The desert conjures up images of heat, hunger, thirst, wastelands and wandering, certainly not a place to stage important events. Yet 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 Bamidbar—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 an era where marketing plays such an important role in the world at large. Oftentimes, the image that the product produces is more important than the product itself. While it is (unfortunately) often necessary to “market” Torah in order to reach out to non-traditional Jews (or even traditional ones), this 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 that interferes with their ability to properly observe Torah, while for others it may be the management of their wealth that serves as a barrier. Others are just plain too busy. Yet 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 that will enable us 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 that the Rambam rules (Deot 6:1) that if necessary, one must move to the desert to escape the corrupting influences of society.
Left to our natural instincts, people can act in unthinking and cruel ways. We see this during wartime—and parshat Bamidbar enumerates the men who were to serve in the military—where murder, rape, plunder and looting are often 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—albeit unfortunately— normal and human. What separates us from animal is how we react to those feelings. Do we succumb to the lowest of the low, or do we have the fortitude to choose the path that reflects the image of G-d?
Jealousy, for instance, typically leads to slander as we try to bring down others to our level. Eradicating jealousy is not realistic, but channeling it for positive purposes is; kinnat sofrim tarbeh chochmah, the jealousy of sages increases wisdom (Bava Batra 21a). Even if one’s motivation in doing medical research is prestige and honour, society is the beneficiary. The evil inclination can be a necessary ingredient for social progress. The drive for money may lead to economic progress, just as the drive for honour may lead one to pursue policies that will meet with society’s approval.
Infants care only for their own needs. 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, caring adult who brings forth fruit for generations to come.
 In its original context, the teaching is used to explain why we replace a teacher with a second, better one—knowing there are others to replace oneself keeps one on one’s toes. The application of this principle to today’s classroom is most complex, as this was taught in an environment in which Torah teachers did so on a volunteer basis.