Facing Life and Divine Wrath in the Sacred Desert: The Portion of Hukat

The Biblical portion of the week in the Jewish calendar, Hukat, presents an ongoing saga of Divine rage at human behavior in the “desert”. The desert is a liminal space in the ancient Jewish imagination. It represents the place of trial, of suffering, of life and death, of homelessness in search of a parent to guide, but also a place of nurturing. The desert can present a guiding light in the darkest night, and the moist cloud of dew and rain filled hope by day. But it is also a place where plagues can eat away at you, and the ground can swallow you whole.


All of this is God. The desert is where you can feel at once divine wrath and the divine ongoing presence that keeps you alive moment to moment in the harshest environment on earth.


What is suprising to most commentators about this episode is that now divine wrath turns against the messengers, the most devoted disciples, Moses and Aaron. Now they also receive the death sentence. They too will never enter the Promised Land, they too will die in the desert, basically in unmarked graves. A very harsh sentence that just a short time before was reserved for rebels and evil-doers.


The traditional commentators work hard to explain this turn of events, but they struggle mightily to even find exactly what Moses did or said in an instant to warrant the harshest punishment of all, the deprivation of Moses’ deepest dreams as a leader of a people. The traditional commentators, rooted in a rabbinic universe in which God is good and human beings must be the sinful ones, struggle to find what was so bad in Moses.


If you are not traditional, things are much simpler. It is not that the nontraditional universe is understood to be a place of nihilism, no good and no evil. But it is a place where the sacredness and majesty of life, of Creation, need not necessarily be a place where good and evil are so clear in the nature of the universe. The very same desert that allows you to survive sometimes also kills you with a vengeance at other times. It is not always so clear, predictable, and certainly not very fair to the individual.


The desert is the best metaphor I can imagine for living and struggling with the sacred presence in the universe, for the sacred presence not only in the organic cell, not only in the distant galaxy, but also and especially in Manhattan, in Damascus, in Jerusalem, in Mosul. The sacred reality of a world teaming with life in all its strangest manifestations is clear to anyone at any time of day if they choose to see, but it is best relished outside in the quiet of 2am. It may be a place of teaming life, but it is also dark and mysterious, and it also can turn murderous at any time.


This sacred organism of existence is not to be trifled with. You can be moving along with a lifelong plan, decades of struggle toward a rational, compassionate goal, in Moses’ case the liberation of an oppressed people and a bold message to all corrupted human tyranny. But then poof, one day, you say or do the wrong thing, and the world comes down on your head as if God himself had cursed you.


The comforting denouement to this episode lies not in a different picture of the divine, a less threatening one, but in the dignity of Moses and Aaron themselves, their embrace of the rest of their lives, and their destiny with dignity and meaningfulness. I think Viktor Frankl is the best one to articulate a life of meaning, purpose and dignity, in the face of an unpredictable universe. The unpredictable and awesome nature of life is the sacred challenge. Life is a sacred challenge of radical unknowability, and it will eventually push you out of this universe. But how you respond to that challenge, therein lies your divine truth, and the discovery of your eternal nature. The desert is your teacher, but your destiny is your own soul.


© Marc Gopin