The Importance of Being In The Desert - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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The Importance of Being In The Desert

Adina Ellis

Shavuot, the spiritual apex following Pesach that was anticipated for 7 weeks, is behind us. The big wedding day between The Holy One and His people has passed, and the thrill of the newlywed era has started to settle into a place of familiarity. As English author Geoffrey Chaucer penned “familiarity breeds contempt,” the more that one becomes accustomed to or intimate with someone or something, the lesser the degree of admiration, respect and excitement.

The mishna in Taanit (4:8) points out that the phrase “on his wedding day” (Shir Hashirim 3:11) is referring to Matan Torah, the day we received the Torah. There are many allusions to the relationship between God and His People as being akin to a relationship between husband and wife, and the image of a straying wife is often used as analogous to Am Yisrael straying from God and serving idols.

We can learn much from the Torah, as we are told Ben Bag Bag would say (Avot 5:22) הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ -turn it (the Torah) over again and again, for everything is in it. Part of the secret of the success or demise of a marriage between man and woman can be learnt from the messages in the Torah about the marriage between God and Am Yisrael.

It has been noted (Orach Chayim 428:4) that we read parshat B’midbar the Shabbat prior to Shavuot and unsurprisingly in the haftarah there is also a reference to our marriage with Hashem (Hoshea 2);

I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy.
And I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you will know Hashem.

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת ה’


Likewise, the image of the Jewish People in the open, uninhabited desert is of striking significance. The desert is a place which inspires inner peace, calm, simplicity, silence. It allows for

a deep stillness in the soul and in its uninhabited open expanse, opens our minds to endless possibilities. It is in the state of serenity, self-awareness and curiosity that we are ready to enter a union with another or with The Other and forge a powerful connection.

We know that each tribe has their own flag, yet the pasuk (Bamidbar 2:2) explicitly says

Each individual shall encamp by his flag…surrounding the Tent of Meeting

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ…סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ

Everyone has his or her unique identity, distinct from everyone else. To “proudly wave” your flag is an important precursor to being able to then face towards The Other in a committed union. While the Har Sinai experience can be compared to the big wedding day, with special sights and sounds, the desert experience is one which needs to be experienced as an individual prior to the “big day” and carried with us throughout. During forty years in the desert, we learned what it means to be married. For forty years we learned to wave our individual flags and turn towards God. This duality of individuality and authenticity combined with commitment, love and connection is the paradigm of a healthy relationship with our life partners and our Creator.

In a marriage we often struggle when our flags get muddled, sometimes we are confused and think we should combine our flags and blur ourselves and become enmeshed with the other. Sometimes we want to “fix” our partner’s flag, change a part of them to be more to our liking. And often, it seems couples enter into the sanctity of matrimony without really exploring who they are, without spending time in their personal midbar, without creating their individual flag- a sense of self. What happens when someone does not really know him or herself adequately, to know what excites them or upsets them, or what their expectations are going into a marriage?

We become disgruntled. We are restless and seek to complain, not even knowing about what.

The people took to seeing complaints; it was evil in the ears of Hashem, and Hashem heard and His wrath flared, and a fire of God burned against them, consuming them at the edge of the camp (B’Midbar 11:1)

וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאׇזְנֵי ה’ וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ וַתִּבְעַר בָּם אֵשׁ ה’ וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה (במדבר יא:א)

The complainers don’t even know what they are complaining about. This negativity, looking for what is lacking instead of seeing what is good, is a major factor in marital disharmony. And as we know, the problems for B’nei Yisrael snowballed from general unhappiness, to complaining about the manna and the quail, the quarantine of Miriam and the sin of the spies (B’Midbar 11-14). By the time the people recognize that things are in fact good, it is too late (B’Midbar 14:41-45).

In marriage and other close relationships, do we see the painting that is all white or focus on the single black dot? Often in order to invite peace and calm into our marriage, we need to return to the desert, find our inner stillness, hear our own heart beating so we can listen to the hearts of those we love. Our sense of restlessness and the complaints we direct at our partners often have a lot more to do with our inner worlds than it does with others.

To connect with one another and The Other we can’t be בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה, on the outskirts of the camp, as the complainers were. We need to be turning towards one another, as the Jewish People encamped in the desert, facing the holy. We are attuned to one another’s bids for attention (The Gottman Institute) and respond accordingly, seeking connection rather than complaint. If we seek the good in ourselves and in each other, hopefully such deep familiarity can breed a deeper love and connection, far away from feeling of contempt. As we continue to develop our inner worlds with openness to face one another and The Other, B’ezrat Hashem we hope to be blessed with the words of the prophet Hoshea, with a betrothal forever, with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy, knowing ourselves and our loved ones, deeply and truly.

Adina Ellis

Adina Ellis

is a graduate of the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute. She has been teaching Tanakh and machshava over the last two decades, initially on college campuses and in Hebrew Schools in the New Jersey area. Since making aliyah in 2005, she has given weekly shiurim in Hebrew and English to women in her community. Adina has taught in the ALIT program and Rosh Chodesh seminars run by the OU Women's Initiative as well as in the mother-daughter "learn and art" program of OU Israel. She is known for her unique ability to facilitate in-depth textual learning along with engaging and relevant discussions. Adina lives with her husband and children in Yad Binyamin.