Passover and Wilderness

Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D

Passover celebrates freedom, and freedom led our people out to the desert wilderness (Midbar is the Hebrew word for both desert and wilderness). Far from civilization, in the shadow of a mountain, we received divine revelation amidst the sparse landscape of earth, air, fire, and water. A beautiful Midrash teaches that this open wilderness experience was essential to receiving the Torah: 

 “God spoke to Moses in the Midbar (desert/wilderness) of Sinai. Why in the Midbar of Sinai? From here our sages taught that the Torah was given with three things: with fire, with water, and with Midbar… To teach that just as these are free for all the inhabitants of the world, so too the words of Torah are free…Another interpretation of  ‘God spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai’: whoever does not make oneself like an ownerless desert cannot acquire Wisdom and Torah.” [Be-Midbar Rabbah 1:7]

When I was growing up, we had a poster from the Sierra Club hanging at our ranch in Utopia, Texas, with a picture of trees and the caption, “In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World.” This is a popularized version of a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Years ago, when my mother, a young widow, visited Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, she was amazed to see the very same poster hanging on the wall there and took it as a sign that she should leave everything behind for a while and open herself to the study of Torah.

Contemporary Jews are rediscovering our ancient roots through agriculture, nature retreats, and wilderness experiences. As the Midrash suggests, and as I teach on the website, Wellsprings of Wisdom.com, this can lead us to explore our inner landscape as well. And just as wilderness once healed our people from slavery and shaped us into a free nation, so a renewed connection to nature, the Midbar, the Wild, is essential to our preservation and the human future on Planet Earth.

Author bio: 

A person is like an ark, according to our teacher the Maharal of Prague. I strive to be an ark containing Torah, holiness, life and light, and to share that holy content with others.

Rabbi Julie grew up in San Antonio and Utopia, Texas, lived and studied in Israel, and currently lives in Northern California, where she serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Chico. She was ordained through the ALEPH Rabbinic Program and holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in Rabbinic Literature and Culture. She has been a lecturer at California State University, Chico, and Texas Lutheran University. She wrote the The Jewish Parents’ Almanac (Jason Aronson) when her five (now grown) kids were young. 

2 Comments

Midbar

<p>Rabbi: Does this concept of the freedom/challenge of likening oneself to a desert refer to spiritual dryness or to a place where the full consequences of human freedom can be contemplated? Or does it recognize the deep connection between them. One can destroy oneself as well as renew oneself by such a challenge. Was it ever adopted by Hasidic mysticism?</p>

Being open like a Midbar

Thanks for your thoughtful question. I believe that the Midrash here refers to spiritual openness, receptivity, and humility rather than dryness. (However, I like the idea that when we are spiritually dry, we can still open up to Torah teachings.)

Hassidic mysticism is not my primary field (I am more of a classicist), but the texts that I have studied, such as Me'or Eynayim, by Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, that we are currently learning with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality with Rabbi Jonathan Slater, frequently refer to a need to nullify the ego in order to be receptive to the divine. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that a more modern, holistic way to view this (and avoid the destructive possibility to which you allude) is to dilate the ego, to make it more transparent. This capacity can be developed in meditation, guidance, and inner work.

In this post, though, I focused primarily on renewing Jewish spirituality and education in Wilderness, nature, and the outdoors.

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