Where important meetings, conventions or summits take place location is of the utmost importance. The greatest political minds come together to choose Oslo or Geneva. They search the globe for political neutrality, proper security and appropriate ambiance. The location of a meeting is not incidental but crucial to the success of that gathering.
The most important meetings in history, the meetings between G-d and man, strategically took place in the most barren spot on Earth; the desert that stands between Raamses and Jerusalem. G-d could have spoken to us in an elegant conference center in Egypt. He could have waited until we reached the Holy Land and spoke to us at the Holy of Holies, or at the spot of the Akeida. He could have also made the desert into a rain forest. However, for the appropriate location, the right atmosphere and the proper mood, G-d chose the desert. Why?
In order to accept the Torah we should feel desert-like. The Talmud speaks about how a desert feels. Not opulent, not holy, but like a desert – barren.
The Chazon Ish was one of the greatest luminaries of the last century. His in-depth analyses of astronomical and geological subjects made his contribution unique in history. He was a brilliant man renowned for his piety and kindness. A peculiar aspect of the Chazon Ish however was his refusal to be involved in any debate or even dialogue with other leading Rabbonim. Rabbonim resented this and criticized the Chazon Ish for departing from standard rabbinic practice. The Chazon Ish once wrote about his policy. “It is not my way to enter into debate, because differences of opinion are usually caused by personal events that may have taken place years earlier, even during ones childhood. Any proof I will bring will not change an embedded opinion. I therefore refrain from answering.” (Igros vol. 1;28)
For those of us who grew up in America and are comfortable in this society and culture, accepting the Torah and its values is not always simple. Instead of starting with a blank canvas, we start with a culture – a culture we enjoy – and we try with all our hearts to fit Torah into it. Feeling like a desert is feeling like a new canvas, ready to accept any color, material or pattern imposed on it. We are not in a midbar, we are in New York!
There are some hard questions the Torah wants us to ask ourselves. When we choose our clothing, or the place we daven, do we choose them according to the Torah or according to the prevailing styles, trying with a very big shoehorn to make them halachic? When we make decisions about how many hours we work and how many hours we spend with our children, are we thinking Sinai or America? When we think of our roles, are we emulating Moses and Miriam, or talk show hosts, dot-com CEO’s and movie stars? We are Modern Jews. Being modern means applying the Torah to modern situations and keeping Torah alive and attuned to contemporary society. Being modern does not mean trying to maintain my modernism even if the Torah is challenging it.
So for this week’s Parsha, and in preparation for Shavuos, close your eyes and meditate: I am a desert. I am thirsty. I am owned by no-one. I am humble. I am free. I will receive the imprint of any footstep that treads on me. I am a blank canvas, I am ready to receive the Torah.