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Ein Avdat and Midbar Torah Study: Desert Spirituality

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Torah came alive in the Negev. Leaving our Dead Sea hotel early in the morning, we traveled down to Ein Avdat, a natural park/hiking reserve, encompassed within the vast Wilderness of Zin.

Alexandra read from Ezekiel, about God being found in the kol d’mama daqa, the still small voice. She recounted for us the challenges of faith. About how the Biblical Israelites drank water from the wells which followed Miriam around (or, which through her special skills, they always found), until Miriam suddenly died. Here – in the Wilderness of Zin – the Israelites kvetched from lack of water. Here, God told Moses to take his staff, touch the rock and speak to it, asking it to bring forth water. What happened next is the focus of much midrashic discussion: Moses yells at the people (calling them rebels), asks the people if “we” shall bring forth water from the rock, strikes the rock twice, and is famously excluded from the privilege of leading the people into the Promised Land.

Alexandra, our tour guide, invited us to consider what happened and why Moses was punished. Some said he lost his temper; a leader needs to set an example for the people. Others said that he claimed responsibility for the miracle (saying “shall we…” instead of “God will…”). Still others argued that Moses lost faith however temporarily and therefore could no longer lead.

Here we were, huddled together against the cold, standing within a wadi surrounded by awesome walls of rock, contemplating the most famous rock in all of Torah (rivaled only by the rock that served as Jacob’s pillow in the Ladder from Heaven dream). Far from the classrooms of our youth or the sermons of the synagogue. We were contemplating a anonymous rock and timeless teachings. Somehow, standing in the wilderness, this Torah story became real. The Torah study came alive through us. The discussion seemed to transform us from tourists to Torah scholars.

Someone asked to sing Shema and Listen. We gathered in a circle protected from the winds and intermittent drizzle, that the high walls of the wadi still let in. Eyes closed, interrupted only by a quiet whisper of the words preceding each sung verse so those new to the community could sing along, we sang about faith. We acknowledged the oneness we call YHVH, the Holy One. It was awesome; mystical even.

Like the prayer “Open Up Our Eyes”, this experience opened up our hearts to the awesomeness of Torah study and the poignancy of learning in the land of our ancestors. After a moment of quiet, we did open up our eyes to the sight of an Ibex sauntering across the mini-ledges of the wadi walls. There’s another. And another. It was like a gift from God. “Study My Torah,” says the Eternal, “And I will reveal to you all sorts of blessings.”

Hearts warmed, coats beginning to soak up the new rain, we hightailed it back to the bus before the rain way back there somewhere could translate into a flash flood here.

We did not make it back to the bulrushes and open lake in the middle of the trail as we had hoped. Which so many recalled as being among the most poignant sites on the 2006 December trip. Yet still, this year’s Ein Avdat experience had its own power – different but equivalent – to last year’s trek. About Torah we teach “Ben Bag Bag said, Hafach ba v’hafach ba, d’chola va (?) – Turn it over and over, everything is in it.” Perhaps the same can be said for the land of Israel. Each visit to each site evokes new emotions and new connections, each deeply meaningful.

[Historical Note: I’m writing this at 5:45 am on Wednesday, January 30th, the next morning. Out my window, the light begins to shine off the green-blue waters of the Dead Sea. No one is awake – at least in my hotel room and on the streets and walkways below. Peaceful. I’m wrapped in a bathrobe, contemplating putting on a sweatshirt. The breeze is just cooler than comfortable. I’m hoping that the generally good weather will allow us to venture up to Masada today, instead of bypassing it to rush to Jerusalem before the roads close from the expected snow.]

We visited David (and Paula) Ben-Gurion’s home in Kibbutz Sde Boker. Here is the father of modern Israel, its first Prime Minister, who left government early, of his own accord, and, though significantly older than the young founders, joined a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere. Believing that in the Negev Israel’s future would be found, that a people born in the wilderness needed to return regularly to the wilderness, Ben-Gurion “practiced what he preached.” We toured the archives, viewed his pictures, entered his modest home. I found myself profoundly overwhelmed by how much he inspired me (and millions of others). To make decisions not on what is possible but what could/should be. To live out a dream against hardships. To choose simplicity over opulence. To live with humility in the face of public celebrity. Juxtapose Ben Gurion with our leaders today: Olmert, Netanyahu, Bush, McCain (in his current incarnation)… Who inspires? Who is real? Ben Gurion seems so very real in contrast to them all. This could be the intentional manipulation of a “presidential library.” Or it could be just the way it was. Whichever, I thirst for leaders of this caliber.

Looking out over the graves of David and Paula BG, one sees the awesome stretches of the Negev. Too inspiring to put into words, this incredible view drudges up a vague memory that the Old Man chose this site himself, to ensure that his visitors left not with a memory of a gravestone, but with a picture postcard perspective of his great love of the desert.

[Wednesday morning note, 6:44 am: The sun is breaking through the clouds. A small pink patch among the blue-grey. A hopeful sign.]

Midbar Torah Study – there is a pluralistic, secular Torah study institution that brings together adults of all religious backgrounds for learning. They juxtapose Jewish texts (which, of course, even secular Israelis can read and have experience from High School reading), with modern Jewish thinkers like Rosenzweig, with psychologists like Maslow, with modern Israeli poets. The result is a redirection of understanding about what is Jewish learning and the opening of a pluralistic discussion about many issues. We talked about Why Was Torah Given in the Wilderness, which opened a great discussion about the how Torah is the property of all peoples, not just the Jews, yet it is also the property of all kinds of Jews, not just one tribe or one denomination. There was more, but too late to write now. Suffice it to say that the process was akin to a Reform Jewish pluralistic study. Perhaps through this secular organization, Progressive (Reform) Judaism can then find roots. Our people were very excited about the Torah study; some had never participated in this kind of deep study before.

Dinner in Yerocham happened in the home of one of the residents. A nice meal, the home hospitality sweet. Unfortunately, their ability to share their stories was not strong and the story we did hear – about someone who chose to move to a development town, was not what we expected to hear.

Incidentally, a lesson from a previous year’s Sefirah Study about contemplation in Torah Study.

Consider a coal that is not burning and the flame is hidden and closed inside. When someone blows upon it, then it spreads and flares and it continues to expand. Within this flame there are many different colors, which were not apparent initially; nevertheless, everything is coming from the coal.

So too with this Torah that is before us. Every one of her words and letters are like coal. When one sets them out as they are, they appear like coals, somewhat dim. If an individual endeavors to study her, then from each letter a great flame bursts forth, filled with many colors. These are the data that are hidden in each letter….as is explained in the Zohar…supernal lights shine on the letters. [From (KL’’CH Putchei Hochma 3) Moshe Hayyim Luzatti; From the introduction to Doorways to Wisdom cited in Marc Verman, History and Varieties of Jewish Meditation, 167.]

[My teacher Linda Thal once wrote: Torah is not studied with the mind alone. Contemplative forms of study help us encounter the text with a listening heart and a receptive soul. The goal is to enter the text and to dwell within its words, to be open and receptive to whatever sacred wisdom may come to you through the text or to the possibility of sensing God’s immediate presence within and between the words of Torah.]

What does it mean to make Aliyat Hanefesh? Why do I bring my people to Israel every year? This teaching from Hayyim Luzatti makes it clear: Just as the study of Torah allows the light to come forth from the coal of Torah, so too will every inch of Israel bring forth the passionate flame of the love of Israel from the heart of every Jew.

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