Midbar • מדבר

 Midbar in Biblical Hebrew means Wilderness, particularly the arid wilderness of the Desert.

Central to our people’s formative experience was the life of the desert nomad described in the Torah, from our earliest patriarchs traversing the Negev to the forty years our people wandered in the Sinai. Prophets frequented the desert as a place to escape persecution as well as a space to commune with God. Two thousand years ago, the Dead Sea Sect, thought to be the Essenes, retreated to the Judean wilderness desert from the turmoil of Jerusalem and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Midbar presents two faces in the Torah. In one sense it is the opposite of the Garden; it is untamed and uncultivated, awesome and dangerous. The desert is a symbol of all those times that we lose our way and wander aimlessly, as individuals or as a society.

The other aspect of Midbar is a positive one. It represents openness, possibility, receptivity. Wandering in the desert was the paradigm of letting go and letting God. The Torah was given in the Midbar; is it a coincidence that the same Hebrew letters מדבר that spell Midbar, desert wilderness, also spell Medaber, speech? The emptiness of the desert and its vast spaces and the awe it evokes allow for communication with the divine.

Deserts are important ecosystems and supply many benefits to the earth. Three hundred million people worldwide live in deserts; you can explore the world’s desert communities here. We must respond to global climate change lest spreading deserts and devastating droughts characterize our future on planet Earth.

Wander this Gateway of Midbar to explore the symbol of Wilderness and Desert in Jewish tradition and in your life.


Banner photo by Rabbi Barry Leff, Negev Desert

Desert Song by Lyra Ensemble from Israel.

The Book of Wilderness

The fourth book of the Torah, known in English as the book of Numbers, in Hebrew is known as Bemidbar which means, “In the Wilderness [of Sinai].”

On a psychological level, “wandering in the desert” can represent a state in which we have become unmoored from our lives and are living in a state of uncertainty, whether through a positive choice to free ourselves from the constraints of the past, or whether we are thrust into a new state through circumstances beyond our control.

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Make Yourself a Desert Wilderness

Freed from slavery in Egypt, our people entered the Midbar, the desert wilderness. Far from civilization, in the shadow of a mountain, we received divine revelation amidst the sparse landscape of earth, air, fire, and water.A beautiful Midrash teaches that the open wilderness experience was essential to receiving the Torah.

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Desert Oasis

The desert oasis is an important biblical image. The beauty and life-giving power of water in the desert suggest a source of spiritual as well as physical refreshment. Ein Gedi, Spring of the Goat Kid, an oasis near the Dead Sea, is known as the place that future king David hid out from King Saul (I Samuel 24:1-2).

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Learning to Love the Desert

Long ago I learned to love the desert. I never saw myself as a desert person, much prefering the verdant trees and rivers of the Texas Hill Country or the piney slopes of the Rocky Mountains to what I saw as the dry ugly plains of West Texas.

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Inspiration at a Thornbush

Moses’ first encounter with the Divine in the wilderness is at bush that burns but is not consumed. According to the Midrash, the choice of a “lowly thornbush” is God’s way of showing that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence can be found anywhere (Exodus Rabbah 2:5) I take this as a message to be more aware and attentive to the divine inspiration that can be found in “ordinary” and humble things, perhaps even in life’s thorns and thickets. These bare winter thornbushes I photographed (at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, except picture 5 and 14 in town, and 12 on a trip to Colorado), inspired me with their beauty and with the amazing connections and patterns that emerge amidst their brambles and tangles.

Learn about my mother’s spiritual journey, or return to the Gateway of Wilderness.

My Mother’s Spiritual Journey

Wilderness quotation bumper stickerMy daughter Arielle once bought me a bookmark at a local store, embellished with a quotation from Henry David Thoreou, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.”I knew that saying from a poster that we had at our Ranch in Texas, that had accompanied a Sierra Club photo book by Eliot Porter. Arielle had not heard the story about it that my late mother, Betty Hilton, retold in a sermon she gave at her synagogue. (My mother became a hospital chaplain in her 70’s, and passed away at age 75.) The sermon was about her own time of “wandering in the wilderness” and not realizing that she was being led. In a sukkah (the symbol of wilderness sojourns), she got a new direction that changed her life.

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Sharing Circle: Wilderness and Desert

Wilderness and Desert Experience

How do you empty your mind of clutter and find the awe?

Have you had a formative or healing experience in the desert, or in any wilderness setting?

What does the Midbar mean in your life, whether as an actual location or a state of mind? read more…

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