Jewish in the Wilderness

Jewish in the Wilderness
Rabbi Shefa Gold

The voice on the other end of the line was completely incredulous, “How could a decent Jewish girl, a rabbi no less! be living out in the middle of nowhere?!”

I had sent a box of the CDs I produce to my distributor on the east coast and they had arrived damaged. “Why can’t you send them UPS?” he had sputtered in frustration. I calmly explained that I lived in the country more than an hour’s drive to the closest UPS center, so I sent them via the US Postal service.

“And it’s not the middle of nowhere,” I added. “It’s the most beautiful and sanest place I could ever imagine living...Why are you living in the middle of such craziness?” This high-powered east coast Jewish businessman paused for a moment to consider this, and then slipped back into puzzled incredulity.

When I hung up I realized that my distributor had just given voice to what so many urban Jews had been just too polite to say. Jews belong in the city, at the heart of sophistication and culture, certainly not in the wilderness.

Yet our foundational story, our entire journey from slavery in Egypt to the flowing milk and honey of the Promised Land—takes place in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness where we encounter God and receive the Torah. It is in the wilderness where we so carefully construct the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary where the Presence of the Divine can dwell) which represents the structures of a holy life.

The word for wilderness in Hebrew is Midbar, which can be understood as the place without (mi) speech (daber). It is the place of silence from which all speech, all meaning is born.

Our central prayer in Judaism says, “Shma!” Listen! Then you will experience the Oneness and Unity of all Reality. And then you will love God/Reality with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.

The perception of Unity and the Love that flows from that perception begins with listening. A practice of deep listening therefore seems to me to be an essential requirement of a Jewish life.

The wilderness is the place where the skills of deep listening are refined. In the wilderness we listen to God’s voice as it speaks to us directly through the miracles of Nature. And we cultivate enough spaciousness and silence so that the “still small voice” within can be discerned and followed.

In order to love with all my heart, all my soul and all my might, I must have a rich inner life. How else can I explore the reaches of the heart, the expanse of the soul or the strength of my humanity?

When I look out my window at the sweeping vistas and wide expanse of red rock mesas, cottonwood valleys, and open skies, I am sent to the spacious inner landscape, where the Great Mystery reveals itself again and again with each breath.

I spend about half my time traveling and teaching in communities around the world, mostly in cities where the complexities of meaningful speech are always in high demand. I am a lover of words, of music, stories, text, philosophy…and I spread that noisy love wherever I go...

But when I return home to the Jemez, I am nurtured by the silence, by the wilderness. I am completely inspired by the birds and chipmunks that play at my feeder. I am startled into reverence for all Life when a bear lumbers casually onto my deck. When a storm blows up the valley, I stop and gather up all of my senses in witness to Majesty in Motion.

Each day I am surprised by the dawn’s magic as it lights up the mesa.

Then I return to my holy text and say, “Of course…this is what I’ve been praying about!”

People to the ends of the earth
are overawed by Your wonders;
At the coming of morning and evening
they stand up and sing for joy.
(Psalm 65)

Rabbi Shefa Gold lives in Jemez Springs, NM with her husband Raymond (Rachmiel) O’Regan. They are the directors of CDEEP: Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice, a project of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.