What a relief it must have been for the Israelites to have heard these words. In the wilderness for 40 years, and only now did they see an end to their wanderings.
A desert – a midbar – is no picnic, and not all deserts are physical. In a natural desert one yearns for escape, in a national desert for liberation, in a spiritual desert for security, in an intellectual desert for enlightenment, and in a personal desert for peace.
Is there any midbar which is a blessing? Only in Southern California, in the opinion of David Ben Gurion, who said on a Californian visit in 1951, “I envy you your deserts – you can afford to keep them deserts!”
With this possible exception Jewish thinking regards a desert as an enemy to be overcome, a challenge to be met, a task to be carried out. Success comes when one wrestles against a desert and prevails, turning the desert, as the Bible puts it, into a Garden of Eden (Isa. 51:3).
Yet there is still a view in the Midrash that a desert can be a good thing. It says, “A person who does not make himself like an abandoned desert is unable to acquire wisdom and learning” (Num.R. 1:7).
Whatever can it be telling us? That if you want to acquire knowledge, first you have to clear your mind from extraneous thoughts and ideas clogging up your system.
In this sense there is a great deal to be said for using the weeks before Rosh HaShanah to clear our hearts and souls and get them ready for the month ahead.