With Shavuot just a few days away and as we begin studying the book of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, we are presented with an implicit question regarding the nature of receiving of the Torah. We all know how important Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple were in ancient Judaism. Judaism began as a religion centered around the temple in Jerusalem, and only became the community and home-based religion that we all currently enjoy much later.
The implicit question regarding the receiving of the Torah is why was this done in the middle of the desert, and not in Jerusalem/the Temple? Now, for biblical literalists, this may not be too strong of a question. They would simply answer that only after receiving the Torah were we given the imperative to go to Israel and build the Temple. However, from a historical perspective, the reality is the opposite. The details of the story of Matan Torah were likely finalized hundreds of years after the Temple was built. Shavuot, the holiday centered around the giving of the Torah, actually began as a purely agricultural holiday and only gained its current status in the post-exilic period. So why, then, was the story not centered around Jerusalem and the Temple, like so many other stories in the Bible, such as the story of the Akeda — the sacrifice of Isaac?
There is a famous Midrash that asks this exact question. Well, maybe not the exact question, given that the Midrash probably did not have access to all of this historical information. But it was close enough. The Midrash asks why the Torah was given in a place of Hefker – an ownerless place – and it gives an absolutely beautiful answer. The Midrash says that the Torah was given in the desert, a wilderness, so that no single group could claim it as its own. Imagine that! All throughout Jewish history, multiple groups were continuously fighting for the sole right to interpret the Torah. Much of the Tanakh can be read as an implicit fight between the temple-centered, ritual focused priests and the temple-hating, morally concerned prophets. Arguments like this continued for almost all of Jewish history, and in every stage, new groups arose that would claim sole ownership of the Torah.
The lesson of the Torah being given to us in the desert is clear: no single group can claim that it has the exclusive right to the Torah and its interpretation. God could have easily given the Torah in the Temple, the king’s palace, a Beit Midrash or Yeshiva University. However, he did not. The Torah was given in an ownerless place because it is free for all to come partake in its wisdom and does not belong to any one person or group.