Why was the Torah given in the Desert, not Israel
We always begin reading the book of bemidbar prior to Shavuot and this reminds me of the fundamental question as to why was the Torah given in the desert.
It may seem like an obvious question, but we do take it for granted. If you would ask your average person to describe their ideal scenario for receiving the Torah, they would probably tell you it should be given in Eretz Yisrael, maybe Yerushalayim, perhaps even the Beit Hamikdash which is the place where G-d dwells. At the very least, one might think it should take place in a metropolis where people live, in an established, civilized location. But for some strange reason, this revelation takes place in desolation, on an anonymous mountain, in the middle of the desert. We don’t even really know where Mount Sinai is. There's no remnant of its sanctity, in contrast to other mountains in our history that our tradition continues to hold dear and sanctify.
Here’s another way to look at it: If a great king wants to make an important announcement or proclamation, would he do it in a desert? No – he would do it in the center of the city. He’d get on national television so that his message would be received by as many people around the world as possible. Such a momentous event would be held in a luxurious palace with all types of posh and elaborate decorations. But no! G-d makes his most significant announcements – the giving of the Torah and all the commandments that follow – in the most barren and unimpressive of places... a desert
So why the desert?
There are numerous answers:
Firstly, after Yetziat Mizrayim – the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were a slave nation with a slave mentality and they needed rules and regulations. The Jews were not yet a distinct people who understood that they need to be dedicated to Hashem and had not yet had a realization that G-d is at centre of everything. We needed to be told how to serve this ‘new’ G-d of ours and definitely needed a set of rules by which to live, otherwise there would have been chaos and anarchy. The need was immediate and as there were no cities or civilisation between the Reed Sea and Eretz Yisrael, the receiving of the Torah needed to take place in the desert.
Secondly, the desert is a cultural vacuum – there is nothing there and it belongs to nobody. So that there would not be any disputes between the tribes and in order that one shouldn’t say the Torah was given in my land, and the other say it was given in my land. Therefore, the Torah was given in a public and ownerless location. The also teaches us about the universality of the Torah. It belongs to everyone and anyone who wants to come and learn it is invited to.
Thirdly, there is a connection here to the book of bemidbar – the book begins with an intricate description of the Israelite camp. The tabernacle is at the centre – the focal point.
Around the tabernacle was the camp of the Levites – Moses and Aharon's family and the levite families.
The outer circle had 3 tribes on each side (North – south East and west)
Each tribe had a different view or perspective of the tabernacle. The way the camp was set up was unique and could not have been replicated inside Jerusalem. This meant that things looked different to each tribe from its angle and that they viewed the focal point differently. Therefore their perception of the Torah was unique to each person, meaning that it belongs to all and can be interpreted in many different ways. Just as the tribes viewed the focal point differently so we can each view the Torah differently. According to Jewish tradition, there are 70 perspectives or faces to the Torah. Seventy angles, seventy levels of depth which demonstrate that the Torah looks different to each of us. There is a lovely parable to illustrate this called:
Six Blind Men and the Elephant:
Once upon a time there were six blind men. They lived in a town in India. They thought they were very clever. One day an elephant came into the town. The blind men did not know what an elephant looked like but they could smell it and they could hear it. 'What is this animal like?' they said. Each man touched a different part of the elephant.
The first man touched the elephant's body. It felt hard, big and wide. 'An elephant is like a wall,' he said.
The second man touched one of the elephant's tusks. It felt smooth and hard and sharp. 'An elephant is like a spear,' he said.
The third man touched the elephant's trunk. It felt long and thin and wiggly. 'An elephant is like a snake,' he said.
The fourth man touched one of the legs. It felt thick and rough and hard and round. 'An elephant is like a tree,' he said.
The fifth man touched one of the elephant's ears. It felt thin and it moved. 'An elephant is like a fan,' he said.
The sixth man touched the elephant's tail. It felt long and thin and strong. 'An elephant is like a rope,' he said.
The men argued and each claimed that his was an absolute truth based on limited and subjective experiences. They just could not agree.
The king had been watching and listening to the men. 'You are not very clever. You each only touched part of the elephant. You did not feel the whole animal. An elephant is not like a wall or a spear or a snake, or a tree or a fan or a rope. The elephant is a very large animal and each man touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth’.
Essentially this story shows that we all have limited experience and therefore partial perspective and even if two people have the same experience, their subjective interpretations will most likely be different. And the midrash tells us that due to the profoundness of G-ds Torah there are 70 valid ways of understanding the Torah so it will be a unique experience for each of us
Finally, according to Lord Chief Rabbi Sacks – the G-d of Israel and the Torah are not confined to a particular place which was the belief in ancient times – the Torah was not given in a specific place but rather the wilderness, given during a journey – not at the beginning or at the end. Had the Torah been given in Israel then people could have said that it was only relevant in Israel. The fact that the Torah is given in no-man’s land shows that it is applicable everywhere and always.