Shavuot: The Divine Word requires a desert full of snakes

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.

A desert in Israel (illustrative) (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
A desert in Israel (illustrative)
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
A desert 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: