Some of the trails in the preserve behind our house are clear and distinct, but others end in a tangle of yaupon and cedar, or suddenly open to a clearing with no obvious way forward. One day, my oldest son led the way as we walked along what seemed like a clear path… but then the path disappeared. My son kept walking. “Zeke,” I called, “I don’t think this is a trail.” He kept going. “Zeke,” I called again. He turned around. “Mom, this really is a trail,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s just all covered up by cactus and weeds.”
Doing interfaith environmental work has taught me that in almost all our religious traditions, we have let some of our clearest wisdom paths—especially the ones that recognize our core interconnectedness with the earth, with each other, and with God—get overgrown with cactus and weeds.
In the face of global warming and other environmental crises, we need now to clear these paths and hear this ancient wisdom anew—so that together, we might chart an ecologically-sustainable way forward. One of these guiding stories is found in Beha’alotecha, this week’s Torah portion.
In Numbers, chapter 11, the “riffraff” among the people feel a gluttonous, excessive craving. The Hebrew translates literally as, “they craved a craving.” Soon all of this diverse mixed multitude of people whine and cry, saying, “If we only had meat!” Nevermind that they were traveling with herds of animals, or that God is miraculously providing manna every day—manna that is said to taste different for each person and can be the flavor of any food. No, the people are bored with manna. They miss cucumber, melons, leeks, onions and garlic from the good old days of slavery.
At the height of the complaining, the people are separated into their clans, isolated in their individual tents. God gets angry, and Moses gets distressed. What started as a mixed multitude, referred to in this book as ha’am, “the people,” for the first time in verse 1 of this chapter, is now divided.
Moses, in turn, complains to God. “It is too much for me,” he says—this burden of leadership. “If this is how it’s going to be, just kill me.” In response, God tells Moses to bring seventy of Israel’s elders to the Tent of Meeting so they can share in the burden of leadership. Also, God has a message for the people: they will get their meat, alright—but so much that it will come out of their nostrils and become loathsome.
This craving and complaining is about more than food—it is a rejection of God and covenant. When the people should be grateful for divine guidance and sustenance in the wilderness, they complain. When they should be working together in common cause as they travel through the desert, they isolate themselves into separate camps. When they should humbly, simply, and happily be thankful to be alive, free, and partnered with God, they selfishly crave a craving.
As instructed, Moses and the seventy elders go out to the Tent of Meeting, where God descends in a cloud. The newly-empowered elders prophesy for a while, but then stop.
Meanwhile, Eldad and Medad, two men who were among those called out to the Tent of Meeting, stay behind in camp. Even so, the Spirit finds them, and they prophesy without ceasing. The midrash, or stories, about these two say that they remain in the camp out of a true humility, which is why, according to Elie Wiesel, they “surpass their peers as prophets.” I like to think of them, too, as standing in solidarity with the people rather than separating themselves out. Perhaps this deep connection to the community contributes to their superior gift of prophecy.
Even with the seventy newly empowered leaders and two bonus prophets, though, the craved cravings, the divisiveness, and the complaining have consequences that cannot be averted. God, through Moses, had warned the people that the meat would be loathsome—and yet, people gather the quail up by the bushel-full. Those who ate got sick and died in the place that came to be known as Kibroth-hattaavah, “the graves of craving.”
This is a rich and complex story that contains multiple layers of meaning—many of which I won’t get to today. On a very basic level, though, it shows us that for all our technological progress, we humans haven’t “evolved” as much as we’d like to think. The story of a mixed multitude of people traveling together, sometimes following God but frequently retreating to their own camps, discontent and complaining, sounds a lot like us today.
Like the ancient Israelites, we should be humbly appreciative, but we complain. We should work together in common cause, but we isolate ourselves into separate camps. We should humbly, simply, and happily be grateful to be alive, free, and partnered with the Divine—by whatever name we know It—seeking only to live and serve the best we can, but we selfishly crave a craving.
Why aren’t we satisfied when we have enough, but instead want more? Why is it so hard for us to work together with others? Why do we ignore warnings about how eating the quail will make us sick—or how continuing to burn fossil fuels the way we are will lead to ever-worsening global warming?
"Civilization will not be destroyed for lack of knowledge, but from a lack of wonder."- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Much like the sickness brought on by eating quail, global warming is the plague that we face today, the consequence that cannot at this point be averted. An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global warming is caused by human activity and is already underway. They tell us that increasing global temperatures will bring more extreme storms and droughts; that rising sea levels will swallow coastlines around the world; and that weather and rainfall patterns for entire regions will change. What this means for the future of humanity and life on earth remains to be seen.
Human craving, complaint, and divisiveness helped get us into this mess. The challenge of global warming absolutely requires that we make practical and policy changes, and soon—but it also demands a change in our hearts. Finding a clear, sustainable way forward requires that we grow in awareness, gratitude, and connection to community (both human and non-human). In these areas, our religious traditions have much wisdom to offer.
"Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” –Jeremiah 6:16
As we stand in the crossroads in this, our time of plague and crisis, let us seek out those stories, rituals, and practices from our traditions that can guide us. Let us, together, clear the cactus and weeds from those ancient paths—that they might transform our hearts, our lives, and our world.
Photo taken by me, Yaira Robinson, in the woods behind our house.