It’s More Than Just Sand: The Wilderness Focuses on the Power of the Desert in the Bible

Dec. 3, 2020


Stories of desolation, abandonment and contemplation of what lies beyond the known – all inspired by the outsized role deserts play in the Bible – make their world premiere this Sunday, Dec. 6 on Canada’s YES TV network.

The Wilderness, a 10-part biblical docudrama series created and produced by Toronto-based Canadian filmmaker, videographer, and producer Igal Hecht, explores connections to God, the Prophets and the desert through dramatization and interviews with religious and historical experts.

“The Biblical prophets knew that the mystical expanse, the barren earth and the endless terrain were fertile ground for revelation and direct exposure to God,” Hecht told the CJR. “It is in the most desolate places where God has made the most significant appearances, where He speaks into the lives of His people.”

Director Igal Hecht and DOP Sergey Maydin Israel
Director Igal Hecht and DOP Sergey Maydin in Israel

The Wilderness was filmed in the biblical heartland of Israel and the southern region of Mitzpe Ramon, where Abraham, Jacob, Jesus and many other biblical figures had dialogues with God.

The stories explore the lives of Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mary, Jacob, Hagar, King David, King Saul, Cain and Abel, Job, Lot, and others. Hecht called it “a labour of love.”

“It’s a snapshot of seeds that happen in the wilderness and how the desert plays such a major part in every biblical story,” he explained.

Hecht got his inspiration from his 2016 docu-series Daughters of Eve.

“I did a show which focused on women in the Bible where we took stories and recreated them with a much larger budget and much larger cast,” he said. “I was travelling through the desert on another project and stopped to get some visuals and started thinking of the stories in the Bible that take place in the desert. A couple months later I came up with a demo. YES TV gave it a green light and it went from there.”

The Wilderness opens with the temptation of Jesus. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights in the Judean desert.

In episode two, Hecht portrays the biblical patriarch Lot, who accompanies Abraham and Sarah in their journey through the desert.

“I act when I don’t have to speak,” Hecht said. “In this case, it was because of my beard. In [the story of] Cain and Abel, we got to recreate the first murder. We gave it a Guy Ritchie kind of feel – a stylistic way the murder happens shot [from] different angles. We had some fun with it.”

Working with a limited budget, the production began in late 2019, and lasted about five weeks. The small crew included Lior Cohen as assistant director/aerial photography, cinematographer Sergey Maydin, and Gai Hoffmann on makeup. There were more than 30 Israeli actors.

“The challenge we faced was losing light,” said Hecht. “The sun goes down quickly in the desert.”

Post-production was done in Canada at Hecht’s Chutzpa Productions.

Although filmed in Israel, the series is in English. “We were very careful with the text. All of the dialogue is taken directly from the [Hebrew] Bible or the New Testament,” Hecht said. “Some of these stories have no dialogue or have one line.”

Each episode features a number of experts telling the story, lending perspective and analysis.

“We don’t preach,” said Hecht. “We are retelling biblical stories for people interested in history, maybe trying to understand what the Bible is about and what [it] can incorporate in your life in 2020.”

Born in Ashkelon, Israel, Hecht moved to Toronto with his family in 1988. In 1999, he founded Chutzpa Productions, showcasing controversial and thought-provoking films that have focused on human rights, politics, land disputes, conflict, satire, and pop culture.

He’s been involved in the production of more than 50 documentary films and some 20 television series. His work has been screened nationally and internationally on Netflix, BBC, the Documentary Channel, CBC, YES TV and HBO Europe.

The Wilderness airs Dec. 6th on YES TV at 6:30 p.m. and repeated at 11 p.m.

A trailer may be viewed at:

CJR Rosh Hashanah Message: Believing is Seeing


There is a Hebrew expression that goes far beyond the hope for a shanah tovah. It is, “May the old year with troubles end. Let the new year, with blessings, begin.” I hope that this will be the case for us, as individuals and families, for our community, our country, the Jewish people and the world. 

Even with 20/20 eyesight, none of us could have anticipated the past year. But I want to suggest a vision for 5781 based on recent research in neuro-optics. Although every eye has a blind spot near the center of the visual field, the mind’s eye does not know its own gap. In the middle of our universe is a hole which the eye/brain duet transforms into a full image. The eye also transmits upside down images, which the brain turns 180 degrees, situating the external world upright, solid and safe, one in which we can stand with certainty.

You see, believing is seeing. What we think controls our perceptions.

Other studies indicate that our brains create mental models which determine what we see and want. If you are grieving, you see many others who are sad. If you are in love, you see the world in a positive way. What we value floods our vision. We see what we believe.

A key word for the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah is the Hebrew root word ?-?-?  (R-‘A-H), to see. Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber taught us that leading words, leitwörter, build “arcs of significant repetition.” The repeated occurrence of a root word adds significance to the narrative.

Seeing plays a role in both Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah. In Genesis 21, the selection for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sarah initially sees Hagar’s son laughing, perhaps mockingly, and insists that the Egyptian slave-woman be banished with Avraham’s first-born son, to protect Yitzhak, the true heir. Hagar becomes a fugitive, fleeing to the wilderness.

In that uncertain and fearful place, Hagar despairs. She says, “let me not see the child die.” Encouraged by an angel-messenger, Hagar is told not to fear, not to lose sight, to take the child by the hand. Then, God opened her eyes and she saw a spring of water. The child is saved and receives a divine promise that he will become a great nation. And Hagar “called the Eternal One who spoke to her, You are El-Ro’i. God who sees me.”

The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Genesis 22) begins with Avraham called to take Yitzhak to the mountain that God will have him see. After the boy is bound on the altar, an angel-messenger tells Avraham to stop, “do nothing to the boy, for I know that you have awe (a word play on see) for me.” Only then does Avraham see a ram, which will become the sacrifice. Avraham called that mountain Moriah, the place where God sees. In turn, he is told that his descendants will be innumerable; later he is instructed to see the stars.

In both narratives, Hagar and Avraham must open their eyes to see new possibilities, new opportunities, new realities. Only when they believe can they see.

Many of us have spent the past six months looking at screens. Many of us have had limited occasions to see and embrace family. Many of us have not seen our classrooms or offices. The Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah call us to look to the New Year with hope and vision. We don’t know what is before us, but we are called to believe that, like Hagar, we need not fear, we need not lose sight of one another.

Instead, we are called to take each other by the hand — really or virtually — and to go forward with hope that God will help us to see life differently and to make it better.

In his play, Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw has the serpent in the Garden say to Eve, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” The snake slyly suggested the subversion of society. But the American political leader Robert F. Kennedy transformed those lines into a statement of hope and aspiration: “Some see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

This Rosh Hashanah, more than many others of the past, we are called to fill the blind spot of our vision, to reverse an upside down world. We are called to dream, to hope and to aspire. Believing is seeing. Let us believe that in this New Year we will see hesed, care and compassion, concern and cooperation. And then let us build that world.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl

Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, and a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem.