The Midrash, in introducing Sefer Bamidbar (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7), makes the following comment regarding the symbolic significance of the desert, where our nation’s early history took place: “Whoever does not make himself ownerless like a desert is unable to acquire wisdom and Torah.”
How exactly does one “make himself ownerless like a desert”?
The Midrash likely refers here to the fact that a person can pitch his tent and use property in a desert without anybody protesting. Wherever and whenever one wishes, he may take over any piece of land, and nobody could challenge his right to use the property. A desert is a place without restrictions, where one can act freely, as he wishes, without being disturbed or challenged. This is likely the Midrash’s intent when it speaks of desert lands as “hefker.”
Accordingly, the Midrash here teaches that we cannot allow any external factor to disturb our devotion to Torah. Our attitude to study and observance must be one of “hefker” – there is nobody and nothing that can get in our way. Making ourselves “ownerless like a desert” means that other people’s attitudes cannot interfere with our commitment to Torah; their scorn and ridicule are as inconsequential as a legal claim made on ownerless property in a desert. It means that our commitment is not shaken by our conditions and circumstances, like the legal security of a tent pitched on ownerless ground. The Torah was given and taught to our ancestors in the desert to teach us that it must be studied, cherished and observed under all conditions, that no person and no factor should ever succeed in undermining our loyalty or devotion. We are to make our religious commitment like “hekfer,” like something that can never be challenged or opposed by anything in the world.
(See Rav Yaakov Chaim Fleischman’s Etz Chadash, p. 119.)