Moses never says “Let my people go!” in the book of Exodus without adding “to serve God” or “to slaughter offerings for God”. Sometimes he adds more qualifiers. Throughout this week’s Torah portion, which covers the first seven plagues, Moses’ demand is that the pharaoh give the Israelites a short leave of absence from their forced labor so they can travel for three days into the wilderness the midbar (מִּדְבָּר), and serve their god there with animal sacrifices.
Click here: Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness, to see a rewritten version of my 2013 essay on Moses’ demand.
Back in 2013 it seemed obvious to me that prayer in a midbar is different from prayer in inhabited places. I have done very little wilderness hiking, but even a walk through the woods or on a beach beyond the houses and other people has let me pray more deeply. And midbar means not only wilderness, but also includes any land that is uninhabited or uncultivated.
But this year, writing in our apartment in Split, Croatia, the idea of encountering God in the midbar seems intriguing but out of reach.
Since we left our home in Oregon four months ago, we have visited old synagogues in five European cities during the past four months, but we only managed to go to one service, at the Maisel Synagogue in Prague. We pick which European spots we visit, whether for a day trip or for a month-long stay, based on their history, art, and architecture. We happily spend our days in cities that were already urban centers centuries ago, and are still packed with people. I sing Jewish prayers inside our lodgings, and sometimes while I walk outside. But my praying is neither communal nor in a midbar.
We are heading for Jerusalem at the end of February. Until then, when we push our aging bodies into taking long walks, we pick routes with old buildings, museums, and an occasional café where we can rest and warm up. In Oregon we had breathtaking midbar of all kinds: seashores, forests, waterfalls, deserts, mountains … Why waste time going to those kinds of places in Europe when we can get the same or better at home?
Now my memories of praying alone in the woods seem faded, as if it happened long ago. Yet every day I sing my morning prayers when I get up, and it still reminds me of God, still triggers gratitude for my life. And when I see something that amazes and delights me, natural or man-made, I am moved to murmur another prayer of gratitude in Hebrew.
I daresay both communal prayer and wilderness prayer will both come back to me, maybe in Israel, certainly when we return to the United States. Meanwhile, I savor not only my personal practice, but also continuing to study and write about the Torah.