The Torah has the Power to Transform an Arid and Desolate Place into a Beautiful and Fruitful Garden
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah, parashat B’midvar is read on the Shabbat right before the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday which we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
What connection can there be between “B’midvar,” the desert, and the giving of the Torah?
Many commentators, trying to find a connection between them, wonder why God chose to reveal the Torah in the desert. Why there, and not in the land of Israel or another place? Especially, considering that the desert evokes the image of a place of desolation, antagonist to civilization, and a place where there are a lot of adversities.
1) One explanation we can find in the Talmud. Rabbi Mattena teaches that the Torah was given in the desert in order to instill the virtue of humility in its students: “If one allows oneself to be treated as a wilderness on which everybody treads, one’s study will be retained by him; otherwise it will not” (BT, Eiruvin 54a).
2) A second explanation appears in a midrash which teaches: “The Torah was given in a free place. For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, ‘You have no share in it.’ But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly, in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-Hodesh 1).
The Torah was given in the desert, in other words, to emphasize its universal availability. Whatever the Israelites might have been tempted to believe, the midrash teaches, the Torah was not intended to be their exclusive possession; on the contrary, the giving of the Torah in the desert—a non-occupied land—was a clear signal that the Torah was not the property of one nation but was intended for all peoples.
3) A third explanation is related to the nature of the desert and its potentiality to be transformed into a different kind of place. As mentioned at the beginning, usually a desert is described as a desolate and dangerous place.
For example, it is written in the book of D’varim and in the Book of Jeremiah regarding the desert:
“He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)
“…A land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt.” (Jeremiah 2:6)
It is difficult to live and survive in the desert. So, why did the people of Israel receive the Torah there?
The prophet Isaiah can offer us a third explanation: “I will turn the desert into ponds, the arid land into springs of water. I will plant cedars in the wilderness… I will set cypresses in the desert… (Isaiah 41:18-19)
“He has made her wilderness like Eden, Her desert like the garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, Thanksgiving and the sound of music.” (Isaiah 51:3)
Following these verses, maybe we can think that the Torah has the power to transform a desolate place into a beautiful and meaningful one.
The Torah can transform a wasteland into a luxurious garden. Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in the desert and why the Jewish people had its beginnings there.
A society as well as a desert can be a desolate and dangerous place, when there are not ethical regulations. A society without Torah runs the danger of becoming corrupt, immoral, and unjust. With Torah, society can be ethical, just, and peaceful.
One of the customs of the holiday of Shavuot is the decoration of the synagogue with flowers and greenery as part of the celebration of the holiday. We can associate this custom with the connection between the desert and the giving of the Torah. It is as if we actively transform the arid desert into a fertile environment, as we receive the gift of the Torah.
We will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot this coming Sunday evening, Monday, and Tuesday. Let’s celebrate the festival of Shavuot by receiving the Torah and incorporating its laws, values, and lessons in our lives and in our societies, transforming arid deserts into beautiful gardens.