AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Bamidbar

Parashat Bamidbar

Iyar 29, 5780 – May 23, 2020

Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Bamidbar, which is Hebrew for “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” This is the first parashah from the fourth book of the Torah – the Book of Numbers. “Numbers” is the English name of the book, which is linked to the two censuses that are taken (first in the opening of this parashah, and later in Chapter 26 after a plague). It also alludes to a major theme that courses throughout the book – the maintenance of societal structure. Now that the Israelites are in possession of the Torah, and the ritual technology associated with the Mishkan, their job is to remain a unified nation as they travel from Sinai to the Promised Land. The opening of the Book of Numbers is a “taking stock,” so to speak, of all able-bodied men and all Levites who will defend the physical and spiritual safety of the nation as they journey through Canaan. In a sense, when considered within a larger narrative ark, the Book of Numbers recounts a type of test. There are many tensions that are present throughout the wilderness – between order and chaos, nature and culture, and obedience and rebellion – which “characterizes the book and drives its plot.”[1] Between the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and the steppes of Moab, the Israelites are quite literally – and metaphorically – “in the wilderness.” Throughout this period, they encounter various forces that threaten the order and holiness that must be protected if they are to enter the Promised Land. But one could make the argument that this is the story of life, that we never actually leave the wilderness, and our denial of this premise has destroyed our capacity to adequately care for the Land.

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we are resuming one thread of a narrative that was last detailed in Exodus. The Book of Leviticus serves as an intermediary between these two books; it provides laws to help structure human action for the proper navigation of the challenges of life. These challenges are best exemplified by the wilderness – a physical, and mental, landscape that can disorient, discourage, or despiritualize under particular conditions. But this word midbar, which is Hebrew for wilderness or desert, has the same root (דבר) as the Hebrew word for word: davar. It’s as if to say that the wilderness is the place of G-d’s speaking, a sacred space designed to allow the human to learn how to listen to G-d through the approach to certain challenges. In this way, the wilderness is not a transitional space that one simply passes through on their way from slavery to freedom. The wilderness is a paradigm where the human being continually interfaces with G-d. And this is not a process, or conceptual space, that ever loses form. We either choose to engage, or disengage, from this reality. This is one of the reasons why we are encouraged to sense the exodus as an annual (or even daily) practice, because it can revitalize and internalize this understanding. This is also why the Torah depicts the wilderness as a literal desert – it’s a prototypical, blank canvas whereby we are given the opportunity to spatialize G-d. This means that through our actions we can give rise to conditions that allow us to encounter the Divine; through our actions we can construct real, tangible, physical spaces that hold extensions of G-d’s holiness. To refute this matter is to ignore the chaotic factors which give rise to disorder; the desert is a dangerous place, and without the proper preparation, one can – quite literally – die. But to embrace the unknown (the metaphorical unknown of the desert), whilst supported by the purpose of Torah, is to transform the destructive elements of chaos. It’s about elevating the meaning of life in harmony with the desert; it’s about building a whole world.

In the field of Religion and Ecology, as well as other environmentally-related disciplines (including anthropology), there is a philosophical phenomenon known as the “Nature–Culture Divide.” In short, it is premised on the notion that modern society has created and maintained a dualism: nature is often defined as ‘the other’, while culture is conceptualized as the realm that is separate and distinct from nature. This is quite obvious when we imagine modern sensibilities towards nature – in our temperature-controlled homes, and comfy beds, it’s easy to forget that we are still apart of the natural world. Four walls, and protection from any other predators, lulls us into a false sense security and a false reality. False, because we never actually leave nature – through the construction of certain constructs, we trick ourselves into believing that we are segregated from nature. This movement, to separate nature and culture, has its philosophical origins in Cartesian dualism, but has largely been perpetuated by an unbalanced, Christian eschatology. The elevation of the human, out of – and above – nature, is largely enmeshed with the Christian interpretation of Genesis and its connection to the modern, scientific enterprise. Richard Bauckham, in his book Bible and Ecology, writes:

“It was Francis Bacon, in the seventeenth century, who hijacked the Genesis text to authorize the project of scientific knowledge and technological exploitation whose excesses have given us the ecological crisis…Interpretation of the dominion has gone wrong when Genesis 1:26 and 28 has been isolated as the only part of Scripture used to define the G-d-given relationship of humans to the rest of creation.”[2]

I wanted to bring up the “Nature-Culture Divide” because it’s a phenomenon that is largely involved with varying opinions about the definitions of wilderness, and reasons for its preservation. E.O. Wilson, in his book Half Earth, argues that 50% of the planet needs to be set aside as untouched wilderness if we are to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. This type of philosophy has largely driven the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) conservation of land in the United States, whereby national parks and public lands are set aside, and human use of that land has strict parameters. But there are also philosophies that advocate for a balance between a kind of modified nature and a kind of modified human. And those ideologies come with their own set of theories about how to preserve biodiversity. The point here, though, is not to invoke a discussion about land use management. The point here is to suggest that without wilderness, and even more so without nature of any kind, one cannot understand the purpose of Torah. It is the engagement of the natural world that provides for the continual negotiation of meaning; nature, even as an elastic concept, is a literal and metaphorical medium to explore our cultural purpose in relation to its counterpart – chaos, disobedience, and death. Nature, itself, holds all things. The understanding of nature is a shared, human concern because it helps us to define the significance of our obligations to G-d. Nature and culture exist on a continuum; there is no duality in this regard, and I believe this to be a central message introduced in Parashat Bamidbar.

The beginning of this parashah opens up with a census. But if you remember back to Parashat Ki Sisa, the Torah teaches us that it’s “forbidden to count Jews in the ordinary manner.”[3] Instead, a half-shekel was given for the construction and maintenance of the Tabernacle, and people were counted indirectly. In Judaism, there are prohibitions against counting people directly because they are singled out, separated, and reduced to a number. There are, of course, creative ways to get around this, such as using a Torah verse with ten words in order to ensure that a minyan is present for communal prayer.[4] But the same principle can be applied to how we count biodiversity, and value the species that are part of the greater earth community. We can never reduce the biodiversity of this planet to a statistic – we are losing species at unprecedented rate and are currently living within (what is known as) the Sixth Mass Extinction (which is sometimes referred to as the Holocene Extinction or Anthropocene Extinction). But we will never really appreciate the significance of this moment if the biodiversity of this planet is simply a metric. We must realize, that behind the number, lies an individual – or species – that has an evolutionary history, a story, and purpose to fulfill in this world. They are part of G-d’s creation and therefore have infinite value. To reduce a species to a number is to degrade the value of their part within a greater whole; species richness should empower us to participate more fully in the community of creation, rather than have it be an intellectual exercise. In this respect, Parashat Bamidbar – and this Book of Numbers – has much to teach us about the wilderness and the way that individuals can connect to the Divine within it.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The role of wilderness after the exodus, the nature and culture divide, and the ecological lesson in the prohibition against counting directly

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Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Wilson, Edward O. Half-earth: our planet's fight for life. WW Norton & Company, 2016.

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.789 [2] Bauckham, Bible and Ecology, p.6-7 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.484 [4] A common verse that is used comes from Psalms 28:9 – “Hoshiah et amecha u'varech et nachalatecha ur'em venas'em ad ha'olam." "Save Your people and bless Your inheritance; tend them and lift them forever.”

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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