This is going to be, eventually, a column about love.

Wait, love? What can possibly be said about love that hasn’t already been said? Am I seriously fooling myself into thinking you haven’t read it all?


So I won’t try to pretend there’s anything you haven’t heard yet, nor will I tell you some magnificent, heart-stopping story that will give you all the feels.

Instead, I’ll point you to our parshah and show you something fascinating about love that pops right out of the first verse.

And you may actually discover something new.

A Desert Obsession

We’ve started a new book this week, number four of the Famous Five. While the common English name is “Numbers,” the Hebrew name is Bamidbar, which means “in the desert.” The name comes from the opening verse which reads: “G‑d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the Exodus from the land of Egypt...”1

The obvious question is, what’s this obsession with the desert, gaining prominence as the name of an entire book? Surely there are other, more important words in that opening verse? And apparently the Latin people who were giving out names thought so, too—opting for “Numbers” instead.2 So why are we so focused on the desert aspect?

Moreover, when you think about a desert, it’s not exactly a happy place. Deserts are hot, dry, and lifeless. Why is that something we want to spend so much time on?

To make matters even more puzzling, take a look at this interesting Midrash on the topic:

“The matter is analogous to a prince who entered a country, and when the citizens saw him, they ran away. The prince entered another country, and the citizens there, too, fled. The prince then arrived at a desolate province, and the people there came out to greet and praise him. The prince said, ‘This province is better than all the others, I will build a beautiful monument here; here I will live. So, too, when G‑d came to the sea, it fled… the mountains, too, fled. When G‑d arrived in the desolate desert, it praised Him … G‑d said, ‘I will build my monument [the Tabernacle] here.’”3

What is the meaning of this? Why did the seas and the mountains flee before G‑d? And what did the desert know that they didn’t? Even with all the romantic imagery, it’s hard to understand how a desert can be the most appropriate place for a G‑dly revelation.

Too Hot for Growth

Typically, we understand the intense heat and lack of growth that defines a desert as a negative thing. When you think of getting lost in a desert with no water for miles around, you probably don’t get very excited.

But, as with most things in this world, Kabbalah sees these two elements—the heat and the lifelessness—as distinctively positive.

You see, in the context of our relationship with G‑d, tremendous heat is the sign of a passionate, burning love. It’s an easy metaphor, as many of us are used to the idea of love being a warm emotion. And the greater, more passionate the love, the more it heats up. So a place that is very hot is a metaphor for a devout Jew, who possesses a flaming love for G‑d deep in his or her heart.

And here’s where the second part of the desert metaphor becomes super important: nothing grows there. In conventional, human iterations of love, too often passionate love can breed intense feelings of self-regard, a flaming obsession with ones’ self that while ostensibly is directed toward another, is in reality an expression of self. It is nothing more than a search for identity and self-expression that is using someone else as the vehicle to realize the depths of self-love.

The desert is very hot, but nothing grows there. A person ought to be passionately and scorchingly in love with the Creator. Together with that—indeed, when done right, as a result of that—the feeling ought to breed a complete lack of self-regard, an intense level of humility and submission to the Creator Who has created us all.

In simpler terms, when you love G‑d very much, you understand that you really don’t have an existence apart from Him. As such, there’s no room for ego, self-flattery, or any other form of self-obsession.

This, then, is what the Midrash means about G‑d only feeling comfortable in the desert. The sea and mountains each possess their own identities, unique qualities that make them stand out in some way. The sea is teeming with life, a sometimes raging, sometimes tranquil mass that ebbs and flows and has beaten even the greatest creatures. Mountains soar majestically into the sky, invoking awe and sparking our imaginations.

Such impressive institutions are too much of their own big deal to be good hosts for G‑dly manifestation.

The scorching hot and lifeless desert is the perfect place: it has no ego, it’s completely committed, and full of burning love for G‑d.

That merits at least one full book of the Torah.

Warm but Not Self-Obsessed

As with everything in our relationship with G‑d, this serves as a wonderful example of how we ought to conduct our interpersonal relationships.

Love is all the rage, and not for naught. Everyone craves to love and be loved, and it’s something we spend a lifetime chasing. Judaism advocates for it as well, and has much to tell us about this powerful human experience.

Take the desert for starters: You should love, and passionately so. Like the blazing sun of the Saharan afternoon, go for it. But remember this: Don’t let it become about you and your needs. To love in the appropriate way is to emulate our relationship with G‑d. It should be passionate and warm, but never about growing your own profile or feeding your own obsessions.

It’s about commitment and giving yourself to the other. Focus on how much you love the other person, how much you wish to give to them, to invest in them and your partnership—avoiding all feelings of “I want to grow from this.”

When you do that, you will have erected your own personal Tabernacle.4