What would you do?

What would you do if you were making breakfast and looked up and saw this little face peering at you over the pass-through?

What would you do if you were making breakfast and looked up and saw this little face peering at you over the pass-through? And yes, note the expectant little paw placed just so off to the side. Partly he wanted to see what I was doing…but mostly he wanted a treat for no particular reason. Of course I gave it to him.

A Protein Smoothie – A Delicious Dietary Solution

A Protein Smoothie is a great solution to a couple of dietary issues we have in our home. We get a strong added boost of calcium and protein.

A Protein Smoothie is a great solution to a couple of dietary issues we have in our home. I’m not sure if it’s because we don’t absorb nutrients as effectively as older adults or if it’s just gender differences. There are certain nutrients I’ve never had difficulty getting plenty of, but my husband, Andy does. Protein is one. And of course, men need more than women.

Anyway, I started making a Protein Smoothie every day using Vega Plant-Based Protein and Greens, Chocolate. And I can never just leave something l like that alone. I take it as an opportunity to get more fresh veggies into us in a regular way. Here’s what I put together for us pretty much every day for lunch:

And that’s not to mention that we both have some bone density issues for which we walk like crazy, do floor exercises, and eat lots of greens. Still, we find we need a little help on calcium.

A Daily Protein Smoothie

Ingredients

  • Oat Milk, 2 cups
  • Vega Plant-Based Protein and Greens, Chocolate, 2 scoops
  • Ice cubes, 2-1/2 cups
  • Dark Cherries, frozen, unsweetened, 1/2 cup
  • White Cabbage, 1/2 cup chunked
  • Red Cabbage, 1/2 cup chunked
  • Carrot, one large, cut in pieces
  • Celery, two stalks, cut in pieces
  • Beet, small-medium, cut in pieces

Process

Add all ingredients in that order to a VitaMix or other blender. Start slowly, and work up speed. Blend for 2 minutes or until very smooth. It should make two 2-1/2 cup servings, about 20 oz. each.

By the time we finish lunch, between our Power Oatmeal and our Protein Smoothie, we’ve had a whollop of nutrition for the day. We have more of a variety for dinner. I’m not a big believer in supplements. I like to get our nutrients from food — but we do take one Centrum Silver each day as an insurance policy.

Ad me’ah v’esrim, (until 120) as some say.

Power Oatmeal — Breakfast of Champions

Power Oatmeal ready to enjoy for our first meal of the day.

Power Oatmeal is a work in progress. It contributes significantly to our daily nutrition, so I continue to adjust it.

We used to enjoy “greenies” every day for breakfast, smoothies packed with greens, nuts, seeds, other veggies, and berries. Sometimes a banana or fruit in season. We enjoyed the greenies a lot, and they provided good nutrition, but one day we decided we wanted something chewier — and because it was cold outside, something warm. I thought maybe oatmeal would work for us.

Neither my husband, Andy, nor I was very enthusiastic about oatmeal, but I was sure I could make it so that we’d enjoy it. I used to make it regularly for my kids when they were small. I started off with steel-cut (Irish) oatmeal and added raisins, butter, brown sugar, some nuts, and a little fruit. That was a hit with them, but sugar and butter have not been part of my household menu for oh…at least twenty-five or thirty years.

Still, I wanted Andy to like it, and he does love his sweets, so I relented and threw some dark chocolate chips into the cooked oatmeal along with the other ingredients. Those other ingredients included raisins, nuts, seeds, and…here’s the first odd thing, extra virgin olive oil. I thought it would add the richness and satisfaction butter used to provide. Also, I always liked how Middle Easterners drizzle olive oil over everything, the added flavor and richness that comes from it. So…olive oil. Topped it all off with some fresh fruit, mostly berries, and there we had it. Version I.

Power Oatmeal Version II

After a few weeks, Andy said he liked the oatmeal and didn’t need the chips — it was sweet enough. Yay! So the chips went away. Next I turned my attention to calcium, which we both need. I tallied up what we get from our daily vitamin and daily diet and found it fell short. I doubled the amount of chia, hemp, and flax seeds and added calcium-rich sesame seeds. But we were still short.

There was one other problem. Andy sometimes has a hard time chewing some of those good greens, and when we quit the greenies (temporarily, but that’s another story), we weren’t getting enough of those into our day. So I had a thought: what if I cooked the greens into the oatmeal? With all the other flavors, I had a feeling it would be just fine. And if I chose my greens well, along with all that great nutrition, there would be a healthy dose of calcium. Collards worked well for that.

If you take a look at the current Nutrition Facts, you’ll see that the numbers show that this oatmeal dish gives us 27+ gm of protein, a good bit of iron, and enough calcium along with our daily vitamin and other foods for us to satisfy our daily requirement.

Power Oatmeal – The Recipe

And now here’s what I make every morning. It’s not for someone on a tight morning schedule — it takes me half an hour to make if I really pump and half an hour to eat. But we’re retired!

It may sound weird. But it’s good and a great nourishing (and filling) breakfast for us seniors! We don’t feel like eating again until 2:30 or so in the afternoon.

Ingredients

  • Steel Cut Oats (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
  • Raisins, 1/2 cup
  • Salt, 1/4 tsp
  • Collards, 2 large leaves, finely chopped to make 1-2 cups
  • Chia, 2 TB
  • Hemp, 2 TB
  • Flaxseed, 2 TB
  • Sesame, 2 TB
  • Pears (or peaches or any in-season fruit), 2 cut up
  • Strawberries, 1/2 cup cut up
  • Blueberries, 1 cup
  • Almonds, 24
  • Walnut halves, 16
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 2 TB

Process

  1. Put 2 cups water into a pot with a good-sized pinch of salt and the raisins. Bring to a boil.
  2. While the water is heating, chop the collards and add them to the pot.
  3. When the water comes back to a boil boil, add 1/2 cup steel-cut oats. Turn heat to simmer, put lid on pot, and cook for ten minutes.
  4. While the oatmeal, collards, and raisins are cooking, cut up the fruit, chop the nuts, and grind the seeds.
  5. When the oatmeal is finished cooking (10 minutes simmering after a boil), stir in the ground seeds.
  6. Empty the oatmeal/collards/raisins and seed mixture into two large bowls.
  7. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil generously over each dish of oatmeal.
  8. Add to the oatmeal with pears or peaches or any other in-season fruit — and fresh or frozen berries and blueberries.
  9. Top each bowl with chopped or ground nuts, depending on how much crunch you want.
  10. You may need to heat each bowl for a minute or two in the microwave after topping the hot oatmeal with cold and room temperature ingredients.
Power Oatmeal - first layer with collards.
Power Oatmeal – first layer with collards.
Power Oatmeal - second layer, here pears. I sometimes use peaches, sometimes mangos. Whatever is available.
Power Oatmeal – second layer, here pears. I sometimes use peaches, sometimes mangos. Whatever is available.

Now about that 2:30 pm meal…

Back to smoothies. We found that we were light on protein and needed a boost, something we could count on getting every day. I looked around for a vegan protein powder and found a delicious one, Vega Protein and Greens. 20+ grams of protein in each scoop. Perfect! Mixed with one cup each of oat milk, the “shake” gives us another 400 grams of calcium as well. And since I’m always looking for ways to boost our veggie nutrition, I of course started adding a few veggies, turning it into a smoothie — celery, carrot, beet, white cabbage and red cabbage.

This leaves me just one meal a day to think about and do something a little creative, at least until we get underway with our journeys around the country in our van. I decided not to take my Vitamix, so we’ll just enjoy a protein shake without the veggies, frothed with my new hand blender. I’ll need to figure out a delicious way to keep getting those additional veggies each day tho. Not sure that hand blender will do it.

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? Why did this story unfold in a place of hardship and terror for the Israelites?

And why did the journey extend 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). Remember, there were kids on the journey and sheep. People needed time to set up and take down camps and find and prepare food. Oh, and 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 “Why was it necessary to the story that the march from slavery to freedom happen in a brutal wilderness?” In these vast numbers? Why did a harsh desert become the place where the Israelites developed a relationship with G-d?

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. It’s 2.4 million people, a “mixed multitude” or ragtag group (וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם), many vulnerable. They travel through dry, rocky, unforgiving terrain where they were as likely to be prey as predators. The Golden Calf episode fully reveals their state of existential terror as they experience abandonment in a 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 Wilderness of Sinai is a harsh environment. It is not like the Garden of Eden, a place of compassionate abundance. The wilderness is also a long way from the place in which most of us live today. Not many of us have had to find a way to survive in a desert wilderness. We haven’t had to survive in a place where food and water and the building blocks of shelter are scarce. We shop at grocery stores rather than compete for scarce resources. Imagine the intense competition for basic resources with 2.4 million people in a desert trying to stay alive.

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. It brings 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.