Wilderness, the Gates of Silence, and Life

When I was growing up, I was afraid of my Dad. He was a giant of a man, at 6’ 6” (2 meters) tall, and had the same deep, booming voice that I now have. He had a large beard, rippled muscles, and piercing blue eyes. He was also one of the most gentle and humble men that I could ever imagine in existence. He put his nose to the grindstone when necessary and when not, he continued to dwell within himself, deeply. His presence preceded him, not only because of his size, but also because of his demeanor, his nature. He had such a presence that all the neighborhood kids would run when he yelled out my name. We could all hear it echoing around the wood and stucco houses. The kids in the neighborhood would look at me with genuine fear, and a hint of compassion, in their eyes. They knew that I had to face him, to stand before him, and find out what had woken him from his introspection.

When his voice would boom down the block, threatening upheaval and chaos, we would all wonder what calamity would soon befall and grudgingly, I would head up to the house to collect my fate; I can still hear the echo of his booming voice in my head, “DREEEWWWWW!!!” To be on the safe side, I would haltingly slink around corners, trying to avoid a full frontal assault with the hope of collecting any vitally needed information from an alternative source. 9 times out of 10, however, when we did meet, he would just smile at me; sometimes with only his eyes and sometimes just with his mouth. I would be relieved to find out that I just needed to pick up my clothes from the floor, put my dish in the sink, or that it was time for dinner, that I was not in trouble for anything at all.

Enter Moses in this week’s parsha, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), “These are the words of Moses...” According to the Vilna Gaon, the four previous books of the Chumash came directly from God and were dictated, word for word, by Moses. The book of Devarim is the words of God through Moses' own comprehension, just like all of the later (and lesser) prophets. Within these first words of Moses, we are taught, there is a veiled threat to the Israelites. Why veiled? Rashi points out that the following verse, “...concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab...” makes reference to places where the people angered God. We learn that “in the Wilderness” is not just a nostalgic going over of the cosmic road trip of the Israelites in the desert, but a reference to the places where we failed — in the Wilderness.

The Wilderness in Hebrew is Bemidbar (the Desert). If we break down the Hebrew of this word, Bemidbar, we get ‘Be (in),’ and ‘Medaber’ (speaking). If we break it down further we get ‘Me’ (from) and ‘Davar’ (word). Another meaning of Davar is ‘thing.’ So, if we put all this back together, essentially we get ‘While in a desolate region that does not support life, every possible ‘thing’ of sustenance is spoken into existence for our benefit by a higher source, by God. The Israelites were about to leave the Wilderness and enter the Land of Israel and they were going to have to start relying on themselves. According to Hirsch, the book of Deuteronomy was the People of Israel’s introduction to the new life they would have to forge in the Land of Israel. They had to learn to build a society and Moses had 5 weeks to teach them, like a father would teach his children, how they would succeed in life and how they might fail.

I remember once, while installing custom windows into my childhood home, my dad, my brother, and I got into a heated debate on how to create suitable moldings in order to let the water drain properly. These were plate glass windows that we were custom milling the moldings for on a table saw in the garage. My grandfather was a cabinet maker and my dad had only picked up a few tricks from him, so when this particular problem came up, he was stumped. I remember he and my brother, who was like my father in many ways, were arguing about the best way to do it. My brother had a good idea, but it didn’t seem to mesh with my father’s vision. In the meantime, I was standing on the side, just waiting for an opportunity to interrupt the squabble. I tried to be as patient as I could, but believe me, it was frustrating. They really seemed to enjoy the debate as well.

You see, I had already solved the problem in my head. When I finally found the moment to insert my plan into the discussion, my dad listened and then just stopped speaking. My brother stopped as well. They both stood in silence for what felt like an eternity to me, evidently visualizing what I had conjectured. Then, my dad looked at me and smiled, with both his eyes and with his mouth. From that day on, I was a woodworker. Even while in art school, while learning to oil paint, I would find myself sneaking into the woodshop to build something amorphous that had been floating around in my mind. I did go on to run a custom woodworking business and I credit that moment, while I was standing with my brother and my father, with the initial stirring of inspiration to do so.

A parable comes to mind that I read, originally derived from the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, that goes like this:

A father and his child are in dialog together. The child has many questions and the father answers the questions of his child gladly. They are very happy together; they are in a joyful dialogue.

Then the child asks a particular question. The father, in order to answer his child properly, must think very deeply. He must think, not only of the answer, but to think deeply enough to reach the essence of this answer, so he may bring it into full light, into complete truth, to the world of his child. For a long time the father is quiet, thinking.

The child is patient at first, but then the child becomes anxious and starts to whimper and then to cry out, "Father, where are you? Why don’t you talk to me anymore? Why have you abandoned me for your own thoughts?"

Then, the father begins to speak, but this time the words are from the depth of his mind and the words flow with ease into the mind and into the heart of the child. This flow is so deep that it will also, in its inception, create a father from the child.

The child in this parable is us. The time of silence is, for humanity, now.

So, when Moses held back his chastisement of the Israelites and only mentioned the places in which they all knew that they had gone against the ways of God, he was allowing them to take in his words and learn from them. If he would have rubbed their noses in it, what do you think would have happened? Moses was their leader, their prophet. Just standing before him would have been akin to the neighborhood kids standing before my giant of a father, waiting for his judgment.

When I was standing in front of the window project, waiting for an answer from my father, his answer, when he finally gave it, went right to my core. He stood in silence, just long enough for me to start to wonder, just long enough for me to begin to cry out on the inside, “Maybe he thinks it wont work, maybe he doesn’t really love me as much as my brother, maybe he doesn’t even like me, maybe (in order to protect myself from the pain) he can no longer exist for me.”

The parable from above concludes like this:

When man’s spirit is dark, when the flow gates from above seem all but sealed, prepare for ultimate liberation.

I think we can see that this is an idea that is both ‘micro’ and ‘macro,’ affecting both the individual and all of humanity. So, what is “ultimate liberation?” To society as a whole it is the Messiah. To you and to me, individually, the Messiah can also be those moments that define us, those moments of true connection to something greater than us, to something amazing that has raised us up to our full height, to our full potential, and to something that imparts upon us the honor of carrying on the legacy of life.

I am thinking of you Dad; rest in peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

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