Category Archives: Religion/Spirituality

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.” – Rav Hanina ( Talmud: Taanit, 7a)

I finished teaching a class at McHenry County Community College this past week called “Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.” I taught the class last year, but each year it’s different as our food situation evolves (or devolves) and my own knowledge base grows.

My formal coursework has been in religion and Bible. I have enjoyed taking and teaching many classes. Informally, I read widely about food, the environment, sustainability and agriculture, in particular animal agriculture. I maintain a Twitter feed primarily for the purpose of following trends and picking up leads to interesting reading. This year I also enjoyed an online class in “The Ethics of Eating” from Cornell University. I fed myself and my family and friends for 50 years, operated a large organic garden, worked in the food industry, and now I work (very part-time) on a farm.

Finally, though, what most encourages me to constantly reshape these classes is student input. An aha moment for a student is an aha moment for me. In the last series I taught, that aha moment was hearing Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor and animal activist, speak. This time it was a comment from Michael Pollan’s 2008 “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” “But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution.”

He continues, “As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feed lot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”

There is a lot of talk these days about 2050 and the need to feed a predicted world population of 10 billion. How will we accomplish that? Are there enough land and water resources? How do we bring true food security to the “food insecure?” As our world continues to change, will we perhaps all become food insecure? Can our current path make us healthier and happier?

As the class evolved, I realized that I was teaching two models for “feeding the world.” The first model is the one offered up by our American culture: the Industrial Food System (or IFS). The second is what I will call the biblical model. Each of these models utilizes different strategies to produce food, and each produces different results.

What I understood as I taught this year is that not only is each of these models a “system” in every sense of the word, but like any good system, each has a purpose or mission that defines its objectives, strategies and results.

Michael Pollan introduces his Open Letter this way: “The food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.”

But if the IFS mission of maximizing production at all costs has failed, so has the biblical mission of expanding the realm of ethical consciousness. This mission has failed not so much because of a problem in the message but more from the dismissive attitude of a secular world toward sacred texts and wise teachers in human history.

We are not the first generation to sit on the edge of catastrophe, yet we reject ancient teachings before we even take time to know what they are. Their wisdom barely enters our consciousness as we struggle with problems that threaten our continued existence on the planet.

Yet just as there may be things of value to glean from the Industrial Food System before we reform it or throw it out, there are things of value to take from the Torah and other ancient teachings.

When I began my Torah Ecology project, my intention was to focus on food, animal rights and the environment. In this first year of my project, my interest isn’t so much on specifics like what people ate but more on what it meant to them — or at least what it was supposed to have meant to them according to the “Author”/authors of the Torah. Understanding this takes me on some thought journeys that seem far afield, but ultimately each week of close study contributes something to my ability to get inside the biblical worldview.

When I redesign the class for next year, I will organize it very specifically around these two models, the IFS and the biblical model, maximum production vs. maximum ethical consciousness. How does each of these models relate to human health, other species on the planet and the planet itself? What does each model say about our relationship to other species and to the planet? Specifically, what does each model say about animal agriculture, agricultural workers, health, waste and human consciousness?

One thing I know about our current food culture is that it encourages a total disconnect from the sources of our food. That disconnect in turn generates distortions in our relationship to transcendence, our environment, other human beings, other creatures, even our own bodies. Working in the fields planting and harvesting, sharing the fields with other animals and cooking with real food break down that disconnect, restoring satisfying, beneficial and meaningful relationships. The biblical model expresses that understanding of interconnectedness.

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

Fridays I like to cook at the shul

Our kitchen at the shul needs a little work, but it’s big and bright and airy, and I like to cook there on Fridays, prepare a little something for our Friday evening dinners, which more and more of our little family on the prairie are coming to enjoy, and Saturday morning kiddush. During the warmer months, I include veggies from my CSA box as much as possible.

Spelt vegan challot are a standard part of what I do, a couple for Friday evening and a couple for kiddush on Saturday. This week, in addition, I made a stir fry with green onions, red onion, lots of good greens, carrots Julienne and topped with a special treat, snap peas — all from the farm.

Somehow I feel as though the path to resolving the many issues that face us in these times is through food justice in all its dimensions. That’s a thought that will need to wait for another moment for unpacking. Right now I’m just immersing myself in the pleasure of planting, nurturing, harvesting and preparing things that are good to eat.

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

Torah Ecology: Terumah

Desert Tabernacle – one version: By Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943; Augustana synod. [from old catalog] – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14595443098/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/bibleprimeroldte00hult/bibleprimeroldte00hult#page/n59/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42759930
Terumah (Ex 25:1-27:19) relates G-d’s instructions to the Israelites for building the Tabernacle, the portable structure that serves as G-d’s “home” during the desert wandering. I’m going to include the rest of chapter 27 (Ex 27:20-21) in my discussion since it relates more to building the Tabernacle than to the next section, which discusses the priests’ garments.

The structural elements of the story leap off the page, highlighting once again so many parallels to the creation story in Genesis. First we have the content of the story itself, building a structure that serves to organize space in a hierarchy or perhaps crescendo of holiness which reaches its apex between the keruvim, the cherubs whose wings stretch across the ark cover in the holiest place. Then we have the number 7, woven throughout the story in so many ways.

In a first read-through, I was caught up with, on the one hand, the grandeur of this Tabernacle, built from the contributions of the Israelites, gold and silver and brass and the finest linens, beautiful designs by the best artisans. On the other hand, I noticed the minute details, the measurements, and found myself getting lost in trying to measure or imagine what this portable edifice looked like. Fortunately others have done that work for me and produced architectural drawings to scale.

FLESH-HOOKS

But most of all, I was struck by this directive in Ex 27:3: “And thou shalt make its pots to take away its ashes, and its shovels, and its basins, and its flesh-hooks, and its fire-pans; all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.

So here is this beautiful structure, created from the finest the Israelites had to offer, a portable home for G-d, a place where these wanderers met with transcendence, and within this structure, the tools of animal sacrifice, flesh-hooks and shovels and pots to take up and carry away the ashes that remained from a living creature. I found myself somewhat against my will dwelling on that phrase, imagining the creature brought, surely unwillingly, to that place, bound, crying with fear, killed, hung and finally burned.

It is difficult to reconcile this image with the image of that beautiful tabernacle, that space where transcendence and humanity meet. I think the structure of these chapters reveals the meaning of these passages for the Israelites, and while I may recoil from the image, it jolts me into a deeper awareness of the meaning of life in a world that includes death and of the human relationship to transcendence and the rest of creation.

So I ask readers to suspend horror and disgust with me for a few moments to explore deeper meanings. Consider, for a moment, that in our contemporary world we breed billions of animals just to make them unwilling victims serving our own appetites  — and we do this out of sight. Although brutal on a scale unimaginable to the Israelites, this contemporary slaughter teaches us no lesson, connects us to no transcendent meaning. Most of us don’t even pause for a blessing over the flesh of a formerly living creature.

STRUCTURE

An introductory section in Ex 25:1-9 directs the Israelites to provide contributions so they can build a sanctuary for G-d to “dwell among them.” (וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם)

Seven major building tasks follow with rearing up the tabernacle at the center point of these tasks:

  • Ex 25:10-25:22          Ark
  • Ex 25:23-30                 Table & Utensils
  • Ex 25:31                         Menorah
  •  Ex 26:1-35                   Tabernacle  – with “rear up Tabernacle”                                                            (וַהֲקֵמֹתָ, אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן) in Ex 26:30
  • Ex 26:36                         Screen for door of the “Tent”
  • Ex 27:1-8                       Altar
  • Ex 27:9-19                    Court of the Tabernacle

Finally the section on the building of the Tabernacle concludes with Ex 27:20-21, directing the Israelites to provide a light that the priests will place outside the “Tent” and tend.

In addition to seven major tasks, there are seven branches in the menorah and seven kinds of substances used in its creation (Professor Carol Meyers of Duke University): metals, yarn, skins, wood, oil, spices, and gemstones.

As making (וְעָשִׂיתָ) tasks are completed, items are put (וְנָתַתָּ) into place, echoing the creation story in which G-d makes (וַיַּעַשׂ) an environment, then creates (וַיִּבְרָא) creatures for the environment.

Several, including Martin Buber, note that parallel vocabulary enhances the echo effect between the creation story and the story of building the Tabernacle: the words for accomplish or make (וְעָשִׂיתָ – וַיַּעַשׂ) as each item is made; the words for complete (וַיְכֻלּוּ‎ – וַתֵּכֶל‎) as each item is completed; the words for saw and behold as G-d and Moses in reflection review completed work (וַיַּרְא‎ – וַיַּרְא and וְהִנֵּה‎ – וְהִנֵּה‎); and finally, the verb blessed when G-d blesses G-d’s creation and when Moses blesses the congregation for the work they completed (וַיְבָרֶךְ‎ – וַיְבָרֶךְ‎).

And so we have a story that reflects the creation of the world in the creation of the Tabernacle. G-d makes a dwelling place for humanity, and the Israelites in their turn make a dwelling place for G-d according to G-d’s instructions. G-d’s relationship with the Israelites is transactional.

Consider for a moment the features of that dwelling, that home on earth: a space set off from the wilderness but also with differentiation within. At the entry to the holy space, the light of the seven-branched candelabra with a natural design like a flowering tree and a table with utensils and bread, a welcoming entry for G-d. Inside the holiest space, the Holy of Holies, is an Ark with the tablets inside and a cover with keruvim with their wings spread across it.

WHAT THE NARRATIVE AND TABERNACLE STRUCTURES TELL US ABOUT THE ROLE OF ANIMAL SACRIFICE

Just as the tabernacle structures space, the tasks in building it structure the narrative, echoing the creation story, the foundation of any understanding of the Torah.

At the center of the narrative space is the construction and raising of the Tabernacle and the Tent (הָאֹהֶל – ha-ohel) within it:

  • Ex 26:1-6 Making the parts of the Tabernacle
  • Ex 26:7-14 Making the Tent within the Tabernacle
  • Ex 26:15-29 More about making the Tabernacle
  • Ex 30 Rearing up the Tabernacle
  • Ex 26:31-35 Separating holy space from more holy space within the Tent of Meeting and setting up the holy space by placing the table and menorah within it.

The three tasks which precede this center section relate to the holy space. The three tasks which follow this center section relate to separating that holy space from the wider space of the Tabernacle (the screen at the door of the Tent) and to setting up the interior of that wider space.

The narrative and the structure of the space tell us that G-d is in the Ohel, the Tent of Meeting and the holiest space within that space. The Israelites live outside the Tabernacle but come into it for the purpose of sacrificial worship — but not into G-d’s home space, set off in the Ohel.

The altar is in the wider area of the Tabernacle, its court, suggesting the point of contact between the wider Israelite community and G-d or transcendence. In Ex 24:17, we read: “And the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” This suggests the significance of the sacrifice on the altar, placed in the Tabernacle, outside the Ohel, where the glory of the Lord appears to them like a devouring fire on the altar.

The most intimate connection with transcendence occurs inside the Ohel, in the most holy section, the section that contains only the words of Torah in the Ark of the Testimony. This transcendent power, as we know from other biblical narratives, is overwhelming to the point of death. What happens on the altar substitutes for that dangerous direct contact.

This brutal act, the sacrifice of a living creature, is an act of compassion for the Israelites even as it reminds them of the supreme paradox of their existence. Their very survival requires taking life, but even so, they are not the ultimate authority over life and death.  They owe a debt of gratitude for their existence, their survival — and they have a moral obligation, expressed in guilt offerings, for the life they take to live.

As G-d makes creation, a home for humanity, the Israelites make a Tabernacle, a home for G-d. The sacrifice represents this transactional relationship at another level, in the space where humanity and transcendence meet, at the altar in the wider space of the Tabernacle, between earth and heaven, so to speak. It is here that a multi-valenced action, a sacrifice, occurs, a transaction which resists any simple one-to-one equivalencies.

This exchange is represented in other biblical passages, memorably in Isaiah 25:6-8, which turns the transaction on its head:

6 And in this mountain will the LORD of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

7 And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations.

8 He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for the LORD hath spoken it.

In this transaction, instead of the people preparing a feast for G-d in the sacrifice, G-d prepares a feast for the people. While they eat the fat things of the land, wines on the lees, fat things full of marrow…G-d swallows up death for ever, wiping away tears from off “all faces.”

CONCLUSION

In this way, the placement of the altar with its flesh-hooks and the structure of the narrative tell us of a space in worship that hangs precariously between creation and transcendence, life and death, a space in which every moment requires our consciousness that we are part of a divine transaction. In that space, we have heightened awareness of our debt of gratitude and our moral responsibility in the world.

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

What I’m Learning From My Torah Project

This post was made to my personal Facebook page, but I decided to add it to my blog as part of my own record of progress.
On January 1, 2016, I started a year-long project of taking pictures out my back door. I wanted to watch the seasons change and find beauty in each day. It was truly an extraordinary winter, the colors were amazing, and I looked forward to those special moments in the evening when I would take pictures, always of the “same” thing but always surprisingly different.
 
When I arrived at December 31, 2016, I wasn’t quite ready to end my project, and I continue to take pictures occasionally. I still have a few to post and will probably have more, but this winter been less colorful. I don’t know, maybe it’s as much a function of my internal state as of my environment.
 
Wrapped up (somewhat obsessively in recent weeks) in the progress of events since June 16, 2015 when our current president announced his candidacy, I was slow to start a new project.
 
February 1, 2017, I began work on the weekly Torah readings. My intention was to explore what the Torah (1st five books of the Hebrew Bible) has to say about topics near and dear to my heart, food, agriculture, our fellow creatures on the planet, ecology.
 
This focus seemed as though it would serve two purposes for me: 1) give a shape to my deep anxiety about our country’s direction, and 2) help me prepare for two classes I will teach at MCC, one on hot button issues in the Bible (Hebrew Bible) and one a repeat with revisions of a course I offered last year on Conscious Choices related to food.
 
This project, like my picture project last year, exceeds my expectations each day for discovering beauty and meaning. It feeds my soul in ways I couldn’t have imagined before I started this exploration. I started turning off all electronics on Friday evening when the Sabbath begins and leaving them off until Saturday evening when it ends (as I used to do in an earlier life). I look forward to picking up an actual book during that time and spending hours reading and re-reading a portion until I can begin to see patterns and gain some understanding.
 
I write about my explorations in my blog, www.vegetatingwithleslie.org under the heading “Torah Ecology,” part of each post title. Some of these posts are lengthy, and some need more editing. Maybe that will be next year’s project. They are a work in progress as these words reveal meanings to me. Writing helps me shape my thoughts as I work my way through, and as my doctoral adviser once told me, the editing process involves moving your conclusion to the beginning, then making a step-by-step argument to support the conclusion. I’m not up to that part yet.
 
Here is a glimpse of what moved me so deeply as I worked my way through the portions of the last four weeks. These are things that I see and experience as I study: 1) The Torah is the creative work of a unified consciousness, 2) What it has to say about food, agriculture, our fellow creatures on the planet and ecology goes way beyond a line here or a line there. These themes are what the Torah is about and breathe life into every word. 3) The creation stories of Genesis describe 3 domains, each in this list part of but different in some way from the domain that precedes it: transcendence, creation and all creatures in it, humanity. The 10 Words/Commandments add a fourth domain, a local community, “neighbors.” 4) The Torah is about relationships within the local community and between these domains.
 
Here is an example of how this works from this week’s portion, Mishpatim, a series of regulations directed toward this local community:
 
*****
 
Ex 23:10-12 ordains that Israelites sow their land and harvest their olives and vineyards for 6 years and in the 7th year let the fields lie fallow, leaving the olives on the trees and grapes on the vine so first the poor, then the “beasts” can eat.
 
Ex 23:12 proclaims that Israelites must do their work in 6 days and on the 7th day rest. This rest extends to their beasts (ox and ass), the “son of your handmaid,” and the stranger, emblematic of every creature for whom an Israelite has responsibility.
 
The 7th year or the 7th day restores a balance. A slave goes free, the land rests and replenishes, providing the poor and the beasts of the field with nourishment. For a period of time, an Israelite can take — but there is also a time to give back, to allow restoration. In the 7th year or on the 7th day, Israelites feed their fellow creatures and the creation that sustains them during the other six.
 
*****
 
I am constantly moved as I read these beautiful passages with the amazing message of interdependence and balance between the domains of transcendence, creation, humanity and a specific society, where the focus is on freedom and justice.
 
Passages describing the extraordinary beauty of creation, its order and patterns, can bring tears to my eyes, perhaps more so now with my concerns that we are destroying this amazing gift of creation with our arrogance and greed.
 
Similarly, the absence of freedom and justice in a society causes a roll back of creation in images that echo the creation story. The 9th of 10 Plagues brings a pre-creation darkness so deep that it is palpable, and one person cannot see the person next to him/her. When the Israelites fail to follow those “ordinances” that maintain their relationships to each other, transcendence and creation, they too suffer a roll back of creation:
 
“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord…” (Jer 4:23-26).
 
These are the eternal messages I find as I study these words week by week. Creation overflows with life and pattern, with beauty and wisdom. Its message about ecology, food and our fellow creatures on the planet informs the entire text.
 
As humans, we are part of this amazing creation, and we can contribute to it and experience joy in it. We can also cause it to roll back, we can destroy it all — not because we didn’t follow a particular rule or regulation or adhere to a particular theology but because we do not have humility in the face of transcendence. We do not live in balance with our world. We do not show compassion toward every creature and insist on freedom and justice for all in our local community, however we define that.
 
These failures in our society are an affront to creation and to transcendence, and whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, they will bring us down.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Thoughts On Failed Societies And Hope

File:OIL WASTE ON BARREN HILLSIDE – NARA – 542512.jpg

A great calm settled itself on me this week after weeks of feeling completely overwhelmed by events, frantically trying to figure out what I can do to stop the flood, what I can do to stop the world from dissolving around me. What brought me this calm feeling is my weekly Torah study as I realized we have been here before.

I read the Torah as an extraordinary, powerful and poetic account of human experience in the real world, human experience within creation that recognizes a connection to the transcendent dimension beyond it. It is a statement of our interdependence — on each other, with the rest of creation and with transcendence. It describes how the relationships between these domains should work, must work for our own survival.

The Torah teaches, through its “ordinances,” the attitude of humility we should maintain in relation to transcendence, the attitude of care and compassion toward the rest of creation, and the requirement not only for care and compassion in relation to our fellow human beings but for justice.

Torah also relates the consequences of failing to maintain correct relationships, putting forward the case that all is interdependent. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in others. Rules or guides for social relationships and a correct relationship with nature are as immutable as rules that guide our relationship with transcendence, and the consequence of repeated and widespread choices to ignore the guides in any dimension causes a roll back of creation, a reversal of the story in the first three chapters of Genesis.

As I read these powerful words each week, I find that they speak to me of my life experience in these times. They speak to me about what happens when a society fails to maintain correct relationships (Torah Ecology: Va-era/Bo). They speak to me about trying it again within a fourth, perhaps more intimate, domain, “neighbors,” about how relationships should work between these neighbors, between all human beings, the rest of creation and transcendence (Torah Ecology: Beshallach and Torah Ecology: Mishpatim).  And they speak to me about what happens when a society fails to live in right relationships. They speak to me about an economy of consequences (in a section of Vayera, Gn 18:16-33), where the righteous actions of 10 could have saved a corrupt civilization.

In Mishpatim, Moses brings down from the mountain a series of regulations that governs relationships within the community of Israelites.  While we don’t read the end of the story in this portion, we know it: the society will fail, as any human institution does that fails to recognize the freedom not only of human beings but of our fellow creatures and all of creation in a relationship with transcendence. The prophetic reading for Mishpatim, the Haftarah, associated with this Torah portion tells us of that failure:

“You turned and profaned my name and caused every man his servant and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and you brought them into subjection, to be to you for servants and for handmaids…you have not hearkened to Me to proclaim every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim for you a liberty… <so> I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth… bodies shall be for food unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 34:16-22).

The judgment Jeremiah pronounces is inevitable, irrevocable: “So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence” (Jer 14:11,12).

The prophet Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576 b.c.e. His career, lasting more than 40 years, spanned the reigns of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoaichin, and Zedekiah. Jeremiah’s opposition was unrelenting, and he was even imprisoned at one point — yet he persisted in his message.

Jeremiah’s prophecy proclaimed the coming destruction and the reasons for it.  When the people’s relationship with their neighbors is wrong, out of balance, when they deny fundamental freedom and justice to their neighbors, their relationships with all other realms are disrupted. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in all.

The nation as a whole, not in part, was declared guilty of:

  • Love of other gods
  • No love for the truth
  • False prophets
  • Kings and princes who do not seek justice
  • Adultery, theft, and murder among the people
  • Exploitation of the poor

The nation brought inevitable consequences upon itself, and these consequences are described in cosmically cataclysmic terms, a roll back of creation, like the destruction that came to the Egyptians in the Ten Plagues, a reversal of the creation stories in Gn 1-3:

“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord…” (Jer 4:23-26).

We live in times like Jeremiah’s. The crimes he lays at the feet of his nation are in our headlines every day.  They form the slogans on banners and in political campaigns. Like the ancient Judahites and the Egyptians before them, we live in a failing society. I contemplate these specifics of our own imbalanced relationships:

  • We disdain religions, science, expertise of any kind, any perspective not our own.
  • We reject truth claims and accept fake news.
  • We follow people who claim they will save us.
  • Our leaders do not have as their primary goal seeking justice.
  • Serious crimes go unpunished, crimes against humanity and crimes against creation, while many are falsely imprisoned (Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).
  • We exploit the poor and disadvantaged. The “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[6] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%.

Further, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. Worldwide we kill to eat more than 150 billion animals every year and 90 billion marine animals. Of those, the average number of animals killed for food per year per American is 280, while the average number for each human being on earth is about 21. Even as we guzzle the earth’s resources, we waste 40% of our food and create who knows how much material waste? Walking distance from me, a new bank building was razed to the ground to make way for newer construction.

We not only continue to guzzle but anticipate sucking even more life from the planet without cessation as the president signs resolutions that trample on the rights of people, allow pollution of our water and air and decimation of our fellow creatures, domestic and wild. We see our leaders, with an absence of humility, wield narrow religiously motivated regulations like weapons instead of encouraging discussion, understanding and respect for the values of others and of their religious and secular traditions and commitments.

We watch as the government hides what we are doing in order to relieve citizens of their moral complicity, which might otherwise cause them to speak out. Legally entering refugees are quickly sequestered in hidden rooms at the airport for deportation, and those who came over the southern border, some here for many years, some with permission, are rounded up at night. EPA and animal welfare records disappear from the internet. Daily our government erases our modern Bible, our record of the ways in which human activity has devastated creation. The process will hamper future efforts to hold back the flood waters.

When I watch a president carelessly guzzle hamburgers made from the flesh of farmed animals, killed out of sight to separate us from the moral responsibility of taking life; when I see his trophy-hunter sons proudly displaying a beautiful but lifeless animal they killed and offering trophy-hunting opps through the White House; when I see that our society has coughed up a Steve Bannon or a Stephen Miller to positions of prominence in our nation; when I see a president more intent on bragging about his election victory than on honoring the men and women who serve us every day; when I watch the gates close to desperate people seeking compassion and safety; when I hear of mounting attacks on minorities and disadvantaged; when I watch unrelenting attacks on truth and fact day after day; when I see policies that deprive citizens of their basic rights and continue the trend of sending money to the top 1%; when I see us utterly neglecting the less advantaged as we slash programs for them, I feel as though a flood is rushing in upon us. And it is.

This flood is the inevitable consequence of what our society has become. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, it is an inevitable consequence. We are not at the end of those consequences yet.

Our system of justice will see further perversion. Human rights will see further erosion. The innocents and those without the resources to resist will suffer more. We will devastate the creation that surrounds us even further, oblivious to the life that is in it while proudly marching with pro-life banners. Our neighborhood, our nation, is failing. We are profoundly out of balance.

So I feel this deluge, I feel its inevitability, and I suffered from my unspoken awareness. Until I was able to fully identify my profound sense of inevitability and name it, I rushed about trying to plug holes in the great dam, engaging in frantic activity that would never stop what was coming.

We are, indeed, in very literal ways, experiencing a rupture in the fabric of creation, a roll back. And here’s the unlikely idea that brought me peace this week: In a strange way, it is reassuring to know it has happened before, others have experienced this cosmic cataclysm and preserved something of value.

In addition to naming this cataclysm I was reminded that Jeremiah’s message has another aspect to it. He brings not only the message of the inevitability of consequences but the inevitability of restoration, not a restoration of what was but of what might yet be: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). It was futile for that small nation to fight the armies of Babylon, but even as the walls of Jerusalem fell, its inhabitants could plant trees and build. They could preserve the great principles that should have guided their society. They could get their society ready for a better day that would come.

Although we live in times that pronounce a judgment on us, times when pre-creation darkness descends on us, the inevitable consequence of our failure as a society, we also have an opportunity to build and plant. We have an opportunity to preserve something that will guide us in a restart. When we restart, things may not look the same as they do today — but they shouldn’t.

If our nation produces and chooses leaders who value successful competition above all else; if we moment-by-moment absolve ourselves from the moral responsibility we have for life on the planet, whether our fellow human beings in Syria, our “neighbors” in minority communities in the U.S., or farmed animals bred as commodities to be killed after short lives of abuse; if we fail to protect wildlife, showing compassion and respect for all our fellow creatures on the planet; if we indulge our impulses and greed; waste our precious resources; deny facts or the possibility of truth; or arrogantly insist on our ideologies whether left or right, religious or secular, we will fail. We are failing.

So what to preserve? What to plant and build? When I read Torah, its words speak to me of life in these times, of preserving life in these times, of what we must hold onto going forward. These powerful narratives tell me what I need to do as the destructive forces reach the walls of the city:

  • They tell me that the values at the base of our society are wrong. They may once have been reasonable, even inspiring ideas, but they are now completely corrupt, a progressive process that culminates in our time. Values which discount everything but individual self-interest, values that put us completely out of balance with every thing outside ourselves, cause a roll back of creation. Within our lifetimes, without a course adjustment, we may see that happen literally.
  • They tell me our task is so much greater than voting in a different government. We must, rather, replace the values that drive our country today with different, sustainable values, values of interdependence, cooperation, compassion and justice.
  • They remind me to be humble in the face of transcendence, humble in the face of what others might know that I don’t.
  • They tell me to love truth, reject ideologies that obscure truth, and resist following leaders who say they will save us.
  • They tell me about an economy of consequences. If Americans on average eat 280 animals per year, some of us must eat none, and I see the number of those doing just that growing. If Americans usually participate in a food supply mechanism that supports waste and injustice, I need to do my best to support ways of doing food that create a different narrative. I can support my local food coop and work in the fields at my CSA, planting and harvesting, supporting local farmers and putting my body into the work of a different way of doing food.
  • They tell me that all change begins at the local level. G-d created…then brought a flood to destroy it all and start over. In the new creation, G-d focused on a local group. That local group, the “neighbors” of the 10 Words or Commandments, Israelite society, also failed. Apparently G-d thought that was still a good plan, though, because the ongoing story tells us that G-d was ready to try again with that local group. We may be limited in what we can achieve nationally right now, but we can do a lot in our neighborhood.

We need wisdom from every source to address this transformation of our society. I have unique insights to share based on my life experience as does my Muslim neighbor as does a secular humanist or political activist or individual experiencing life in the coal belt. Subsistence farmers bring as much wisdom and experience to providing food as does Big Ag. Someone who simply sits and watches the sun rise and set each day has unique wisdom. We need it all, every bit of wisdom and expertise from every person on this earth, to not only pass through these times but to discover the seeds that will let us plant, the stones that will let us build.

We can and must build a society that inspires in its citizens a capacity for humility and radical amazement in the face of the wisdom throughout creation, a society that teaches its citizens how to live in harmony with their fellow human beings, fellow creatures and the natural world, a society that teaches that each citizen can make a unique contribution to building a meaningful life for us all on this planet and that includes each citizen in that project.

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

Reclaiming The Burning Bush

This post ended up being lengthy because it’s actually two in one. A podcast I viewed as I was writing helped me look at my topic through a different lens, and I started to write a note…which turned into a post of its own. I decided to leave it here as a note here since it’s relevant to my discussion.

THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE RELIGIOUS CIVILIZATIONS & SACRED TEXTS

Questions about the source of the Bible or the sacred scriptures of religions hold little meaning for me, although the stories of origin do. I like to study the text I have in front of me, accept its unity regardless of its source, and discover how it speaks to me.

Similarly statements about what a religion is or isn’t hold little meaning for me. From my perspective, a religion is how its adherents at any point in time understand its sacred stories and traditions and apply them in their lives and in the world.

Religions evolve and change. If they don’t, if they are fixed throughout time, there is no opportunity for people to engage with them, to make them a foundation for living in the world. Religions are living, not static. They are an interaction of ideas and texts and stories and songs and ethics and rituals and laws that engage people in different times and places throughout history, changing as people bring them to life in particular situations.

Because of this perspective, I squirm when a religion is characterized as a “religion of peace” or a “violent religion.” Just as every major religion has violence in its history — each also has powerful messages of compassion, healing and hope.

So as I accept the unity of a sacred text, or at least those texts that present themselves as unified, I also accept the unity of religious cultures at any point in time. Negative or violent movements in a religious/cultural framework are not separate from the religious/cultural framework itself. These movements may not define the religious culture, but they are not separate from it.

I apply this perspective to every religious culture and therefore consider Nazism as much a function of Christian religious culture in a certain time and place as I do Islamic terrorism a function of Islamic religious culture in a certain time and place and the Massacre of the Innocents or the murder of Rabin functions of a religious culture in certain times and places.

From that perspective, if the religious right wants to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, then they also must claim responsibility for policies completely antithetical to messages in a text they claim as the foundation of their religion. In addition, Judeo-Christian religious culture in the U.S. at this time in history must claim resurgent hate movements and activity in this country as our own.

A BURNING BUSH: COMPELLING IDEAS AND VALUES THAT LEAD TO CREATIVE ACTION IN THE WORLD

The fact that religions change over time doesn’t mean they don’t offer us universals, ideas and values that emerge from a unified consciousness.

I’m thinking about the length of time religious civilizations have lasted, most for millennia.  Even Islam, the most recently arrived of the world’s major religions, has a 13 century history and today is experiencing a resurgence. A new report from the Pew Research Center tells us that Islam “will nearly equal Christianity by 2050 before eclipsing it around 2070, if current trends continue.”

The United States has been a nation just since 1776, 240 years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of history. Just over two centuries for our democratic experiment…vs. 13 centuries of Islamic civilization and three, four or more millennia to date for other religious civilizations.

Some even suggest, if the U.S. doesn’t change its current trajectory, it is on the downward slope toward ending its experiment in democracy — while Islamic religious civilization is resurgent. If Islam hasn’t yet found its footing, we are losing ours according to many on both the left and the right.

I wondered what gives religious civilizations their staying power, and why our bold experiment in democracy is cracking at the seams after such a relatively short life?

I had this thought: a compelling idea with its associated values is a bush that burns — but is not consumed. It propels a society forward, providing the framework for achievement, creativity, growth and development. It is an idea so compelling that it arrests our attention and both inspires and leads us throughout history, although its surface appearance may change. Years ago I heard a marvelous recording that captures the universality of this idea, although in the form of a staff – The Peasle Tree Sermon.

Despite anti-creation forces in every religious civilization, they have also all been forces for good in the world, creative energies, burning bushes that provide those compelling principles and values that drive adherents to work for a better world.

Our democratic idea was a burning bush at one time in history, but it seems to be no longer. Why? Instead of railing about criticism of the U.S. and its policies coming from within and without, perhaps we should pause to consider what these criticisms and this anger are telling us about who we are at this moment in time. Perhaps we should stop shouting slogans and posturing and reassuring ourselves for a moment and listen to each other and contemplate. We might be astonished to discover how many of us have the same concerns and would respond to the same strong message if our anguish and our desire weren’t camouflaged under our cultural battle cries.

HOW THE BURNING BUSH LOST ITS FIRE

At risk of vast over-simplification, I want to share some thoughts about why our idea seems to have lost its force and power to lead us after just 240 years while religious civilizations are still here millennia after their ideas and values first entered history.

Our founding fathers recognized that unregulated democracy creates injustice and so forged us as a republic, intending to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, we learned from our history that capitalism requires checks in order to work for the broader society. The more we remove these restraints, the more our burning bush loses its fire.

The cry of the French Revolution, which we embraced at our inception, is no longer heard in our land: liberty, equality, brotherhood. This was an idea and a set of values that inspired people so profoundly that they were willing to give their lives to make it a living principle, much the way religious martyrs throughout history have done.

The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France offered us another myth about ourselves, a vision for who we could be at our best, in the words of Jewish-American, Emma Lazarus, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This myth is one that seems at best out of sync with our action in the world.

But the failure of checks and balances isn’t our only problem. As I have had the opportunity to be more reflective in the last two or three years about food choices and our food supply, I’ve come to see my world through a different lens. The problem I see at the root of our food supply, the problem that poisons the food chain, bringing chronic disease, death, injustice, poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, is the same problem that permeates our culture, our politics and our world. It is the same problem that makes our republic no longer a burning bush, no longer a compelling ideal.

In addition to eroding those checks and balances that were carefully built into our constitution, we have allowed another imbalance to take over our society, and that is, secularism, including an ideal of unfettered relativism. While the founding fathers may not have been Christians in the image of today’s evangelicals (some left their Christian faith and practice to become Deists, and many others were influenced by Deism, a Enlightenment rationalist idea) they were not anti-religion or anti- spiritually rooted values. Indeed many founding documents and artifacts draw on Hebrew scripture for inspiration. The framers of the Constitution simply believed that the tenets of a specific religious profession should not be part of the constitutional and legal framework of the United States. The way we have translated the idea of separation of church and state would probably surprise them today.

Secularism and relativism bring many important benefits, often including respect for those whose cultural norms and expressions don’t match our own — but coupled with an erosion in how we value our own republic with its system of checks and balances, we have created a society which repudiates the values found in every major religious culture. Successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism rule the day while we continue to claim we are caring and compassionate. Yet our actions demonstrate the truth of what we have become.

We must claim this current version of our American ideal as part of what America is. Just as we can’t say any religion is a religion of peace or of violence, we cannot say America is a caring and compassionate country — but we also don’t have to let this vision of banning Muslims and rounding up Mexicans and censoring science and debunking our institutions and values define us completely. Both are part of who we are today at this time in history. We are no longer, if we ever were, a shining city on a hill. That is our myth about ourselves, our vision that sustains us and guides our action in the world when we let it.  At present, when we even think of it in the rough and tumble of daily life, it is a myth in remission.

REGAINING THE BURNING BUSH

I am not saying that myths are bad things. They are constructs, as is anything in the created world, including language itself, our vehicle for communication. It is impossible to comprehend reality without looking at it through a construct. Every religion knows this and has its myths of origin, its myths that explain the world and its relationship to transcendence. These myths contribute to creating us as human beings and build our worldview according to a set of beliefs or principles and values.

Similarly rituals and law codes create us, teaching us how to live within a society. Basic to every major religion are codes that inculcate caring and compassion and behaviors that build society.

The myths of religious civilizations, the rituals and the codes that emphasize caring and compassion, are burning bushes that have inspired adherents for millennia. I maintain that our history of secularism, relativism and capitalism demonstrates these principles cannot sustain a democracy. Therefore they cannot serve the same purpose as spiritual value systems that recognize the interdependence of human beings with creation and transcendence. The lessons we teach, the ways we create human beings in our society, based on successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism will never maintain their fire. They will achieve their ends by asserting power. There is no other possibility. These are not values for which people will willingly give their lives.

Many on the right stake their claim to leadership on a specific religious worldview and frame the left as godless secularists. Many on the left undoubtedly add to this image when they ridicule and discount what they portray as simplistic religious ideas.

Let’s consider, for a moment, that human engagement with transcendence and ultimate meanings is, rather, audacious, as are all ideas about the value of human life on this planet. Engagement, a process, is audacious. Asserting that one knows ultimate truth is human arrogance — but so is rejecting engagement in the process of discovery and connection. Some humility from both directions is probably in order.

I think perhaps the left has been too quick to see what is negative about being “religious,” however we define that and for whatever specific faith.

There is this fact — for a civilization to survive over millennia, even to thrive, its adherents must be inspired and driven by compelling principles and values. These principles and values must be communicated in meaningful ways that shape people’s lives in the world. All mainstream religions can claim major success in this respect by virtue of their long-term and continuing energy and ability to inspire. Our 240 year old republic, in the meantime, struggles.  Half of our citizens aren’t even inspired to vote much less offer their lives for the current principles and values of our society.

I think we on the left need to look closely at what religious civilizations teach us about serving as a burning bush for the long haul. All major religions emphasize values of caring and compassion. All remind us to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the forgotten among us. And all use myth, ritual and ethical codes to teach us those values, to shape us as human beings.

The left needs to actively re-engage with the meaning of our existence in the context of transcendence and ultimate unity. From this engaged perspective, it must forge a vision, a message, that reinspires its current adherents and shapes and inspires new generations to transform society.

By transformation, I mean we must dismantle the worn out foundation on which we operate today, overwhelmingly secular, relativist and capitalist. We must pour a new foundation, one resting on the principle of the unity of all being, a principle that expresses itself in caring and compassion in every word, action and policy. A principle that expresses itself in community, the kind of community we all want, a community where no person is forgotten or diminished. A principle that expresses itself in our connection to and dependence on the rest of creation.

While we need the humility to recognize as many different paths to enduring truth as there are people in the world, we also need the audacity to engage, to reclaim the enduring significance of a burning bush, a bush that burns but is not consumed, to lead our society forward.

* * * * * *

*NOTES: Yesterday as I was continuing to edit this post, a friend shared a fascinating podcast with me which I believe discusses in a different way some of the same issues I struggle with above.

I was recently alerted to my own dissatisfaction or paradoxical relationship to what Ken Wilber calls the “green” movement, a point of view that asserts there is no absolute truth, that all truth is context specific and relative and that all points of view or cultures or belief systems have equal value.

On the one hand, as you can see from what I have written, I gravitate toward and am trained in cultural studies of religion. This is the method by which religion is taught in universities today — culture and time specific and relative. There are many advantages to this method, and it allows a measure of objectivity, understanding and respect that exists only uncomfortably with assertions of the truth of myth, an approach invariably associated with ethnocentricity, according to Wilber. I’ll add to that anthropocentricity.

On the other hand, as Wilber explains, this “green” perspective becomes mired in self-contradiction and finally, leads to nihilism. If no value statement is superior to any other, then value statements about the green approach itself is also not superior to any other. This leads to an idea that there is no way to say what is true or what superior values can guide us in this life. If there is no difference between bad values and good, in fact no good or bad values, just values — well, why choose one or the other? And if there is no reason to choose and no absolute truth, how is there meaning in our human activity? Why bother with anything, including living?

I sensed but haven’t been able to verbalize this paradox with regard to my studies. I came up against it at a personal level in my late teens when I arrived at a point that I felt there were only two possible responses to questions about the meaning of life: yes or no. Stark, simple, no elaboration needed. A “yes” choice is a biologically driven choice on the one hand, since life wants to live — and a leap of faith on the other hand.

I came up against it again recently in a series of classes I recently took in religion as a refresher. There was a discussion question to Pope Francis’ 2016 statement: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the Pope told journalists who asked his opinion on Trump’s proposals to halt illegal immigration.” The question we were asked was, is Pope Francis correct in making this statement?

From the perspective of the cultural study of religion, he was not. Pope Francis is Catholic, and Trump is Presbyterian. Who says what Christianity is or isn’t? Christianity is what people who consider themselves Christian do at any point in time, etc. As I said, I understand this perspective and the benefits it offers…but I found myself having a negative gut reaction to it. My instinct tells me that if the world and our lives are to have meaning, we require definition, boundaries within which we live, we must make choices on the basis of values we can judge to be superior to other values.

Finally I recognize that the conundrum of the left matches my own conundrum. If we disparage religions as blind and ethnocentric — say that all values systems are equal and that ethics or beliefs are situational and relative…how can we assert a message superior to others? How can we make a statement that has the power to move people, a message we can claim is superior to the message that currently invigorates and moves the right to action?

Here is how I resolve this dilemma for myself. How this works in a political framework, I’m not certain, and that is what I tried to deal with in this post. A statement from Mishna Haggiga guides me: “Whoever speculates on one of four things should better not have been created: what is above; what is below; what is before; and what is after.”

Although the statement, like any scriptural statement, has a context-specific point of origin and addresses context-specific questions, it also has a universal dimension. In that respect, it is similar to statements we hear in so many forms from so many different contexts: we can’t know the mind of G-d, be in the present, develop an attitude and practice of caring and compassion toward the world around us. For a person who, like me, accepts a spiritual dimension, that is the backdrop for everything, it informs everything, but my focus and attention are on how I live in the world. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t want to follow philosophical ideas to their logical end point. They will inevitably fail.

My academic training and my “green” orientation keep me humble. I accept that any worldview is a construct. It might be ultimate or absolute truth, but there is no way any human being knows that for certain, and we are all shaped by our historical and cultural environment, me as much as anyone else.

My personal experience tells me we cannot live without these constructs, and Wilber’s comment defines that conundrum, laying bare the ultimate nihilism of a cultural studies approach. And so I would call the construct that I choose “functional.” I choose it because it works in the way I want it to work in my life: the worldview I choose gives me hope, guides me to be the best person I can be, inspires me to engage actively in the world in which I find myself, inspires me to create.

If there is one absolute, as Wilber points out, it is the persistence of pattern in creation. One of those patterns is that life is creative. Another is that all life ends. So I sought and found a functional worldview that inspires me to become part of that creative activity in the time between my beginning and my end.

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

Torah Ecology: Va-era & Bo – Ex 10:1-13:16

INTRODUCTION

Today I begin a new project of looking at the weekly Torah portions, searching for insights on food, “animal rights,” agriculture and ecology. Immediately a difficulty presented itself. My approach to the text doesn’t always fit neatly with the portions. This week, for example, is Va-era (Ex 6:2-9:35), and the coming week is Bo (Ex 10:1-13:16). The Ten Plagues, which is what I want to look at in this post, are split between the two portions. As a result, I’m going to move along more or less with the Torah portions but not promise to restrict myself to those confines.

So my next problem was, what to call it? “Torah Portions” doesn’t work because it doesn’t seem it will be exactly that. I hit upon Torah Ecology because it describes nicely how I think my project will unfold.

Ecology is the “study of interactions among organisms and their environment.” It is a study, therefore, of relationships, and one thing I’m pretty sure I’ll find again and again as I study these pages is that Torah is a study of relationships. There are three domains in Torah:  Transcendence/G-d, human, creation (which in turn divides into three “environments,” water, air and earth). I want to look at relationships between and within those categories, Torah ecology.

TEN PLAGUES

A phrase with variations punctuates the story of the 10 plagues, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” In addition, an interval of 7 days with an association to blood frames it:

  • When Moses turns the rivers to blood during the first plague, it lasts for seven days: “And seven days were fulfilled, after that the Lord had smitten the river.” (Ex 7:23)
  • Following the tenth plague, when G-d smites the first-born of the Egyptians, G-d says, “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread…” (Ex 12:13-15)

Between this bracket, the ten plagues unfold. As anyone knows who has ever attended a Passover seder, these plagues, in order, are:

  1. Blood (affects waters)
  2. Frogs (affect humans)
  3. Gnats or Lice (affect humans and beasts)
  4. Flies (affect earth)
  5. Murrain or plague (kills the cattle)
  6. Boils (affect cattle and humans)
  7. Hail (affects beasts, humans, every herb of the field, every tree)
  8. Locusts (darken the land, eat all remaining vegetation)
  9. Darkness (palpable, for three days, cannot see one another)
  10. Slaying of the first-born and proclamation of Passover

Intuition immediately suggests to me there is a structure here. Dr. Norman Fredman, Coordinator of the Counselor Education Programs of Queens College, CUNY, in “The Ten Plagues” points out that “the Haggadah presents the classical argument between Bible scholars: Should the Ten Plagues be viewed as five pairs of plagues or as three triads of plagues (plus one)?”

I want to focus on the latter, three triads plus one, because it relates most closely to my instinctive understanding, that the plagues roll back creation.

In the creation story, which begins with darkness upon the face of the deep, G-d creates the world in two triads (plus one):

  • Earth that divides seas from land and puts forth grass, herbs, trees
  • Firmament that divides waters above from waters below (heaven or sky)
  • Light that divides light from darkness
  • Lights in the firmament (sun, moon, stars) to divide day and night
  • Creatures of the water and sky
  • Creatures of the earth including humans
  • Shabbat, the Sabbath, for rest

This arrangement shows G-d creating environments, then filling the environments with life, and crowning all of creation with Shabbat, a day of rest from the work of creating.

In a parallel fashion, the first three plagues affect water and land creatures, beasts and humans. The second three plagues affect the land and land creatures, cattle (domesticated) and humans. The third three plagues affect beasts, remaining vegetation and humans, enveloping them in increasing darkness until finally they can’t even see each other. The world is dark, creation eradicated, the earth returned to  “tohu va-vohu,” the darkness and unformed void of pre-creation.

The plus one of the 10th plague, slaying of the first-born, rolls the “future” back into pre-creation. The Egyptians and their world are effectively uncreated with no future.

As with the creation story, on this plus one occasion, G-d proclaims a commemoration, including a time of rest, for the Israelites, who were spared this dissolution of creation. “In the first day there shall be to you a holy convocation, and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done by you.” (Ex 12:16)

As dramatic as the creation story is, a differentiated world of light and dark, land and sea, sun, moon, stars, creatures, human beings and rich vegetation emerging from darkness and unformed void — just as dramatic is the story of the 10 plagues as that creation is first deformed, then swallowed back into darkness and unformed void.

FREEDOM, INTERDEPENDENCE & ECOLOGY

As I try to understand what the text tells me about why G-d would enact this cosmic reversal, I notice a structuring device that points to the relationship between freedom, interdependence and ecological disaster.

Under G-d’s direction, Moses demands from Pharoah, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” This phrase forms a refrain. On three occasions, though, Moses doesn’t make this announcement: the 3rd, 6th and 9th plagues (the last plague in each triad). The 3rd and 6th plagues both begin with Moses throwing dust of the earth into the air, which expands, filling the air and darkening the world with first gnats/lice that attack humans and beasts, then boils that attack humans and their cattle. These plagues foreshadow the 9th plague, when the world becomes palpably dark and people cannot see one another.

The 1st, 4th and 7th (the first plague in each triad) plagues present the refrain differently. In relation to the 1st and 4th plagues, Moses says to Pharaoh, Let my people go that they may serve me in the wilderness. We’ll come back to this.

With regard to the 7th plague, G-d tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go that they may serve me” but adds, “Surely now I had put forth My hand and smitten thee and thy people with pestilence and thou hadst been cut off (va-ti-kached) from the earth…” (Ex 9:15) When Moses speaks to the Israelites on G-d’s behalf about the Feast of Unleavened Bread in preparation for the “plus one” 10th plague, he says, “…for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off (v-nich’r’ta) from Israel.”

Why two different words with such very similar meanings? G-d could have “cut off” the Egyptians…with a word that means, wiped out, annihilated, covered up, hidden. G-d will “cut off” the Israelites in the event that they fail to eat unleavened bread with a word that means, wiped out, destroyed, amputated, lost. I’m still pondering this, but the first thought that occurs to me is that “covered up” and “hidden” associate with the great darkness that comes on the Egyptians as G-d rolls back creation. The Israelites, on the other hand, failing to remember the saving actions that freed them, lose their connection to their people, with whom they were freed and from whom they will be amputated. Failure to remember, and they are lost.

So why does the refrain change before the 1st and 4th plagues, adding, in the wilderness? These plagues represent pollution of the water in the land of Egypt and pollution of the land. Similarly, the 7th plague is disruption in the sky — three environments, water, earth, air, each disrupted and polluted, then poisoning everything in creation. The wilderness is something different, wild, untouched, away from civilization, regenerative. Some have compared it to a mikvah, a ritual bath, spiritual cleansing and regeneration.

There is more. “Midbar,” the Hebrew word for wilderness, has the same root as the word “dabar” or “davar,” meaning word or thing. The Israelites receive G-d’s revelation in the wilderness, a revelation in words. The 10 commandments are “Aseret ha-dibrot,” 10 words or things. And here is another connection to the creation story, where G-d creates with words. G-d speaks to create.  The wilderness experience links creation, revelation and redemption (return of the Israelites to the “land” and to G-d).

CONCLUSION

There are many themes and threads in this story, but those that stand out to me are the nature and meaning of creation and of humanity and the relationship between G-d, creation and human beings.

G-d requires Pharaoh to free G-d’s people. The world envisioned in the Torah is one in which freedom is a basic premise of humanity. Only in freedom can human beings experience their connection to the rest of creation, to each other and to Transcendence. Israelite freedom is for the purpose of worship, connection to Transcendence. G-d’s demand is that the Israelites leave Egypt, the place of bondage, to go to the wilderness, the place of freedom, of words, of creativity, a place where they can hear G-d speak. The wilderness is also a place where they connect with the truth of the natural world, away from the confines of civilization.

In contrast, Pharaoh enslaves people. In slavery, people live in darkness, so dark they cannot even see each other. This alienation causes disruption in the fabric of creation. Each of the plagues is an environmental disaster with pollution of land and water and disruption of the heavens destroying all life in those environments. Creation becomes uninhabitable, people are hidden from each other, there is no future, no connection to Transcendence, and finally everything is swallowed up in darkness and formless void, a wordless pre-creation state.

While the story is one of freedom, teaching us that only free human beings can connect to Transcendence and to their natural environment, it is also one of interdependence, in which distortions in one realm cause distortions in others. People alienated from Transcendence are also alienated from the natural world and finally from each other. They are isolated, annihilated, covered up and hidden.

As I studied this story, reading the details of each plague and envisioning the experience, I was awed by the power of the words. This bondage, this lack of freedom, was an affront to creation, an affront to the balance of the cosmos, the balance between human life, the rest of creation and the unity behind and through all being. This slavery brought on a darkness so pervasive and palpable that one human could not see another. It brought about the end of creation.

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

My Statement of Faith During National Tragedy

March for Women Chicago 2017, a miraculously warm and sunny midwinter day in Chicago when 250,000 people turned out instead of the anticipated 50,000.

I believe there is a creative energy behind and in creation. That energy created the world and suffuses it with wisdom and beauty. I also believe there is a destructive energy in creation. I see this in the paradox that is the basis of our lives on earth: our survival depends not only on creating but on destroying life. We destroy in big and small ways in every moment.

The Jewish mystics of the 16th century saw these energies. Unlike the philosophers who claimed one energy is G-d and the other is not, the mystics boldly claimed both are G-d. In balance, these energies sustain a harmonious natural order. Human beings are responsible to keep these energies in balance. Each smallest act of every human being contributes to the energy that is G-d. If evil acts prevail, there is disruption in the harmonious energy force some of us call G-d. Interdependent as we all are, and as we are with this force in the cosmos, disrupted energy reciprocally influences the world.

Hinduism captures this paradox in Kali: “Kali is the Hindu goddess (or Devi) of death, time, and doomsday and is often associated with sexuality and violence but is also considered a strong mother-figure and symbolic of motherly-love. Kali also embodies shakti – feminine energy, creativity and fertility.”

As I view with dismay the activity of our current president, a man whose name I will no longer promote by using it, I have to remind myself that he is a mere playing out of destructive energy, the result of disruption in the spiritual energy field. He and his more dangerous adviser, Bannon, whom I believe will soon run the country and bring great death and destruction, will not last. In the bigger picture, despite their grandiose visions of themselves, they are mere specks of dust.

I think of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who brought such great calamity on his people as he brutalized and tried to stifle the yearnings of his Hebrew slaves, and I think of Hitler, who murdered 6,000,000 Jews and at least 6,000,000 others whom he considered inferior or “betrayers.” The wider my frame for my picture of human history, tho, the more these men and other tyrants fade into oblivion. Instead, the real leaders of history, some whom we all recognize, some who were never known beyond their neighborhood, stand out in my heart and my memory and my soul, and their armies will prevail. These true leaders represent creative energy and inspire creativity and generosity of spirit in those whom they lead. They lead us all toward harmony with our neighbors and all of creation through their own lives.

The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the destruction of the 2nd Temple to “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred. In Tosefta, the rabbis said the destruction was “because they love money and each one hates his neighbor.” They point to prevailing qualities in a broken society, a society dominated by destructive values. We are here.

But I also see and feel an opposing creative energy, a moral force, rising and gaining strength in response to these materialistic men grabbing power in the U.S. and other parts of the world and the societies that generated them. I feel this opposing creative energy rising around the world, in every religious culture, every ethnic culture, every nation-state, every political party, every gender, every age. This rising energy will prevail and move us toward a world of true harmony, or at least will move the needle closer to harmonious relationships with each other, with nature and with the energy that gives life to all of creation. We will push back the needle on the Doomsday Clock.

How do my beliefs play out in the real political world? I am a Spiritual Progressive. I believe the most urgent task confronting us is the spiritual transformation of society: a Spiritual Progressive “seeks to transform our materialist and corporate-dominated society into a caring society through consciousness raising, advocacy, and public awareness campaigns that promote a “New Bottom Line” based on generosity, peace, and social transformation.”

Going forward, I will judge every candidate for office based not on their party and not on their unquestioning support for any single issue but on their commitment to the principle of social transformation and on their ability to effectively lead people toward bringing it about.

“The NSP shifts mass consciousness by challenging status-quo ideas about what is possible.” If you would like to read more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives and what a Spiritual Progressive is and learn specific steps you can take to help transform our society, please visit www.spiritualprogressives.org/newsite.

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