Category Archives: Torah Ecology

Torah Ecology: Toledot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Toledot is “the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.” (Gen. 25:19) — yet it turns out to be the story of Esau and Jacob, even Rebekah, moving the story forward, while Isaac, old and blind, sits helplessly in his tent.

After taking Rebekah to wife following the death of his mother, Isaac pleads with the Lord on her behalf “because she was barren.” When she conceives, the children struggle in her womb. G-d tells her two separate peoples will issue from her body, one mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.

In Toledot, much of what we learn about Esau, the older of the twins born to Rebekah, is through contrast with his younger twin, Jacob.

Esau emerges “red, like a hairy mantle all over.” Here, red may refer to his ruddy complexion. In any case, “red” is a constant theme of the story. The detail about the “hairy mantle” presages the remainder of the story and Jacob’s trickery. It suggests something else as well, though.

We remember that Gen. 3:1 describes the serpent as the most arum of all the wild beasts the Lord G-d had made. In this context, with reference to the serpent, the Hebrew arum translates to “shrewd.” The same word, arum, translates to “naked” with reference to Adam and Eve’s awareness after they eat from the tree. In other biblical contexts, arum generally translates “prudent.”

A Hebrew speaker hearing arum would associate all these meanings and nuances: shrewd, cunning, naked, prudent — and would sense, even recognize, the parallel between serpent and human, elevating the snake to be more like the human, characteristically “naked,” without fur or a “hairy mantle.” Through this description, Esau, not “naked” even as an infant but rather born with a “hairy mantle,” is more like the beasts of the field whom he hunts as an adult.

This verbal parallel between Esau and the animals he hunts reminds us of a biblical subtext, that humans are animals and but for the grace of G-d may, like their fellow creatures, become prey (Num. 14:3). In his hairiness, his consequent closer similarity to the beasts of the field and his preference for the outdoors, Esau contrasts with his younger twin, Jacob, a “mild man who stayed in camp,” favored by his mother, Rebekah.

Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JTS Torah Commentary to Bereishit/Genesis that hunting was frowned upon in Israel, and “no Israelite or Judean king or hero is ever mentioned as indulging in the sport.” Nonetheless, since certain biblical passages describe how to prepare for food an animal caught in the hunt and include some wild animals in the list of animals that can be eaten, clearly there was some hunting due to economic necessity.

The fact that Esau was a hunter, though, sets him apart from normative Israelite society, as does the fact that he chooses his own wives from among the Hittite women rather than allow his parents to arrange a marriage for him as was the custom. When he overhears his parents talking of their dissatisfaction with his wives, he once again chooses wives, this time from the Ishmaelites.

Again, the details of the story highlight Esau’s character in contrast with Jacob’s: his closer kinship to the creatures he hunts accord with his independence from civilization, from the community of Israelites, from convention. Esau is associated with a more instinctive lifestyle, even a more impulsive lifestyle. Not only does he marry whom he wishes without parental consultation and seemingly without much consideration — but he thoughtlessly sells his birthright for short term gain, some red, red stuff (lentil stew) to “gulp down.”  As Sarna points out, the Hebrew for “gulp down,” l-‘-t (ha-l’iteni), usually refers to feeding animals. Here it also associates Esau with his fellow creatures, beasts of the field, more than with his Israelite community.

In contrast, we have his mother, Rebekah, and his brother, Jacob, whose focus is on the future, who plan and strategize even to the extent of trickery. We might even say they are arum, “prudent,” unlike impulsive Esau, who spurns his birthright, then bursts into “wild and bitter sobbing” when he learns he lost his father’s blessing. (Gen. 27:33)

One final detail further highlights the contrast between Esau and his brother, Jacob, and that is the “red, red stuff” Jacob cooks up one day for no particular reason, at least not one the text provides: “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew…” Esau arrives on the scene, coming in “from the open, famished.” (Gen. 25:29) Esau is an emotional man, driven by his instincts and short term needs; Jacob is more complex, a mild man who stays in camp, who cooks … what? apparently a vegan meal, bread and lentil stew.

And so the story returns us to the Garden narrative in yet another way, choosing as the progenitor of G-d’s people a man who is arum, prudent, who makes conscious choices, who is not driven by instinct and desire but is, instead, thoughtful, considering consequences (Gen. 27:12). It is a man who does not hunt, who does not “smell of the fields” but prefers to stay in the camp, in his community, and cook up a simple and delicious vegan repast of bread and lentils.

Torah Ecology: Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1 – 25:18)

In the biblical narrative, Chayei Sarah is a bridge between the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The story begins with Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in Hittite territory so he can bury his wife, Sarah. After caring for the dead with a permanent place in the land, Abraham turns his attention to the future and the living, sending his unnamed servant to go to the land of Abraham’s birth to “get a wife” for Isaac.  The section concludes enumerating the lines of Abraham’s progeny through Keturah and Hagar (the line of Ishmael).

There are so many features of interest in this story, but in keeping with the task of this series, exploring the relationship between human beings, the rest of creation and G-d, the ecology of cosmos, I’m going to zero in on chapter 24. Rebeka’s character in chapter 24 serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the Esau’s character described  in chapters 25 (his birth) and 27 (losing his birthright), both in the next portion, Toledot.

In chapter 24, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family of origin. Abraham requires an oath from the servant not to take Isaac back to the land from which he came. Rather an “angel of the Lord” will lead the servant. Should the woman he choose refuse to leave her home and come with the servant, he will be cleared of the oath.

Taking ten of his master’s camels and ”all the bounty of his master,” the servant set out on his journey to Aram-Naharaim, to Nahor. When he arrives at the city, he causes his camels to kneel by the well outside the city at evening when the women of the city come out to draw water. The servant prays that he will find success on behalf of his master, Abraham. The words of the servant’s prayer provide the specifications for Isaac’s betrothed, as Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JPS Commentary to Bereishit:

“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Gen. 24:13-14).

Sarna points out the significance of this first record in Hebrew scripture of an individual praying for guidance at a critical moment. It “implies the concept of the individual as a religious unit in his own right, as distinct from the community.” The servant’s prayer is answered immediately and completely.

At least as significant, though, is the extent to which Rebekah demonstrates the features of character the servant requires, leaving no doubt in the servant’s mind that not he but G-d chose this woman to move history forward. As Sarna points out, the criteria the servant establishes for the ideal wife are, “must be hospitable to strangers, kind to animals, and willing to give of herself to others.” — that is, responsive to a human community, to “outsiders” and to fellow creatures.

The extent to which Rebekah fulfills this ideal can only be understood from paying attention to the details of the text. As Sarna explains, “a single camel requires at least twenty-five gallons of water to regain the weight it loses in the course of a long journey. It takes a camel about ten minutes to drink this amount of water.” Remember, though, Gen. 24:10 provided the detail that the servant took ten of his master’s camels. Rebekah saw those ten camels and, undaunted, volunteered to draw water for the camels “until they finish drinking.” She emptied the water “quickly” into the trough and “ran” back to the well to draw more.

When the servant asks Rebekah if there is room in her house for “us” to spend the night (referring to himself and the men with him, mentioned in Gen. 24:32), she responds first (and gratuitously) on behalf of the camels, saying, “There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night.” Similarly her family extends their hospitality to the camels equally with the men, preparing a place for the camels, unloading them and giving them straw and feed.

Rebekah cares for a stranger, extending hospitality and giving generously of herself — but it is her energetic labors on behalf of the ten camels that distinguishes her and provides us with a Torah ideal: while domesticated animals may work for humans (carrying them and their goods, as later in the story during the return to Isaac), they deserve full and compassionate care according to their needs. In this story, their care is at least as important as their human masters’ care, sometimes even coming before it.

Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways — but a test of character is the extent to which one respects their service and cares for them with energy and compassion.

Torah Ecology: Vayera (Gen. 18:1 – Gen. 22:24)

Listening for the Sounds in Silence

Seven stories illuminate the character and path of Abraham…but five of the seven carry kernels of silence, words unspoken, sounds not recorded.  What meanings can we retrieve, buried in the silence?

Seven stories, five with silent spaces:

THREE VISITORS (18:1-18:15)
The three visitors arrive at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent, bringing the news that Abraham and Sarah will have a child…after agonizing years when they could not conceive. Almost all the conversation in this segment is between Abraham and the guests, establishing Abraham’s commitment to hospitality. When Abraham persuades the visitors to stay for a meal, he rushes to gather the food for the feast and commands Sarah to make cakes — quickly, a command she obeys without recorded comment. When the visitors make their announcement, Sarah laughs — silently, to herself. When the visitors question her soundless laughter, they inquire of Abraham, not Sarah. Frightened by the visitors’ ability to see into her deepest thoughts, she finally speaks, lying, saying she did not laugh. Does Sarah’s silent laughter hide years of pain and fear and frustration? The future for a childless woman is uncertain and fragile in a time when a woman is supported first by her father, then her husband, and if widowed, her inheriting son — a time when a woman’s purpose, in her community and for herself, is defined by bearing children.

ARGUMENT WITH G-D (18:16-18:33)
In one of two stories without an actor who doesn’t speak, Abraham carries on an extended conversation directly with G-d, establishing Abraham’s sense of justice. He pleads eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, asking G-d to spare them if fifty innocent are found, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten.  The story is remarkable for Abraham’s volubility as well as the content of his message, questioning and reminding G-d to be just by not punishing the innocent with the guilty. For all of Abraham’s anxious volubility, what we don’t hear is, what in Abraham’s history and experience with G-d would make Abraham feel the need to “argue?” Why does he question the justice of an outcome, whatever it is? Still, this is one of two stories in seven where all those present, Abraham and G-d, speak and hear.

Abraham’s visitors move on, but now they are two. They arrive in Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s, home town, Sodom. Lot’s action when he sees them parallels Abraham’s in some ways when the three visitors arrived at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent. He urges the visitors to come in and enjoy food as Abraham did…but Lot prepares the food himself, including the bread. Where are the women of the household? We see and hear nothing of them until Lot offers his daughters to the men and boys of Sodom in place of the visitors whom they demand. Lot says, “I have two daughters who have not known man…do to them as is good in your eyes.” This is the first mention of anyone in the household other than Lot, and no words are recorded from the daughters. Whether or not Lot’s action was praiseworthy in the context, imagine the terror the daughters must have felt. Their lives were about to change radically, probably end, if they became substitutes for the visitors as the objects of sexual assault. And finally, after the destruction, Lot’s wife comes into view momentarily as she looks back on the destruction and turns…silently…to a pillar of salt. Her sorrow and terror are also not recorded.

The daughters who were silent as their father offered them up for assault in place of the visitors are now talkative as they discuss and carry out a plan to fulfill their lives’ meaning in their restricted circumstance. Noah sleeps after too much wine, knowing nothing, the silent victim of his daughters’ strategy. Would he have agreed to the plan consciously? How would he have fulfilled the commandment, p’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply)? What a sad and desperate situation, living in a cave overlooking the devastated landscape, isolated from the society he so desperately wanted to join, without even the wife who bore their children and shared a life with him.

Once again, Abraham presents his wife, Sarah, as his sister to prevent attacks because those more powerful than he might want his wife and would take her by force. This time, unlike the earlier occurrence with Pharaoh, Abraham doesn’t speak with Sarah, requesting her cooperation. He just presents her as his sister, and King Abimelech of Gerar “had Sarah brought to him,” that is, brought to his harem.  G-d comes to Abimelech in a dream, warning him of Sarah’s real status and the punishment that will come to him and his kingdom. Abimelech reproaches G-d in similar terms to those Abraham uses in his Argument with G-d: “Will You slay people even though innocent?” He pleads ignorance, and G-d commands him to return Sarah to her husband.

Abimelech speaks to his servants, telling them what happened, then summons Abraham, demanding to know why Abraham brought this guilt on Abimelech and his kingdom. Abraham explains himself, saying, “I thought…surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife…And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s.” Abimelech gifts Abraham with sheep and oxen and restores his wife, inviting him to settle where he wishes in Abimelech’s land. And to Sarah, he says, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” Is there a hint of sarcasm when Abimelech refers to Sarah’s husband as her brother? In any case, events swirl around Sarah, she is transferred household to household, and throughout, her words and thoughts are never reported. She is silent as her husband misrepresents her and another man takes her into his household.

BIRTH OF ISAAC (21:1-21:21)
Sarah conceives and bears a son, as G-d promised her through the three visitors to the tent. Abraham names his son Isaac, connecting him to Sarah’s silent laughter, and at eight days old, Abraham circumcises him. Then Sarah finally finds her voice, expressing her joy after all these years of disappointment and pain: “G-d has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Further, she demands that Abraham cast out “that slave-woman and her son,” Hagar, to whom Sarah sent her husband when Sarah was unable to conceive, and Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Suddenly Sarah, a woman who remains silent through two occasions when her husband passes her off as his sister, allowing her to be taken into the harems of others, and who laughs to herself when told she would conceive in her old age, then lies about her silent laughter out of fear…has a lot to say. She is concerned for her son, Isaac’s, inheritance. The story reports Abraham’s feelings of distress, and G-d speaks to Abraham telling him not to be distressed, to follow whatever Sarah tells him to do, a reversal of their roles.

The next day, Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water to carry along with her child, Ishmael, and he sends her away. Hagar wanders, with her son, in the wilderness of Beersheba until the water runs out. Despairing and unable to bear watching her son die, she leaves the child under a bush and sits down at a distance, bursting into tears. In the next line, the story tells us, “G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d calls to Hagar from Heaven and says to her…” Hagar, silent throughout her ordeal, finally weeps with fear and despair, and G-d hears…not Hagar, but her son, although the story reports no sounds from him. G-d speaks to Hagar, giving her G-d’s promise for Ishmael’s future and showing them a well of water.

In The JPS Torah Commentary for Genesis, editor Nahum Sarna notes how Yishmael recedes into the silence of history with verbal cues. In the course of this story, which unfolds from Gen. 21:1-21, Yitzhak’s name appears 6 times. The root of his name, ts-h-k (associated with laughter), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. Conversely, Yishmael’s name appears not at all, although the word “boy” with reference to Yishmael appears 6 times. The root of the name Yishmael, sh-m-‘ (associated with hearing), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. These skillful verbal cues elaborate the silent theme associated with Yishmael in this story…the boy left under a bush by his despairing mother, a mother who weeps for her son and G-d who hears her silent son.

In a brief transitional story, the second of two without a silent actor, Abimelech once again meets with Abraham, this time bringing along Phicol, chief of his troops. On this occasion, equals meet, with King Abimelech seeking a pledge of loyalty from Abraham, the sojourner in his land. Abraham makes that pledge, then reproaches Abimelech for the well Abimelech’s servants seized. Again, Abimelech pleads his innocence on the basis of lack of knowledge. Abimelech and Abraham now make a “pact,” sealed by a gift from Abraham to Abimelech of sheep and oxen. Abraham then pays Abimelech with seven ewes as proof that he, Abraham, dug the well. Their business together concluded, Abimelech returns to the land of the Philistines, and Abraham plants a tamarisk at Beersheba, invoking the name of the Lord.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s final test of faith, climaxes this seemingly unrelated series of seven stories which are, nonetheless, intimately linked through verbal cues and parallelisms. The story is filled with silences, beginning with the somber silence that pervades the scene of Abraham preparing to go on a journey to sacrifice his son. Despite the eloquence of his pleas on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is silent in response to G-d’s command that he “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. Four identifications to make certain there is no doubt. G-d is demanding that Abraham sacrifice his future, a promise finally fulfilled late in his life. Abraham already unwillingly gave up his first son, Ishmael, on G-d’s instruction. Now he is being asked to give up his son, Isaac, the one he favors, a repository of his love and hope for the future — and he must do that in a most horrifying way — he must tie him down, put a knife through him and burn him on the altar. Abraham’s response is fiercely and dutifully silent.

Imagine the buried pain in the conversation between Abraham and his beloved son, Isaac, as they walk toward what Abraham believes will be his awesome duty, the sacrifice of his son. “Father!”…”Yes, my son…” “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”…”G-d will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

What did Isaac think as his father, Abraham, bound him and laid him on the altar on top of the wood? As Abraham picked up the knife with the intent of killing him? We don’t know. The moment is buried in silence. And then, in this awful moment, a moment suspended in silence, G-d, who spoke with Abraham directly, who conversed with him, with whom Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, sends a messenger to hold Abraham back from the terrible deed. Abraham looks up, and his eye falls on a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Without hesitation, Abraham goes and takes the ram and offers it as a burnt offering in place of his son.

But the silence continues. Imagine the terror of the ram, first trapped, then bound on an altar for slaughter. It’s hard to imagine the ram’s terror wasn’t finding expression in bleating, that there wasn’t a struggle. The story doesn’t report that — the scene remains submerged in a deep, impenetrable silence.

G-d speaks with Abraham one more time…and again, after so many direct meetings, real conversations, this last one, following the horrifying silent moment on Mt. Moriah, is through a messenger.

Everything changed in that terrifying moment, as much as it changed when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree or Noah entered the Ark with his family and fellow creatures. We are a long way from the vision of the Garden.

Torah Ecology: Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1 – 17:27)

Lech Lecha tells the story of Abram becoming Abraham. That story includes many tantalizing “historical” and “biographical” details, details that show us how the Torah wants us to understand the character of Abraham and the meaning of his transition.

Until now, the Torah story has been about the relationships among human beings and between human beings, their environment, other animals and Transcendence. Animals are featured in the early Torah story along with the first human beings. The serpent has as dramatic an impact on the progress of history as the first humans. Animals suffer the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree along with humanity. In the Flood story, animals transgress as human beings do, and again animals suffer the consequences along with human beings.

What we learned in the story that precedes Lech Lecha is that non-human animals, like humans, connect with G-d through the breath of life, breathed into them by G-d. Non-human animals, like humans, are also substance, basar, which without the breath of G-d is merely dead meat, a carcass. And non-human animals are moral beings held accountable for their infractions. Human beings are not passive in their relationship to G-d and their world — and neither are non-human animals, who also have moral capacity and make decisions that have consequences.

In the story that unfolds in the Garden, the relationship between humans and animals is harmonious, and both are vegan, as G-d instructed. The fact that all creatures are vegan is central to the narrative:

“G-d said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” ~ Gen. 1:29-30

Outside the Garden, everything changes, all relationships, not only the one between human beings and G-d. The human relationship with the environment changes, with a less generous earth yielding its fruits more grudgingly to hard labor. And the human relationship with other animals changes. The snake and the woman are enemies. Hierarchical relationships prevail, even in the intimacy between husband and wife. Animal husbandry is in play with the Cain and Abel story (which assumes meat-eating), and accompanying it, animal sacrifice. Even human-to-human relationships change with the first homicide, a fratricide.

The Flood story confirms what the Cain and Abel story assumes: both animals and humans are implicated in unlawful bloodshed. Some animals, like humans, kill for food — and predator animals, like some human beings, sometimes kill human beings. The earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and all flesh (kol basar) on earth, human and non-human animals and birds, are implicated and suffer consequences in the flood. Animal sacrifice is an integral part of the human relationship to G-d, with “pure” and “impure” animals entering the ark.

Post-Garden, blood is involved in all relationships. There is an economy of blood in the post-Garden world, the blood of sacrifice paying for unlawful blood spilled…in the ancient history of the world and in the present moment.

The changed relationships and the blood economy are confirmed in the diet post-Flood. Humans may kill non-human animals for food but cannot eat the blood with it; neither humans nor animals can kill human beings without consequence:

“The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.” ~ Gen. 9:2-5

Suddenly in Lech Lecha, the non-human animals’ and birds’ story is muted. No longer is their story and relationship to creation developing — it is fixed. References to animals are fleeting and not part of the evolving narrative.

  • In Gen. 12:8, Abram builds an altar to the Lord in the hill country east of Bethel — although strangely, there is no mention of sacrifice.
  • In Gen. 12:16, Abram acquires sheep, oxen, asses, she-asses, camels, and male and female slaves from Pharoah. This kind of wealth assumes a meat-eating lifestyle.
  • In Gen. 13:1-9, we learn that Abraham, like Abel, is a herdsman, the first herding sheep, the latter primarily cattle. In Lech Lecha, this lifestyle is both assumed and acceptable without comment or elaboration.
  • In Gen. 13:4, Abram returns to the altar east of Bethel on his return from Egypt and “invokes the Lord by name.” Again, there is no specific mention of sacrifice. This might mean nothing…but the doubling of this event is suggestive.
  • In Gen. 14:17-19, as Abram returns from his victorious pursuit of the invaders who took Abram’s brother Lot along with all his possessions, he is met by the king of Sodom in the Valley of the King…and King Melchizedek of Salem. The king of Sodom approaches ambiguously, bringing neither food nor blessings. King Melchizedek of Salem brings both, bread and wine (a vegan offering) and a blessing for Abram that invokes the G-d of creation, the G-d whose original plan did not include either sacrifice or killing animals for food.

Finally, in the economy of blood established post-Garden, this portion concludes with a covenant agreement, sealed on G-d’s side when a flaming torch, representing G-d, passes “between the pieces,” three animals cut in two, a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram and a whole turtle dove and small bird. (Gen. 15:9-18). On Abraham’s side, the covenant is sealed with a parallel blood rite, circumcision. (Gen. 17:9-14). The first part of the covenant agreement brings the promise of land while the second part brings the promise of descendants and a name change. The transition from Abram to Abraham is complete — and the transition to a new reality.

Animals may be treated as moral beings in the Torah story, but in Lech Lecha, their position in the new scheme of creation is a settled discussion, not a point of debate. Predator animals are “impure” beasts, animals who might kill humans, and other animals are “pure,” most, but not all of them, domesticated. In this Torah portion, domesticated animals are a fact of existence, and certain domesticated animals are a regular part of the human diet and of sacrificial worship.

Humans have the potential to become impure. But humans also have the opportunity to purify. The difference between human and animal impurity is that the human impurity is temporary, animal impurity permanent.

Yet hints of the original vision of the relationship between human and non-human animals remain in the stories of King Melchizedek and Abram at the altar east of Bethel. Abram invokes the name of the Lord without specifically engaging in animal sacrifice — twice. King Melchizedek blesses Abram of the G-d Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth, the G-d who created a world in which all of creation lived in harmony.

Lech Lecha begins a story of a life that includes death and killing, one genus in the family of living beings using others, a blood economy of creation that involves G-d … a world that isn’t quite according to anyone’s plan. For all the powerful and inspirational moments in the ongoing story of the developing relationship between G-d and the patriarchs, there is some sadness in finally leaving behind the vision of a world without death and violence, a world where all creatures live in harmony.

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Torah Ecology: Noach (Gen 6:9 – 11:32)

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ) – Deut. 16:20

Religions begin with looking at the world and seeing a problem, then imagining solutions. For the Torah and later Judaism, that problem is injustice. Since injustice is a problem in relationship, the solution the Torah imagines is a body of laws to guide first humanity, then a subset of humanity, the Israelites, in establishing right relationships.

The justice issue informs the overarching thematic structure of the Torah, set out in Genesis 1-9: creation, moral failure, roll-back of creation, a new creation. When morality fails and relationships are out of balance, catastrophe follows. When justice fails, worlds return to pre-creation emptiness and void. All of creation interconnects and depends on each part, and each part connects to and depends on others. Moral failures in any area of life affect everything.

My primary purpose in Torah Ecology is to explore what the Torah envisions as correct relationships. From my study so far, I believe the parameters are much wider than the human realm, embracing other creatures and the whole earth.

Ethical consciousness and responsibility pervade all of creation, human beings, non-human animals, the earth itself. Not only human beings but non-human animals fail to fulfill G-d’s plan for creation, and both are morally accountable. The earth is G-d’s instrument in ensuring justice. From this week’s portion:

“The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar) had corrupted its ways on earth, G-d said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar), for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13).

Our assumption is that G-d intends to wipe out humanity because of its “lawlessness,” because it “corrupted” its ways, but the text doesn’t say humanity — it says “all flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar). The word signifies the substance or flesh of a being, most often without life in it, a carcass suitable for food or for sacrifice on the altar. It refers to any kind of creature.

The word בָּשָׂר – basar, meaning flesh, contrasts with נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh, often translated “soul” — yet Gen. 12:5 reports that “Abram left Haran with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) – persons that they had acquired in Haran…”  The story of Noah and the flood suggests that נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) has an even more comprehensive meaning than “persons,” that like basar, it doesn’t only refer to human beings. Perhaps a better translation, then, is living being, substance given life by the breath of G-d.

Along these lines, Gen. 1:29-30 reads, “G-d said, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land (חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ – hayyat ha-aretz), to all the birds of the sky (עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם – of ha-shamayim), and to everything that creeps on earth (רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – romes al ha-aretz), in which there is the breath of life (אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – asher bo nefesh hayyah), [I give] all the green plants for food.”

In Gen. 2:20, we learn of a further division of land animals into domesticated and wild: “And the man gave names to all the cattle (בְּהֵמָה – behemah) and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה – hayyat ha-sadeh)…”

Once again, in Gen. 2:19, all creatures are living beings: “…and whatever the man called each living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – nefesh hayyah), that would be its name.” All creatures are livings beings (נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh) brought to life with the breath of G-d. Ha-Adam, humanity, is but one genus in the family of living beings.

The word ”flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar), then, in this context means all creatures were lawless and corrupted their ways on earth. The text emphasizes this point in the phrase, “The earth became corrupt before G-d” (וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ – va-tishaket ha-aretz). It also implies that all living beings were already dead, that the breath of life wasn’t within them. They were not נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh. They were “basar,” carcasses, devoid of the breath of life.

Certainly this theme isn’t presented in a one-to-one correspondence, life vs. lifeless flesh. The creatures who enter the ark are “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” (מִכָּל-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים – mi-lol ha-basar asher bo ruach hayyim) – Gen. 7:17. But it is the ongoing and repeated association of flesh with the beings on earth before the flood that focuses attention on the material and therefore transient aspect of life on earth, dependent on the breath of G-d for life.

More than that, skillful and repeated use of flesh, בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – living being, points to the equality of all creation in this respect: all creatures, not only humans, depend on G-d for life, and their life is the breath of G-d. At the same time, all creatures, including humans, without the breath of life from G-d are merely meat, dead carcasses.

The emphasis on the equality of all being on earth finds another expression in Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – lol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” An alternate translation of “existence” is “substance,” again a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and otherwise. And those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17.

What Noach describes is a world in which all living beings became lawless and corrupt and all, therefore, suffered the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the tiny remnant, human and non-human, who still have G-d’s breath of life in them, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (all living beings), floating on the vast, dark water in a tiny ark.

The story of the flood reverses the imagery of the creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that creation narrative as creation rolls back. But it is the reference to corruption in the flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer.

The key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the flood narrative, according to Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary. These further comments are telling: “The universal corruption is further defined as hamas. This term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of “falsehood,” “deceit,” or “bloodshed.” It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”

This helps us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood. A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that returned the world to watery emptiness and void. In the new creation, while G-d gives humans and animals permission to continue their practice of eating meat, restrictions surround the practice and they are warned of their accountability.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, G-d recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I have to imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and animals according to their natures.

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Torah Ecology: Bereishit (Gen 1:1-6:8)


The Torah tells us a story, imagining a world and inviting us to join in imagining.

Our ability to imagine, to create fiction and persuade others to believe it, says Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, is what gave Homo Sapiens the ability to finally move beyond a mediocre status as just another land animal in the middle of the food chain to world domination.

The profound and elegant imagination behind the first chapters in Genesis touches me deeply every time I read through these pages. Each time I find new things in the technical details of these words that enrich my understanding, for example, the structure of the first creation story. G-d creates a 3-part environment in majestic stages, then fills each part of the environment in three more stages and finally stops to survey the goodness of it all, pointing to creation with a plan and majestic order to it. But it’s not just ordered — it’s good, and the life in it is blessed.

So I am moved and awed by the form of Torah — but connecting to its imagination through my own brings me to core emotions and meanings and helps me connect to its content.

PART I: Imagining a G-d who chooses to live in relationship


Darkness so total you can’t see yourself, and you can’t see anything around you. The darkness cuts you off from any relationship, animate or inanimate, that might give you definition, make you “real.”

There are only two things, each so profound you can’t distinguish one from the other: darkness and deep.  It’s as impossible to know where one begins and the other ends as it is to know where you begin and end. Your isolation is complete.

A wind sweeps over the water. The only reason you know that is you feel it. Without light, there are no glimmerings on the water as the wind moves over it that might distinguish the darkness of the water from the darkness over it.

Two potential entities, darkness and deep, indistinguishable, unformed…and then a sudden flash of light emerges from the darkness, filling it, illuminating everything. The light provides day and night. It’s possible to differentiate between the darkness of the deep and the darkness above it. First day.

With light, other differentiations begin. A vastness (רָקִיעַ) emerges, separating the waters into those above and below it, as the primordial light separated the darkness into day and night. G-d names the vastness Heavens (שָׁמָיִם, possibly meaning “like water”). Second day.

More differentiations follow. As light emerged from darkness on the first day, the dry land (הַיַּבָּשָׁה) emerges from the deep when the waters below are gathered together (מִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם). G-d names the gathering of the waters Seas (יַמִּים) and the dry land Earth (אֶרֶץ). The earth sprouts vegetation. Third day.

These things, then, are the environment: Heavens, Seas and Earth with its vegetation. The Heavens and the Earth, including its Seas, are no longer formless and empty.

Now the environment begins to fill with life: celestial bodies, Day Four. Sea creatures and birds, Day Five. Land creatures, including Adam, “in our image, after our likeness; and let them…”, Day Six.

All the work G-d surveys at the end of the sixth day G-d judges very good. Only the work of the fifth day, though, when G-d creates fish and birds, and the sixth day, with the creation of humanity, are blessed. In addition, fish, birds and humanity receive their first commandment, p’ru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply.

G-d appoints Adam, humanity, to domesticate the fish of the sea, birds of the air and every living thing that creeps on the earth.  G-d encourages intimacy between Adam and other creatures when he tells the human to name them as G-d named the Heavens and the Earth and the Seas.

Finally G-d assigns a vegan diet to Adam and to “and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul.” There is no prey and no predator here — all creatures live together in harmony.

Finally, G-d ceases (שָׁבַת), blesses the seventh day and declares it holy (וַיְקַדֵּשׁ), setting it apart from the other days of the week.

As the light emerges from the darkness, and the dry land emerges from the waters when they gather into seas, so this day emerges from time as something set apart. We understand the nature of each feature of creation only in relationship with that from which it differs.

Teeming with life in all its variety, in the heavens, on the land and in the seas, this creation is very different from the undifferentiated darkness, emptiness and isolation in the beginning. We have imagined our way from profound isolation to potential relationship and awareness of being. As creating is differencing, difference makes relationship possible and forms its basis.

Of course no human being was there to observe the creation of the world, and not one of us experienced that pre-creation moment when the breath of G-d moved across the deep, between darkness and darkness — but our imaginations can connect us to the moment.

The experience I had this year as I read those first words of Bereishit, Genesis, was a sense of profound loneliness. What if it had been my breath that moved over the deep, between vast darkness and vast darkness, where all was empty, where there was no environment, no teeming and varied life in it? How does that feel? It feels lonely.

I wonder if G-d created life because S/he was lonely?

PART II: Imagining the first humans exploring the meaning of relationship


No more does G-d’s breath hover over the undifferentiated deep between profound darkness and profound darkness. Now G-d walks in the heat of the day in the Garden S/he created. G-d blesses, commands, feels anger, loves. G-d can relate to creation.

“In the beginning” of this imagining, G-d creates the human being, the “ground being” from the dust (עָפָר) of the ground (הָאֲדָמָה), in G-d’s likeness and image. Here is the entire phrase in Hebrew with my translation/interpretation/imagining of it:

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.

G-d formed the-Adam (ha-Adam), the “ground being,” from dust G-d took from the ground (Adamah, a grammatically feminine noun that means “ground”), breathed G-d’s own breath into the-Adam, the breath of life; and the-Adam was a living being.

The-Adam is both male and female. This intricate word play suggests that the-Adam is like G-d, body and soul, an expression of wholeness, containing all possibilities.

Returning to the twin themes of loneliness and relationship, G-d knows “It is not good that the-Adam should be alone…” How does G-d know that? G-d experienced it.

So G-d separates the-Adam into two beings, male and female. Not until G-d separates Eve from the-Adam does Adam become a man. Ish (man) and Isha (woman) come into being simultaneously.

With this differentiation, G-d creates the possibility of relationship for the-Adam because relationship between human beings depends on difference. In the same moment, G-d creates the possibility of relationship for G-d’s self. The-Adam is no longer an extension of G-d’s self but is a differentiated being in body…and as we will soon imagine, soul.

The separation of the-Adam into Adam and Eve is both blessing and challenge. While it makes room for relationship, it also makes the world more complicated. Differentiated beings in relationship may not always see the world in the same way or make the same decisions. They are no longer necessarily of one mind just as they are no longer one body. The majestic order of Genesis 1:1-2:3 starts to get a little messy in Genesis 2:4-3:24.

Chapter 3 concludes with G-d locking in another critical difference between G-d’s self and humanity: when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, attaining for themselves G-d’s capacity for moral judgment, G-d prevents them from eating from the Tree of Life and Death, gaining G-d’s power over life and death.

So Adam and Eve enter the human frame, taking all of creation, now subject to life and death like them, with them. They learn that in relationships, actions have consequences, not only for oneself but for others.

The story explores another relationship, the one between these first human beings and a beast of the field, the-Snake (הַנָּחָשׁ).

The snake is more עָרוּם, arum, than any other beast of the field. But what does arum mean? Used infrequently in the Bible, it is most often translated “prudent” or “cautious,” which has a positive connotation. In Job, it translates “crafty,” with a more negative connotation. It also means, “naked.”

In just a few verses of chapter 3 of Genesis, the word arum appears several times, describing both the snake and the first humans — and yet because our translations select different words, crafty or shrewd for the snake and naked for the humans, we miss the parallel. How does it change the way we imagine the story if we use the same word for both humans and snake?

As a beast of the field, the snake is not domesticated by the humans. It is free and independent — yet it is also “more arum (עָרוּם) than any beast of the field.”

Reading this, I hold all possibilities in my mind while I imagine the story. The snake, like the human, is somehow superior to all the other beasts of the field, captured in the word, arum. Like the human, the snake is “naked,” without a coat of fur. The snake, however, is also “crafty” or “shrewd,” capable of imaginative manipulation — or perhaps the prudence to manage its life skillfully, planning the best strategy for its own advancement.

Prudence also implies that the snake is capable of anticipating the consequences of its actions, a capability that requires imagination, but the snake also fails at that sometimes just as the humans do. Surely the snake hoped for different results when it told Eve the truth about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In my imagining, when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree, they realize they, like the snake, are naked. Or crafty and manipulative. Or prudent, meaning they have the imagination to understand that their actions have consequences. Tragically they attain this understanding too late, realizing with horror the disastrous consequences of their action not only for themselves but for all of creation.

All imaginings that use the same descriptive word for the snake and the human draw a parallel between them and cause us to consider their natures and relationship. Unlike all the animals the humans domesticate, the snake remains independent, an untamed beast of the field but superior to them, human-like in appearance, discernment and perhaps imaginative and manipulative ability. The snake is consigned to go on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life, but the human lot isn’t much of an improvement, coming from and returning to dust.

And the snake, with its capability to regenerate, associates to what is denied humans, eternal life: “As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing.[7] The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.”

The humans and the snake are competitors in this brave new world they enter post-Garden. Interestingly, this imaginative, suggestive story, like so many others in the Torah, turns out to correspond to recent research: “Snakes are predators on, prey of, and competitors with primates.”

Part III: Imaging how life gets messy and relationships run amuck

Imagine once again.

You are a tenant farmer. Your days in the fields are long and backbreaking, tilling, planting, watering, weeding and nurturing, harvesting. At the end of a day you have no more energy. You just want a few hours of sleep before you go out into the hot sun for another day like the last. Still, you know it’s appropriate to say thank you for what you have, so you quickly gather some fruits of your labor, thinking the whole time about how you just want to get home and sleep, and you take your bundle to the landowner.

Your brother herds sheep. Instead of back-breaking work in the fields under a hot sun, he is off hiking in the hills, watching over his flock. In the heat of the day, he, like his flock, finds a shady area for rest. He probably knows each animal he tends, their names, their personalities, possibly even loves them. Your brother also knows he must thank the landowner for the life he has, and he carefully and with complete attention selects the very best from his flock, the one he loves the most, and takes that animal to the landowner.

The landowner responds to this special care and attention, this heartfelt sacrifice, in kind, turning to your brother with complete, focused attention: וַיִּשַׁע (va-yisa).

Aware only of the backbreaking hours you spend every day tilling the hard earth, lifting and hauling, planting and weeding under a hot sun, you don’t notice the subtle but immense difference between your gift to the landowner and your brother’s.

Your brother’s offering wasn’t just any animal of his flock. It was the choicest of the firstlings of the flock with its fat, a coveted delicacy (מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ, וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן). It was the best of the best. Your offering was whatever you gathered from the field, not necessarily the best nor the earliest. It was just something you pulled from the harvest as you thought about going home to sleep before another day.

Focused only on your hard work and your desire for attention and recognition, though, that detail escapes you…and you feel anger that your gift receives as little attention as your selection process got. In your anger (and again, without thinking, just as your gift was without much thought), you lash out. The result of your ill-considered, imprudent action is the death of another, your brother.

And so the first story beyond the borders of the Garden, beyond the ideal world G-d intended, a world with no death, where all of creation lives in harmony nurtured by the abundance of creation, is a fratricide.

The fratricide occurs for much the same reason as the exile from the Garden: it is the result of an imprudent moment, a moment without thought, without considering the disastrous consequences of an action. And in both cases the result is the same, although in different ways: Cain’s act, like Adam and Eve’s, brings death into creation, Adam and Eve in a future they cannot yet imagine, and Cain in the here and now for his brother.

As Eve’s (sexual) desire (תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ) after her thoughtless act is for her husband while her husband rules (יִמְשָׁל) over her, directing her life, sin’s urge (sexual connotation?) is for Cain (תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ), but Cain has the potential to rule (תִּמְשָׁל) over it. Sadly he doesn’t, allowing sin to direct his life (compare Gen 3:16 and 4:7).

The parallelism between the creation story and Cain shows up elsewhere as well: Genesis 4:17-24 recounts the generations of Cain, seven of them. In the course of those seven generations, not only does Cain murder his brother, but Cain’s great-great-great grandson, Lamech, murders a boy who “wounds” him. As Lamech says to his wives, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24).

The play on seven parallels G-d creating the world in seven days. Through seven, G-d creates life, and through seven, Cain and his descendants destroy it.

One more thing about Cain’s story: it is vague, and it dead-ends. The story of Cain’s generations is told without specifying the age at which children are born and without death notices. After this chapter, Cain and his line are never again mentioned. They disappear into emptiness and void as Cain came into creation, absorbed with himself and disconnected from any greater relationship or purpose.

Chapter 5 returns us to Adam. The generations of Adam mention both births and deaths of the firstborn male in each generation, assigning specific ages to each and citing the number of years each man lived after the birth of his firstborn son. Some students of Torah (and much better mathematicians than I could ever dream to be) find progressions in these numbers, and I suspect they are there. There is a clear mathematical progression in the ages of the patriarchs. The specific progressions, though, have little meaning in themselves.

Numbers in the Torah are regularly used, however, as a literary device, suggesting order and regularity — a plan. Here they indicate that despite the forces of violence and death and evil in the world, G-d’s plan for life emerges victorious. G-d’s creation and plan for history parallels Cain’s violence and destruction, and the force for good prevails, building relationships, meaning, significance and a place in our imaginations, as the seven generations of Cain disappear into oblivion and meaninglessness.

Part IV: What I imagine as I read these chapters

My focus in my Torah Ecology study is to understand the worldview of the Torah, its vision of G-d, humanity and the rest of creation and the relationships between them all. Noticing literary and structural details and imagining myself into the story are the best ways I have to understand the Torah’s story from its own perspective, to let the text, as much as possible, speak to me.

Having imagined, and noted a few technical details, these are things I see:

  • The stories of Genesis 1-3 are aspirational, an imaginative exploration of what G-d wants for creation, an ever-present potentiality.
  • Beginning with Genesis 4, we enter the human frame, a world of sexuality and birth (Gen. 4:1-2) and death (Gen. 4:8).  It is a world of differences that offers the possibility of relationship but also the possibility of violence when those differences are not managed “prudently” (עָרוּם – arum), anticipating consequences of actions, and harmoniously.
  • All creation suffers from Adam and Eve’s imprudence, their inability to consider consequences of their actions, the environment and the animals right along with them. The ground is no longer necessarily rich and fertile. Soaked with blood, it returns thorns and thistles. Animals, along with human beings, procreate in this world. They kill and are killed. They are both prey and predators.

The first three chapters present a vegan ideal in accord with the aspirational idea that G-d “intends” all of creation to live in harmony and abundance, nurtured by the love of its Creator and in turn nurturing the earth and other life.

This ideal extends to the animal world, who receive the commandment, along with humanity, that they eat plant food: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” (Gen. 1:29-31)

G-d requires of both animals and humanity that they not take life for food; and consequences fall on every living creature, whether human or other, when humans choose the wrong food (the fruit of the Tree in the middle of the Garden).

The parallelism between the snake and the humans (עָרוּם – naked or prudent) on the one hand, and the vegan ideal set out for all on the other hand, points us to the idea that in this ideal world, humanity in is on a plane with all other living creatures, receiving the same life-giving instructions and consequences for all when one fails.

Shared responsibility and shared consequences remind us that in our real world, the things we do, great and small, always impact our world in ways we can hardly imagine but must learn to do, for we are all in relationship, everywhere and always, with everything.

The Torah story tells us we humans are very important. We have the capacity to build relationships, meaning and significance with all of creation and with a G-d who cares…and we have to capacity to be imprudent and thoughtless, ignore our connection to G-d, to other human beings, other life on the planet and to the planet itself, bringing catastrophe to all, fading into oblivion as we return everything to formlessness and emptiness.

Our choices to sustain life bring us life…different choices return us to that space where there are only two things, each so profound we can’t distinguish one from the other: darkness and deep. A space where it’s as impossible to know where one begins and the other ends as it is to know where we begin and end. A space where we disappear into isolation, without meaning.

* * * * *

Note: Nicholas Petersen discusses Hebrew cosmology and a word pattern in Genesis 1 that elaborates the theme of an overarching plan, a creation neither accidental nor haphazard in its origin but rather majestic and purposeful.

Petersen shows how each of the three realms is named only after G-d creates its “essence: “The term ‘rāqîaʿ’ perfectly conveys these notions of expansion and enlargement (of the skies and universe). This use of a simple-technical word to describe the ‘cosmic region’ of sky / heavens fits precisely with the pattern in Genesis 1, in which the other major cosmic ‘regions’ (seas and earth) were first described with a simple-technical word, before being given their common name.”)

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

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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