Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, p. 236ff;
Vol. XXVIII, p. 22;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Bamidbar 5745

What the Background Says

In the art of communication, the choice of setting is very important. Indeed, the setting itself imparts a significant portion of the message, for a message’s application should not be separated from its content. Choosing an appropriate setting not only facilitates the comprehension of a concept, it can point to and actually begin its application.

Similar concepts apply with regard to G‑d’s choice of a location for the giving of the Torah. Our Sages ask:1 “Why was the Torah given in the desert?” G‑d was not compelled to give the Torah in any given place. As such, His choice of location can provide us with insights.

This significance, moreover, is relevant, not only for the Jews who received the Torah at Sinai, but for man in every generation. For we praise G‑d as Nosain HaTorah, “the Giver of the Torah,” using the present tense.2 The insights we can derive from the setting of the giving of the Torah teach us how to approach the Torah at all times, and in all places.

Where No Ownership Exists

The first of the explanations given by our Sages in response to the above question is that a desert does not belong to any individual. The same holds true for the Torah. It is not the exclusive possession of any particular individual, tribe, or type of personality. On the contrary, “The crown of the Torah is set aside, waiting, and ready for every Jew…. Whoever desires, may come and take it.”3

The ownerless nature of the desert also provides a key to understanding how a person can apply the above lesson and take possession of the Torah. As our Sages continue, a person must “make himself like a desert, relinquishing all concerns” i.e., he must remove the constraints which hold back his commitment to the Torah.

The Torah is G‑d’s will and His wisdom, and is thus as infinite and unbounded as He is Himself. Therefore approaching the Torah requires a person to step above himself and accept a different framework of understanding.4

This was reflected in our ancestors’ pledge: Naaseh VeNishmah, “We will do and we will listen.”5 The order of the promises is significant. Instead of first listening to G‑d’s commandments and then deciding whether to accept them or not, they promised to obey Him regardless of what was entailed.6 Rather than have their understanding shape their commitment, they promised to have their commitment shape their understanding.7

A Declaration of Dependence

When a person makes such a commitment, G‑d molds his environment so that the commitment can be expressed.8 This is also alluded to by giving the Torah in the desert, as our Sages say : “Just as a desert is not sown and not tilled, so too, when a person accepts the yoke of Torah, the yoke of worldly concerns is removed from him.” In the desert, our ancestors had to depend on G‑d for every element of their existence. There were no natural resources on which they could rely.

Nevertheless, this was not a cause of anxiety or worry. On the contrary, despite the barrenness and desolation of the desert, our ancestors entered it with loving trust, as the prophet declares:9 “I have remembered for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, your following after Me in the desert, in an uncultivated land.”

And G‑d responded with loving care. Their food, their water, even their clothing, were all granted the Jews miraculously. G‑d provided everything they needed, giving them the opportunity to devote themselves solely to the Torah. So perfect was the setting in which our ancestors lived that our Sages declared: “The Torah was given… solely to those who partook of the manna.”10

This is not merely a story of the past. Even when we seem to have natural means of deriving our own livelihood, the truth is that nature itself is a series of miracles. Because of their constant recurrence, we no longer see these miracles as special.11 But this should not obscure the truth we must realize that at all times, we are relying on G‑d.

This awareness should motivate an ordering of priorities. Instead of giving primacy to our material concerns, we should give precedence to the Torah. When we do so, we can be confident that G‑d will provide us with our needs, as He provided for our ancestors. Even when, like our ancestors in the desert, we see no natural means to provide for our livelihood, we should persevere in our commitment to the Torah and rely on Him.

For the Desert to Bloom

The barrenness of a desert can also serve as an analogy for a person’s spiritual state. Although a person feels empty and desolate and perhaps with good reason, for he has been living in a spiritual desert there is no need for despair. G‑d descended into the wilderness to give man His most precious possession, the Torah. And the same is true today; regardless of a person’s spiritual level, G‑d offers him the opportunity of establishing a connection through the medium of the Torah.

Encouraging us to emulate this initiative, our Sages12 urge us to “be the students of Aharon,… loving the created beings and bringing them close to the Torah.” In Tanya,13 the Alter Rebbe explains that this statement teaches that we must reach out and love every Jew, even one who is as barren as a desert, and whose only redeeming characteristic is that he is G‑d’s creation.

Our Sages relate that during the Jewish people’s 40 years of wandering, they were able to transform the desert into “settled land” to the point that trees flowered and gave fruit. Our study of Torah can produce a similar effect. Aspects of ourselves and of others that appear barren can become productive through the influence of Torah.

The Ultimate Flowering

Parshas Bamidbar, “In the desert,” is always read before the holiday of Shavuos.14 The Jewish holidays do not merely commemorate events of the past, but also provide us with an opportunity to relive them.15 To relive the Sinai experience, we first have to pass through the desert and its lessons at least in a spiritual sense. This is the message communicated by our Torah reading.

These lessons are particularly relevant today, for our generation is awaiting a new phase in the revelation of Torah the era in which “new [dimensions of the] Torah will emerge from Me.”16

The giving of the Torah will never be repeated,17 as the Rambam writes18 with regard to the Era of the Redemption: “The essence of the matter is: This Torah, with its laws and statutes, is everlasting. We may neither add to them or detract from them.” Nevertheless, our Sages have said19 that the Torah teachings of the present age are “as nothing compared to the teachings of Mashiach.” For in that era, the G‑dly dimension of the Torah will be openly revealed, and everyone will be able to appreciate its spiritual message.

Just as the Jews eagerly prepared themselves for the revelations at Mount Sinai, anxiously counting the days until they would receive the Torah,20 we too should prepare for the revelation of Mashiach’s teachings with excitement and joy.

And then, with the coming of the Redemption, “the pastures of the desert will sprout, and the tree will give its fruit.”21 May it be in the immediate future.