The root of the name B’midbar can range through a whole spectrum of suggestions. It might be from a Semitic source that means “back” or “behind”, hence the word d’vir in the Amidah. Australian slang calls the desert “the back of beyond”.
On the other hand the origin of midbar is explained by some as linked with the root dibber, to speak, and hence davar, a word. At first sight one is tempted to dismiss this second view as hopelessly impossible, but if so why does the Tanach say yesusum midbar v’tzi’ah v’tagel ha’aravah, “Let the wilderness and the parched earth be glad, and the desert rejoice” (Isa. 35:1; cf. Hos. 2:5)?
The prophet is of course predicting that in the time to come all the deserts will become oases and the weeds will be roses, but even before this messianic fulfilment comes about, the populated and the desolate parts of the universe all have a voice and a message if only we listen carefully.
There is a dynamic in the desert as well as the city. Things happen even in what appears to be God-forsaken territory. The High Holyday services tell us V’chol Ma’aminim, which many translators render “And All Believe” – but maybe the real truth is that the words say, “Everything pays homage to the Creator” – even the wilderness.
From the Jewish point of view we have to remember that the Torah was given in no-man’s-land, which reminds us that the Divine Word is addressed to all mankind wherever they are. And of course Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush in the wilderness, again showing that there is no part of Creation which is without God.
True, there are countries where deserts seem to be useless, but not Israel. David Ben Gurion remarked in Southern California in 1951, “I envy you your deserts – not just because they are deserts, but because you can afford t keep them deserts…”