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While the first significant word in Numbers (1:1), “B’midbar” (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 (Genesis 16:7; 21:14; 21:20-21).
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.
Why the Desert?
The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1:7) asserts 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 God 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 interpretation in this Midrash appears to be decidedly economic. 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.