In the desert no edifice stands. There are no walls to keep out the urgency of life. No artifice oils the gaps between transient lives in motion. No shadow obscures petty scuffles for dominance.
Here life teems under the sparest façade, raw and real and rough. The terms for survival are stark, daring the soul into ultimate alertness.
In the desert a man is a man.
In the desert a man knows his enemies. He can see the sun bearing down; the hiss of the rattlesnake is an echo in his ear. He seeks to carry on, even as overhead the buzzard circles, marking him for its carrion.
In the desert a man knows who does not care. The coyote is no friend, scratching for his own sustenance. The camel glides through unconcerned, hoarding his private stock.
In the desert a man knows his friends. The gentle cloud hovers overhead, bringing a window of respite before dissipating. The hardy palm hunches and shelters; the tinkly spring is Nature's smile. At evenfall, the breezes come and whisk the sun away before his scold turns into scald.
In such a place, a man can be taught the principles of life. No drama, no romance, no glory. Gritty everyday boundaries, the better to fashion a home for creative life. Then, only then, can we take him into the Promised Land.
In the desert a man is a man.
Note the passages that begin the book of Numbers (1:2,3), known in the original Hebrew as Bamidbar (In The Desert). "Calculate the heads of the entire community of the People of Israel by their families and households, until (you reach) a number of names, every male by their skulls. From the age of twenty years and above, every member of the army of Israel, you should count them by their military units."
The first verse concentrates on the personal and domestic characteristics of its subjects. The second veers abruptly into matters martial; from Social Security numbers to Selective Service numbers, you might say.
Within the context that we have outlined, these passages assume a clear meaning. As the Scripture prepares to celebrate Jewish individuality by counting each person, it outlines parallel tracks by which that is measured.
Man is measured for what he is, for his essence, for his character. That is expressed by his head, his skull standing tall, his family, his household, his place in the community. These are sketched in the first verse.
Man is also measured by what he does, his work, his actions, his achievements. This is perceived through his membership in a standing Army of the Jewish people. It is a metaphor for everything he does to nudge the world onward to perfection.
In the desert a man is a man. A man is what he is. A man is what he does. The personal, familial, communal man and the business, military and activist man meet in the desert and they are one.
The war in Iraq really began in the desert in 1991. This is not the quagmire of marshy Vietnam, where all things bright and beautiful are sucked into the swamp. Here a clarity can emerge. We can see who wants to build the world, who wants to wreck the world. Our boys and girls are out there, their lives on the line: we need them to be our eyes and they need us to see.
The same holds true in the desert of Gaza, where our Israeli brethren and sistren face down a vicious foe, even while the Egyptian guardians of the cold peace look on nonchalantly from their watchtowers. It is not enough for our hearts to warm to the plight of these young soldiers. They must have our minds sharp, not lulled by time, not gulled by slime, nor pulled into the crime of random murderousness.
Sundown on May 25 through sundown of May 27 is the Jewish holiday of Shavuos, celebrating anniversary number 3316 of the Encounter at Sinai. Every sociological study of Jewish behavior finds this to be the least observed of holidays. The theory is that since each holiday has a specific observance matzo on Passover, the ram's horn on Rosh Hashana, fasting on Yom Kippur, the sukkah hut on Sukkos, candles on Hannukah, costumes on Purim it occupies a place in the public imagination.
This one holiday was left completely as the clay for human creativity: "And you should fashion a holiday of Shavuos." (Deuteronomy 16:10). As such, it has suffered for the paucity of our imaginations.
After all, it is hard to think about what it means to be camped in a desert, surrounded by human enemies and strafing natural conditions, yet buoyed by a vision of freedom for all mankind. Tough to relate to the challenges of following the rule book to curb rapacious appetites, yet fostering passion to meet life's great missions and keeping the stamina to survive life's punishing battles. That seemed so remote from our prosperous life in the modern world.
Well, it used to, anyway.
Forgive me, please, just this once and allow me to step out of my journalistic role as observer and commentator. I would like to issue an appeal to every person on this planet who believes that his or her life has been enhanced in some way by what David Ben-Gurion called the "Book of books". Even if you have never celebrated or acknowledged this holiday before, show solidarity with our "slogging" desert fighters. Please invest time on this holiday meditating on the values for which we risk our sons and daughters.
If you are a Jew, spend time in the synagogue, spend time at a festive meal with loved ones. If you are not a Jew, you might choose a personal approach and place that provides inspiration. In either case, please be creative and thoughtful in acknowledging the extent of the revolution in the orientation of humankind that has been effected by that book. I feel confident in assuring you that you will experience a palpable moment of growth.
And please write to share with me the results of this special effort; I will read every word, and respond if possible. Because if we are together in the desert, fighting side by side, first to survive and then to build our promised land, I don't need to check your lineage or your skin color, I know that you are my friend.
In the desert a man knows his friends.