The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1:6) makes the following remark in its comments to the opening verse of Sefer Bamidbar, where it explains the significance of the fact that the Torah was given to Benei Yisrael in a desolate wilderness: “Anyone who does not make himself ‘hefker’ [‘ownerless’] like a desert is unable to acquire the Torah.”
An “ownerless” territory is one which anyone can come along and develop without any difficulty or obstacles to overcome. If one wishes to settle and take over an area that is already developed, he will face considerable challenges in his attempt to demolish or undo what is already there so he can build the kind of structure he wishes in the style that he wishes. Chazal here teach that we must approach Torah with an “ownerless” mindset, meaning, without preconceived notions and without predispositions. We must make ourselves “hefker” – humbly open to embrace and practice whatever the Torah instructs and commands, without predetermined ideas that could stand in the way.
One of the applications of this “hefker” concept is the need to avoid preconceptions of what Torah life looks like and what it requires of us. The laws, values and goals of the Torah impose different obligations upon different people, and different obligations upon any given individual in different situations and at different stages of life. Making ourselves “hefker” in relation to Torah means, among other things, being open to the different responsibilities that we might need to assume at various different times, and the kinds of obligations which we must fulfill that might differ from those of others. While we are all certainly bound by the same halakhic code at all times, nevertheless, different people are expected to focus on different areas at different stages. A person’s obligations during his youth when he is unencumbered by family responsibilities will, quite obviously, differ from his or her obligations later in life, when there is a family to tend to, and these demands will of course differ from one’s responsibilities during old age. Likewise, a person with one set of talents will bear different obligations than those people who have different areas of skill. In order to “acquire” our unique share in Torah, we need to approach Torah life with a “hefker” mindset, acknowledging that the Torah will demand different things from different people at different times, and being prepared at any moment to fully accept and fulfill the obligations that the Torah imposes upon us on any given occasion.