The Rabbeinu Bachye observes: “It is known that the issues of the spies, mikoshesh eitzim, and the rebellion of Korach all took place in the desert and yet it is mentioned here, ‘And it was when the Children of Israel was in the desert’. However we must explain according to the simple explanation that this is to emphasize how great the sin of the mikoshesh was. For this reason ‘in the desert’ had to have been mentioned to say that in the desert where all the Jews were and the manna came down from heaven every day, which is one of the open miracles that teach us about the nuance of the world, there we find this mikoshesh profaning Shabbos and coming to be against this nuance.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
“The nuance of the world,” or chiddush ha’olam, is that Hashem created the world ‘something from nothing.’ Shabbos is the testimony that Hashem created the world out of nothing for it is a day above nature. The entire journey of the Jewish People in the desert was also something from nothing; food came from heaven each day, water came from a rock, The Clouds of Glory by day and fire by night were a force field against outside threats – whether it was scorpions and poisonous snakes, rugged terrain that it flattened, weatherization to keep people comfortable, and even ensured their clothes didn’t wear out or get too small. All of these things were undeniable and explicit examples of Hashem’s ability to create something from nothing.
Yet, with it all, the Mekoshesh had the audacity to break the Shabbos, the quintessential example of something from nothing, the nuance of the world! Indeed this wasn’t any ordinary transgression of Shabbos; this was a “slap in the face” to basic faith in Hashem, which was why the Torah went out of its way to put such an emphasis on the matter.
Whatever this person’s motivations were, even if he had the purest intent, the Torah is teaching us that he still made a wrong decision. We see from this the extent to which a person has free choice. One would think that he would be forced to do the right thing because Hashem’s presence was clear as day and he should have had such gratitude towards Hashem for using what He created from nothing to take care of him. Yet, he still made the wrong choice and profaned Shabbos, the very testimony of something from nothing.
The Rabbeinu Bachye later quotes a medrish that the Mekoshesh was Tzlafchad, the father of Benos Tzalfchad who comes up in the Torah portion of Pinchas. The Gemara in Shabbos 96b calls Tzelafchad a tzadik, a righteous person. Chazal say this is because he just wanted to send a message about the severity of Shabbos and he purposefully transgressed Shabbos, even though he was warned not to and was warned that he would incur the death penalties, which he did. Yet we see from here that even though his sin was different from everyone else, it was still a very severe sin, and even though he is still called a tzadik and had the purest of intent (to send a message to the Jewish People and act as a sacrifice for the sanctity of Shabbos), if he would have thought about his decision a bit longer he would have come to the conclusion that it would have been a bigger sanctification of Hashem’s name to keep the Shabbos, rather than to transgress it.
Making decisions in life is not at all easy, but Hashem endowed us with the ability to always make the proper decision, no matter what the scenario is. That is part of the gift of free will that Hashem gave to us. We have to be extremely careful to use it wisely.