The first time a saw a desert was in my year in Sem in Bnei Brak. Since it was an Israeli seminary, the trips were few and far between; the girls had been there and done that. The handful of American girls used every day off to explore the Land. It was wide open, gorgeous and anything but familiar. In those days, a trip to Beer Sheva was an adventure. The Bedouin market was still a real Bedouin market, not a tourist trap. The desert shading was formidable, far more varied than I had imagined. It’s colors and angles that were completely surreal. Its harshness was unrelieved, but it was still beautiful. We met a man who told us that he had been living in the desert for something like 27 years. I understood his love of its continually changing contours, but couldn’t relate to his near total self-chosen isolation from other people.
I can’t imagine what the trek our ancestors made was like. They were there for forty years. In spite of the fact that they were living in the dreamlike state of experiencing miracles on a daily basis, eating mann, wearing clothes that didn’t get soiled or wear out, following pillars of cloud during the day and pillars of fire at night, their lives weren’t the equivalent of being in a full time spiritual wonderland. The Zohar describes the atmosphere as spiritually deadening. This, in spite of the fact that Moshe taught them the Torah. They were living a dream! The desert itself felt as spiritual desolate as it was physically desolate. It was both beautiful and harsh, like the actual desert that I saw near Beer Sheva.
Why did we need this experience?
A desert by its nature is a bubble. There are no distractions and no outside influences. You may find this inviting. Or not. Try to recall the last time you sat in a dentist’s office waiting your turn. No matter how pleasant the environment, past a certain point did you have trouble living in your own mind? How many of you turn to your phone to tune out the sound of silence? The desert the Jews lived in for so many years wasn’t silent; it was a Bais Midrash. There was no possible escape from the intensity of its truth and its beauty by distracting yourself with foreign culture or mindless distractions. The generation did well! They are described by Chazal as ‘Dor Deah’ which means “The generation of knowing”. They flourished as no generation before or after them flourished. They didn’t let the desolation defeat them. It became a means of self-discovery.
We don’t live in a desert.
Wherever you go, you are the passive (and sometimes active) recipient of Other. The billboards tell you about who you are and about what you need. Who you should look like. What you should eat. It’s human nature to be affected by your environment. You believe what you see, consciously or subconsciously, and so do I. What happens if you decide that this isn’t the game that you signed up for? You want an entirely different atmosphere to be the backdrop of your life. You can do your best. Find good people and make them your friends. Find a positive social environment and let it be your new “normal”.
A problem that Rambam faced in his time (about a thousand years ago, but who’s counting..) was that there are no really positive social environments to choose from. Nothing is perfect. You have to do your best. There’s so much passive information floating around out there via the media and the predominant culture that you necessarily want to define the way you think and feel. You can’t live in a cave.
Or can you?
What should you do?
What can you do?
Rambam says “head for the deserts and the caves”. Find a place that you can define, not one that defines you. The great sage of two generations ago, Rav Avraham Yishaya Karelitz, known by his work, “Chazon Ish”, said, “In today’s world the yeshivas are the caves and the desert”, meaning that you can create an atmosphere, not just passively fall into a stage that was set with someone else’s drama in mind.
You can’t always be in a bubble; but it’s crucial for you to find your own mini-environment where you can be the person that you want to be and practice what you believe in. Stay close to your sem sisters if you can, stay in touch with us,
Head for the desert, it may be sweeter than you think