Traveling through a desert is journeying through a lonely place, completely forsaken. There is neither food nor water, nor any other form of sustaining substance. There is only the unbearable sun and its heat. There is no grass and there are no trees. The only signs of life are deadly snakes and scorpions. In a desert, death stares you in the face. It is a dangerous and outrageous place.
But a desert is also a magnificent locale, filled with grandeur and full of life. It is an area where many things can happen that are impossible in any other location.
First and foremost, it is a place of authenticity; and therefore a place of miracles.
Because the desert is an area of devastating silence, there is no distraction and no competition. It is the desert’s thundering silence that allows a “still voice” within us to speak, and that cannot bear mediocrity. Instead, a desert seeks singular excellence, even when most of us cannot recognize it as such. It protests against those who are appeased when they find something old in the new, even though it is clear that this old could not have given birth to this new.
The Egyptian French poet Edmond Jabès noted the connection between the Hebrew words “dabar” (word) and “midbar” (desert). This, he claims, goes to the core of what it means to be a Jew:
With exemplary regularity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go toward a renewed word that has become his origin… A wandering word is the word of God. It has for its echo the word of a wandering people. No oasis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the immense, thirsty desert, only the book of this thirst… (From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader [Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1991] pp. 166-7)
In the emptiness and silence of the desert, an authentic inner voice can be heard while sitting in the sukkah, a hut that existentially gives protection, but in no way physically shields. Its roof leaks and its walls fall apart the moment a wind blows. It is a place with no excuses. But it can only be experienced by a people of the wilderness; a people who are not rooted in a substance of physical limitations and borders; a people who are not entirely fixed by an earthly point, even while living in a homeland. Their spirit reaches far beyond restrictive borders. They are particularistic so as to be universalistic. They are never satisfied with their spiritual condition and are therefore always on the road, looking for more, even when they live in their homeland, which is nothing more than a feeble sukkah.
They are a wandering people that can never permanently land, because the runway is too narrow, and they cannot fit into any final destination. They are a people who always experience unrest because they carry a spiritual secret that doesn’t fit anywhere and wanders in the existential state of an unlimited desert. An existential experience that unnerves because it’s rooted in the desert, where it becomes deadly if not properly handled.
But a desert is even more. It is an area where nothing can be tangibly achieved. In a desert, people cannot prove themselves, at least not in the conventional sense. It doesn’t offer jobs that people can fight over and compete for. It has no factories, offices, or department stores. There are no bosses to order people around, and no fellow workers with whom to compete. It is “prestige deprived.” In a desert, there is no kavod (honor) to be received. It doesn’t have cities, homes, or fences. If it had these, it would no longer be a desert. Human achievements would end its desert status and would undermine and destroy the grandeur of its might and beauty. It has only a sukkah, a place that lacks all physical security.
In a desert, people can only “be,” but never “have” anything. There is no food to be eaten but the manna, the soul food, and one can easily walk in the same shoes for 40 years, because authenticity does not wear out. People’s garments grow with them and don’t need changing or cleaning, because they are as pure as can be (See Rashi’s commentary on Devarim 8:4). And that which is pure continues to grow and stays clean.
The desert is therefore a state of mind. It removes the walls in our subconscious, and even in our conscious way of thinking. It is an out-of-the-box realm. In a desert one can think unlimitedly. As such, one is open to the impossible and hears murmurs from another world, which can never be heard in the city or on a job. The desert allows for authentic thinking, without obstacles, and therefore is able to break through and remove from us any artificial thoughts that don’t identify with our deeper souls. Nothing spiritual gets lost, because the fences around our thoughts become neutralized and no longer bar the way to our inner lives. The desert is the ultimate liberty. It teaches us that openness doesn’t mean surrender to what is most “in” or powerful. The desert doesn’t consist of vulgar successes that have been made into major accomplishments.
And therefore it is a place of miracles.
The Sages say: “Anyone who does not make himself open to all (“hefker,” ownerless), like a wilderness, cannot gain wisdom and Torah” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7).
With this statement, the Sages introduce a most important insight concerning ourselves. We cannot bear artificial, unauthentic ideas that are sold in this world of superficiality.
And therefore, on Sukkot we sit in a sukkah, a place that has nothing to show for itself; only powerful simplicity. It is frail and unaccomplished, because it serves as a road sign for our lives and for what is really important: authenticity in all its nakedness.
This essay was partially inspired by an anonymous Dutch author.