Awaking to the potential power of the desert

B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

“We set out from Chorev and traversed the entire vast and awful (OR) great and awesome desert that you all saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God commanded us.” – Deuteronomy 1:19

“Abba…Abba…you awake?”

Truth is I’m a terrible sleeper. But whenever I can, I try to grab a Shabbes Shluf (nap). Somehow, luxuriating in the middle of the afternoon defines oneg (delight), which is supposed to be an essential part of our Sabbath experience. Barely opening one eye, I looked up to see our 9-year-old, Lev (the most “covert” of our children), standing over me with a bewildered look on his face. “Abba, I get the Honey Cakes part-that’s for Rosh Hashanah. But Silence-that doesn’t sound too Jewish to me. What are you reading?”

Inadvertently, I had dozed off while making my way through a beautiful little book, “Silence and Honey Cakes: the Wisdom of the Desert,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Reverend Rowan Williams. The volume, which was on loan from my teacher and friend, Dr. Alick Isaacs (who recently spoke at our St. Louis JCC’s outstanding Jewish Book Festival), is a work that shares some profound insights from the Desert Fathers and Mothers who resided in the Egyptian Desert between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE. The reading was Alick’s first of several gentle (yet paradoxically jarring) nudges in the direction of helping me deconstruct and then reframe some unhealthy and counter-productive long-held and outdated assumptions about religious life and spiritual consciousness.

Smiling softly, I confirmed for Lev that he was indeed correct. “The book isn’t a Jewish one, but it does teach some ideas that I’m pretty sure God wants all human beings to know – and there is a lot of wisdom in the world to be learned from people of other faiths. By the way, why do you think we have an Amidah (Silent Meditation) at every service? Silence is a very Jewish concept.” “Okay Abba, but I have to say that I still like Honey Cake much more than Silence…Can I have a Shabbes snack now?”

The Archbishop’s thought-provoking tome lead me on a historical and spiritual journey to the desert community of a group of monks and nuns who consciously located themselves outside the confines of the cities in an attempt to live in greater harmony with themselves, their fellow human beings and the Almighty. The book itself is divided into five sections and each chapter elegantly lays out-in sensitive and nuanced ways-the complexities of the life of the spirit.

What emerges is a profound and remarkably contemporary reality. Religious consciousness is not a zero-sum game and it’s not an “either/or” proposition. It’s not “Silence” on the one hand or “Honey Cakes” on the other. Sometimes spiritual consequence can be found through isolation and deep introspection and at other moments, it is only through acts of sharing selflessly-by means of generosity and magnanimity-that we discover the transcendent. Either way, it is the desert that somehow catalyses the opportunity for a fresh perspective.

Of course, the notion of the desert as fertile soil for the soul is not new. After all, Moses our Teacher is called to his sacred vocation in the Desert-at the Bush that Burns but is not Consumed; the People of Israel is forged into a nation during its 40-year trek in the most barren of environments; the revelation of our Holy Torah takes place at the summit of Mount Sinai-in the midst of wilderness; and Elijah the Prophet gains renewed insight into the deepest dimensions of Divinity in the most arid and barren of regions.

What emerges is a possible avenue for religious recalibration. Though the desert is a physical location, it is also a state of mind, a way of being. At times it can be foreboding and at times inviting; sometimes ominous and sometimes encouraging; awful and awesome; filled with vibrations-cacophonous and harmonious; resonating with overwhelming noise or bereft of any semblance of the audible. And as such, retreating to the desert is-in potential-a mighty resource for those seeking to revive, reinvent and re-imagine their truths, convictions and orthodoxies. A space which we enter as a means to reconsider the paths we have taken and the next steps on our journey.

Michael Evenari, Leslie Shanan, and Naphtali Tadmor write in “The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert”:

“It is no whim of history that the birth of the first monotheistic faith took place in a desert, or that it was followed there by the other two great religions, Christianity and Islam. The prophets of Israel repeatedly sought and found inspiration in the desert. Christian hermits fled to it to escape the pollution of the world and to commune with God, and in modern times the secular literature of the desert in the works of Doughty, Lawrence, Philby, Thomas, and many other famous travelers reveals the powerful influence it exerts on the minds and spirits of all who seek its mysteries.”

Maybe at some point in the not too distant future, my clandestine child will find his way to the desert and come to appreciate the delectability of Silence as much as he enjoys the deliciousness of Honey Cake. And that will be a most scrumptious treat-for him and for me.

Now back to my Judean Desert…