"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21
The Desert 

by Rikka Levy

One of the things that made the most impact on me, when I was reading Women’s Wisdom, Rav Arush’s book on marital peace, was his description of how the People of Yisrael had to ‘go through the desert’ before they got the Torah.

One of the five books is called ‘Bamidbar’, or ‘in the desert’, and the desert figures in a lot of the Torah’s stories. But before I read Rav Arush, the significance of ‘the desert’ hadn’t really struck me.

You should know – I don’t like deserts. Deserts are dangerously hot, dangerous places with no water, millions of deadly snakes andscorpions, and no people or signs of ‘civilisation’ for miles around.

Deserts are also just about the most spiritual places you can be in, precisely for the reasons listed above. They are such lonely, uncomfortable, dangerous, isolated places, it’s the most natural thing in the world to turn to G-d. You can feel G-d’s presence in a desert like no other place on earth.

Even so, I really don’t like deserts. Where are the trees? Where are the toilets? Where is the air-conditioning?

Rav Arush always makes a point of saying that the stories in the Torah are not just a bunch of colourful details, they are profound life lessons for each one of us. In Womens’ Wisdom, he explained that before we can really ‘acquire’ Torah, and really start to serve G-d, each one of us has to go through our own desert.

The first time I read that passage, I got quite emotional, because it was the first time that the penny really dropped and I realised why the last few years had been so hard.

I used to be a very practical person. If something ‘worked’, I was happy to do it. When I first started to get into Breslev and the whole talking to G-d thing, I had a mistaken idea that the whole point of talking to G-d was to get Him to do what you wanted.

“G-d, I need a new car. Please buy me one.” “G-d, please help me to win this lucrative piece of work.” “G-d, please help my kids to sleep through the night.” “G-d, please let me keep this house…” etc etc etc.

And G-d, in His kindness, responded to many of those early requests. But there were many requests that weren’t agreed Upstairs, and I went through a time of being quite disillusioned with the whole praying thing. What was the point, if it didn’t really ‘work’ to get me what I wanted?

Then G-d had mercy on me, and gave me the next bit of the puzzle: “Dear, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Prayer isn’t a mechanism for forcing Me to give you what you want – although some people do try to use it for their own ends. Prayer is really a way of discovering what I want from you…”

Wow. Who knew?

So I tried to start doing what G-d wanted. I tried to start working on my bad temper, my arrogance, my selfishness, my sadness, my impatience – and the more I tried to work on them, the worse they got, initially.

The more I tried to work on accepting Hashem’s will and having humility, the more it seemed to be rubbed in my face that my prayers were being ignored, while other, incredibly arrogant, people apparently got whatever they wanted with minimum spiritual effort. The more I tried to work on my internal sadness, the more I was sent external difficulties and tests. The more I tried to work on my temper, and on loving my fellow human, the more annoying, upsetting, difficult encounters I had with people.

What the heck was going on here?

It took me ages to understand, but the short answer is that I was going through the desert.

I went through the desert for around three years; and it was a very lonely, often terrifying place. There were days that I ran out of energy, and really felt like I just couldn’t go on any more. There were days when I got very despondent, and I wondered if I was ever going to get out of the desert, and back to a place where I had people to talk to again.

In his book, Warriors of Transcendence, being serialised, Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron also talks about the desert. Before the warriors of transcendence can start to really serve G-d, they are put through a gruelling initiation which includes battling ginormous deadly scorpions and snakes in the desert.

Rabbi Nachman teaches that these scorpions and snakes are all the false ideas, worries and imaginary ‘bad’ that fills a person’s head. Last year, I was fighting them for months and months, and at the time, I didn’t really know what was going on.

Now, thank G-d, I do.

I was going through the desert. And G-d knows, the desert is a tough place for a human being to be. You can only survive in the desert if you cling on to G-d, and follow Him out of there.

So why did I get so emotional when I read about the desert in Women’s Wisdom? Because Rav Arush explains that G-d remembers the hardships that people face in the desert, in their journey towards Him and His Torah, and ultimately, He rewards them for it.

I found that so profoundly reassuring, because for a time, I felt as though G-d had forgotten all about me. I was making all this effort to get through the desert, and I didn’t really know if there was even going to be a warm welcome at the end of it. And that thought most of all – that it was all for nothing, that G-d wasn’t really interested in me and my puny efforts at making teshuva – was the hardest test of all.

Dear reader, so many of us are going through our spiritual deserts at the moment: some people are struggling to get on with their spouses; others are struggling to make a living; others are struggling with difficult illnesses, or wayward children; still others are struggling to overcome their innate sadness and depression.

Rabbi Nachman teaches, this is all part of the process of acquiring Torah, and being a real servant of Hashem. Rejoice in your desert, hard as it is, because it means you really are on the right track, and that G-d really is waiting for you to join Him at the end of your long, arduous trek.

Deserts are the most conducive places on earth for talking to G-d and feeling your own mortality. Deserts make everyone feel small and vulnerable. And that’s the point. Because ‘big, invincible, successful’ people can’t truly serve Hashem – regardless of what they tell themselves.


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