Remember to Look Out and Up

 

If you take the Torah as a divinely-dictated document, then it is axiomatic that if a verse seems to be unimportant – or even irrelevant – it merely means we have failed to understand it. Every verse and word and letter counts. That belief is why Jews have preserved the text, letter-perfect, for thousands of years.

So I was intrigued when a friend posed an interesting question: when the people in the wilderness cry out for meat, the Torah tells us:

And say to the people: Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before G-d and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ G-d will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected G-d who is among you, by whining before [God] and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’”

Here’s the question: The text includes You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month. But why? What does this verse add that is not already clear in the story? And what do these numbers even mean? Doesn’t it seem like empty rhetoric? What could the text possibly be trying to teach the people then – and to us, today?

There are a few cool clues. Start with the numbers. 1 is the number of a person. 2 is the number of so many things we have: two arms, legs, etc. 5 is the number of fingers on one hand, 10 the number of all of our fingers, and 20 the number of all of our digits – fingers and toes. These are the numbers of a person’s body. The Torah is telling us that G-d will not be giving us meat, physical sustenance, merely to satisfy our physical cravings.

Instead, G-d will give us meat for a month. What does this matter? Because a month is lunar, external to the body. To mark the month is to acknowledge that there are more important things than what our own bodies feel, that there is a world outside of our wants and desires. And that world matters.

The first commandment given to the Children of Israel was given when they were in Egypt. And what was that commandment? This month shall be to you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Ex. 12)

Why is this relevant? Because in Egypt, all people had to do to survive was to be in harmony with nature. The Torah speaks of engaging in agriculture in Egypt just with our feet. Human existence was as an intelligent animal working with the earth. There was no need to look up: everything in Egypt was regular as clockwork, and crop irrigation was from the Nile, not the skies.

So G-d tells the people to mark the phases of the moon, that we must look upward to connect with G-d instead of downward to connect with the earth. This first commandment was to tell the people that we had to extend our horizons and worldview to include the heavens as well as the earth.

And so it proves for the story of the quail as well: G-d is telling people that there is more than each person’s physical desires, petty and limited as our lusts clearly are. There is a whole world out there, up there. We cannot be G-d’s people if all we care about is how our bodies feel. G-d’s perspective includes that of the whole world, and so if we are to be His partners in this world, we are always to try to see things from a higher perspective.

There is another clue as well. The verse says until it comes out of your nostrils. Remember that the nostrils were the pathway for G-d’s spirit entering Adam. The nostrils are the entry point for our divinely-gifted souls. So for the text to tell us that we would eat meat until it comes out of our nostrils is both a reminder that we are supposed to be more than merely smart animals, and that if we allow our physical lusts to define who we are, then it is the spiritual side of us, our very souls, that will be damaged and diminished as a result.

We are both physical and spiritual creatures – but only to the extent that we recognize and embrace our potential to act in both realms, to seek to connect with the heavens as well as the earth, to recognize our spiritual link to G-d as well as our physical link to the meat of other animals.

When we allow ourselves to be governed by purely limited, selfish, and physical desires, G-d reminds us that if we going to be partners with the divine, then we must seek a different perspective: look outward and upward.

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  1. E. Kent Golding Moderator
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    I am not a Jew.   I know that Muslims believe that the Koran was a divinely dictated document – a recording or a transcription.    Christians believe that the Bible, including the Torah ,  were divinely inspired documents – the Holy Spirit guided the authors ,  but did not dictate the actual words.    What is the Jewish position:  Dictation or Inspiration?   Thanks for your patience.

    • #1
  2. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    iWe: Why is this relevant? Because in Egypt, all people had to do to survive was to be in harmony with nature. The Torah speaks of engaging in agriculture in Egypt just with our feet. Human existence was as an intelligent animal working with the earth. There was no need to look up: everything in Egypt was regular as clockwork, and crop irrigation was from the Nile, not the skies.

    I don’t think that this is correct, as a factual historical matter, about farming in Egypt.  I’m not an expert in the area by any means, but as I understand it, the annual Nile floods did not water the crops for the entire growing season.  Rather, the annual floods renewed the soil.  I think that the Egyptians still had to use canals, and other methods, to water their crops after the annual flood.

    Again, I’m no expert on this, but it is my impression.

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  3. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    E. Kent Golding (View Comment):

    I am not a Jew. I know that Muslims believe that the Koran was a divinely dictated document – a recording or a transcription. Christians believe that the Bible, including the Torah , were divinely inspired documents – the Holy Spirit guided the authors , but did not dictate the actual words. What is the Jewish position: Dictation or Inspiration? Thanks for your patience.

    The Five Books (what I call “Torah”) are dictated.

    Everything else goes through a filter. Which is why Judaism discounts LATER sources. 

    I wrote on this extensively in the past – it is somewhere on Ricochet, but also on my blog.

    How is Moses’ “Thus says the LORD,” being the Word of God, is different from Isaiah’s “Thus says the LORD,” being something less than Moses’?

    Why does this matter? It is actually at the very heart of the Jewish/Christian divide: Do earlier sources trump later ones?

    The Jewish position is that the Torah from the wilderness was dictated by G-d to Moshe, and every word is divine in origin. All of Jewish law derives from that Torah. All subsequent sources, however illustrative and interesting, cannot overrule or otherwise rewrite the Torah in any way, since the prophecy was never as direct as it was with Moshe. Moshe took dictation. The Prophets approximated what they heard. And our Sages were inspired (the Hebrew phrase, amusingly enough, translates as a “holy spirit”) by G-d.

    The Christian position, as I understand it, is that the New Testament is in some way an update to the Old, which means that newer prophets are at least as true as the older ones, and probably more so. Hence the commandments of the Torah can be fulfilled by Jesus and the events of his life.

    This is, in fact, a fundamental point of disagreement. After all, Jesus is a newer prophet, so whether or not he could negate the commandments of the Torah is a question at the very foundation of both religions.

    The rest is there. It is worth a read.

    This is why I only analyze the 5 books – the rest are not written such that every letter and word contains a wealth of guidance.

    • #3
  4. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    iWe: Why is this relevant? Because in Egypt, all people had to do to survive was to be in harmony with nature. The Torah speaks of engaging in agriculture in Egypt just with our feet. Human existence was as an intelligent animal working with the earth. There was no need to look up: everything in Egypt was regular as clockwork, and crop irrigation was from the Nile, not the skies.

    I don’t think that this is correct, as a factual historical matter, about farming in Egypt. I’m not an expert in the area by any means, but as I understand it, the annual Nile floods did not water the crops for the entire growing season. Rather, the annual floods renewed the soil. I think that the Egyptians still had to use canals, and other methods, to water their crops after the annual flood.

    Again, I’m no expert on this, but it is my impression.

    My point. Canals and irrigation ditches used the FEET. We looked DOWN to irrigate. Egypt has virtually no rainfall. 

    south from Cairo, the average drops to nearly 0 millimetres (0.00 inches) in the central and the southern part of the country.

    • #4
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