I was taught that our Israelite ancestors wandered for forty years in the wilderness as punishment for remaining tied to slavery. When offered the opportunity at Kadesh-Barnea to enter into the Promised Land, they lost faith in God and followed the fearful advice of the ten spies. Thus, that generation had to die off so a new generation could arise that knew not the mindset of slavery. Lessons learned. I never really contemplated what else years in the wilderness might teach, until a pre-Passover trek to the Arizona desert aroused my senses.
It all began when my wife proposed a fabulous idea: Let’s use the few days prior to Passover to take a family trip to Sedona. So, after finagling seats at a friend’s first night Seder table (we will host our second night), we took off for on our wilderness trek.
The Irony of Driving out to the Desert
We chose to drive. Did you know that five hours out of Los Angeles, much of the stretch on the 10 Freeway appears to be nothing but dry soil, scraggly desert plants, and a whole bunch of dust? It became a challenge to keep the brain from bursting with boredom and the kids from descending into the oppressive crankiness of an interminably long trip. I retreated into my rabbi-brain as we passed time by reviewing the menu for our Seder meal.
Just outside of Phoenix, I began to realize the irony of this pre-Passover trip. Here we were getting a jump on the holiday spirit, by driving from the jungles of Tarzana out to the desert, even as our Jewish brothers and sisters world-wide prepared for that ritual journey from Egypt into the Wilderness. What the ancient Israelites did with trepidation – leaving the known, venturing out toward the vague promises of a land flowing with milk and honey – my family did with carefree anticipation. After all, Sedona, reportedly an oasis of beauty, art and spiritual vortexes, offered clear promises of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Of course, the rabbi in me wondered, what other lessons for Passover might be gleaned from this irony?
Leaving Egypt: Much More than Charlton Heston Showed Us
I love Pesach. Yitziat mitrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, is engrained in my soul. We relive it every year, in keeping with the rabbinic injunction – b’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitrayim, in every generation, a person must see him/herself as if he/she left Egypt. Unlike many of my generation whose vision of the Exodus trek only references those depicted in Cecile B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments and Steven Speilberg’s Prince of Egypt, my exodus memories are steeped in much more. I have twice glimpsed Egypt, having traveled physically through Egypt’s poverty-stricken streets, cruised down the Nile, and climbed up the sides of the Pyramids reportedly built by our ancestors. I once even experienced yitziat mitzrayim, the going out from Egypt, by way of an arduous sweaty bus journey back to Israel, just days before the first night of Passover. Moreover, after a semester study of possible Exodus routes, my class wandered the wadis and walkways of Sinai on an organized trip. Through each experience, the transition from Egypt to the Wilderness was paradoxically a journey from slavery to freedom and (temporarily at least) from bad to worse.
Wilderness Wanderings: Ain’t No Palm Desert Vacation!
I have vague memories of the Sinai desert as being hot, dry and only barely hospitable to humans, unless you were either a Bedouin, a Palm Springs native, or trucking in with you sufficient supplies of water, food and directions to the nearest Desert Hilton. The Biblical exodus must have been challenging to endure. No wonder our people complained profusely about the lack of meat and water. The boredom was bitter as they journeyed from here to there (“How much longer, Daddy? Oh, thirty-five or so years…now be quiet and watch your DVD – dromedary viewing device”).
One even can imagine how the Golden Calf incident was possible. What would you do, a few weeks out of Egypt, when the legendary leader Moses disappeared for forty days to commune with God only knows what atop that nearby mountain? Chances are you too might begin to look for reassurance that the trip was really worth it. How easily might we all idly slip back into the comfort of idol-worship! Back in Biblical times, idols were to the ancients what Christmas trees and Easter eggs are to today’s Gentiles – the public symbol of a deeper religious system, easily enticing us non-believers into a ritual-filled romance with their “holiday season.” So some of them constructed the Golden Calf, turning away from the Holy One, and leading to behaviors that ultimately set them wandering for forty years.
Yet, if the Exodus and its wilderness trek were so terrible, why do we bother reliving it each year? Why not focus solely on the uplifting moments – receiving Torah, arriving finally at the Promised Land, tasting for the first time the milk and honey that flowed unimpeded?
Wilderness Without Massages: How Different Must Their Desert Trek Have Been!
This year’s trip to the Arizona desert reminded me that we moderns cannot begin to comprehend what our Biblical ancestors had to endure in their trek through the desert. In Sedona, the food was plentiful. We dined at the Red Planet restaurant, tasting fried cactus and sharing the scenery with UFO’s and an array of aliens. As Torah teaches ger hayiti b’eretz mitzrayim, I too was a stranger – an alien – in the land of Egypt. Of course, my journey was far from hazardous. Our Pink Jeep Trek driver expertly navigated the dips and drops along Broken Arrow trail, returning us on time to our hotel. (It made me wonder: if Driver Dave had been leading the Exodus, with big tips looking promising, might the Israelites have made it more quickly into the Promised Land?) Of course, in Sedona the amenities were many. It was amazing what an hour and a half hot rock massage can do to rejuvenate the soul after an arduous day spent lounging at the pool or scouring nearby art galleries.
Still, watching the sun set beautifully over the mesas surrounding Sedona invited visions of divinity that we so often miss. Who but the Creator on High could so artfully blend the bright red rock with the green of desert brush to affect such a vision of holiness? Even the best of Tinseltown’s lighting crews cannot approximate that majesty of Sedona at twilight, when each new moment brings out different shades and colors from the Creator’s palate of hues. Golel or mipnay choshech, v’choshech mipnay or – rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. As the Ma’ariv Aravim prayer reminds us nightly, it is God who shines the light just right, so that the panorama of our lives shifts exquisitely, highlighting new possibilities here, backlighting the curve of a beautiful butte there. Simply put, this family retreat reopened my eyes to the beauty surrounding us. Perhaps herein can be found the lessons of our Sedona Exodus.
Open Your Eyes to the Majestic Colors, the Ethereal Lights
In Egypt, where our ancestors were forced to make their home for four hundred plus years, we were in exile. Though rooted in the intensity of Egypt, the stunning capital of the ancient Near East, the Israelites couldn’t see the light. In Egypt, like in our much of our lives today, they failed to recognize the bright colors of their existence. Lost amidst the very real sufferings of slavery, a discerning vision of holiness was nowhere to be found. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, m’lo chol haaretz k’vodo, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory. Only we humans take our little hands and cover our eyes. It took the bright lights and bold colors of the exodus and the wilderness trek to shake our ancestors from their sensory complacency. The radiant orange and yellow of the burning bush. The deep red of blood in the Nile, the smothering black of the darkness, and a spectrum of froggie greens. The luminescence of that pillar of fire that guided us by day. These opened their eyes to the wonders surrounding them and to the holiness within. Only then could they prepare themselves for the promising future as God’s chosen.
And so ends this pre-Pesach get-away. I imagine that preparing this year’s seder will be different. Awed as we were by the majestic color and the ethereal light of the world around us, will we be more open to the holiness within? Eyes opened to wonder, will we be more fully prepared to raise a cup of wine, or four, in recognition of the beauty of creation and of the Creator’s role in bringing us to it? I hope so.
This year, take a moment at your seder to reflect upon the blessings the Creator bestowed upon you: the freedom to move in and around God’s world. Chag Pesach Samayach – May this Passover be wonderful!