Dearest friends and family,
I write to you from what looks like a burst of green in the middle of the golden desert. I am sitting on a straw chair in a small farm in the Arava desert called Tzofar. Here we will be spending Shabbat with the family and volunteers of the farm. Siting with me are chirping birds and howling roosters, barking dogs and burping llamas. It’s quite the symphony here.
I want to share with you my question of the week. It has walked along with me during my wanderings through the desert. This one is a biggie, are you ready? And if you send in the right answer, we’ll send you a free CD of the farm symphony band. Here it is…
What is the essence of man?
This is the question of questions, and is not meant to be answered. However, along my journey (even though we have just begun!), I have already met unique individuals that have opened my eyes to ways in which one finds the answer, ways that I had never seen before. So to better articulate my question: in what way do you search to find the essence of man?
Over the past few years, since my arrival in Israel, my search for meaning has been through the world of Torah. I spent a year studying in a Jewish seminary for girls where I sat and learned from morning till night. After that, I served as a commander in the army teaching Judaism to soldiers who were in process of converting. I taught classes about the teachings of the rabbis about values and how to work on becoming a better person.
I have dived deep into this realm of religion and thought I had risen to higher level of self-awareness, gaining a true happiness feeling like I can give more to this world than ever before. I stayed committed to this path because it gave me a way to explore the big question, “Of what is my essence? How can I be the best that I can be and how can I bring it to the world?”
Throughout this journey in the desert, I have witnessed different ways of life and met people who conduct their searches for meaning in ways outside of religion.
In the Negev, there are very few people who consider themselves “religious”, “orthodox”, “dati”, or whichever term you would like to use. Seeing these ways of life is both intriguing and confusing.
The first place that aroused my questioning was “Naot Smadar”. The members of this small community in the desert actually define themselves as a “school for learning about the essence of man”.
The way they do this is “by learning about yourself together with others.”
They are a very small and intimate community. From what I understand, they try to put themselves in extreme situations in order to learn about one another. They change houses every two years as to prevent them from connecting to their possessions. They eat meals together, and in silence. They send small groups out on long treks in the desert for days. They set challenging projects for themselves in order to test their abilities.
For example they worked for 13 years on a magnificent building. During these years, they worked late hours and barely slept.
These are a few customs that sound weird to us, but I challenge you to consider what the benefits are. What positive things can it bring to a community? For them, it’s a way of life that keeps them in constant search. A search for who they are, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and finding how ways in which they can work together.
The next person who challenged my mind was a man named Gal.
How did I stumble upon him? Yoella and I were at the agriculture fair running from booth to booth trying to win ourselves free beers and coffees. We were nervous about ordering since we ourselves are not farmers. We gathered up our courage and slid in to an open seat at the bar. Not only did we get free drink, but we were also blessed with a great conversation with the man sitting next to us about the meaning of life.
Gal mentioned that he worked at Naot Smadar for two years, and was planning on living there! “You wanted to become one of the crazies!” We thought.
He told us about an organization he joined called “Together beyond Words”. This is a project that conducts open conversations between Jews and Arabs. The point of the conversation is not to work to find an answer, but rather to work to find a way to listen.
It is simple and enjoyable to listen to people who are similar, because you are, as if, listening to yourself. What really challenges us is to absorb the words we disagree with. The best way to learn about who you are is to learn about others who are different.
Gal seemed to be one of the most spiritual and self-aware men I have met. He explained that he does not affiliate himself with religion because “religion gives you answers, and I am looking for questions”. And so, we ended our conversation with a question. He asked, “Are you first a man, or first a Jew?”
Yoella and I continued our journey walking through the desert discussing the things we had heard and seen. We were surprised to see that up ahead of us was a parked car. “Why would there be a parked car in the middle of nowhere?” we wondered.
I decided to approach the car to greet the people inside. We were pleased to meet a lady named Yona from a nearby town. We asked what she was doing all alone in the desert; she said that she was writing. She was doing “Yamima” work.
Yamima was a psychologist who developed a method of gaining self-awareness through writing. Her teachings are based on psychology, Judaism and mystical kabala. Yona explained that she does not live a religious lifestyle, but finds beauty in kabala and uses it to search within herself and grow as a person.
So my friends, I will be welcoming the Shabbat queen this week in a very confused state.
When I look back at to what the children of Israel are up to in the desert, I can see that they to stand in shock with their minds boggled as they stand before the Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments. In this week’s parasha we learn about the paradox of free choice and obligation. We are obligated to follow the ten commands, and we can choose to do so or not.
The sages tell the midrash that the Jews stood as Gd lifted up the hill and forced them to accept the Torah, or it would be dropped on them.
Another midrash tells us that Gd went from nation to nation offering his Torah, and only the Jews chose to receive it.
I feel as though I stand before the same paradox. I, as a Jew, am obligated to follow the ways of the Torah, because that is the gateway to the essence of man. However, I have free choice, and recently my mind has been opened to so many other ways to go about this search.
I wish the children of Israel best in luck with their decision! For now, I prefer not to give myself any answers, but to keep looking for more questions.
I can’t wait for Shabbat to give my mind a rest.
Shabbat shalom! Tu Bishvat sameach (Happy Tu Bishvat),
“Because man is a tree of the fields” (Deuteronomy 20:19),
We grow, and sprout, and reach out in all directions.