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: Why I Don’t Like To Call It (Written) Law

Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is most often translated “law.” Strong’s points out that the word “derives from yarah - view larger image yârâh (Strong’s #3384) meaning ‘to shoot out the hand as pointing, to show, indicate’, ‘to teach, instruct’, ‘to lay foundations’, ‘to sprinkle, to water’, ‘to shoot, as an arrow’.” elaborates on this theme of teaching or instruction.

I like referring to the Torah as “teaching” because ethical legislation is only one of the teaching methods of the Torah, which also uses myth or storytelling to instruct. Both methods serve to shape human beings. Another teaching method in the Torah is ritual practice, which I like to call “body language.” The ways and places we use our bodies and connect with food and the environment teach something about a relationship with transcendence.

The Torah teaches at an embodied level, but it also teaches at an abstract level. With ritual, the Torah teaches through the body, but one can even make the argument that G-d has a body from some parts of the biblical text. Other sections, in particular Deuteronomy, state over and over again that G-d has no body.

It is meaningful for me that the Torah teaches in so many ways. Its versatility of methodology reminds me of a D’var Torah I once heard about Ishmael in the desert, when G-d speaks to him “ba-asher hu sham,” where he is (Genesis 21:17). The D’var Torah likened G-d to a skillful teacher, who instructs each with different methods, reaching each where he or she is.  Ethical legislation is only one of those methods.

A Goat For Azazel? Really?

I’m teaching a short four session class on Bible. So far my focus has been on the first chapters of Genesis and the middle section of Leviticus, especially chapter 16, the Yom Kippur ritual. In our last week, we will examine the 10 Things or Words, better known as the 10 Commandments. I also hope to touch on the extraordinarily beautiful chapter 25 in Leviticus, about a Shabbaton for the land and the Jubilee Year.

Any text has something to communicate. Some texts do a better job of that than others. I think the first five books of the Bible do a consummate job, but it’s difficult for us to receive the communication, as relevant as it may be for us today, because of its mode of presentation in myth, ritual practices and legal codes and because of our American cultural isolation from the life experience that inspires this text. If we decode those forms, though, and if we can find ways to identify with the experience of destruction of a nation and exile, we find pervasive and powerful messages for our times.

For many of us, certainly the secularists among us, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, are difficult to understand in meaningful ways. Myth is just…well, myth. The rituals of Leviticus, purifications from childbirth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy, are alienating. Even the legal codes, with the exception of soaring passages here and there, can be somewhat opaque. What significance can all the details related to a goring ox have for contemporary urban dwellers so far from that world?

Beyond that, many of us live in an insular situation. Poverty, systemic discrimination, bloodshed (even for our own food), brutality, the instability and terror of living in a war zone…these are all things that if they are in our consciousness at all are likely at its periphery. It requires significant effort to identify with others’ experience so different from our own. It is difficult to understand the profound ideas of the biblical text and its pervasive concern with and response to bloodshed and injustice when we are so insulated from even the normal processes of life and death in our daily lives.


So how do we begin to examine this text and try to understand it? One way is to explore how these three forms, myth, ritual practice and moral legislation, speak. The tools of literary analysis, using the evidence of the text itself, offer a path into the material.

Using this approach, we discover that the first chapters of Genesis and the book of Leviticus make the same set of statements in different ways: Genesis relates a theology and an ontology and outlines a paradox at the root of human existence through story. The rituals of the Purity Code and the ethical legislation in the Holiness Code convey the same themes.

In the narrowest terms, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil points to the Holiness Code, with its emphasis on ethical relations between the Israelites, their neighbors and their world, and the Tree of Life points to the Purity Code, with its emphasis on birth and death, sexuality and procreation, and leprosy or organic decay.

The first theme is about how creation reflects and is like its creator in that it is pervaded by ethical consciousness. The second half of Leviticus focuses on the specifics of how the Israelites are to express that in their local community. The second theme is about how creation is different from its creator.  Accordingly the first half of Leviticus focuses on how G-d can live among the Israelites post-Garden given that profound difference.

The two goats in the Day of Atonement ritual, the goat for the Lord and the goat for Azazel, remove both ethical sins, sins against one’s neighbor, and impurities that stand between the Israelites and their G-d. The dual action reestablishes a coextensive relationship between G-d, creation and human beings in this local community. It recreates the Garden in this temporal space.

When we use the text itself, its intra-textual allusions, its internal structures, its Hebrew vocabulary, its repetitions — and its repetitions with changes, we can see that. We also might discover it says some things that surprise some of us, upending our assumptions.


Here are samples of statements the text makes that we discover using literary tools:

  • In the Israelite cosmos, creation is ordered and coextensive with transcendence, and an ethical consciousness pervades it all.
  • Male and female are created simultaneously, together in the image of G-d.
  • G-d and human beings are like each other in some ways and in other ways profoundly different. They share with G-d and the rest of creation ethical consciousness and responsibility. The relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors, even the rest of creation, is governed by ethics.
  • Human beings, like the rest of creation, are different from G-d in that they are bound by the laws of nature: birth, death, sexuality  and procreation, and disease or organic decay. In addition, creation is differentiated. G-d is a unified consciousness. This should be a cause of some humility. Certainly it is a cause for reflection on how G-d can be in creation, living among a group of people, engaged in an intimate relationship. The relationship between G-d and G-d’s people is governed by ritual.
  • There is more than one way to think about the meaning of the event in the Garden, the “meal in the Garden” when we look at multiple meanings and associations to the word, arum (usually translated naked). What if we read that, “prudent,” as it is in Job? Human beings eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil bringing consequences for all of creation. Their eyes are opened, and they realize the enormity of their impulsive action. The Torah, then, urges “prudent” action, conscious choices in full consideration of consequences and implication.
  • Ethical intelligence pervades everything, transcendence, all of creation, the animal world, and human life. Whether conscious, instinctive or impulsive, action in one realm impacts all realms.
  • A recurring motif of creation and rollbacks of creation tells us that widespread or communal failures to exercise ethical consciousness return us to a dark, empty, barren pre-creation state. We see this motif in the Flood story of Genesis 6-8, and we see it in the 10 Plagues of Exodus 7-13 as well as in other sections of the Torah and in the books of the Prophets.  This idea has enormous meaning for us today in relation to problems we face in human, environmental, animal and food justice.
  • Bloodshed and violence are fundamental and endemic problems in our world. In the biblical world, this translates to a guide to establishing justice and compassion within a local community.
  • The structure of government in local communities is not at issue: what is at issue is the extent to which a society extends holiness by establishing justice and exercising effective compassion.


The first chapters of Genesis (myth) present a vision of an ideal world, a world in harmony and without bloodshed and violence. These chapters make a set of important statements about the nature of transcendence and creation and our role in creation.

Then we get another picture, a picture of the world as it was then and remains today — but we get more than a realistic graphic. We get a guide for living in that world, extending the boundaries of holiness, mediated through the local communal experience and practices of one group, a group tasked with recreating the Garden in its midst. The Purity and Holiness Codes of Leviticus make the same statements as the myths of Genesis, describing how to create that Garden in the real world through the ritual practices and ethical legislation that teaches and shapes a community.

The 10 Commandments set up an overarching framework for relationships, G-d, all of humanity and creation, then focus in on a local community of “neighbors.” The communal mission is to create a Garden in their midst, where people live in correct relationship to their world and their neighbors and G-d dwells among the people. Following the teachings within this framework leads to “life.” Abandoning these teachings leads to pre-creation darkness, emptiness and barrenness.


My own understanding of the text was greatly assisted by a teacher who reminded me that we always have to ask what questions a text comes to answer?  And that is the rare moment when I turn to source criticism for help in my understanding.

Many scholars think the final redaction of the Torah came in the mid 5th century b.c.e. At that time, Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor, returned to the land of Israel from Babylonian exile to meld returnees and some who never left into a cohesive community. Life in Israel was devastated 140 years before in 586 b.c.e. when the nation and its center, the Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed. After much bloodshed and many deaths, the people were sent into exile. When a small part of their descendants returned, they came to an impoverished land and faced an almost insurmountable task of rebuilding a nation in the midst of hardship and intra-communal bickering. While those who remained and those who returned had not personally witnessed the devastation, it was surely emblazoned on their consciousness, its effects enduring.

We would, perhaps, better understand those difficult times today if we lived in Syria or any of the other deeply troubled, war-torn, suffering or poverty-stricken corners of the world. We would understand how impulsive actions, envy, greed, the arrogance of power and the failure to extend justice in the world result in the destruction of civilizations and impoverishment of the planet. We would understand the experience of a rollback of creation and our responsibility in it. And we would understand the universality of human experience and how this text speaks directly to it.

In my imagination, the returning community  would have confronted these questions: Why did this happen to us, and how can we avoid it happening again? Where is G-d, and how can G-d walk again in our midst? And how can we forge ourselves into a unified community to move forward in this new environment? The answers to the first two questions shape the answer to the third.

And it is at this point that I end the class, hoping that I have opened some possibilities for peering into difficult material and considering what it might be trying to say, what meaning it might have in our time:

  • What is the human relationship with transcendence, and what implications does that have for our lives in this world?
  • What does it mean that all of creation is coextensive with transcendence although profoundly different from G-d?
  • That ethical consciousness pervades everything that is?
  • That human beings, male and female together, are “in the image” of G-d?
  • That impulsivity and imprudence have consequences?
  • What are the fundamental challenges in creation, and how do we respond to them?
  • What is the relationship between G-d and human beings, between human beings and the rest of their world?
  • What is the spiritual and ethical significance of being embodied?
  • How can we live in community? What is the relationship between the community and the individual?
  • Should politics be local?
  • What is our task as human beings on this planet?

The demand I hear most clearly coming from this text is the one for conscious choice. Impulsivity brought catastrophe to creation. When Adam and Eve’s eyes opened and they were “prudent,” they realized the grave consequences of their impulsive action. The consequences remain with us according to this story, but that defines purpose, extending holiness, or justice and compassion, the products of ethical consciousness, throughout creation.

Torah Ecology: Behar-Behukotai (Lev. 25:1-27:34)

This portion expresses one of the most soaring, beautiful, inspirational ideas in the entire Torah. I’m just going to free-float with it a little, enjoy the words and the resonances, the lofty ideas and the vision.

The Torah talks about G-d, humanity and creation and the relationship between them. Over and over the Torah portrays the ethical consciousness that pervades everything. In the Garden or beyond its border, activity in each realm affects the rest. In the words of the Tom Dundee song, “It’s all such a delicate balance, takes away just as much as it gives, to live it is real, to love it is to feel, you’re part of what everything is.”

The Torah then narrows the focus to a local community, a group of people entrusted to create the Garden in their midst, a place to till the soil and cultivate just relations between neighbors, a place where there should be no violence or bloodshed.

Then in Leviticus 20:22, we read these words, seemingly harsh, “Ye shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them, that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, vomit you not out.” This elaborates an amazing theme of Torah, though, that all of creation is continuous with transcendence, all is in a “delicate balance,” and human transgression in one part of the environment causes severe consequences throughout. G-d turns G-d’s back, and the land vomits out the offenders.

These words remind us of human independence and responsibility in the fabric of creation and invite reflection today as we face unprecedented migrations and disruptions across the globe, a return of repressive regimes and catastrophic climate changes.

Chapter 25 of Leviticus, the first section of Behar-Behukotai, develops the idea of the Shabbaton and the Jubilee Year, exalted, visionary concepts:

Lev. 25:4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard (וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה: שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר).

Lev. 25:10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family (וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁב).

We could rely on a rationalist interpretation of these words and say these ancients knew about crop rotation and letting the land lie fallow as ways to improve production.  That intention is probably there, but we miss the larger meaning if we stop at that. As G-d and humanity work six days and rest on the seventh, the land works six years and rests in the seventh. The delicate balance between G-d, humanity and creation comes with rest for all, freedom and an opportunity for every part of creation and G-d’s self to lean back and appreciate the result of their work.

This majestic order and rhythm, pervaded by ethical consciousness, finds expression in the 50th year as well, the Jubilee Year, when liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. Seven cycles of seven years plus one year, like the eighth day after a birth or the eighth day after a cycle of purification, and everything returns to its place in the natural order, an order founded on freedom and resulting in a harmonious balance throughout the whole environment of what is. Those who suffered misfortune, were impoverished and had to sell their land or themselves into servitude return to their possession or their families. It is a time for rejoicing, when creation regains its original balance and order, the land no less than its inhabitants.

What an astonishing idea. I have to wonder, if all of creation participated in a Shabbaton, regular times of rest, to appreciate, enjoy and feel gratitude for the fruits of our labors, would the world work differently? If we understood the potential devastation that results from impulsive, thoughtless actions, would we cultivate our capacity for conscious choice? If we lived the ideal of the Jubilee, recognizing that we are all part of the fabric of everything that is, that the natural order of things is founded on freedom and the dignity of G-d, creation and our fellow human beings, accepting with humility and gratitude our place in the fabric of all that is, what would it be like?

Living Life Hands-On

Did you ever think about how disconnected most of us are from the processes that sustain our lives? Food…air…water…clothing…shelter. Those are the things that keep us alive. Without any one of them, we wouldn’t last long, but most of us outsource them all.

We spend most of our lives in homes and offices with artificial air brought to us through heating and cooling systems. Our water comes through a system of reservoirs and pipes and ducts and, we hope, effective filtration plants. Our clothing is made in far-off places, and few of us consider the sources of the fiber that forms fabrics or the dyes, the processes, the people behind the hands involved in the work or the transportation that brings the garment to a local store. And not many of us build our own homes, that’s for sure! What is drywall made of, where does it come from? Insulation, siding, window panes? Before it even gets to the builder, the elements of our homes have passed through many hands and traveled much ground.

How about food? What most of us know is that it comes from boxes and bags we get at the supermarket, sometimes so disconnected from its source that it’s not even food anymore. We don’t know where it grew or how, who nurtured it, who harvested it, their names or what their lives are like. We don’t know the animals behind the flesh pieces wrapped neatly in styrofoam and plastic,  their names, how they lived during their unnaturally short lives, what they experienced and felt. We don’t know how items in the supermarket got from the ground or factory farm to the supermarket or what resources went into making that happen. We have nothing to do with any of it. We often don’t even connect with our food at the very end of the supply chain, in our homes, cooking it.

I sometimes wonder how this disconnect from the basic work of being alive changed our psyches. Surely it did. Surely there is a difference between a person who grows up drinking fresh water from a mountain stream, water they get for themselves by cupping their hands or making an earthen vessel to scoop it in and a person who turns on a tap and has no idea where the water originated or what might have been added to it or removed from it. As the example of Flint, Michigan teaches us, we can’t always trust what comes to us through intermediaries. There has to be a psychological difference between living your life experiencing water as pure and life-giving or experiencing it as a source of distrust and uncertainty.

There has to be a difference between people who sit down together to share a meal they worked hard to bring from the earth and then cook, and grabbing some commercial food product on the fly and eating it in isolation. Even more so as we learn these products we thought were safe and nutritious are causing devastating diseases.

What massive shifts in worldview might we attribute to this change in how we manage our basic necessities?

Many years ago, I discovered something quite by accident: I felt better when I cooked my own food from real, whole plant foods. I felt better yet when I grew the trees and plants, then cooked their produce into something I knew was tasty and nutritious. I don’t just mean physically better, although there was that. But there was a spiritual component. Perhaps it was participating in the cycle of life, being part of something much bigger than myself.

I felt spiritually fulfilled, content, occasionally exhilarated. Grateful. Whole in a way I never felt when I turned on the tap or or picked up one of those styrofoam and plastic wrapped packages in the store.

I wonder, would the world’s great religions with their profound insights ever have emerged if people two, three and four thousand years ago been able to outsource their basic needs? Turn on a tap? Or did it require that different pace, a constant drawing from the sources, to generate the creativity that inspired the Bible and Hinduism?

Since I made my discovery so many years ago, I have always tried to live my life hands-on as much as I can. There was a time I hoped to spend my life on a farm. That time has passed, but I had the good fortune last spring to discover a farmer who moved into the area, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). At first I thought I might just do as most people do, buy a share, receive a 3/4 bushel box of produce each week and experience the changing season through the produce and the foods I would make with it. Then I noticed they had a worker’s share, and I signed on for it. Now I go each week to help with the seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting, washing and packing. It’s hard work, but it fills my soul.

This year I’m back in the fields, but I get to do something else as well: I will put together a weekly addition to Farmer Bob’s newsletter providing an alternative to the “meal kit” craze. How about Meal BOXES!!!??? A week’s worth of nutritious, delicious family meals (and more than likely some to share and some for dried or pickled treats in the off-season) for just $34.50/week ($690 for the season, 20 weeks of delicious, crazy fresh, organic, local produce).

So if planting seeds and pulling weeds isn’t your thing, you can still get in on this amazing experience, get back to the sources, share food with your family and friends and be part of a way of life that inspires appreciation, confidence, fulfillment and hope.  Check out the information about Bob’s Fresh and Local here. There are several pickup sites, so contact Bob through his website if you’re in Geneva, Elgin, Dundee, Cary, Algonquin, Crystal Lake, Woodstock or anywhere in between.

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

Cooking, Pulling Weeds And Resisting

I never thought I’d hear myself say this: Trump gave me a huge gift when he was elected.

It’s hard to imagine myself saying that because my inspiration usually comes from very different kinds of sources. Yet perhaps it’s just the mind- and spirit-numbing nature of Trump’s presidency that compels me to reexamine myself and clarify my course through life.

Like the 2008 recession, Trump’s presidency causes me to take additional steps on my journey toward self-awareness. Taking these steps involves some education and some house-cleaning to bring my values in different segments of my life into alignment. Most importantly I had to recognize both my limitations and my abilities as I figure out how best to respond to an event I experience as nothing less than a cataclysmic step backward in our culture and democracy not to mention our responses to a suffering planet.

I never considered myself a “political” person. In fact, until 2008, I was fairly apathetic for reasons I’ve explored with myself in recent months. Post Jan. 20, I tried to get politically involved in the traditional sense of that word. I attend meetings, I volunteer occasionally, I go on marches. I’ve learned a lot, but one of the things I have learned is that this isn’t the best place for me to contribute passionately and knowledgeably. Of course I’ll still continue to be as involved as I can, but I needed to focus my energies in other directions:

  • I deepened my exploration of veganism through my own cooking and writing.
  • I jumped at the opportunity to create recipes to go with the boxes that come from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Bob’s Fresh and Local.
  • I understand my volunteer work in the farm fields in a different way, as something much deeper and broader than physical and spiritual health.
  • With a fairly extensive background in academics behind me but little involvement for a quarter of a century, I decided to work my way through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I wanted to discover in greater depth what it has to say about human life in relation to the planet and other life on it. My blog posts on this topic, largely notes to myself as research, will become the basis of a book. More importantly, my research is providing me with a strong foundation for steps toward meaningful activism. At the very least, it provides me with information I use in evaluating people and policies.
  • I’m teaching for the first time in many years, which demands from me further clarification of my thinking and message.
  • I decided to engage with my synagogue in ways I haven’t before, to take on a role beyond participating in services and preparing food now and then. While it’s shaky ground for me to take on a role in shaping policy, I hope it will be a growth opportunity I can manage.

I think these steps toward more and deeper engagement in various aspects of my life will begin to converge at some point. As my passions become more focused, a path toward taking on my part, however small, in reshaping our world will become apparent.

My engagement with food and the environment developed over the course of 45 years, not so much through academic or professional expertise but through hands-on involvement. I had the opportunity to create a large organic garden in 1972 following the birth of  my first son, the same year that hippies tore up the turf in Berkeley, California. I think part of their impulse probably matched my own, a reaction against Big Food, Big Ag and Big Brother, who don’t always know best. I felt that packaged foods, pesticides and our alienation from nature were somehow an assault on our physical and spiritual health.

I read as much as I could put my hands on at the time. One little book in particular drove my decision to become vegetarian, a path that has had its zigs and zags. That book was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. Her message still resonates with me today, that there is a social justice connection to what we eat.

Until I worked in the food industry, though, I didn’t make that connection at a gut level. Then one day I was writing a post and came across an article that mentioned the life expectancy is lower in Mississippi than in the rest of the country and related it, at least in part, to food culture — and to the non-availability of truly nutritious food.

As Michael Pollan pointed out, yams in the produce aisle don’t have health claims attached to them since that won’t make money for Big Food, and our government subsidizes things like corn, that produces cheap high fructose corn syrup. And as that article pointed out, large food deserts force people into gas stations for food products, and gas stations are even less likely than supermarkets to feature nutritious life-sustaining foods. Something clicked about the relationship between food, social justice and public policy, and I really got it.

There was another milestone two or three years ago, well after I began my exploration of veganism. As I expanded my understanding of justice beyond the human realm, I worked hard to adjust my cooking practices, to separate from well-loved recipes, to find my new cooking philosophy or adapt my old one (real food) and to represent myself through food passionately and deliciously among family and friends already wearied from my years of vegetarian experiments with them. Then one day I looked down and noticed my leather shoes and realized with some shock how segmented my own thoughts are. I grew up in a world in which animal products were pervasive. There was simply a disconnect for almost all of us between the lives of our fellow creatures and the food we ate and clothes we wore. Despite my efforts to resolve that disconnect, there it was.

It’s curious how  we can think we’re fully conscious, making choices based on our values…and then discover our own human frailty, the ways we are embedded in cultural perspectives. And that took me to a path of reexamining another cultural perspective, our deeply held belief that we are superior to other creatures.  My husband’s offhand comment started me along my thought path. My biblical studies are guiding my next steps.

My studies and cooking are one avenue to focus my thoughts, prod myself to examine my cultural assumptions and modify my course through life. My work at the farm, something I had time to take on once I sold my cafe, is another.

I love the beautiful, fresh real food sparkling in the sun with drops of moisture. I love having my hands in the dirt that produces the food. I love experiencing the rhythm of the seasons in my body as I work out in the fields. I love the little lessons I learn in each moment that I work. I imagine the deep wisdom I find in the Bible comes in part from its source in a more agrarian world.

But it is the complete exhaustion at the end of the time I work in the fields, especially at the beginning of the season when I’m rusty after the cold months when my exercise levels drop, that takes me back to Diet for a Small Planet and the lessons I learned from Frances Moore Lappe about social justice. Considering those who do this work for long hours every day, struggling to support families on little pay and with no recognition or appreciation, living with insecurity and worse, brings me back to her themes.

This connection, this social justice theme, connects me to biblical themes of justice within communities and among nations, justice for all life on the planet, environmental justice. It reminds me that every area impacts and influences the others. It is all interconnected.

I was struck this week by this line from Leviticus 18:28 following a set of moral injunctions: “…that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Like human beings, like our fellow creatures on the planet, the land itself has moral consciousness. It is all interconnected, and our sins against one impact the other.

Cooking and digging in the dirt along with biblical stories, then meaningful study of this text, have had a significant role throughout my life in shaping and reshaping my consciousness about creation, my place in it and what I need to do at this time in our history.

And so I arrive at how cooking and working the fields became my political activism.  First, my work encouraged me to lift the veil, to look at what is behind the things I see in front of me, whether on my plate, in the claims on commercial foods, or in the pages of the Bible.

Each breath I take with clarity of consciousness, each bite of food, each interaction with another person or with a community of people, is activism. Only with clarity of consciousness about the reasons for my own choices can I have a larger role in shaping my communities.

And there are many ways for me to do that, to be active, including:

  • cultivating the habit of looking behind the veil,
  • sharing ideas about the implications of what we eat
  • sharing the specifics of delicious, healthful, affordable eating,
  • supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and
  • supporting other community efforts directed toward food and environmental justice.

I continue to learn about so many aspects of my world, so many things I didn’t know or that I kept from coming to full consciousness. I’ve lived long enough to see how the action of many individuals can change things and to learn that ONLY the action of many individuals can reshape the culture. And I have Trump to thank for intensifying my effort and compelling me to find the political meaning in my work.

From Bob’s Fresh and Local website:

“But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” ~ Wendell Berry – The Unsettling of America
For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Inch By Inch And Row By Row…

Today was my first day back at the farm for the season. Although it was my first day, others have been hard at work, installing a new greenhouse (greens through December! yay!), planting starter plants, getting in leeks and garlic and greens and more.

It was a beautiful, windy day, and I enjoyed the sunshine along with the fast-moving clouds. It’s an exciting time as we all look forward to those food boxes starting to fill up with wonderful things to eat.

I learned to use a stirrup hoe today — and another kind of hoe, one to run down the middle of the bed to pull a wider swath of weeds, one to run over the little leek plants to remove weeds on either side. When I finished weeding with my hoes, I walked over to take a look at our new greenhouse and then back to the fields to weed a few rows of garlic.

By the time I finished up, I was exhausted but oh so happy. Here are some highlights from this beautiful place where I work! If you are in the Algonquin/Dundee/Cary/Geneva/Crystal Lake/Woodstock area and would like to enjoy a weekly or bi-weekly box of beautiful, fresh, organic produce, check out Bob’s Fresh and Local and sign up for a share.

Compost pile where I get to take my veggie waste every week.
The leeks I hoed.
Garlic rows for hand weeding.

The old greenhouse…and our big beautiful new one.

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

Torah Ecology: Emor (Lev 21:1-24:23)

It’s hard not to notice that the last chapter in the portion that precedes this week, Kedoshim, concerns a stoning and the last chapter in this week’s portion, Emor, does as well. This signals me to an organizational scheme that doesn’t quite correspond to this week’s portion.

Structure communicates meaning, particularly in the relationship between the parts of the structure. As someone once said, the parts of a house may have little significance as isolated items, but in a built house, the relationship of each part to any other signifies something. While this portion is a work in progress, I notice the following structure when I include the stoning at the end of Kedoshim:

1a – Stoning (seed to Molech, ghosts, familiar spirits, sexual immorality – blood is upon them, so land doesn’t cast you out) – 20:2, 27

2a – Priests (no death contact or mourning rituals, no contact with sexual immorality, no blemishes) – 21:1 – 21:24

3a – Holy things (priests cannot approach or eat holy things when they are impure, others never) – 22:1 – 22:16

** – Offerings (No blemishes, no foreigners, sacrificial animals must be older than 7 days) – 22:17 – 22:33

3b – Holy times (Shavuot 7 weeks + 1 day – 7 lambs; Rosh Hashana 7th mo. 1st da.; Yom Kippur 7th mo. 10th da.; Sukkot 7th mo. 15th da. – 1st fruits 7 days) – 23:1 – 23:43

2b – Priests (Kindle perpetual light, set Shabbat (7th da.) cakes in order, eat priestly food) – 24:1 – 24:9

1b – Stoning (Blasphemer, Law of Retaliation, same law for stranger & home born) – 24:10 – 24:23

I’ll elaborate a little on the elements of this structure. Stonings bracket the section, referring to presence in the land — when the most recent focus of the text was the desert encampment.

“The people of the land shall stone him with stones…” (עַם הָאָרֶץ, יִרְגְּמֻהוּ בָאָבֶן) and “…so the land doesn’t vomit you out…” (וְלֹא-תָקִיא אֶתְכֶם, הָאָרֶץ). The other end of the bracket, the stoning for the blasphemer, also refers, somewhat more obliquely, to the land: “…’Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born…'” (מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה).

The number 7 also plays prominently in this segment, beginning with the center of the chiasm and continuing through 3b and 2b. We know the number play is intentional since only two of three pilgrimage festivals are mentioned. Passover, the third, isn’t mentioned because it’s in the first month so wouldn’t add to the scheme. The number seven generally signals creation — either the stories and their associated themes or the created world.

Priests form parallel components with what priests must not do if they are to maintain their purity in 2a and what they must do as their sacred duties forever in 2b. Finally in 3a and 3b, we have holy things and holy times.

While stonings for giving “seed” to another god and blasphemy envelope the chiasm, offerings serve as the centerpiece of it and of service to G-d in the land.  The land itself becomes part of the dramatic interaction, vomiting out its inhabitants who give to Molech what is due to G-d.

This structure reveals a relationship between G-d, creation and humanity on one level and on another, more specific, level between G-d, the land of Israel and the Israelites. All are actors in a drama, essentially another creation story, that elaborates these relationships. On the borders of the creation story is the ever-present possibility of a roll back of creation similar to the one portrayed in the Ten Plagues that befell the Egyptians.


Jewish Virtual Library has this to say about stoning:

“Many of the crimes for which any biblical punishment is prescribed carry the death penalty. The three methods of executing criminals found in the Bible are stoning, burning, and hanging.

“Stoning was the instinctive, violent expression of popular wrath (Ex. 17:4, 8:22; Num. 14:10; I Sam. 30:6; I Kings 12:18; II Chron. 10:18), and is often expressly prescribed as a mode of execution (Lev. 20:2, 27, 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 13:11, 17:5, 21:21, 22:21, et al.). As the survival of vindicta publica, it was and remained characterized by the active participation of the whole populace (Lev. 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 17:7; et al.) – all the people had to pelt the guilty one with stones until he died. Stonings were presumably the standard form of judicial execution in biblical times (Lev. 24:23; Num. 15:36; I Kings 21:13; II Chron. 24:21).”


Accordingly I understand the two stonings that bracket this material as public acts to avert catastrophe for the entire community. Giving seed to Molech, chasing after ghosts and familiar spirits, certain kinds of sexual immorality, and blaspheming are crimes against the body of Israel and will result in their being “vomited” from the land, essentially a roll back of creation for the whole Israelite community.

In this way, the section elaborates familiar Torah themes (creating a world and rolling back creation) applied specifically to the Israelites in the land of Israel.

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Another Take On The Garden Of Eden

I often say that translation is interpretation. There is a powerful example of this fact in the creation stories of Genesis. I can’t help but wonder how history would have played out had two words been translated differently.


Adam is a word we all recognize, the name of the first human being in both creation stories. It is usually translated “man”:

Gen 1:26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

Gen 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

Gen 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

The second creation story continues with G-d telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then bringing the animals before Adam to name. Then this passage:

Gen 3:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.

וַיַּפֵּל יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל-הָאָדָם, וַיִּישָׁן; וַיִּקַּח, אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו, וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר, תַּחְתֶּנָּה.

Gen 3:23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (אִשָּׁה), because she was taken out of Man (אִישׁ).’

וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת.

Gen 3:24 Therefore shall a man (אִישׁ) leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ), and they shall be one flesh.

עַל-כֵּן, יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ, אֶת-אָבִיו, וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ; וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.

Reading in English immediately presents a grammatical problem: in Gen 1:26, G-d refers to G-d’s’ self as “us” and similarly refers to Adam as “them.”

The problem is easily solved when we understand that Adam doesn’t mean “man” until Gen 3:23 and following when it becomes the name of a specific man, the first man.

Until then, Adam, which comes from the word, “Adamah,” a feminine noun meaning earth, means something else: earth creature, both male and female. Gen 1:27 from the first creation story clearly indicates a simultaneous creation of male (זָכָר – zachar) and female (נְקֵבָה – n’kevah). As it turns out, the second creation story does as well. Adam is both male and female until G-d separates them into man (אִישׁ – ish) and woman (אִשָּׁה – isha).

Consider the implications of a clear statement of the simultaneous creation of man and woman in terms of “in the image.” I’m not talking here just about the idea, which many who don’t read Hebrew as well as many who do, assume anyway, that both male and female are in the image of G-d. We don’t need to make assumptions, though, about what the text says or over-interpret it. We just need to read it at the simplest level in Hebrew, and that statement is obvious.

This translation also explains the confusing pronouns in Gen 1:26 when G-d says, “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…”  Us? Them?

Suppose we imagine that G-d is a unity, containing both male and female. Male and female separated in the created world symbolizes the idea that creation is a system of differences. G-d refers to G-d’s own (unified) plurality, as “us.” Similarly G-d refers to the single earth creature created in G-d’s image, Adam, as “them.”

In essence, the pattern in how Adam is used in the original Hebrew elaborates an important theology and anthropology contained in the story, G-d is a unity, and creation is a system of differences symbolized by sexual difference.


The word arum appears in four places in Gen 3:

Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה

Gen 3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked

וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם

Gen 3:10 I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

אֶת-קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן; וָאִירָא כִּי-עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי

Gen 3:11 Who told thee that thou wast naked?

?מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ, כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה

A word used four times in 27 short verses, skillfully, intentionally, just as we saw Adam skilfully worked into a text with man and woman in order to make a truthful statement within the world view, or internal logic, of the text. Outside of this text, a version of the word occurs in 11 other places in the Hebrew Bible, 8 of them in Proverbs, where it is generally translated “prudent.” Strong’s Concordance provides these definitions:  crafty, shrewd, sensible.

Translators of these four passages from Genesis almost universally use “crafty,” “subtle” or “shrewd” for the snake and “naked” for the human beings. Consider how differently we might understand this text if we understood the Hebrew and associated all its meanings with the word. Consider how differently we might understand it had different translations been chosen, for example, what if the serpent were more naked than any beast of the field. Certainly that would make sense — the serpent does appear naked in relation to beasts of the field who generally have a coat of fur. The serpent’s nakedness would elevate the serpent to the level of human beings, who also have no coat of fur.

Or consider if the human beings were prudent, sensible, subtle, even shrewd? Those translations would also fit in a statement about their eyes being opened, and it would totally transform our understanding of the story.


Over the years I have studied this story, I have thought several different things about the nature of the act in the middle of the story and the middle of the Garden, eating from the Tree or the Meal in the Garden, as I like to call it.

Reconsidering the meaning of arum by doing the obvious and translating it the same way for the serpent as for the humans suggests at least one possibility to me: the human beings at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil made an unconscious decision to eat, a decision without “prudent” consideration of consequences. The consequences of this unconscious decision were catastrophic for all of creation. In becoming conscious, fully aware and capable of conscious choices, arum, they also become aware their action brought consequences. As they realized, after the fact, the enormity of those consequences, they are afraid. This idea certainly provides a framework for the Torah’s fierce focus on conscious choice in all things!


The internal logic of the text, the messages that might be in it, revealed through the text’s own literary clues, tells us two other stories as well. It tells us a story about the power of a translation that is always interpretation. When a translator chooses a word to use from a range of possibilities, that translator creates a new narrative which hopefully has its own internal logic. That translation then shapes a culture and a world view.

Imagine the impact over centuries of a narrative that focuses on the secondary status of women, human disobedience, sin, sexual shame and death. Then imagine how those centuries might have developed informed by a narrative that suggests the simultaneous creation of woman and man, in the image of G-d, who become conscious or prudent and thereby aware of the consequences of their earlier thoughtless or unconscious action and whose raison d’etre is to grow toward fully conscious living, making choices in full contemplation and consciouness of their consequences and implications.

Consider for a moment who, in that society, would end up honored and who shamed and punished.

This exploration tells us another story about the usefulness of taking the details of a narrative as they are presented, following its patterns and trying to discern its internal logic rather than imposing the logic of a different narrative on it. Interpretive traditions are different from the original narrative. These interpretive traditions have their own internal logic and meaning and must be understood in the same way as the sacred texts we have received, on their own terms.

Exploring first the biblical text as I have received it to discover what I can of its own internal logic, then to see how interpretive traditions developed from it, is my project in Torah Ecology.

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Torah Ecology: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Lev 16:1-18:30, 19:1-20:27)

If the first three chapters of Genesis set out the framework for the Torah project, Leviticus 16 forms its narrative heart. Positioned between the Purity Code and the Holiness Code, it ties together two parts of a central Torah concept in a dramatic Day of Atonement ritual of two goats, one for the Lord and one for Azazel.

In this way, Leviticus is the center of the narrative structure of the Torah. This narrative, beginning in the Garden account of Genesis, lays out a theology and an ontology and details the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings. It teaches how human beings, body and soul inextricably linked, can navigate through the real world and come close to G-d.

In the Garden story, the biblical text provides this theology and anthropology in the symbolism of the two trees. Leviticus actualizes the story in real life beyond the Garden through ritual (purity) and ethical (holiness) codes, the first governing the relationship between G-d and human beings, the second among human beings. In the Day of Atonement ritual, a carefully orchestrated series of events culminates in a two-goat rite. The first is for the Lord, sacrificed on the altar, the second for Azazel, sent alive into “the solitary place.” The first goat removes ritual sins, sins against G-d, while the second removes ethical sins, sins against one’s fellow human being, sins that destroy community.


Leviticus actualizes the creation stories of the first three chapters of Genesis. The Garden story tells us of two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, indeed in the center of the story, the other the Tree of Life.  These two trees describe a theology and an ontology, answering questions about who God is, who the human being is, how they were intended to relate and how they do relate in an exilic world:  

And the Lord G-d said, “Now that humanity (ha-Adam) has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”  So the Lord G-d banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.  He drove the human out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a capacity for moral consciousness, which human beings share with G-d once they eat from that Tree. The Tree of Life represents a way in which the human being is radically different from G-d, namely s/he dies.  When the first humans eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, they, and all of creation through them, are barred from the Tree of Life: “What if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!


From the last Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, “what happened in the Garden changed the entire structure of creation forever. On one side of the act of eating from the Tree is a harmonious system of differences, a world in which all creatures live in harmony and there is no bloodshed and no death. On the other side is exile into a blood-soaked world, a world in which the most basic act of nourishing oneself requires taking life. Like blood that both purifies and generates impurity, eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is an ambivalent image of love and unself-conscious obedience vs. full consciousness and moral responsibility.

“Humanity made the choice for full responsibility, becoming G-d-like in that way. In the process of making that choice, however, they generated consequences for all of creation, and they bear responsibility for every death. The reminders of the human role in altering the nature of creation with consequences for everything in it are birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions, and the strange organic decay, perhaps living death, associated with leprosy. Thus birth, death, disease, food and sexuality are the points at which human beings confront their responsibility in this radically altered world.”


Chapter 16 of Leviticus is a bridge:

  1. On one side of the bridge are the purity regulations, connected with the Tree of Life, that culminate in Tazria-Metzora. These purity regulations concern birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy, signifying that part of our ontology that is non-volitional and part of nature. In the body/soul equation, purity regulations have to do with our body. Blood generates impurity outside the ritual frame in its association with death and violence — and inside the ritual frame purifies and atones. For the purpose of “drawing near” to G-d, a person engages in a set of rituals to separate from impurity, that characteristic which defines us as part of the created world.
  2. On the other side of the Chapter 16 bridge at the beginning of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim are the holiness regulations, matters of choice (volitional) and therefore of morality. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents these regulations. Holiness regulations have to do with our “soul.”

If we consider that all death is brutal, that no healthy creature seeks or wants death, the Purity Code reminds us that we are part of a world at once both beautiful and brutal. The Garden story tells us that as conscious, decision-making beings, we are responsible and enmeshed in guilt: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…” (Gen. 3:7).  From last week’s portion, “Tazria-Metzora forces us to stop and consider an inescapable brutality at the core of life…”

The Purity Code requires the Holiness Code that follows chapter 16, which “reminds us of the moral demand that we do what we can to make life a little less brutal.” Through our moral choices, a decision-making capacity we have as humans that is represented in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have a G-d-like ability, and we must exercise it.

Failing to follow the commandments of the Holiness Code, whose driving purpose is to reduce the brutality of our existence and give it meaning, neglects our G-d-like nature for which we paid so dearly. We are then wholly driven by nature and instinct. Even moments of love and compassion or our vaunted human intelligence do not distinguish us from animals who also feel love and compassion and are also intelligent.

The purity regulations and the holiness regulations are clearly different in kind but, like body and soul, inextricably linked.


This week’s Torah portion, again a double portion, begins with Chapter 16 of Leviticus. This chapter contains the very strange episode of the goat for Azazel. Volumes have been written attempting to understand the meaning of these passages and who or what, exactly Azazel is. I’m going to bypass all of that and just try to focus on what the words in front of me seem to convey.

The portion begins with a reference to a story told in Lev. 10. In that story, Nadav and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, die when they offer “strange fire” at the altar in what was otherwise a supreme moment for the Aaronides in the newly built Tabernacle.  The reference accompanies a reminder of the danger in “coming close” to G-d, offering sacrifices (korbanot, sacrifices, means coming close): “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” (Lev. 16:2)

Forewarned how important it is to follow the purification rituals, an elaborate series of preparations involving bathing in water and changing clothes leads into the first round of sacrifices. A second series of preparations follows those sacrifices, leading into the second round. Between the sin offerings and the burnt offerings, the goat for Azazel is sent into the wilderness, to “a land that is cut off” (I think a closer translation is “solitary” or “separated”).


16:3: Aaron is to bring a young bullock for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering. He kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house and purifies the ark cover with its blood.

16:5: Aaron is to take two he-goats for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering on behalf of the Israelites. He takes the Israelites’ 2 he-goats and sets them before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. Lots are cast on the 2 goats, “one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel.” The goat for the Lord is a sin-offering, which Aaron kills “for the people,” bringing its blood to sprinkle on and before the ark cover as he did with the blood of the bullock.

16:16: Having made atonement for himself and his house and for the people of Israel, Aaron then makes atonement for the holy place (the Tabernacle) because of their (the people of Israel) impurity and transgressions: “and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities” (הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם). A curious statement, that the Tabernacle “lives” with the people of Israel in this sea of impurities.

16:20: When Aaron finishes atoning for the “holy place” and the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he deals with the other goat, the goat for Azazel:

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.” (וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה).

“And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹתָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה; וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-הַשָּׂעִיר, בַּמִּדְבָּר).

16:23-24: The burnt offerings require another change of clothing and more bathing, after which Aaron sacrifices the two rams and makes the fat of the sin-offering smoke on the altar. The burnt offerings “make atonement for himself (Aaron) and for the people.”

Just to recount: Aaron bathes and changes his garments, then kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house. He kills the goat for the Lord, a sin-offering on behalf of the people of Israel. He atones for and purifies the ark cover, the Holy of Holies, the altar and the Tent of Meeting. He places the sins of the community on the head of the goat for Azazel and dispatches him to the “solitary” place, then changes his garments and bathes again. He sacrifices the burnt offering and makes “atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel” and makes smoke on the altar from the fat of the sin-offering. Finally, we have wrap-up activities, removing the remains of the sin-offerings outside the camp. Those who let the goat for Azazel go and who burn the remains of the offerings wash their clothes, bathe and return to the camp.


What is going on here? Multiple purifications, multiple atonements, multiple sin-offerings. Shouldn’t one be enough? Why the goat for Azazel? And for what do the burnt offerings atone after all the sin-offerings and purifications and sending away the goat with all the sins of the community on its head?

Lev. 16:17 provides a clue. This verse tells us “there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he (Aaron) goeth in to make atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.” This suggests a total house-cleaning, but in this case, impurities and sin are swept out the door before any can re-enter. The priests’ job is to clean the house, preparing it as a place for G-d and Israel to meet.

Impurity is tangible, and sin, when it enters the world, has body. Once atonement is offered and the meeting place for the divine-human encounter purified, the now lifeless impurities and sins must be removed like the skins and flesh and dung of the sin-offerings (the bullock and goat) when they are taken outside the camp and burned (Lev. 16:26). The sins on the head of the goat for Azazel parallel the lifeless remains of the sacrificial animals. The ritual parallels confirm this idea as both he who lets the goat for Azazel go and he who burns the impure remains of the sin-offering outside the camp wash their clothes and bathe before returning to the camp.

In another parallel, the goat for Azazel that carries away the moral sins of the community corresponds to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil while the goat for the Lord that purifies the Israelites and the Tabernacle corresponds to the Tree of Life.

Only when this lifeless refuse exits the camp can Aaron “offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people,” completing the atonement process for himself and the people.

There is one more clue to what is happening, and this brings us full circle to the two trees and the associated holiness and purity themes. Lev. 16:16 describes the atonement in dual terms: “he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the children of Israel, and because of their…sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities.” Lev. 16:19 refers solely to impurity:  “And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and purify it, and hallow it from the impurities of the children of Israel.”

Impurity is never used to describe the sins the goat carries out of the camp into the wilderness, only three words which do not typically refer to impurity but rather to moral misconduct: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins.

We read the dual terminology only one more time, and this is in a wrap-up passage describing the meaning of the whole occasion: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; from all your sins shall ye be pure before the LORD.” (Lev. 16:30)

This is what I read in Chapter 16 and why I place it at the center of the Torah: the first round of offerings, the bullock for Aaron and the goat for the Israelites, atone and serve to remove impurities from the environment and temporarily from Aaron and the Israelites so they may “draw near” to G-d. The remains of the sacrificial animals bearing impurities are removed from the camp and burned.

Similarly, the goat for Azazel carries the lifeless bodies of moral infractions, sins, outside the camp into a place that is “solitary” or “separated.” These are acts that destroy community and must be removed from it.

Lev. 16:30 in summing up indicates that at this most holy moment, a total house-cleaning is accomplished, the lifeless shells of impurities and moral infractions are gone, Israel is both pure and holy, and Israel and G-d meet.

A question remains in my mind about the nature of impurity. I have said before that I think impurity is more an issue of definition than a moral category. Impurity describes the nature of the human being bound by nature. It is involuntary and is a function of having a body. It is a transitory state. Rituals separate a person from their impurity for the purpose of coming close to G-d. Why, then, does chapter 16 link it so inextricably to holiness, our moral consciousness, our soul?

I believe that the preceding portion, Tazria-Metzora, with its allusions to the creation story, provide us that answer. Impurity has an overarching moral dimension in that it is associated with the first humans’ “meal in the Garden,” as they thoughtlessly eat from the tree with no real consideration of consequences. In that moment, in altering the structure of creation, they catapult themselves, all those who follow, indeed all of creation, into a world that is not only beautiful and nourishing but brutal and deadly.

The only antidote to this condition, the only possible balance for the consequences of their action, is to extend the realm of holiness, of moral consciousness. In this way, impurity/our bodies and holiness/our souls are inextricably and eternally linked as we struggle to fulfill our nature.


Note: I have tried to stay away from homiletics and specific faith interpretations in these analyses and use “evidence” from within the text to try to understand what it wants to say. I want to diverge from that for a moment to comment from a personal perspective on these last two double portions, for me both fascinating and difficult.

I find myself understanding, for the first time in my life, something about the idea of “original sin” and how interpreters might derive such a concept from the text, that somehow, through our bodies, we are trapped in a cycle of sin. The allusions in Leviticus’ Purity Code to the Garden story of Genesis give me a glimpse of a biblical awareness of human responsibility for our condition, even guilt.

As I experiment with a vegan diet, I become aware that no matter what I do, I cannot disentangle myself from responsibility for death and destruction.  Perhaps it is a human conceit to imagine we can extract ourselves from that cycle.  Even someone who eats plants kills. How many habitats do we unknowingly destroy when we till the soil? How many creatures do we knowingly kill because if we didn’t, we’d never harvest a bite? I seem to remember Kafka wrote about this problem in Der Hunger Künstler.

Part of me thinks it’s a continuum. We each must find our place on the continuum of taking and nurturing, contributing to death and brutality and to beauty and life. Each of us is required to make value judgments and difficult moral decisions. Part of me appreciates how some find meaning in a religion that says someone paid the giant debt humanity owes, removing our “guilt.” And part of me appreciates my own religion that offers a path to navigate through the world as it is, keeping my sights set not on extracting myself but on being the best I can be and working to expand the realm of holiness.

These are things I think about as I read these blood-soaked passages of Leviticus. When I visualize the scene in the Tabernacle, terrified animals, the bleating and bellowing, the slaughter, the blood, the stench, I’m horrified, and I wonder, how could this possibly have meaning? Somehow it did, and somehow the meaning is communicated in these texts if you look closely. The text evidences an awareness of human responsibility, even guilt, an awareness of the profound paradox of life and the debt humanity owes for its privileged position. Somehow sacrifice in its time paid a portion of that debt and allowed the Israelites to come near to G-d.

I also think of 9 billion land animals bred in the U.S. each year just to kill for food and trillions of aquatic animals.  I think of how that happens with most of us not even knowing about it and if we know about it not really experiencing responsibility for the commercialization of life and the suffering and carnage and brutality we cause with what’s on our plates. Then I see us right back at the tree in the middle of the Garden, poised to eat without consciously pondering the awesome consequences for ourselves and the rest of creation when we take that bite.

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

Explaining My Torah Ecology Project

For those of you who follow my blog and who are puzzled with my Torah Ecology posts or find them unreadable…I would like to explain. In a few words, my blog is about religion and food and the intersection between them. This has been a lifelong interest.

This year I decided on a project to closely analyze the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) portion by portion with an eye to food, animal rights and the environment. It is a research project using my own brain instead of outside commentaries and references telling me what the material says, although I occasionally look at material outside the text itself. Writing helps me think, and putting it into my blog preserves my thoughts for me and keeps me on schedule, moving through.

I am familiar with both traditional and modern techniques for reading the text including source criticism. I choose to treat the text I have in front of me as a unified document and to see what I can discover. The (Jewish) portions are simply an arbitrary division I chose to work with so I could manage the material.

Sometimes I see things I can’t figure out but want to note and come back to. Sometimes I include the Hebrew as a reminder to myself. Often the writing is heavy, heavier if I’m really searching — as has been the case in the last few weeks dealing with the sacrificial system. I also hope there are some insights in what I write.

Next year, with the perspective of close study of the entire Torah, I will go back and edit week-by-week. The year following, I will collect rabbinic comments on each portion. The year following, I will collect Christian comments on each portion. In the final year of my project, I will edit it all, write an introduction and a conclusion and publish it as a book.

I believe one thing it will show is how Judaism and Christianity developed from biblical religion — both legitimately springing from the same text but emphasizing different things and living in different historical/cultural contexts and therefore developing in different directions.

More importantly for my specific purpose in doing this, I think it will provide a biblically based foundation for thinking about food, the environment and animal rights — and it will show (me, at least) where Judaism and Christianity took those foundational concepts.

I’m not “speaking for” any religious perspective, just trying to understand a text that has been deeply meaningful in my own life and directs my action in the world. I’m interested in seeing what two interpretive traditions have seen in that text and done with it. And I continue to be interested in seeing how people across times and cultures and circumstances deal with the basic paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to live.

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