AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Beha’alotecha

Parashat Beha’alotecha

Sivan 21, 5780 – June 13, 2020

Torah Reading: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Haftarah: Zachariah 2:14 – 4:7

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 Beha’alotecha, which is Hebrew for “when you bring up.”[1] The root of this word – עלה – means to go up, climb, or ascend, which (in this parashah) has a double meaning. It’s a specific command that is given to Aaron to kindle the seven lights of the menorah. Commentators have discussed why this passage immediately follows the offerings given by the tribal leaders. Ramban (i.e. Nachmanides) draws from the Tanchuma when he relates that this “kindling…alludes to a later Menorah, that of the miracle of Chanukah.”[2] While not a holiday of biblical origin, it does call attention to a period of time when the Temple was desecrated, and the Torah was suppressed and nearly extinguished. Here, as the Israelites are beginning their journey from Sinai ‘up’ to Eretz Yisrael, they must remember to raise light in every aspect of their lives. Going up is also a movement that mirrors going out – it is an indication that dysfunction results from light being withheld, and that human activity cannot progress unless it is placed within the framework of outward service. In Genesis 1:3 we read: “וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר” – “Let there be light” or “It should become light,”[3]which is a mandate of creation – a flaring forth of divine activity. It’s our responsibility to remove all obstructions to that movement, so that G-d – the Source of all light – can touch every corner of the world. In this way, we serve to bring life and dynamism into spaces inhabited by the force of nothingness. In this way, the world can become light, and we can rise up to meet the function of our service: the vision of a world redeemed.

One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed is the dysfunctionality of many global systems. Countries like Australia, and the UK, are beginning to shift towards renewable energies to “kickstart economic growth and tackle the global climate emergency.”[4] Our current model of using fossil fuels just doesn’t make sense if we’re not constantly and needlessly flying around the globe. And this has exposed the economic fragility of certain industries and their capacity to persist through powerful change. Renewable energies are called as such because they’re renewable – their source is not depleted by their usage, and they harness natural processes that are continually replenished. Light, by no coincidence, is a type of renewable technology that can combat our current obsession with nonrenewable sources such as oil, gas, and coal. While these dirty energies are destroying the integrity of the earth, they are also – quite literally – inhibiting our utilization of light. And there’s a spiritual comparison to be made here as well. In Exodus 20:17 we read: “Moshe said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for in order to elevate you has G-d come; so that awe of Him shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin.’ The people stood from afar and Moshe approached the thick cloud where G-d was.” As the Torah was about to be given, Moshe approached the thick cloud (הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל). He actually approached a type of darkness.[5] It wasn’t the paralyzing force of nothingness, it was the “shimmering darkness”[6] of pure potentiality – a space brimming with intense energy, promise, and great activity. It is a space that is an important part of our learning and our living because it provides an opportunity for us to make a choice. And we have reached that injunction; now it’s time to make a choice. There’s a reason that the Yotzer blessing is said before the Shema during Shacharit – our prayers are designed like a ladder to climb, and our choice to ascend is our vote: in such a way, we are choosing to confront the technologies that are contributing to the perforation of nothingness. Our treatment of the earth is actually about our orientation towards light, and this is an environmental – as much as it is a spiritual – concern. By prioritizing nonrenewable energy technologies, not only are we polluting the earth, but we are inviting the forces of chaos which presage nothingness. In this way, the mitzvot are akin to a renewable energy technology – they are attuned to the Source of all life and move us upwards and outwards to meet the world.

There are many fascinating components to this parashah. A Second Passover (Pesach Sheini) is given to allow those who were ritually unfit to give the offering a month earlier, on the 14th of Nissan. Details are given for how the Israelites are to disassemble their camp, and the order in which they are to move through the wilderness. And both Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe, which results in Miriam being stricken with tzaraat. But the most gripping environmental aspect of this parashah involves the dissatisfaction with the manna. If you remember back to Exodus 16, manna was described as a “daily gift of heavenly food”[7] that would appear with the nightly dew. It had the appearance of coriander seed and could be ground into a flour to be baked, like a cake or a bread. The interesting nature of the manna was that you could only collect what you needed for the day – if you collected more than what you needed, it would spoil, except for the double portion that was collected for Shabbat. In this parashah, the narrative pertaining to the manna begins with a sequence of complaints. The progression begins with the Hebrew word (וַיְהִ֤י) – quite literally meaning “it was” or “it came to pass,” but the Torah uses this word as a narrative trope to indicate the continuation of a previous condition.[8] In 11:4 we read:

“The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and the Children of Israel also wept once more and said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!”

On one level, it is compelling to meditate upon the essence of the complaint – there were people who were dissatisfied with a source of sustenance that could not be stockpiled, nor sourced without trust in the constancy of G-d. And this dissatisfaction was expressed through a desire for meat. But, even more so, what was driving the complaints was a sense of nostalgia. There was a faction of people that, when confronted with a new way of life and the unknown of the wilderness, actually longed for the days of slavery. And the association is with the meat, or more specifically – the fish – sourced from the Nile. The lesson is in the danger of nostalgia when it pulls us back into an existence that harms the integrity of our body and soul. It begs us to inquire about the aspects of our life that are no longer serving us and implores us to not be afraid in the face of the unknown – even if it means leaving everything you know behind. The fate of the modern world will depend upon this sensitivity, and our ability to abandon lifestyles that enslave us in a realm devoid of life and light.

In the Mechilta, we read that the Torah could be given only to those who were eating manna.[9] And Rashi explains that the “talk of meat was only a pretext to complain about the manna.”[10] Later, in 32:1, we read that “the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had abundant livestock,” so it was clear that there was an abundance of meat. Moshe is incredibly distraught after the complaints about the manna, more so than after the Sin of the Golden Calf. What follows is a process whereby Moshe imparts some of his spirit onto 70 elders – a body of leaders that the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 2a) regards as the Great Sanhedrin. Environmentally, though, the fascination is with a wish that comes disguised as a punishment. The people wanted meat, and they were certainly given it – so much meat, that it was all they could eat for a month. In 11:20 we read: “Until an entire month of days, until it comes out of your nose, and becomes nauseating to you, because you have rejected Hashem Who is in your midst, and you have wept before Him, saying: Why did we leave Egypt?” The literal comparison is quite clear: we are living in an age where our meat consumption is excessive, and the production of much of that meat is inhumane and harming the planet. In addition, many of us are eating meat up to three times a day, and with every meal, which is also proving to be exorbitant. But if the consumption of manna was essential for the receiving of the Torah, I would argue that the complaint was about hanging on to a system based on inhumane principles. The key phrase to highlight here is: “we remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge.” Ibn Ezra comments the fish from the Nile was plentiful, that it was virtually free.[11] And Rashi suggests that it was “free” in the sense that it came without any obligation to fulfill the mitzvot.[12] In this respect, the complaints about the manna are actually about longing for a life that’s on tap. It’s about having nostalgia for a time when things were always at your fingertips. Manna is about the sanctity of food, but it’s also about the sanctity of life, light, and material activities that are in harmony with the world. So many of us right now are longing for our take-out food, and the freedom we get from having no accountability for the products we consume. But the Torah is asking us to question our commitment to the ideals that move upward and outward, and to leave behind the paradigms that are enslaving us.

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

Topics Include: The dysfunctionality of global systems revealed during Covid-19, the analogy between mitzvot and renewable energy technologies, the dissatisfaction with manna and the danger of nostalgia


Listen to this Podcast

Additional articles about the transition to renewable energies following Covid-19 [13]

References

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).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.843 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.774 [3] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/45654/jewish/It-Should-Become-Light.htm [4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/20/green-energy-could-drive-covid-19-recovery-international-renewable-energy-agency [5] See Psalm 97:2, 2 Samuel 22:10, 1 Kings 8:12, and Job 22:13 [6] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/45693/jewish/Nothingness-as-a-Force.htm [7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.384 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.787 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.384 [10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.789 [11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.789 [12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.789 [13] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-52395319 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/may/15/australias-reserve-bank-fuels-call-for-post-pandemic-renewables-push https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/17/coal-industry-will-never-recover-after-coronavirus-pandemic-say-experts https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/24/energy-wont-be-the-same/ https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/19/how-renewable-energy-could-power-britains-economic-recovery


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

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