From the desk of Rabbi Howald

As I write this article, Robin and I are coming to an end of a wonderful vacation in Alaska. Alaska is often called “the last frontier” and it’s easy to see why. Alaska is 12 times bigger than New York and has millions of acres of mountains and forests inaccessible by roads and hundreds of miles from the nearest cellphone tower. For many Alaskans, the wilderness is a large part of the reason they either came to the state or elect to stay here. Just as during the westward expansion of the lower 48 during the 19th century, the wilderness of Alaska in the 21st century represents freedom for many and a chance for a new start in a place where almost anything is possible.

The wilderness also plays an important part in the faith of Israel, particularly during the High Holy Days. The majority of the Torah takes place in the wilderness and one of the 5 Books of Moses is even named “In the Wilderness,” in the original Hebrew. In the Hebrew Bible, the wilderness is both an actual place and a metaphor for the period of the Israelites’ transformation here about eight from slavery to freedom. In the wilderness of the deserts of Sinai and the Negev, the habits of servitude are burned away, and the people finally emerge from the desert 40 years later ready to take responsibility for their own lives. The wilderness teaches the Israelites self-reliance and the consequences of bad choices. The wilderness is, as the folklorist Arnold van Gennap puts it, a “liminal space,” that transforms the people of Israel from a group of disparate and often conflicting individuals into a mighty nation.


The High Holy Days, at their core, are another kind of liminal space. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the 10 “Days of Awe” are moments outside of regular time. Just like the Israelites journey through the wilderness, this period of reflection takes us out of the familiar and, by doing so, increases the possibility of real change in our habits and perspective.

Think back to the times when we become reflective and receptive to change. Tragedy certainly brings reevaluation of our patterns and goals. The death of a loved one or a major health challenge often cause a profound reassessment of our plans and way of life. At another end of the spectrum, our journeys away from home often trigger intense introspection about our work-life balance and the fixtures of our ordinary existence. The further away we go, either by distance or by landscape, the deeper the contemplation. That’s why, particularly for city dwellers, a trip to the wilderness can provoke such a deep reexamination of our assumptions and choices.

Traditionally, Judaism advises us to regard Rosh Hashanah as the day of our birth and Yom Kippur as the day of our death. This metaphor doesn’t always work as a spark for reflection. Some even find it threatening and off- putting. If this traditional metaphor doesn’t work for you, consider the analogy of a journey to the wilderness. In Hebrew, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, the word midbar, wilderness, has the same root as the word dabar/davar, meaning “word” or “thing.” It has the same letters as medabber, “speaking.” In the wilderness, the Torah was revealed to the people of Israel and they heard a Voice that changed the trajectory of their lives. To be “in the wilderness” means to be radically attuned to the possibility of that sound and its message. When the season of inward reflection begins in the middle next month, accordingly, may we all find ourselves, metaphorically, in a beautiful wild valley ready to ascend the heights that surround us and give them a name and a meaning that will reorient our lives for the better! L’shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Michael Howald