Walking Between the Raindrops

Walking Between the Raindrops

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to share in services and Torah discussion on Zoom with a group from my synagogue. In the same spirit as the blessing, “Blessed are you O Lord our God Who has not made me a woman,“ I would like to say, “Blessed are you O Lord our God Who has not made me Orthodox.” Just as the first is a Jewish man’s expression of joy in being obligated to all the commandments, including those which are time-bound (a woman is not obligated to those) — the second is an expression of joy that I could share in a Shabbat morning service via an electronic device.

Our Torah discussion crystallized some thoughts I have about a set of themes that seem to compete in the Torah. The first set of themes is set forth in the Garden story and recurs periodically in the text. The second set is captured in the story of Cain and Abel and presented most completely in Vayikra, from which we read yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preface to The Animals’ Story in the Torah

Preface to The Animals’ Story in the Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One: Creation – Equality of Being, Abundance for All

Chapter One: Creation – Equality of Being, Abundance for All

“Let us remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption. They are splendid beings in their own right, who have evolved alongside us as co-inheritors of all the beauty and abundance of life on this planet” ~ Marc Bekoff

The Sixth Day: The Animals’ Story Begins

On the sixth day of creation, this happened . . .

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩ אֶת־חַיַּ֨ת הָאָ֜רֶץ לְמִינָ֗הּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And God saw that this was good. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ 

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃ 

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. 

וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃ 

And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. 

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ (פ) 

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. ~ Genesis 1:24-31

A Story of Parallel Relationships

This story begins not on the first but on the sixth day. It is the nonhuman animals’ story in the Torah. As it happens, it is also the beginning of the human story and therefore the beginning of the story of a human – nonhuman animal relationship.

The animals’ story, like the story of God’s relationship with humans, is a story of relationship. As humans relate to God, nonhuman animals relate to humans, who are intended to be representatives of God in creation.

God “makes” both human and nonhuman animals (וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩), but there is a difference between human and nonhuman animals. The human is in the image and likeness of God. What does this mean?

As a king places a local statue to represent his rule to his subjects, so God places human beings on earth to represent God’s sovereignty over creation. This phrase, then, establishes the intended human role in creation. As God’s kingly representatives, humans are to subdue and “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

So God is the ultimate ruler, and humans represent God’s sovereignty in creation. The God-human relationship parallels the human-animal relationship.

But the story hints at an inherent problem. Taking a closer look at the nonhuman animal world, we begin to see its outlines.

There are three varieties of nonhuman land animals: wild beasts, domesticated animals and “creeping things of the earth” (רֶ֛מֶש – creeping, moving, swarming, crawling).

This last category of animals, swarming, crawling things, appears to be the smaller animals that move about the earth, quickly, without legs or with barely perceptible legs, perhaps in large groups.

But then “smaller” may be a matter of perspective. Seen from a vantage point, even large animals appear to swarm (Psalms 104:20, Isaiah 26:6). Even human beings may appear to swarm: “You have made (hu)mankind like the fish of the sea, Like creeping things that have no ruler.” (וַתַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֖ם כִּדְגֵ֣י הַיָּ֑ם כְּרֶ֖מֶשׂ לֹא־מֹשֵׁ֥ל בּֽוֹ׃) ~ Habakkuk 1:14

That verse from Habakkuk points to the inherent problem in creation: swarming things are hard to rule. This comparison provides a clue to the nature of swarming things but also hints at the future of God’s creation when it draws a parallel between swarming things “that have no ruler” and human beings.

Of the three nonhuman varieties of land animals, wild beasts, domesticated animals and swarming things, only domestic animals offer the potential for a harmonious and reciprocal relationship with human beings. Wild beasts are by definition independent and ungovernable, so God’s chosen representative can do little more than avoid them, living and letting live. And in fact, this category of animals is not mentioned in God’s instruction that the human will represent God’s rule on earth.

But swarming things are included in the instruction. Fish of the sea and birds of the air can swarm as well. And here is where the verse from Habbakuk provides insight into the future of God’s creation as do the parallels between the human story and animals’ story.

Thanks to Habbakuk, we know that the biblical perception of swarming things is that they are ungovernable. Similarly we know the wild beasts are ungovernable since they were omitted from the animal categories in God’s instruction. These swarming things, theoretically under human rule, parallel humans under God’s rule. Yet humans are set to rule swarming things as God is set to rule humans.

Beasts of the field, fish of the sea, birds of the air and creeping things, symbols of unruliness, reappear throughout the Hebrew Bible. In this verse from Hosea, the prophet speaks of a time when Israel will return to God who will establish a בְּרִית֙, a “covenant” with these unruly beings on behalf of the Israelites, paralleling the restoration of a covenant relationship between God and the Israelites. There will be peace in the land as it was intended:

וְכָרַתִּ֨י לָהֶ֤ם בְּרִית֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עִם־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְעִם־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וְקֶ֨שֶׁת וְחֶ֤רֶב וּמִלְחָמָה֙ אֶשְׁבּ֣וֹר מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִשְׁכַּבְתִּ֖ים לָבֶֽטַח׃ 

In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety. ~ Hosea 2:20

We Are What We Eat

Finally God addresses food, assigning different fare to humans and to other creatures. To humans, God gives “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit.” To “all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life,” God gives all the green plants. Overflowing abundance, enough for all living creatures, to each an assigned food.

So the humans as well as the nonhuman animals are to fill this earth where food is abundantly available to all. Human food consists of agricultural products, seed-bearing plants and fruit trees. Nonhuman land animals graze, eating green plants, herbs and grasses.

Common to these different meals is that there is plenty for all, nonhuman animals no less than their human counterparts. God provides food without discrimination, for each living being according to its kind, a birthright. It’s hard not to point out this lesson of the Torah: humans are not given the right to destroy or take away the portion assigned to nonhuman animals.

But even though nonhuman animals have their own birthright, there is another dimension to this story of relationship. Humans are to rule this sprawling creation that swarms: bird flocks, fish schools, and all the living things that cluster and crawl about the earth. These living beings not only represent overflowing abundance but an element in creation that humans cannot fully govern.

And as we learn in the rest of the text in the developing relationship between God and humanity, then between God and the Israelites, humans too can be ungovernable, sometimes acting like wild beasts and sometimes like swarming things. Only when they consciously choose do they expand on the compassionate part of their animal nature, acting according to the teachings provided them. Without that mindfulness, their predatory instincts might easily engulf their lives. Humans are no more innately “good” than other living beings.

A Different Perspective on Things

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

וַיִּצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כָּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃ 

And the LORD God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם שֵׁמ֗וֹת לְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּלְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּלְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּלְאָדָ֕ם לֹֽא־מָצָ֥א עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. ~ Gen. 2:18-20

In this version of the creation story, the rulership motif recedes from view along with the swarming things. Instead we see parallel stories of intimacy as God “forms” the nonhuman animals like an artist working with clay, then brings them to Adam to name them. God does this just after commenting “It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

For a moment in time, it seems possible a nonhuman animal might become Adam’s helper. Naming suggests an intimacy between human and nonhuman animals that wasn’t highlighted in the first story where Adam was to subdue and rule creation as G-d’s representative.

And what to make of the odd phrase, עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ, ezer k’negdo, translated “fitting helper”? Ezer, meaning helper, seems clear. But k’negdo literally means “as in front of/against/face-to-face.” Feminist myth-makers might have a lot of fun with neged meaning “against,” suggesting a partner who stands against or up to, the other as an equal.

I kind of like the idea, though, of “face-to-face,” which fits well with the flow of imagery and meaning as the story unfolds. Approaching the text literally for a moment, this earth being, Adam, needs a partner s/he can look in the face as a being that stands upright on two legs. None of the nonhuman animals God brings to Adam fulfills this requirement.

The remaining possibility, which God chooses, is to separate this androgynous earth creature into two upright beings, man (אִ֔ישׁ – Ish) and woman (אִשָּׁ֔ה – Isha). These two upright beings, both human, can meet face-to-face.

The Serpent’s Story: Pun Power . . .

The “face-to-face” translation works well as we come to a turning point in the animals’ story in these first three chapters of Genesis, the story of the serpent.

In a complete reversal of its place as the most arum (עָר֔וּם) of creatures and therefore most likely to be a human partner before the woman took that role, the serpent is doomed to crawl on the ground and eat dirt:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים ׀ אֶֽל־הַנָּחָשׁ֮ כִּ֣י עָשִׂ֣יתָ זֹּאת֒ אָר֤וּר אַתָּה֙ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה וּמִכֹּ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה עַל־גְּחֹנְךָ֣ תֵלֵ֔ךְ וְעָפָ֥ר תֹּאכַ֖ל כָּל־יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

Then the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you did this, More cursed shall you be Than all cattle And all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl And dirt shall you eat All the days of your life. ~ Gen. 3:14

Throughout the story leading up to that decree, the serpent is subtly cast, through a pun with the Hebrew words arum (עָר֔וּם) and ayrome (עֵירֹ֥ם) as a potential equal to the humans among wild beasts. This portrayal reveals something about our human nature from the perspective of the biblical author/s.

To understand the parallel, we need to understand the Hebrew root, a-r-m. In the verse that follows, Gen. 3:1, arum (עָר֔וּם) is translated “shrewd.” In other sections of the Hebrew Bible, the same word is translated “prudent.”

וְהַנָּחָשׁ֙ הָיָ֣ה עָר֔וּם מִכֹּל֙ חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה אַ֚ף כִּֽי־אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְל֔וּ מִכֹּ֖ל עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן׃ 

Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?”  ~ Gen. 3:1

In Gen. 3:10-11, though, in reference to the humans, ayrome (עֵירֹ֥ם) is translated “naked.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃ 

He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֚י הִגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ כִּ֥י עֵירֹ֖ם אָ֑תָּה הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכָל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ׃ 

Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” ~ Gen. 3:10-11

So let’s imagine for a moment that we go with the pun’s associations and reverse translations — using “shrewd” or “prudent” for the humans and “naked” for the snake. Or use the same variety of translations for each since surely a native speaker would have heard that variety of meanings.

The serpent might as well be naked like the humans and unlike the other wild beasts, who all feature furry or hairy skins. Indeed, hairiness distinguishes animals or an animal nature. Isaac mistakes Jacob for his hairy brother, Esau, a “man of the outdoors,” when Jacob’s mother disguises Jacob with a hairy animal skin. The serpent and the first humans are alike in their hairlessness.

Similarly, the humans might just as well be shrewd or prudent after they eat from the tree. They, like the serpent, now know good from bad. Arumayrome tells us that both humans and the serpent are capable of planning, strategizing, scheming and manipulating. This beautiful and nuanced story gives us a range of meaningful possibilities with its artistry.

The layered meaning becomes even more pronounced as we see the same reversal take place for the humans as for the serpent. Just as the serpent is to “crawl on its belly” and eat dirt, making face-to-face partnership with the human impossible, the humans are demoted from their role as God’s representative.

  • God reminds the humans that they are animals like their nonhuman fellow animals by assigning them nonhuman animal food, grasses of the field, as their agricultural products falter.
  • And God reminds them that they, like nonhuman animals, are from the earth and, like the serpent, will return to it.
  • Finally God clothes them in a hairy mantle so they are more like the other animals in appearance as well:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃ 

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; 

By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃ 

וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה כִּ֛י הִ֥וא הָֽיְתָ֖ה אֵ֥ם כָּל־חָֽי׃ 

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.

וַיַּעַשׂ֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם׃ 

And the LORD God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.  ~ Gen. 18-21

Some Thoughts About the Sixth Day

As the shrewd serpent entices the humans, s/he tells them they will achieve godlike status:

כִּ֚י יֹדֵ֣עַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כִּ֗י בְּיוֹם֙ אֲכָלְכֶ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְנִפְקְח֖וּ עֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶם֙ כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים יֹדְעֵ֖י ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע׃ 

but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” ~ Gen. 3:1-4

Perhaps this story comes to tell us not how godlike we are but how animal-like. Our godliness is potentiality, but our animal nature is a reality. We are intimately and inextricably connected to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters. We all share the same earth. We are all of the same substance. We share essential characteristics.

Each animal also has unique characteristics. Even within species, animals differ from each other. Yuval Noah Harari suggests the unique capability of human beings is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. I interpret those words to say we have the capability of envisioning the potentiality of godliness, of “Interbeing” and therefore have a responsibility to make it happen.

But we have no characteristics that establish our innate superiority to other animals. “In God’s image” can refer to a role God gave us, to rule as God’s representatives on earth. But that doesn’t mean our fellow travelers are forgotten or are lesser beings.

The story in the first three chapters of Genesis tells us repeatedly that all life is blessed and that this is a world of plenty, not scarcity. In this world of abundance, each creature has its birthright.

Despite the serpent’s grandiose idea of its own and the humans’ divinity and superiority, both it and the the humans are, after all, animals. They are fellow creatures within this amazing, abundant and often unruly creation where everything is interconnected and the actions of one affect the rest.

Ruling as God’s representatives is a status that can be revoked as well as given. This is a theme that will recur throughout the Torah story. Our work as gardeners bears fruit only as long as we are mindful of our place and role in this beautiful world.

And now, because everything is interconnected, the animals’ story moves forward with our own human story.

The Power of A Story

The Power of A Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us-Themism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three: The Flood – Moral Accountability

Chapter Three: The Flood – Moral Accountability

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

It’s All About Our Interconnected Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flood Story & The Path of Moderation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Extremists Clash: Here Comes the Flood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary on Bereishit says, “The universal corruption is . . . defined as hamas. This term parallels ‘no justice’ in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of ‘falsehood,’ ‘deceit,’ or ‘bloodshed.’ It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.” Also according to Sarna, the key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the Flood narrative, a refrain of sorts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But What Did the Animals Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flood story reverses the imagery of the Creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that narrative as creation recedes. But it is the reference to corruption in the Flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer, helping us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood.

A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that resulted in a return to profound darkness and emptiness.

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

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-Flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, God recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and to animal species according to their individual natures.

Reasserting Interdependence & Equality of Being

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

I haven’t written as much on the Torah portions after two years of working pretty steadily at them. With my focus on the relationship between human beings and other animals, it was inevitable that I would have to struggle with the “meaning” of animal sacrifice.

What was sacrifice supposed to accomplish? How did people feel as they prepared an animal for sacrifice? As they experienced sacrifice as a non-priest? Saw the sight of a terrified animal slaughtered, dissected and burned? There is no way to construe a sacrifice as anything other than a violent act — yet it is presented as drawing close to G-d.” How can I reconcile these things?

Some source-critical examination (a technique I don’t usually favor) helped me some with this problem but in the process caused me even greater difficulty. So did an article I read recently about Passover and the Levites, which inspired a post I have not yet finished.

But I have also turned to looking at the problem through a different lens, the lens of evolutionary biology, and amazingly, it is beginning to give me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. I will write a post about this eventually too.

For now, I just want to mention some books that have been very important to me in this journey: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Barbara King’s Personalities on our Plate, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus.

Most recently I’m reading Not So Different: Finding Human Nature In Animals, by Nathan H. Lents. Just to give you a sense of the topics covered, the chapter headings are: Why do we play? Animal systems of justice, Moral animals, Sexual politics, Do animals fall in love?, The agony of grief, Jealous beasts: the darker side of love, Darker still (envy, greed and power), Afraid of the dark, The richness of animal communication.

This isn’t an esoteric pursuit for me. I don’t believe we evolve beyond our basic evolutionary and biological realities. I don’t believe we are “saved” from who we are through faith except to the extent that it encourages a constant practice rooted in balancing these evolutionary drives. And although I read and appreciated Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I don’t think it deals (or to be fair, intended to deal) with the reality of who we are as human beings and the sustainability of a culture that sets as its highest value the harmonious well-being of all life. Yes, we may have a lower rate of violence progressively through history, at least superficially and temporarily, we may be more educated and have a lower rate of poverty. All indicators may, statistically speaking, be better, but I think I could make an argument it’s not as a result of human nature evolving, and therefore I don’t trust its sustainability.

Human nature is what it is — and every religious culture and many non-religious cultures seek and present us with ways to deal with the reality of human nature and guide us toward something more than the cycle of prey and predator, something more than acting mindlessly or on instinct. These considerations seem particularly relevant today when the world is gripped — in mythic terms — by the darker side of our nature.

Every culture, every ideology, every religion demonstrates that in particular conditions, groups will arise that generate “other” hatred and violence and display and encourage an utter lack of empathy. I believe that attachment to one’s group and what goes along with that — asserting superiority over other groups, feeling and acting dismissively toward the needs of other groups, and ultimately violence toward other groups, including non-human animals — is rooted in our evolution and biology. But so is cooperation and empathy — among both humans and non-human animals. Not So Different helped connect me to the science behind what I perceive and gives me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah.

I hope I have time in my life to study how each religion offers opportunities to work with the reality of who we are as human beings and shapes and educates us to maintain a world-sustaining balance. The chances are good, though, that I will only have time to explore this issue in the kind of depth I would like in the framework of my chosen religion, Judaism. I may not even get past the Bible with that. In fact, I may not even get past the first five books, the Torah.

But no matter how far I’m able to follow this line of study, one thing is clear to me: the darkness that many of us feel in the world today with right wing populism ascendant is the result of giving precedence and unfettered freedom to a biological drive toward greed and an us-them mentality. It is the failure to balance that survival-centered drive with other biological realities like group cooperation and empathy that ultimately leads to violence. This is not a problem of the “right” or the “left,” though, or of any particular religion or culture. It is an imbalance that can occur within any human being and within any society or religion or ideology.

The antidote to violence and hatred in the world is cooperation and empathy, taught and nurtured through daily experience and practice. And what my religion teaches me is a mindful practice that takes us on a path between the extremes, between the drive for self-preservation and the drive toward cooperation and empathy. There is a way we can strive not toward perfection but toward a balance based on realities of human nature the Torah intuited and science now proves.

Where do we fit?

Where do we fit?

I’m interested these days in the relationship between human beings and other animals, how we fit into the fabric of nature, how we managed to get from a mediocre position in the food chain to top spot, and what we have done with that position.

Today I was thinking about two traits that seem to me distinctively human and wondered if I could disprove that theory or if they are indeed defining traits: greed and wastefulness. I found this very interesting article on wolverines that suggests greed, at least, is not limited to human beings: “Wolverines Give Insight Into The Evolution of Greed.”

I can find nothing about wastefulness among other animals, although there’s plenty about the appalling 30-40% waste in the human world. I imagine this either means that no one has researched this particular issue — or that there’s nothing to research, that is, animals don’t typically waste. If anyone finds an article or a report on some research, I’d appreciate knowing about it. You can email me at leslie@vegetatingwithleslie.org or share to my Facebook page. 

On the theme of more desirable traits, Sierra Club featured this beautiful article in their March / April 2019 issue: “Does A Bear Think In The Woods?”

A side note: in the past five years, there have been more than 190,000 publications about various aspects of animal intelligence.

 

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

The day is short, and the work is much . . .

The day is short, and the work is much . . .

Yuval Noah Harari says there is no objective evidence to support any moral system much less one system over another. He also says the unique feature of human beings, Sapiens, is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. And it’s all fiction. I agree with these thoughts, and it keeps me humble.

But I also believe there is purpose in our lives on this planet, as contradictory as that may seem, and it is and has always been to expand the circle of our compassion even as we tend to our own survival needs. That also keeps me humble. It’s hard and constant work. 

My belief in this purpose is what keeps me connected to my religion of choice. The primary purpose of every religion is to provide a framework to guide us toward that objective, expanding our circle of compassion, restraining our less generous instincts and standing against the less generous trends of the society in which we live.

In some ways those less generous instincts are grounded in a perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other” whom we need to defeat or around whom we at least need to be cautious and suspicious. That’s probably a necessary evolutionary characteristic — but we are at our best as humans when we find a balance between self-survival and other- awareness and empathy. Every religion “knows” this.

So I decided to do my work of expanding my circle of compassion, which requires removing some boundaries of perception, by  rethinking my relationship with other animals on the planet. I grew up in a time and culture when meat-eating was taken for granted, and a mental boundary was put in place early on between what was on my plate and where it came from. I find that as I remove those boundaries and blinders, it makes me more aware of other ways I need to widen the circle of compassion and try to see things through the eyes of others. 

Peeking under the curtain to see “the other,” reducing the mental boundaries between myself and “them,” is a task I will never complete and one at which I frequently fail. And often it’s just too painful to lift the curtain. But it’s also a task and purpose I want to remind myself to work on every day.

I think the major obstacle to experiencing and living our lives to the full is our perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other.” Each time we remove a boundary and experience a moment of connection, we realize our potential, meaning and purpose. The interesting thing is, we give that moment to the “other” at the same time.

“The day is short, the work is much, and the laborers are slothful. It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2)

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. 

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

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

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

Following are the animal references in the portion:

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

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

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

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

Ex. 16:3 – “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'”

Ex. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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