According to the Talmud God gave the Torah in the desert because He wanted to teach us a fundamental truth about the nature of the study of the Torah.
“If a person humbles himself like the wilderness, which everybody treads upon, then the Torah is given to him as a gift.”
On Shavuot, the Torah reading for the festival also begins with a reference to Bamidbar, the wilderness of Sinai.
And indeed the Hebrew word Sinai is related (sound-wise) to the Hebrew word for “hatred” (sin’ah).
It alludes to heightened disdain of the people of Israel for the subterfuges of materialism.
The Sinai desert was not only ownerless but also barren; there was no water and no vegetation to provide food or clothing.
According to the Midrash, God gave the Torah in the desert because He wanted to teach us a fundamental truth about it.
If G-d had given the Torah in a settled area, that would have implied that it was tied somehow specifically to the people of that place.
He therefore gave the Torah in the ownerless desert, making it clear that it does not belong to anybody in particular; anybody that so chooses can make the Torah their own.
The entire episode of Shavuot takes place in the barren Sinai Peninsula. Bamidbar 21:18 states “umimidbar matanah,” which the Talmud in Nedarim 55 explains as “The gift of the Torah came out of the wilderness.
Why was the Torah given in a desert, a desolate and inhospitable locale where it is impossible to plant or bring forth fruit? And why is Shavuot is identified with the mitzvah of Bikkurim (bringing the first blossoming ripe fruits to the Temple)?
How do these two, seemingly contrary, concepts of barrenness and fruitfulness merge into the festival of the Giving of the Torah?
Perhaps the connection of Bamidbar and Shavuot is obvious. A world without Torah is a midbar, a barren wasteland. A world with Torah becomes Bikkurim, a blossoming and fruitful paradise.
A world without the moral law of the Torah quickly wastes away into spiritual desolation. A world with Torah can become a Garden of Eden.
On that first Shavuot 3,327 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God proclaimed that we can transform a wilderness into paradise, a midbar into Bikkurim, a barren wasteland into a fruitful garden.
G-d reached out to us and announced that we are able to come up to Him (Shemot 24).
Shavuot is not only the day of the Giving of the Torah but also a day to recreate the world. Before the Giving of the Torah, the world was a wilderness (tohu vavohu – void and empty). But through the Torah, the world had the potential of become a Garden of Eden again.
The concluding verse of the first chapter of Bereishit is “Vayehi erev vayehi boker yom hashishi – It was on the sixth day that heaven and earth were completed.” The Talmud in Shabbat 88 makes note of the “hei hayediah” (the letter hei which is the definite article) of the word hashishi. The Talmud explains that this refers not only to the sixth day of Creation but also to the sixth day of Sivan, the day God gave the Torah.
G-d made all of Creation conditional on the acceptance of the Torah by Israel on the sixth day of Sivan. Only then would heaven and earth find fulfillment. If Israel had not accepted the Torah, the world would have returned to void and emptiness.
Only by our willingness to say na’aseh v’nishma, to completely subject ourselves to God’s authority, can we transform the world from a barren desert into an orchard, bringing forth Bikkurim.
That is why the mitzvah of Bikkurim is tied to Shavuot, when God gave us the Torah. If we don’t accept the Torah, we are lost in the midbar of immorality and corruption.
It is interesting to note the in Hebrew the root דבר
“DAVAR” is the same one for the following words:
Desert – miDBAR – מדבר
Speak – meDABER – מדבר
Word / Thing – DAVAR – דבר
Commandment – DIBER – דבר
Ten commandments – ASERET HADIBROT –
It implies that when a person is in a desert (miDBAR) – remote from obstruction of “noises” of the daily life, he can then be exposed to the real WORD (DAVAR), absorb and internalize it.