The desert conjures up images of heat, hunger, thirst, wastelands and wandering, certainly not a place to stage important events. Yet we are all aware that it was in the desert that the Torah was given. The connection between the receiving of the Torah and the desert is underscored by the fact that we always begin Sefer Bamidmar - which details the wandering of the Jews in the desert - on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. Why was such an inauspicious place chosen as the location for history's most important moment?
Perhaps the simple answer is that the Torah speaks for itself. The substance of Torah is much more important than its form. This point is especially important to remember in our generation where marketing plays such an important role in the world at large. More important than the product itself is the image that the product produces. While it often is (unfortunately) necessary to "market" Torah in order to reach out to non - traditional Jews this just reflects the superficiality of our generation. For one who understands the beauty of Torah no gimmicks are necessary. We are willing to go to the desert to receive it.
The desert also reminds us that the Torah must be observed irrespective of one's surroundings. For some people it is the struggle to earn a living which interferes with their ability to properly observe Torah while for others it may be the management of their wealth which serves as a barrier. Others are just plain too busy. Yet the Talmud instructs us that no matter what our circumstances may be, we must "koveah itim LeTorah" - set aside time to study Torah.
Being products of our surroundings it is our obligation to create the proper environment which will enable us and our children to grow in understanding, appreciation and observance of Torah. This begins by living in an environment where Torah observance is encouraged, befriending those who share our values, and having a mentor who will help us to grow in Torah. This is so important, Maimonides states, that if necessary in order to prevent "moral decay" one must move to the desert to escape the corrupting influences of society.
Man left to his natural instincts is often little better than an animal. We see this during war time - and Parshat Bamidmar enumerates the men who were to serve in the military - when murder, rape, plunder and looting are the norm. Similarly a mob of people can be worked into a frenzy acting in ways which would be unthinkable in a civilized environment. Even at the best of times man is full of lust, self centeredness, arrogance, jealousy and pettiness. This is normal. What separates man from animal is how he reacts to these feeling. Does he succumb or does he have the fortitude to choose the path not of an animal but one which reflects the image of G-d? Jealousy typically leads to slander as we try to bring down others to our level. Eradicating jealousy is not realistic but challenging it for positive purposes is. Kinnat sofrim tarbeh chochmah (the jealousy of sages increases wisdom), our sages teach. Similarly, even if one's motivation in doing medical research is prestige and honour society is the beneficiary. In fact the Rabbis tell us that the evil inclination is a necessary ingredient for social progress. The drive for money leads to economic progress and the drive for honour leads one to pursue policies that will meet with society's approval.
A child is born, the rabbis teach us, with only an evil inclination. Infants care only for their own needs (many people unfortunately remain infants their entire lives). The inclination for good must be nurtured and developed. With proper love, care and moral guidance the self centered infant can grow into a sharing adult. Let us apply the wisdom of our heritage in all our endeavours so that the spiritual desert can bloom and bring forth fruit for generations to come. Shabbat Shalom!