What I’m Learning From My Torah Project

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

Thoughts On Failed Societies And Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah Ecology: Mishpatim

If the first three chapters of Genesis outline the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings, Yitro repeats that equation in the section on the 10 “Words” but with the significant additional element of a particular society (Israel, signified by “neighbor”).

Mishpatim (Ex 21:1 – 24:18) now zooms in on that community, providing it with a set of ordinances (Mishpatim) to govern relations within the community and between that community, its wider environment and transcendence.

I think there is a structure in these ordinances but have not yet unravelled the entire sequence, so I will note some marking points:

Ex 21:2 parallels Ex 23:10-12, forming the boundaries of what I think is a chiasm.  Ex 21:2 ordains that a Hebrew slave can only serve 6 years, then in the 7th year must be set free.

Ex 23:10-12 ordains that Israelites sow their land and harvest their olives and vineyards for 6 years and in the 7th years let the fields lie fallow, leaving the olives on the trees and grapes on the vine so first the poor, then the “beasts” can eat.

Ex 23:12 proclaims that Israelites must do their work in 6 days and on the 7th day rest. This rest extends to their beasts (ox and ass), the “son of your handmaid,” and the stranger, emblematic of every creature for whom an Israelite has responsibility.

This frame for the entire sequence of ordinances Moses delivers to the Israelite community puts forward the idea of freedom as primary and foundational. This freedom applies not only to every part of Israelite society, including those less advantaged, but to fellow creatures and to the natural environment itself.

“Shavat,” the Hebrew word that describes what G-d does on the 7th day and is the basis for the name of the 7th day, Shabbat, also states the primary requirement for an Israelite on the 7th day: “cease.” This requirement to “cease,” applies not only to the Israelite but to any part of creation for which he or she is immediately responsible, whether other human beings, beasts in his or her care, or nature itself under his or her care.

The 7th year or the 7th day restores a balance. A slave goes free, the land rests and replenishes, providing the poor and the beasts of the field with nourishment. For a period of time, an Israelite can take — but there is also a time to give back, to allow restoration. In the 7th year or on the 7th day, Israelites feed their fellow creatures and the creation that sustains them during the other six.

Ex 22:17. This odd verse seems to pop in from nowhere in the context of these ordinances: “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live.” In a section of ordinances detailing correct relationships within society and with the wider environment, fellow creatures and transcendence, a section in which each ordinance is thereby transactional in nature, this single statement is not transactional. I think in  its uniqueness, it is the center of the chiasm.

The verse is sandwiched between ordinances related to sexual perversions that disrupt society and the natural order. Ex 22:15 declares “And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.” Ex 22:18 says, “Whosoever lies with a beast shall surely be put to death.”

For the offense in Ex 22:15, seducing a virgin, there are remedies that serve to restore a correct balance in relationships. There is no possibility of restoration in regard to Ex 22:18, sexual “intimacy” with a beast. The solution is death, as for the sorceress. Sorcery and engaging in sex acts with an animal are profoundly anti-creation, so disruptive that the life of the offender must be taken. But how, exactly, are these activities anti-creation?

The translation, “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live” camouflages the sharpness of the Hebrew, which doesn’t waste a syllable: מְכַשֵּׁפָה, לֹא תְחַיֶּה – three words. The first, M’ka’shefa (feminine form), translated “sorceress,” what does it mean?

Deut 18:9-14 lists a number of illicit and prohibited “wielders of supernatural power,” including a M’ka-shef (masculine form). One scholar notes that an Assyrian Dictionary glosses the verb kašāpu with “to bewitch, to cast an evil spell,” and the contexts cited share the sense of malevolent control of a person (or even place).

This last explanation seems particularly relevant to me. In a section of ordinances setting out correct relationships between an Israelite, the rest of creation and transcendence, bracketed by regulations that assert freedom as the foundation of these relationships and ordain a balance between them, a M’ka-shef/a represents a force that applies illegitimate supernatural controls. In that, this activity offends against G-d.

If the overall project of Torah is to teach how to live in correct relationship to society, the natural world and transcendence, and if sorcery offends against G-d, this suggests the significance of the verses that precede and follow the terse statement about sorcery.

Practicing sorcery offends against a G-d whose requirements affirm the ultimate freedom of each individual, indeed of every creature and of nature itself, in relation to transcendence. Seducing a virgin offends against society. Engaging in sexual acts with an animal offends against the order of nature.

In this powerful presentation of how we should live in the world, G-d also teaches through ordinances how we become partners in creating. Mishpatim tells us how to proclaim and support the freedom not only of each individual in a society but of all our fellow creatures and of nature through how we conduct ourselves in relationships with them. In observing these ordinances, in establishing correct relationships, we find our own freedom.

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

Reclaiming The Burning Bush

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

THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE RELIGIOUS CIVILIZATIONS & SACRED TEXTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW THE BURNING BUSH LOST ITS FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGAINING THE BURNING BUSH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cauliflower-Plus Rice

Cauliflower-Plus Rice

“Cauliflower Rice” is a big deal these days with pictures all over the internet. Most often it’s used as a rice substitute — I’ve even seen it used for a pizza “crust.” I had some leftover pieces of cauliflower and broccoli that I wanted to use up so thought I might give it a try as a dish in its own right. My challenge was to come up with a preparation that would fly with those who like to cover cauliflower with cheesy sauces.

This simple little dish turned out to be delicious, very filling — and a great way to use up those parts of a cauliflower head or broccoli bunch that I didn’t use when I made earlier dishes with the florets.

So easy! I just chunked a forlorn-looking left over (raw) carrot, the broccoli stems and the section of cauliflower I had. I put the broccoli stem chunks and the carrot chunks into my food processor first and pulsed until they reached an even, gravelly texture and set aside. Then I did the same with the cauliflower. The cauliflower is softer than the broccoli, so it’s easier to get an even texture with separate processing.

I mixed my veggies together and steamed them briefly in a pot, turned them out into a bowl and contemplated them for a moment trying to figure out how to serve them up without cheese. I decided to salt the dish and add a chipotle-mayo mix I like to make up with Hamilton Creek’s Just Mayo (vegan) and some excellent dried chipotle seasoning I keep on my shelf. That met with everyone’s approval, including mine, both warm and cold. Nom…nom…nom.

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

Torah Ecology: Yitro

Yitro (Ex 18:1-24:18) begins with a story of working out the relationship between Moses and the Israelites and ends with a story of working out the relationship between the Israelites, G-d and the natural world. Choreography mediates these negotiations, which seem to suggest that G-d forgets earlier instructions and requires a reminder from Moses. Part of the process is a democratization of the relationship between the Israelites and transcendence.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY OF RELATIONSHIPS

  • Ex 18:5 Yitro comes to Moses
  • Ex 18:12 Aaron and the elders come to Moses & Yitro, “eat before G-d”
  • Ex 18:27 Yitro leaves
  • Ex 19:2 Israelites camp near Mt. Sinai
  • Ex 19:3 Moses goes up to G-d
  • Ex 19:7 Moses “came” and called for the Elders, relates to them
  • Ex 19:8 Israelites “all the people” respond (although it doesn’t specifically tell us that Elders went to them with report)
  • Ex 19:8b Moses goes up to report to the Lord
  • Ex 19:14 Moses goes down to prepare the Israelites
  • Ex 19:17 Moses takes the Israelites to the bottom of the Mt.
  • Ex 19:18 The Lord “descends” in fire, smokes “ascends”
  • Ex 19:20 Moses goes up to the top of the Mt. where a curious negotiation occurs about who should come up, and Moses reminds G-d that G-d already said the people should not – G-d says, ok, just you come with Aaron, not the priests
  • Ex 19:25 Moses goes down to Israelites
  • Ex 20:1 G-d speaks to Israelites at base of Mt., delivering Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the 10 “words” – the Israelites tell Moses that he should speak with G-d and then deliver G-d’s words to them, not G-d directly (Ex 20:16)
  • Moses enters the “thick darkness” to hear G-d speak about G-d’s self

What occurs in the course of Moses’ dance between his extended family, Aaron, the Elders of the People, the Israelites and G-d?

  • Hierarchical society. Moses father-in-law, Yitro, comes to Moses and “eats before G-d” with Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel, the Elders of the people and a priestly elite (Yitro is a priest of Midian, Moses a levite, Aaron a priest). Before leaving, Yitro advises Moses to establish a hierarchy of judges to share the task of judging the Israelites. Thus, by the time Yitro departs, we have these categories of Israelite society and an administrative framework: priests, levites, elders of the people, judges and Israelites.
  • Entire society arrives at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites, led by Moses and with their priests, levites, elders and judges, progress in their journey, arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai in the third month, Sivan.
  • Negotiation and democratization. Moses “goes up” the mountain in 19:3 to speak with G-d, shuttling back and forth, initially communicating G-d’s words to the Israelites through the Elders. On another trip up the mountain in this sequence, a negotiation occurs in which G-d seems to expect the priests to come up the mountain with Moses until Moses reminds G-d of an earlier instruction. Finally, G-d’s instruction is that the priests will remain with the Israelites, their judges and elders and only Aaron will accompany Moses to the mountaintop to speak with G-d.
  • Moses becomes the emissary of the whole people at their request. In the last sequence, Moses joins the people at the base of the mountain, and G-d speaks to everyone at the base of the mountain, delivering the 10 words or 10 commandments. Overwhelmed with the power of the experience, the people voice their preference, that Moses alone should go and hear the words of G-d and return to relate them to the community. Moses then enters the “thick darkness,” where G-d delivers three directives:
  1. You shall not make “with Me” gods of silver or gold.
  2. You shall make an altar of earth to Me. Tooling it in any way profanes it.
  3. You shall not go up by steps to my altar so your “nakedness” will not be uncovered.

The people cannot define G-d. In this case, the gods of silver and gold represent definition and thereby confinement. The people worship G-d by gathering at a completely natural altar, representing G-d’s creativity, not embellished with human creativity. It is a statement about approaching G-d unencumbered by civilization, reemphasizing the idea that G-d resists human definition or embellishment.

The third directive reminds the people indirectly that they are in the image of their creator. The obvious intention is that displaying genitals in that public forum is unseemly for one created in the image of G-d. Another intention, though, might be to refrain from any indication of gender. G-d appears with a body at several points in the biblical text — always concealing, though, anything that might suggest gender. Similarly this representative of the people, “in the image” of G-d, can have no indication of gender on display, undermining an idea of G-d’s unity and again emphasizing that G-d cannot be confined in a specific earthly form.

While the sequence until now first defined, then democratized Israelite society, this last segment show us G-d talking about G-d’s self, beyond definition, beyond constriction in earthly forms, a creator G-d whose unadorned earth speaks of G-d’s glory and serves as a point of focus for worship.

THE 10 “WORDS” OR COMMANDMENTS

The 10 commandments in 20:1-20:14 reveal the 3-part structure of cosmos set out in the first three chapters of Genesis: transcendence, all of creation and human beings. Here, though, we have an additional, fourth, element of structure, “neighbor.” The structure of the commandments is 3-2-3-2.

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

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

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

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

The first chapters of Genesis spoke of a 3-part cosmos: transcendence-earth/creation-human beings. Those chapters outlined the relationship between the parts of creation. The 10 commandments reflect that 3-part cosmos but add a further subdivision: neighbors. Thus we have all of creation, of which humanity is part, and neighbors, who are part of humanity. This new segment begs the question, who is a neighbor?

A traditional interpretation is that neighbors are Israelite society, and in a cascading scheme, each part containing what follows, that makes sense:

  1. Transcendence
  2. Creation
  3. Humanity
  4. Neighbors (Israelites?)

The Torah itself, though, expands that conception. Leviticus 19:18 commands us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Lev 19:34 tells us: “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Through parallelism, the second phrase suggests that a neighbor is the “home-born,” that is, a member of Israelite society — but also tells us that the stranger, someone not an Israelite who lives in the community, is like the home-born.

The rabbis tend toward a more universal interpretation. Rabbi Hillel in Shab. 31a says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” Avot i.12 offers an even more universal application, “Love your fellow creatures.” Avot ii.11 presents Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania saying that hatred of one’s fellow creatures is one of three things that drives man out of the world.

My own inclination, based on the cascading structure of the 10 commandments, is to understand “neighbor” as that person who is part of your society.

Having said that, though, I also want to point out that who makes up a society changes with time and circumstance, even within the biblical framework. The society in the wilderness of Sinai who received the commandments was Israelite, for the most part, although Moses own wife, Zipporah, was not. In the Land, others lived among the Israelites. Political turmoil and wars in the life of the nation resulted in an ever more cosmopolitan society. Certainly by the time of the rabbis and diaspora, the idea of society was much broader.

Today, in a global environment, in which the actions of each of us affect the balance of nature and all life in every part of the globe, the rabbis’ broadest understanding of who their “neighbor” was, namely all one’s fellow creatures, seems right and extraordinarily prescient. We are full circle back to the idea in the first three chapters of Bereishit, also expressed by the Jewish mystics, that everything is interdependent, G-d/transcendence, creation, human beings, and now we add to that, our smaller human societies. Every smallest action affects everything else.

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

Torah Ecology: Beshallach

INTRODUCTION

The first three chapters of Genesis tell us the entire story of the Torah. As one of my teachers used to say about Jewish ritual, it’s the “microcosm of the macrocosm.” If I am actually able to work through a year of Torah portions, eventually I’ll arrive at Bereishit, and I’ll write more about those chapters.

And so it was that the Ten Plagues in my last post portrayed a roll back of creation into primordial darkness, void and emptiness in Mizraim (Egypt) – the “narrow place.” That story was a reflection on the results of wrong relationships between human beings, transcendence and nature. It was a world of relationships built on power and dominance.

This week’s story is a teaching about how right relationships work, built on interdependence and trust. The section from this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Ex 13:17-17:16), where I’m focusing, references both those first three chapters of Genesis and the Ten Plagues of last week’s portion. I’m looking here at Exodus 15:22-16:7, a story of sufficiency and scarcity, faith and lack of faith, and as always, the deep interdependence of nature, human life and transcendence.

CHIASMS

In my unpublished Masters thesis, I looked at narrative chiasms in Genesis, a frequent biblical literary device. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to the chiastic structure of Beshallach, beginning and ending with a battle and featuring crossing the Red Sea as the turning point of the story. He suggests the meaning of this crossing is to represent a passage from one state of being to another.

I also notice another chiasm within the story, a chiasm within a chiasm: Exodus 15:22 begins after the sea crossing, after Miriam’s song, and describes Israelite discontent over their thirst and lack of water at Mara (bitter), where the water is bitter and undrinkable. The section ends at 16:7, another story of thirst and discontent over lack of water at Massa (testing) and Meriva (argument). Between these two events is a story of hunger and profound discontent in the wilderness, where G-d responds with quail for meat in the evening and manna for bread in the morning.

Following the crossing of the sea, a story when there is too much water, water that parts to allow the Israelites to cross and consumes the Egyptian army, we arrive at a story bracketed by water scarcity. The turning point of the story is food scarcity, and the teaching comes through food. Details of the story suggest some ways to think about it.

OTHER DETAILS OF THE SECTION: MURMURS & RESPONSES

The Hebrew root “lun” (lamed-vav-nun) occurs repeatedly, at least once in each of the water scarcity segments and more than five times in the food scarcity segment. The verb means “murmur,” as a noun, “murmurings.” Other translations include grumble, mutter, complain and protest. The word communicates a sense of half-suppressed dissatisfaction.

Through the story, the murmuring becomes more audible, more specifically and vehemently voiced in a crescendo of complaints: At first, in the Wilderness of Shur when the Israelites arrive at Mara, they just murmur, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Ex 15:25)

Then, when they arrive at the Wilderness of Sin after 3 days journey following their stay in Elim, a relative paradise: “Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 15:3).

Finally, during the passage from the Wilderness of Sin to Rephidim, the Israelites murmur again: “Give us water that we may drink…Why is it that you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” Now their complaint is not just for themselves but for their cattle, and it is accompanied with a demand: Give us water.

Moses is fortunate. On each occasion, G-d speaks with him, reassuring and instructing him. Still, Moses’ own sense of outrage over the doubts of the people he leads grows with each instance.

In response to the first instance of murmuring, Moses cries to the Lord, “and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” In words that refer back to the plagues brought on the Egyptians, G-d tells G-d’s people, through Moses, that if they follow the commandments, G-d will spare them the diseases brought on the Egyptians, “For I am the Lord that heals you.”

On the second occasion, Moses doesn’t even need to cry out. G-d is immediately present for him with a solution: “I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will follow my Torah or not. And it shall come to pass, on the sixth day when they shall prepare that which they bring in, that it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.” (Ex 15:4)

As Moses and Aaron relate this solution to the people, Moses exclaims, “What are we, that you murmur against us?…your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.” (Ex 16:8)

In the course of the story of manna, Moses becomes angry when the people fail to follow his instructions on how to gather and prepare the manna. Some left it until morning, and it gathered worms and stank.

Finally, on the third occasion of murmuring, at Massa and Meriva, when the people “strive” with Moses and demand water, he says to them, “‘Why do you strive with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?’…And Moses cried to the Lord, saying, ‘What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me.'”

G-d immediately responds with another reference to the plagues of Egypt: “Pass before the people, and take…the elders of Israel and your rod, with which you smote the river, take in your hand, and go…I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horev, and you will smite the rock, and water will come out of it that the people may drink.”

The crescendo of murmurings through the chiasm parallels the growing intensity of Moses’ responses and G-d’s constant and steady responsiveness. The good news here is that despite the growing agitation of the people and Moses’ growing alarm and impatience with them, G-d hears their murmurings: “Come near before the Lord, for He has heard your murmurings.” (Ex 16:9)

But still the faith and trust of the people fail, as Moses indicates when he “called the name of the place Massa and Meriva because of the strife of the children of Israel and because they tempted the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'” (Ex 17:7) Despite the crossing of the sea, despite G-d providing water when there is none, despite G-d providing food daily and a double portion on the Sabbath, despite G-d providing sweet water when the water in one encampment is bitter, despite that G-d hears, the Israelites murmur and demand, failing to trust.

TWO MORE DETAILS: PALM TREES & OMER

Just after the first episode at Mara when bitter waters become sweet and drinkable and G-d indicates G-d’s role as “healer” if the Israelites follow the commandments, they arrive at Elim, “where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.” I want to consider, for a moment, that extraordinary time. The Israelites have not just the sweet and drinkable water for which they thirst but water from twelve springs — and plenty to eat, represented in the palms.

A grade-school science site shares these amazing details about the date palm: “The date fruit is about 58 percent sugar and contains some protein, fat, and minerals… The single grooved seed of a date fruit yields oil. The seeds also can be ground up for a coffee substitute or for camel feed. The trunk and the sturdy midribs of the leaves are used to make crates and furniture. The leaves are woven into baskets. Date cluster stalks are made into rope or burned for fuel, and the fiber makes good packing material. The sap is drinkable. It can also be boiled down to make palm-sugar candy. The bud tips can be eaten as a salad.”

To state the obvious, life is just like that, isn’t it? From times of extraordinary plenty and tranquility to times of scarcity and hardship. And it’s the hard times that require faith in a better future, faith that this moment will not last for eternity, that this moment will inevitably shape us but not fully define us.

But something else occurs to me, and that is that when we have faith, when we are in an open and receiving mode, G-d provides. When we have faith, when we are in an open and receiving mode, nature provides.

And this brings me to the final detail I want to mention, and that is, the omer of manna. Each Israelite is to gather an omer, no more and no less, each morning and cook it and prepare it as they will and finish it by nightfall. Those who gather more find themselves with just an omer — and those who don’t gather enough also have an omer. If they don’t use up their portion that day, by morning it has worms and stinks.

The entire sequence, water-food-water, is experiential learning, with the central episode of the manna providing the key to the learning experience. The sequence is a lesson in “right” and harmonious relationships. Israel must learn to trust and depend on G-d, who with each incident “hears” and provides.

But there is more: another part of the lesson is social and ecological. When all is in balance, when our relationship with transcendence, our neighbors and the earth is harmonious, each person has according to their needs and no one can take more than what they need. We are dependent on nature, transcendence and each other, and we must learn to trust in our interdependence.

The Israelites are to gather an extra portion on Friday since there will be none on the Sabbath. That which is left over at the end of the day Friday neither has worms nor stinks the next morning, and if anyone tries to gather on the Sabbath, they find nothing. Again, survival depends on trust and taking from the earth what is necessary and appropriate, fulfilling one’s needs without greed. A day without gathering…learning to trust that what’s needed will be there.

The story of the manna provides a glimpse of the harmonious relationships of Eden, when greed is not in the picture and each has enough for their needs, when nature and human beings are in harmony with each other and transcendence.  A weekly pause from marching and gathering and creating and building and taking care of one’s own needs reminds the Israelites they are not dominant but dependent on G-d and nature.

Moses tells the Israelites to enshrine a jar filled with one omer of manna, putting it “before the Lord,” as a reminder throughout the generations of this balance, this interdependence, this time when all receive according to their needs and no one can rape the earth or their fellow Israelites. The center point of the manna, between the waters, tells us that for a time, the harmonious relationships of Eden are restored. Sadly not everyone gets the message or the experience, and so they move on to more drought. Even that, though, is not an ending.

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

Quinoa & White Bean Soup

This soup, like so many other dishes, began its life with me on Pinterest, where I often go for inspiration. It’s a lovely, brothy soup the first day. The flavor improves with age, and it also thickens, due to the quinoa. By the third day, it is actually more of a light stew. My family loved it that way for a substantial and delicious dinner.

I’m including here the veggies that I used. Any greens are fine, though, and the summer squash and zucchini can be traded out for another high water content veggie.

QUINOA & WHITE BEAN SOUP

INGREDIENTS

  • Beans, Great Northern, 1/2 lb. cooked ’til al dente in water to cover (check water periodically and add if needed)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 3 TB
  • Spanish onion, 1, minced
  • Poblano, 1, minced
  • Garlic, 6 cloves, minced
  • Carrots, 3 med.-large, washed and cut on bias
  • Celery, 2 large stalks
  • Seasonal veggies, 2 cups at least, coarsely chopped (I used zucchini and yellow squash)
  • Greens, 1-2 cups rough chopped
  • Tomatoes, 8 Roma, petite diced or 1 28-oz. can petite diced
  • Quinoa, 1 cup
  • Water, 1 quart
  • Vegeta, 4 tsp.
  • Salt, 1 TB
  • Szeged Hot paprika, 1/2 tsp.
  • Thyme, 1 TB fresh (stripped from stems)
  • Pepper, black, freshly ground

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Rinse beans and cook in pot with lid in water to cover. Check periodically to make certain water doesn’t cook off. When just tender, remove from heat and set aside.
  2. Mince onion and saute in extra virgin olive oil in a soup pot.
  3. Add minced garlic to the pot, and saute a moment longer.
  4. Add carrots and celery cut on bias to the pot and saute until just tender.
  5. Add 1 quart water with Vegeta (soup base) stirred in. If you don’t have a vegan soup base, water is fine — you might just have to use a little more salt.
  6. Add one 32-oz. can petite diced tomatoes (or 8 Roma tomatoes, petite diced)
  7. Add seasonings and 2 cups seasonal vegetables (zucchini and summer squash this time)
  8. Simmer together until flavors well-blended and veggies are all softened.
  9. Add seasonings (salt, hot paprika, thyme).
  10. Add 1 cup quinoa and cook for 15 minutes until done.
  11. Add beans with their liquid (should have cooked down some so it just covers the beans).
  12. At the end of the cooking time, add rough-chopped greens. I used kale in this batch.
  13. Grind in fresh black pepper to taste.

Hope you enjoy this healthy, substantial, delicious veggie soup!

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

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

TEN PLAGUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FREEDOM, INTERDEPENDENCE & ECOLOGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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