By Rabbi Cantor Marcelo Gindlin

As the Israelites gather together in a vast open wilderness to begin their journey to the Promised Land, a question emerges:

Why would God allow His people to endure 40 years of wandering in the desert?

The desert is a place of dangerous weather, food and water limitations, and steep, treacherous hills and valleys. The desert is a place of hardship.

I believe the answer to this question is that God wanted the people of Israel to build their strength – to push forward and endure these conditions so they could survive through future difficult times. They walked individually, but together, they were a community. They could trust that together they would keep advancing, rising above the elements, and push ahead, ready for anything that would come their way.

Like many other rabbis, I see the Israelites’ journey as a challenge from God. As they climbed mountains and walked winding pathways for miles, God was with them. Their journey reminds me of nature camps that instill confidence in each camper. Young and old venture deep into the woods to live among wildlife, searching for freedom as flights of birds swirl above the hills and valleys. They are isolated – secluded – but with strong beating hearts, inhaling the night air beneath the rays of a full moon.

I am also reminded of families who drive long distances into the wilderness in a motorhome, and then hike even farther to see the magic of the unknown. These journeys are a time for people to think. To appreciate. To rely on themselves instead of having everything done for them. When friends of mine reflect on their own travels through nature, they talk about breathing in fresh air, struggling physically on their hikes, and letting go of pent up emotions. I feel that God intended the Israelites to have similar experiences when He led them through nature on foot through periods of self-discovery, healing, and hope.

Past or present, Torah still teaches. We have been taught to have respect for others. We work together toward common goals. Around the Tabernacle centuries ago, or around a campfire today on an empty piece of land, we feel the presence of God – a God who is grateful, who shares our visions. We may be alone in those moments in the wilderness, but the feeling of the Holy One is nearby. Directing. Protecting. Teaching. Blessing us with peace. And letting us know that in life, wherever and whenever we walk, going through struggles makes us strong.

With purpose and passion, may you overcome the personal challenges facing you. May you feel as strong, independent and wise as our people did, making their way through the wilderness many years ago. Rediscover yourself and you will welcome, through God, a brighter and better tomorrow.

As you light the candles this evening, take note of the smell of smoke from the flames. Imagine you are at a campfire deep in the woods. Thunder clouds hover above. Your heart is content, filled with peace and love. If the candles could talk, they would say, “Enjoy this gift of nature, where you can yell to the heavens, sing to the birds, whisper a prayer. Where the soul can smile – yours and mine. Remembering our ancestor’s journey in another place and time.”

Wishing you all love, light, and peace, today and always.

Shabbat Shalom.