Torah Ecology: Toledot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Toledot is “the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.” (Gen. 25:19) — yet it turns out to be the story of Esau and Jacob, even Rebekah, moving the story forward, while Isaac, old and blind, sits helplessly in his tent.

After taking Rebekah to wife following the death of his mother, Isaac pleads with the Lord on her behalf “because she was barren.” When she conceives, the children struggle in her womb. G-d tells her two separate peoples will issue from her body, one mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.

In Toledot, much of what we learn about Esau, the older of the twins born to Rebekah, is through contrast with his younger twin, Jacob.

Esau emerges “red, like a hairy mantle all over.” Here, red may refer to his ruddy complexion. In any case, “red” is a constant theme of the story. The detail about the “hairy mantle” presages the remainder of the story and Jacob’s trickery. It suggests something else as well, though.

We remember that Gen. 3:1 describes the serpent as the most arum of all the wild beasts the Lord G-d had made. In this context, with reference to the serpent, the Hebrew arum translates to “shrewd.” The same word, arum, translates to “naked” with reference to Adam and Eve’s awareness after they eat from the tree. In other biblical contexts, arum generally translates “prudent.”

A Hebrew speaker hearing arum would associate all these meanings and nuances: shrewd, cunning, naked, prudent — and would sense, even recognize, the parallel between serpent and human, elevating the snake to be more like the human, characteristically “naked,” without fur or a “hairy mantle.” Through this description, Esau, not “naked” even as an infant but rather born with a “hairy mantle,” is more like the beasts of the field whom he hunts as an adult.

This verbal parallel between Esau and the animals he hunts reminds us of a biblical subtext, that humans are animals and but for the grace of G-d may, like their fellow creatures, become prey (Num. 14:3). In his hairiness, his consequent closer similarity to the beasts of the field and his preference for the outdoors, Esau contrasts with his younger twin, Jacob, a “mild man who stayed in camp,” favored by his mother, Rebekah.

Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JTS Torah Commentary to Bereishit/Genesis that hunting was frowned upon in Israel, and “no Israelite or Judean king or hero is ever mentioned as indulging in the sport.” Nonetheless, since certain biblical passages describe how to prepare for food an animal caught in the hunt and include some wild animals in the list of animals that can be eaten, clearly there was some hunting due to economic necessity.

The fact that Esau was a hunter, though, sets him apart from normative Israelite society, as does the fact that he chooses his own wives from among the Hittite women rather than allow his parents to arrange a marriage for him as was the custom. When he overhears his parents talking of their dissatisfaction with his wives, he once again chooses wives, this time from the Ishmaelites.

Again, the details of the story highlight Esau’s character in contrast with Jacob’s: his closer kinship to the creatures he hunts accord with his independence from civilization, from the community of Israelites, from convention. Esau is associated with a more instinctive lifestyle, even a more impulsive lifestyle. Not only does he marry whom he wishes without parental consultation and seemingly without much consideration — but he thoughtlessly sells his birthright for short term gain, some red, red stuff (lentil stew) to “gulp down.”  As Sarna points out, the Hebrew for “gulp down,” l-‘-t (ha-l’iteni), usually refers to feeding animals. Here it also associates Esau with his fellow creatures, beasts of the field, more than with his Israelite community.

In contrast, we have his mother, Rebekah, and his brother, Jacob, whose focus is on the future, who plan and strategize even to the extent of trickery. We might even say they are arum, “prudent,” unlike impulsive Esau, who spurns his birthright, then bursts into “wild and bitter sobbing” when he learns he lost his father’s blessing. (Gen. 27:33)

One final detail further highlights the contrast between Esau and his brother, Jacob, and that is the “red, red stuff” Jacob cooks up one day for no particular reason, at least not one the text provides: “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew…” Esau arrives on the scene, coming in “from the open, famished.” (Gen. 25:29) Esau is an emotional man, driven by his instincts and short term needs; Jacob is more complex, a mild man who stays in camp, who cooks … what? apparently a vegan meal, bread and lentil stew.

And so the story returns us to the Garden narrative in yet another way, choosing as the progenitor of G-d’s people a man who is arum, prudent, who makes conscious choices, who is not driven by instinct and desire but is, instead, thoughtful, considering consequences (Gen. 27:12). It is a man who does not hunt, who does not “smell of the fields” but prefers to stay in the camp, in his community, and cook up a simple and delicious vegan repast of bread and lentils.

Torah Ecology: Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1 – 25:18)

In the biblical narrative, Chayei Sarah is a bridge between the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The story begins with Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in Hittite territory so he can bury his wife, Sarah. After caring for the dead with a permanent place in the land, Abraham turns his attention to the future and the living, sending his unnamed servant to go to the land of Abraham’s birth to “get a wife” for Isaac.  The section concludes enumerating the lines of Abraham’s progeny through Keturah and Hagar (the line of Ishmael).

There are so many features of interest in this story, but in keeping with the task of this series, exploring the relationship between human beings, the rest of creation and G-d, the ecology of cosmos, I’m going to zero in on chapter 24. Rebeka’s character in chapter 24 serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the Esau’s character described  in chapters 25 (his birth) and 27 (losing his birthright), both in the next portion, Toledot.

In chapter 24, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family of origin. Abraham requires an oath from the servant not to take Isaac back to the land from which he came. Rather an “angel of the Lord” will lead the servant. Should the woman he choose refuse to leave her home and come with the servant, he will be cleared of the oath.

Taking ten of his master’s camels and ”all the bounty of his master,” the servant set out on his journey to Aram-Naharaim, to Nahor. When he arrives at the city, he causes his camels to kneel by the well outside the city at evening when the women of the city come out to draw water. The servant prays that he will find success on behalf of his master, Abraham. The words of the servant’s prayer provide the specifications for Isaac’s betrothed, as Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JPS Commentary to Bereishit:

“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Gen. 24:13-14).

Sarna points out the significance of this first record in Hebrew scripture of an individual praying for guidance at a critical moment. It “implies the concept of the individual as a religious unit in his own right, as distinct from the community.” The servant’s prayer is answered immediately and completely.

At least as significant, though, is the extent to which Rebekah demonstrates the features of character the servant requires, leaving no doubt in the servant’s mind that not he but G-d chose this woman to move history forward. As Sarna points out, the criteria the servant establishes for the ideal wife are, “must be hospitable to strangers, kind to animals, and willing to give of herself to others.” — that is, responsive to a human community, to “outsiders” and to fellow creatures.

The extent to which Rebekah fulfills this ideal can only be understood from paying attention to the details of the text. As Sarna explains, “a single camel requires at least twenty-five gallons of water to regain the weight it loses in the course of a long journey. It takes a camel about ten minutes to drink this amount of water.” Remember, though, Gen. 24:10 provided the detail that the servant took ten of his master’s camels. Rebekah saw those ten camels and, undaunted, volunteered to draw water for the camels “until they finish drinking.” She emptied the water “quickly” into the trough and “ran” back to the well to draw more.

When the servant asks Rebekah if there is room in her house for “us” to spend the night (referring to himself and the men with him, mentioned in Gen. 24:32), she responds first (and gratuitously) on behalf of the camels, saying, “There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night.” Similarly her family extends their hospitality to the camels equally with the men, preparing a place for the camels, unloading them and giving them straw and feed.

Rebekah cares for a stranger, extending hospitality and giving generously of herself — but it is her energetic labors on behalf of the ten camels that distinguishes her and provides us with a Torah ideal: while domesticated animals may work for humans (carrying them and their goods, as later in the story during the return to Isaac), they deserve full and compassionate care according to their needs. In this story, their care is at least as important as their human masters’ care, sometimes even coming before it.

Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways — but a test of character is the extent to which one respects their service and cares for them with energy and compassion.

Potential payback and a conundrum

I watched a video this morning that amplified my growing understanding of how much that we do is shaped by our evolutionary history. That, in turn, is shaped by the drive to survive:

Evolution is a topic that first interested me tangentially, in relation to food choices. The more I read, though, the more questions it answers…and raises.

This morning I heard a discussion about AI (Artificial Intelligence), the pros…and the concerns raised by some, including Stephen Hawkings, that these machines may become more intelligent than we are and behave in destructive ways or ways we don’t choose for them to behave. Could they ultimately destroy us?

This is not a fantasy concern. A scientist who supports research in AI points out that human beings succeeded as they did because they are smart. While I think this point is debatable — and in fact Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the video I link to here, suggests something different that makes more sense to me: humans beings survived and prevailed over all other animals because of their ability to imagine and persuade others to buy into a fiction. This ability allowed them to organize and cooperate in large groups, larger than any other species.

But back to the concerns. In this context, I wonder about the power of evolution and the desire to survive that drives it — and how that desire shapes “intelligence.” I wonder if a machine can ever show the same kind of intelligence as a human without having implanted in it that same drive to survive? Without that, a machine’s intelligence will evolve very differently.

At least two possibilities suggest themselves to me. And I’m sure there are more. Without the drive to survive, machines can’t be particularly intelligent. With it, they could well decide it is in their interest to destroy us. Isn’t that what we have done to other species and even other human beings? Destroyed them because of a perceived benefit to our survival?

Seems to me we face both potential payback and a conundrum.

No creature left behind

For some reason today, I thought about Zlateh the Goat, a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of this book, including the story of Zlateh, the New York Times says, “beautiful stories for children, written by a master.” But they are not just for children. This is a powerful story of love and compassion and communication at the most profound level between species, different animals, human and goat.

Zlateh the Goat struggles with the challenges of reality as does another child’s story, “Carp in the Bathtub” by Barbara Cohen, a story in which two young children “learn some very grownup lessons when they try to save the fish their mother bought to make into gefilte fish” for the Passover Seder.  One writer calls the story “an early lesson in mortality and heartbreak.” The kidnapped fish ultimately ends up where it is destined to be, fulfilling its purpose on the Seder table. The children’s father teaches them a lesson about the purpose of each life on earth, and the youngsters receive a “real” pet, a cat, after Passover.

Many of us, myself included, experienced the lessons of both books consciously or unconsciously at some time in our lives. We learned that animals are living beings with souls and compassion and an ability to communicate — and we learned that in our culture, they have a purpose, which is to entertain us or to end up on our plates or in our clothing.

But as we get older and explore the realities of life and death on factory farms and question the messages of culture, some of us wonder: Can any creature possibly be born with its purpose to be systematically slaughtered after a short, constricted and unnatural life separated from its home, family, friends and natural habitat? The answer of “Carp in the Bathtub” isn’t sufficient for our world today just as the message of kashrut is only the beginning of an answer left for us to update for this moment in which we live.

One lesson the Torah teaches is that but for the grace of G-d and not our own merits, we too could be prey. Perhaps it’s time to remember and reimagine our place in creation along the lines of the first chapters of Genesis.

Hierarchies and the meaning of “in the image…”

Part of what I want to understand as I read the Torah is how it rationalizes hierarchical relationships when its creation accounts share such an extraordinarily inspirational non-hierarchical vision, a vision in which no creature kills another for food and all of creation lives in harmony. I can’t help but think, or maybe I mean hope, that somehow I will discover that the Torah values all life equally, that the vision of the the first chapters of Genesis are meant to guide us, that sacrifice is just…a situational anomaly, something destined to end. Certainly not part of the plan of a compassionate G-d.

I thought I was making some small progress in that direction when I read Noach two weeks ago. The vocabulary suggested to me that animals, like humans, are both basar and nefesh, substance or meat as well as living beings sustained by the breath of G-d. Animals, like humans, are held morally accountable. Humans were violent before the flood — but animals were not guiltless. Both were implicated in unlawful bloodshed, humans directly and other animals by implication. All basar, flesh, is therefore punished. This theory would provide a moral foundation for G-d’s decision to annihilate kol basar, all flesh.

In the new world, humans are permitted meat-eating with the limitation that they remove the blood — and meat-eating among animals is assumed with the limitation that the animal they kill is not human. Hierarchical, yes. But animals still have a role in the story, self-determination.

Then I remembered that only human beings are “in the image” of G-d, although I’m not entirely certain what that means from the perspective of the Torah. And then came Lech Lecha, which confirms the permanent position of other animals on a lower level of the hierarchy the Torah sets out. They are no longer significant to the forward movement of the story, no longer self-determining.

Animals are not the only ones whose value is diminished. Vayera brings us a series of stories in which all individual personalities, all needs, all emotions, recede in significance and value in relation to the purpose G-d intends to carry out through Abraham and Abraham’s devotion to it.

I have read Genesis many times during my life from different situations and perspectives from sitting on our Massachusetts front porch as a five-year-old child browsing my Dad’s illustrated pulpit Bible to a post-graduate academic environment to my current reading in an Illinois living room in an age of factory farms and environmental devastation.

I was particularly struck this year in reading Vayera by the vast silence surrounding the uniqueness and value of life trajectories other than Abraham’s: Sarah’s silence as she is misrepresented to Abimelech and taken into his harem, Hagar’s silence as she is sent away into the wilderness with her child, Yitzchak’s silence as he is bound on the altar and his father raises a knife to kill him, the ram’s silence as Abraham seizes him where he is caught in a thicket and binds him on the altar and slaughters him.

I was struck by the fact that G-d ceases to speak directly to Abraham during those terrible moments on Mt. Moriah and instead, in the two communications that follow the near homicide, speaks through a messenger. Following that horrific moment, even if we grant that a human sacrifice was never intended but was, instead, a test as the text says, wouldn’t we expect more intimacy and compassion instead of less when Abraham demonstrates that he is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? After Abraham … silently … went through such an ordeal?

And far from inspired, I am repelled by the idea that any person would be so committed to anything that they would be prepared to set aside all compassion, all sense of connection, in order to fulfill that commitment, whatever is required.

I try to imagine myself in that home, the wife of this man, whose forward-driving impulse, his faith, leaves those around him buried in the pain, terror and silence of their lives and situations. Even if G-d knew Ishmael would not die and would become a great nation — and even if G-d knew Yitzhak would not die but would carry forward Abraham’s line into the future, Abraham didn’t know and was willing to sacrifice them.

And then there is the terror of the lamb, the horror of its actual death on the altar, its bleating that touches no soul, that we can’t hear through the text. We exalt this single-mindedness of purpose, this unwavering commitment to an ideal no matter what is required as a virtue, a demonstration of faith. Yet I’m very certain if that person stood before us today we would say he is an ideologue…or a terrorist.

As hard as I try, I can’t find a rationale for this kind of hierarchization of life other than to say, life in some situations is harsh and unforgiving, creating a constant awareness of life and death and forcing impossible decisions. As I think of the decisions life forces on us sometimes and in some situations, I am reminded of the movie, Sophie’s Choice, a story of a person whose life was also profoundly changed by a decision she had to make, a terrible dilemma that had no “right” answer. And she had to bear the burden of that terrible decision in every moment that remained of her life.

And when I arrive at this moment in which I can find no answers, I think of this statement and am filled with gratitude that through no merit of my own, I live in a moment and a place in the history of the world that I am not called upon to make impossible choices:

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?” ~ Pam Ahern of Edgar’s Mission

Torah Ecology: Vayera (Gen. 18:1 – Gen. 22:24)

Listening for the Sounds in Silence

Seven stories illuminate the character and path of Abraham…but five of the seven carry kernels of silence, words unspoken, sounds not recorded.  What meanings can we retrieve, buried in the silence?

Seven stories, five with silent spaces:

THREE VISITORS (18:1-18:15)
The three visitors arrive at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent, bringing the news that Abraham and Sarah will have a child…after agonizing years when they could not conceive. Almost all the conversation in this segment is between Abraham and the guests, establishing Abraham’s commitment to hospitality. When Abraham persuades the visitors to stay for a meal, he rushes to gather the food for the feast and commands Sarah to make cakes — quickly, a command she obeys without recorded comment. When the visitors make their announcement, Sarah laughs — silently, to herself. When the visitors question her soundless laughter, they inquire of Abraham, not Sarah. Frightened by the visitors’ ability to see into her deepest thoughts, she finally speaks, lying, saying she did not laugh. Does Sarah’s silent laughter hide years of pain and fear and frustration? The future for a childless woman is uncertain and fragile in a time when a woman is supported first by her father, then her husband, and if widowed, her inheriting son — a time when a woman’s purpose, in her community and for herself, is defined by bearing children.

ARGUMENT WITH G-D (18:16-18:33)
In one of two stories without an actor who doesn’t speak, Abraham carries on an extended conversation directly with G-d, establishing Abraham’s sense of justice. He pleads eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, asking G-d to spare them if fifty innocent are found, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten.  The story is remarkable for Abraham’s volubility as well as the content of his message, questioning and reminding G-d to be just by not punishing the innocent with the guilty. For all of Abraham’s anxious volubility, what we don’t hear is, what in Abraham’s history and experience with G-d would make Abraham feel the need to “argue?” Why does he question the justice of an outcome, whatever it is? Still, this is one of two stories in seven where all those present, Abraham and G-d, speak and hear.

Abraham’s visitors move on, but now they are two. They arrive in Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s, home town, Sodom. Lot’s action when he sees them parallels Abraham’s in some ways when the three visitors arrived at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent. He urges the visitors to come in and enjoy food as Abraham did…but Lot prepares the food himself, including the bread. Where are the women of the household? We see and hear nothing of them until Lot offers his daughters to the men and boys of Sodom in place of the visitors whom they demand. Lot says, “I have two daughters who have not known man…do to them as is good in your eyes.” This is the first mention of anyone in the household other than Lot, and no words are recorded from the daughters. Whether or not Lot’s action was praiseworthy in the context, imagine the terror the daughters must have felt. Their lives were about to change radically, probably end, if they became substitutes for the visitors as the objects of sexual assault. And finally, after the destruction, Lot’s wife comes into view momentarily as she looks back on the destruction and turns…silently…to a pillar of salt. Her sorrow and terror are also not recorded.

The daughters who were silent as their father offered them up for assault in place of the visitors are now talkative as they discuss and carry out a plan to fulfill their lives’ meaning in their restricted circumstance. Noah sleeps after too much wine, knowing nothing, the silent victim of his daughters’ strategy. Would he have agreed to the plan consciously? How would he have fulfilled the commandment, p’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply)? What a sad and desperate situation, living in a cave overlooking the devastated landscape, isolated from the society he so desperately wanted to join, without even the wife who bore their children and shared a life with him.

Once again, Abraham presents his wife, Sarah, as his sister to prevent attacks because those more powerful than he might want his wife and would take her by force. This time, unlike the earlier occurrence with Pharaoh, Abraham doesn’t speak with Sarah, requesting her cooperation. He just presents her as his sister, and King Abimelech of Gerar “had Sarah brought to him,” that is, brought to his harem.  G-d comes to Abimelech in a dream, warning him of Sarah’s real status and the punishment that will come to him and his kingdom. Abimelech reproaches G-d in similar terms to those Abraham uses in his Argument with G-d: “Will You slay people even though innocent?” He pleads ignorance, and G-d commands him to return Sarah to her husband.

Abimelech speaks to his servants, telling them what happened, then summons Abraham, demanding to know why Abraham brought this guilt on Abimelech and his kingdom. Abraham explains himself, saying, “I thought…surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife…And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s.” Abimelech gifts Abraham with sheep and oxen and restores his wife, inviting him to settle where he wishes in Abimelech’s land. And to Sarah, he says, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” Is there a hint of sarcasm when Abimelech refers to Sarah’s husband as her brother? In any case, events swirl around Sarah, she is transferred household to household, and throughout, her words and thoughts are never reported. She is silent as her husband misrepresents her and another man takes her into his household.

BIRTH OF ISAAC (21:1-21:21)
Sarah conceives and bears a son, as G-d promised her through the three visitors to the tent. Abraham names his son Isaac, connecting him to Sarah’s silent laughter, and at eight days old, Abraham circumcises him. Then Sarah finally finds her voice, expressing her joy after all these years of disappointment and pain: “G-d has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Further, she demands that Abraham cast out “that slave-woman and her son,” Hagar, to whom Sarah sent her husband when Sarah was unable to conceive, and Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Suddenly Sarah, a woman who remains silent through two occasions when her husband passes her off as his sister, allowing her to be taken into the harems of others, and who laughs to herself when told she would conceive in her old age, then lies about her silent laughter out of fear…has a lot to say. She is concerned for her son, Isaac’s, inheritance. The story reports Abraham’s feelings of distress, and G-d speaks to Abraham telling him not to be distressed, to follow whatever Sarah tells him to do, a reversal of their roles.

The next day, Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water to carry along with her child, Ishmael, and he sends her away. Hagar wanders, with her son, in the wilderness of Beersheba until the water runs out. Despairing and unable to bear watching her son die, she leaves the child under a bush and sits down at a distance, bursting into tears. In the next line, the story tells us, “G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d calls to Hagar from Heaven and says to her…” Hagar, silent throughout her ordeal, finally weeps with fear and despair, and G-d hears…not Hagar, but her son, although the story reports no sounds from him. G-d speaks to Hagar, giving her G-d’s promise for Ishmael’s future and showing them a well of water.

In The JPS Torah Commentary for Genesis, editor Nahum Sarna notes how Yishmael recedes into the silence of history with verbal cues. In the course of this story, which unfolds from Gen. 21:1-21, Yitzhak’s name appears 6 times. The root of his name, ts-h-k (associated with laughter), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. Conversely, Yishmael’s name appears not at all, although the word “boy” with reference to Yishmael appears 6 times. The root of the name Yishmael, sh-m-‘ (associated with hearing), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. These skillful verbal cues elaborate the silent theme associated with Yishmael in this story…the boy left under a bush by his despairing mother, a mother who weeps for her son and G-d who hears her silent son.

In a brief transitional story, the second of two without a silent actor, Abimelech once again meets with Abraham, this time bringing along Phicol, chief of his troops. On this occasion, equals meet, with King Abimelech seeking a pledge of loyalty from Abraham, the sojourner in his land. Abraham makes that pledge, then reproaches Abimelech for the well Abimelech’s servants seized. Again, Abimelech pleads his innocence on the basis of lack of knowledge. Abimelech and Abraham now make a “pact,” sealed by a gift from Abraham to Abimelech of sheep and oxen. Abraham then pays Abimelech with seven ewes as proof that he, Abraham, dug the well. Their business together concluded, Abimelech returns to the land of the Philistines, and Abraham plants a tamarisk at Beersheba, invoking the name of the Lord.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s final test of faith, climaxes this seemingly unrelated series of seven stories which are, nonetheless, intimately linked through verbal cues and parallelisms. The story is filled with silences, beginning with the somber silence that pervades the scene of Abraham preparing to go on a journey to sacrifice his son. Despite the eloquence of his pleas on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is silent in response to G-d’s command that he “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. Four identifications to make certain there is no doubt. G-d is demanding that Abraham sacrifice his future, a promise finally fulfilled late in his life. Abraham already unwillingly gave up his first son, Ishmael, on G-d’s instruction. Now he is being asked to give up his son, Isaac, the one he favors, a repository of his love and hope for the future — and he must do that in a most horrifying way — he must tie him down, put a knife through him and burn him on the altar. Abraham’s response is fiercely and dutifully silent.

Imagine the buried pain in the conversation between Abraham and his beloved son, Isaac, as they walk toward what Abraham believes will be his awesome duty, the sacrifice of his son. “Father!”…”Yes, my son…” “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”…”G-d will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

What did Isaac think as his father, Abraham, bound him and laid him on the altar on top of the wood? As Abraham picked up the knife with the intent of killing him? We don’t know. The moment is buried in silence. And then, in this awful moment, a moment suspended in silence, G-d, who spoke with Abraham directly, who conversed with him, with whom Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, sends a messenger to hold Abraham back from the terrible deed. Abraham looks up, and his eye falls on a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Without hesitation, Abraham goes and takes the ram and offers it as a burnt offering in place of his son.

But the silence continues. Imagine the terror of the ram, first trapped, then bound on an altar for slaughter. It’s hard to imagine the ram’s terror wasn’t finding expression in bleating, that there wasn’t a struggle. The story doesn’t report that — the scene remains submerged in a deep, impenetrable silence.

G-d speaks with Abraham one more time…and again, after so many direct meetings, real conversations, this last one, following the horrifying silent moment on Mt. Moriah, is through a messenger.

Everything changed in that terrifying moment, as much as it changed when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree or Noah entered the Ark with his family and fellow creatures. We are a long way from the vision of the Garden.

The 10 Most Important Things I’ve Learned About Healthy Eating Over 50 Years

I’m not a scientist, nor am I a medical professional. I just love well-prepared food and a feeling of good health. I like to read and test out on myself theories that make sense and judge them based on experience.

These are the 10 things I’ve learned about healthy, satisfying eating over more than fifty years of experimenting with myself, my family and friends and in my cafe:

  1. Eat real food. By real food, I mean whole foods from the earth as little manipulated as possible other than by your own preparation and cooking processes.
  2. Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed. There is a delay before the satisfaction message reaches your brain. Allow for that.
  3. If you’re not satisfied after meals and if you experience cravings, something needs adjusting in your diet.
  4. Be careful about eliminating categories of food from your diet. There’s a lot of “fake news” about the disaster that will overtake you when you eat certain foods. There’s also a lot of imperfect nutritional knowledge.
  5. Be careful about eliminating “food” categories, that is, except for added sweets of all kinds, natural and artificial. Get rid of those as much as you can. That includes most commercially processed foods.
  6. Eat fiber. When appropriate and possible, buy organic and don’t peel things.
  7. Don’t let the excuse that you can’t afford organic fruits and veggies stand in the way of eating them. It’s much more important to consume those whole foods than it is to avoid chemical residues. For the path of moderation, provides a Dirty Dozen list of the worst offenders, updated each year.
  8. Aim for at least 80% plant foods in your diet.
  9. Nuts and seeds and avocados are your friends. They are the best source of healthy fats.
  10. Enjoy your meals! Remember, it’s always a work in progress. You learn more, we all learn more, we get lazy and need system rechecks and adjustments, perfection is never a possibility, and if you put healthy whole foods on your table, you can savor the taste and experience instead of counting calories or “carbs.”

I have found the best way for me to experience healthy, satisfied pleasure from what I eat is to work with my CSA. On the days I spend out in the field, I often accumulate 15,000 steps or more. I feel the wind and the sun and the rain. I enjoy the beauty and the colors that surround me. I have my hands in the food chain and can’t imagine much that is more satisfying than knowing I have a direct relationship to the food I eat and feed my family.

Best of all, I am challenged to use 3/4 bushel of seasonal produce and more every week. I try things that are new to me, that I’ve seen in stores but haven’t bought because they were unfamiliar. There just isn’t a way to eat more healthfully than by using up my box of beautiful whole foods that I had a hand in producing.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Torah Ecology: Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1 – 17:27)

Lech Lecha tells the story of Abram becoming Abraham. That story includes many tantalizing “historical” and “biographical” details, details that show us how the Torah wants us to understand the character of Abraham and the meaning of his transition.

Until now, the Torah story has been about the relationships among human beings and between human beings, their environment, other animals and Transcendence. Animals are featured in the early Torah story along with the first human beings. The serpent has as dramatic an impact on the progress of history as the first humans. Animals suffer the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree along with humanity. In the Flood story, animals transgress as human beings do, and again animals suffer the consequences along with human beings.

What we learned in the story that precedes Lech Lecha is that non-human animals, like humans, connect with G-d through the breath of life, breathed into them by G-d. Non-human animals, like humans, are also substance, basar, which without the breath of G-d is merely dead meat, a carcass. And non-human animals are moral beings held accountable for their infractions. Human beings are not passive in their relationship to G-d and their world — and neither are non-human animals, who also have moral capacity and make decisions that have consequences.

In the story that unfolds in the Garden, the relationship between humans and animals is harmonious, and both are vegan, as G-d instructed. The fact that all creatures are vegan is central to the narrative:

“G-d said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” ~ Gen. 1:29-30

Outside the Garden, everything changes, all relationships, not only the one between human beings and G-d. The human relationship with the environment changes, with a less generous earth yielding its fruits more grudgingly to hard labor. And the human relationship with other animals changes. The snake and the woman are enemies. Hierarchical relationships prevail, even in the intimacy between husband and wife. Animal husbandry is in play with the Cain and Abel story (which assumes meat-eating), and accompanying it, animal sacrifice. Even human-to-human relationships change with the first homicide, a fratricide.

The Flood story confirms what the Cain and Abel story assumes: both animals and humans are implicated in unlawful bloodshed. Some animals, like humans, kill for food — and predator animals, like some human beings, sometimes kill human beings. The earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and all flesh (kol basar) on earth, human and non-human animals and birds, are implicated and suffer consequences in the flood. Animal sacrifice is an integral part of the human relationship to G-d, with “pure” and “impure” animals entering the ark.

Post-Garden, blood is involved in all relationships. There is an economy of blood in the post-Garden world, the blood of sacrifice paying for unlawful blood spilled…in the ancient history of the world and in the present moment.

The changed relationships and the blood economy are confirmed in the diet post-Flood. Humans may kill non-human animals for food but cannot eat the blood with it; neither humans nor animals can kill human beings without consequence:

“The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.” ~ Gen. 9:2-5

Suddenly in Lech Lecha, the non-human animals’ and birds’ story is muted. No longer is their story and relationship to creation developing — it is fixed. References to animals are fleeting and not part of the evolving narrative.

  • In Gen. 12:8, Abram builds an altar to the Lord in the hill country east of Bethel — although strangely, there is no mention of sacrifice.
  • In Gen. 12:16, Abram acquires sheep, oxen, asses, she-asses, camels, and male and female slaves from Pharoah. This kind of wealth assumes a meat-eating lifestyle.
  • In Gen. 13:1-9, we learn that Abraham, like Abel, is a herdsman, the first herding sheep, the latter primarily cattle. In Lech Lecha, this lifestyle is both assumed and acceptable without comment or elaboration.
  • In Gen. 13:4, Abram returns to the altar east of Bethel on his return from Egypt and “invokes the Lord by name.” Again, there is no specific mention of sacrifice. This might mean nothing…but the doubling of this event is suggestive.
  • In Gen. 14:17-19, as Abram returns from his victorious pursuit of the invaders who took Abram’s brother Lot along with all his possessions, he is met by the king of Sodom in the Valley of the King…and King Melchizedek of Salem. The king of Sodom approaches ambiguously, bringing neither food nor blessings. King Melchizedek of Salem brings both, bread and wine (a vegan offering) and a blessing for Abram that invokes the G-d of creation, the G-d whose original plan did not include either sacrifice or killing animals for food.

Finally, in the economy of blood established post-Garden, this portion concludes with a covenant agreement, sealed on G-d’s side when a flaming torch, representing G-d, passes “between the pieces,” three animals cut in two, a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram and a whole turtle dove and small bird. (Gen. 15:9-18). On Abraham’s side, the covenant is sealed with a parallel blood rite, circumcision. (Gen. 17:9-14). The first part of the covenant agreement brings the promise of land while the second part brings the promise of descendants and a name change. The transition from Abram to Abraham is complete — and the transition to a new reality.

Animals may be treated as moral beings in the Torah story, but in Lech Lecha, their position in the new scheme of creation is a settled discussion, not a point of debate. Predator animals are “impure” beasts, animals who might kill humans, and other animals are “pure,” most, but not all of them, domesticated. In this Torah portion, domesticated animals are a fact of existence, and certain domesticated animals are a regular part of the human diet and of sacrificial worship.

Humans have the potential to become impure. But humans also have the opportunity to purify. The difference between human and animal impurity is that the human impurity is temporary, animal impurity permanent.

Yet hints of the original vision of the relationship between human and non-human animals remain in the stories of King Melchizedek and Abram at the altar east of Bethel. Abram invokes the name of the Lord without specifically engaging in animal sacrifice — twice. King Melchizedek blesses Abram of the G-d Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth, the G-d who created a world in which all of creation lived in harmony.

Lech Lecha begins a story of a life that includes death and killing, one genus in the family of living beings using others, a blood economy of creation that involves G-d … a world that isn’t quite according to anyone’s plan. For all the powerful and inspirational moments in the ongoing story of the developing relationship between G-d and the patriarchs, there is some sadness in finally leaving behind the vision of a world without death and violence, a world where all creatures live in harmony.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Torah Ecology: Noach (Gen 6:9 – 11:32)

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ) – Deut. 16:20

Religions begin with looking at the world and seeing a problem, then imagining solutions. For the Torah and later Judaism, that problem is injustice. Since injustice is a problem in relationship, the solution the Torah imagines is a body of laws to guide first humanity, then a subset of humanity, the Israelites, in establishing right relationships.

The justice issue informs the overarching thematic structure of the Torah, set out in Genesis 1-9: creation, moral failure, roll-back of creation, a new creation. When morality fails and relationships are out of balance, catastrophe follows. When justice fails, worlds return to pre-creation emptiness and void. All of creation interconnects and depends on each part, and each part connects to and depends on others. Moral failures in any area of life affect everything.

My primary purpose in Torah Ecology is to explore what the Torah envisions as correct relationships. From my study so far, I believe the parameters are much wider than the human realm, embracing other creatures and the whole earth.

Ethical consciousness and responsibility pervade all of creation, human beings, non-human animals, the earth itself. Not only human beings but non-human animals fail to fulfill G-d’s plan for creation, and both are morally accountable. The earth is G-d’s instrument in ensuring justice. From this week’s portion:

“The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar) had corrupted its ways on earth, G-d said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar), for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13).

Our assumption is that G-d intends to wipe out humanity because of its “lawlessness,” because it “corrupted” its ways, but the text doesn’t say humanity — it says “all flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar). The word signifies the substance or flesh of a being, most often without life in it, a carcass suitable for food or for sacrifice on the altar. It refers to any kind of creature.

The word בָּשָׂר – basar, meaning flesh, contrasts with נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh, often translated “soul” — yet Gen. 12:5 reports that “Abram left Haran with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) – persons that they had acquired in Haran…”  The story of Noah and the flood suggests that נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) has an even more comprehensive meaning than “persons,” that like basar, it doesn’t only refer to human beings. Perhaps a better translation, then, is living being, substance given life by the breath of G-d.

Along these lines, Gen. 1:29-30 reads, “G-d said, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land (חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ – hayyat ha-aretz), to all the birds of the sky (עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם – of ha-shamayim), and to everything that creeps on earth (רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – romes al ha-aretz), in which there is the breath of life (אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – asher bo nefesh hayyah), [I give] all the green plants for food.”

In Gen. 2:20, we learn of a further division of land animals into domesticated and wild: “And the man gave names to all the cattle (בְּהֵמָה – behemah) and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה – hayyat ha-sadeh)…”

Once again, in Gen. 2:19, all creatures are living beings: “…and whatever the man called each living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – nefesh hayyah), that would be its name.” All creatures are livings beings (נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh) brought to life with the breath of G-d. Ha-Adam, humanity, is but one genus in the family of living beings.

The word ”flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar), then, in this context means all creatures were lawless and corrupted their ways on earth. The text emphasizes this point in the phrase, “The earth became corrupt before G-d” (וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ – va-tishaket ha-aretz). It also implies that all living beings were already dead, that the breath of life wasn’t within them. They were not נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh. They were “basar,” carcasses, devoid of the breath of life.

Certainly this theme isn’t presented in a one-to-one correspondence, life vs. lifeless flesh. The creatures who enter the ark are “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” (מִכָּל-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים – mi-lol ha-basar asher bo ruach hayyim) – Gen. 7:17. But it is the ongoing and repeated association of flesh with the beings on earth before the flood that focuses attention on the material and therefore transient aspect of life on earth, dependent on the breath of G-d for life.

More than that, skillful and repeated use of flesh, בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – living being, points to the equality of all creation in this respect: all creatures, not only humans, depend on G-d for life, and their life is the breath of G-d. At the same time, all creatures, including humans, without the breath of life from G-d are merely meat, dead carcasses.

The emphasis on the equality of all being on earth finds another expression in Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – lol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” An alternate translation of “existence” is “substance,” again a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and otherwise. And those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17.

What Noach describes is a world in which all living beings became lawless and corrupt and all, therefore, suffered the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the tiny remnant, human and non-human, who still have G-d’s breath of life in them, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (all living beings), floating on the vast, dark water in a tiny ark.

The story of the flood reverses the imagery of the creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that creation narrative as creation rolls back. But it is the reference to corruption in the flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer.

The key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the flood narrative, according to Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary. These further comments are telling: “The universal corruption is further defined as hamas. This term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of “falsehood,” “deceit,” or “bloodshed.” It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”

This helps us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood. A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that returned the world to watery emptiness and void. In the new creation, while G-d gives humans and animals permission to continue their practice of eating meat, restrictions surround the practice and they are warned of their accountability.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, G-d recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I have to imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and animals according to their natures.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Peppers: sweet or spicy and always beautiful

Published in Bob’s Fresh and Local Newsletter 10/16/2017

Our dry early spring and late planting brings us a bonus in our fall harvest…lots of beautiful peppers, sweet ones, spicy ones, beautiful colored ones.

This versatile recipe works for any combination of peppers. Just adjust the recipe overall for quantity, and adjust the hot paprika depending on the heat of the peppers you use.

The original recipe used all sweet bell peppers. Today I made them with two of our sweet yellow bell peppers and seven of the spicy Anaheim peppers.

Here’s my original recipe. I halved it for this group of peppers and eliminated the hot paprika since the Anaheims gave the salad plenty of bite. If you are heat-sensitive, use more sweet bell peppers and fewer Anaheims:



  • 6-8 red, yellow or orange bell peppers
  • 2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 2 TB extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp Szeged hot paprika
  • 1/3 bunch cilantro, chopped


Rub the peppers with oil, and run them under the broiler, turning them as needed, until browned and wrinkly all over. Don’t over cook — you want plenty of pepper flesh. Thinner peppers finish quickly. Peel the peppers, remove the stems (don’t worry about the seeds – they make a nice garnish and add nutrition and flavor), and cut into lengthwise 1/4″ strips. Cut across the lengths into 1″ pieces. Add seasonings, stir, taste and adjust seasonings. Enjoy!

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.