An Ant and a Rubber Tree Plant: A Metaphor

An ant can't move a rubber tree plant.

Everyone knows an ant can’t . . . move a rubber tree plant.

This morning as I exercised, I watched an ant make its way alongside my mat. The rubber tree plant song drifted briefly through my consciousness, but then I returned my attention to the ant in its travels.

I like to do my stretching and strength exercises in the early morning by the sliding glass doors at the back of my home looking out to the wetlands. There is a pond right behind me, although these days you wouldn’t know.

I used to love watching all kinds of birds and animals visit the pond in the morning. Now a wilderness has grown up around the pond, and it is invisible to me. My viewing range is much smaller. So my attention is drawn to ongoing life happening closer to me.

This morning a tiny insect crawling just inside my sliding doors less than a foot away from me drew my attention. I was lying on the floor on my side as I watched that tiny being move across the little wooden landscape that stretched between me and the door.

To that small living being, the landscape must have seemed quite large and endless, yet the ant was making progress . . . to somewhere. I wondered if it knew where it was going?

Then I thought how immense I was next to that tiny living being. And how the ant continued its journey so fearlessly.

This is where my thoughts focused. It occurred to me that the ant may not have been fearless but oblivious. From the ant’s perspective, I am huge — so huge that I am incomprehensible, beyond imagining.

And so the ant continued on its path to wherever it was going unaware of possible danger in that moment. Was there perhaps some undefined anxiety for the ant feeling a presence it can’t begin to imagine? If an ant can imagine my enormous presence in some way, might it have the audacity to imagine that I care for it?

It occurred to me that the ant’s relationship to me mirrors my relationship to G-d. While I’m not sure that ants imagine, I know human beings do. I like to imagine that the immense force that breathes life into all being, that is all being, is One with whom relationship is possible.

Relationships aren’t fixed in space and time. They change. There has been a distance between me and divinity for most of my life. I feel as though I’ve spent too much time locked in obliviousness, anxiety, and constriction. I also feel as though I’m on a different path now. At least I hope I am. I hope at least I can manage courage like the ant.

The Wilderness of Sinai – BaMidbar

Wilderness of Sinai

The Wilderness of Sinai is the place G-d chooses to communicate to the Israelites through Moses. It is where G-d reveals Torah and repeatedly offers saving grace. For the Israelites, the wilderness is a place of wandering. It is also a place of terror and near despair.

Why does G-d choose the wilderness to speak directly to Moses and through him, to G-d’s people? Why was the wilderness the scene of revelation and saving acts? Perhaps most significant, why did all this happen in a place of hardship and terror for the Israelites as the journey extended to 40 years? According to Google Maps, the walk from Cairo to Jerusalem is about 452 miles or 148 hours on foot.

With twelve-hour days, 148 hours would make the journeying time almost two weeks (12.3 days). Remembering that there were kids on the journey and sheep and that people needed time to set up and take down camps and find and prepare food, and oh yes, a desert tabernacle, let’s quadruple the time, giving just three hours a day to walking. Still a little under two months. Let’s add on the same number of days for stopping altogether, not traveling. Four months. The Israelites could have paused for many more months near oases and still not approached anywhere near 40 years.

Not was it possible, but why was it necessary?

Perhaps Moses was an experienced survivalist, although the Torah never describes him in that way. It’s unlikely though that many in the ragtag crowd following him were. Numbers 1:46 tells us there were 603,550 adult men, which suggests a total population of around 2.4 million. 2.4 million people including children wandering through and living off the wilderness and what they were able to bring with them when they left Egypt in great haste.

My question isn’t, “Was it possible?” It is, rather, Why was it necessary to the story that the march from slavery to freedom and developing a relationship with G-d keep the children of Israel in a brutal wilderness? And in these vast numbers?

The Wilderness of Sinai

I always like to think of a wilderness as a place where everything is simplified, where non-essentials are stripped away. I heard the desert described once as a “mikveh,” a place of cleansing — perhaps washing away non-essentials. But I think it goes deeper than that. I suspect it’s more like tough love than gentle persuasion toward mindfulness. There is no arguing with intense temperatures, thirst, and starvation.

Read this description from Dr. Claude Mariottini of what the Israelites faced as they wandered for forty years through the Wilderness of Sinai (more available by clicking on the link):

“In the Sinai Peninsula, most of the land is devoid of water and vegetation, except in oases and wadis, dry river beds that may be filled with water during the winter flood. The wilderness was a harsh and inhospitable area.

“Because of the nature of the terrain, the Israelites faced many problems posed by life in the wilderness. They experienced {a} lack of food and water, diseases, earthquakes, snakes, scorpions, and attacks from enemy tribes. The Bible indicates that the situation in the wilderness of Sinai was inhospitable…”

…הַמּוֹלִ֨יכְךָ֜ בַּמִּדְבָּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּדֹ֣ל וְהַנּוֹרָ֗א נָחָ֤שׁ ׀ שָׂרָף֙ וְעַקְרָ֔ב וְצִמָּא֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵֽין־מָ֑יִם…

…Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph*seraph Cf. Isa. 14.29; 30.6. Others “fiery”; exact meaning of Heb. saraph uncertain. Cf. Num. 21.6–8. serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it…

Deut. 8:15

Even in slavery, the Israelites accessed a richer diet than in the desert:

וַיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהֹוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאׇכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּֽי־הוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כׇּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּרָעָֽב׃ {ס}        

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of יהוה in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Ex. 16:3

Existential terror

As Dr. Mariottini points out, the Israelites were poorly prepared for a forty-year journey in this environment. And it’s not quite “a band of brothers” fighting for their survival but 2.4 million people, a “mixed multitude” or ragtag group (וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם), many vulnerable, in dry, rocky, unforgiving terrain where they were as likely to be prey as predators. Their state of existential terror is fully revealed in the Golden Calf episode, a moment when they experience abandonment in the hostile environment. It is revealed once again when the spies return from Canaan:

וַיִּלֹּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן כֹּ֖ל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם כׇּל־הָעֵדָ֗ה לוּ־מַ֙תְנוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם א֛וֹ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לוּ־מָֽתְנוּ׃

All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness!”

וְלָמָ֣ה יְ֠הֹוָ֠ה מֵבִ֨יא אֹתָ֜נוּ אֶל־הָאָ֤רֶץ הַזֹּאת֙ לִנְפֹּ֣ל בַּחֶ֔רֶב נָשֵׁ֥ינוּ וְטַפֵּ֖נוּ יִהְי֣וּ לָבַ֑ז הֲל֧וֹא ט֦וֹב לָ֖נוּ שׁ֥וּב מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

“Why is יהוה taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”

וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו נִתְּנָ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

And they said to one another, “Let us head back to Egypt.”

Num. 14:2-4

Imagining ourselves into the wilderness story

The harshness of the Wilderness of Sinai is a long way from The Garden of Eden, a place of compassionate abundance. It’s also a long way from the place in which most of us live today. Few have had to find a way to survive in a desert wilderness, a place where food and water and the building blocks of shelter are scarce — and do it where the competition for scarce resources is intense, 2.4 million people intense not to mention other living beings focused on their own survival.

Is there a way to imagine ourselves into the reality of that wilderness experience and see it as much an expression of love and compassion as the story of Creation, chapters 1-3 of Genesis?

The wilderness as predator

Human beings have basic survival needs that they share with all other animals. As National Geographic points out, “Animals need food, shelter from weather and predators, water, and a place to raise young.”

Abraham Maslow in a 1943 article in Psychological Review titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” points to a hierarchy of needs among humans. Survival is the most basic. Without fulfilling basic survival needs, there is no possibility of moving up the hierarchy to love and to self-transcendence. Survival is primary.

Yet according to the Torah story, G-d brings a crowd into the wilderness, millions. The demands on the minimalist eco-system that is the desert would have been unsupportable. If the Israelites can’t even provide for their basic survival needs, how can they ever move beyond them to the future promised them? The wilderness preys on their future.

Yet G-d brings the Israelites to this place and keeps them in it for 40 years.

The wilderness as saving vessel

As in the Noah’s Ark story, the saving vessel is an environment calculated to challenge the possibility of cohabitation, bringing those within it to the breaking point and beyond in their relationships.

Also like the Noah’s Ark story, the Israelites don’t know where they are going. As slaves for four hundred years, they had no opportunity to see the Land promised to their ancestors. All this massive ragtag group knows is the overcrowded, fragile environment in which they find themselves, an environment that is both no-place and every-place. This present terrifying, harsh, and impossibly crowded moment is all they have.

Yes, G-d is there with the Israelites, offering moments of grace, providing water and manna — but utter dependence on another being for survival can also be terrifying.

The stage is set for complete social and spiritual catastrophe. How do we find love and compassion in this story of the post-slavery wandering in the wilderness?

Wilderness training

When he was thirteen, my younger son went to Outward Bound for three weeks of wilderness experience. For most of the time, he was with a group of others his age led by experienced guides. For two days he was solo.

I could tell from his letters that he was unhappy when he started out, away from home with people he didn’t know, carrying a 50-pound pack through the mountains, learning survival skills, and confronting physical challenges like rappelling off the walls of glaciers.

By the time he completed the trip, though, he appreciated the experience as the most powerful and transformative of his life to that point. As he approaches 5 decades of life, I believe he still looks back on it as one of a handful of life-changing experiences.

Outward Bound describes its programs this way: “Outward Bound programs inspire young people and adults to stretch beyond their perceived abilities. In balancing responsibility, risk and reward, and in learning to act boldly, deliberately, and with compassion, students experience profound growth and lasting change.” 

Here’s how they explain the choice of place for their expeditions:

  • Outdoor environment simplifies as it inspires.
  • Novel physical settings require new ways of thinking and acting.
  • Physical remoteness emphasizes interdependence and self-reliance.
  • Unplugging from connected lifestyles promotes focus and perspective.

In the group framework, “Students learn to trust each other’s strengths and support each other’s needs.” Their solo time teaches self-reliance and “creates space for mindful learning from experience.”

The wilderness experience simultaneously teaches interdependence and self-reliance, learning to depend on and cooperate with a group of diverse people while challenging one’s own abilities and gaining confidence and realistic self-appreciation.

Finally, Outward Bound says of its program, “These skills are infinitely transferable and support students’ successes at work and school, and in their careers, families and communities.”

Building community: self-reliance and caring cooperation

The Israelites weren’t preparing for success in their careers but rather for the often harsh conditions of life. And not just any life. Their lives would be dedicated to building a nation with a social culture that emphasized compassionate, righteous, moral behavior, a representation in the human realm of the love and compassion of creation. The moral fabric of the universe demanded a corresponding moral response from human beings who benefitted from it.

The Israelites had to forge more than a cohesive nation that would stand up to assault from starvation and thirst, diseases, earthquakes, snakes, scorpions, and enemy tribes. They had to build a moral nation, a compassionate nation, one based on trust and faith in a loving G-d. Their task required strength and persistence even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Each individual needed to test his or her own strength, endurance, and resourcefulness — but at the same time learn to depend on those around them. They had to learn of and appreciate each other’s unique skills and abilities…discover their own and others’ vulnerabilities, and support the vulnerable. Their ability to survive and grow beyond survival to create a righteous society depended on caring cooperation in the group as a whole. And this lesson in compassionate cooperation had to hold up under the most trying circumstances when resources were few and human beings most likely to focus only on their own selfish survival needs.

In evolutionary terms, “‘Selfish’ genes that don’t cooperate don’t survive. A more fitting view is that there are evolutionary limits to selfishness. Nature dooms all that damages what it depends on.

Beyond community: an interdependent web of being

There was another aspect to the Israelites’ wilderness experience beyond developing self-reliance and building compassionate, cooperative relationships with their fellow travelers. The Israelite universe was built on relationships within and between three realms: humanity, the rest of creation, and Transcendence. It was an interdependent universe, a web of being and meaning.

Just as the Israelites had to learn in an environmental pressure cooker to develop and maintain righteous relationships with their neighbors, other living beings, and their habitat, they had to learn how to relate to Transcendence, to their G-d.

Any relationship requires reciprocal trust. The wilderness environment presented many challenges to trust on all sides. The story tells us how many times the Israelites disappointed G-d. There were also inevitable moments when hope failed and disabling despair threatened to set in for the Israelites. In those moments, they had to dig deep and find faith that G-d created everything with a plan and the plan included them.

Trust, the foundation of faith

Trust isn’t inevitable or easy, even in a G-d who sends an earthly leader to save the people from grinding slavery and who provides food, water, and shelter at critical moments during their journey. What if G-d isn’t there the next time? Disappears? Perhaps trust comes when there is nothing else you can do but trust.

When you weep as you bury the precious seed, you have to find it in yourself to trust you will rejoice as you come home carrying your sheaves (from Shir Ha-Ma’alot, prelude to Birkat Ha-Mazon). If you rely on the harvest to survive, you must trust in outcomes or you’ll never put that precious seed into the ground.

It turns out that nurturing and maintaining faith and hope even in the most challenging and terrifying circumstances is essential for self-preservation. Faith insists there is a bigger picture even when you don’t know what it is.

Faith in the infinite tensile strength of interdependence

So back to the starting questions: Why was it necessary to the story that the march from slavery to freedom happen in a brutal wilderness? And in these vast numbers? How is the Israelites’ wilderness experience an expression of G-d’s love and compassion?

The wilderness experience was necessary to strip away everything non-essential, leaving the Israelites to experience the infinite tensile strength of the interdependent relationships that would move them forward into the future. Their numbers in the midst of scarcity intensified the pressure on forging those relationships and maintaining them for the sake of group survival.

G-d’s saving grace in the midst of impossibility provided the Israelites repeated opportunities to learn trust and build faith. They would need it as they moved forward. Yet faith often faltered, and G-d had to repeat the lesson.

The Wilderness and the Garden…the same precious gift

The Garden and the Wilderness are the same gift: an opportunity to experience the interconnection of all being, between human beings, the rest of creation, and divinity. Interconnection persists even in the most challenging circumstances. It just is. And when the Israelites experienced it in moments of full awareness in the wilderness, perhaps they saw themselves as an inextricable and eternal part of a grand and beautiful design. And perhaps that gave them courage to move forward.

A Story of Relationship: Biblical Anthropomorphism

I love mythology. Like religion, it speaks in the language of “as if.” It is the human story, telling us who we are, where we fit in, our purpose. And our ability to create stories and engage others in them is our unique human capability, the one thing that sets us apart from all other animals. Over and over again, I find that myths, ancient intuited wisdom, embody fundamental truths.

Science arrives at these truths through a different process and presents the results of the process differently from story. We could say that science and story are like different means of locomotion, all taking you to the same place, but in different ways. We risk losing the opportunity for deeper understanding and even our own humanity if we embrace one and ignore or diminish the significance of the other.

Today, some mathematicians think the universe may be conscious. Is this what the ancients intuited when they spoke of Elohim (Biblical Hebrew translated “God” — or literally “gods”) — or any of the many other names used by spiritual seekers over the centuries to refer to an essential unity of all being?

The ancients also intuited that creation is a process that involves organization and creates greater complexity as it continues to unfold: “The elaborate universe we observe today – dazzling in its richness, diversity and complexity – didn’t spring into being ready-made. Rather, it emerged gradually, over billions of years, through a long succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes.” In the biblical story, each stage of God’s process of creation involves separating or differentiating (הבדל). God separates night from day, dry land from water. As God separates and organizes, the world becomes increasingly complex and diverse.

But what about the biblical text’s assertion that creation occurred in six days with a seventh day for rest? Science tells us creation “emerged gradually, over billions of years.”

When we approach the text as a story, we recognize that creating in six days and resting on the seventh is a narrative technique. The number seven recurs throughout the biblical text. Stories are structured with seven narrative units, certain words appear seven times in a narrative sequence, holidays and life cycle events like circumcision are presented in seven-plus-one formulations. Seven days serves a narrative purpose. That becomes even more clear when we look at the deeper structure of the first creation story, Gen. 1:1-2:4a:

Day 1: Light, separated light from dark (Gen. 1:3-5)

Day 4: Two great lights, one dominates day, one night (Gen. 1:15-19

Day 2: Expanse, sky, separates waters above from waters below (Gen. 1:6-8)

Day 5: Birds, fish emerge from waters below – fish fill the seas, birds the sky (Gen. 1:20-23)

Day 3: Dry land, earth, emerges when waters are gathered into seas (Gen. 1:9-11)

Day 6: Land animals, including humans (Gen. 1:24-31)

Day 7: God rests and blesses the 7th day (Gen. 2:1-4a)

There is a lot that could be said here about creation including that it is clearly visualized as a process of organizing, separating, and increasing complexity. But the main point is the careful organization of the narrative itself, the story. Three environments created on Days 1-3. Those environments filled on Days 4-6. Then a day of rest to regenerate and appreciate the results of six days of creative activity.

I’ll leave the extended meaning of this to your own creative imagination. My point is that stories convey truth and meaning differently than science. As story, the biblical text conveys its meaning through literary devices like structure, carefully chosen vocabulary, imagery, allusion, simile.

And this brings me to anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible. Anthropomorphisms describe non-human entities in human terms. They are like similes in that they compare one thing to another. Unlike similes, anthropomorphisms don’t explicitly announce that they are comparing one thing to another. They simply and directly assign human qualities to non-human entities.

Recognizing human qualities, qualities we ourselves possess, in “the other,” whoever that other may be, is what allows relationship. How can there be a relationship where there is absolutely no commonality? If a being is wholly other from us, or appears to us as wholly other, we cannot relate to that being.

The biblical story tells us again and again in a variety of ways that God is wholly other from God’s creation, that God is beyond our comprehension — but paradoxically that we can have a relationship with God. One of the ways this story affirms the latter is through anthropomorphisms.

The biblical story also uses anthropomorphisms to tell us that we are like our fellow creatures in significant ways. A snake that stands upright, strategizes, manipulates and speaks is so much more than “mere folklore,” to be dismissed. So is a talking donkey that “sees” better than a seer and has a sense of justice. These are stories bearing important truths, the truth of relationship.

Finally, the biblical story speaks of the land with anthropomorphisms. Acting as God’s agent, the land “vomits” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It can be called to witness in a trial. It nurtures and it punishes. In this way, we are drawn into a relationship not only to God, not only to our fellow creatures, but to the land and air and water that offer habitats for us all, as Gen. 1:1-2:4a tells us.

We all know that God doesn’t literally and physically walk in the garden in the heat of the day. We also know that snakes don’t speak in Hebrew or any other human language and that land doesn’t “vomit” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It doesn’t act as a witness in a trial. The biblical “Author,” whether it was God or a human being or a group of human beings knew those things as well as we do.

But the Hebrew Bible brings us an eternal truth, one that science is beginning to tell us through its own process: there is an essential unity behind the diversity of creation. Our beautiful diversity combined with our unity of being, our commonality, is what allows relationship, the kind of relationship that happens when you recognize some part of yourself in the other.

Anthropomorphisms are a shorthand way of recognizing commonality in the midst of a vast diversity of being. It is the combination of diversity and shared traits that makes a space in which human beings can be in a relationship with God, with nonhuman animals, with the heavens and the earth, with everything that is. Even in a profusion of diversity, there is the potential to glimpse ourselves in the other.

What a profound idea that is! Where might we be in our history on this planet if the primary objective of our lives, our reason for being, were to cultivate an awareness of our relationship to everything that is, to nurture it, and to serve those relationships lovingly.

Walking Between the Raindrops

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to share in services and Torah discussion on Zoom with a group from my synagogue. Our Torah discussion crystallized some thoughts I have about a set of themes that seem to compete in the Torah. The first set of themes is set forth in the Garden story and recurs periodically in the text. The second set is captured in the story of Cain and Abel and presented most completely in Vayikra, from which we read yesterday.

The Garden story in the Torah describes a world in which an “Equality of Being” reigns. All living creatures share the Garden. All are vegan, and each is assigned food from the earth according to its nature. There is no death. A serpent is remarkably similar to the human beings in its hairlessness and ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them (which Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes as the distinctive characteristic of Sapiens). Every part of creation has its purpose in relation to the rest, and all live together in harmony.

This equality of being and harmony in the Garden story and the more “cosmic” creation story that precedes it in Gen. 1 points to a contemporary scientific view: all of creation has the same point of origin as the stars, we all come from the same material as the stars . . . and we will return in some distant time to that. Between those two points, creation is an ongoing process of diversifying structures. The beauty and grandeur of this idea has moved me since I was a young child looking out of my bedroom window in Massachusetts to a night sky filled with stars. I sometimes imagine Abraham must have experienced something similar in Gen. 15:5 when God “took him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’”

But there is another story in the Torah, one that we first encounter in the story of Cain and Abel. This story reaches its apogee in Leviticus. It is a story of a “Hierarchy of Being,” one that requires value judgments and involves transactional relationships. In this story, God favors Abel’s meat sacrifice over Cain’s sacrifice of agricultural products. God chooses Abraham to follow a path God directs and chooses the Israelites to receive the Torah. When human beings in general, then Israelites in particular, sin, and their lives are due in payment, an animal substitutes for them. This indicates a judgment on the value of a human life against a non-human life. In this story, there is an “economy of creation,” and animal sacrifice is the currency.

Although I’m more comfortable with and moved by one story than the other, although I aspire to act “as if” the first story, the story of an equality of being, were fully operational in our world, I understand the necessity of the other. I also know that either story unrestrained by the other doesn’t have a good ending. In the first case, when equality of being dominates, creation commits suicide, apoptosis, as it deprives itself of what it requires to live. In the second case, individual greed murders creation.

The literary artistry of the Torah story, which the rabbis elaborated in how they chose what to canonize and how to organize it, always amazes me. In a chiastic structure, a basic biblical structuring element, the key elements, those that tell the story, are the beginning and end (which usually represent a reversal or restoration or fulfillment) — and the center, the turning point. Consider that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) begins with the powerful story of the creation of a universe in Gen. 1-3 and ends with a return to a potential recreation of that universe with II Chronicles. In the center is Leviticus, and in the center of Leviticus the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

So it seems the teaching is that we need both stories, we need to remain in a tension between them, and that is the space from which we are to make life decisions every moment of every day. That is, the Torah offers us the paradox of both stories, and we are to choose not one of them but both, and live and act in the world between them. That is the meaning of being human, that we create stories and live by them, most vitally in the paradoxes between them.

Guidance? Yes, there is plenty of instruction. In fact, that is the meaning of the word “Torah.” But the conscious choice is ours to make as we weave our way between aspiration and reality, universalism and particularism, transaction and gifting, hierarchy and equality of being, justice and compassion, death for one and life for another.

Preface to The Animals’ Story in the Torah

In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein coins the word, “Interbeing,” a knowledge “that my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational . . . that purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and the universe.”

This story of Interbeing is one I once knew — but on January 20, 2017, I woke up depressed, and I wondered how the world, how I, had strayed so far from that knowledge of Interbeing. Instinctively I turned toward projects I hoped might reawaken my consciousness of myself in that story. I hoped to expand the circle of my own often limited awareness and compassion.

I reinvested in my exploration of veganism, creating beautiful food from what the earth gives us so abundantly. I went to work on a farm, spending hours with my hands in the earth helping to grow the food I prepared at home. And I started another journey through the Torah with a different lens, relationships. I called this project “Torah Ecology.”

After a time, I focused more sharply on a particular set of relationships, that between human and nonhuman animals. The story I found in the Torah convinced me that its foundation story is the story that Charles Eisenstein describes in one simple but rich word, Interbeing.

Today, 2500 years after the time many scholars believe the text was redacted into the form we have it today, science tells us the same story.

These additional readings helped me in my journey: Charles Eisenstein’s, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Nathan Lents’ Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World and The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, Barbara J. King’s Personalities on Our Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, Franz van de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, and from Sierra Club’s March/April 2019 issue, this feature story: “Does A Bear Think In the Woods?” There are other books I look forward to reading, including more from Frans van de Waal and several from Mark Bekoff.

Like the Torah, these books point directly or indirectly to the fact that nonhuman animals have consciousness, intelligence, a sense of fairness and justice and empathy. They plan and cooperate. They also experience fear and jealousy and act aggressively toward those who threaten them. Human beings are firmly in the animal kingdom. As Yuval Noah Harari points out, we had a mediocre position in the food chain until a time in human evolution when we didn’t.

These facts raise obvious questions. Is there a moral argument for taking the life of other living beings because they differ from us? Do human beings possess unique characteristics that allow them to claim superiority over other animals, providing a rationale for sacrificing them in payment for our own sins? Surely the Torah doesn’t give us the right to commercialize life as we have today, breeding animals by the billions each year only to kill and eat them, destroying the planet as we do it. Surely the Torah points to an awareness that these are our fellow creatures, other beings who share our beautiful, living planet with us. 

In any discussion of meat eating, many will quickly point to repeated references throughout the biblical text that put forward the sanctity and supreme value of human life. Or will point to the explicit permission to eat other living beings in Gen. 9:3:

כָּל־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃ 

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

And what do we do with Leviticus, a book with animal sacrifice at its heart? My project stalled for a time here as I studied it through the lens of the human-nonhuman animal relationship. How can I say the fundamental Torah story is that of Interbeing when the violence of one being toward another is at its literal center? (Leviticus is the central book and the Yom Kippur sacrifice is at its center). How does animal sacrifice connect with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” or Martin Buber’s idea of “I-Thou” relationships? As I worked through my project, I had to confront those questions. In what follows, I will incorporate my thoughts with regard to them.

But the aspirational story of the Torah, the story brimming with potentiality, is the one I would like to tell here. It is the story I needed to reengage with in these times when we are so mired in the realities of a suffering earth. Those realities were all-too-familiar in the biblical world as well, and they helped me understand how a story of separation and violence was threaded through the aspirational story, how love, compassion and deadly politics mingle.

The Animals’ Story in the Torah highlights both the beautiful potential and the painful and horrifying reality of our human relationships with the perceived “other.” The Torah story is about our profound and inextricable connection to all being and consciousness, about our search to expand our circle of awareness and compassion — but also about our struggle with a reality in which we humans are all too likely to forget the connection that is the foundation of everything and to devalue “the other.”

The Torah’s story of aspiration and potentiality strengthened and inspired generations of people, Jewish and non-Jewish. At the same time, we continue to struggle with the devastating impact of a reality in which difference or otherness isn’t blessed but devalued, a world where both conscious and unconscious violence is a constant.

Studying Torah through the lens of our human relationship to nonhuman animals helped me rediscover the story of Interbeing. That story of our fundamental interconnection and the transcendent value of each life, of all life, is what I would like to share in The Animals’ Story in the Torah.

Evolving Consciousness? I Don’t See It – Yet

I had an interesting conversation the other day. It included something of a debate about who we are as human beings and the question, are we evolving or devolving? It seems to me the answer is yes — and no, depending on your perspective.

In terms of information about the world, technology, and our ability to shape the world, there is no question in my mind that we are evolving — except in those ways we aren’t, that aren’t necessary to our survival or useful to us in our current world. I will venture a guess that any hunter-gatherer has a much more “evolved” sense of their surroundings and of how other animals behave, or are likely to behave, than we do for all our technological advancement. But that’s how evolution works. Species develop those abilities that lead to higher rates of survival for their species. And as a recent experiment with silver foxes showed, those changes in behavior often result in accompanying physical changes. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763232/)

But does the same thing happen with consciousness? Do human beings evidence an evolving consciousness? At this moment in time, I believe the answer to that question is emphatically no. The same science of evolution that leads me to say we are indeed evolving in our ability to shape the world and that some physical changes accompany that — like smaller stomachs, smaller jaws, and bigger brains — also leads me to conclude that our consciousness is not evolving.

One set of facts is sufficient to make that point irrefutable in my mind, and those facts center on nonhuman animals. In an article titled, “This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year,” The World Economic Forum reports (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/ ) these figures:

  • 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.
  • Nearly 1.5 billion pigs are killed to feed the growing appetite for pork, bacon, ham and sausages – a number that has tripled in the last 50 years.
  • Half a billion sheep are taken to the abattoir every year. The number of goats slaughtered overtook the number of cows eaten during the 1990s, although the figure for cattle excludes the dairy industry.
  • When it comes to seafood, the number of individual fish and shellfish is almost impossible to calculate. One hundred and fifty million tonnes of seafood were produced for human consumption in 2016 – nearly half from aquaculture (for example trout or shrimp farms) rather than caught in fisheries.

A Well Fed World (https://awellfedworld.org/factory-farms/ ) reports these numbers:

  • Globally, the death toll <of land animals> exceeds 70 billion.
  • The number of aquatic animals killed for food is in the trillions.

The article also points out that “In the last 50 years the number of people on the planet has doubled. But the amount of meat we eat has tripled.” 

Just for a perspective on those numbers, the current population of the earth, every man, woman, child and infant, is 7.8 billion. In a meat-eating period of my life when I had a farm, I once had half a cow prepared for my freezer. In an entire year, we weren’t able to finish that meat. These numbers reflect almost three cows per person per year (including infants in that count), and almost seven other land animals per person per year. And let’s say “trillions” means maybe three trillion . . . Almost 130 whole sea animals per person per year. These quantities have little to do with meeting nutritional requirements or feeding the planet.

Despite health and environmental information that suggests we should be going the opposite direction, we choose to eat more meat. Add to that the fact that 30-40% of our food, including meat, is wasted — and we have a picture that demonstrates to me that we are slaughtering animals and eating them either gluttonously or mindlessly or a combination of the two. Evolving consciousness?

I like to hope that most human beings would not want to be part of this carnage if they were directly engaged with it. Indeed, the fact that the breeding and slaughter happens out of sight is strategic. Industry means for it to be mindless, and this suggests industry also believes most people would not want to be confronted with how we treat these living beings. Why else would it prosecute those who attempt to document what happens on factory farms?

But still . . . we are part of it, and we rationalize it in countless ways. “Some are guilty. All are responsible.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Evolving Consciousness

So I’d like to take a closer look at this idea that consciousness is evolving.

THE BIBLICAL FLOOD STORY

Originally God expected that humans would be vegan. What happened? The second Torah story is one of fratricide followed by other stories of violence and lawlessness until finally God declares:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)

So the earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and God puts an “end to all flesh” with the Flood. In its aftermath, does God express the hope that human consciousness might evolve when God grants humans the permission to eat other animals?

Yes, while some interpreters this step as a concession to human nature, others regard it as a way to channel the violent impulses that led to the Flood. Rabbi  Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) says about the permission to eat meat, “If people were denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh.” In this way, the permission to eat meat becomes an aid to improve human behavior, perhaps even human consciousness. Rav Kook calls it a “transitional tax” until humanity arrives at a “brighter era.” Did that work?

THE RATIONALIST ARGUMENT

Stephen Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, says it did. According to Pinker, we are demonstrably less violent today than at any time in the history of the world. He presents facts and figures, which I can’t and don’t dispute. In order to make his case, though, he limits his view to one instance of violence to life, intra-human.

Yet as Harari points out, the greatest crime in history is what human animals have done to nonhuman animals: “Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history. The march of human progress is strewn with dead animals.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question

So violence has decreased only if you limit your focus to intra-human violence, that is, violence within the “community” of human animals. 

And these arguments work only to the extent one can say nonhuman animals are lesser beings than human animals. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe the Torah says it or at least doesn’t say only that. 

DEPERSONALIZING & MECHANIZING MURDER

There is another dimension to this issue in a post-Holocaust era. The Holocaust is noteworthy for bringing to our consciousness an idea that we can depersonalize and mechanize murder. Something formerly unthinkable actually happened, and now it is part of our human psyche as something that exists in the realm of the possible. This event alone speaks against an evolution of consciousness. While the 20th century may not have topped other centuries in absolute numbers of violent events and lives lost, it made a reality of a horrifying concept, the industrialization of murder.

In a powerful video, Alex Hershaft (https://www.jewishveg.org/hershaft-philadelphia) expands the window on the issue of human violence as he points to the unmistakable similarity between how millions of human beings were treated under the Nazis and how we interact with 70 billion land animals and trillions of sea animals a year today.  

This commercialization of life, the industrialization of murder (murder: “an act of deliberate killing of another being”), is particularly troubling in view of the increasing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates what ancient wisdom intuited, that nonhuman animals are a population of “sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question). As the Torah repeatedly points out, God breathes the breath of life into both nonhuman and human animals, provides both with food appropriate to their needs, and gives the same first commandment to both, “p’ru u’r’vu,” be fruitful and multiply.

The unfathomable numbers of animals we breed just to murder in factory farms every year, 70 BILLION, is a powerful reminder to me that violence has not decreased, and it only took widening our anthropocentric perspective a bit to see it. For me, our factory farm culture negates the rationalist Pinker argument.

A decrease in human-generated violence? This doesn’t seem to me to be what happened. We are not evolving, just directing our greed and violence down another path. In fact, from this perspective, human violence may be on the increase. Has there ever been a century in which more living beings were killed to satisfy the desires of some?

Is there hope?

But are we capable of an “evolving consciousness?” Meaning, should we hope that human beings will change with regard to their attitude to other living beings? And again, my opinion is no. At least I don’t see it at this moment in the history of human evolution.

There are many drives that are part of our DNA, but two that stand out to me are the drive toward cooperation, even compassion, and the drive toward competition and beating out the competition — a drive toward community and problem solving — and a drive toward tribalism and warfare. Rabbinic tradition frames these drives as a “yetzer ha-ra” and a “yetzer ha-tov,” a good inclination and an “evil” inclination. Both these drives are basic to the survival of a species, and we share them with other members of the animal kingdom. If these drives are basic to survival, why would they change? 

If these drives are unchanging, don’t “evolve” into something else, that suggests to me our consciousness is not evolving and won’t. We are, quite simply, human beings, and it is either naïveté or hubris to think we will become other than human beings. Is this nihilism? Is there no hope? I believe there is room for hope, and that, too, is rooted in an evolutionary story.

Yes, human beings share certain drives with the rest of the animal world. But they, like other animals, also have a distinctive characteristic. Yuval Noah Harari designates as the unique characteristic of the human animal, our ability to create fictions and persuade other to believe them. It is this ability that allows us, alone among animals, to cooperate flexibly in large groups. He demonstrates the point by comparing us to our closest relative, the chimpanzee: “Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.” (https://ideas.ted.com/why-humans-run-the-world/

Yankee Stadium and Wall Street are what Harari calls “fictions.” I like to call them stories. Stories are what allow us to cooperate and shape our world in the ways we do, ways no other animal can imagine into existence. Only stories can help us balance and direct our evolutionary drives, use our unique ability as human beings to co-create a better world.

An aspect of the Jewish story that has been particularly meaningful to me is a long tradition, beginning in the Torah, of accepting the human being as a human being, nothing more or less, recognizing what is unique about human begins, and using that uniqueness, our ability to create pretense in the ways Harari describes, to shape a less violent world. This dance between evolutionary realities and human possibility is in evidence in both midrash aggadah (story traditions) and midrash halachah (legal traditions).

So stories are important in shaping our lives. There are individual stories and communal stories. While no story is more valid, credible, or true than another for the person shaped by the story — each story must stand the test of time and experience for its global value. Did a story, over time, improve the world for all living beings? Did it reduce violence for all living beings? Because it is those stories that have the potential to change our consciousness, to demonstrate the reality of an evolving human consciousness.

Chapter Two: Cain and Abel – From Abundance to Scarcity & Competition

All in the Family: Transactions

וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃ 

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” (Gen. 4:1)

And so begins the tragedy of Cain, born to a mother who views his birth and her relationship to this son through a transactional lens. While קַ֔יִן (Cain) doesn’t derive from קָנִ֥יתִי (gained/acquired/purchased), the alliteration (ka-yin, kaniti) links his name to Eve’s description of his birth.

In contrast, we read of the birth of Abel simply:

וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֙בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃

She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. (Gen. 4:2)

Abel’s very name (הָ֑בֶל – Havel), meaning vapor or breath, alludes to his vulnerability, the vulnerability we usually associate with an infant. At the same time, the word can mean “worthless,” as in Ecclesiastes 1:2: הַכֹּל הֶבֶל (All is fruitless/worthless), contrasting with Cain’s worth, alluded to in Eve’s reference to “gain.”

Two infants, one referred to by his mother as gain or enrichment, the other as vulnerable and possibly of no value. And a father who is not in the picture after impregnating his wife. What a sad portrayal of the first human family. What could possibly go wrong?

The names of the infants and their mother’s attitude toward them also hint at their future. As Cain’s mother’s relationship with him is transactional, so is Cain’s relationship with God. How could it be otherwise? Children reflect the relationships they have with their parents in their own relationships as they grow. And Abel is but a breath, a brief and vulnerable life.

וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֨א קַ֜יִן מִפְּרִ֧י הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה מִנְחָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃ 

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil;

וְהֶ֨בֶל הֵבִ֥יא גַם־ה֛וּא מִבְּכֹר֥וֹת צֹאנ֖וֹ וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן וַיִּ֣שַׁע יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־הֶ֖בֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתֽוֹ׃ 

and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering,

וְאֶל־קַ֥יִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָת֖וֹ לֹ֣א שָׁעָ֑ה וַיִּ֤חַר לְקַ֙יִן֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ פָּנָֽיו׃ 

but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־קָ֑יִן לָ֚מָּה חָ֣רָה לָ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה נָפְל֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ׃ 

And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen?” 

הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃ 

“Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4: 3-7)

There is no suggestion in this story that Cain experiences loving intimacy, not with his parents, not with God. Cain brings an offering “in the course of time,” eventually, without any sense of urgency. The offering isn’t remarkable. It’s not singled out as the best of what he has to offer or as first fruits. There is no sacrifice involved.

Cain’s offering, like his life in general, is transactional in nature. There seems to be an assumption in the text that an offering is due. Cain brings the offering but with a minimum expenditure of energy and resources.

In contrast, Abel brings the choicest (וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן) of the firstlings of his flock. He brings to God the fat of the lambs, his most precious lambs, the firstlings. It is easy to imagine that for a shepherd, these firstlings have more than economic value. Giving them up is a sacrifice, economically and emotionally painful.

Before heaping all the responsibility for a transactional worldview on Cain, though, or on Eve, his mother . . . or even on humanity . . . I wonder. Is God, too, implicated in this view of relationship?

While the text doesn’t explicitly state that God requires sacrifice in exchange for giving life and a beautiful and abundant world in which to live it, where else would Cain and his brother, Abel, have gotten the idea that a sacrifice was required?  And the text does tell us that God appreciates Abel’s sacrifice more than Cain’s. In this way, the story may suggest that God, too, has a transactional view of relationships. There is an implied economy of being in this universe.

This transactional view turns out to be the basis of animal sacrifice, as we will see in later chapters.

The Root of Transaction: Desire

The worldview presented in the Cain and Abel story is very different from that of Genesis 1-3, but the seeds of the latter are in the former. Compare these two verses, one from the Creation Story and the other from the current story of Cain and Abel:

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃

“Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃

“Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:7)

The first verse, Gen. 3:16 is in the context of God telling Adam and Eve how things will be going forward. In a word with sexual overtones, teshukatech, God declares that a woman’s longing and desire (urge) will be toward her husband — and that he will rule (yimshol,יִמְשָׁל) over her.

In the current story of Cain and Abel, Gen. 4:7, God warns Cain of sin, personified and “couching” at the door. The longing and desire (teshukato, urge) of this sin, a seductive, sinister, lurking external entity, is toward Cain — but as God instructs, Cain can rule (timshol, תִּמְשָׁל) over it if he chooses.

Why is this juxtaposition of detail important? Because both Adam and Cain, representing humanity, are set to rule over creation, over all creatures both seen and unseen, but both find it exceedingly difficult to do. They can scarcely rule over themselves. And as they fail in their task, they blame what appears to be external to them, Adam blaming Eve and Cain his brother, Abel.

Neither recognizes their own responsibility in the choices that result in sin. Both bring into existence the sin lurking seductively outside the door waiting for the right moment to spring into action through human agency. Sin, like the love and abundance imagined in Gen. 1-3, is mere potential until human choices make it reality. Then it becomes part of a person, desire rules human nature, and transactions prevail over gifting, subverting the intended order of creation.

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Even the ground is called to task for swallowing the blood of Cain’s dead brother, Abel, as well as Cain for spilling that blood onto the ground:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ 

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ 

Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Gen. 4:10-12)

The ground, already cursed in Gen. 17, withholding its abundance from Adam, will now withhold its abundance from Cain, Adam’s first son. And the humans, living but alienated from the connectedness of all being, increase the distance between themselves and a living but unyielding earth. Cain, condemned to wander the earth, leaves the presence of the Lord, settles in another land with his wife, fathers a son, Enoch, and founds a city in his son’s name:

וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃ 

Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 

וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ׃ 

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. (Gen. 4:16-17)

From Abundance to Scarcity

So we are no longer in the world of the first three chapters of Genesis, a world filled with joyful energy, overflowing abundance and harmony. A world in which all beings share the spiritual round table. In the Cain and Abel story, we find ourselves in a world of separation and scarcity, a transactional world that assigns value to living beings, a world of competition, envy, desire, violence and animal sacrifice.

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the increasing alienation of Cain from his parents, from his own brother, from God, from humanity, and finally from the earth itself. What is the source of Cain’s anger? What causes the tragedy and isolation of his life?

The literary details of the story suggest that tragedy begins with Cain’s transactional relationships from the day he is born. What an odd statement Eve makes about his birth, that she “acquired” a child as though he is an item she purchased at the market. There is a profound emptiness associated with that word in this context. We can only imagine the additional pain Cain must experience as he learns that God notices Cain’s brother, Abel, and favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s own.

Cain’s response to God taking note of Abel’s offering is another story element that builds on the transactional theme. Cain brings an offering — and expects a particular return for it, turning the offering into a transaction.

In contrast, the first humans, Adam and Eve, are part of an abundant world they share with non-human animals and with God. They are gardeners, caring for the world God gifts to them. “In the beginning,” they live in harmony with their world.

Did the characters “evolve” through the story? The text suggests, perhaps not. At the end of Gen. 4, Adam and Eve once again have a child, a third son:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him. (Gen. 4:1)

A son is gone — a replacement provided. Like Eve’s comment about Cain, that she “acquired” a son, her comment about Seth, that he replaces Abel, leaves us with a feeling of emptiness. Eve’s unemotional evaluation of her situation is surprising. It’s hard to imagine life improving for this family as they move into their future.

The story of Seth’s birth continues in Gen. 5:1-3. We return to a theme of Gen. 1, a hierarchical worldview in which Adam is to his third son, Seth, as God is to Adam:

זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃

This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם

male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them (hu)man… (Gen. 5:1,2) 

וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃

When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.

God creates and humans give birth . . . And as the humans are in the image and “likeness” of God, so Seth is in his father’s “likeness” and “image.” Do these echoes of the first chapter of Genesis suggest a repetition of the experience of the first family . . . Or are they more hopeful, foreshadowing a new creation, coming in the events of the Flood and following?We leave the story skeptical of a future built on either a transactional or a hierarchical foundation . . . But perhaps also with some hope that life goes on, and a fresh start may go better.

Postscript on the Cain and Abel story

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

Perhaps these different worldviews are one way to think about the difference between Gen. 1-3 and Gen. 4-7. What if the first chapters of Genesis represent a hunter-gatherer worldview while the story of Cain and Abel points to a worldview more closely associated with an agricultural setting? If the agricultural revolution signifies a transition from a world in which “beings communicate with one another directly and negotiate the rules governing their shared habitat” to a transactional world of ownership and wealth, it also signifies a transition from a mindset of abundance and gifting to scarcity, greed and jealousy. Possessions necessitate guarding, and unequal distribution generates desire and envy.

Yet as Charles Eisenstein points out in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition, we are not fated to live in one world or the other. Our world is what we make it, the story we create and in which we choose to stand. Harari, too, tells us that the human ability to create fictions, to imagine, and then to persuade many others to believe our fictions, is a unique characteristic of Sapiens. It is that unique ability that allowed humans to “rule over” creation.

Reimagining Creation, Our Human Purpose

At any moment, we can place ourselves back in the Garden, that world in which all beings communicate “with one another directly” and negotiate “the rules governing” our “shared habitat.” We can share the spiritual round table. We can create a world of abundance, freeing ourselves to share and live harmoniously with each other, other beings and with the earth itself.

Or our existence can be transactional, measured, even self-serving. We can view the world as a place of scarcity, guarding our possessions and wealth jealously in our state of alienation and viewing others in a utilitarian way (Martin Buber’s “I-It” way of relating) or with suspicion and fear. It all depends on the power of our imagination and the way we choose to use it.

And this brings me to the message of faith in the amazing ancient text which is the Torah. The times that serve as the backdrop to the biblical text were not free from scarcity and bloodshed. I imagine there was as much cause to feel overwhelmed by fear, suspicion, anger, grief and despair then as now. The text describes many of those events, wars, famine, disease, loss of home and family.

The Torah doesn’t deny or neglect those realities. It doesn’t whitewash the nature of human beings or of other living beings and doesn’t deny that the earth itself can be intransigent. There is no horror in our world today that doesn’t find its echoes in those times. Yet the vision that drives this text, the story that it insists on telling in the face of tragic circumstances, is a story in which there is meaning, justice, beauty, harmony and great abundance for all creatures.

There is, after all, something eternal in the Torah story even in a secular age. It is a story about the reality of our existential condition but also about the power of imagination to create worlds. What world do we want to create? A transactional world of scarcity, alienation and fratricide or a world of abundance and harmony, where we share the spiritual round table with all other living beings? The world we live in is the world we imagine into reality. The Torah shows us both and urges us to “Choose life…” (Deut. 30:19)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum: January 10, 2021 – I think this story also points to the twin themes of ruthless self-preservation and altruism / reciprocity. According to evolutionary science, acting from self-interest preserves and enhances the life of the individual, but acting on the basis of altruism and reciprocity preserves the life of the group or species.

I can see these two characters, Cain and Abel, as archetypes of these twin themes. This kind of pairing is a frequently used biblical technique that points to wholeness. Cain’s self-interested, transactional orientation leads to his personal survival. Abel, who dies in the short term, contributes to long term human preservation in the symbolism of the story by serving and gaining merit with the God who created humanity. But the choice the story points to isn’t one or the other — it’s both, held in balance within one individual or one social network.

The Power of A Story

I began my current journey in biblical studies six years ago on a walk with my violence-averse husband. A dead and partially mutilated rabbit ended our stroll around the neighborhood with his exclamation of dismay. I asked why “these kinds of things,” which include National Geographic specials that involve one animal hunting and killing another, disturb him so much, glibly announcing, “It’s just the plan of nature.” He responded, “It’s a stupid plan.”

My husband’s comment surprised me, but then I started thinking. In a universe of infinite possibilities, why couldn’t things be different? What if living life didn’t require taking life?  Going a step further, what if there were, in fact, no death?

I’m not the first to wonder, what if? That thought long ago occurred to others. This is the world imagined into being in the first three chapters of Genesis. All animals, human and non-human, were vegan, and there was no death.

Recently on another walk as I was spinning out my newest thought process for my patient husband, I reminded him that this all began from his comment six years ago. This time he added, ”Yes, I wonder why all animals couldn’t have just grazed?” Which caused me to speculate that then there would have been no population control. P’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply), a command given to all living beings, would have become a planetary death sentence.

So Genesis 1-3 imagines the beautiful world, a world of unrestrained creativity, abundance and no death, a world that crashes into another story of human drives in a world of limited resources and death, the remaining 184 chapters of Torah.

This collision should cause us to sit up and take notice. As Joseph Campbell once said, “Life lives on life. This is the sense of the symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent biting its tail. Everything that lives lives on the death of something else. Your own body will be food for something else. Anyone who denies this, anyone who holds back, is out of order. Death is an act of giving.”

Isn’t this Economy of Being the problem that Thanos, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy), set out to solve? Too much stress on limited resources? And like the God of the Bible, Thanos sets in motion a plan to randomly reduce the population. Unlike God’s plan in the Bible, Thanos’ plan applies only to humanity (or at least the story deals only with humanity) — and was applied directly, not through the workings of nature. But the initiating challenge and its resolution were effectively the same. “Be fruitful and multiply“ requires a counterbalancing mechanism.

In the Marvel Comics universe, Thanos was not a completely unsympathetic character. He suffered when he saw the results among humans of unrestrained evolutionary success. He thought he had a plan to “fix” that. Randomly eliminating half the population would allow the other half to live comfortably, without suffering. A painful job, but someone had to do it.

Of course, it was satisfying when Thanos was finally vanquished, and those who had been eliminated were returned to life — but this ending begged the question: what provides the counterbalance to the creative urge, the urge of a species to expand to the point of wiping out other planetary resources? Where is the Economy of Being?

The “good guys,” those who vanquished Thanos and brought back the missing half of humanity, didn’t answer that question. So who were the good guys? Thanos, who took responsibility and acted even if we don’t like the action? Or the Guardians, who did something we like better but didn’t address the problem?

Both stories, one from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one from the Torah, address the same issue. Living beings drive toward their own evolutionary success. But unrestrained success is ultimately destructive. Both stories recognize the need for a counterbalancing force, a limiting factor, and in both stories that limiting factor involves death. Both stories have an issue of justice in their background as one randomizes death (Marvel), and the other universalizes it (Torah). In neither case do living beings live or die based on merit.

Only one of the stories places the responsibility for the problem and its solution on living beings themselves: the Torah story. Human beings and a fellow creature, a serpent, interact destructively in a way that brings death to the world. Forced to recognize their responsibility, they are also required to participate in a solution. Consider the power of this story that over the millennia has insisted on engaging living beings, primarily humans, in maintaining an Economy of Being. We have often fulfilled that responsibility poorly if at all.

The Torah story with its nuance leaves us at the heart of the dilemma. It doesn’t give us a single answer. There is more than one “creation” story, more than one attempt to create a world without violence and suffering. Finally multiple voices and stories are woven together, acting as a vehicle of acculturation. A subset of humanity, the Israelites, receives a body of laws, hopefully producing better outcomes for all life on the planet than when human animals simply follow their unrestrained evolutionary urges. And the story continues.

“Us-Themism”

I imagine some of us would call the creative urge, the drive to “be fruitful and multiply” in all its variations, a ”good” impulse — and those things that limit that drive, including a predatory impulse, “bad.” And yet, in evolutionary terms, both are necessary and therefore, objectively speaking, neither good nor bad.

In Jewish tradition, these drives and impulses are recognized as yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination. The good inclination isn’t good in and of itself, nor is the evil inclination evil. We might think of the good inclination as an altruistic impulse which, when taken to an extreme, results in the death of an organism. Similarly the evil inclination is responsible for creating, building, developing, but in the extreme, results in greed, predation, suffering and even death to others.

This makes things more complicated for us. How do we know when to give and when to take, when to cooperate and when to compete? When to focus on “us” and when to be wary of “them?” The answers are rarely clear-cut, and those stories sustain us best that are nuanced enough to replicate the complexity of our lives.

Torah stories like the Flood story teach that since these drives are in the makeup of the human animal, our goal should not be to repress or sublimate these urges, to “cure” ourselves of them, but to keep them in balance. In this way, Jewish law is also a story, a means to acculturate us to become the best human beings we can be.

Like many in my generation, I imagine, I grew up disdaining the tribal mentality, an Us/Them worldview. After all, we are all human. And beyond that, we are all creatures animated by the breath of God — or at least are in the same boat on this planet and will either float together or die together.

But now we know, as Jewish traditions intuited, this Us/Them mentality that expresses itself so consistently throughout history is a necessary evolutionary trait, one of those variations on the drive that limits the suffering and evil that would result from unrestrained p’ru u’r’vu, fruitfulness and multiplication.

Science tells us that “the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic . . . from massive barbarity to pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet, I don’t think our goal should be to “cure” us of all Us/Them dichotomizing (separate of it being impossible, unless you have no amygdala).”

So according to science, Us/Them-ing is an evolutionary trait with a specific purpose, perhaps even multiple purposes. One that stands out is that when resources are limited, an “Us” group is more likely to succeed when “They” are minimized, utilized, or eliminated. Returning a nonhuman animal to the wild that has lived with humans makes clear the danger in modifying the instinct to be wary of “Them.” So we need to respect that instinct in ourselves and other living beings.

But are we doomed to forever look with suspicion on the Other or to minimize their being in relation to our own? Even to commit violence against them? The world’s religions have all said “no.” And here is the role of the powerful story, the story that acculturates us, shapes a worldview, that drives us with greater force than our evolutionary instincts.

It is our stories that give us the capability of modifying our relationships with others. Yuval Noah Harari tells us that the distinctive trait of Sapiens that pushed us to the top of the food chain is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This ability, in turn, allows us to cooperate flexibly in large groups. Harari names as fictions religions, corporations, banks and nations among others — basically anything that shapes our world. I like to call these fictions stories. Our stories are not only our downfall but our potential salvation.

Finding Our Story

Just when we need a good story, we live in times when the stories we knew are crumbling, are no longer effective. This applies to our religious stories as well as our cultural and national stories. Millennials are leaving institutional religious life in droves. Dictatorships are replacing democracies. The institutions and value systems we shared and loved, that grew out of our stories, are shredded before us.

Discovering meaning in old stories or finding and creating new stories, though, is even more difficult when we disdain everything that isn’t “fact” or “science.” I have some sympathy with Kellyanne Conway’s comment about alternate facts. I think what she might have meant, or at least should have said, was “alternate stories“ — because it is our stories that give meaning to facts. Myth gives meaning to history, to human experience.

Here’s how one writer says it: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.” ~ The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club Books, 1988, p. 123 )

When we minimize the power of our stories, when we fail to find and choose a story in which to stand, we leave the field open to others who appreciate the power of stories and use them to their advantage, planting their stories, which then have a chance to put down roots and flourish. We leave the field to those whose stories rationalize building massive vertical chicken farms or to industrial animal agriculture operations, to those whose stories center around financial success as the greatest value, to those whose stories feature victimization and blame, to Nazis and white supremacists, to ISIS.

If stories give facts their meaning, if stories are the one thing more powerful than evolutionary drives like our natural instinct to be wary of “the other,” even to devalue, minimize, commercialize, or prey on the other, then presenting unadorned facts to a person driven by a powerful story with which we disagree is unlikely to have any effect at all. It’s like speaking in completely different languages.

In When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, authors Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy point out that until very recently, scientists have refused to speak in terms of animal emotions for fear of being accused of anthropomorphizing and consequently discredited. In this way, a story was generated that supports a giant and brutal animal agriculture industry and contradicts what is obvious to any casual observer.

The story that animals don’t experience emotions and intelligence like humans, also contradicts what we once knew before we placed ourselves so solidly in the story of science, a one-sided science that minimizes the value of, or even rejects, the information brought to us through the humanities.

A course from Yale University, offered through Coursera, Journey of the Universe, says it this way: “The Journey course . . . is based on a new integration that is emerging from the dialogue of the sciences and humanities. Journey tells the story of evolution as an epic narrative, rather than as a series of facts separated by scientific disciplines.”

A parallel process of reshaping the scientific narrative is happening with regard to animals and animal studies. When Elephants Weep is just one of a large number of studies and books coming out in recent years. These scientists and observers are looking more closely at what we share with our fellow living beings on the planet. They are presenting an alternative to the story of minimization.

This new scientific story and this new narrative of the human-nonhuman animal relationship parallels the Torah story, which describes both human and nonhuman animals as flesh animated by the breath of God.

Like their human animal counterparts, nonhuman animals are intelligent, can strategize, have feelings and are held morally accountable. Human animals, like their nonhuman animal counterparts, are driven by evolutionary instincts including cooperation — but also “Us-Themism.”

It occurs to me that humans‘ unique characteristic, that which differentiates us from nonhuman animals, is our ability, as Harari points out, to create stories. Potentially those stories could help us overcome or at least redirect our tendency to violence. Not always, perhaps not even often, but it might. This is God’s theory after the Flood when God permits meat-eating.

Our stories shape our lives and give them meaning. The Torah provides a story for those who would eat our fellow creatures . . . but also a story for those who would not. It provides a story in which animal sacrifice is at the center of an Economy of Being — and Jewish history and experience provides another that replaces sacrifice with prayer.

Our society provides a story for those who breed and fatten billions of living beings each year for slaughter. We are in a process of rediscovering the story of our interconnection, even interbeing, and conscious choice. It is a long, slow and difficult journey of rediscovery, but it is imperative. To save ourselves, we need to find and choose and share that story that is stronger than our evolutionary drives.

“Imagine Peace” by johnmaschak is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Chapter Three: The Flood – Moral Accountability

The idea of the universe as an interconnected whole is not new; for millennia it’s been one of the core assumptions of Eastern philosophies. What is new is that Western science is slowly beginning to realize that some elements of that ancient lore might be correct. – Dean Radin, in “Entangled Minds”

It’s All About Our Interconnected Whole

Our interconnection isn’t only an assumption of Eastern philosophies. It is embedded in the Torah story that emerged from the Middle East and shaped the western world through its interpreters.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis represents interconnection and interdependence through the themes of responsibility and consequence that accompany an idea of moral agency. But moral agency, responsibility, and consequence extend beyond the human realm to nonhuman animals and even the earth itself. In this extension of themes, the Torah speaks to Charles Eisenstein’s idea of “interbeing.”

Human and nonhuman animals are both created on the sixth day. The serpent demonstrates they can be similar not only in physical appearance, that is, relative nakedness or hairlessness, but in cognitive abilities, like reasoning and strategizing. And all creation suffers the disastrous consequence of the combined activity of a nonhuman animal and two humans.

That consequences come to all for the actions of a few is a way of expressing the idea of the interdependence of all creation: what one does affects all. It also represents the idea of interbeing — what impacts my fellow creatures impacts me because I am them and they are me. A Hasidic idea points to this understanding of things: Bitul Hayesh, total self-abnegation, creating space to experience that ultimate reality is One, Yichud.

Imagine if we could approach our created world from this space of our profound connection to it, even unity with it — with all living creatures, even with the land itself, the water, the stars. What different decisions might we make about our environment, about our fellow creatures on the planet, about what and how we eat and how we live? This is a door to possibility that the “animals’ story” in the Torah opens for us.

These stories of freedom, responsibility, guilt and consequence highlight the overarching aspirational theme of the Torah story. The nature of creation is individuation, God and God’s creation separate but one, unfolding creativity generating separate forms and structures, land and water, birds and fish, human and non-human animals, each differentiated from the other but coming from and participating in the One.

How close this is to a contemporary vision of the creative process that brought about the universe and everything in it!

The aspirational task for human beings is to fulfill their potential as unique beings while maintaining a profound awareness that they are part of the whole — and the whole is in them. As part of the whole, the smallest action of an individual has consequences for all of creation, even God’s self. This is a complex and powerful theme in the Torah story, a theme the Jewish mystics of a later time draw upon with stories of their own, stories in which each action of an individual affects the balance of God Him/Herself.

It is a weighty idea, that each action we perform as part of a greater whole impacts and brings consequences to all creation. Yet this is a key theme of the first story in the Torah, the Creation story. A nonhuman animal persuades a human counterpart that it’s ok to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. The humans decide to take action on that persuasive argument. The result is a catastrophic consequence for all of creation, not only those who are guilty but those who are merely responsible and even those who are seemingly innocent. The actions of one or a few have consequences for all.

The Flood Story & The Path of Moderation

As in the Creation Story, in the Flood Story nonhuman animals along with humans are held accountable — not as individuals but as a whole, the innocent with the guilty. Indeed, all of creation is held accountable: “. . . all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.” (Gen. 6:17) Even the land drowns under the flood waters, the land which swallowed up the blood of Abel, the first homicide.

The Flood Story brings us to the endpoint of God’s first creation — but creative activity is unstoppable, and a new world emerges from the remnants of the old. Like the first, this world has violence in its DNA. There is some hope that in this new world, violence can be restrained, that people can learn — but God accepts the nature of things when God makes a promise not to destroy everything again.

The story of violence in creation begins with Cain, son of Adam and father of violence toward a brother. It continues in his line through seven generations from Cain to Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:17-24). The fifth generation introduces the first Lamech, like Cain a murderer, perhaps even of a boy. Lamech declares to his wives that if Cain will be avenged seven-fold, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-and-seven-fold.

The proliferation of the number seven in this genealogy points to the creation theme in which the world was created in seven days. This is what creation has become, a world of scarcity and violence. It must change, or it will destroy itself. The number seven points not only backward, to the first creation, but forward, to a new creation.

Then begins a separate line of seven generations from Seth to a second Lamech, the father of Noah (Gen. 5:3-28). Adam’s son, Seth, is the child whom Eve, always transactional in her thoughts about her children, views as a replacement for her son, Abel, whom Cain murdered:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃ 

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him. (Gen. 4:25)

In this way, the second seven generation genealogy connects to the story of the victim, Abel. And the figure of Lamech provides a link between the two genealogies and a transition to the Flood story.

From Seth’s genealogical line comes Noah, a “man righteous in his generation.” Noah stands in contrast to his generation in this sense. And he contrasts with his generation in other ways: as the child of moderation, comfort and substantiality, he continues that tradition.

In the creation do-over that is the Flood, Seth is then the progenitor of the humanity that survives it. Portrayed as neither predator nor prey, Seth is the child of moderation.

Like his brother, Cain, Seth surely carries the genes — or better, has the evolutionary capability — for violence. In the Torah story tho, Seth, unlike his brother Cain, doesn’t act on that impulse. And yet Seth is not an insubstantial “breath” as Abel’s name suggests he was. Seth doesn’t become prey but instead begets sons and daughters and dies at the ripe old age of 912 years, representing the fulness and evolutionary success of moderation.

A play on words in the text tells us Noah’s name means “comfort” even though that cannot be its derivation:  although the name appears to derive from the stem n-w-h, “to rest,” the “explanation given in the narrative rests on similarity of sound, not on etymology, since Noah cannot derive from n-h-m, “to comfort, give relief.” (JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna, p. 44). Sarna tells us the etymology may be a reference to Noah as a culture hero, inventor of the plow and thereby of true agriculture as well as viticulture — saving time and energy and easing the production of food, providing relief and comfort to his generation and easing the curse on the soil though Adam’s sin. (Rashbam). It seems at the very least, though, the narrator wants us to envision Noah as a moderate, comfortable man.

When Extremists Clash: Here Comes the Flood

Noah lives in a time when the world is filled with wickedness “all the time”:

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃ 

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5)

There is a contrast between Noah, whose ancestry and life represent moderation and substantiality, and the world in which he lives, a world of extremes, filled with wickedness in which “every” plan is “nothing but” evil “all” the time. Indeed, the refrain “all,” a word representing the extreme, associated with violence, repeats in the leadup to the Flood.

God communicates both God’s basic plan and the rationale for it in one brief phrase, pairing extreme behaviors with an extreme consequence. The totality of wickedness and violence on earth is met with the consequence of total destruction, a rollback of creation:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)

Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary on Bereishit says, “The universal corruption is . . . 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.” Also according to Sarna, the key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the Flood narrative, a refrain of sorts.

Violence, חָמָ֔ס (hamas) is the reason for the Flood. And the utter devastation of the Flood is comprehensive in its consequences. Six times the refrain “all…” is repeated, emphasizing the point:

וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּע֤וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם׃ 

And all flesh that stirred on earth perished—birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind

כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃ 

All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. 

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they are blotted out from the earth. Only Noah Is left, and those with him in the ark. (Gen. 21-23)

So Noah, “righteous in his generation,” a moderate and substantial man, lives in a world of extremes. This extremism works counter to the moral imperative to extend and enrich creation. This extreme violence in creation is met with an extreme consequence from the Creator. It seems both violence and consequence are counter to creation, converging to destroy it. Noah alone, the man of moderation and substantiality, and those who accompany him on the ark, survive the devastation. Moderation, not extremism, not perfection, carries creation forward.

But just imagine for a moment the pathos of Noah’s situation even as he survives. He floats in a (relatively) tiny ark on a vast ocean of water, everything he knew gone. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Noah’s status is captured in the simple words, “Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.” (Gen. 7:23)

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

So although still living, Noah hardly escapes consequences. He and those with him are alone, everything else engulfed by extreme forces in creation — and God’s extreme reaction, for which even God repents:

וַיָּ֣רַח יְהוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃ 

The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. (Gen. 8:21)

Belatedly God expresses God’s own intent to moderate responses in the future. He accepts the realities of human and nonhuman animal nature. I can’t help but feel, though, for the isolation of Noah and those trapped with him on the ark, remembering a lost world teeming with life and unable to see their future.

Worse, their condition was brought on not only by the extremity of their fellow creatures but the extremity of their Creator. Where is the path to Interbeing in this watery world? Only among those in the fragile ark floating on the water that submerged everything, only among those human and non-human animals who share their crowded, tiny habitat.

But What Did the Animals Do?

In the pre-Flood Torah world, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (“all living beings” – kol ha-hayyah) became lawless and corrupt. All, therefore, suffer the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the remnant who still have God’s breath of life in them, floating on the vast, dark water in their ark.

The text specifically says, כָּל-הַחַיָּה “all living beings.” But what did “all” living beings do that brought on this catastrophe? Because this refrain makes a point similar to the Garden of Eden story, that moral failure occurs among nonhuman animals as well, and the consequences extend to all of creation. Several clues lead us to understand the role of nonhuman animals and even the earth itself in this story of devastation.

We know that the vision of the first three chapters of Genesis is of a world without death, a vegan world of plenty where each animal receives appropriate food. What we don’t notice when we dismiss the story as folklore is that there is an equality of being, that all, human and nonhuman animals, sit at the spiritual round table. Even the earth participates in this drama. It gives birth to Adam and Eve and takes in the blood of Abel. As a result of the latter, it is twice cursed. In other parts of the Torah, God calls upon the earth to witness, along with the heavens, or upon the earth to deliver consequences to those who are dependent on it.

The world of Gen. 1-3 is one in which all of creation is animated, human and nonhuman animals, the earth, the “lights” in the firmament. Everything lives through the breath of God. Everything is interconnected, and there is an equality of being as in the Flood story. Both the Creation and the Flood story refer to this equality of being through the prism of consequence, and nonhuman animals and even the earth itself pay consequences equally with humans.

At the same time, there are differences between the Flood and Creation stories — but even these differences highlight the equality of being behind the specifics of the stories.

In both stories, skillful and repeated use of “flesh,“ בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh, “living being,” points to the idea that all creatures, not only humans, depend on God for life, and their life is the breath of God. In the Creation story, the emphasis is on nefesh, the life that is from God.

The Flood story emphasizes the material aspect of creation, כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר – kol basar, “all flesh.” In Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – kol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” Another way to translate ”all existence” is “all substance,” also a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and nonhuman.

So pre-flood, the emphasis is on the material aspect of all being, בָּשָׂ֣ר (flesh). The other aspect of being, so prominent in the creation story, נֶפֶשׁ (life, the breath of God), is minimized. The vocabulary suggests that those who die in the flood are already dead, mere carcasses. The breath of God that animates all being has left them.

And finally, those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17. These are the living, those who remain ”of all flesh,“ human animals along with nonhuman animals, a remnant of the swarming multitudes from the time before the flood.

The Flood story reverses the imagery of the Creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that narrative as creation recedes. 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, helping 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 resulted in a return to profound darkness and emptiness.

In the new creation, God warns that both human and nonhuman animals will be held accountable for unlawful killing. At the same time, God recognizes human nature as it is when God gives humans permission to eat meat, although restrictions surround the practice. And consider, for a moment, the possibility that the division of nonhuman animals into those who are “clean” and those who are “unclean” is more recognition of and respect for their nature than judgment or a negative valuation.

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, God recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and to animal species according to their individual natures.

Reasserting Interdependence & Equality of Being

Immediately after granting permission to humans to eat animals, God restricts them from eating the flesh with the “life-blood in it.” Then God seems to prioritize human life by requiring “a reckoning for human life” from any living being that kills a human — but at the same time, this theoretical prioritization confirms moral responsibility in nonhuman animals: “I will require it of every beast.”

Finally, augmenting the theme of interdependence and equality of being in this story of moral agency, responsibility and consequence is the promise that is also given to “all flesh,” nonhuman along with human animals:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֑חַ זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲקִמֹ֔תִי בֵּינִ֕י וּבֵ֥ין כָּל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (פ) 

That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” Gen. 9:16)

In this reprise of the first creation account but with variations, God once again commands all animals, human and nonhuman, to “be fertile . . . and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it.” Immediately following this command, God makes a covenant, not only with humans but with every living thing including every living beast (referring not only to domesticated but to wild animals). Indeed in Gen. 9:7-14, the Hebrew כָּל (“every” or “all”) occurs 12 times. God’s covenant is emphatically all-inclusive. It is sealed for all ages not just between God and human animals but between God and nonhuman animals, all living beings.

Postscript

In the Flood story as in the Creation story, the theme of Interbeing, our profound interconnection to all being, is demonstrated in the consequences that come to all being, human and nonhuman animals, guilty and innocent alike. Far from relieving the individual of responsibility or implying the uselessness of any individual action, this idea places on each of us a very specific obligation to interact with the world “according to our kind.” As the Jewish mystics insist, each action we take individuals, each word we speak, affects the balance of everything, even God.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society, some are guilty. All are responsible.” As much as some voices in the Torah attempt to demonstrate a direct relationship between behavior and consequence, other voices present a different idea. In the Garden story as in the Flood story, those who are guilty and those who are responsible suffer consequences equally along with the innocent. Heschel’s words don’t speak of consequence — but they do speak of the impact of the individual on the whole, the interrelated network of being. And in this world of interconnection, all being suffers the consequence of our individual actions.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens comments that the unique capability of humans is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This capability allows flexible cooperation in large groups. This suggests to me that our unique human responsibility is to tell our stories, those stories that inspire the kind of cooperation that will extend and enrich creation in accord with the first commandment in the Torah, פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ (p’ru u’r’vu), be fertile and increase.

And to the extent that we dominate creation, that is, that we enjoy a certain freedom while other beings, human and nonhuman, are enslaved under our rule, we bear the entire weight of responsibility for what happens in our world. In this interconnected world, those who rule must ensure the well-being of all, humans as well as nonhuman animals, the waters and the earth itself. If we fail in our responsibility, the consequences will fall equally on all being.