I was always an admirer of the people who left everything behind and set off into the wild in order to live “authentic” lives. I remember when I first encountered the raw passion of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the idealistic yearning of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I remember when I first read these words of Thoreau’s: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

How will I learn to live deliberately? After reading these words long ago, I walked down the brick paths of my university campus and stared at the first green leaves dotting the bare branches around me. And I asked myself: How will I learn to live deliberately? How will I figure out how to live at all?

Recently I read a fascinating book by Jon Krakauer called Into the Wild. It is a true story about a college graduate named Chris McCandless who hitchhiked to Alaska in 1992 and walked alone into the wilderness. He had donated all of his savings to charity, left behind all of his possessions and burnt all the cash in his wallet. In the end, this young man dies of starvation. Some dismiss his journey as foolish and irresponsible. But others believe that Chris was sincere in his beliefs and at least had the courage to try to live according to them.

He writes to one of his friends during his journey: “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon” (Into the Wild, p. 58). After I finished the book, I began to think about courage and the wilderness a little more.

Since my earliest years, I have been enthralled with nature. Everything fascinated me, from the tiniest flower to the grandest ocean. I guess most children are like that, constantly longing to be outside and part of the hugeness of the universe. But that yearning only became stronger as I grew. I felt like I belonged when I was diving between the ocean’s waves. I found peace along rocky mountain trails, drinking in the brilliant blue sky and the vibrant green forest. Skiing down pure white slopes, I glimpsed a spark of potential in every icicle. Scuba diving hundreds of feet beneath the water’s surface, I stared at colors and shapes that whispered of unknown worlds, waiting to be discovered.

There are two ways to use the beauty of this worldBut when I think a bit more deeply about my pull to the wild, I realize that there are two ways to use the beauty of this world. One way is to walk into the wild in order to escape one’s inner turmoil. Get away from it all. Find some peace and quiet. Block out the pressures of life by distracting oneself with nature’s beauty. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but there is another approach that takes far more courage. And that is to walk into the wild in order to go towards one’s self.

I have only recently learned how to do this. How to hike into the mountains in order to bring the peace of the earth and the sky into my own home. How to dive beneath the water in order to instill that sense of wonder and adventure in myself and in others.

And during this time of year, I begin thinking about the wilderness of the desert that we crossed through as a nation. I think about the glaring sun and the vast, unknown spaces. I think about the silent, starlit skies and the miles of endless sand. And I start to understand why it was so hard for the Jews to leave Egypt.

Not only did they have to leave behind the comfort of the familiar, but they were not going to the desert in order to escape. They were escaping the Egyptians, but leaving meant facing an even more complex enemy: the weaknesses inside of them. Even though they were slaves in Egypt, four-fifths of the Jewish nation chose to stay! They preferred to stay in a place where they knew what was physically expected of them, and they were free of spiritual obligations. The minority of Jews who crossed the sea and ventured into the desert were not journeying towards a place of freedom from obligations.

We were on our way to Mt. Sinai to find out what our responsibilities would be towards each other and towards the world around us. We were journeying towards the truth inside of ourselves which sometimes can only be found in wide, unfamiliar spaces. And most importantly, we were not alone. Our Creator was guiding us and helping us temporarily shed the limits of our physical selves.

We were journeying towards the truth inside of ourselvesWe lived in homes that could be taken down and rebuilt in days. We ate food that dripped down from the sky. We didn’t need the leaven-saturated existence of stable, material structures. We lived by the simplicity of what matzah is. No time to stand around and let the dough rise. No time to stay in one place when there are so many miles to cover before it’s too late. We lived by the clouds, by the pillar of fire, by the Divine words filling the desert silence.

And every year at this time, we all enter the wilderness of the desert once again. We ask ourselves if we can temporarily leave behind the familiar expectations and constructs in our lives. Can we make room in our homes and inside of ourselves for a new journey to begin? And can we use the beauty and excitement of our journey to learn who we are and what our responsibilities are?

We all leave Egypt every year at this time. We each are given the opportunity to let go of our limited perspectives of life and venture into the wilderness inside of us. But the question is: What do we do when we emerge from the desert? How do we use the gift of our journey through the desert? Do we bring the miraculous into our everyday consciousness or do we relegate it to the pages of the Passover Haggadah? And that is where real courage is found. Not in escaping into the wilderness, but in using the wilderness to reach the truth within ourselves.