While the first significant word in Numbers, “BaMidbar” (in the desert), bestows upon the Biblical book its Hebrew name, this is not the first time that reference is made to the desert in the Five Books of Moses. Already in Genesis, the desert is depicted as a place of exile, devoid of significant human habitation, attracting those consigned to its bleak landscape to live an outlaw and even criminal existence.
However, in Exodus, the same desert environment that was earlier so clearly associated with desolation and violence, takes on an additional, supremely positive spiritual context. While there was understandably great natural reluctance on the part of many of the Jewish slaves to follow G-d out of Egypt into the forbidding landscape of the desert, and seemingly no end to the people’s subsequent complaining about the lack of food and water, it is also specifically in the desert that G-d is revealed to Moses and ultimately Gives the Torah to the Jewish people.
Whereas Rashi explains Moses’ grazing of Yitro’s flocks “Achar HaMidbar” (at the farthest outskirts of the desert) as an indication of his high moral sensibilities in terms of being determined not to allow the animals to graze on anyone else’s private property, R. Ovadia Sephorno attributes to Moses a particular spiritual motivation for going to the desert:
“…And he came to the mountain of G-d, to Horeb”—he alone, to experience personal solitude and to pray on the way, with the same linguistic connotation of (Numbers 13:22) “And he (Calev) came to Hebron….”
The quest to find a place whereby one can separate himself from others in order to commune with the Divine, is already implied, according to Sephorno, by the suggestive behavior attributed by the Torah to Isaac:
“And Isaac went out to ‘converse’ in the field towards evening…” -He turned aside from the road in order to pour out his conversation before G-d in the field so that travelers upon the road would not interrupt him…
Several times in the story of the plagues in Egypt, we are told that Pharoah asked Moses to pray for a plague to end, promising to free the Children of Israel and then reneging. In one such instance, Moses comments that he must leave the city in order to pray. Rabbinic tradition extrapolates from that single instance a regular pattern of behavior. Moses keeps returning to at least the countryside, if not the desert, in Egypt, each time he needs to convey to G-d Pharoah’s responses to the progressively intensifying plagues intended to effect the release of the Jews from bondage:
(Exodus 9:29) “And Moses said to him (Pharoah): When I leave the city, I will extend my palms to G-d (in prayer…)
(Ibid. 33) “And Moses went out from Pharoah, leaving the city, and he extended his palms…”
Rashi comments—“But within the city he did not pray, because it was full of idols.”
It is logical to assume that not only was Moses looking to separate himself from idols, but also from those who worshipped them, i.e., to find a desolate, undisturbed location where he could pray, report to G-d what Pharoah had said, and receive instructions as to how G-d Wished him to proceed.
And when Moses asks for a sign regarding the ultimate success of his mission to free the Jews, G-d Promises that he and the people will return to the very spot in the desert where Moses had experienced his first Revelation at the site of the burning bush, in order for all those who have left Egypt to be instructed how to become a “Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” by means of receiving the Torah:
“And G-d Said: Because I will Be with you, and this will constitute for you the sign that I have Sent you—when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will worship/serve G-d on this mountain."
Away from a myriad of distractions that could have prevented the people and their prophet from appreciating the magnitude of the Divine Revelation, the desert helped to create a psychological atmosphere that can allow for people to fully accept the obligations of living according to G-d’s Law. The Rabbis of the Midrash assert that aside from the logistical benefit of finding a location devoid of people, and the idolatrous practices so synonymous with Egyptian society, the desert also contributed to an insight regarding the ubiquitous availability of Torah:
“The Rabbis taught: The Torah was Given by means of/within the context of three things—fire, rain and desert…
From where do we know that the desert played a role? As it says, (Numbers 1:1) “And G-d Spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert".
And why was the Torah given by means of/within the context of these three things? Just as these three things can be obtained for free by anyone in the world, so too the words of Torah are free, as it is said, (Isaiah 55:1) “All who are thirsty should go to obtain water, and anyone who has no money should go and break bread and eat, and break bread and eat without money and without a price for wine and milk."
Another interpretation: Why (was the Torah Given) in the desert? Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.”
The first of the Midrash’s interpretations appears to be decidedly economic, in the sense that just as the desert is accessible to all who wish to enter and dwell therein, so too, no one is permitted to monopolize Torah knowledge or charge for its dissemination. The alternate Midrashic explanation is intensely psychological in nature. Making oneself Hefker (ownerless), does not speak as much to the idea of an individual being owned by another, but rather the manner in which one views himself. An individual who is “full of him/herself” will have difficulty accepting and following the directives of virtually any outside authority figure; consequently at least some degree of Hitbatlut (self-abnegation) is expected of the truly spiritual individual. Being out in the desert powerfully contributes to an individual’s sensibility that his or her existence is relatively insignificant when compared to the grandiose scale of Creation. This would appear to be precisely what Rambam was thinking when he offered a practical means by which one can achieve both the love and fear of G-d:
“And what is the way to love Him (G-d) and fear Him? When a person
reflects upon His Actions and His Great and Wondrous Creations (the
desert landscape certainly being one of them*) and he sees within them
His Wisdom that is beyond comprehension, immediately he loves and
praises and extols and is consumed with an overwhelming passion to know
the Great G-d…
But when he thinks further about these very things themselves,
immediately he trembles, stumbles backwards and is terrified, and he
realizes that he is a tiny, lowly, insignificant creature standing with a
puny inferior intellect before the Perfect Intellect..."
The figurative symbolism of receiving the Torah in the desert appears to
parallel a number of other rabbinic themes stressing humility and
self-abnegation as a prerequisite for an individual to properly
understand and carry out the Commandments of G-d. Moses, the
intermediary between G-d and the people when the Torah is first given,
is described as “Anav Me’od MiKol HaAdam Asher Al Penai HaAdama” (the
most extremely humble individual on the face of the earth). Not only
does G-d’s Revelation to Moses take place in the desert, but G-d Chooses
to speak to this prophet from the midst of a burning bramble bush,
interpreted by R. Eliezer “…Ma HaSneh Shafel MiKol HaIlanot SheBaOlam,
Kach HaYu Yisrael Shefeilim Yerudim LeMitzrayim… “ (Just as the bush is
the most lowly of shrubbery in the world, so too were the Jews lowly and
subjugated to Egypt). The symbol of the burning bush thereby equates
Moses, the Jews and the bush as sharing the quality of lowliness.
Even Mt. Sinai upon which G-d Descended and Moses ascended in order to
receive the Ten Commandments and the entire corpus of Jewish law, is
categorized as the lowest of mountains.
Historically, the desert has been a place that has attracted visionaries
and groups of individuals who felt that the materialism and corruption
of urban societies prevented them from communing with G-d and developing
their spiritual capacities.The Torah suggests that G-d orchestrated the
Jews’ going into the desert because the atmosphere created in such
desolate and lonely surroundings would be extremely conducive for the
entire nation to abandon the example of their previous malevolent
flesh-and-blood masters. Instead, the belittling impact of the desert
would inspire them to focus upon serving humbly and selflessly the
Creator of the Universe.
Following in the footsteps of those redeemed from the bondage of Egypt,
we must attempt to reconnect with the open spaces of the wilderness and
seek in their natural fashioning a source of awakening to the Mastery of
G-d, to access the free inspiration of the Divine therein and to become
a little more “ownerless” in order that we can internalize lessons and
truths that were previously beyond us.
Rabbi Jack Bieler has been the Rabbi of Kemp Mill Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland
since 1993. He has published numerous articles on Jewish education and on
issues facing Judaism today, especially concerning Modern Orthodoxy.