In the Wilderness
B’Midbar – in the wilderness – is the name of the fourth book of the Torah, as well as of this week’s portion. This book covers most of the forty years that the children of Israel wandered between the Exodus and the entry into the Promised Land, with their ups and many, many downs, during which they are transformed from a motley crowd of former slaves into a people worthy of a homeland.
It is no coincidence that so many of the world's spiritual and philosophical traditions place such an emphasis on the retreat or wilderness experience, although Judaism, as is its wont, is unusual if not unique in focusing on the experience of an entire community. From Elijah to the Buddha, from John the Baptist and Jesus to Thoreau, eliminating distractions and confronting the bare bones of life has been seen as essential to spiritual growth.
Like Egypt, however, the wilderness is not only or even usually a physical location. Many of us have gone through traumatic events or devastating periods of our lives in which our psychological and emotional defenses are stripped away and even God seems to have abandoned us. Eventually we have emerged on the other side, stronger if nowhere near being tzaddikim. “What does not destroy me makes me stronger,” wrote Nietzsche, who confronted enormous physical and emotional suffering and was, in the end, destroyed by it. We will never know how many others are destroyed, spiritually, mentally or physically, without leaving the testament that he and others have left.
I cannot claim to have come through anything like what so many others have endured, although to each of us at the time, our “wilderness” seems endless and unspeakably dark. However, at the end of 1997, six months after I celebrated my bat mitzvah, I lost my dearest friend after a short, unexpected illness. Since he was not a close relative, I did not even have the healing rituals of Jewish mourning to ease the transition, except for the Kaddish.
The next four months of what was probably clinical depression and then my own life-threatening physical illness constituted the darkest part of my personal wilderness. On the first night, for one of the only times in my life, I could not even imagine the presence of God. Many of us never find God in that “dark night of the soul”; we are alone, facing only ourselves, with all of our flaws and failures – and emptiness. For us, a sense of the Divine only appears upon our emergence, after we have “bottomed out.”
In my case, it was only near the end of a week-long nightmare of delusion and delirium, caused by medication, illness, emotional distress, or a combination of all three, that I felt an overwhelming sense of love in the cosmos. This was not a generalized, diffuse love, but a deeply personal one, mediated through my close relationship with Carl and what I was starting to perceive as a “benign conspiracy,” as opposed to the malevolent ones that I had been imagining before. It seemed that all those who cared about me were going through an elaborate masquerade designed to help me break out of the place where I felt trapped. The elements of this benign conspiracy, of course, were also part of the delusion, but the fact of it was not. The initial feeling did not last, of course, but I feel that it was transformative.
I do not know if those of us who enter this “wilderness,” which may include most or all of the human race, ever really leave it. Perhaps we only come to the edges and glimpse the Promised Land. Like the journey of the Israelites, our journey is fraught with backslidings, rebellions and returns; as Helen Keller wrote in speaking of conversion: “For a long time we resolve like angels, but drop back into the old matter-of-fact way of life, and do just as we did before, like mortals.”
Perhaps we should not leave the wilderness, even if we could. If we do, we should take part of it with us, as we do with slavery when we celebrate Pesach. To come through and survive is not enough if we end up shutting out feelings and relationships because we are afraid of going through the pain again. Pain is not only a warning symptom that something is wrong, but a necessary prerequisite to empathy. Some children are born with an inability to feel physical pain, and not only can they lose fingers and toes because cuts and scrapes that they cannot feel become infected; they can also have difficulty understanding the pain, physical and emotional, of others.
We must never allow this to happen to us. Of course we must have barriers; we could not bear the pain of the world without either going insane of becoming emotionally paralyzed. But the barriers must be porous. We can neither move on without looking back nor remain mired in the past, In a way we must live on both levels at once, and with its emphasis on remembrance and sensitivity to all suffering, as well as its concrete, this-worldly prescriptions for tikkun olam, repairing the world, Judaism can guide us on this difficult path.
May 22, 2004
Cross-posted on "Turn It and Turn It"