Let us look back in time about 2000 years and join a mother working in her kitchen, preparing for the Chanukah holidays. She worries about her nineteen year old daughter who disappeared leaving chores undone. Let’s listen in.
Mum: That girl! She knows there is work to be done: floors to sweep, water to fetch, bread to bake! Imagine her leaving all this work to me!
Daughter: (calls from back of sanctuary and walks forward) Shalom, mum! I’m home!
Mum: (Hand on hip) Shalom my foot! Girl, where have you been?
Daughter: Oh, mum, I wish you’d been there. I went down to the river to hear that man everyone’s talking about.
Mum: Down to the river?! The Jordan? That wilderness! I wish you wouldn’t go down there. You never know who you will meet on the riverbanks! I have been worried about you all afternoon. Why is your hair wet? And, what man are you talking about?
Daughter: I’ll explain the wet hair in a moment. The man at the riverbank… his proper name is John, son of Zechariah. You know, that old priest? But everyone calls him John the… Baptizer.
Mum: So… who is this John the Baptizer? Another one of those slick, charismatic god-gurus? Fat? Wearing fancy clothes whilst fishing for money? Here today, gone tomorrow?
Daughter: Gosh, mum, John the Baptiser is not anything like that. He is as thin as a rail, and a vegetarian. As for clothes, he wears a simple scratchy camel hair cloak.
Mum: Camel hair cloak? Those retro clothes make him sound more like the prophet Elijah than some of the posh evangelists we get around here.
Daughter: Mum, some of the older people are saying exactly that! John reminds them of Elijah, not someone trying to make a quick quid or denari.
Mum: Humph! Well, what did this John have to say?
Daughter: Mum, you mentioned the wilderness, the desert. John the baptizer says the wilderness does not have to be a bad place to be shunned or feared.
Mum: What?! What nonsense! What good comes from the wilderness?
Daughter: John says that much of our Jewish story happens in the wilderness. Think about it. Where does God stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? In the… wilderness. Where does God make a promise with Abraham? In the…
Daughter: Yes. And where does Jacob wrestle with a stranger and receive God’s blessings? In the….
Daughter: And where do Moses and the Israelites hang out for 40 years? In the…
Daughter: Exactly. Point made!
Mum: It is true. God’s people have been in the wilderness a lot. Now that you mention it, it seems to me that out there in the bleak wilderness God forges Israel’s identity.
Daughter: Our identity…
Mum: Yes, yes, yes. Do you always have to get so political about everything? But what has all this to do with us Jews today, during this busy Chanukah season?
Daughter: John the baptizer says that sometimes we get so entangled with the business of life, the busy-ness of life, that we forget God.
Mum: I know exactly what he means. Today my mind bursts with all the things I have to do. My head has no room and I have no time to think about God.
Daughter: When we get too busy with worldly things, it begins to feel as though God is absent. John says the problem is we begin to believe that God is absent.
Mum: (sighing) Yes, it is true. Sometimes it feels like God has abandoned me.
Daughter: John the baptizer says that happens to lots of us, even all of us, from time to time. John says we should live like the Lord is coming, because the Messiah is coming. That is God’s promise! John says, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’
Mum: And just how does “John say” we are supposed to do that?
Daughter: John says that we all have things to do to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival, that everything counts: our jobs, working around the house, looking after one another.
Mum: (interrupting) …and doing your chores during this busy, busy season!
Daughter: Yes, especially during this busy season. But John also says we should take time out in the wilderness.
Mum: In the wilderness? Am I supposed to drop everything and run off the way you do? I cannot do that!
Daughter: Well, actually mum, you can. No one has chained you to that cooker. No one locks you in this house. You can go off to the wilderness. You can take time out. We would all survive if you took a little break to spend some time with God.
Mum: But the wilderness?! Surely this-John knows that we cannot all be going off to the wilderness to meet with God?
Daughter: Mum I think he is using ‘wilderness’ as a metaphor.
Mum: Listen to you! Metaphor! Where are you getting these high-falutin words from? What do you mean, ‘metaphor?’
Daughter: Mum, it’s like the story of Adam and Eve and the snake. Snakes are not the devil, or sin or temptation. But rather the devil, sin and temptation are like a snake, silently slithering around us and then at an opportune moment, perhaps when we least expect it, the devil, temptation, sin strikes. We are bitten and poisoned, like a snake… a metaphor!
Mum: Hmmm, I see. But how does John’s wilderness-metaphor-idea work for us?
Daughter: If we cannot go to the real wilderness, we can create our own wilderness — a quiet, empty space away from the busy-ness of our lives. A wilderness place can be by your bedside at the beginning of the day. In the quiet of the dawn, where you can remember and feel those words you love, ‘Be still and know that I am… God.
Mum: True. True.
Daughter: You can stop any time throughout the day, even in the queue at the matzoh shop, anytime, anywhere. You can pause, and give God thanks for…
Mum: (interrupting) …give God thanks for another day.
Daughter: (smiling) Yes, mum. And we can ask God for strength with a prayer like: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to… know the difference.’
Mum: You know the prayer I like… oh, how does it go? Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow… love; where there is darkness… light; and where there is sadness… joy.
Daughter: As we get ready to go to bed we can create a bit of stillness, and reflect on our day. Giving thanks for successes. And acknowledging failures, short comings, our sins. Asking God’s forgiveness. Resolving to make amends for the wrongs we have done during the day.
Mum: Are you saying these quiet times at the start and ending of our day can be like time in the wilderness, time out with God?
Daughter: That’s right, mum, anytime, anyplace, every time, every place. Just step into the wilderness and meet God for refreshment, renewal, and re-creation.
Mum: That sounds like heaven on earth.
Daughter: Exactly, mum. It is like a moment of heavenly peace on earth.
Mum: (Mum heaves a big sigh) Sigh! At moments like these, that is just what I need. (Mum looks at her daughter’s wet hair and says) Say, why is your hair wet?
Daughter: Oh, yes, I meant to explain about that. He is not called John the Baptizer for nothing. Listening to him, I realized that I want to live expecting and preparing for the arrival of the Messiah, any day. Any moment!
Mum: So… you got baptized? How do you feel?
Daughter: Well, mum, I know I will stuff up again, but right now I feel closer to God than I ever have. And I feel such peace.
Mum: Peace… [untie apron] Here, take my apron.
Daughter: Mum, where are you going?
Mum: Into the wilderness, down to the river.
Mum walks off and Daughter freezes and then sits down.