An Ode to the Desert

We were exhausted, burned out. We felt that we needed a break.


There were just two of us: me and my study partner, Yisrael. We were both not quite twenty years old, students in the post high school program in our yeshiva, committed to a morning and an afternoon session of intensive Talmud study from Sunday to Thursday every week.


Besides our yeshiva program, we were both enrolled in a local college, taking advanced secular courses two evenings a week. The end of the spring college semester was drawing near. Final exams were looming, and term papers were soon due.


Also looming was the festival of Shavuot, which we were expected to spend at the yeshiva. There, the festival was not all about feasting. Quite the contrary. We were to remain awake the entire first night of the holiday, engaged in Talmud study. After early morning prayers and a light meal, we had an opportunity to rest but then spent a significant portion of the second night and day of the holiday participating in a rigorous oral examination administered by the dean of the yeshiva.


So, we felt that our need for a break was legitimate. But we were at a loss to determine what would constitute an appropriate break for two exhausted yeshiva bachurim.


Predictably, we chose an activity which we would find relatively relaxing but not compromise the “yeshiva bachur” image with which we both identified. We decided to spend a day off, browsing the Jewish bookstores which then dotted the Lower East Side of Manhattan where our yeshiva was located.


It was in one of those bookstores that we met a man who was to influence us to this very day. I should say that we did not actually meet that man but rather were introduced to his writings. His name was Rabbi Yosef Lipowitz, of blessed memory.


The nature of the bookstores of long ago was such that the storekeeper was more than just a salesperson. In the case of the bookstore of which I speak, the salesperson was a woman, a Mrs. Rabinowitz as I recall, who was familiar with every book on the vast shelves and an exquisite connoisseur of her customers and their varied interests. It is no wonder that soon after we entered the store, she approached us with a small volume in her hand, a warm smile, and this greeting: “Have I got a book for you!”


Keep in mind, dear reader, that during the approaching festival of Shavuot, a biblical text is read in the synagogue, and it is a text that resembles a delightful short story much more than a somber religious treatise. I refer, of course, to the Book of Ruth.


The book that Mrs. Rabinowitz held before us, in Hebrew, was a commentary on the Book of Ruth entitled Nachlas Yosef, by Rabbi Yosef Lipowitz. A superficial perusal of the opening paragraphs of the book was “like cool water upon an exhausted soul.” It combined profound erudition and sound guidance with soothing poetry. Both Yisrael and I were immediately taken by the book and its author. Right then and there, I vowed to find out more about the author and his writings and use them as a wellspring from which to fetch “cool water” whenever my soul felt exhausted.


Permit me to recommend an adaptation of this commentary on Ruth by Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, entitled Seed of Redemption, and Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transitional Figures from Eastern Europe, which contains an excellent biography of Rabbi Lipowitz.


In order to exemplify Rabbi Lipowitz’ ability to assist exhausted souls to refresh themselves, allow me to share with you a sample of his reflections on this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20).


Bamidbar, Hebrew for “in the desert,” is not just the title of this week's parsha. It is the title of the entire Book of Numbers, the Chumash Bamidbar. The setting of the entire narrative that we will be reading for the next many weeks is the midbar, the desert.


The desert, of course, is a dry, barren, sandy region, naturally incapable of supporting almost any plant or animal life. What a fitting symbol for the story we will begin to read this Shabbat. And what an apt metaphor for an exhausted soul.


In his book, Rabbi Lipowitz proceeds to forcefully demonstrate that it is precisely the desert that is most receptive to beneficial influence. He quotes the beautiful phrase in King Solomon's Song of Songs which reads: “Who is this rising from the wilderness like plumes of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense more fragrant than all the merchant’s powders?” (Song of Songs 3:6), upon which the Midrash comments, “All lofty matters rise from the desert. Torah rises from the desert. The Tabernacle rose from the desert. Sanhedrin rose from the desert. Prophecy rose from the desert.” Later rabbinic sources add that Moses, too, rose from the desert where he tended to Yitro’s flocks.


Consistent with the approaching holiday of Shavuot commemorating Matan Torah, the Almighty’s greatest gift to His people, is the startling fact that it was the arid environment of the desert that He chose as the site for His great gift.


Rabbi Lipowitz draws upon a fascinating Midrashic parable to drive home his point. It reads, “Where was the Lord finally welcomed with praise? In the desert! Thus, we read, ‘If only I were granted a wayfarer’s lodging in the desert…’ (Jeremiah 9:1). Imagine a nobleman entering a province that is thriving and attempt to become its king. The inhabitants would reject him. Imagine that he enters another thriving province attempting the same. Its inhabitants would also reject him. Then, suppose he enters a third province, one that is destitute and in ruins. They would accept him with open hands in the hope that he could benefit them. The nobleman would then proclaim this as the best of all provinces. Here I can build myself a palace in which to dwell.” (Bamidbar Rabba, 1:2)


Rabbi Lipowitz finds in this, and other sources, a lesson about human nature. People who are complacent, self-satisfied, and comfortable with themselves are rarely open to input from others. They have what they need. Why should they bother to open themselves to the Divine? On the other hand, those who are weary and anxious are open to input from the Lord. Indeed, they search for Him.


Teachings such as these abound in all the available writings of Rabbi Lipowitz. They help us understand so much about our tradition. They are especially helpful to those of us who feel spiritually exhausted.


His teachings were especially helpful to two young students who, many decades ago, were introduced to them. Back then, they encouraged us to see our anxieties as prods to draw upon inner resources, inner “waters” to quench our thirst. They helped us not to merely cope with the challenges we faced, but to relish them as motivators. Moreover, they allowed us to enjoy the festival of that Shavuot in the yeshiva so long ago. And above all, these teachings, and those of similarly gifted and inspired mentors, persist in guiding us to this very day.