As we begin Sefer Bemidbar Sinai, we encounter an interesting issue. Normally, when we engage in activity that is of a holy nature, we attempt to place ourselves in surroundings that will amplify and enhance the impact of the experience. Hence, we pray only in places that are fitting for such activity. When we learn Torah, we locate ourselves in a place free from distractions. Receiving the Torah was a climax to our becoming a holy nation, one that was chosen by Hashem. Doesn’t it seem strange that receiving the Torah took place in the desert? Is this a place suitable for such a holy experience? Our nation then spends significant time wandering in the desert. Is this a place worthy of being a lodging for us? Is it respectful to the Torah for the desert to be its environment?
The Maharal, in his Sefer Tiferet Yisrael, deals with this issue. He begins by pointing out that the timing and place of an event are never accidental. (Perhaps this is a reference what we are told in chapter three of Kohelet: “For everything there is a time, and every desire has its moment.” On this verse, both the Metzudat David and the Alshich make comments that point to the fact that Hashem is involved in weaving the fabric of cause and effect that surrounds our lives.) The Maharal then proceeds to explain how the desert provides the perfect backdrop for the events that unfold there. He writes that the desert is chosen because it is not naturally fertile. A land that can foster growth is viewed as being linked with materialism. Once something is linked with the physical in this way, it cannot be a proper environment for Hashem to operate in because Hashem is not linked with the physical. Hashem is linked to and stands for that which is holy and metaphysical. In the second stanza of Hallel, we say that the sea fled and the Jordan turned backward. In an environment that houses physicality, there can be distractions to spirituality. Only in a place that is desolate can the Torah be given. Only in such a place can we be free to develop spiritually, free from the leashes of materialism. The Maharal tells us that the Mitzvot of the Torah are not governed by nature. The Torah may make use of nature and material things, but that is not to say that Torah depends on the physical. So too, the rewards and punishments regarding Mitzvot do not seem to obey laws of nature. Therefore, the desert was a perfectly appropriate place for Hashem to give us the Torah.
In our day and age, we are often challenged by our surroundings because of our observance. Surrounding ourselves with proper friends and role models is of paramount importance. Technology permeates our lives at every corner, and we must be alert to possible overexposure. After so many years of wanting to get into the real world, we sometime find ourselves longing for a controlled environment, free of the hustle and bustle of the never-ending things that make demands of our time. The Maharal’s comments come to reassure us that our commitment to Torah and our connection to Hashem is portable. Our spirituality is not locked into any one place or environment, preventing us from being observant. Religious fervor is within us and has the ability to grow no matter where we find ourselves. We need only to find it within ourselves.