimitedly and one is open to the impossible and hears whispers from another world, whispers which can never be heard in the city or distracted by the day-to-day. The desert allows for authentic thinking, without obstacles, and for that reason is able to break through and remove from us any artificial and external thoughts that don’t identify with our deeper souls. Nothing spiritual becomes lost because the fences around our thoughts are broken down and no longer bar the way to our inner lives. The desert is the ultimate freedom. It teaches us that openness doesn’t mean a surrender to what is provocative or powerful.
Sukkot is a celebration where we return, briefly, to this desert. We remember the time we spent as a people wandering but never lost, able to listen to G-d, and to form a new nation. Millenia later, as we have been scattered across the world as though at the whims of a sandstorm, we return to the desert and begin each year, anew.
Omnia Mutantur, Nihil Interit.
Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.