The Use of Spiritual Space in the Wilderness

Alex Braver
June 17, 2012
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“First…wherever you live, it is probably Egypt,” remarks Michael Walzer, philosopher and author of Exodus and Revolution, at the conclusion of his book.  “[S]econd,” he continues,  “…there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land.  “[T]hird,” he concludes, …”the way to the land is through the wilderness.”  Our shared national Exodus narrative, and the many narratives that make up our lives, are lines with two endpoints—Egypt and Israel. The goal is to constantly and consistently move from the one to the other.  Yet in the Biblical narrative, as in all of our personal narratives, the journey is rarely as linear or as simple.  What do we do with the middle of this line, with the vast wilderness in between, with the space that represents a large portion of our lives, our own personal forty years of wandering?

This summer, as our weekly Torah portion cycle leaves behind the book of Leviticus, we also leave behind Mount Sinai, the intensity of revelation, the joy of crossing the sea and leaving slavery, the awe of the plagues and miracles, the thrill of beginning a new adventure.  We enter the book of Bamidbar, the desert, the wasteland.  We no longer live in Egypt, we are leaving the base of Mount Sinai, and we have been told where we are going—to a “better place,” as Walzer describes it.  But we still have to get there.  We have our freedom and we know where we need to go…so now what?

The wasteland is characterized by empty space, by desert and sand, by lack of resources, by wandering.  It has little substance of it’s own, and it owes its spatial character to the fact that it lies in between things—between Egypt and Israel, between slavery and freedom, between the land where our oppressors told us what we would eat and the land where we will grow our own crops.  It represents the point in our own spiritual journeys where we plateau, the long stretches of time between moments of deep connection or love or joy, and moments of despair or hopelessness or isolation.  It is chol, secular time, the vast majority of our lives, which are neither terrible nor wonderful, where we are neither enthusiastic in whatever our pursuit may be nor despondent.  It lies between complete faith and complete rejection.  It is doubt, and uncertainty, and it is also the day-to-day dullness.  It is doing our laundry, showing up to work, standing in line for groceries.  It is showing up to synagogue when we feel neither excited to pray nor unable to pray, when we neither love nor hate God, but just feel indifferent.

So, what are we told to do with this space-less space, this liminal environment that stands between our Egypts and our Promised Lands? In the biblical narrative, this takes the form of—in the introductory chapters of Bamidbar—the arrangement of the tribes around the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the central cultic site, where sacrifices were offered, priestly rituals performed, where Moses went to commune with the God’s presence.  This structure is spelled out with precise detail.  Three tribes to the east of the mishkan, three to the south, three to the west, and three to the North.  And, moving inward from the outer ring around the mihskan, the priestly Levite families form an inner circle, surrounding the mishkan on all side.  This forms a sort of bull’s-eye shape—at the very center, God’s “dwelling place” above the Ark of the Covenant in the mishkan, surrounded by the Levites and Kohanim, and then the rest of the Israelites, forming concentric circles of holiness.






















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Here, in the book of Bamidbar, in the middle of the desert, the mishkan creates order out of chaos, structure and beauty out of the wasteland, by ordering the  otherwise featureless space around it.  And similarly, it points to the deeply Jewish spiritual practice of creating a regular structure of spiritual practice to maintain and support the momentary flashes of religious feeling and connection that are transitory and indescribable.  It represents the duality that runs throughout all of Judaism—between keva (structure) and kavannah (intention).  We have a fixed liturgy, specific rituals, and Jewish legal practices that define how things “ought to be done,” …and yet we also have spirituality, intentionality, and emotion that are meant to accompany that structure.  We have the priestly tradition, with chapters on ritual purity, skin disease, and insence-offerings, along with the prophetic tradition, which teaches that the ritual is useless without the ethical.  God needs Aaron and his priestly clan to perform the daily ritual offerings and set priestly duties, just as God also needs Moses to enter into an intensely emotional relationship, to beg and plead God for mercy, and to beg and plead the people to obey.

The physical layout of the mishkan and the Israelite camp describes a way to resolve this tension between keva and kavannah–by creating an orderly, structured, fixed system (i.e., the Israelite tribes encamped in fixed spots to the East, South, West, and North) that is centered around the mysterious divine presence that dwells in the midst of the people.  Without the mishkan in the middle, the Israelite encampment is meaningless; without the encampment around the mishkan, there is no place for the divine presence to dwell, no point in it descending earthward.  So too, our own fixed, well-defined Jewish rituals signify the great indwelling presence that we are incapable of fixing or defining on our own.  The fixed rituals contain a spark of something larger than themselves, even as they point toward something beyond themselves.  They provide a structure in which there is the potential for holiness.

In our wandering, from our own personal Egypts to our own personal Israels, through our own personal wastelands, deep moments of connection, joy, and insight can only initiate a journey for us, like the ten plagues and the Red Sea and Mount Sinai…but they cannot sustain us through the desert.  So many times in my own life I’ve felt that I’ve made a personal, mental, or spiritual breakthrough, only to realize that it was just the beginning of what would become a long and arduous journey.  Perhaps the song we sing at our Passover seders, dayenu, is not quite right—it would NOT have been enough for us to have been taken out of Egypt.  What would we have done next? Rather, the creation of structure, of sustained spiritual practice, gets us through the journey, transforms the flashes of insight and personal revelation into sustained ways of being.

We create structure in our lives—like the rings around the center of the bull’s-eye, like the layers of Israelites encamped around God’s presence—to remind us of the divine presence that underlies our reality whether we notice it in a particular moment or not.  We may at any particular moment feel on the outside of the circle, closer to the edge of the encampment, bordering on the nothingness of the desert that lies beyond.  And yet, if we have built our encampments well—our personal Israelite encampments, our communal structures, our spiritual practices, our loving relationships, our daily routines that keep us healthy and sane—we know that center of the circle still exists, that God’s presence is still there, even if it feels distant.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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