Over Pesah break, I visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. It’s a desert, a midbar, a wilderness. The wilderness, the midbar, is a powerful place. Like a desert, the metaphoric midbar – those times of change and uncertainty -can be a frightening place that feels unstable. But it’s also an awesome place – a place of quiet and revelation, of new faith and growth.
Right now, we’re in the weeks between Pesah and Shavuot. We’re on our 49-day journey from liberation to revelation. We’ve left Egypt and we’re heading towards receiving the Torah at Sinai. The Torah tells us explicitly that God did not lead us the most direct way out of Egypt; rather, God took us a roundabout way through the midbar, the wilderness. (Ex 13:17-18) The Torah also tells us that the forty year journey in the wilderness, had we gone the most direct route to the promised land, would have taken us… 11 days!! Apparently, we needed some time in the wilderness. And indeed, the wilderness is where the Torah is given to us.
There is a beautiful explanation for this in Midrash Tanhuma (Beshallach 1) in which God says: If I take the Israelites the simple, direct way, everyone will immediately take hold of their land, their fields and vineyards, and stop engaging with Torah. But if I take them by way of the wilderness, they’ll eat of the manna and drink from the miraculous well, and Torah will settle into their bodies.
What does this mean? I think the rabbis are saying that when we have stability and structure – when we have our land to hold on to, we don’t engage with Torah, with real learning and growth, the same way we do, when we have emptiness, openness, and change. Our “stuff” – our fields, our vineyards, our jobs, our family, our comfortable homes – give us stability to hold onto. But revelation, transformative learning, and real awakening happens not in that stability, but in the wilderness. Torah can “settle into our bodies,” as the midrash puts it, when we have the spaciousness to be transformed and to integrate change. That is why it’s good for us to occasionally travel, journey, visit the desert, and shake ourselves up from our comfort zones to discover something new.
William Bridges writes about organizational change and transitions. The well-known consultant and writer compares transitions in organizations to the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness. He explains that it’s our human tendency to want immediate stability, but things change in organizations, and we always need to go through a process of transition, that is, through the wilderness. It can be uncomfortable for us, but it is what allows for creativity and new life and new growth.
Change can be uncomfortable for us because of our human tendency to want stability, to want to hold on to the familiar, but Torah teaches that revelation, growth, transformation and awakening happen not so much when we’re holding on to the familiar and to the known, but in the midbar, in the wilderness, in that place of uncertainty and change. Ken Yehi Ratzon. So may it be.