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"And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:" (Numbers 1:1).
The name of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses (Pentateuch) is Bamidbar, or In the Desert - an apt description of the 40 years of desert wanderings the book records.
Indeed, this desert period serves as the precursor of - as well as a most apt metaphor for - the almost 2,000 years of homeless wandering which characterized much of Jewish history before the emergence of our Jewish state in 1948.
The Hebrew word for desert, midbar, is also pregnant with meanings and allusions. The root noun is dabar, which means leader or shepherd. After all, the most ancient occupation known to humanity is sheepherding, and the desert is the most natural place to lead a flock: sheep can comfortably wander in a virtual no-man's land and graze on the vegetation of the various oases or their outskirts without worrying about stealing from private property or harming the ecology of settled habitations. And perhaps dabar means leader/shepherd because it also means word: a shepherd directs his flock by meaningful sounds and words, just as a leader of people must have the ability to inspire with words; indeed, the Ten Words (or Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot) were revealed in the Sinai desert, and they govern Israel - as well as a good part of the world - to this very day.
Moreover, it must be noted that wherever the Israelites wandered in the desert, they were accompanied by the portable mishkan, or Sanctuary, which literally means [Divine] Presence (shakon). However, God was not in the Sanctuary; even the greatest expanse of the heavens cannot contain the Divine Presence, declared King Solomon when he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:27). It was rather God's Word which was in the Sanctuary, in the form of the "Ten Words" on the tablets in the Holy Ark, as well as the ongoing Word which He would speak (Ex. 25:22) from between the cherubs above the Holy Ark. It was by means of these divine words that even the desert - a metaphor for an inhospitable and even alien environment which is broiling by day, freezing by night and deficient in water, the very elixir of life - can become transformed into sacred space. And indeed the Word succeeded in sanctifying the many Marrakeshes and Vilnas of our wanderings!
Allow me to share a story from my previous life (in the West Side of New York City) which taught me how the Word can bring sanctity to the most unlikely of places.
In the early 1970s, a disco opened in a storefront on 72nd Street and Broadway. Despite the fact that it was called the Tel Aviv Disco and was owned by Israelis, it remained open every night of the year, even Kol Nidre night. I must have placed at least two dozen calls to the owners to try to persuade them to close at least on Yom Kippur, only to have received a message from their secretary informing me that the owners would not speak to rabbis.
During this period, Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman - a beloved and respected friend who is the rabbi of Migdal Ha'emek - spent Shabbat with us at Lincoln Square Synagogue. Recently awarded the Israel Prize, he is a charismatic religious leader who is well-known for the many prisoners and other alienated Jews whom he has brought back to observance.
After a delightful Friday evening meal, replete with inspiring Hassidic melodies and words of Torah, he suggested that we go for a shpatzir (Yiddish for leisurely walk). I tried to explain that the general atmosphere of the West Side streets were hardly conducive to Sabbath sanctity, but to no avail. His steps led us right in front of the window framing the frenzied disco dancers.
"Did you ever see a mosquito in a glass jar?" he asked me in Yiddish (our language of discourse). "The mosquito is moving with all sorts of contortions, and appears to be dancing. In reality, however, the mosquito is gasping for air. That is the situation of those "dancers." They are really gasping for air, struggling in their search for a real Shabbos. Let's go in and show them Shabbos."
Before I could say "Jack Robinson," he was inside the disco - and as a good host, I felt constrained to follow him. He sported a long beard and side-locks, and was wearing a shtreimel (fur hat) and kapote (silk gabardine), and I was dressed in my Sabbath Prince Albert, kippa and ritual fringes out. As we entered the disco, the young Israeli band stopped playing. I recognized three young men from the synagogue who seemed totally discombobulated; two ran out covering their faces, and the third tried to explain that he wasn't really there; his mother had had some kind of attack and he thought her doctor might be at the disco.
Rabbi Grossman began to sing Sabbath melodies. Almost miraculously, the men danced on one side, the women on the other. After about 20 minutes, he urged me to speak to them in English. I told them of the magical beauty, joy and love of the Sabbath, and they listened with rapt attention. Rabbi Grossman led them in one more song - and we left.
I cannot tell you the miracle continued; in less than five minutes we could hear the resumption of the disco music. However, before the next Yom Kippur, the Tel Aviv Disco closed. I don't know why; perhaps because the owners wouldn't speak to rabbis. And over the next two years, at least a dozen young singles joined Lincoln Square Synagogue because they had been inspired by our disco visit.
Today, Friday, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). Jerusalem is the City of Peace, from whence the "Word of God" (davar Hashem) will emanate to all nations, watering every spiritual desert.
If the Word can sanctify a disco, it can sanctify every desert outpost!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.