You can’t leave the wilderness if you you stay where you are

I remember when my parent’s friends (not anyone reading this) would come back from vacation and insist on showing us their pictures. The first few were interesting. The next dozen were tolerable. The following several hundred were excruciating. We did not want to be rude, and tried to at least look like we were paying attention. The pictures were even worse if we had been to the places ourselves.

The entire first Torah portion of Deuteronomy is Moses’ travelogue on all the places the people had been in the wilderness. Didn’t Moses know how much this would aggravate them? Of course he did. That was the point.

Moses wanted the people to leave the wilderness and go into the Promised Land of Israel. He knew they did not want to leave the wilderness, because it had become comfortable to them. Their lives were dreary and mediocre, but they clung to them out of fear of the unknown. Moses needed to jolt them out of their complacency.

The description that Moses gave of their travels is relentless misery in each place they went. Their time in the wilderness was not necessarily all that bad. The people had been living on manna, which is like living on cream of wheat. Nutritious, but bland and uninspiring. They liked it, though, because they did not have to work for it. When they were in danger, God would fight their battles. Why did Moses want to push them out to a land that was strange and unfamiliar to them?

Moses understood that living in the wilderness is not living, it is not being truly alive. The wilderness is a metaphor for when we allow life to just happen to us. We make no decisions. We take no chances. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We settle for dull and average, and then wonder why we do not feel like ourselves, why we do not feel fully engaged in the world.

The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar, which has the same root as to speak. The wilderness is when you say you are going to do things in your life, but just settle for talking instead of doing.

The Hebrew word for our Torah portion is Dvarim, which means words, but also deeds. It is an anagram for midbar, wilderness. Moses is telling the people, that if they do not take a chance, if they do not mix things up, they will miss their lives. 

There is no possibility, of course, of controlling what happens in our lives, and we certainly cannot control the outcomes of what we do. We can though, choose to live our lives with courage, without being held back by fear, by not settling for mediocrity.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Moses teaches us the unlived life is not worth examining.

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