All posts by Leslie Cook

I am the mother of two sons, the mother-in-law of two daughters and the grandmother of one grandson. I raised a family, owned a farm and enjoyed tending a large organic garden and orchard 40 years ago. I restored a log cabin and enjoyed it as an energy conscious home way before energy consciousness was publicly conscious. I hold a number of advanced degrees focused on religion, literature and languages. I published a chapter in a book on women's rituals in Judaism. I have enjoyed a variety of careers including teaching, educational programming in the not-for-profit sector, technology and web management. For the last eight years I have owned a five-star (YELP) vegetarian cafe. This year we were voted best vegetarian dining experience in McHenry County by the readers of the Northwest Herald. I write articles on food for a local newspaper. My current task is to figure out how this all fits together and what to do with it.

Torah Ecology: Mishpatim 2018 (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18)

Increasingly I focus my attention on a paradox: the beautiful vision of Genesis 1-3 against a world filled with bloodshed and violence in the rest of the Torah, a world in which bloodshed is deliberately increased through animal sacrifice.

It is very difficult for me to imagine how the same “mind” that put forward the vision of Gen. 1-3 also put forward a project that included the terrified cries of a sacrificial animal and the stench of blood on the altar as a form of worship. How can this kind of worship express both joy and gratitude and act as atonement? Or as another writer put it, what was at stake that made this act that seems so horrific meaningful?

The first three chapters of Genesis offer an extraordinary and powerful vision of the spiritual unity of all being in a harmony of differences. Chapter 4 jolts us out of that vision as we begin the path into a world where violence and corruption overwhelm the intention of creation.

Human agency has a role in shaping that world of violence and bloodshed, and that agency brings with it blood guilt. I’m not sure that I can detail yet exactly how that happens in the text or what it means, but it does seem to produce an economy in which animal blood, representing life, pays what is due for human blood guilt.

Human beings are privileged over other animals because they are “in the image” of G-d. Taking a human life brings heavy consequences. In the economy of creation, taking a life requires payment with a life — a life for a life:

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! (Gen. 9:5)

This verse points not only to the idea that human life is sacred, that it is privileged above all other life because human beings are in the image of G-d, but that animals, like humans, are morally accountable in relation to taking the life of a human being.  This week’s portion fills in the legislative specifics of those concepts.

Last year I explored the parallel themes of moral freedom and restrictions on freedom for the sake of relationship in Mishpatim.  This year I narrow my focus to the relationship between humans, specifically Israelites, and animals. These relationships are based on a balance between freedom and restrictions on freedom and, in that framework, moral accountability.

In Yitro, last week, I explored the idea of valuing lives. Following are the animal references in Mishpatim, a particularly rich portion for discovering how lives are valued, what are “correct” relationships, and the dimensions of moral accountability:

* * * * *

The first five passages below deal with domestic animals, primarily an ox. In all cases but the first, the ox is dealt with as property. In the first passage, the ox is a morally accountable, subject to capital punishment if the ox takes a human life — whether that act was accidental (the ox was not in the habit of goring) or premeditated (that ox has been in the habit of goring).

The moral accountability of the ox is demonstrated in the consequence of its being stoned, a punishment meted out to human beings for offenses like blasphemy, idolatry, desecration of the Sabbath, witchcraft, rebelling against one’s parents, prostitution of a betrothed virgin, or deception of a husband at marriage with regard to one’s chastity. We might say these are offenses against the order of creation, as would be the offense of a homicidal ox.

Ex. 21:28-32 – “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, although warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. If ransom is laid upon him, he must pay whatever is laid upon him to redeem his life. So, too, if it gores a minor, male or female, [the owner] shall be dealt with according to the same rule. But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.”

Ex. 21:33- 37 – “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal. When a man’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, he must restore ox for ox, but shall keep the dead animal. When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep.”

Ex. 22:1-4 – “…the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no blood guilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is blood guilt in that case. –He must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft. But if what he stole — whether ox or ass or sheep — is found alive in his possession, he shall pay double. When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.”

Ex. 22:8 – “In all charges of misappropriation–pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, ‘This is it’ — the case of both parties shall come before G-d: he whom G-d declares guilty shall pay double to the other.”

Ex. 22:9-14 – “When a man gives to another an ass, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to guard, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, with no witness about, an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner must acquiesce, and no restitution shall be made. But if [the animal] was stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it was torn by beasts, he shall bring it as evidence; he need not replace what has been torn by beasts. When a man borrows [an animal] from another and it dies or is injured, its owner not being with it, no restitution need be made; but if it was hired, he is entitled to the hire.”

* * * * *

Ex. 22:18 – “Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.”

In Leviticus 20:15, this legislation adds that the animal should also be put to death:

וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֧ן שְׁכָבְתּ֛וֹ בִּבְהֵמָ֖ה מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֑ת וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָ֖ה תַּהֲרֹֽגוּ׃

If a man has carnal relations with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. Both the human and the animal offend against creation, and both pay for this transgression with their lives.

* * * * *

These next three passages refer back to the vision of Genesis 1-3 in which animals and humans share the spiritual roundtable, a world that offers us an “extraordinary and powerful vision of the spiritual unity of all being in a harmony of differences.” We are not confronted with the image of human superiority to animals based on the idea that they are “in the image” of G-d — but with the requirement for justice and compassion in relation to all life:

Ex. 22:29-30 – “You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me. You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat  flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.”

Ex. 23:4-5 – “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”

Ex. 23:11-12 – “…in the seventh [year] you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.”

* * * * *

Finally we return to the idea of animal sacrifice, leveling the field between human beings and other animals in another way, by reminding human beings that in this post-Genesis 1-3 world, they are also part of the cycle of prey and predator. They have a path toward a different life through no merit of their own but through the saving grace of G-d that offers the mechanism of animal sacrifice. Even as human beings, Israelites in particular, are distinguished — they are reminded of their obligation to show compassion to other animals and their obligation to G-d:

Ex. 23:18 – “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of my festal offering shall not be left lying until morning.

Ex. 23:19b – “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Ex. 23:29 – “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt. I will drive them out before you little by little…”

Ex. 24:5-6 – “He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’ Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.”

What is at stake in this system of animal sacrifice? The life of human beings. Animal sacrifice is payment for a human debt of both moral culpability for transgressions against life and joyful gratitude that their own lives are spared, that by fulfilling a covenant relationship which restricts their predatory urges, they can save themselves from becoming prey.

I am not yet fully satisfied with this understanding of the meaning of animal sacrifice, but I inch closer to a center of meaning as I work through these portions each year. Perhaps it is my own inability to derive meaning from this practice that prevents me from seeing what had to have been a powerful experience for those who participated in it, at least until it became routinized.

Torah Ecology: Yitro 2018 (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23)

Last year’s analysis of Yitro revealed  a relationship theme and a 3-2-3-2 structure to the 10 Utterances:

The first three utterances refer to G-d: 1) I am the Lord your G-d; you shall have no others before Me,  2) No graven images,  and 3) Don’t take the Name of the Lord in vain.

The second two utterances refer to creation, G-d’s and human creativity: 1) Remember the Sabbath, and 2) Honor your father and mother. G-d created the world, nature and humanity and rested; and your mother and father created you, brought you into life. These two commandments are the only positive commandments of the ten.

The next three utterances refer to all of humanity, all of human society: 1) Don’t murder, 2) Don’t commit adultery, and 3) Don’t steal.

The last two utterances use the distinctive word “neighbor,” re-ah (resh-ayin-hay): 1) Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor, and 2) Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, man-servant…etc. I expanded some on the possible meanings of “neighbor.”

These 10 Utterances serve to define parts of Cosmos and the relationships between the parts: G-d or Transcendence / G-d-Human Relationship / Human-Human Relationship / Relationships within a Society.  According to some rabbis, the idea of neighbor may extend beyond one’s immediate society to include a much wider “society,” even one’s fellow creatures, other animals.

Further, there is an epilogue to the 10 Utterances  in Exodus 20:21-23: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”

The epilogue, in my opinion, elaborates on the idea of the “image of G-d” and its corollary, the “likeness of G-d.” I want to focus on this theme, the image of G-d, for this reason: In order for the author/s of the worldview expressed in the Torah to arrive at a conclusion that an animal can be sacrificed to redeem a human debt or that eating animals is permissible, there must first be an understanding  that the human has a higher value.

Two of the things I have wanted to understand through my study over the last year-and-a-half are 1) what is the sense of indebtedness or guilt about? and 2) what criteria, exactly, allowed a conclusion that a human life has greater value than an animal life? The “image of G-d” theme helps me explore the value question.

There are three terms or phrases used to refer to human beings. Two of them refer also to animals: both animals and humans are בָּשָׂר (basar – flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and נֶפֶשׁ (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d, a living being — most often translated “soul”). Only humans are נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ (b’tzelem Elokim, b’d’muto – “in our image, after our likeness”).

What, exactly, does “in the image” / “likeness” mean? Most commentaries suggest it refers to moral consciousness, a capability for moral decision-making.

And yet…there is a sense that something else is going on. Gn. 1:21 talks about the creation of other species in this way: “And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind…” And in Gn. 1:24: ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind.’ Human beings are in the likeness of G-d; and other living creatures are “after their kind.”

The birth of Seth in Gen. 5:1-3 creates more complexity around this idea of “in the image.” In parallel verses, G-d creates Adam — and Adam gives birth to Seth. The human action involves sexuality, G-d’s action does not. However, the result is the same: G-d’s creation is in G-d’s image and likeness. The child born to Adam is in Adam’s image and likeness: “In the day that God created Adam, in the likeness of God made He him…” (Gn. 5:1) – “[Adam] begot a son in his own likeness, after his image…” (Gn. 5:3). The obvious meaning of Adam begetting a son is his own image is that there is a physical resemblance between them. The relationship between G-d and Adam on the same basis must mean something similar, yet the presentation is nuanced.

There is yet another wrinkle in the idea that “in the image” refers, simply, to moral capacity in humans that animals don’t possess — and that is, that animals are held morally accountable, and animals are given specific moral instructions:

  1. Animals are exiled from the Garden into life along with their human counterparts. Given the instruction for veganism along with humans in the creation stories, beyond the Garden they, like humans, are part of a cycle of predator and prey.
  2. Animals, like humans (“all flesh,” which we recognize as a carcass without the animating breath of G-d), are wiped off the face of the earth in the Flood because of violence and corruption except for a saving remnant.
  3. The new food instructions in this post-diluvial world of predator and prey include meat-eating but with an immediate and significant restriction: humans cannot eat the blood, and they are held accountable for human lives they take — but so are the animals: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man.” (Gn. 9:5) – And more, a return to the “image of G-d” theme in this context: “…for in the image of God made He Adam.
  4. In terms of the purity of the animals appropriate for sacrifice, for G-d to “eat,” and for kashrut, for humans to eat, the possibility that an animal might prey on humans makes an animal unacceptable. I first thought, all the animals permitted to eat were vegetarian, which seems counter-intuitive. This is close but not 100% consistent and not necessarily a concern of the priestly text. Then I thought, all the animals permitted to eat don’t eat blood. Closer, but I’m not sure that’s quite it either, and it’s not a fully tested hypothesis. Most recently, after reading the Flood story and the passage quoted above, I think perhaps kashrut excludes those animals that are known to kill human beings — because human beings are “in the image” of G-d.
  5. Finally, I am considering the thought that an animal became the sacrifice in place of a human precisely because an animal was not “in the image” but was, rather, “after its kind.” Sacrificing the human whose debt was at the center of the sacrificial ritual would have been akin to sacrificing G-d. It was impossible. Thus understanding what, exactly, “in the image” means becomes critical to understanding the meaning of animal sacrifice.

So whatever “in the image” means, and I’ll fill that in more as I work my way through the portions this year, these phrases set out a foundation to look at the epilogue in this week’s portion, again: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”

Keeping in mind my diverse and as yet unsettled thoughts related to “in the image,” I read the unadorned earth altar and the unhewn stone altar as places of purity, materials from G-d without human additions. This is the place where the pure sacrifice, the perfect animal, spills its lifeblood in exchange for human lifeblood.

To the extent the human being is “in the image,” it is clear why it is forbidden to expose nakedness by ascending up steps. It is unseemly, but it is something else: it reveals gender, which appearances of G-d never do in the Torah — and it is tied to sexuality, a process that G-d doesn’t require when G-d creates (Gn. 5:1-3) We might say it would disrupt the ritual “fiction” in which human beings experience that they are G-d like.

THE ANIMALS’ STORY

These are the specific references to animals in Yitro:

Ex. 18:12 – “And Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for G-d; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before G-d with Moses’ father-in-law.

Ex. 19:4 – “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.'”

Ex. 19:13 -“…no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.”

Ex. 19:16 – “On the third day…and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”

Ex. 20:10 – “…but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your G-d: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”

Ex. 20:14 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Ex. 20:15 – “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn…”

Ex. 20:21 – “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen…”

COMMENTS

Ex. 19:4 offers a beautiful, tender image of G-d saving G-d’s people, listing them out of bondage, as if “on wings of eagles.” It has the effect of showing a seamless relationship between G-d, the Israelites and the rest of G-d’s creation. In a characteristically paradoxical image, birds of prey not permissible for sacrifice or food become the image of G-d’s tenderness.

Ex. 19:13 focuses our attention once again on an awareness that animals are held accountable along with humans for their infractions, intentional and unintentional. They, like the Israelites, will die if they encroach on the mountain  perimeter.

One of the most beautiful and possibly distinctive ideas in this section is in Ex. 20:10, the fourth commandment. As Israelites observe the Sabbath through ceasing their labor, rest…so they are required to release their animals for rest on the seventh day. The sabbath is a day of rest from work for all those under the care of an Israelite including their domesticated animals. They reflect G-d’s treatment of them in their own behavior toward their animals.

Finally, we see again that the animals’ story corresponds to their human counterparts. They are intimately connected in sacrificial worship with one standing in for the other, and they are intimately connected in life, working together during six days and resting together on the Sabbath.

Another Instant Pot Recipe – Aloo Gobi

For those of you who are looking for recipe inspiration, I have a huge set of files on Pinterest that I used to use when I wanted to try something new in the Cafe and now use for ideas for the CSA or just to try at home. My user name is LeslieCooks. I haven’t filed many of my own things there — I post them all right here, through my blog and just haven’t taken time yet to post them in Pinterest. But you’ll find loads of vegetarian files, then files under vegan-this and vegan-that when I started experimenting with veganism. During the summer for the CSA, I started keeping files by veggie — cauliflower, eggplants, etc. Recently I started a file of Instant Pot recipes.

So after many years on Middle Eastern dishes, I’ve been pretty fixated on Indian food lately, and it really lends itself to the Instant Pot. I often find my recipes on Pinterest. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a page (through Pinterest), cookwithmanali.org. Her recipes are excellent — she has a Facebook page too, just for the Instant Pot.

This week, I tried a recipe from Vegan Richa with a few changes for the taste buds of my family. As much as I love spicy food, Andy is kind of heat sensitive, so I had to tone it substantially. I also reduced the salt a bit. The dish was delicious, and Andy even went back for seconds and thirds.

INSTANT  POT ALOO GOBI

Ingredients

  • Red onion, one half
  • Garlic, 5 cloves
  • Serrano pepper, one half
  • Ginger, one 1/4″piece, peeled
  • Tomatoes, 2-4 plum
  • Potatoes, 2 medium
  • Cauliflower, 1 small head
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 2-4 TB
  • Cumin, 1 tsp.
  • Turmeric, 1 tsp.
  • Paprika, 1 tsp.
  • Salt, 1 tsp.
  • Garam masala, 1 tsp.

Instructions

  1. Add the peeled garlic, peeled ginger, Serrano pepper, tomatoes cut in half, cumin, turmeric, paprika and salt to a blender or Vitamix and blend until smooth.
  2. Cut the potato into 1″ cubes (I never peel potatoes) and the cauliflower into florets. Remember, any parts of the cauliflower you don’t use you can throw into a bag for use with other washed veggie scraps in a soup broth you make in the Instant Pot when enough accumulate).
  3. Set the Instant Pot to saute, add the blended tomato and seasonings and stir.
  4. Add the potato cubes, continuing to stir for a few seconds, then close the lid (if you have a clear lid to watch what’s going on, that’s great — I haven’t gotten mine yet). Cook the potatoes for 2 or 3 minutes until they soften a little.
  5. Add the cauliflower florets and stir. I actually added just a little water at this point and stirred it into the tomato sauce thoroughly to make certain there was enough moisture for pressure cooking.
  6. Hit Cancel. Reset the IP for High Pressure, 2 minutes, and close the lid and vent.
  7. When the IP finishes, do an IPR (Instant Pressure Release). Add the garam masala, stir lightly, and serve with brown Basmati rice (by the way, I cook the rice before the Aloo Gobi – 1 cup rice, 2 cups water, 1/2 tsp. salt, High Pressure for 10 minutes, natural pressure release for 10 minutes, then…rice!)

Enjoy!!

Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2018 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

Beshallach focuses on food and water, essentials for life, and how these necessities shape and define relationships. Last year I explored these themes and how structural elements in the story reveal them. This year I will examine the Animals’ Story subtext, how it adds density to the themes and illuminates the relationship between human beings and other animals.

Following are the animal references in the portion:

Ex. 14:9 – “…the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.”

Ex. 14:23 – “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.”

Ex.15:1b – “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 15:20b – “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 16:3 – “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord 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. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

Ex. 16:11 – “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the Lord am your G-d.'”

Ex. 16:13 – “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.”

Ex. 16:20 – “But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank. And Moses was angry with them.”

Ex. 17:3 – “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

As we have seen in these portions, the fate of the animals follows that of their humans and augments the main narrative.

There was a time when I had to memorize the song in chapter 15. It’s cadence and imagery always stayed with me, especially the refrain, סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (soos v’rochvo ramah va-yam) – “The horse and its driver He hurled into the sea.” And thus the Egyptians’ horses suffer the same fate as their drivers although they bore no guilt for the sins of their society.

In Ex. 16:3, 8 and 11, we hear about the barely concealed grumblings of the hungry Israelites, longing for the “fleshpots” (סִיר הַבָּשָׂר – seer ha-basar) of Egypt. There are two interesting points here:

  1. Is it likely the Israelites as slaves in Egypt would have been “sitting by” the fleshpots, eating their fill?
  2. In Ex. 12:32, when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to go, he finally tells them to take their flocks and herds. In 12:38, we learn, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” What was the purpose of the livestock if not to provide milk and meat? Nahum Sarna suggests (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 86) “livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.” Maybe. But they seem to sacrifice a lot of animals without those same worries.

Two thoughts occur to me as alternatives to Sarna’s explanation for the Israelite complaint when they were surrounded by their own herds. The first is, the fact that they are not killing their animals for food offers a parallel similar to the horses being hurled into the sea along with their riders: the Israelite herds, like the Israelites themselves, are saved from death. The animals’ story corresponds to their humans’ story.

My second thought is related to the word “flesh” (basar – בָּשָׂר). It refers to a dead carcass. It is the word used in the Flood story when G-d says He will destroy “all flesh.” In the Flood story, there is a negative connotation to the word as humans and animals are referred to as merely basar, carcasses, not nefesh, that part of creatures animated by the breath of G-d. Here it is associated with Israelite gluttony and their distrust and ingratitude. The fleshpots were Egypt. Now, on the path to freedom, it is time for something else.

The negative association to basar is amplified in the verses about the quail, Ex. 13:16 and 20. Gluttony and distrust results in environmental distress, maggots and a stench.

In Numbers 11, there is a similar story about Israelite complaints at Taberah and their nostalgia for the food in Egypt. In this story, the negative association between basar, “flesh”-eating and gluttony and ingratitude is even more explicit: “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?'”

Finally, in Ex. 17:3, the themes come together in these words: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” From the vantage point of the complaining Israelites, the livestock may end up dying — not as food but rather from thirst. The fate of the livestock is bound up with how the Israelites perceive their own fate, brought out of Egypt to be killed from lack of food and water.

Yet the animals, like the Israelites, are destined for another future. G-d brought the Israelites and their livestock out of Egypt to save them, and water will come. As the Egyptians’ animals went down into the sea with the Egyptians and their chariots, the Israelites’ animals are going up to the Land of Israel with their humans, fed and watered by the hand of G-d.

Ethics in a Machine

I’ve been taking another religion class online through Harvard recently (an excellent — and free — program, btw). In addition to an NPR segment I heard the other day, this class caused me to think more about the abortion issue.

I wondered how abortion legislation had evolved, and I did a little reading on its history. I found it wasn’t really that much of an issue until the 19th century, and even then, the tendency was toward little or no restriction until the fetus moved in the womb. As more regulation came into place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, England’s regulations were generally more permissive than U.S. regulations, about which one source reports:

“Abortion was common in most of colonial America, but it was kept secret because of strict laws against unmarried sexual activity.

“Laws specifically against abortion became widespread in America in the second half of the 1800s, and by 1900 abortion was illegal everywhere in the USA, except in order to save the life of the mother.

“Some writers have suggested that the pressure to ban abortion was not entirely ethical or religious, but was partially motivated by the medical profession as a way of attacking the non-medical practitioners who carried out most abortions.”

I was listening to another show this morning on NPR about AI, and the speaker commented that although human beings like to think they are extremely ethical, in reality, their ethics are superficial and very inconsistent. He explained that ethics can be programmed, and that this kind of programming (for machines) will ultimately prove deeper and more reliable for ethical decision-making and will inspire us (human beings) to become more ethical.

The thought occurred to me that I, personally, would like to see this eventuality — and an agreement within and among governments to abide by final decisions on ethical topics presented to the machine. Get the politics out of it.

I’d like to see us submit this abortion issue in the U.S., which has become so fraught and devoid of common sense, ethics or intelligence, to such a machine with an agreement to abide by its recommendations.

The machine could account, much better than any human, for all extraneous but relevant facts, for different religious and philosophical perspectives, for otherwise unanticipated results from a particular decision and for the various genuine ethical dilemmas at the heart of the discussion. And after accounting for everything, could make the best decisions unburdened by considerations of an upcoming election.

Those religions, like Judaism, that have legal traditions as part of them served this function in the past. One way I understand the separation between rabbinic Judaism and post-Enlightenment human beings is that the first submits to the authority of the tradition and the latter exalts the authority of the individual.

In my mind, “the tradition,” is not merely a consensus among scholars laterally but vertically through history. As such, it is a vast store of information and precedents which it can bring to bear on a particular contemporary situation. It is a filter (albeit through a particular cultural/religious lens) that can render a decision without personal concerns like a concern for reelection.

I think the future holds amazing possibilities if we use them to make us better, more ethical human beings.

Mushroom Barley Soup with Ten Minutes Work – Instant Pot!

This is a great soup, my comfort food — a meal in itself for a wintry evening. It took me ten minutes of prep time to load it into my Instant Pot, was cooked under pressure for 20 minutes while I put my feet up — and soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 TB extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 Spanish onion, petite diced
  • 2 large carrots, sliced on the bias
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced
  • 4 medium to large plum tomatoes, petite diced (or a 19 oz. can)
  • 1/2 lb. pearl barley
  • 1 lb. baby belle mushrooms, quartered (this time I used one very large Portobello mushroom
  • 2 cups chopped greens (kale/spinach/chard, any or all)
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. hot paprika
These were my raw ingredients for the Mushroom Barley Soup I made in my Instant Pot.

Instructions

  1. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the Instant Pot.
  2. Petite dice or chop the onion and add to the Instant Pot. Turn on IP to Saute for 5-10 minutes while you prep the remaining veggies.
  3. Slice the carrots on the bias and add to the onions in the IP while continuing the Saute.
  4. Slice the celery and add to the IP while continuing the Saute.
  5. If the veggies are soft or you’ve completed 10 minutes of Saute time, Cancel.
  6. Add all remaining ingredients: the petite diced tomatoes (I usually use fresh but was lazy this time), the 6 cups of water, the cut-up mushrooms, chopped greens, barley, water and seasonings. Stir.
  7. Close the lid on the IP and close the vent. Set to Pressure for 20 minutes. Close the vent.
  8. When the 20 minutes is complete, open the steam release until you can open the lid, about 10 minutes, then remove the lid, check seasonings and serve. Mmmm…mmm…good.

Torah Ecology: Vaera (Ex. 6:2 – 9:35) and Bo (Ex. 10:1 – 13:16)

I began my Torah Ecology project with this pair of Torah portions a year ago shortly after and because of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I mention that because today is one day after Trump once again showed us his deformed values in a particularly vulgar way with his comments about Nigeria and Haiti.

In my opinion, this pair of portions speaks directly to the Sitz im Leben in which we find ourselves in the United States today, inching toward destruction of the planet, of ourselves as a nation, of our neighbors and of other creatures who share the planet with us. The root of that destruction is our own failure to create a just and compassionate society, and for me, this president, while not wholly responsible for that failure, symbolizes it.

My project focuses on relationships — between ha-Aretz (the land), ha-Shamayim (the heavens) and ha-Yamim (the seas), that is, the environment, and all that lives in the environment. It also deals with relationships between human beings,  bein Adam l’havero — and with how those relationships impact both the environment and other life in it.

In a sense, in the biblical story, these earthly relationships come to take precedence over the connection bein Adam la-Makom (between human beings and G-d) — if only because failed relationships within creation indicate a failed relationship with Transcendence.

The biblical story looks toward the creation of a just and compassionate society. To the extent that is not effected, rain will not fall, and crops will not grow. Ultimately the land will “vomit out” its inhabitants. Other life on the planet succeeds and fails as human beings succeed and fail, and success and failure is measured by the extent to which human societies establish justice and are compassionate toward their most vulnerable.

The Torah develops the theme of the intimate relationship between how human beings act in the world and with each other in society and how those relationships impact the environment and the animal world. It explores these relationships with a repeating motif of creation, destruction/rollbacks of creation, new creation.  Human beings, according to the biblical text, have always had the ability to create a fertile, beautiful world with enough for all — or to bring about a catastrophic destruction to the society filled with violence and corruption. The destruction drags all with it, the innocent, including the animals, and the righteous. The theme of creation, destruction/rollbacks of creation, new creation repeats throughout the biblical text.

This pair of Torah portions captures that motif in the Ten Plagues, which stretch across two portions, Vaera and Bo. I engaged in an initial probe into the structure and the meaning of these portions when I worked them through last year. I made progress but wasn’t fully satisfied. I made more progress this year but am still not fully satisfied. I did add some thoughts, though, after I tested out different structuring mechanisms and focused more closely on what I’m calling the “Animals’ Story.”

Because there are so many references to animals in the course of the 10 Plagues story, I won’t recount them here. I charted them for my own reference while I continue to consider the details of my chart. Here’s an abridged version below. In Part II of this post, “The Animals’ Story,” I’ll list any additional animal references in Bo that follow the 10 Plagues account.

PROLOGUE (Ex 7:1-13) snake

PLAGUES

  1. (Ex 7:14-24) blood pollutes rivers, fish die
  2. (Ex 7:25-8:11) – frogs pollute land until karet, cut off from the land
  3. (Ex 8:12-15) – dust of earth turns to lice; affects “man and beast”
  4. (Ex 8:16-28) – insect swarms ruin the land; affect people
  5. (Ex 9:1-7) – pestilence kills domesticated animals
  6. (Ex 9:8-12) – soot from kiln becomes dust, causes boils; affects “man and beast”
  7. (Ex 9:13-35) – Hail destroys land, “man and beast” die, herbs  of field, trees killed
  8. (Ex 10:1-20) – Locusts kill every remaining green thing, herbs, fruit of trees, trees; cannot see the land 
  9. (Ex 10:21-29) – Darkness so deep it can be touched; one person can’t see another next to him for three days; when Pharaoh prevaricates, Moses says “not one hoof” will remain behind
  10. (Ex 11:1-10, 12:29-42) – Death of firstborn of Egyptians, specifically includes their animals – even the Egyptian gods are destroyed. Blood on doorposts & lintel of Israelite homes protects and preserves life

EPILOGUE (Ex 12:1-28) – Eat unleavened bread for seven days (lest they are karet, cut off from their community)

Here are the things that seem suggestive to me so far:

  • The 10 Plagues segment is filled with allusions to the creation story in Genesis, Chapter 1. Secondarily, it assumes the Flood story of Genesis, Chapters 6-9 with its motif of creation, destruction/rollbacks of creation, new creation from a saving remnant.
  • The Prologue and Epilogue set the creation story backdrop with the reference to the snake at one end and to seven days at the other end.
  • The first plague and the tenth plague bracket the story with references to blood, with the paradoxical dual valence it usually has in the biblical text: it pollutes (the Nile and kills the fish), and it protects and preserves life (when it is spread on the doorposts and lintel of Israelite homes).
  • The 10 Plagues represent a sequential rollback of creation, beginning from the water, moving on to the land, from there to the vegetation and life on the land. The land is hidden from view by the locusts as it was hidden from view by the waters before G-d gathered them into seas. Then people are no longer visible to one another as a primordial darkness settles over them, a darkness so thick they could touch it. The story returns the world of the Egyptians to the tohu va-vohu (darkness and emptiness) of the second verse of Genesis. Finally, the Egyptian future is erased in the death of the firstborn. Even their gods are destroyed in the Epilogue (Ex 12:12).
  • As one cosmos dissolves, one creation rolls back, another is created. As the plagues roll back the world of the Egyptians to a primordial darkness and emptiness, the Israelites emerge in a new creation passing through a seven-day event (parallel to creation), the feast of unleavened bread.

The 10 Plagues is a structured and allusive story, and the  dual-valenced blood framing of the prologue and epilogue points to the structure.

In my last analysis of these portions, I tried dividing the plagues into groups of three, capped with the 10th and final plague. This time the bracket suggested by the blood imagery persuaded me to look for a chiastic structure. I’m not sure that I can demonstrate that — yet. I’m also intrigued with pairs — #2 and #5, #3 and #6, #4 and #7, #5 and #8, #6 and #9. It was the “man and beast” of the third and sixth plagues that raised this possibility for me. The fourth and seventh plagues are also suggestive, with land destroyed in the fourth and everything on it (vegetation, and again, “man and beast”) in the seventh, similar to the creation story in which land is created then filled with vegetation.

Whatever details continue to reveal themselves as I study, the creation, destruction/rollbacks of creation, new creation motif is critical for my own understanding of the text and its application to our time.

The idea that one sphere impacts other spheres so catastrophically resonates with me, the idea that an absence of justice and compassion in human society creates deformities in the environment and ultimately brings destruction to all living creatures describes what I see today. This interpretation allows me to identify with another time and another culture, giving me a glimpse of the universality of human experience, of the interconnectedness of all being and of the imperative for justice in all our interconnected relationships.

THE ANIMALS’ STORY

In the course of the 10 Plagues, the human story is linked most closely to the land animals’ story. Whereas water creatures like fish and frogs pollute the land after their environment is disrupted, and insects and locusts and lice attack “both man and beast,” the livestock (behemah, beast) don’t turn on their human masters (ish, man), nor do the human masters do any damage to their livestock unless disbelief causes them (the Egyptians) not to protect their animals when they are warned. In fact, the land animals suffer with their humans (the Egyptians – Ex. 12:29) and are saved with their humans (the Israelites – Ex. 12:32, 38). While they may no longer have a “seat at the spiritual table,” they are, at least, in the room.

This special connection between human beings and other land animals is consistent with the rest of the biblical presentation. In Gen. 1:29, we read: “29 And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food…30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.'” Beasts of the earth are second to humans in the list of those who receive the vegan dietary prescription. Fish are missing. Humans converse with the snake in the Garden, not with fowl of the air or creeping things. When the whale swallows Jonah, the fish and the human don’t have a conversation.

Humans and land animals intimately share a habitat and a spiritual destiny.

There are only three remaining animal references in the Vaera-Bo portions, in Ex 12:43-13:16. The first two relate to the Law of the Passover offering:

Ex. 13:1 – “The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, ‘Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.'”

Ex. 13:12-13 “…you shall set apart for the Lord every first issue of the womb; every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the Lord’s. But every firstling ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born male among your children.”

Ex. 13:15 -“When, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons.'”

We see two themes of relationship in these verses: the intimate connection between human beings and other land animals, the way they share both habitat and spiritual destiny, and the priority of human beings in the economy of creation that exacts a price for life. An animal forfeits its life for the sake of human beings. This, too, like the creation-destruction/rollback of creation/new creation motif is a universal experience with which we can all connect. Animals dying so humans can live returns me to the Starting Thought of my blog:

“This thought occurs to me about meals: as we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life.  How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.

“As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich.  The great gift we have as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving, in our own lives.  The challenge is to remain fully aware, making conscious choices on each step of our journey.”

I’m big on Dal Makhani lately. Just making another batch in my Instant Pot.

DAL MAKHANI

Ingredients
(Serves 3-4 unless you have a big appetite like I do!)

  • Urad dal (Whole black lentils), 1/2 cup
  • Dark red kidney beans, dry, 2 TB rounded
  • Spanish onion, 1 large, finely chopped
  • Ginger root, 1 TB, peeled and finely minced
  • Garlic, 1 clove, peeled and finely minced
  • Plum tomatoes, 3
  • Green chilies, 1-2 finely minced (Serrano is a good one) – I just used 1/2 of one chili
  • Turmeric, 1/4 tsp.
  • Cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp.
  • Chili powder, 1 tsp.
  • Coriander, 2 tsp.
  • Garam masala, 1/2 tsp.
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1 – 2 TB
  • Cream (I used coconut milk for my vegan version), 1/2 cup
  • Salt, 3/4-1 tsp). (to taste)
  • Cilantro, a few leaves chopped for garnish

Directions

  1. Add the olive oil and cumin seeds to the Instant Pot and Saute until the seeds crackle. Cancel the IP while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
  2. Mince the garlic, peeled ginger root and green chili (I just used about 1/2 of one chili. I have a lot of spice sensitive people in the house). Add to the IP.
  3. Finely chop the onion and add to the IP. Turn on Saute again, and cook until soft. Cancel the IP.
  4. Run the cut-up tomatoes through a Vitamix or blender.  Add water to 3 cups. Add to IP along with remaining seasonings except garam masala.
  5. Add the dried black lentils and dried kidney beans.
  6. Close the lid of the IP and close the vent. Turn the IP on at High Pressure for 40 minutes. If you like the black lentils (Urad Dal) to retain their shape better, just add the kidney beans, set the pressure at 20 minutes, do a quick release, add the black lentils, stir, close lid and vent and cook at high pressure for the remaining 20 minutes.
  7. When done, allow the pressure to release naturally for 10-15 minutes. If the pressure isn’t yet fully released, do a quick release and remove the lid.
  8. Add the garam masala and let it blend for a few moments.
  9. Add a vegan milk. I used coconut milk. Pea protein milk would also work.
  10. Remove from the IP, and garnish with cilantro.

I enjoy the Dal these days with a medley of Rice and Ancient Grains from Food with Purpose that I get at Costco. It has a great texture and nice, nutty flavor and takes about 10 minutes to cook in the IP.

Torah Ecology: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)

This week’s portion begins with a genealogy of sorts, the sons of Israel (Jacob) in Egypt — 11 who came to Egypt with Jacob from the land of Canaan and Joseph who was already there. The real purpose of this brief introduction, though, is to state the number of their tiny community at 70 persons. Then Joseph, all his brothers, and that whole generation died. Without further elaboration of that event, the text goes on to emphasize how prolific the Israelites were:

”But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:7).

This great population explosion among the Israelites, who began with 70 individuals, seems to be the theme in the first chapter of Exodus. From Pharaoh’s perspective, they swarm across the landscape, unstoppable and threatening:

”And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…’” (Ex. 1:9-10)

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.” (Ex. 1:12)

“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.’ And G-d dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly.” (Ex. 19-20)

The language of this population explosion connects to the Flood story of Genesis: “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein.” (Gen. 9:7) Chapter 2 of Exodus makes the connection more explicit when Moses’ mother builds a תֵּבָה (tevah – ark) for her baby to save him from Pharaoh’s death decree. This word used for the wicker basket she prepares occurs in only one other place in Hebrew scripture, and that is in the Flood story, the ark that saves Noah, his family and the animals from the flood waters that destroy every other living thing. As in the Flood story, the ark in the second chapter of Exodus signals not only a saving remnant but a new creation after water and darkness engulf the surrounding world.

If Ex. 1:1-2:7 signals one set of mythic themes through its connection to creation, destruction and recreation of Gen. 1-3 and 7-9, Ex. 2:11 begins to tell the story of a second set of themes that work in connection with the powerful imagery of the first set: justice and freedom.

When the adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he strikes him down, killing him (Ex. 2:11-12). Similarly he chastises his fellow Israelites in the following verse: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Ex. 2:13) Despite the fact that he killed a man, Moses goes unpunished, escaping to the desert. We sense that the only reason there might have been any accountability is because the man Moses killed was Egyptian, and it is this that angered Pharaoh enough to seek to kill Moses. A fellow Hebrew abusing another Hebrew in the way the Hebrews are regularly abused by the Egyptians also escapes justice since Moses, the only person who might call him to account, is himself compromised. Still, both incidents point to the unjust conditions associated with Israelite bondage.

Outside of Egypt, Moses compassion for the vulnerable shows as he helps the daughters of Jethro water their flocks. (Ex. 2:16-19). Within Egypt, only G-d can respond: the Israelites groan under their bondage and cry out… “and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them.” (Ex. 2:23-25). The repetitive references to G-d’s concern for the vulnerable, like the repetitive references to population growth among the Israelites, serve to underscore the theme. G-d hears, remembers, looks upon, and takes notice…then acts to set the people free.

In this way, the great themes of Exodus are set out for us: creation and fertility, rollback of creation in the face of injustice and bondage, new creation. These themes with variations repeat throughout Hebrew scripture with references to the archetypes and imagery of Genesis. In the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites already fulfill the commandment to multiply and fill the earth, are already on the path to a new creation. The Egyptian society around them is on its path toward being swallowed up into a pre-creation void because of its injustice.

One more theme enters the narrative in Exodus, the covenant relationship which is the foundation of the emerging new creation, the Israelite nation, bound together with a covenant agreement they will make at Mt. Sinai. Nahum Sarna explains (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 25) the literary structure that presents this theme as a chiasm linking circumcision and Passover. This theme is also present in the Book of Joshua:

  • A1 – First-born (Ex 4:22-23)
  • B1 – Circumcision (4:24-26)
  • B2 – Circumcision (12:43-49)
  • A2 – First-born (13:1, 11-15)

Sarna says, “…there is…a functional correspondence between the blood of circumcision and the visible sign of the blood on the paschal sacrifice. In both instances, evil is averted on account of it (Ex. 4:26; 12:7, 13, 22-23).”

Sarna also points to rabbinic exegesis of Ezekiel 16:6: “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ Yea, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’” The rabbis understood this to mean “‘survive through your blood’; that is, the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of two mitzvot—that of circumcision and that of paschal sacrifice.”

Having set the themes for the great drama to follow, we move on to the preliminaries for the 10 plagues, which unfold in the next two portions, Vaera and Bo.

THE ANIMALS’ STORY

The animals in this portion show up in an inverse relationship to the fecundity of the Israelites in Egypt.  The animals are virtually absent from the portion. In fact, they are absent in Egypt:

Ex. 2:16 – “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.”

Ex. 2:19 – “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

Ex. 3:1 – “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d.”

There is only one other reference to animals, an oblique one — actually a reference to sacrifice, presumably an animal sacrifice:

Ex. 3:18 – “The Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our G-d.”

What is noteworthy in the animals’ story in this portion is that not only do they have no independent existence beyond human needs,  they are not even part of the Hebrews’ environment in Egypt. There are no domesticated animals — nor any (free) beasts of the field. All animal references are associated with Moses’ time in Midian and illustrate his characteristics and life there. Even the ruse of the sacrifice refers to the wilderness.

As my focus shifted in these past weeks to the sub-story of the animals in the Torah, I have been fascinated with the way their representation parallels the “main” story. The Hebrews, stripped of their great wealth, their flocks and herds, toil unnoticed (until they cry out and G-d notices them) as slaves to Pharaoh. Similarly, the hidden animals presumably toil on behalf of the crown. Isolated from each other in their slavery, Hebrews and animals can have no relationship. Only in freedom, in Midian, do animals reappear in the story generating the possibility of human/animal relationship.

This absence of the animals in the Egypt narrative suggests a couple of things to me: that only in freedom can there be relationship, and only in freedom can one be held accountable for the conduct of a relationship. The Hebrews, in bondage, can deal only with their own survival. They cannot relate to Transcendence (the sacrifice must be in the wilderness) or to the rest of creation including their environment or other animals. Moses, who killed a man in Egypt and chastises another, cares for seven vulnerable young women in Midian, serves as shepherd to his father-in-law’s flock and stops to gaze in wonder at a bush aflame beneath Horeb, the mountain of G-d.

Torah Ecology: Vayehi (Gen. 47:28 – 50:24)

Genesis ends with hints and an increasing sense of foreboding about the future of Joseph’s family in Egypt. The portion is sandwiched between two references to G-d as a shepherd, parallel to the role of the Israelites with their flocks.

The references to animals in this portion follow:

  1. Gen. 48:15 – In the preamble to his blessing, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”
  2. Gen. 49:6 – With reference to Simeon and Levi, “For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.”
  3. Gen. 49:9 – “Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, ave y ou grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts – who dare rouse him?”
  4. Gen. 49:11 – Still referring to Judah, “He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine…”
  5. Gen. 49:14 – Issachar is a strong-bonded ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds…”
  6. Gen. 49:17 – “Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.”
  7. Gen. 49:21 – “Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.”
  8. Gen. 49:22 – “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailted him; They shot at him and harried him…
  9. Gen. 49:24 – “And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”
  10. Gen. 49:27 – “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
  11. Gen. 50:8 – “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went upo with him; it was a very large group.”

As Jacob approaches the end of his life, the last 17 years in Egypt, he summons Joseph and asks for Joseph’s promise to return his bones to the burial place of his fathers in the land of Canaan. Jacob continues with blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, giving the primary blessing to the younger, Ephraim. In Gen. 48:15, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”

In the course of Jacob’s testament, as he blesses his sons in Gen. 49:23-24, Jacob speaks of Joseph saying, “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him. Yet his bow stayed taut, And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”

The caring, nurturing, constant, protective shepherd imagery is suggestive in two directions, describing G-d’s relationship with G-d’s people and the Israelites’ relationship with their animals. This is the constant care and protection that sustained Jacob through a turbulent life filled with loss, that sustained Joseph through a painful youth, and that will sustain the Israelites through their trials in Egypt. It is the care and protection a shepherd provides to flocks as they travel in search of pasture. The image of G-d’s relationship to G-d’s children parallels the shepherd’s relationship to a flock.

Eight of 12 brothers are described in terms of animals: Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:6), Judah (Gen. 49:9), Issachar (Gen. 49:14), Dan (Gen. 49:17), Naphtali (Gen. 49:21), Joseph (Gen. 49:22-24) and Benjamin. Four brothers are not: Reuben, Zebulun, Gad and Asher.

Noteworthy among those described in terms of animals are Simeon and Levi. Like Reuben, Simeon and Levi are excoriated in Jacob’s blessing: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen.” They are probably paired because of their joint attack (as the brothers of Dinah) on the city of Shechem. They are singled out for their violence, ruthlessness and cruelty, and Jacob dissociates himself from them.  Now the three eldest sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, are disqualified from assuming Jacob’s leadership role.

What is powerful in this section of the testament, though, is the way cruelty and barbarism toward other people is parallel to cruelty and barbarism toward animals, whom Simeon and Levi, the brothers of needlessly “maim” as a sign of their victory. In the parallelism of the poetry, both targets of violence are equally inexcusable.

Finally, we become increasingly aware through the last chapter of Genesis of a deteriorating situation in Egypt. As important as Joseph as been to the Pharaoh, as high in the administrative hierarchy as he has been, when his father dies and Joseph wants permission to carry his bones to the burial site of Jacob’s fathers in Canaan, Joseph doesn’t go directly to Pharaoh but instead speaks to “Pharaoh’s court.”

Despite the fact that he assures Pharaoh he will return (was there a question?), Pharaoh sends all his officials with Joseph and his family, a “very larger troop” including horsemen. Did this signify that Pharaoh didn’t trust Joseph when he said he would return?

If there is any doubt about the answer to that question, the latter part of the verse seems to resolve it: “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went up with him; it was a very large group.”

Perhaps the children, flocks and herds were insurance. And once again, human life parallels animal life: even if the Israelites real intention was to escape, they will return for their flocks and herds as much as for their children.

And now on to Exodus and a “new king who did not know Joseph.”