Into the Wilderness

Nov 07, 2008 |Elisabeth Adams

Remember, thankfully.

I walked everywhere in those days, mostly because I wanted to experience Jerusalem without window glass in the way.

Of course, in 2003, everyone thought twice about boarding a city bus, never knowing which one might be a ticking time bomb. I wasn't afraid, just watchful. For months, sudden noises like sonic booms got my full attention, and if I didn't hear ambulance sirens within a few minutes, then I knew everything was OK. Ironically, I mistook the one bus bomb I did hear for fireworks.

But at last, the long summer was over. Fall arrived, and with it the biblical feast of tabernacles, or Sukkot, arguably Israel's most festive time of year.

Everything was new to me. The men hurrying through town with slender bundles, palm branches protruding from the top. Extra crowds on the streets. Sukkahs sprouting up everywhere: tiny pavilions on balconies and apartment building roofs, larger ones over restaurant tables along the sidewalk, huge ones at the Western Wall. At night, they glowed like Japanese lanterns.

Here families ate their meals throughout the festival — joined, legend says, by a different saint on each of the seven nights. Though one never knew when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron or David might show up at the door of their sukkah, their visits could be encouraged by including a more humble guest at the table.

Tonight I am one of those guests. It's twilight, and I'm stumbling along: tired, sleepy, and desperately in need of some creature comforts. That's when I see our hosts' sukkah. It's in a tiny backyard next to a stone apartment building, the front flaps drawn back invitingly to reveal the richly-colored interior, glowing with light. It holds a long table, long enough to need three tablecloths: one blue, one scarlet, and one pale yellow. A length of deep red fabric hangs against one wall. The white fabric of another wall is printed with symbols of the Jewish patriarchs, and above us, tinsel garlands cut into fantastic shapes glitter from the palm leaf ceiling.

The table is laden with a sumptuous tea: hot drinks, mint lemonade, four or five different sweets, trays of roasted vegetables, their color deepened by the heat, plus fresh veggies, crackers and pale chunks of cheese. I feel as if I'm being ushered into fairyland.

What exactly is a sukkah? I wonder. Unpacked, the Hebrew word reveals the idea of a temporary shelter. A booth, perhaps. A leafy hut. A lean-to. A tent. Or a tabernacle. In Leviticus 23, God tells the Israelites to live in these temporary shelters for seven days, "that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt."

When sturdy stone homes went up all over the Promised Land; when rain came on schedule, leaving carpets of wildflowers behind; when calves and lambs dotted the fields; when grain stacked up in the spring and fruit in the fall — it was then that they needed a reality check. "Beware," God said, "lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth."

And so He wisely wove remembering into the fabric of their years.

At the end of every autumn harvest, those first citizens of the Promised Land were to turn their backs on their overflowing barns, pick up their walking sticks and become pilgrims once again. Destination: the Tabernacle, God's temporary shelter. Objective: remembering, rejoicing, and feasting!

I don't know for sure what their sukkot looked like, but I like to imagine that they packed up their old, patched tents for the week-long camping trip, that every night as they sat down to eat with the familiar smell of goat's hair fabric in their nostrils, that old tent began to speak to them.

"Remember me?" it would say.

I was your shelter in the desert. You walked everywhere in those days, and the sun was always frowning down on your head from what seemed like inches away. Headgear wasn't about fashion then: wearing it or not determined how exhausted you'd be at the end of the day. It was dry, remember? Sweat evaporated almost instantly, so dehydration was rapid, stealthy, and occasionally, deadly. But when you came under my shade, you found instant relief.

You were grateful for me, too, when you woke up to an ominous whitish-gray sky filled, not with rain, but with talcum-fine dust. When there was breeze, but no refreshing, as dust crowded oxygen out of the air. When you had grit in your eyes. Grit between your teeth. Grit in your clothes.

And what about the landscape? Could you ever have guessed that desert could take so many different guises? There were jagged mountains. The dizzying sameness of sand as far as the eye could see. Or flats covered with nothing but cream colored gravel, reflecting the glare of the sun into your eyes. It's true that there were the occasional tiny bushes, the prickly acacias and feathery tamarisks growing in dry stream beds. But mostly you forgot the color green.

And yet there, you were fed. Bread came out of the sky. Water came out of the rock. God spread a table in the wilderness.

Remember.

When I worked in an Israeli vineyard, it was springtime, and the cool mountain breezes made every ray of sunshine welcome. But grape harvest falls at the end of summer, when the Mediterranean sun beats down harshly, intensifying the fragrance of the fruit, shriveling the leaves, and making you long for shade.

In Bible times, harvesters built themselves huts in the vineyards, often living in them until all the grapes were gathered in. Did these temporary shelters remind them of the Exodus, I wonder? Did they know that they needed their God, their Dwelling Place and Provider, even in the Promised Land? Again, He wove remembering into the fabric of their years, and every summer, the desert came to visit. In those five rainless months, grass withered, flowers fell, and they almost forgot what green looked like. There was only the pitiless sun, and the seared, lifeless fields.

Or was there?

In the desert, God's children had manna; in the dry season, the Promised Land had dew. During that seemingly lifeless time, figs fattened, pomegranates filled with juicy red seeds, dates grew sweeter, and clusters of grapes swelled on the vine. The people gathered all that fruit, spread the figs and dates out to dry, piled up the pomegranates, and stomped those grapes into wine. Then purple-footed, they sat down in their sukkahs and stared out at dry fields. Perhaps then they remembered the God who spreads a table in the wilderness.

Perhaps. But considering all the times I am blind to the rich benefits God heaps on me, I'm not surprised by the ungratefulness of those complaining Israelites. In Egypt, we can't live without freedom; en route to the Promised Land, we can't live without onions and leeks. In reality, we can't live anywhere without God.

It's in mercy that He commands us to "remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you ... in the wilderness," how "He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD." I am always dependent on God: the desert just reminds me that I am.

* * *

I was 19 when I first wandered in the wilderness of depression. My sojourn there was short, but long enough to learn that when it comes to my spiritual well-being, having a thankful heart isn't a nice idea: It's the difference between life and death. God is always faithful to provide for me, but I might starve in the midst of plenty if I don't look for the manna.

For me, this meant keeping a tiny notebook by my bed, in which I'd remember five good things about each day. I could've been Pollyanna, simply shielding myself from pain by grasping at random things to be glad about, but I wanted to follow David's habit, every time he penned a psalm. After telling it like it was — pain, disappointment, and all — he zeroed in on the table his Shepherd had set in the presence of his enemies.

It didn't matter if I wrote five words, or five paragraphs; things spiritual, or things silly. What mattered is that I began to see God. At work in my life. With incredibly personalized detail.

By remembering all the way He has led me, I'm finding a respite from the clogging dust of pride and materialism, and the life-sapping heat of disappointment with God. I am taking refuge in the faithfulness that is His very nature. And feasting at His table in the wilderness.

Copyright 2008 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.

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