The Di­vine Word re­quires a desert full of snakes


Adesert is a lonely place, com­pletely for­saken. There is nei­ther food nor wa­ter, nor any other form of sus­tain­ing sub­stance. There is only the un­bear­able sun and its heat. There is no grass and there are no trees. There are only deadly snakes and scor­pi­ons. In a desert, death stares you in the face. It is a dan­ger­ous place, un­liv­able and out­ra­geous.

But the desert is also a mag­nif­i­cent place, filled with grandeur and full of life. It is a place where many things can hap­pen that are not pos­si­ble any­where else. First and fore­most, it is a place of authen­tic­ity. Be­cause it is a place where a sound, a Voice, can travel as in no other place. It can reach the deep­est of its mean­ings and the high­est of its dreams. In a desert, a sound can travel to the end of the world. In a desert, a Voice can turn in any direc­tion it de­sires and take on any di­men­sion, with no fear of cor­rup­tion.

If there is ever to be an au­then­tic Voice to be heard, it is here in the desert. It can’t be un­der­mined and fal­si­fied, used for self­ish pur­poses. It is be­cause of the desert’s thun­der­ing si­lence that it is pos­si­ble to hear a “still voice.” It can­not bear medi­ocrity even when it is orig­i­nal and thought of as novel. In­stead, it seeks sin­gu­lar ex­cel­lence even when most men can­not rec­og­nize it as such. THE EGYPTIAN-FRENCH poet Ed­ward Jabès noted the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the He­brew words dabar (word) and mid­bar (desert). This, he claimed, goes to the core of what a Jew is all about:

“With ex­em­plary reg­u­lar­ity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go to­ward a re­newed word that has be­come his ori­gin .... A wan­der­ing word is the word of God. It has for its echo the word of wan­der­ing peo­ple. No oa­sis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the im­mense, thirsty desert, only the book of his thirst .... ” (from The Book to the Book).

But it can only be heard by a peo­ple of the wilder­ness; a peo­ple who are not rooted in a sub­stance of phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions and borders; a peo­ple who are not en­tirely fixed by an earthly point, even while liv­ing in a home­land. Their spirit reaches far beyond the borders of any re­stricted place.

They are par­tic­u­lar­is­tic so as to be uni­ver­sal­is­tic. They are never sat­is­fied with their spir­i­tual con­di­tions and there­fore are al­ways on the road, look­ing for more. A wan­der­ing peo­ple car­ried by a wan­der­ing Word that can never per­ma­nently land be­cause the run­way is too nar­row and they can­not fit into any end des­ti­na­tion. A peo­ple who al­ways ex­pe­ri­ence un­rest be­cause they carry the Word, which doesn’t fit any­where and wan­ders in the ex­is­ten­tial con­di­tion of an un­lim­ited desert.

It needs a peo­ple who re­ceived the Word be­fore hav­ing re­ceived their land – more than that, a peo­ple to whom the Word it­self gave birth.

The Word is the mother of the peo­ple. A peo­ple who can make their land into a por­ta­ble home­land, car­ry­ing it to any cor­ner of the Earth be­cause their land is a Word. It is the land that de­pends on the Word, and not the Word that de­pends on the land. Here, the Word is the au­thor of the peo­ple and not vice versa (Ge­orge Steiner). The peo­ple are in the Word and be­come real be­cause the Word is the fa­ther of its read­ers.

A desert is even more. In a desert, man can­not prove him­self, at least not in the con­ven­tional sense of the word. It doesn’t of­fer jobs that peo­ple can fight over and com­pete for. It has no fac­to­ries, of­fices or depart­ment stores. There are no bosses to or­der us around, and no fel­low work­ers with whom we are in com­pe­ti­tion. It is “pres­tige de­prived.”

In a desert, there is no kavod (honor) to be ob­tained. It doesn’t have cities, homes, fences. Once it has these, it is no longer a desert.

Hu­man achieve­ments will end its desert sta­tus and will un­der­mine and de­stroy the grandeur of its might and beauty. Man can only “be,” but never “have” any­thing in a desert. There is no food to be eaten but the manna, the soul food, and one can eas­ily walk in the same shoes for 40 years be­cause authen­tic­ity does not wear out. Men’s gar­ments grow with them and do not need chang­ing or clean­ing be­cause they are as pure as can be. And that which is pure con­tin­ues to grow and stays clean.

The desert is, there­fore, a state of mind. It re­moves the walls in our sub­con­scious, and even in our con­scious way of think­ing. It is an “out of the box” realm.

In a desert, one can think un­lim­it­edly. As such, one is open to the “im­pos­si­ble” and hears mur­murs of an­other world that one can never hear in the city or on a job. The desert al­lows for au­then­tic think­ing, with­out ob­sta­cles, and there­fore it is able to break through and re­move from us any ar­ti­fi­cial thoughts that do not iden­tify with our deeper souls.

Noth­ing spir­i­tual gets lost in us be­cause the fences of our thoughts be­come neu­tral­ized and no longer bar the way to our in­ner life. It is ul­ti­mate lib­erty. It teaches us that open­ness does not mean sur­ren­der to what is most “in” or pow­er­ful. Nor does it con­sist of vul­gar suc­cesses made into a prin­ci­ple.

This is the rea­son the To­rah could only have been given in a desert, a mid­bar.

Why did God not give the To­rah in a civ­i­lized place? Had God given it on Wall Street, He would have had to de­cide who would sit on the Board of In­vestors. He would have had to deal with the “pol­i­tics of friend­ships” and per­sonal agen­das of how much in­ter­est to give and where to in­vest. Had He given the To­rah in Is­rael, He would have had to de­cide whether to give it in ul­tra-Ortho­dox Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, hi-tech Tel Aviv or a Marx­ist kib­butz (Shavuot, Anony­mous, Am­s­ter­dam, 28.5.2009).

God didn’t want share­hold­ers or agen­das to pol­lute His words and make them “user friendly” in ways that would com­pro­mise His very Word. So He chose the desert. A place with­out any per­sonal mo­tives. The ideal place to fall in love be­cause there is no com­pe­ti­tion. And be­cause love is the ir­re­sistible de­sire to be de­sired ir­re­sistibly (Louis Gins­berg), only a mid­bar can be­come the home of lovers – the Giver of the Word and the re­ceivers of the Voice to be mar­ried un­der the canopy of authen­tic­ity.

“Any­one who does not make him­self open to all (hefker, or own­er­less), like a wilder­ness, can­not gain wis­dom and To­rah” (Bemid­bar Rab­bah, 1:7), say the Sages.

With this state­ment, they in­tro­duce a most im­por­tant in­sight con­cern­ing God, the na­ture of To­rah and the desert. They can­not bear ar­ti­fi­cial, unau­then­tic ideas that are sold in the su­per­fi­cial­ity of this world. A DESERT IS still more. It is also a place where the word can­not be caught and locked up. In can’t be framed and ma­nip­u­lated. Yes, to ac­ti­vate the world and make an im­print on it, it has to come down and re­spond to the “here and now.” It must al­low for fences and lim­i­ta­tions when­ever needed. Lim­i­ta­tions can be great eman­ci­pa­tors. But it must al­ways carry the “to­mor­row and over there.”

To have any ef­fect, it must bor­row from the world of man and his lan­guage. But it needs to have an es­cape. It must be like a fish­net that cap­tures its mun­dane needs, but with holes so that the on­go­ing flow of wa­ter will not get caught up in the net it­self. It must be a thor­ough­fare for all gen­uine thoughts, al­ways look­ing for a new des­ti­na­tion that will al­low for ever-fur­ther lands in which to give birth to new philoso­phies, new Ha­lacha and spir­i­tu­al­ity.

A real beit midrash, a place of learn­ing, is a place where the Word is able to breathe, where it can swim through the fish­net look­ing for new beaches. But how true it is that this road is full of snakes and other dan­gers. It is a risky place – to look into the fu­ture for the sake of the present al­ways in­volves risks. To run up against the cur­rent waves of wa­ter is dif­fi­cult and one can drown, but not to do so is to com­mit sui­cide.

The only qual­ity that can save us from the snakes in this desert is the awe of Heaven. Only this qual­ity can save us from fall­ing into the hands of the ser­pent. But it can be done and there­fore it must be done so as to reveal the Word given in the desert and to al­low it all the space it de­serves.

Abra­ham found God in the desert, and so the peo­ple of Is­rael re­ceived the To­rah in a place of ul­ti­mate authen­tic­ity: the desert of dev­as­tat­ing con­di­tions and great op­por­tu­ni­ties. It is a dan­ger­ous place, but a desert it must be. Who­ever thinks that the Di­vine Word is com­mon­place and eas­ily lived by has never been in the ul­ti­mate desert of his life.

The writer is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. To re­ceive his weekly Thoughts to Pon­der for free:­do­zoa­

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