Eating Dirt

At the same time that I was reading Saturday’s daf (Shabbat 85), I was catching up on the previous week’s parsha (Bamidbar), and I had just taken a Shavuot seminar on musar, and we’re all sitting in a world right now where the question of “what is to be done?” should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

I have a few things on my mind about it, one positive and the others kind of negative. Let’s start with the good stuff.

Shabbat 85 (following 84, and continuing a bit into 86) is mostly concerned with the details of the restriction on planting multiple kinds of plants together. The core question is: if you have a small garden plot, how are you allowed to plant different plants together while keeping them “separate” enough to satisfy this requirement? There’s a lot about different patterns you can plant in (can you plant them in circles? what if you plant triangles coming in from the corners?), and along the way some tossed-off references to theories about why the prohibition on planting diverse kinds might be important. There’s a rabbinic ruling on how far plants need to be from each other before they’re considered to be leaching nutrients from each other, and there’s a reference to a tribe that inhabited Israel before the Israelites who could tell what to plant in different spots by tasting the earth, which my modern commentary theorizes might have been a way of determining soil acidity.

Similarly, in Numbers, we get an incredibly detailed breakdown of not only the numbers of Israelites in the camp but where they will set up camp, who is going to carry what parts of the tabernacle when on the move, etc.

What’s striking me about these sections right now is how specific and concerned with practical detail they are. The Rabbis lead with the details of planting and leave any question about values for inference. Numbers doesn’t say, “everyone should be organized to be able to move and protect the Levites,” and then leave the details up to someone else. These sections of the Torah and Talmud aren’t about values, or at least not just about values. They’re trying to give you really specific information about how you put your values into action.

That’s a real problem for me, in these days. There’s a lot of stuff in the world I’d like to change, and by and large I don’t have great ideas about how to change it. I’ve been to a bunch of protests over the years and most feel like they accomplished very little – I was out in the cold for my birthday back in 2003 against the Iraq war, with something like 30 million other people, and bupkus. I’ll be honest with you, my heart hasn’t been in street protest since, even though I’ve been to a few. That really felt like a moment that demonstrated that none of what we did mattered, that the bad guys had won.

And values aren’t going to be enough to fix things. We need an actual plan, on the nitty-gritty level of how to plant your seeds in a garden plot, or who exactly is going to carry the unicorn-skin cover for the ark. I appreciate the texts for getting beyond “thoughts and prayers” to that.

Musar was interesting as well as a companion – rather than specifics, it gives something like a technique (at least in the version we were talking about, which is drifted from its 19th Century roots). It’s a basic but simple and, I suspect effective (in part because it’s simple) feedback loop:

  1. Pick a value.
  2. Determine a short, related mantra to repeat in the morning for 1-5 minutes.
  3. Look for an opportunity to do something during the day that expresses that value.
  4. Journal about what you did/experienced with respect to that value at the end of the day.

Again the point is the specifics – plan your garden bed, make camp arrangements, reflect and iterate.

Of course, it wouldn’t be reading the Talmud or the Torah if it didn’t also do its best to alienate me.

First, in the Talmud, I worry that there’s a weird crowding out of learning, especially scientific learning. There’s a long discussion a few dafs back about a variety of natural phenomena – e.g., why chicken eyelids work the way they do. It’s all in the spirit of “everything is Torah,” but it leads to people in 2020 mulling over the scientific views of 4th Century rabbis. I worry about this sort of thing. For instance, if there ever was a scientific basis to “don’t plant diverse kinds of crop together,” it seems to go against what we currently seem to have learned about the importance of biodiversity in agriculture, etc.

Second, wow, the specifics of what Numbers is doing are intense. What’s being laid out is a way to set up your entire community as a militarized camp. Everyone is organized by clan and military leader, for defense and conquest. Yes, you can read this as spiritual, metaphorical war if you like, but it’s still dangerous. It may not be a good idea to understand other kinds of difficult things on the model of war.

I don’t want to impute too much of our current world to the model of a thoroughly militarized community presented in Numbers – I will bet you a dollar that most of the people I worry about have little to no idea of what is even in the Book of Numbers, the fact that our President just used the force of an industrialized military complex to teargas protesters so he could take a photo with a Bible notwithstanding. But I can’t help but be struck by it. It feels like something dangerous and toxic, to have this be the vision of community embedded so deeply in a text that shapes reality for so many people. That if they look for guidance about what they should do, one answer waiting for them will always be, “regiment your society, put it on a war footing, find an enemy to crush.”

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