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What We Can Learn from Wandering in the Wilderness

03/05/2011 11:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans are a goal-oriented people. And we tend to hold a belief that once we settle on a goal, a laser-like focus on it is the best way to reach it -- if we block out all distractions, put our nose to the grindstone and work hard, we'll soon arrive at whatever Promised Land we have been dreaming of.

Yet if we live long enough, we see that that's not exactly how life goes. Money gets tight. Family members get sick. Jobs get downsized. The journey to the Promised Land is never as easy as we think it will be -- if we even make it there at all.

The truth is, we spend much more time wandering in the wilderness than living in the Promised Land. In fact, that may be why the Torah was given in middle of the wilderness -- to remind us that while the Promised Land is wonderful, we learn our greatest lessons on the journey along the way.

So what are those lessons? I can think of at least three:

1. Since the wilderness is a scary place (we never know what may come around the bend), the first thing the wilderness can teach us is that we don't have complete control over our lives.

Sometimes, we invest far too much time and energy decrying how the world is "unfair" and that we "deserve" whatever it is we are hoping to get. Indeed, we occasionally even hope we can be as lucky as the man in a recent Onion article who received an apology from the cosmos because his life didn't turn out the way he hoped it would. ("Universe Admits To Wronging Area Man His Entire Life")

But if we are wise, we can realize that despite the obstacles life may throw at us, if we accept reality rather than fight against it, we can learn what we actually can affect. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, explains in his book, Full Catastrophe Living, that

...[a]cceptance does not mean that [we] have to like everything or that [we] have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon [our] principles and values. It does not mean that [we] are satisfied with things as they are or that [we] are resigned to tolerating things as they "have to be." It does not mean that [we] have to ... give up on [our] desire to change and grow. ... Acceptance ... simply means that [we] have come around to a willingness to see things as they [actually] are.

Life can be hard, and the world can be scary. If we learn to accept that, and not expect the world to revolve around us, we can discover the myriad ways in which we can make a difference, and invest our energy in those tasks.

2. The second thing the wilderness can teach us is that it's fun, natural and even important to explore uncharted territory. After all, we never learn or grow if we stay in the same place. So at times, we simply need to be open to new experiences, discover new paths to take, and just see where life may take us, rather than trying to force ourselves along a predetermined course.

I just came back from leading a congregational trip to Israel, where we went to all the usual tourist sites -- Jerusalem, Masada, Safed, Tel Aviv -- and the congregants had a great time. But one of the high points wasn't taking pictures of rocks and stones; it was when we went to a restaurant in Jerusalem that was underneath an archway far off the main tourist drag that most of them never would have set foot in otherwise. What they loved wasn't just the good food and the quirky atmosphere -- they were loving the sense of adventure, as well.

Think about your own travels. How great is it to wander off the beaten path, meet the locals, and do things that you feel like almost no one ever does?

In fact, we even need to go into uncharted territory every so often, in order to discover new ideas. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes an experiment by Robert Thatcher, who found that the brain needs to do two things on a regular basis in order to process information. The first is that the brain needs to go into a state called "phase-locking," where millions of neurons all fire at the same time, creating a synchronized spike of electricity.

But the brain also regularly needs to go into a state of complete chaos for several milliseconds, and Johnson postulates that "the electrical noise of the chaos mode allows the brain to experiment with new links between neurons that would otherwise fail to connect in more orderly settings. ... The chaos mode is where the brain assimilates new information [and] explores strategies for responding to a changed situation."

Because our lives are always in a state of at least semi-flux, we need to be able to respond to new circumstances and create new responses. And our brain seems to allow for that, forcing it to periodically "wander aimlessly" just to see what may come up. So the second lesson that the wilderness teach us is to celebrate and embrace our natural desire to discover new things.

3. The third lesson the wilderness teaches us is the most crucial one to remember -- namely, that the most important goals we strive for are ones that can never actually be reached.

Hopefully, we aim to be decent people, loving spouses, caring parents and productive workers. But "creating a strong marriage," "having a fulfilling career" and "raising kind children" are not things we can do and then say, "All right -- that's now checked off the list!"

Instead, it's in the day-to-day striving for those goals where life is truly lived. We'll never know if those goals are reached, but we can try to make sure we are on the right path.

Indeed, that's the great lesson of the Torah itself. Within the Torah's narrative, the Israetlies are marching inexorably toward the Promised Land. They wander for 40 years, a whole generation dies out, they struggle, they rebel and, finally, they set up camp on the other side of the Jordan, ready to arrive at the destination they had been dreaming of their whole lives.

And how does the Book of Deuteronomy end? In the wilderness, with the Israelites never reaching the Promised Land.

What a wonderful message that truly is -- to remind us that our goal in life isn't to reach the Promised Land, it's simply to keep moving toward it, and hoping that we can learn and grow a little bit along the way.