May 2018, Message from Rabbi Shneur on Shavuot in Israel

Dear friends,

The last few weeks I’ve had the phenomenal experience of living and travelling the Negev with Lisa and our boys. There is so much to tell but most will have to wait for some storytelling workshops upon my return. For now I’d like to share my experience of spending Shavuot in the Arava desert.

As a side note, last Shabbat we read Parshat Bamidbar – In the Desert which we always do on the Shabbat before Shavuot. Being here in the desert right next to Paran and Tzin which are specifically mentioned, right across the mountains of Jordan of which one of the peaks served as Moshe’s lookout to the land of Israel before his death, made us feel connected to the story in a very tangible way.

But it’s not only the names and physical environments which was connecting. After all, I’ve been to all sorts of ancient cities and ruins and not necessarily related at all in any meaningful manner.

In the Arava, the experience could not be more different. The desert is as real today as it was then despite our advance in technology. The desert here demands our respect which we ignore only at our peril. I say that from personal experience.

As some of you are aware, I brought over Julie, my mountain bike, from Australia on this trip to Israel. As it turns out, the most realistic opportunity to go riding considering my responsibilities with a young family is when we are moving from place to place. So when we travelled from Sapir in the Arava to Mitzpe Ramon a few days ago I had a look on the map and saw that though it is relatively close directly west across the mountains, the drive itself is nearly 130km away because the roads are such that you must go down south then across then due north again. I thought, what a perfect opportunity to connect with the desert whilst doing what I love doing in terms of exercise.

I carried with me 7 litres of frozen water with me as the temperatures were well above 40 degrees, had photos of the dirt tracks I was to follow, even downloaded a map to view offline, had a phone fully charged, and all sorts of lights just in case I’m stuck there at night for some very unforeseen reason. I thought I was prepared.

After pushing hard for an hour and a half I realised my calculations were very off target. Firstly, the initial distance I thought I was travelling 58km was more like 85. That’s because the walking track is straight across but the 4WD road I was forced to be on was all over the place, up down right left and all around. Secondly, I simply did not anticipate the terrain. Soft sand and rocks in dry river beds made for the toughest riding I’ve ever encountered. With the flash flooding of a few weeks ago, which according to locals has been once in a lifetime scenario, the terrain was even more awkward and undefined since everything was washed away. So whereas I conservatively calculated an average of 18km an hour inclusive of stops, which meant 4 hours of riding at most, after an hour and a half of hard riding without stop I barely managed 15km. What was worse was that all of a sudden Waze was telling me there is another 71km to go. As proud as I am, my survival instinct, and my wife’s voice, took over and I realised I had better turn around. The prospect of getting lost in the desert at night was not my idea of fun. Neither is 7 hours of mountain biking over sand and rocks.

At the end of the day it was a great adventure. I still managed to cycle for three hours in the desert alone in nature, steeped with the history of our people. I pushed my boundaries and managed to cycle another 70 km on the road to get to Highway 40 the road to Mitzpe Ramon. And I had the great experience of hitchhiking with an empty army bus the last 60km in conversation with the nicest guy Ofir who exemplified so many things I love about Israel and its people.

Which brings me full circle to the Arava desert and why it was such a profound experience. In two words: its people. The Torah, in describing the Jewish people as they got to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, states ‘vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar’ – and Yisrael camped there opposite the mountain. Vayichan – and he camped – though is singular and we are talking about a few million people! Which is why the sages explained it, and Rabbi Gabi referenced last week, like one person in one heart. In other words, the sense of unity among the people being so palpable is the reason for the Torah to use the singular rather than plural.

I’ve always thought of this teaching as a one off miracle that happened at that point in history. Since then Jews have managed to create fractures wherever there is the least bit opportunity to do so. The joke about the Jew on a desert island who is found years later with two Shules on the island comes to mind. We’ve all heard the joke, this is the Shule I go to and this is the Shule I am in a fight with. The funny thing is I’ve heard that joke about Polish Jews, Yemen Jews, Hungarians, Moroccans, and from personal experience we might even say Australian.

But in the Arava desert, the sense of unity among the people is extraordinary. The sense of community, mutual support, ubiquitous kindness, and a general sense of being chilled enough to take in the richness of life, is everywhere to be found. We have friends here who suffered the most terrible tragedy and to witness the embrace of the whole community, not just for a day or two, and not in passing, but to the core and ongoing, is breathtaking. Perhaps it is the harshness of the environment that bonds human beings together. No doubt that plays a part. Considering the extreme population density in the rest of the country, that there should only be 3,500 members in the community spanning an area 90km long by a few kilometres wide, speaks volumes.

But that is not the whole story or even the most important part of it. I truly believe that it is the spiritual connection to this desert which acts as a uniting force. This is the place where Avraham roamed. His love of humans and his hospitality par excellence have left an indelible mark. It’s also the desert which the Jews coming out of Egypt travelled endlessly through. It is rich with our history and somehow brings out the best of our humanity and the depth of our spirituality.

For this reason, I think the Ark community should think about organising a mission to Israel. As a climax the mission could include a 3 day hike through the desert with Shavuot falling out in the middle where we stay put and experience the festival in a way only comparable to our ancestors who saw the voice of God 3250 years ago.

We have 2 beautiful friends, Itai and Tali, who are guides and who are local to the area. The poike they cooked for us one night in the desert is a guarantee we would all be eating the most delicious healthy food.

As that idea bubbles away I bid you all Shabbat Shalom from Mitzpe Ramon, one of the most unbelievable natural landscapes I’ve ever encountered. No matter how many times we go down the mountain to the different water holes, its unique grandeur never ceases to snatch one’s breath away. But this is for another time.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur