This is a newsletter article written by Rabbi Cindy Enger. In our work together creating our daily Making the Omer Count emails, Cindy recalled the time she spent in Israel during her first year in rabbinic school. We excerpted part of this beautiful article in one of our emails. The full text is below. (If you’d like to subscribe to the Journey of the Soul: Making the Omer Count daily emails, click here: http://eepurl.com/SoOWD
It is hard to believe that I have been away from Chicago and the Or Chadash community for nearly a year now. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that my year in Israel is nearing its conclusion. For me, this year has been one of intense learning — both within and outside of the classroom. At this time in the Jewish calendar year, during the period which follows Pesach and precedes Shavuot, I would like to share with you one important aspect of my year here in Israel — perhaps the essence of it — my experience of the desert.
During this year, I have journeyed into the desert on three occasions. First, during Sukkot, I hiked with a small group and a Bedouin guide for a week in the Sinai desert. In January, I hiked for two days in the Judean Hills near the Dead Sea. And quite recently, I hiked for several days in the southernmost part of the Negev Desert near the Red Sea and the Egyptian border.
Throughout history, people have journeyed into the desert to morally transform themselves — to become different people. Why? The desert is a very special place. Yet it is not an easy place to be in. It is openness and it is silence. It is dry, and in it, life is hidden and vulnerable. In the desert, movement is slow and gradual. Change results from slight shifts and is noticeable only over long periods of time. In the desert, we humans become like the desert — quiet and open, aware of our vulnerability, moving slowly, changing gradually.
The desert is both no one’s place and everyone’s place. It is ownerless — it is “hefkair” (a rabbinic legal term, which means “abandoned property”). Midrash teaches us that in order to receive Torah, a person must make himself or herself like the desert — ownerless and unencumbered —“hefkair.” For this reason, perhaps, we received the Torah in the desert, at Sinai, and not in Egypt, where we were owned by other humans, nor in the land of Israel, where we were encumbered by ownership.
For us, as for our ancestors who journeyed out from Egypt and on to Sinai, the desert is more than a place. It is a way of being. It is our experience of the silent stillness of an early morning walk along the shore of Lake Michigan. It is an afternoon spent at the Cook County Forest Preserve and the recognition that our natural surroundings are precious — and vulnerable to human intervention. It is Shabbat, when we allow ourselves to slow down, time for reflection and renewal. It is an awareness that personal growth comes from our journeys into and out from places of discomfort.
The desert is not an easy place to be in. And yet, it is an important place, a place of transformation. In the desert, we have an opportunity to become aware that, at our core, we are like the desert — fragile, open, full of life, changing slowly. As we approach the festival of Shavuot, our celebration of God’s giving of the Torah and a time for renewal of the Covenant we entered into with God at Sinai, I encourage you to consider the ways in which we, as individuals and as a community, can become more like the desert — open and ownerless, vulnerable and full of life, existing in a gentle balance, moving slowly, changing gradually. In so doing, we become more able to receive Torah and live Torah today. As we journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from liberation to Covenant with God, I invite you to join me in experiencing ourselves and the desert.
April 15, 1997 / Jerusalem