The Midrash, commenting to the word “ba-midbar” (“in the desert”) in the opening verse of Sefer Bamidbar, for which this book is named, makes several statements regarding the significance of the fact that God gave Benei Yisrael the Torah specifically in a “midbar,” a barren wilderness. In one famous passage (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7), the Midrash states, “Anyone who does not make himself ownerless like a desert is not able to acquire wisdom or Torah.” Many different explanations have been offered for the meaning of this exhortation to make oneself “ownerless like a desert.”
The Imrei Emet understands the Midrash to mean that we must be prepared to study even when we don’t feel emotionally responsive to the material. Just as a desert does not produce vegetation even if seeds are planted, similarly, the Imrei Emet writes, we sometimes find that the “seeds” of knowledge that we “plant” within our beings do not yield any tangible benefit. Sometimes the material we study does not pique our interest, and does not appear to affect us in any way. We want the Torah we learn to produce spiritually nourishing “vegetation” within us, to inspire and uplift us, but this does not always happen. The Midrash thus teaches us that in order to acquire Torah knowledge, we must be prepared to devote ourselves to learning even when we feel like a “desert,” unresponsive and unreceptive to the material.
The Imrei Emet cites in this context the Mishna’s famous teaching in Pirkei Avot (4:9), “Whoever upholds the Torah in a state of poverty will in the end uphold it in a state of wealth.” On the surface, the Mishna seems to promise that if one struggles to observe the Torah amid financial hardship, despite the difficulties and sacrifices entailed, he will be rewarded with wealth. Additionally, however, the Imrei Emet suggested that the “poverty” and “wealth” mentioned by the Mishna refer to an emotional condition. If one persists in the study of Torah in his state of “poverty,” when he receives no emotional satisfaction, enjoyment or inspiration from his learning, then he will, gradually, grow and reach the point where he studies in a state of “wealth,” when he indeed finds Torah study enjoyable and spiritually enriching. Even when we do not feel naturally driven or inspired to learn, we must struggle to continue learning and trust that eventually it will yield the internal, spiritual “produce” that we seek, elevating us and providing us with a profound sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.