25 Jul 2014

Mas’ei 5774: Fortress of Solitude

There are times during our yearly readings when we might wonder why the Torah provides us with certain information. This week part of the parasha is comprised of a listing of every place the Children of Israel encamped in the desert during their 40-year sojourn.

Rambam discusses the purpose of this in his Moreh Nebukhim[1] and tells us that the places are recorded so that no one should think Israel spent their time in desert lodgings adjacent to thriving cities, or places that were fertile and filled with water and food. By documenting the actual points of encampment, people would know that the journey through the desert was made in barren territory. Rambam then concentrates on the astonishing miracle whereby humans thrive in a sterile environment for 40 years under the direct care of G-d. Indirectly, though, Rambam calls our attention to something no less important: the experience in the desert was one of isolation.
For four decades we travelled in a barren landscape far from any signs of civilization. It was “not a place of seeds, figs, vines and pomegranates — and [there was] no water to drink!”[2]; it was “a land where no man had passed and no human sat.”[3] Our desert sojourns tell a story of solitude.
Humans are social creatures. Most of us feel happiest when we have contact with other people. Different people require different levels of interaction, but few of us genuinely enjoy being alone for a prolonged period of time. We are meant to build our lives around our relationships and to engage with each other in a respectful and productive manner. Indeed, our Hakhamim teach that all of Torah can be seen as a guide for healthy relationships[4].
Yet, there is an underlying issue that few of us openly address for, surprisingly, it causes us a significant amount of discomfort. Many of us cannot handle being alone and out of contact with others well. When we find ourselves alone we will usually fill the awkward silence with activity or busy work. We will make phone calls, write emails, read, listen to music, or find something else with which to occupy ourselves. Rarely, though, do we remove ourselves from all external distraction and just be in the quiet with nothing other than our thoughts. Elsewhere in the Moreh, Rambam refers to such quiet times as precious moments, never to be squandered.
Over the past two weeks, I have been adjusting to a change in a routine that I was accustomed to for 15 years. In New York I drove to work. The commute was all of ten minutes, and more often than not, when I was alone in the car, I was either catching up on phone calls or listening to news or music. Here in London it is a bit different. Rather than drive, I walk to the office. It is approximately a 7-minute walk from my house to the synagogue, and over the last weeks I have been blessed with being able to do so under beautiful blue skies. The walks have become small delights in my day as I have come to appreciate that they can be counted among the Rambam’s precious moments. I have welcomed the quiet of those walks and enjoyed the time it allows for thought and introspection.
Solitude is not a way to live, but it is a tool for living. Because we are societally driven, the fads of the ages and conventions of time mould our minds and train our thinking all too quickly. The problem is, that fads fade and conventions corrode, while reality sits subtly disguised behind it all. The truth of the world and of our selves is not readily available to us. To find clarity it helps, at times, to silence one’s mind and surroundings and think without distraction and disturbance. Sadly, in recent days a great deal of information about Israel and all that is happening there has been presented to us. Huge amounts of data are thrust upon us daily, much of it without context, framework or definition. Opinions of all kinds inundate us and leave us begging for clarity and rational, mindful thought. To gain perspective, it is important for us to take advantage of our quiet moments in order to rise above the noise and gain clarity and proper perspective on reality. One must be able to be secure and patient enough to be alone with oneself. It is in these precious moments of solitude that we have unique opportunities to achieve clarity.
The Children of Israel emerged from their time alone in the desert as an exquisite people. In that time, a unique national consciousness was forged, untainted by frequent disturbances. They bravely entered an inhospitable territory after G-d in search of their true identity and eternal legacy. ‘I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, when you followed Me into the wilderness — a land unsown. [Therefore] Israel is sacrosanct to G-d.[5]. On a smaller scale we, as individuals, must find our times in the “desert” where all distractions can fall away, and we can experience growth through clean and quiet thought.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] III:50
[2] Bemidbar, 20:5
[3] Yirmiyah, 2:6
[4] Shabbat, 31a
[5] Yirmiyah, 2:2-3