I’ve recently returned from four days off the grid, paddling with friends and family on the Grande Ronde River in Oregon. It’s a gorgeous place: sixty-five miles of crystal clear, snow melt water flowing through pristine, roadless and deeply forested canyonlands populated by elk and egrets, mountain goats, hawks, and eagles. I can’t imagine a better spot to be the week before beginning our current Torah portion, which begins the book of Numbers—known in Hebrew as B’Midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”
For my colleagues, Rabbis David Fine and Dan Danson, and me, our spring/summer kayak trip has become a beloved annual rite. Our wilderness excursions are special times for friendship, learning, and renewal. We share stories, discuss Jewish sacred texts (often dealing with rivers), and live by nature’s rhythms, freed from the distractions of clocks, calendars, and smart phones. We sing and laugh and talk. And, above all, we listen. In so doing, we restore our souls, strengthening our bonds with our Creator, with one another, and with our best and truest selves.
Surely it is no accident that the Hebrew world for wilderness that names both our weekly Torah portion and the book that it opens, B’midbar, comes from the root daber, meaning “speech.” The immense quiet at the heart of wilderness heightens the significance of speech. Far away from the static of our hyper-connected modern world, we can better discern the still, small voices that matter most. As the midrash teaches, God “speaks” Torah every moment of every day; the reason we uniquely received it at Sinai is because in that wilderness—unplugged, as it were, from the usual distractions—we could all hear and hearken.
I realize that extended paddling trips are not possible—or even desirable—for everyone. But even the busiest among us can still find or create corners of “wilderness” in space and time. Next weekend, we will celebrate Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah. To better prepare yourself for this sacred time, try to bring some wilderness to your life this week.