Category Archives: Torah Ecology

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.” – Rav Hanina ( Talmud: Taanit, 7a)

I finished teaching a class at McHenry County Community College this past week called “Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.” I taught the class last year, but each year it’s different as our food situation evolves (or devolves) and my own knowledge base grows.

My formal coursework has been in religion and Bible. I have enjoyed taking and teaching many classes. Informally, I read widely about food, the environment, sustainability and agriculture, in particular animal agriculture. I maintain a Twitter feed primarily for the purpose of following trends and picking up leads to interesting reading. This year I also enjoyed an online class in “The Ethics of Eating” from Cornell University. I fed myself and my family and friends for 50 years, operated a large organic garden, worked in the food industry, and now I work (very part-time) on a farm.

Finally, though, what most encourages me to constantly reshape these classes is student input. An aha moment for a student is an aha moment for me. In the last series I taught, that aha moment was hearing Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor and animal activist, speak. This time it was a comment from Michael Pollan’s 2008 “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” “But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution.”

He continues, “As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feed lot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”

There is a lot of talk these days about 2050 and the need to feed a predicted world population of 10 billion. How will we accomplish that? Are there enough land and water resources? How do we bring true food security to the “food insecure?” As our world continues to change, will we perhaps all become food insecure? Can our current path make us healthier and happier?

As the class evolved, I realized that I was teaching two models for “feeding the world.” The first model is the one offered up by our American culture: the Industrial Food System (or IFS). The second is what I will call the biblical model. Each of these models utilizes different strategies to produce food, and each produces different results.

What I understood as I taught this year is that not only is each of these models a “system” in every sense of the word, but like any good system, each has a purpose or mission that defines its objectives, strategies and results.

Michael Pollan introduces his Open Letter this way: “The food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.”

But if the IFS mission of maximizing production at all costs has failed, so has the biblical mission of expanding the realm of ethical consciousness. This mission has failed not so much because of a problem in the message but more from the dismissive attitude of a secular world toward sacred texts and wise teachers in human history.

We are not the first generation to sit on the edge of catastrophe, yet we reject ancient teachings before we even take time to know what they are. Their wisdom barely enters our consciousness as we struggle with problems that threaten our continued existence on the planet.

Yet just as there may be things of value to glean from the Industrial Food System before we reform it or throw it out, there are things of value to take from the Torah and other ancient teachings.

When I began my Torah Ecology project, my intention was to focus on food, animal rights and the environment. In this first year of my project, my interest isn’t so much on specifics like what people ate but more on what it meant to them — or at least what it was supposed to have meant to them according to the “Author”/authors of the Torah. Understanding this takes me on some thought journeys that seem far afield, but ultimately each week of close study contributes something to my ability to get inside the biblical worldview.

When I redesign the class for next year, I will organize it very specifically around these two models, the IFS and the biblical model, maximum production vs. maximum ethical consciousness. How does each of these models relate to human health, other species on the planet and the planet itself? What does each model say about our relationship to other species and to the planet? Specifically, what does each model say about animal agriculture, agricultural workers, health, waste and human consciousness?

One thing I know about our current food culture is that it encourages a total disconnect from the sources of our food. That disconnect in turn generates distortions in our relationship to transcendence, our environment, other human beings, other creatures, even our own bodies. Working in the fields planting and harvesting, sharing the fields with other animals and cooking with real food break down that disconnect, restoring satisfying, beneficial and meaningful relationships. The biblical model expresses that understanding of interconnectedness.

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Torah Ecology: Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22)

Deuteronomy (Devarim, “things” or “words”) is attributed to Moses, his final words to his people in which he summarizes their experiences over 40 years wandering. Since it is presented as a repetition of material in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it invites intra-textual comparison.

What interests me about this book is its different tone and theology. Perhaps one of the places Deuteronomy’s distinctive theology is most apparent is in the Ten Commandments, and the distinction is clear when we compare it with the Ten Commandments of Exodus:

Ex. 19:11 – And be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai (וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים, לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי:  כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁי, יֵרֵד יְהוָה לְעֵינֵי כָל-הָעָם–עַל-הַר סִינָי).

Deut. 4:12 – And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ:  קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל).

While there is a palpable sense of a corporeal presence in the Exodus passage, Deut. makes it clear that there is no form, only a voice. By skillfully manipulating the verbs, Deut. doesn’t contradict Exodus, but it is clear that this G-d is conceived as a more abstract phenomenon. For more on the idea that the biblical G-d seems to have a body, according to some parts of the text (primarily priestly), check out “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel,” a fascinating podcast by Prof. Benjamin Sommers.

While Judaism generally, outside the sphere of Jewish mysticism, posits that G-d has no body, Christianity is founded on the idea that G-d did take on a body. The Torah suggests both/and through skillful literary strategies.  Intra-textual comparison demonstrates that both ideas derive from the biblical text.

In this portion, we see a less layered communal arrangement, really just Moses and the Israelites. In addition, the Israelites consistently bear responsibility, good and bad, that was distributed in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

In Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro (Jethro) observes Moses judging the people and tells him his burden is too great — that he should appoint judges:

Ex. 18:22 – And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for thee and bear the burden with thee (וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, בְּכָל-עֵת, וְהָיָה כָּל-הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ, וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ-הֵם; וְהָקֵל, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְנָשְׂאוּ, אִתָּךְ).

In Deuteronomy, Moses makes this recommendation himself:

Deut. 1:12: How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? (אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם).

Deut. 1:13: Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you’ (הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם).

In Numbers, the responsibility for Moses (and Aaron) not entering the Land is placed squarely at the feet of Moses and Aaron themselves based on their action at Meribah:

Num. 20:12 – And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’ (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם)

In Deuteronomy, Aaron disappears from the equation, and Moses attributes the fact that his entry is barred to the people of Israel:

Deut. 1:37 – Also the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, saying: Thou also shalt not go in thither (גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר:  גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם).

In addition, while Moses accepts his fate without complaint in Numbers, in Deuteronomy, this exchange occurs:

Deut. 3:25 – Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon (אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן:  הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה, וְהַלְּבָנֹן).

Deut. 3:26 – But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me; and the LORD said unto me: ‘Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto Me of this matter’ (וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, רַב-לָךְ–אַל-תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד, בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה).

Once again, blame transfers to the Israelites — and after the extraordinary and intimate relationship between G-d and Moses described in Exodus and Leviticus, it is surprising to hear this sharp rebuke at the end of their journey together. The flattening of Israelite society with the disappearance of the priests (and Yitro, a “priest of Midian”) is also noteworthy.

Even as the priests are thrown out of the story and Moses becomes the solitary leader, Moses own stature decreases as he blames the people he leads and begs G-d for a reprieve. In addition, we get less sense of the “personality” of the Israelites, their passions and fears, even as G-d becomes a more abstract entity. What can these differences in the telling of the story mean?

Certainly there is the explanation of source criticism, that Deuteronomy derives from another source, one not favorable to the priestly tradition. On the other hand, priestly texts in the other books direct profound criticisms at the priests through the Golden Calf episode and the Rebellion of Korach, and even in the episode in Num. 20:12 where Aaron is criticized along with Moses. These criticisms are potentially more damaging than simply eliminating the priests from the story.  In addition, scholars generally agree that the Torah was redacted in the 5th century by priests whose imprint is on the entire document.

Several thoughts occur to me: first, that while the Deuteronomist may have been antagonistic toward the priests, the priests were probably less than positive toward the Deuteronomist. As texts were both preserved and synthesized, it resulted in a diminution of all leaders. At the same time, failures in leadership transfer to the people of Israel, satisfying both those who would exalt Moses as the supreme leader and those who would exalt the Aaronides or priests.

These thoughts assume acceptance at some level of the documentary hypothesis, and I have always preferred to view the received text more holistically. Clearly there are differences of style, tone and content in Deuteronomy — but I like to think about how this book integrates with the whole Torah.

One way to think about it is as the story of Hebrew scripture itself presents it, Moses’ words at the end of his life. In this case, the changes in style and tone become a function of Moses’ age and perhaps exhaustion, his somewhat dispassionate reflections on his life and forty years of wandering with this people, his passion and devotion to a cause and his tragic disappointment that results from one impulsive moment. It is a glimpse of the same story through another lens.

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Torah Ecology: Mattot (Num. 30:2-32:42) / Massey (Num. 33:1-36:13)

This double portion that concludes Numbers begins with regulations related to women’s vows and ends with regulations related to women who inherit. As attractive as it might be to our modern sensibility to view these sets of regulations as a bold statement for women’s rights and responsibilities, it is equally tempting to comment that these rights and responsibilities are circumscribed by relationships to men. Women’s vows have validity only to the extent a father or husband permits; and a woman’s right to inherit is for the purpose of preserving the inheritance of her father in the absence of a male heir.

I like to view these passages in a different way, though, by setting aside, to the extent possible, my own cultural preoccupations with equality and the rights of the individual, in this case, women. Biblical culture emphasizes community and roles in ways we don’t. The primary ideal is not individual liberty and responsibility but communal harmony and interdependence. Men have a role in this culture and women have a role. Without each fulfilling their role, the whole cannot survive. When necessity dictates it, people move beyond their prescribed roles to maintain the whole.

Preservation of a mission-directed community also dictates the form vengeance against the Midianites takes. This vengeance on behalf of G-d and division of the spoils of war is Moses’ final act before he is gathered to his people. Moses delegates 1000 from every tribe to “avenge” the Lord and Phinehas, son of Eleazar the priest, to carry the holy vessels and trumpets into war. Phinehas already demonstrated his zealotry on behalf of the Lord when he thrust a spear through two individuals, Zimri, an Israelite man, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman. Now his zeal will lead this community devoted to the Lord against a community devoted to Ba’al Peor, a proxy war in a sense.

When the Israelites prevail, they kill all the men and take captive all the women of Midian, their little ones, cattle, flocks and goods and burn all their encampments. Moses holds these women accountable for distracting and leading the men of Israel astray at a critical moment in their history and orders every woman who has lain with a man killed along with every male child. In this way, the threat to the Israelite community and its mission is neutralized now and in the future as the remaining women and girls are absorbed into the Israelite community.

The fighting force is admonished to carry out their mission with similar thoroughness as they enter the Land to take it: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell” (Num. 33:55).

The Hebrew word translated here as “harass” (וְצָרְרוּ) means bind, pack or wrap. In some contexts, it means to make narrow. It is associated with hostility and enmity. צָרְר is the root in “Mizraim,” that is, Egypt, the narrow place. In this sense, leaving the inhabitants of the land in it returns the community of Israelites to their condition of servitude, the condition they left behind in the exodus from Egypt. What a strange thing it would be to begin the Israelite story with leaving one narrow place, enduring the trials of 40 years wandering in the desert, and finally returning another narrow place.

Freedom is the basic existential requirement for establishing right relationships with G-d, one’s fellow human beings and the rest of creation. It is a prerequisite for recreating the Garden in the Land, the task of this community. Ironically, the text presents the case that creating a blood-free zone requires shedding blood: “So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it” (Num. 35:33). In this instruction, we return to the real world mystery of animal sacrifice, in which blood generates impurity and purifies, in which the blood of an animal substitutes for the blood of a human being, in which there is a profound sense of human responsibility and guilt for introducing death and bloodshed to creation and in which more bloodshed somehow atones for that sin.

In this way we return to the ongoing effort of this community to work out the paradox that sustaining life requires taking life and to consider how a transcendent G-d can enter a finite community and live within it: “And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel” (Num. 35:34).


I have struggled some as I’ve worked my way through Numbers to discover structural mechanisms. While I’ve read various passages in Numbers many times, this is a first attempt to analyze it systematically, and it will require some percolation before those mechanisms become clear to me.

Thanks to the comments of a friend, I notice that there are two censuses, the first of the Exodus generation, the second of the generation that will enter and take the Land. I also notice three location divisions, the encampment around Mt. Sinai followed by the march toward Kadesh-Barnea; the encampment at Kadesh-Barnea and the march toward the plains of Moab; and the encampment in the plains of Moab preparing to enter the Land. Chapter 33 of Numbers recounts the entire journey.

The complaints and various rebellions occur on the 38 year march to and in the encampment at Kadesh-Barnea: the murmuring about meat in Num. 11, Miriam and Aaron’s murmuring against Moses in Num. 12, the negative report of the spies and Israel refusing to take up its mission in Num. 13 and 14, the rebellion of Korach and the levites in Num. 16, the complaint about water and Moses striking the rock in Num. 20, and the complaint about lack of food and water in Num. 21. The final acts of fear and faithlessness occur in the plains of Moab in the incidents with Zimri and Cozbi and with Ba’al Peor.

All of the leaders’ complaints center around issues of power and jealousy. All but two of the peoples’ complaints center around issues of food and water. Only the last two incidents on the plains of Moab are direct affronts to G-d, Zimri and Cozbi at the door of the Tent of Meeting and finally, eating with the Midianite women before Ba’al Peor.

The second census follows these last events, telling us that those not ready to begin the next part of a mission that requires complete focus and devotion to a purpose have been purged. The instrument of this communal purification is the earth itself, as the fires, plagues, serpents and dramatic earth opening to swallow perpetrators demonstrate an ethical consciousness pervading everything. Through it all, the relationship of G-d and Israel is passionate and volatile but is also sustained and sustaining.

I hope to come back to these structural elements in the book of Numbers in more detail at a later time.


Numbers presents two strategies for forging Israel into a fighting force with an unswerving focus on mission: purging within and extermination without. Like animal sacrifice, these practices are horrifying today. How can this be an expression of the love story embodied in the Exodus from Egypt? How can the stories in which these techniques are used inspire us today?

In curriculum writing as in grant writing and mission statement writing, goals or basic principles are general and something you hope will last the life of the organization. Measurable objectives are slightly more flexible. Strategies are completely changeable. If a strategy doesn’t serve to meet objectives, it is common sense to change it. I imagine G-d might use different strategies in today’s world based on the principles the Torah teaches.

These strategies the Torah reports in Numbers are time- and location-specific even if we accept them as historical (factual) events. As I come to understand some of the basic principles, I can see how they might work. Pinchas and Mattot-Massei, for example. As I thought about the events of those portions, I can see how they might shock me into razor-sharp consciousness about my purpose and mission going into battle, how they would eliminate distracting, counter-productive thoughts and activities. I can see how they might have the effect of a Plan A that must succeed because there is no Plan B other than to languish in the desert and leave the world as they found it, according to the text, purposeless, greedy, ruthless, violent, enslaved to the wealthy and powerful.

The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. – James A. Baldwin

There is a major restriction on the right to the land, however, and this is the next stage of the Israelite mission, after they take it and settle in it. There is even a powerful restriction on the right to life, to not become “prey,” and that restriction is that Israelites are to use the land and life itself to build a just community, a holy community, spreading holiness in the world. Failing that, they “merit” nothing more than the people before them, nothing more than other animals in fact. In the plains of Moab, they are still on the boundary of hope, hope that they will create that sacred community.

I can also reject these strategies for my own life because in my current existential situation, they run utterly counter to other principles in the Torah that are critical in our world.  Ethical decision-making is often complex, involving multiple “goods” and “bads” that are difficult to disentangle. Doing a good thing, like preserving life, can involve taking life, but if it doesn’t have to, why would we?

I believe that in Judaism, we are not meant to follow a set of practices slavishly regardless of the circumstances. This is why Jews and Jewish scholars discuss and analyze in every generation, applying eternal principles and adapting strategies to ever-changing places and times. An excellent article by Rabbi Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, shows this idea in action with regard to kashrut

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.  – James A. Baldwin

Torah Ecology: Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

The book of Numbers continues to elude me structurally. Neither an overall structure nor micro-structures within certain passages have revealed themselves yet.

There are so many dramatic passages like the Sotah (wife accused of acting unfaithfully), Naziriteship, consecration of the Levites to the Lord instead of the first-born, the second Passover, the marching order, the unrest of the people over “flesh” to eat and the quail that rains down upon them, Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion, the report of the spies and the ascendance of Caleb and Joshua, preliminary skirmishes with the Amalekites and Canaanites, a stoning of a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath, the rebellion of Korach, the story of Zimri and Cozbi, the Midianitish woman, the daughters of Zelophehad. Threaded through it all are the murmurings, the plagues and judgments, the food theme, the numberings and namings and allocations. The structural mechanisms that support the texts of Leviticus and Genesis don’t seem to be present in this book, though.

Perhaps Numbers is more of a flow, a fitful movement forward, directed to forging the Children of Israel into a mission-focused marching force. One of the strongest clues to this overall direction is the phrase in Num. 15:39, when G-d commands fringes on the corners of Israelite garments so “you do not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you used to go astray.”

Numbers, then, is a book about forging a people with a mission, a single-minded purpose, to remember and do all the Lord’s commandments and be holy to their G-d (Num. 15:40).  The Children of Israel must develop the strength and sense of mission they will require to enter the Land of Israel. The time of wandering is coming to an end. Restiveness and distraction are luxuries they cannot afford.

Perhaps this urgency explains in part the horrific story of Numbers 25, when the people “go astray” after the daughters of Moab and then are further lured into worshiping their gods. G-d instructs Moses to hang the chiefs of the people up in the face of the sun, and Moses instructs his flock to kill those around them who went astray. Can we imagine the scene?

And then “one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting” (Num. 25:6). What could possibly have inspired this action in the context of what was already occurring? Certainly it was not a casual act but rather an action springing from rage or despair.

The action stirs Phinehas to grab a spear and go “after the man of Israel into the chamber” where he “thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). Even more startling, Phinehas’ rage and the action that results from it are rewarded as G-d recognizes him for saving his people.

Following a communal purging, a command to smite the Midianites with whom the Israelites recently fraternized, a recount of the people, the episode with the daughters of Zelophehad which asserts the importance and birthright of every part of the remaining community, and the appointment of Joshua, when all is in place for the next step — there is a section on sacrifice, described like this: “My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Me, shall ye observe to offer unto Me in its due season.” This thematic element is important, and I am noting it here to follow-up with on another occasion. The Midianites “called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods” (Num. 25:2). Phinehas acts so that G-d does not consume the Israelites. The imagery of food and eating is central to the meaning, but this requires a separate analysis.

It is difficult for us to connect with the violence, even intra-communal violence of this text. Imagine living with a close-knit community of people for forty years, sharing the joys and tragedies of life with them, births, deaths, hardships and celebrations. You are at a resting place prior to entering the promised land and face formidable obstacles, possibly death, before you will rest again.

Your young people in particular want moments of enjoyment and relaxation before embarking on this final thrust into an unknown future. They party. They enjoy sexual liaisons. They share food. They relieve themselves of the burden of a mission and let their minds wander. Ultimately they lose any sense of purpose and mission. Suddenly the community is in the vortex of a bloodbath, one act of rage or despair stimulating another act of rage followed by a community turned on itself to eradicate the purposeless activity that threatens to destroy it.

I imagine an intense mix of emotions in this situation, but most of all I imagine being shocked into the strong sense of purpose and mission that the coming days will require. And immediately G-d commands another census, numbering all those of the Children of Israel twenty and older “able to go forth to war” (Num. 26:2). Those in the count are the most mission-focused of their people, the strongest and least susceptible to distraction. They are a chastened and hardened fighting force gathering in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho at the edge of the Land.

While it seems tragic that Moses is denied the opportunity to enter the Land with his people, Moses doesn’t dispute the decree but asks that the Lord appoint a man over the congregation, a man appropriate to lead the people on this segment of their mission. Joshua, a man who already demonstrated his commitment to the task before them, receives the commission.

The conscious choice theme of earlier chapters in the story of the Children of Israel has become a sharpened, mission-specific theme focused on entry to the Land. There the Children of Israel are expected to fulfill the most difficult task of all, remaining true to their covenant and establishing right relationships with their neighbors, the rest of their world and their G-d within the borders of the Land.

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Torah Ecology: Chukat (Num. 19:1-22:1)-Balak (Num. 22:2-25:9)

The portions during these last two weeks have been so full and rich that it’s hard to know where to start…and I confess, I’ve been short on time so haven’t been able to give them the attention they deserve.

Taken together, though, these two portions continue the story of shaping a people wandering, often aimlessly, despite the amazing opportunity and mission put before them. A people who “murmur” and complain despite their many reasons for gratitude, a people of fragile faith easily led astray despite the signs and wonders they witness.

In Chukat, we read of the Red Heifer, whose blood causes impurity and purifies. Miriam dies, the people complain they have no water. G-d instructs Moses to speak to the rock and water will come forth for the Children of Israel and the cattle. Instead Moses strikes it twice, saying with some aggravation, “Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” We can almost hear his disbelief.

Aaron is stripped of his garments, which pass on to his son, then dies and the people mourn him even as Moses learns he, too, will not enter the Land with those whom he leads: “And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Num. 20:12)

Once again we learn that those who journey through the wilderness are tragically flawed as are their leaders. These passionate people show that holiness in the world is aspirational not fully actual. One cannot live life in the real world without treading on it, one can only strive for full consciousness, mission-awareness and faith. Despite “best” efforts, failure brings consequences. Despite failures, they continue to move history forward.

The story told in Balak begins in Chukat and continues into the following portion, Balak. Balak son of Zippor, King of Moab, calls upon Balaam son of Beor to curse the Israelite “hordes”poised to enter the land of Moab. The story repeats a familiar theme: despite human desires and human failures, history moves forward according to G-d’s plan offering those whom G-d chooses the opportunity to participate consciously in moving the plan forward…or to blindly resist it.

Three times Balaam’s ass balks when he sees an angel blocking the path — an angel Balaam himself cannot see. “Even” an ass is more in tune with G-d’s intention than this prophet. Even an ass can see G-d’s messenger in the world.

Three times Balaam plans to curse the Israelites as Balak requires him to do and three times utters a blessing instead. Only with the third blessing does Balak see: “And he took up his parable, and said: The saying of Balaam the son of Beor, and the saying of the man whose eye is opened; The saying of him who heareth the words of God, who seeth the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, yet with opened eyes.” (Num. 24:15-16). What the rest of the creation knows effortlessly, human beings resist.

As it is so often, here again the message is that righteousness is about breaking down the barriers of consciousness, the self-absorption that alienates us from ourselves and the rest of creation, our purpose in life and the flow of history. Three times bested by a humble and patient talking ass who accepts his mission and immediately sees the messenger of G-d that Balaam cannot see. Three attempts, two with 7 altars and the sacrifice of 7 bullocks and 7 rams, an extravagant display…and only on the third attempt, without all the fanfare, does Balaam finally see and accept his purpose.

As history continues its drive forward, each nation in turn swallowing the one that preceded, Balak and Balaam return to their homes unceremoniously. We are left wondering if they, like the Israelites, will return to their blindness and self-absorption, leaving perception and conscious choice to other creatures less encumbered with their sense of themselves.

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Torah Ecology: Korach (Num. 16:1-18:32)

The most dramatic moment in this dramatic story of rebellion and punishment comes in verse 16:27 with this poignant image: “…and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, and their sons, and their little ones.'”

It’s those words, “and their little ones” that rivets our attention and holds it through the following verses when the ground opens her mouth and swallows them up, when Korach, his men, their households and all that pertain to them  “go down alive into the pit.” That image of the little ones standing at the door of their tents with their older brothers and parents lingers as we contemplate the earth swallowing these innocents alive.

It’s a repeat motif, pride, the “murmuring” that spreads fear among the children of Israel, the lack of trust, the failure to embrace a mission, the desperation that results from wandering aimlessly in the wilderness (“We perish, we are undone, we are all undone” – Num. 17: 27).

These are indeed children of Israel, yet they can hardly afford to be children. They are also a subsistence community, on the march through the wilderness, and the actions of some affect all, first with the earth swallowing up those who transgress ethically and everyone and everything associated with them, then with fire that engulfs the co-conspirators and their families, then with plague threatening those who lost their way and their families.

As we saw before, the natural world is permeated with the ethical consciousness that flows throughout creation. It rebels against those whose pride or fear causes them to lose their path and sense of purpose, striking first by swallowing up alive, then with fire and finally with plague. These natural disasters threaten the Israelites as much as they threatened the Egyptians in the land which the Israelites came.

But it is that image of the little ones and their brothers and mothers swallowed up along with their rebellious fathers that stays with us reminding us that in addition to nothing new, there is no such thing as innocence under the sun and that the actions of one put us all at risk.

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Torah Ecology: Shelach (Num. 13:1-15:41)

This portion uses an unusual construction of the phrase “Children of Israel,” namely congregation of the children of Israel, pointing repeatedly to the idea of community. Like the preceding portion, it illuminates how the community is so easily led astray by the “murmurings” of instigators. Whereas in the last portion, it was the mixed multitude (“rifraff,” according to some translations) who fomented insurrection, in this portion, it is representatives of the princes of Israel who divert them from their purpose by generating fear.

Interestingly, the evil report of the spies is framed in terms of food: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof…” (Num. 13:32). The people pick up that motif and view themselves as “animal food” for predators: “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey…'” (Num. 14:3) Joshua and Caleb reverse that theme, turning it on the current inhabitants of the land, when they say, “…neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us…’

Finally G-d picks up the theme, returning to the idea of the Israelites as animal food: “…your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” (Num. 14:29) … and “…your little ones, that ye said would be a prey, them will I bring in…” (Num. 14:31), and then, “But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness” (Num. 14:32) and “…until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness (Num. 14:33).

What distinguishes the community of Israel from others is nothing intrinsic. Only to the extent that they understand themselves as a community of people with a purposeful mission, and only to the extent that they live in fulfillment of that mission, are they anything more than animals, and like animals, they can become food.

What is the mission? The text tells us explicitly at its conclusion, “‘…that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.'” Fulfilling this mission brings benefits: possession of the Land and a higher rung on the food ladder than other animals. And distraction, lack of focus, lack of commitment, susceptibility to “murmuring?” That leads to a land that “vomits you out.” It leads to a world where you are not only hunter but prey, where you claim no role of privilege in the food chain, a world of biological pre-determination.

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Torah Ecology: Beha’alotkha (Num. 8:1-12:16)

From the perspective of structure, this section begins with the purification of the Levites in 8:5, paralleling the story of Miriam’s leprosy and purification beginning in 12:1. Within that envelope are four complaints and outcomes.


For a person seeking biblical wisdom on the ideal diet for human beings, this section is a goldmine. The details of the people “lusting” for “flesh” and disdaining the gift of manna is matched by G-d’s proclamation that the people will eat meat not one or two or five or ten or twenty days but “until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you.”

The first complaint is diffuse, the people murmuring and “speaking evil” in the ears of the Lord. The consequence is immediate, a fire that ravages the boundaries of the camp.

The second complaint is very specific, as the “rifraff” or “mixed multitude” recall longingly “the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic…” At the same time, they dismiss the manna, lovingly described in some detail…but not by the Congregation of Israel, inspired to join in with whoever constitutes the rifraff. Instead of appreciating the Lord’s saving action, represented in the manna, they weep at the doors of their tents.

In the case of the second complaint, the response is first, in the wind, which brings and drops quail, 6 feet deep and a day’s journey all the way around, an unimaginable amount. The people gather for two entire days and a night, foregoing sleep, and “While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.” The second consequence of ingratitude coupled with gluttony is a plague.

The order of events: Fire, a beneficial wind bringing an abundance of riches, followed by plague.  Purification and a second chance. Indulgence, and a plague.

א  וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוָה; 1 And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the LORD…
ד  וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ, הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה; וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ, גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat!
ה  זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. 5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;
ו  וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ. 6 but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’–
ז  וְהַמָּן, כִּזְרַע-גַּד הוּא; וְעֵינוֹ, כְּעֵין הַבְּדֹלַח. 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium.
ח  שָׁטוּ הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ וְטָחֲנוּ בָרֵחַיִם, אוֹ דָכוּ בַּמְּדֹכָה, וּבִשְּׁלוּ בַּפָּרוּר, וְעָשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עֻגוֹת; וְהָיָה טַעְמוֹ, כְּטַעַם לְשַׁד הַשָּׁמֶן. 8 The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil.
ט  וּבְרֶדֶת הַטַּל עַל-הַמַּחֲנֶה, לָיְלָה, יֵרֵד הַמָּן, עָלָיו. 9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.–
י  וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם, בֹּכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו–אִישׁ, לְפֶתַח אָהֳלוֹ; וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה מְאֹד, וּבְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה רָע. 10 And Moses heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased.


א  … וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַר-בָּם אֵשׁ יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה. 1 …and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp.
ב  וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ. 2 And the people cried unto Moses; and Moses prayed unto the LORD, and the fire abated.
ג  וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, תַּבְעֵרָה:  כִּי-בָעֲרָה בָם, אֵשׁ יְהוָה. 3 And the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burnt among them.
יח  וְאֶל-הָעָם תֹּאמַר הִתְקַדְּשׁוּ לְמָחָר, וַאֲכַלְתֶּם בָּשָׂר–כִּי בְּכִיתֶם בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר, כִּי-טוֹב לָנוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְנָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם בָּשָׂר, וַאֲכַלְתֶּם. 18 And say thou unto the people: Sanctify yourselves against to-morrow, and ye shall eat flesh; for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying: Would that we were given flesh to eat! for it was well with us in Egypt; therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.
יט  לֹא יוֹם אֶחָד תֹּאכְלוּן, וְלֹא יוֹמָיִם; וְלֹא חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים, וְלֹא עֲשָׂרָה יָמִים, וְלֹא, עֶשְׂרִים יוֹם. 19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
כ  עַד חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים, עַד אֲשֶׁר-יֵצֵא מֵאַפְּכֶם, וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְזָרָא:  יַעַן, כִּי-מְאַסְתֶּם אֶת-יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבְּכֶם, וַתִּבְכּוּ לְפָנָיו לֵאמֹר, לָמָּה זֶּה יָצָאנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם. 20 but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?’
לא  וְרוּחַ נָסַע מֵאֵת יְהוָה, וַיָּגָז שַׂלְוִים מִן-הַיָּם, וַיִּטֹּשׁ עַל-הַמַּחֲנֶה כְּדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה וּכְדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה, סְבִיבוֹת הַמַּחֲנֶה–וּכְאַמָּתַיִם, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאָרֶץ. 31 And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought across quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day’s journey on this side, and a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and about two cubits above the face of the earth.
לב  וַיָּקָם הָעָם כָּל-הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל-הַלַּיְלָה וְכֹל יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֶת-הַשְּׂלָו–הַמַּמְעִיט, אָסַף עֲשָׂרָה חֳמָרִים; וַיִּשְׁטְחוּ לָהֶם שָׁטוֹחַ, סְבִיבוֹת הַמַּחֲנֶה. 32 And the people rose up all that day, and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quails; he that gathered least gathered ten heaps; and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
לג  הַבָּשָׂר, עוֹדֶנּוּ בֵּין שִׁנֵּיהֶם–טֶרֶם, יִכָּרֵת; וְאַף יְהוָה, חָרָה בָעָם, וַיַּךְ יְהוָה בָּעָם, מַכָּה רַבָּה מְאֹד. 33 While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.
לד  וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה:  כִּי-שָׁם, קָבְרוּ, אֶת-הָעָם, הַמִּתְאַוִּים. 34 And the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people that lusted.


Moses complains that G-d has placed an impossible burden on his, Moses’, shoulders in making him the leader of this people. He neither conceived nor gave birth to them, and it shouldn’t be his job to keep them fed according to their infantile desires. He complains that his load is too heavy. If this is going to continue to be the plan, G-d should just kill him.

G-d’s solution to Moses’ complaint is administrative, much along the lines of Yitro/Hobab at an early place in the text. G-d tells Moses to bring seventy elders of the people, and G-d will “take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee…” Fair enough, but “it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more.” Does this mean they in fact were not providing the necessary assistance to Moses?

The story continues to tell us, “there remained two men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp.” When someone comes to report that two not among the 70 are assuming the mantle of “prophecy” and Joshua advises to  “shut them in,” protecting Moses, his mentor, Moses replies, “Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!” With these words, he at once affirms his own modesty, a characteristic that gets more attention in the next segment, and the true nature of the people’s mission, to be a holy people.

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ:  לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–עָלָי. 11 And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?
יב  הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי, אֵת כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–אִם-אָנֹכִי, יְלִדְתִּיהוּ:  כִּי-תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת-הַיֹּנֵק, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו. 12 Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers?
יג  מֵאַיִן לִי בָּשָׂר, לָתֵת לְכָל-הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי-יִבְכּוּ עָלַי לֵאמֹר, תְּנָה-לָּנוּ בָשָׂר וְנֹאכֵלָה. 13 Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they trouble me with their weeping, saying: Give us flesh, that we may eat.
יד  לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי כָבֵד, מִמֶּנִּי. 14 I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.
טו  וְאִם-כָּכָה אַתְּ-עֹשֶׂה לִּי, הָרְגֵנִי נָא הָרֹג–אִם-מָצָאתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וְאַל-אֶרְאֶה, בְּרָעָתִי.  {פ} 15 And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.’ {P}


טז  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶסְפָה-לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, כִּי-הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו; וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ. 16 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with thee.
יז  וְיָרַדְתִּי, וְדִבַּרְתִּי עִמְּךָ שָׁם, וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ, וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם; וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתְּךָ בְּמַשָּׂא הָעָם, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא אַתָּה לְבַדֶּךָ. 17 And I will come down and speak with thee there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
כד  וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה–וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-הָעָם, אֵת דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה; וַיֶּאֱסֹף שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ, מִזִּקְנֵי הָעָם, וַיַּעֲמֵד אֹתָם, סְבִיבֹת הָאֹהֶל. 24 And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the Tent.
כה  וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בֶּעָנָן, וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו, וַיָּאצֶל מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ הַזְּקֵנִים; וַיְהִי, כְּנוֹחַ עֲלֵיהֶם הָרוּחַ, וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ, וְלֹא יָסָפוּ. 25 And the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders; and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more.
כו  וַיִּשָּׁאֲרוּ שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים בַּמַּחֲנֶה שֵׁם הָאֶחָד אֶלְדָּד וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִי מֵידָד וַתָּנַח עֲלֵהֶם הָרוּחַ, וְהֵמָּה בַּכְּתֻבִים, וְלֹא יָצְאוּ, הָאֹהֱלָה; וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה. 26 But there remained two men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp.
כז  וַיָּרָץ הַנַּעַר, וַיַּגֵּד לְמֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר:  אֶלְדָּד וּמֵידָד, מִתְנַבְּאִים בַּמַּחֲנֶה. 27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’
כח  וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו–וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם. 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: ‘My lord Moses, shut them in.’
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים–כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם. 29 And Moses said unto him: ‘Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!’
ל  וַיֵּאָסֵף מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה–הוּא, וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 30 And Moses withdrew into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.


Miriam’s and Aaron’s complaint appears to be that Moses has taken all the power to himself, that is, they are jealous: “Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?” Yet their specific issue is with the Cushite (black) woman that Moses married. Her racial origin is mentioned twice in verse 1. The specifics seem to be manufactured, a pretext to disguise their real issue, jealousy.

Their claim is refuted in Moses’ own words before Miriam and Aaron even complain when Moses shows his willingness, even his desire, to share power with people who have a sense of their mission. The claim is refuted by the text itself in the next verse, which affirms, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.” We are then left with the original, spurious complaint, a mere pretext.

The “solution” is described in an interesting way: “And the LORD spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam…” It almost seems as if G-d leaps to Moses’ defense, Moses, whom we were just told, is very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth. G-d points out the ways in which Moses is superior to any other prophet, including Moses and Aaron, who cannot claim that G-d speaks directly to them, mouth to mouth. Moses “is trusted in all My house.”

Strangely, although Miriam and Aaron conspired together against Moses, and the Lord’s anger is kindled against them, only Miriam is punished: “And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.”

When Aaron pleads with Moses on Miriam’s behalf, then Moses with G-d, G-d responds with these words, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not hide in shame seven days? let her be shut up without the camp seven days, and after that she shall be brought in again.”

I don’t have an answer to the question, why the focus on Miriam when both she and Aaron are at fault? Has Aaron already been demoted enough for the episode with the Golden Calf? Is there a subtle reference to the Garden of Eden story? A question for another time.

א  וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח:  כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח. 1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
ב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה–הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה. 2 And they said: ‘Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?’ And the LORD heard it.–
ג  וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד–מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.  {ס} 3 Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.– {S}

The Solution:

ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה פִּתְאֹם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-מִרְיָם, צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיֵּצְאוּ, שְׁלָשְׁתָּם. 4 And the LORD spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting.’ And they three came out.
ה  וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן, וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל; וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם, וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם. 5 And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth.
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם–יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ. 6 And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.
ז  לֹא-כֵן, עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה:  בְּכָל-בֵּיתִי, נֶאֱמָן הוּא. 7 My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house;
ח  פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט; וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם, לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה. 8 with him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?’
ט  וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה בָּם, וַיֵּלַךְ. 9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and He departed.
י  וְהֶעָנָן, סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל, וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם, מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג; וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מִרְיָם, וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת. 10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה:  בִּי אֲדֹנִי–אַל-נָא תָשֵׁת עָלֵינוּ חַטָּאת, אֲשֶׁר נוֹאַלְנוּ וַאֲשֶׁר חָטָאנוּ. 11 And Aaron said unto Moses: ‘Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us, for that we have done foolishly, and for that we have sinned.
יב  אַל-נָא תְהִי, כַּמֵּת, אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ, וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ. 12 Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.’
יג  וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ.  {פ} 13 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying: ‘Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.’ {P}
יד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, וְאָבִיהָ יָרֹק יָרַק בְּפָנֶיהָ–הֲלֹא תִכָּלֵם, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; תִּסָּגֵר שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְאַחַר, תֵּאָסֵף. 14 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘If her father had but spit in her face, should she not hide in shame seven days? let her be shut up without the camp seven days, and after that she shall be brought in again.’
טו  וַתִּסָּגֵר מִרְיָם מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; וְהָעָם לֹא נָסַע, עַד-הֵאָסֵף מִרְיָם. 15 And Miriam was shut up without the camp seven days; and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.


So what does it all mean? We have four complaints and four consequences:

  1. Murmuring – fire (Children of Israel).
  2. Lack of appreciation, gluttony – plague (Children of Israel inspired by “rifraff” or mixed multitude).
  3. Too much responsibility – distribution of load (Moses).
  4. Jealousy and conspiracy – death-like disease, leprosy (Miriam & Aaron).

In all four cases, there is no doubt the complaints were made (from a legal perspective). In the first instance, the people speak evil “in the ears of the Lord.” In the second instance, they are equally voluble, although no specific recipient of their complaints is named. Moses hears each weeping in front of his/her tent, though. In the third instance, Moses speaks directly to G-d. Finally, in the fourth instance, “the Lord heard it.”

G-d administers consequences, showing different relationships first, with the Children of Israel, then with Moses, finally with Miriam and Aaron.

  • The Children of Israel, far from purpose-driven, are impulse-driven gluttons, forgetting G-d’s great saving action on their behalf. G-d purifies them with fire, but their self-absorption continues, and they are struck with plague.
  • Moses’ complaint is just and reasonable and related to accomplishing the mission of his people. G-d responds accordingly, distributing Moses’ burden of responsibility among the congregation. Moses, far from reluctant to relinquish power and responsibility, wishes to share it even more widely.
  • Miriam and Aaron generate community discord with a red flag, hoping to disguise their real issue, self-absorbed jealousy, and Miriam pays the price with her impurity and humiliation.

The purity allusions with regard to the Children of Israel and Miriam and Aaron form another envelope around the Yitro allusion related to Moses.  The first, second and fourth issues are between Israelites and G-d, then the priests and G-d, a vertical alignment. The third issue is a lateral alignment, with Moses, cognizant of his followers’ complaints, struggling under the burden of moving a whole community forward.

The sense of physical movement is part of the imagery of the segment as well, with Pesach Sheni for travelers or those who inadvertently come into contact with death on the Eve of Passover with no time to purify. The Israelites set forward on their first great march from Sinai on the 20th day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year, accompanied with trumpets and tribal flags.

Other than a somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation, I don’t have a clear sense of the overall structure and purpose of Numbers in the framework of the Torah narrative. That observation is that while Exodus read like a love story between G-d and the people of Israel, Numbers reads like a somewhat dysfunctional marriage including a constant flow of exhausting criticism.

These posts at this point are things that I notice as I read and will come back to when I finish the entire text.

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Torah Ecology: Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89)

Naso wraps up the numbering sequence that introduced us to the Book of Numbers and concludes with genealogies and the numbers of gifts and animals for sacrifice brought by the princes of Israel for the dedication of the desert Tabernacle.

The numbering and valuing is interrupted with detailed and lengthy narratives of the Sota, a woman who is unfaithful or whose husband thinks she is unfaithful, and the Nazir, one who takes a vow of consecration to the Lord. I begin from the premise that this apparent interruption to the narrative was deliberately positioned in this exact spot for a reason. Furthermore, the Sota and the Nazir were specifically chosen and placed in proximity to each other for a reason.

I’ll start with the second, easier, issue first, the relationship between these two segments, the Sota and the Nazir. Here’s what I notice:

  • Consecration. The Sota potentially de-consecrated herself if she broke her marriage vows in secret (or if her husband imagines that she did so). The consecrated Nazir “fulfills” or ends his period of consecration through a prescribed set of rituals.
  • The first action, unfaithfulness, if it happened, was impulsive and secretive. The second, consecration as a Nazir and fulfillment of the vow, was conscious, purposeful and public.
  • The consequences of suspected impulsive action and the consequences of conscious, purposeful action both involve hair. In the first instance, the hair is “loosed.” In the second, it first is allowed to grow, then is shaved and burned.
  • The Sota who proves innocent is ready to conceive. The Nazir who has not fulfilled his days cannot expose himself to contact with a dead body.
  • The Sota offers only a meal offering without frankincense and without oil. The Nazir offers a yearling lamb, a yearly ewe-lamb, a ram and cakes of fine flour mingled with oil and drink offerings.

It seems to me that these segments are inversely parallel, one person shamed after acting impulsively to break a vow, the other honored after purposefully fulfilling a vow. It is, perhaps, reflective of the two sides of covenant, also represented at Mts. Ebal and Gerizim (Deut. 28), similarly inversely parallel.


עָפָר (afar), according to Strong’s, is “dry earth, dust.” In the creation story, it is material for the human body — and as food for the serpent, a punishment. In the Tabernacle, it is the mixture of dirt on the floor around the altar mixed with the blood of sacrifice. In Leviticus, it is dried mud or mortar for bricks. In I Kings it is loose earth on the surface of the ground or the debris of a ruined city. In Deuteronomy, it’s a sandstorm. In Habbakuk, the material for siege works. It is earth particles sometimes associated with abundance, more often with commonness, worthlessness or humiliation. It is ashes, earth, ground, powder or rubbish. Sometimes afar is “clay,” but most often it is loose, granular.

Why is this word of interest here? Because afar is what is used in the drink for the Sota to determine her guilt or innocence. For the “bitter water,” the priest takes afar from the floor of the Tabernacle and mixes it with water. The woman’s belly will swell up and her “thigh waste away” if she is guilty. If she does not experience these symptoms, she is declared innocent.

The associations are primarily negative: punishment, humiliation, worthlessness, rubbish. On the other hand, G-d fashions Adam from afar, this loose earth, breathing into Adam G-d’s own breath, the breath of life. Afar has a dual valence, corresponding to the dual possibility for the Sota: guilt or…innocence. A humiliated woman or the crown of G-d’s creation.


Returning to the first question, why these inserts, the Sota and the Nazir, between the numbers and valuations? And why are these inversely parallel passages followed by the beautiful “priestly blessing?” And I’m not yet sure of the answer to that question. Perhaps as my study of Numbers continues, the overall structure and meaning will reveal itself.

Torah Ecology: Bamidbar (Num. 1:1-4:20)

The encampment of the Israelites in the desert. Formation order of the Twelve Tribes around the Tabernacle. Auguste Calmet, etching, 1725 Credit: Collection of M. Pollak, Antiquarian Books and Maps, Tel Aviv

And so we begin a new book, one I have not read as often and as closely as the three books that precede it. I don’t yet have a firm sense of how this book works and how it fits with the other four books of the Torah, so I’m just going to leave myself (and anyone who is interested or would like to share their views) a few comments to revisit at a later time.


I’ll start with this. I was puzzled that after chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its soaring and beautiful ideas of the Sabbatical and the Jubilee, the book ends with monetary valuations of people and animals. The fact that this is where Numbers (Bamidbar) begins suggests to me that each book of Torah points to the next:

  • Genesis begins with the story of the origins of humanity and moves on to the story of the origins of the Israelites.
  • Exodus begins with the story of the formation of the community of Israelites and moves on to the story of the formation of the desert Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus begins with the consolidation of the Tabernacle and its rites and moves on to setting the value of life in that framework.
  • Numbers begins with valuing and moves on to point, from the plains of Moab, to life in the Land.
  • Deuteronomy begins with Moses’ recap and detailed instructions for life in the Land and moves on to a choice the Israelites are now prepared to make (Deut. 29) and the death of Moses.

Why is this technique important? Because both Christians and Jews reuse it when they determine their canons of scripture.  Both the Christian and the Jewish canons begin with the story of creation and exile. Beyond the Torah, though, the order of the books changes.

The Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments conclude with the book of Malachi and the following:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse…”  (Malachi 4:5).

The Hebrew Bible (Masoretic Text) concludes with the book of 2 Chronicles and the following:

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him.  Let him go up…” (II Chronicles 36:23)

The simple ordering of the books, the structure of the collection, tells different stories. The Christian canon points to the coming of the messiah, the New Testament. The Jewish canon points to a return from exile, a return to the Land of Israel. This technique of using structure to tell a story, of pointing from one book to the next, is an old as our most ancient sacred scripture.

I hope I’ll come to understand better the spiritual meaning of numbering and assigning value to life as I work my way through Numbers.


Moshe Kline provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of The Literary Structure of Leviticus. He suggests that the overall structure of the book “is analogous to the movements of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.” Imagine, Leviticus uses words and structure to replicate the experience of approaching G-d and gradually returning to community “to participate in the divine history of ch. 26 by creating the just society portrayed in the laws of ch. 25.” (p. 28)

I want to spend some time with this interesting paper over the next year, absorbing the details. The analysis suggests to me something about the function of Numbers and its absorption with counting and valuing. Just as the first creation story offers a structure in which the 1st, 2nd and 3rd days set up an environment and the 4th, 5th and 6th days fill these environments with environment-specific life, perhaps Leviticus analagously creates an environment then in Numbers orders communal life in relation to it.


Following are thoughts related to this portion in Numbers I want to follow up on at a later time:

  • Leviticus is primarily concerned with place, space, things and rites, this portion in Numbers is concerned with valuing people and animals, genealogies and blood lines, and tasks or “burdens.”
  • The number that predominates in Leviticus is 7. The number that predominates in this portion is 2.
  • Leviticus has a sense of being stationary. This portion of Numbers has a sense of movement.
  • Leviticus describes a place for each thing and each person within the Tabernacle. This portion of Numbers describes the position of each tribe around the Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus focuses on issues internal to the community. This portion of Numbers focuses on external wars.

Clearly Numbers is another step in forging this local community. Beyond that I’m not yet quite sure about its specific role in the narrative of faith.