All the world is a narrow bridge…and the main thing is not to be afraid

Tuesday evening the wind picked up in the wetlands where I live. As it grew dark, I heard it whistling around our home, shaking the windows. The back door was frozen shut. A lot of things come to mind on nights like this, but before there was time for my imagination to go to work, the coyote who live out in those wetlands started their shrilly jubilant yelping and howling when they caught some poor creature for dinner.

The sound of the coyote always terrifies me. As a person with an imagination that works overtime on picturing catastrophe, I can’t get the image out of my head of my little 12 pound dog accidentally slipping out the door to the wetlands. He must also picture catastrophe because his head always pops up when the coyote cry, and often he will retreat to a safe and snuggly corner of our home.

I try to counter the terrible things that go through my head by picturing coyote pups waiting for their mom and dad to come home with food for them. They need to eat too, I tell myself. But I wish things were as the first three chapters of Genesis describe them. I wish all creatures were vegan and that we lived in safe and loving harmony with each other.

In these moments I also think of the Torah portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The Israelites are poised outside the Land of Israel. Spies go ahead and return with their report, some describing it as a land of milk and honey, others describing it as a terrifying home of giants, all in terms that make clear that the Israelites, like their fellow creatures on the planet, can as well be prey as predator:

“ . . . 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).”

This acute awareness, that one can be prey as easily as predator, probably shapes a different perspective on things. Certainly part of one’s worldview would be a constant and profound sense of vulnerability. That is an environment and a worldview that doesn’t so much inspire as demand faith. And that turns out to be the message of that portion as G-d exercises some tough love with the Israelites, denying those who falter the opportunity to enter the Land, telling them their worst fears are self-fulfilling: as prey, they will become carcasses.

Ironically entering the Land is a first step in a journey toward greater security and away from vulnerability, a first step in the Israelites’ separation from the wilderness where they are both predator and prey and toward civilization.

Today we are far down that path. Most of us have never worked on a farm much less lived in the wilderness. We are little connected to the sources of the food that sustains us. And it’s worth considering that as our sense of vulnerability decreases, as we are more alienated from our natural world and our food sources, faith is no longer a demand or requirement for forging ahead in a dangerous world but a choice. And because the easier choice is not to think about it too much — just as it’s easier not to think too much about life and death and our vulnerability in the economy of nature — we are perhaps less likely to experience the kind of profound faith described in the Torah.

Conversely, I know from my own experience of depression that engaging with one’s own survival, that is with food (planting it, growing it, harvesting it and cooking it), is a strong antidote to depression. Yet any full time independent farmer knows the fear that accompanies a season when the crop fails from too much or too little rain or pests destroy it or fires ravage the land. In the hunter-gatherer life that preceded the agricultural revolution, perhaps symbolized by the wilderness, life was less dependable, sudden fears in the night closer, and faith an imperative to moving forward.

So back to the coyote who live behind me. I do work on a farm, and I’m very much aware of the sources of my food — all of it. I’m aware of how much work is involved in it. But I am not dependent on the farm to support myself or my family, and my engagement in this work is physically taxing but still a luxury. That has a different effect on my worldview than if my life and the lives of my family members were dependent on it.

Maybe the coyote are my reminder that under the veneer of culture and technology, there are more basic and primitive realities for all of us. That we too are vulnerable to becoming prey as much as we are predators. But for an accident of birth and through no merit of my own, I could have been a coyote in that wetland behind me — or the meal that caused such terrifying jubilation Tuesday evening. These are realities that for a human being drive not only fear but faith and a profound sense of gratitude.

These are also realities to consider when I make decisions about what I eat. To enter life as a human being is an unearned gift, just as it was an unearned gift to enter the Land of Israel. Our gift of humanity requires faith, humility, gratitude — and compassion.

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we? – Pam Ahern, Edgar’s Mission

5 thoughts on “All the world is a narrow bridge…and the main thing is not to be afraid”

  1. Leslie, thanks for your wise words!
    With Trump, climate change, an emerging Cold War, drug, plastic & poison epidemics, I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t feel vulnerable these days! I believe our only hope is to try to fulfill our obligations (mitzvot) or other health/peace promoting practices and to tend this world and help one another and uphold humane and global values & practices.
    Diane Kaplan Vinokur,
    ETHS ‘66

    1. Hi Diane – I so agree! That’s all we can do — tend this world, help one another, and uphold humane and global values and practices. That’s one of the things that’s so awesome to me about Torah study — it’s all there. These voices from the past came to the same place. And I think when you take time with these texts, you find voices from all religions saying the same thing, each in different ways, each with a slightly different take and personality — but the same fundamental truths.

      I read about a young woman, a 16 year old, who went to Davos with a message of urgency and a call to walk the talk. She didn’t fly there, and she didn’t stay in a fancy hotel with the other conference attendees. She camped. She traveled, ate and lived sustainably and demanded the same of them and stressed the urgency of our situation. She was so amazing. You’re right, we don’t feel the vulnerability of our situation. If we did, we’d be acting differently.

    2. Diane, I just wanted to add that I appreciate the direct connection you made to Trump. His utter disconnect from the fundamental realities, terrors and extraordinary beauty of life and his consequent lack of humility and compassion point to the cultural crisis in this country. There are many moments these days when I despair, but we can’t do that. In those moments, I watch videos of places like Bhutan where they have taken a different direction.

Leave a Reply to Leslie Cook Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *