The Torah portion just before Shavuot is named Bamidbar, which translates to “In the Wilderness.” Our rabbis have long been fascinated that the Torah was given to Israel bamidbar, in the wilderness – at a place that we can no longer locate and that was outside the promised land.
As we count the 49 days of the Omer – the period between Pesach and Shavuot – there is a spiritual practice that challenges us to focus internally, allowing our lives to parallel the story of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
Wandering in the desert is a significant part of our ancestors’ story, and the experience of being lost may have been essential to arriving at Mount Sinai ready to receive the Torah. The Book of Exodus teaches “when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer .... God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:17-18).
This circuitous route was not a mistake; the divine GPS did not malfunction. Midrash Tanchuma explains God’s decision this way: God said: “If I take them the simple, direct way, each person will immediately take hold of his/her field and vineyard, and stop engaging with Torah. But if I take them by way of the wilderness, and they eat the manna and drink from the miraculous well, Torah will settle into their bodies.”
I imagine that for the Israelites, wandering in the desert must have been not just challenging, but terrifying. Surely, they felt exposed and uncertain. The story of the golden calf gives us insight into some of their fears and concerns. It is no surprise that according to the Exodus story, they wanted to return to Egypt, to the good food that sustained them in slavery. For the Israelites, as for us, the past, despite its problems and disappointments, can be more attractive because it is familiar.
So, why the “roundabout way” to experience the wilderness? Perhaps it was, as the rabbi of the midrash says, an opportunity for the Israelites to experience the “miracles” of manna and water that God provided, so they would be more open to Torah.
I have another theory. Rebecca Solnit, a contemporary thinker, wrote a book that is one of my favorites, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” In it she references Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist who pondered the difference between not finding your way and losing yourself – something he called “the art of straying.”
Solnit describes it this way: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you, is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”
The most transformative experiences in our lives often arise out of uncertainty, not knowing, or being lost. Disruption or wilderness, rather than being a negative thing, can be just what we need to push us deeper, propel us forward, enable us to reach higher.
Perhaps the experience of wandering – in the wilderness of our lives – is essential to extend our boundaries of the self into unknown territory so that Torah can settle into our bodies in new and perhaps unimaginable ways.
The teaching here: there is no simple, direct way to acquire Jewish learning – or a clear path for our lives. Just as it was for our ancestors, the journey is the important thing, and sometimes getting lost can be just what we need.
RABBI ALAN FLAM is executive director of the Helen Hudson Foundation for Homeless America and the organizer and rabbi for Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that emphasizes silence, chanting, gentle stretching and meditation along with traditional davening and Torah study. Contact him at email@example.com.