Wilderness (Midbar)


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. 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.


Start On Your Journey

The first option below is the suggested next step on your journey.  Feel free to browse the following paths and explore in your own time at your own pace.

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...

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...

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...

Building a Sukkah, symbol of desert wanderings

The week-long fall harvest festival of Sukkot is celebrated by building a temporary outdoor hut, the sukkah, and spending as much time as possible living in it. This annual ritual re-enacts the lives of our ancestors as desert wanderers (and later as farmers...

Eco-Meaning of the Sukkot Plants

by Rabbi David Seidenberg The four species of the lulav [waved in blessing and praise on the holiday of Sukkot] represent the four types of ecosystems in the land of Israel: desert (date palm), hills (myrtle), river corridors (willow), and sh'feilah or lowlands (etrog...

BeMidbar: Finding God in the Wilderness

"My time in the desert has helped me understand why God so often seems to speak to people when they are in the wilderness." Rabbi Barry Leff And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai …Numbers 1:1 ...I’ve been spending a lot of time in the desert lately....

Guided Meditation: Miriam’s Well in the Desert

Enjoy this guided meditation on your inner Wellsprings, based on the legends of Miriam's Well, written and read by Rabbi Julie Danan. The imagery in the meditation is based on teachings from the Midrash and ancient Jewish lore. Featured Image: Natural spring mikveh...

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. But living in a desert...

Environmental Apprenticeship in the Arava Desert

  In Israel, you can experience the beauty of the Arava Desert and a unique community at Kibbutz Lotan, whether at their desert guest house and spa or their environmental educational programs, like the Green Apprenticeship, in which my youngest daughter...

Wilderness Heals Us and We Heal It

Midbar as Wilderness not only protects the health of our planet, but also provide venues of emotional healing for human beings, including... Disadvantaged and at-risk inner city kids (and here's another) Veterans suffering from stress or PTSD People recovering from...

Ritual: Your verse in the Bible, and mine

יְשֻׂשׂ֥וּם מִדְבָּ֖ר וְצִיָּ֑ה וְתָגֵ֧ל עֲרָבָ֛ה וְתִפְרַ֖ח כַּחֲבַצָּֽלֶת The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. --Isaiah 35:1   There is an old custom to conclude the Amidah (standing prayer) by...

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...

My Mother’s Spiritual Journey

My 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...

Passover in the Desert with Wilderness Torah

Passover in the Desert with Wilderness Torah  is an annual multi-generational celebration that takes the spring Festival of Freedom back to its wilderness and dessert origins. The rustic communal camping event takes place during the last few days of the Passover...

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...



Trees (Eitz)


One of the first things I noticed at Elat Chayyim (“Tree of Life”) Retreat Center near Woodstock, New York, were the huge trees, especially some venerable giant pines growing outside the dining area. As days went by, the trees seemed to me more than just features of the landscape, but rather as fellow beings who partook in the love of the environment, creatures from whom I could learn. It was not so fanciful when I learned that Jewish tradition compares trees to human beings. Humans seem to rule the animal kingdom while trees are the most developed of plants. Both receive nourishment from our roots and aspire upward toward the light, and as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi pointed out, both trees and human beings never stop growing. Moreover, he often pointed out that the growing edge of a tree is on the outside, and so we–and our tradition–must continue reaching outward in order to be renewed.

“For is a tree of the field human” (to withdraw before you in a siege, Deuteronomy 20:19)? The biblical verse prohibiting the logging of fruit trees during a siege can also be read literally as: “For a human being is a tree of the field” Ki ha-adam etz ha-sadeh כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה

In forests, jungles, orchards, and cities, trees are essential to life on earth, since they provide oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and remove pollutants, while also providing countless expressions of beauty, shade, food, wood, and soil conservation. 

Trees have been sacred to many cultures and religions. In Judaism, we have pomegranates decorations on our Torahs, apples and honey for the new year, citrons and palm branches to wave on Sukkot, and many other customs, texts, and motifs involving trees and their fruits.  Trees have great importance in Jewish tradition as symbols of wisdom and Torah. In mystical thought the Tree is a symbol of the flow of divine energy into the universe.


Join me in this Gateway of Trees to explore the symbol of the Tree in Jewish tradition and in your life.

Start On Your Journey

The first option below is the suggested next step on your journey.  Feel free to browse the following paths and explore in your own time at your own pace.

Wind in the Trees and Ambiance at Tejon Ranch, California

Listen to the wind and the birds and insects in the trees, or if you are indoors enjoy this recording. Featured Image: TejonWest by RangerX via Flickr See the famous fruit trees of Israel, or return to the Gateway of Trees.

Gallery: Famous Fruit Trees of Israel

The five famous fruit trees of the Holy Land are noted along with two grains as the "Seven Species" (Shivat Haminim, (Deuteronomy 8:8). Embrace their bounty in artwork, Sukkah and home decorations, and foods for Jewish celebrations, especially Tu Bishvat (New Year of...

Torah Study: The Tree in the Garden

At the heart of the Bible's first story, humanity in the Garden of Eden, two trees play a central role, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life And out of the ground the Eternal God (YHWH Elohim) made grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for...

The Tree of Life: Divine Wisdom

Are we really exiled from the Tree of Life? While the book of Genesis depicts the exile from the Garden of Eden and it's Tree of Life, elsewhere Bible declares that the Tree of Life is available to us in another form.   She is a tree of life to those that hold on...

Video: Ne’ot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape

  Learn traditional blessings for eating fruit, or return to the Gateway of Trees.

From our Sages: The Story of Honi

Honi (or Choni) ha-Ma'agel (the Circle Maker) was a second century tzadik (righteous person) who was kind of a cross between Johnny Appleseed (or Carob-Seed) and Rip Van Winkle. Honi was known for his ability to pray successfully for rain in times of drought, while...

Blessings for Fruits and Trees

Every time we eat a piece of fruit from a tree, we have an opportunity to pause and appreciate the divine force that flows through all creation and brings this delicious bounty to our lips. We can do this with a spiritual practice of saying a berachah, a blessing,...

Meditation for Mindful Eating of Fruit:

 You can make eating a piece of fruit into a meditative experience. Say the blessing and consider what a gift has come to you from God's bounty. Our Sages saw the blessing as a kind of thank-you or payment, as it were, for partaking of God's creation. I am filled with...

Tu Bishvat: The New Year of the Tree

My youngest daughter's friends were impressed that Judaism celebrates a New Year of Trees, marked by planting and honoring trees. Here’s a round-up of how to observe this special day. Tu Bishvat means the 15th Day–at the full moon–of the Hebrew month of Shevat,...

The Tree of Life in Kabbalah

In Jewish mystical thought, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life were intended to flourish together in the Garden, but human beings forsook the vital Tree of Life to pursue knowledge alone, introducing duality to the world and preventing the ideal Edenic state...

Guided Meditation on Tree of Life in Our Bodies

This is a guided meditation on the Sephirotic energy in our bodies, based on the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the world was created with 10 Sephirot. In  Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life refers to much more than a...

Hugging the Tree of Life

By the end of my first retreat at Elat Chayyim, I had internalized the paradigm of living fully in the mystic’s “Four Worlds” of body, emotions, mind, and spirit and I wanted to commune physically with a  tree. I approached a great Pine (I think a White Pine) that...

Tikkun Olam: Trees and the Environment

"Planting a tree" for a happy occasion has become almost a Jewish stereotype, but it really is a huge mitzvah. The classic way to plant a tree in Israel is through the Jewish National Fund.  In over a century, they have planted 250 million trees and helped to...

Rainforests: Lungs of Our Planet

  The scenes in this video help me to see the rainforests as the lungs of our planet. The Rainforest Alliance is a network of people working together to preserve forests and the communities that depend on them, in 78 countries around the world. Learn how to get...

Sharing Circle: Trees

Trees in Your Life Join the virtual circle and share your  reflections. Did (or do) have have a tree that played a big role in your life? What kind of tree, where was/is it, and what is your relationship to it? How do you protect, enjoy, and celebrate trees? Please...


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At the heart of a retreat center there is often a garden.

When I think of Elat Chayyim retreat center in Accord New York (now incorporated into the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut), I picture the large organic garden. Earthy scents, warm soil, the buzzing bees lulled me into a state of peace each time I stepped inside its gate. The garden produced much of the food for the retreat center’s scrumptious vegetarian meals, and it also provided a spot for meditation, whether at work pulling weeds or sitting in stillness.

For some people, a garden is a place to grow food or flowers and connect with the soil. It’s a place to be most human because Adam, the first human being, was shaped from Adamah, earth. A garden may be a large and lavish backyard mini-farm like that of many of my friends in Northern California, a plot in a bustling community garden, a container garden on a city balcony, or a even a houseplant jungle.

Start On Your Journey

A public garden can be a place to relax and smell the roses, or perhaps be transported to another biome by strolling through a botanical garden.

In Jewish tradition, a garden is symbolic both of idyllic beginnings and a harmonious future. The earth itself is seen as God’s garden, the divine gift of humanity that we are bidden to “serve and to guard.”

Join me in this Gateway of Gardens to explore the symbol of the garden in Jewish tradition and in your life.

The first option below is the suggested next step on your journey.  Feel free to browse the following paths and explore in your own time at your own pace.

Soundtrack: Summer Meadow

Continue to the next path: read some reflections by gardeners or return to the Gateway of Gardens Featured image: meadow and stream at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Pleasantville, New York, JHD

Gardeners Reflect

Gardener friends share their thoughts on the spiritual meaning of gardening... Oneness in the Garden Carla Resnick The garden is a versatile place. It can be highly tended, or let to run amok. In either instance, or in between, it is a place of infinite beauty. In...

Gallery: Growing Up in the Garden

We call my friend's enormous Northern California garden, "The Kibbutz." What a paradise for children! Getting hands dirty in the garden is healthy fun for young and old Click on the picture to activate the gallery. Return to the Gateway of Gardens.  

Eden: The Once and Future Garden

Eden represents the idealized human past...and future. The paradigm of all gardens is Eden. The opening chapters of the Torah, Genesis, present the concept of earth as a primal paradise, the Garden of Eden, in Hebrew,Gan Eden, גן עדן. There the first person, Adam, is...

Torah Study: Two Versions of the Creation Story

The Torah contains two competing or complementary accounts of how God created human beings:   Version I: Genesis 1:24-31 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their...

A Short Midrash: Don’t Mess Up the Earth

In this selection from the Midrash, God shows Adam all around the Garden of Eden and then gives him a warning not to mess it up: "To me, the sight of our Earth from outer space is not only  scientific triumph but today's most potent religious icon as well." --Rabbi...

My Garden of Eden–And Yours

My own Gan Eden was not in the East by the Tigris and Euphrates, but 90 miles west of San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country near a small town with the improbable name of Utopia, on the cool, green Sabinal River. My parents bought it when I was 12 years old as a place...

Sacred Song of 42

Here is a beautiful chanting song of an ancient mystical prayer whose words include the 42-letter Divine Name. to a melody composed by Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks and performed by the musicians of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish spiritual center in Berkeley, California. You...

Feet on the Earth: Take Your Shoes Off

When Moses stood at the burning bush,  (Exodus 3:5), YHWH told him to remove his shoes, because he was standing on holy ground. If weather, terrain, and social setting permit, going barefoot can be a great way to make a fast connection with the earth (even indoors but...

Hands on the Earth: Find Your Own Garden Connection

Experience a taste of Eden by growing some of your own vegetables, fruits, or flowers. There are may ways to find your own connection to the vibrant energy of growing plants, wherever you may live. Beginner gardeners can get guidance on sites like this. Even if you...

The King is In the Field: A Meadow Gallery

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught a parable of a king on the way to the palace, who can be approached by everyone in the countryside with ease. His expression, "the King is in the field," characterized the late summer month of Elul prior to the New...

Bitter and Sweet of the Garden at Passover

Passover, the Festival of Spring and Freedom, is a holiday associated with food. Matzah, of course, the flat unleavened bread (I recommend whole wheat), to remind us of the unleavened bread that our ancestors baked in their haste to leave slavery in ancient Egypt,...

Farming Tzedakah: The Gleanings and Corners of Your Field

The Torah (Leviticus 19:9-10) teaches that farmers must  leave the gleanings of their harvest and the corners of the fields for the needy to come and collect This is an early form of tzedakah (justice, charity) that is elaborated on in the Mishnah, the foundational...

Shemitah: The Sabbatical Year

Shemitah, the Sabbatical year (Levicitus 25), is a revolutionary Torah commandment: every seven years the land will lie fallow and enjoy a Sabbatical year of rest and release. The land needs to rest just as human beings need a weekly Sabbath. Deuteronomy 15 adds a...

Community Gardens: Edible Towns and Gangsta Gardeners

Gardening today is becoming  one of the most innovative areas of Tikkun Olam, healing and repairing the world. Community Gardens and sharing of garden harvests help the environment and feed the hungry while fostering community. Community Gardens are springing up...

Gallery: A Synagogue Farm in the Suburbs

Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, New York, founded the CSI Community Organic Farm on 1.5 acres at the back of the synagogue’s property. The farm offers communal gardening, a farmer's market, and donations to the needy. Chickens are raised and their...

Sharing Circle: Your Garden of Eden

Join the sharing circle to share your reflections about any of the themes in this Gateway. Did you have a special place in nature that was formative to your soul, your own "Garden of Eden"? What was it like? Do you have such a place now? Is gardening a spiritual...

CW Song about Dirt!

As a Texan, I often find wisdom in Country Western Songs, and here is one about the Adamah--Dirt! Share some of your thoughts about your own Garden of Eden or return to the Gateway of Gardens.