Earth Etude for Elul 19– Teshuvah in the Desert

by Rabbi Mike Comins

~ In order to acquire wisdom and Torah, one must make oneself hefker, open and abandoned, like this desert. (BaMidbar Rabbah 1)

Of the many reasons our tradition offers for why the Torah was given at Sinai, one is particularly relevant for Elul. The desert is an optimal environment to do Teshuvah. More than that. To reach our full potential, we are advised to become like the desert.

Why does the desert have the power to change us?

First and foremost, the desert is a dangerous place. Like Hagar1 or Elijah2, you can easily lose the way, finish your water and find yourself facing collapse in a few short hours.  Or you might fall prey to desert bandits. To be in the desert is to lack personal security.

Some places are hot, some are cold. The desert is both—at the same time! Since there are seldom clouds to block the sun during the day or hold the heat at night, and moderating oceans are far away; thirty and forty degree temperature swings are the norm. The word for the desert is extreme.  If the day is pleasant, the night is too cold. If the night is temperate, the daytime heat will melt your candy bar, and perhaps your equilibrium. Light is too intense for comfort. The sun blinds, dehydrates, kills. You’ll never see a Bedouin resting in the sun.

In the desert, you get down to essentials. Water, shade and a bit more water. The body wants little food. A heavy pack draws moisture from your body, which evaporates so fast, you might not notice that you are sweating.

The desert, in short, is a place where people are tested physically, and thus spiritually. If you don’t know which canyons still have pools from the last rain, or the secret water holes of the desert people, hope and confidence evaporate.

The desert can be mentally trying even when the body is not under duress. Quite often the horizon is a straight line. Indistinguishable wadis,3 endless plains, the hot wind. Nothing to cling to.  Nowhere to go.

Infinite space; infinite fear.

* * *

Infinite possibility. The only center is the center within, and so one looks inward. The desert is a place to become as straight as the horizon, as sharp as a thorn. Learn to live with little. Learn to live in light so bright that nothing in your soul can remain hidden. Learn to live at risk.

The contract reads: courage required.

No exceptions.

* * *

The truth is that life everywhere is just as extreme as it is in the desert. Only we do our best to believe that it isn’t, and in civilization, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that we’re getting away with it.

The desert does not indulge those who cannot tell reality from a mirage. Take your rationalizations to the desert and they will lead you to your death. Pretense is not an option.

T’shuvah requires honesty. The desert demands it.

The desert is one of God’s most precious gifts.

  1. Genesis 16:6-7, 21:14
  2. I Kings 19:4
  3. Arabic for “dry riverbed.”

A yeshiva-trained, Israeli-ordained Reform Rabbi and a licensed Israeli desert guide, Mike Comins is founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality.   Find resources and writings at  He is author of A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism and Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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