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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