Sometimes life feels like a wilderness, wild and waste and inhospitable. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, recognizing my own sorrows as ruefully familiar landmarks in an otherwise pathless desert. This painful issue – haven’t I been here before? This broken relationship – why are its jagged edges slicing into me again? This dysfunctional work situation – haven’t I spent forever struggling with these colleagues and their ill will? Why can’t I seem to get out of this place?
In my people’s mythic story, the children of Israel wander in the wilderness for forty years. Forty, in the rabbinic imagination, doesn’t merely mean a specific number of years. Forty represents wholeness and fruition: the number of weeks (or so thought the ancients) between conception and birth, the number of days between planting and harvest. Forty is a symbolic lifetime.
If you’ve looked at a map of the Middle East and seen the proximity of Egypt (where the children of Israel were enslaved) to the Promised Land (into which they cross at the end of the book of Deuteronomy), you may have wondered how on earth it took them forty years to get from one to the other. The two places just aren’t that far apart, so what gives? Torah offers its own internal explanation: God caused us to take the “long way” through the wilderness. Evidently we could have found our way through the desert quickly, but God made sure that we wandered slowly. Why? In order to gain knowledge of what is in our hearts.
At first blush this is an oddly dissatisfying answer. Why would the Creator of All slow us down in order to discern what’s in our hearts? Surely to God, what’s in our hearts is already known? But I find that the verse changes radically if we read into its ambiguity. Try reading the verse a different way: God made sure that we wandered slowly in order that we – we, not God – could gain knowledge of what is in our hearts.
We move slowly and circuitously through the wilderness of life because that’s how we discern what we feel and who we are. If we took the short cut from point A to point B, we wouldn’t have time to meander, and it’s in the meandering that we learn about ourselves.
Yes, life takes us in circles, and that’s precisely the point. As Rabbi Alan Lew teaches in his masterful book This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, we bring ourselves time and again to the same mistakes and challenges. Herodotus may have said that one can never step in the same river twice, but Jewish tradition teaches otherwise: we step in the same river again, and again, and again. Every time we bring ourselves back to that river, we have the opportunity to choose how we cross it, and to learn something about ourselves along the way.
In the very next verse after pointing out that God caused us to take the long way through the desert, Torah reminds us that in the wilderness we knew both hunger and the deepest of satisfaction. God gave us the hardship of hunger, but also the miracle of manna, food that arose from nowhere.
Sometimes life feels like a wilderness. And sometimes all I can feel is my own aching hunger. Not hunger for food, because I’m fortunate enough to have enough to eat — but hunger for hope, and for love, and for justice. I ache for things to be better than they are. I ache for injustice to end. I ache for a future I don’t know how to reach. I ache because it feels like I’ve been here before and sometimes I despair of ever finding my way out of these shifting sands.
When life feels like a wilderness, I need to slow myself down and remember that what matters most isn’t reaching my destination (whatever I think that may be), but trying along the journey to refine my compassion and my gratitude and my ability to hope. And I need to notice the manna around me: the sustenance I find in my friendships, the gift of being able to see the darkening clouds splashed across the evening sky, the music of a beloved’s voice lifting me for a moment out of myself. Even in the wilderness, I have some of what I most need, if I can only open my eyes.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).