In Tel Aviv, we joined up with Golan Ben-Chorin, a third-generation Israeli rabbi, and headed into the Negev, the southern desert that makes up a third of the land mass of Israel.
A day of firsts. First introductions to the travelers in our group. First exposure to Hebrew after two years of studying catch-as-catch-can. First meal — a sabich sandwich from a roadside convenience store. First realization that I hadn’t packed for warm weather. First camel sighting.
And first journey through tension and contradiction. The Negev is home to dozens of Israeli towns built from nothing by twentieth-century Jewish settlers. And it’s home to B’eer Sheva, where Abraham, in our stories, settled with his family almost four thousand years ago. And it’s home to tens of thousands of Bedouin, Arabic-speaking nomads who have been living in the region for centuries. The highway took us past many of their villages, some of them presumably ‘unrecognized‘ — just collections of shacks, really, that are about to be demolished, their residents forcibly relocated to government-sanctioned settlements.
I gazed into the doorway of one such shack, just a stone’s throw from the highway — a woman covered head to toe in a full abaya, a small boy, some goats, laundry flapping in the wind. The bus rolled on.
We rolled in to Khan Shayarot, a Jewish-owned resort with tents and cabins, camels, a full kitchen, and settled in for Shabbat. Rabbi Golan led us in lighting candles, and a local Bedouin sheikh who works for Khan Shayarot gave us a brief introduction to Bedouin customs. If you like someone, we learned, serve them a tiny amount of coffee to communicate that you want them to stay for more. If you don’t care for their company, satisfy your obligation as a host but fill their cup in one sitting. “Drink and get out,” in other words.
Singing and praying with Rabbi Golan, sitting on carpets in a Bedouin-style tent, negotiating text and melodies in the way that happens when people from diverse backgrounds gather for services. It helps when the rabbi has a guitar and one of the most beautiful voices you’ve heard in a long time.
The moment I’ll never forget is this one. Leaving the tent to Lecha Dodi, the love song of the Jewish mystics of the late medieval era. “Go, my beloved, towards the bride,” they used to sing, walking into the sunset in white robes, “to greet Shabbat, let us welcome her.”
Only we walked into the full moon of Cheshvan. Like an eye, white as a ghost, all-seeing, utterly without pretense, looking down on us, on the desert, the desert where everything began. All of my improbable journey became left foot, right foot, into the simplicity of that white light over the ancient riverbeds. I wept, choked out the beautiful words of the mystics, laid bare by a shimmering, wordless presence that left me shaking, stumbling like a drunkard. I wept through most of the rest of the service, especially when it came time to say the sh’ma.
My journal from the next day says this: I’m lying in bed trying to capture the experience, somehow, and it’s not working. I felt connected to this piece of moonlit desert in exactly the way I’ve tried to connect to all the remarkable places I’ve been fortunate to visit in my life … and never have. There’s something special here, something you’d feel if you were just dropped off without knowing what it is or how much it means to people.
The opposite of empty isn’t ‘full.’ It’s the desert. It’s a vast, silent presence, impossible to ignore. It makes such perfect sense to me now that G-d, in all our stories, would have chosen the desert as the place to reveal Torah, reveal all the prophetic visions that guide us. This is a place where it’s hard to not listen.