In one of the most famous Hassidic stories of the 19th century, Martin Buber relates an anecdote about Rabbi Sheneir Zalman of Liadi, who was imprisoned on grounds of treason by the Russian government. In the exchange between the saintly rabbi and his interrogator, both of these men have a most remarkable encounter.
The old rabbi was once put in jail because the Mitnagdim (defenders of the status quo) had denounced his principles and way of living to the government. He was arrested and sent to St. Petersburg to stand trial for treason. The old rabbi stood accused of sending monies abroad to Israel, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, an enemy of Russia. As the very pious man stood in jail, he was very engrossed in meditation. He had hardly noticed the visitor, who happened to be a high-ranking official in the Russian government. He asked the Rebbe, “I have a question on the Bible, and would be most grateful to you if you could give me an adequate answer.”
The Rebbe said to him: “Ask whatever you would like, and with God’s help, I hope to be able to answer your problem.” “How are we to understand that God, the All-Knowing, said to Adam: ‘Where art thou?’ (after he ate the fruit and hid with Eve).” The Rebbe asked, “Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and forever relevant in any time and in any place?” The official said that he did.
The Rebbe replied: “The Torah tells us: ‘And God called to the Man [Adam]’ (Gen. 3:9). This teaches us that God speaks to every individual and asks him, ‘Where are you—i.e., where do you stand in relationship to this world?’ God has allotted each of us a certain number of days and years, each of which is to be utilized for the doing of good in relation to both God and humankind. Therefore, ask yourself: How many days have you lived already and how much good have you accomplished during that time? You, for instance, have lived already 46 years, how did you use your time?” The official was deeply amazed and thrilled by the fact that the Rebbe had guessed his right age and put his hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, while nervously exclaiming: “Bravo!”
Martin Buber developed existential insights intimated by this question, “Where art thou?” In mythic terms, God’s conversation occurs whenever human beings create the space to encounter and hear the Word of God unfold within the human heart. This broad theological message applies to all human beings of all ages.
In ancient times, the prophets and later the Essenes resided in the wilderness where they could be more receptive to God’s Presence. The Early Church Fathers built monasteries in the wilderness to help them develop their sense of the Sacred. In the 18th-19th centuries, R. Israel Eliezer, a.k.a., the Baal Shem Tov and his grandson, R. Nachman of Bratzlav, along with others recommended that worshippers find God in the uninhabited areas apart from civilization. In the stillness of the forest or in the fields one can discover the Presence of God that reaches out and inspires the soul.
In terms of Israel’s development of faith, the wilderness experience taught the ancient Israelites that “human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 9:4). The miracle of the manna taught the Israelites that God is capable of nourishing and guiding a people despite external circumstances and conditions. For the hungry and starving Israelites, the manna represented God’s mastery over the primordial forces of chaos—God’s ability to provide—even in the most hostile and uninhabitable environment. Manna could not be hoarded by the wealthy and used to exploit the impoverished members of society. There were no class distinctions; nobody had to qualify for sustenance. Each person was provided with exactly what s/he needed, not more or less (even Marx might have been impressed). Most importantly, the manna taught ancient Israel that sustenance came to the Israelites in marvelous and unexpected ways. From hunger to fullness, from scarcity to abundance, Israel learned that her destiny is not dependent upon natural forces. Manna is God’s reminder that all food is God’s gift to the world—from the most extravagant banquet to the smallest portion of bread.
Of course, a secular-minded individual may find the wilderness experience somewhat discomfiting. The idea of being “led” by God goes against the more philosophical notion that one is in control of one’s destiny; moreover, nobody is beholden to anyone greater than oneself. Autonomy is a prize we covet and strive for because the person who possesses it is “in charge.” But are we really? The Bible offers a different kind of paradigm that challenges this modern sense of the Self. The spiritual life, we are told, involves a surrender of the self, the sacrifice of the ego. Like Jacob, the Israelites had to wrestle with its faith in the wilderness, and only then could they discover its meaning on a deeper and more personal level.
Perhaps one of the most significant motifs of the wilderness imagery is the fact that God speaks to His people in the wilderness—and not the city. In the spirit of midrashic interpretation, מִדְבַּר (midBar) shares the same consonants with מְדַבֵּר (mĕdĕbēr = “speaker”), which derives from the root דָּבָר (dābār = “word”). Faith is discovered in the מִדְבַּר – wilderness. Beyond that, it is in the wilderness, God commands the Israelites to construct a מִשְׁכַּן (mišKan = “Tabernacle”—a dwelling place where to encounter God’s Presence. Throughout Jewish tradition, the Mishkan represents God’s triumph over the forces of chaos. Creating a sacred place within the hostile precincts of the wilderness is a spiritually suggestive metaphor for moderns—for even as we enter our own personal wilderness, we are beckoned to make a holy space for God to dwell with us as we traverse the מִדְבַּר.
In summary, despite the dangers and hazards characterizing Israel’s journey into the wilderness, it proves to be a pilgrimage that offers promise and peace. God’s spirit shapes both individuals and people who are undergoing the wilderness experience (cf. Gen. 21:14-20). Even though some of the negative associations with the wilderness metaphor found in scriptures, it is also a profound symbol of faith, rebirth, revelation, purification, and shepherding—even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. In the next chapter, we will examine each of these themes as it pertains to the actual structure of Psalm 23.
 Martin Buber, Way of Man, op. cit., 8. Share