Into the Wild

photo credit: Dave Middleton

Sermon Parashat Ekev 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

Into the Wild 

There’s something a bit mad about leaving the creature comforts of your modern life – central heating, indoor plumming, WIFI, a hot bath and microwave –to go out into the wild to pitch your tent, get rained on, eat beans on soggy toast and shiver on a thin mat and an inadequate sleeping bag. Oh, the joys of camping. 

And yet we do this every year, with great enthusiasm, much greater than might expect since according to one camping website (biased data perhaps!), 18 million Brits go camping every year. What is it about the attraction of going ‘into the wild’ and leaving it all behind? Every summer, we embrace the ritual of fleeing our mundane lives by going on vacation. And although some vacations are spent in greater luxury than what one may be used to during the year, the fact of the matter is that most vacations embrace an ethos of simplicity. We like going ‘back to basics’. 

My family and I did the same this year as we headed to the Lake District. We’re not great campers so we rented a basic cottage apartment, brought a minimum of basic food ingredients and for six blissful days, enjoyed a life of simple pleasures: no internet, computers or shopping, just quiet days and evenings, communing with Nature. 
It is human nature, then, that we want to disconnect and embrace the ‘white spaces’ of our lives, the emptiness and quiet, the neutrality, purity and freshness of our natural surroundings. Even if it means ‘roughing it’. Or maybe it’s because of roughing it. 

The Israelites’ sojournings in the desert can actually be seen as an extended vacation. Not because it was ‘fun’ or ‘relaxing’ (there was no Club Med by the Sea of Reeds!) but because wedged between Mitzrayim and Cana’an, between slavery and the dirty work of conquest and nation-building, lay a pure, neutral space where our ancestors were truly… free. In fact, the term ‘desert’ is a misnomer: midbar is a wilderness, rather than an arid sandbox (although it can be that too). We can see the neutral space of the midbar then as a unique experience that was both taxing and inspiring, that may have felt alienating to some (hence the frequent complaining of the Israelites) but intimate and relationship-building to many others. 

It is in the wilderness Jacob has his vision of the sulam, the stairway to Heaven, that Moses spoke to the Divine in the burning bush, that God gave us the Torah, where God courted us and loved us echoed by Jeremiah 2:2: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the wilderness, through a land not sown’. 
The significance of the wilderness experience as formative and powerful is also echoed in the Midrash: (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) 

“The words of Torah are free, as it is said (Isaiah 55:1): 'All who are thirsty should go to obtain water, and anyone who has no money should go and break bread and eat, and break bread and eat without money and without a price for wine and milk.'" Another interpretation: Why (was the Torah given) in the desert? Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah." 

In Midrash (Mechilta Shemot 20:1) we likewise see the idea that the Torah was given in the wilderness so that the nations of the world couldn’t say that it wasn’t offered to them and only to he people Israel in the land of Israel. The Torah is open, like the white space of the wilderness, on neutral ground, to everyone who wishes to pursue her, irrespective of ethnicity, race, gender or background. The desert knows no identity, no boundaries, no particularism. Going into the wild strips us of our pretences and confronts us with our essence. 

The midbar of the Torah both sustains and challenges us and we see this in Parashat Eikev with some most unusual verses: 

“And you shall remember all the way that the Eternal your God had you go these forty years in the wilderness in order to degrade you, to test you, to know what was in your heart: would you observe His commandments or ot. So He degraded you and made you hunger and then fed you the manna, which you had not known and your fathers had not known, to let you know that a human doesn’t live by bread alone, but a human lives by every product of the Eternal’s mouth. Your garment didn’t wear out on you, and your foot didn’t swell these forty years.” (Deut. 8:2-4) 

Simlat’cha lo balta aleicha v’raglecha lo batzeikah zeh arba’im shanah.” The above verses seem contradictory: the wilderness life is both difficult yet nourishing, living at the edge of our human experience, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, teaching us lessons of vulnerability and simplicity. The white spaces aren’t easy but they are where meaning, inspiration and insight are generated. The wilderness breeds prophets and mystics, and I am convinced that in one form or another, there’s a prophet or mystic in each of us. 

In a cluttered world clamouring for our attention, we need the ‘white spaces’ in our lives. We need to go on a spiritual camping trip. Pitch our tent and ‘rough it out’ to come back renewed. The High Holy Days are drawing ever closer. This is the time to go into the wild. What challenges us? What empties us of the irrelevant buzz in our lives so that we can be filled by what truly matters? What nourishes us apart from our daily bread? What things can we do without and what things are essential to us? 

It’s kind of a twist on the ‘desert island scenario: “you go to a desert island and you can only take three things.” If you haven’t gone on holiday yet, then I wish you an incredible journey into your own wilderness. If you’ve just come back, feeling recharged and renewed, then may you be able to hold on to that feeling as long as you can. For all of us, I wish a wonderful journey, wherever it may lead.

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