By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
It is lonesome and harsh in the Wilderness, when the hamseen, the hot desert wind, blows; I know this. In 1972, when Israel still held firm control of Sinai, a group of us students from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, went on a tour of the Sinai Peninsula. We did not travel in buses; no. We rode in the backs of trucks with metal frames welded on top, open to the sunlight, and equipped with hard wooden benches. When there were sandstorms—and this was common enough—we dropped heavy, olive-drab army-canvas covers over the sides of the truck as a makeshift shield, covered our faces and noses with keffiyehs, Arab headdresses, and breathed the best we could. It became impossible to see, as the trucks crawled along through the dunes.
Eventually, the wind would die down, and the sun would come out again. The desert sun, burning, burning….
We saw many natural wonders which no Jew will ever see again, without an Egyptian visa: Ras Kennedy, a natural sculpture which, from a certain angle, seemed to resemble the profile of our late president; the Mountain of Sand, which we slid down, afterwards bathing in the cool waters of the Red Sea; Sharm al-Sheikh, with its two monstrous, British-mounted naval cannon, their inner coils blown out by victorious Israeli troops in ‘67; Mount Sinai—or, perhaps, one pretender-mountain, among a dozen claiming that title. We climbed Masada, as well, via the snake path, at four am, before the sun could come up, boiling, out of the sea.
At night, we slept in our sleeping bags, beneath the stars, after eating Israeli canned goods, the only food that would last the entire time. There were no supermarkets in the wild; it was, truly, God’s country, and God did not see fit to rain manna upon us. We didn’t care; we were young, in our late teens and early twenties, mostly, with a number of Israeli Army veterans among us (Israeli youth attend university after fulfilling their national service), and a little sand or rocks in one’s sandals didn’t bother us. We carried just one, World-War-I-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle to defend ourselves from—whom? The Israeli Army assured us that we were safe.
We hiked up hills and through wadis, taking pictures with our little Instamatics, finding where David and his gang of thieves had hidden from the mad King Saul. We posed, grinning like fools, by small oases, doing handstands to impress the girls, who wore either short shorts or denim dresses down to the ground. We listened to solemn guides, who stood before roughly-built monuments and told us about battles fought and won in the peninsula, in 1948, 1956, and 1967 (We had no inkling of the sudden cataclysm yet to come, in 1973, shortly after our return home.). I remember one, in particular: it was “decorated” with the top-plates of Egyptian-planted shoe-button land mines, along with the remnants of an Israeli jeep that had haplessly driven over it, exploding and killing its four occupants, all young men. They died that Israel might live.
At midnight, the stars winked on us, and I thought about our ancestors trekking through that same land, following their mysterious, demanding Desert God, Who led them in the guise of a Pillar of Cloud by Day, Pillar of Fire by Night. Around this time in our Torah, God had also given the Israelites a visible symbol of His love for them: the Mishkan, the Sacred Dwelling-Place for His Spirit. There, they would gather, to offer sacrifices, incense-offerings, and ten percent of their produce, in gratitude for the blessings He sent them, or to atone for feelings of guilt, sin, or worse transgressions committed against Him. It must have been difficult, indeed, to claim loyalty to an invisible Deity in a world which either worshiped idols or mortal monarchs claiming superhuman powers. There were challenges to Moses’s leadership, questioning his (and God’s) authority, even rebellions, swiftly punished.
The Desert was unforgiving….
What about today? We continue to live in a world where, despite our material comforts, it remains far too easy to turn one’s back on a fellow human being because of their skin color, religion, or political beliefs. Our need for a Mishkan, a Mikdash, a Sanctuary, a Holy Place, is stronger and greater than ever before, yet, nationwide, worldwide perhaps, the synagogues, churches, and mosques stand empty. Wrongheaded preachers claiming to speak in the name of one god or another misquote and misinterpret divine words. No God worth His salt would demand the killing another human being, let alone hatred, divisiveness, racism, or bigotry.
Yes, the desert is a harsh environment; our Sinai sojourn taught us that. But there is a worse condition, still: when one’s own heart is dry as the desert, causing them to look harshly upon one’s own brother or sister. Rebuke the harshness in your soul that our Post-Modern World creates; enter the Dwelling-house of God, and join His Holy Congregation.
Come home, to the Holy Place: come to Temple.