Torah Ecology: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)

This week’s portion begins with a genealogy of sorts, the sons of Israel (Jacob) in Egypt — 11 who came to Egypt with Jacob from the land of Canaan and Joseph who was already there. The real purpose of this brief introduction, though, is to state the number of their tiny community at 70 persons. Then Joseph, all his brothers, and that whole generation died. Without further elaboration of that event, the text goes on to emphasize how prolific the Israelites were:

”But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:7).

This great population explosion among the Israelites, who began with 70 individuals, seems to be the theme in the first chapter of Exodus. From Pharaoh’s perspective, they swarm across the landscape, unstoppable and threatening:

”And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…’” (Ex. 1:9-10)

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.” (Ex. 1:12)

“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.’ And G-d dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly.” (Ex. 19-20)

The language of this population explosion connects to the Flood story of Genesis: “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein.” (Gen. 9:7) Chapter 2 of Exodus makes the connection more explicit when Moses’ mother builds a תֵּבָה (tevah – ark) for her baby to save him from Pharaoh’s death decree. This word used for the wicker basket she prepares occurs in only one other place in Hebrew scripture, and that is in the Flood story, the ark that saves Noah, his family and the animals from the flood waters that destroy every other living thing. As in the Flood story, the ark in the second chapter of Exodus signals not only a saving remnant but a new creation after water and darkness engulf the surrounding world.

If Ex. 1:1-2:7 signals one set of mythic themes through its connection to creation, destruction and recreation of Gen. 1-3 and 7-9, Ex. 2:11 begins to tell the story of a second set of themes that work in connection with the powerful imagery of the first set: justice and freedom.

When the adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he strikes him down, killing him (Ex. 2:11-12). Similarly he chastises his fellow Israelites in the following verse: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Ex. 2:13) Despite the fact that he killed a man, Moses goes unpunished, escaping to the desert. We sense that the only reason there might have been any accountability is because the man Moses killed was Egyptian, and it is this that angered Pharaoh enough to seek to kill Moses. A fellow Hebrew abusing another Hebrew in the way the Hebrews are regularly abused by the Egyptians also escapes justice since Moses, the only person who might call him to account, is himself compromised. Still, both incidents point to the unjust conditions associated with Israelite bondage.

Outside of Egypt, Moses compassion for the vulnerable shows as he helps the daughters of Jethro water their flocks. (Ex. 2:16-19). Within Egypt, only G-d can respond: the Israelites groan under their bondage and cry out… “and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them.” (Ex. 2:23-25). The repetitive references to G-d’s concern for the vulnerable, like the repetitive references to population growth among the Israelites, serve to underscore the theme. G-d hears, remembers, looks upon, and takes notice…then acts to set the people free.

In this way, the great themes of Exodus are set out for us: creation and fertility, rollback of creation in the face of injustice and bondage, new creation. These themes with variations repeat throughout Hebrew scripture with references to the archetypes and imagery of Genesis. In the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites already fulfill the commandment to multiply and fill the earth, are already on the path to a new creation. The Egyptian society around them is on its path toward being swallowed up into a pre-creation void because of its injustice.

One more theme enters the narrative in Exodus, the covenant relationship which is the foundation of the emerging new creation, the Israelite nation, bound together with a covenant agreement they will make at Mt. Sinai. Nahum Sarna explains (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 25) the literary structure that presents this theme as a chiasm linking circumcision and Passover. This theme is also present in the Book of Joshua:

  • A1 – First-born (Ex 4:22-23)
  • B1 – Circumcision (4:24-26)
  • B2 – Circumcision (12:43-49)
  • A2 – First-born (13:1, 11-15)

Sarna says, “…there is…a functional correspondence between the blood of circumcision and the visible sign of the blood on the paschal sacrifice. In both instances, evil is averted on account of it (Ex. 4:26; 12:7, 13, 22-23).”

Sarna also points to rabbinic exegesis of Ezekiel 16:6: “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ Yea, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’” The rabbis understood this to mean “‘survive through your blood’; that is, the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of two mitzvot—that of circumcision and that of paschal sacrifice.”

Having set the themes for the great drama to follow, we move on to the preliminaries for the 10 plagues, which unfold in the next two portions, Vaera and Bo.


The animals in this portion show up in an inverse relationship to the fecundity of the Israelites in Egypt.  The animals are virtually absent from the portion. In fact, they are absent in Egypt:

Ex. 2:16 – “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.”

Ex. 2:19 – “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

Ex. 3:1 – “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d.”

There is only one other reference to animals, an oblique one — actually a reference to sacrifice, presumably an animal sacrifice:

Ex. 3:18 – “The Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our G-d.”

What is noteworthy in the animals’ story in this portion is that not only do they have no independent existence beyond human needs,  they are not even part of the Hebrews’ environment in Egypt. There are no domesticated animals — nor any (free) beasts of the field. All animal references are associated with Moses’ time in Midian and illustrate his characteristics and life there. Even the ruse of the sacrifice refers to the wilderness.

As my focus shifted in these past weeks to the sub-story of the animals in the Torah, I have been fascinated with the way their representation parallels the “main” story. The Hebrews, stripped of their great wealth, their flocks and herds, toil unnoticed (until they cry out and G-d notices them) as slaves to Pharaoh. Similarly, the hidden animals presumably toil on behalf of the crown. Isolated from each other in their slavery, Hebrews and animals can have no relationship. Only in freedom, in Midian, do animals reappear in the story generating the possibility of human/animal relationship.

This absence of the animals in the Egypt narrative suggests a couple of things to me: that only in freedom can there be relationship, and only in freedom can one be held accountable for the conduct of a relationship. The Hebrews, in bondage, can deal only with their own survival. They cannot relate to Transcendence (the sacrifice must be in the wilderness) or to the rest of creation including their environment or other animals. Moses, who killed a man in Egypt and chastises another, cares for seven vulnerable young women in Midian, serves as shepherd to his father-in-law’s flock and stops to gaze in wonder at a bush aflame beneath Horeb, the mountain of G-d.

Torah Ecology: Vayehi (Gen. 47:28 – 50:24)

Genesis ends with hints and an increasing sense of foreboding about the future of Joseph’s family in Egypt. The portion is sandwiched between two references to G-d as a shepherd, parallel to the role of the Israelites with their flocks.

The references to animals in this portion follow:

  1. Gen. 48:15 – In the preamble to his blessing, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”
  2. Gen. 49:6 – With reference to Simeon and Levi, “For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.”
  3. Gen. 49:9 – “Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, ave y ou grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts – who dare rouse him?”
  4. Gen. 49:11 – Still referring to Judah, “He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine…”
  5. Gen. 49:14 – Issachar is a strong-bonded ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds…”
  6. Gen. 49:17 – “Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.”
  7. Gen. 49:21 – “Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.”
  8. Gen. 49:22 – “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailted him; They shot at him and harried him…
  9. Gen. 49:24 – “And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”
  10. Gen. 49:27 – “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
  11. Gen. 50:8 – “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went upo with him; it was a very large group.”

As Jacob approaches the end of his life, the last 17 years in Egypt, he summons Joseph and asks for Joseph’s promise to return his bones to the burial place of his fathers in the land of Canaan. Jacob continues with blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, giving the primary blessing to the younger, Ephraim. In Gen. 48:15, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”

In the course of Jacob’s testament, as he blesses his sons in Gen. 49:23-24, Jacob speaks of Joseph saying, “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him. Yet his bow stayed taut, And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”

The caring, nurturing, constant, protective shepherd imagery is suggestive in two directions, describing G-d’s relationship with G-d’s people and the Israelites’ relationship with their animals. This is the constant care and protection that sustained Jacob through a turbulent life filled with loss, that sustained Joseph through a painful youth, and that will sustain the Israelites through their trials in Egypt. It is the care and protection a shepherd provides to flocks as they travel in search of pasture. The image of G-d’s relationship to G-d’s children parallels the shepherd’s relationship to a flock.

Eight of 12 brothers are described in terms of animals: Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:6), Judah (Gen. 49:9), Issachar (Gen. 49:14), Dan (Gen. 49:17), Naphtali (Gen. 49:21), Joseph (Gen. 49:22-24) and Benjamin. Four brothers are not: Reuben, Zebulun, Gad and Asher.

Noteworthy among those described in terms of animals are Simeon and Levi. Like Reuben, Simeon and Levi are excoriated in Jacob’s blessing: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen.” They are probably paired because of their joint attack (as the brothers of Dinah) on the city of Shechem. They are singled out for their violence, ruthlessness and cruelty, and Jacob dissociates himself from them.  Now the three eldest sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, are disqualified from assuming Jacob’s leadership role.

What is powerful in this section of the testament, though, is the way cruelty and barbarism toward other people is parallel to cruelty and barbarism toward animals, whom Simeon and Levi, the brothers of needlessly “maim” as a sign of their victory. In the parallelism of the poetry, both targets of violence are equally inexcusable.

Finally, we become increasingly aware through the last chapter of Genesis of a deteriorating situation in Egypt. As important as Joseph as been to the Pharaoh, as high in the administrative hierarchy as he has been, when his father dies and Joseph wants permission to carry his bones to the burial site of Jacob’s fathers in Canaan, Joseph doesn’t go directly to Pharaoh but instead speaks to “Pharaoh’s court.”

Despite the fact that he assures Pharaoh he will return (was there a question?), Pharaoh sends all his officials with Joseph and his family, a “very larger troop” including horsemen. Did this signify that Pharaoh didn’t trust Joseph when he said he would return?

If there is any doubt about the answer to that question, the latter part of the verse seems to resolve it: “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went up with him; it was a very large group.”

Perhaps the children, flocks and herds were insurance. And once again, human life parallels animal life: even if the Israelites real intention was to escape, they will return for their flocks and herds as much as for their children.

And now on to Exodus and a “new king who did not know Joseph.”

Torah Ecology: Miketz (Gen. 41:1 – 44:17) & Vayigash (Gen. 44:18 – 47:27)

The Joseph story is one of the most beautifully structured narratives in the Torah and is a perfect example of structure supporting and communicating meaning.

These two Torah portions, Miketz and Vayigash, are the second half of the narrative chiasm I presented in Vayishlach. The elements of the story in Miketz and Vayigash represent a reversal of the elements of the story in Vayishlach and fulfillment of G-d’s promise. In the course of the narrative chiasm, all the characters experience growth and change, Judah most of all (Thank you Rabbi Tom for pointing this out).

It remains to the last portion in Genesis, Vayehi, for Joseph to reunite and fully reconcile with his whole family, including his father — and it remains for Exodus to complete the process of redemption and return to the Land of Israel. Between the beginning and end of the story, tragedy comes to Jacob and Joseph and the entire family, offering opportunities for character growth on the path to family reunification.   A family drama riddled with deceptions and treachery resolves into honest, caring, mature relationships as individuals recognize their communal responsibility.

We see Judah’s growth up close and personal in the Judah and Tamar story as Tamar reveals to Judah how he chooses his own self-interest over what the law and humanity require him to do. In withholding his remaining son as levir, then judging Tamar negatively in her disguise as a prostitute whom he, Judah, solicits, Judah demonstrates a character flaw that is also in evidence when he says to his brothers after they cast Joseph into a pit,  “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” In other words, he focuses on what benefits will come to him from his actions and in doing so, neglects important obligations.

So now, at this end of the narrative, Judah, still a pragmatist who complains he and his brothers would have been to Egypt and back had they just gone at the first, nonetheless takes responsibility for his brother Benjamin even at great risk to himself.

Joseph’s boyish arrogance gives way to a recognition that he is G-d’s instrument — yet he still heaps gifts on his younger brother, Benjamin, despite the way he, Joseph, suffered when his father did the same for him. Joseph’s gifts to Benjamin, though, provide an opportunity for the other brothers to demonstrate their own growth to maturity since they do not show the jealousy and enmity toward Benjamin that they once showed to Joseph despite the way Joseph favors Benjamin.

A couple of points worth noting which I won’t pursue just now:

  1. Jacob changes little in the course of the story. He favors Joseph, setting him up for the jealousy and enmity his brothers direct toward him. And he foolishly (some say willfully) remains blind to the dangerous situation in which he puts his son when he sends him out into the fields to find his brothers.  Jacob’s blatant favoritism is not diminished when it comes to Benjamin, showing he has learned little from painful experience. Indeed, he takes no personal responsibility but blames his sons for his loss: “Me have you bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and you will take Benjamin away. Upon me are all these things come.” (Gen. 42:36)
  2. Benjamin never speaks in the course of the story. He registers neither alarm when pharaoh’s divining goblet is found in his sack nor appreciation when Joseph singles him out for special treatment. He reacts in only one moment, when Joseph “fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept.” In that moment, the narrator reports, “and Benjamin wept upon his neck.”  After the terrible day on which Joseph is thrown into a pit, Benjamin becomes the locus of family guilt and redemption. He is  his father’s new favorite in the absence of Joseph, and his brothers protect him with their lives.  Through it all, Joseph is silent except for one emotional moment when he and his brother embrace and weep together.
  3. Clothes and money have an important role in the story. Joseph receives a multi-colored coat, inspiring envy among his brothers — who sell him for 20 pieces of silver. His coat, dipped in the blood of a kid, deceives his father Jacob just as Tamar’s clothing deceives Judah. Potiphar’s wife seizes Joseph’s garments and uses them to deceive her husband with regard to Joseph’s “guilt.” Pharaoh gives Joseph garments to announce his authority. Joseph showers his brother, Benjamin, with gifts of clothing — and 30 pieces of silver, pay back with interest for the 20 silver piece sale years before. And silver or money are mentioned 20 times in the course of the accounts of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt (chapters 42-45).


Following are the explicit references to animals in Gen. 41:1-47:27:

  1. Gen. 41:2 -4 …when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows…
  2. Gen. 41:17 -21 …In my dream, I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the Nile came up seven sturdy and well-formed cows and grazed in the reed grass. Presently there followed them seven other cows, scrawny, ill-formed, and emaciated — never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt!  And the seven lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, the sturdy ones; but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before…
  3. Gen. 41:26-27 … The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years; it is the same dream. The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are seven years of famine.
  4. Gen. 43:16 … When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to his house steward, “Take the men into the house; slaughter and prepare an animal, for the men will dine with me at noon.”
  5. Gen. 43:18 … But the men were frightened at being brought into Joseph’s house. “It must be,” they thought, “because of the money replaced in our bags the first time that we have been brought inside, as a pretext to attack us and seize us as slaves, with our pack animals.”
  6. Gen. 43:24 … Then the man brought the men into Joseph’s house; he gave them water to bathe their feet, and he provided feed for their asses.
  7. Gen. 44:3 … With the first light of morning, the men were sent off with their pack animals.
  8. Gen. 44:27 … (Judah says) Your servant my father said to us, “As you know, my wife bore me two sons. But one is gone from me, and I said: Alas he was torn by a beast! And I have not seen him since.”
  9. Gen. 45:17-18 … And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, “Do as follows: load up your beasts and go at once to the land of Canaan. Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.
  10. Gen. 45:23 … And to his father, he sent the following: ten he-asses laden with the best things of Egypt, and ten she-asses laden with the grain, bread, and provisions for his father on the journey.*
  11. Gen. 46:6 … and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan.
  12. Gen. 46:32-34 … The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs. So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, “What is your occupation?” you shall answer, “Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers” — so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.
  13. Gen. 47:1 … Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.”
  14. Gen. 47:3-4 … Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. “We have come,” they told Pharaoh, “to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen.”
  15. Gen. 47:6 … the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.”
  16. Gen. 47:15-17 … And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread…for the money is gone!” And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock.
  17. Gen. 47:18 … And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland.,, Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”

We have 17 passages in which animals are mentioned specifically. In 1-3 in the list above, they are symbolic representations, not living beings. In 4, killing an animal for a feast honors Joseph’s guests and celebrates a relationship, as it will honor G-d and celebrate a relationship in Israelite worship. In 5 and 6, humans and animals are once again on a level playing field with each other: in 5, the men fear they and their pack animals will be confiscated and enslaved; in 6, the men and their pack animals are honored and cared for.  In 7, the men are sent home with their pack animals, returning them to their role as beasts of burden. In 8, the blood of a kid continues a deception. In 9 and 10, the animals are beasts of burden and in 11, a sign of wealth. In 12-15, the animals represent the occupation of Joseph’s family and become the vehicle through which they are able to reside in the richest part of the land and become valuable to Pharaoh by tending livestock. In 16 and 17, the animals represent a step on the way to serfdom for the Egyptians under Joseph’s administration. As serfs, the Egyptians and the animals which were formerly theirs are once again on an equal basis.

Once again, the animals’ story mirrors the overall themes of the story. When Joseph and the Pharaoh honor and care for the visitors from Canaan, they honor and care for the animals. When the brothers fear enslavement, they anticipate it in terms of an affliction they will share with their animals, formerly a sign of their wealth and independence. When Joseph takes the Egyptians’ animals for Pharaoh, it foreshadows their own enslavement when Joseph takes their land and their labor for Pharaoh as well. Despite the Egyptians’ gratitude for this arrangement, the fact is that they, like their animals (now Pharaoh’s), lack independence. Having given up all their assets and consigned themselves to serfdom, they cannot even look forward to a time when they will be able to reestablish independence after the famine ends.

What we don’t know explicitly is the status of Joseph’s family and their animals. Formerly semi-nomadic, they are now settled on choice property in the land of Goshen. Perhaps they are overseers for Pharaoh with all the livestock he now owns (Gen. 47:6), Joseph having taken it from the Egyptians. Pharaoh tells them in Gen. 45:18 they will live off the “fat of the land,” but what fat is there when the famine has already raged in Egypt for two years? (Gen. 45:11). How can Joseph’s family provide for their own food and that of their many animals?

So we will assume Joseph’s family got special treatment as did Pharaoh and his household and the Egyptian priests — but this arrangement, then, explains the full significance of the statement in Exodus 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” It would have been puzzling to someone without a personal debt to Joseph as the earlier Pharaoh had, to see a foreign people supported by the state while the home born Egyptians worked as serfs. The new Pharaoh merely completed a process begun by Joseph in the name of the former Pharaoh, confiscated their wealth (their animals — assuming the land still belonged to the crown) and subjected the Israelites to the same life as his other subjects.

Now the Pharaoh owns everything: all land, all animals, all people, home born and foreign-born. Everything living is enslaved to Pharaoh. The people, including the Israelites, are on a level with the animals, without hope for a future of responsibility or freedom. This is the true cost of giving up everything and letting someone else manage daily bread during the famine, a comment not only on the one who enslaves but also on the one who allows enslavement. Did the Egyptians not understand what they forfeited? Did Joseph not understand the mechanism he put in motion, which soon enough would engulf his own family?

Finally a few words about Gen. 46:32-34 (#12, above). What does it mean that shepherds and those who deal with livestock are תֹּועֵבָה (toevah) to the Egyptians? Our text translates the word as “abhorrent.” For an excellent discussion that offers a richer perspective on what the word might signify, see Religion Dispatches, which offers the following: “The term toevah (and its plural, toevot) occurs 103 times in the Hebrew Bible, and almost always has the connotation of a non-Israelite cultic practice. In the Torah, the primary toevah is avodah zara, foreign forms of worship, and most other toevot flow from it. The Israelites are instructed not to commit toevah because other nations do so.”

The author further emphasizes the point: “…in the overwhelming majority of cases, toevah has nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with cultic behavior, idolatry, and foreign ritual…

“So, toevah is serious, but it is serious as a particular class of cultic offense: a transgression of national boundary. It is certainly not ‘abomination.’” Things that are toevah for other people are perfectly fine for the Israelites and vice versa.”

This means that one way to understand toevah in the context of Joseph’s sheepherding family in Egypt is that sheepherding is somehow foreign to the Egyptians and therefore abhorrent — yet we know from Pharaoh’s comment about capable men to oversee his own livestock that the Egyptians also have livestock. So what is the problem?

A commentary from offers the following: “Some say that this was because sheep were sacred to Egyptians, and hence, those who raised them for food were considered an abomination (Rashi; see Genesis 43:32). Others say that the Egyptians were vegetarians (Ibn Ezra). If this was after the Hyksos were driven out, it might have been a reaction against the Hyksos, who were ‘shepherd kings’ (Josephus, Contra Apion 1:14). Others say that it was a social taboo (Rashbam).”

Another comment expands on the vegetarian theory: “Vegetarianism was pretty much common among ancient Egyptian cultures, with their diet largely consisting of wheat and barley – something discovered by a French research team who analysed the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD to find out what they ate, Inside Science News Service (ISNS) reported … which probably explains why the ancient Egyptians considered the farming/herding/shepherding of livestock for food an abomination.” This theory suggests Egyptians might have kept livestock for other purposes but didn’t kill them for meat, which rendered killing domesticated animals for meat an alien practice.

Now as it happens, although the Israelites operated according to a different, perhaps more moderate, standard with regard to eating meat, Hebrew scripture also expresses an issue with killing living creatures for food. When the practice is allowed in the aftermath of the flood, it is immediately ringed with a prohibition that applies to all humanity (not to consume blood with the meat) and as specifically Israelite practices unfold, many more prohibitions follow.

If, on the other hand, toevah is a word associated with cultic, not ethical, issues — then we must consider that eating meat is a practice associated with foreign (non-Egyptian) cultic practices more than an ethical statement against killing other living creatures for food.

Two themes emerge from these portions, highlighted by the animal subtext: a descent to slavery that puts human beings on a level with animals and varying ways of working out the relationship between human beings and other animals evidenced in cultic practices.

Animals in the Bible

One of the things I have noticed and commented about as I have read the Torah story about animals is that they progressively lose stature in relation to human beings: “Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways…” This is the animals’ story in Genesis — a loss of status in creation.

As I try to understand how we came to use, kill, eat, even abuse animals so thoughtlessly, one answer as I read the text is that we regard ourselves superior to them. Better to kill and sacrifice an animal as payment for a sin we commit than a human being. But how did we arrive at this idea? Was it more than mere anthropocentrism?

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

This thought and the contrast Harari presents fascinate me from several directions. Possibly the first chapters of Genesis do more than merely preserve elements of a folkloristic past, subdued because it was rejected. Perhaps these chapters are not only visionary but preserve the memory of a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society and with it the memory of a time when humans didn’t see themselves superior to other living beings. This thought helps me begin to understand how a text that brings us the extraordinary vision of Genesis 1-3 also presents us with a system of sacrificing animals in our stead and eating them.

Once humans make the full transition to a world in which “plants and animals are no longer equal members of a spiritual round table” but are mere property, “commodities,” as I call them, it is an easy step to succumb to another evolutionary trait Harari identifies, our sense of us vs. them: “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.“ — or in the present conversation, “they” (animals) are not human and so have less value.

Granted, the Torah never presents the idea that animals are commodities explicitly or comprehensively. It is clear in various stories I have discussed in the course of my study that veganism is a preferred, if unrealistic, ideal. Torah vocabulary signifies profound similarity between humans and other creatures while leaving the difference somewhat vague: both animals and humans are “basar” (flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and “nefesh” (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d). Only humans are Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means or how it differs from nefesh. Rabbinic interpretation tells us it refers to moral discernment, and I’m comfortable with that for the most part — yet it’s a precarious difference. Any moment in which human beings fail to exercise moral discernment is a moment in which they are fully animal and in no way superior to other creatures.

Why is it important how we came to the view that humans are superior to animals and the environment and on what basis? Because that worldview led in contemporary times to our crimes against other life on the planet and our environment. Only by seeing other life and the planet as commodities can we breed animals solely for the purpose of short lives of suffering so we can kill them to satisfy our appetites. Only by seeing the environment as a commodity can we take from it whatever we want without thought for its well-being — unless we simply exclude this activity from view and consciousness, as manufacturers strategically do. Ultimately, though, that separation from the reality of factory farms and environmental destruction doesn’t relieve us of either responsibility or consequences.

The possibility that the biblical text presents as vision a memory of an animistic world view suggests so many possibilities to me in terms of how we heal our world today. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I like the idea of animism, that other life is included at “the spiritual round table,” that we communicate with each other directly and negotiate the rules of our shared habitat.
  • I appreciate a biblical text that includes another world view, namely animism, alongside the one presented in most of its following pages. It gives that other worldview priority of position in its first three chapters (although with a nuanced reference to domesticating animals).

Taking from those models, perhaps we can begin to deconstruct our us-them mentality and our superiority complexes. We can, as in the first chapters of the biblical text, learn from others, including from other creatures on the planet and from our environment as we let them speak to us. We can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions, no view perfect but each with a glimpse of “truth.”

Kidney Bean Jambalaya

I used to make this recipe in the Cafe, but it has been a while since I last pulled it out. My associate, Jame, created it for a group I was leading on healthy eating. I asked him to use kidney beans and brown Basmati rice in six different dishes so busy people could make all the rice and beans on the weekend and make up a quick dish with them each night of the week. His creations were fantastic!

This is a delicious vegan Jambalaya, and I decided to resurrect it. Unfortunately when I went hunting for a picture, what I had wasn’t the best resolution — and I wasn’t 100% sure what stage the recipe was when I recorded it in my files.  I mean, the ingredients and seasonings are all the correct ones, but I remember bumping up some of the seasonings and am not sure if that made it into the record.

Anyway, here it is for now, and one day soon I’ll make it in a reduced size — and check the seasonings. In fact, now that I have an Instant Pot, I might just make it very soon and work out the times for that. If you try it before I do, let me know how it is and if you needed to make any changes.



  • Kidney beans, 6 cups cooked
  • Brown Basmati rice, 6 cups cooked (2 c. dry with 1 tsp. salt, 2 TB extra virgin olive oil)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Green bell peppers, 2 cut in one in. chunks
  • Red bell peppers, 2 cut in one in. chunks
  • 2 onions cut in one in. chunks
  • Garlic, 1 TB
  • Smoked paprika, 1 tsp.
  • Basil, crushed, 1/2 tsp.
  • Rosemary, crushed, 1/2 tsp.
  • Thyme, crushed or ground, 1/2 tsp.
  • Salt, 2 tsp.
  • Hot paprika, 1/4 – 1 tsp. depending on your taste for heat


Saute the peppers and onion with the garlic in the extra virgin olive oil until slightly softened. Add the remaining seasonings and sauté for a moment longer. Remove from heat. When the rice and kidney beans are ready, gently fold the beans and rice together with the peppers and onion. Serve and enjoy.

Torah Ecology: Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23)

PART I: The Joseph Story, Exile & Return, Promise to Fulfillment

The rest of Genesis is the story of Joseph with the exception of one apparent interruption in the narrative with the story of Judah and Tamar.

Before I take a look at the continuation of the animals’ story in Vayeshev, I’d like to share some work I did many years ago when I explored “meals in Genesis.” This is a diagram of part of Joseph’s story. It forms a narrative chiasm with a feast at the center and two simple meals of bread balancing each other toward the beginning an toward the end (7a and 7b):

1a – Genealogy of Esau (Gn 36:1-43)
2a – Joseph brings bad news to his father Jacob of Joseph’s brothers in the field (Gn 37:2)
3a – Joseph’s father loves Joseph most and gives him a coat (Gn 37:3-4)
4a – Joseph dreams 2 dreams and foolishly and arrogantly reveals them to his brothers; his brothers interpret the dreams and hate him (Gn 37:5-11)
5a – Jacob sends Joseph to brothers in field (Gn 37:13-17)
6a – Joseph put in pit by brothers at Reuben’s suggestion; Judah suggests that they sell him (Gn 37:18-24)
7a – Brothers have meal of bread while Joseph has none; Joseph sold by Midianites to Ishmaelites; taken to Egypt (Gn 37:25-28)
8a – Joseph gone and Reuben assumes is dead; Reuben rends clothes; dips Joseph’s coat in blood of kid; tunic deceives (Gn 37:29-31)
9a – Jacob mourns Joseph’s death (Gn 37:33-35)
10a – Judah-Tamar story. Tamar’s garments deceive; Judah tricked into substituting for his son; signet ring, cord and staff reveal; Judah has 2 sons (line of Judah) – (Gn 38)
11a – Joseph serves Potiphar (Gn 39:1-6)
12a – Joseph is beautiful. Potiphar’s wife demeans Joseph and attempts to seduce him; garments taken from Joseph announce his “guilt” (Gn 39:7-19)
13a – Joseph put in prison (Gn 39:20-23)
14a – Baker and cupbearer dream 2 dreams; Joseph interprets (Gn 40:4-19)
*** Pharaoh’s Feast; baker’s and cupbearer’s dreams fulfilled; Joseph forgotten (Gn 40:20-23) (Vayeshev concludes)
14b – Pharaoh dreams 2 dreams; cupbearer remembers Joseph’s interpretations (Gn 41:1-13)
13b – Joseph brought out of prison (Gn 41:14-32)
12b – Joseph is discreet and wise; Pharaoh exalts Joseph and gives him a wife; garments given to Joseph announce his authority (Gn 41:33-45)
11b – Joseph serves Pharaoh (Gn 41:46-49)
10b – Joseph has 2 sons (line of Joseph) (Gn 41:50-52)
9b – Jacob attempts to avert death of family (Gn 42:1-2)
8b – Benjamin held back so harm will not come to him (Gn 42:3-5)
7b – Joseph has bread; brothers have none; brothers go to Egypt (Gn 42:6-13)
6b – Joseph’s brothers put in dungeon by Joseph for 3 days; Simeon held (Gn 42:14-24)
5b – Joseph sends brothers to Jacob in Canaan (Gn 42:25-26).
4b – Joseph’s 2 dreams are fulfilled; Joseph’s brothers twice take responsibility for their actions; Joseph twice restores their money (Gn 42:27-43:15)
3b – Joseph orders that bread/a meal be brought out but eats separately; Joseph loves Benjamin most and gives him more food, and goblet placed in Benjamin’s sack; Judah offers to substitute himself for his brother Benjamin; Joseph reveals himself to his brothers although not as an arrogant overlord (Gn 43:16-45:8)
2b – Brothers bring good news to father Jacob of Joseph in Egypt (Gn 45:9-28)
1b – Genealogy of Jacob (Gn 46:8-27)

What does this intricate symmetry of the story tell us? It is a structural representation of the major themes of the story, exile and return, promise and fulfillment — and in that, echoes the major themes of the Torah. Step-by-step, each element of the story reverses itself following Pharoah’s feast. What seems increasingly impossible in the first half becomes reality as the second half of the story unfolds. As Joseph moves further from his dreams in the first half, he sees progressive fulfillment of the dreams in the second half. Through the stages of the chiasm, we see growth in the characters of Joseph and his brothers, the brothers taking responsibility for their actions and Joseph growing past his boyish arrogance. This literary masterpiece, “set forth by a master storyteller who employs with consummate skill the novelistic techniques of character delineation, psychological manipulation, and dramatic suspense,” (Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 254) carries the Torah story forward.

Part II: Substitution and Atonement

Vayeshev contains nine references to animals, one of them oblique, when the brothers refer to Joseph as “our own flesh.” The Torah uses three descriptive words in speaking of human beings, two of them shared with animals: shared descriptive words are nefesh (flesh animated with the breath of G-d) and basar (meat or a carcass). Tzelem Elo(k)im, the “image of G-d,” whatever that means, is unique to human beings. In referring to Joseph as flesh, the brothers in some sense characterize their relationship with him.

Gen 37:2b – “At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives, Bilhah and Zilpah.”

Gen 27:12 – “One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, ‘Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them’…” Joseph requests help and finds the brothers pasturing in Dothan.

Gen 37:20 – “We can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’”

Gen 37:25 – “Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and laudanum to be taken to Egypt.”

Gen 37:27b – “After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.”

Gen 37:31 – “Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, ‘We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?’ He recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’”

Gen 38:12b – …”Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, together with his friend Hiram the Adullamite. And Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing.”

Gen 38:16b – “‘What,’ she asked, ‘will you pay for sleeping with me?’ He replied, ‘I will send a kid from my flock.’”

Gen 38:20 – “Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to redeem the pledge from the woman; but he could not find her…I did send her this kid, but you did not find her.”

Once again, we have a pastoral setting, a setting in which the lives and livelihoods of these people are enmeshed with their flocks and herds. Their animals are their daily work, their sustenance and the symbol of their wealth.

In this section, though, a more complicated relationship unfolds. We have two stories in which a kid becomes a symbol of deception: the brothers kill a kid for its blood so they can deceive their father with regard to Joseph’s “end,” and one of the brothers, Judah, kills a kid to pay Tamar who deceived him into thinking she was a harlot. The story of Judah and Tamar also picks up on the theme of failed responsibility, in this case Judah failing to honor his levirate obligation to Tamar, in the case of Joseph, as he fails to completely save his brother from harm, then participates in deception. Judah’s earlier failure with Joseph makes him especially uneasy when he cannot find “the harlot,” Tamar, to pay her with the kid.

Finally, we have the readiness to ascribe Joseph’s death to a “savage beast.” Reuben wasn’t present when Judah persuaded the other brothers to sell Joseph to passing Midianites, but he participated in the deception of dipping Joseph’s coat in the blood of a kid to persuade their father that he had been killed by a savage beast. All the brothers maintain the lie for years, concealing the truth from Jacob even after he and Joseph are reunited.

We know from the Noah story that the “crime” the animals committed that led to their utter destruction in the Flood is that they killed human beings. They too participated in the violence rampant in the earth. Following the Flood, G-d seems resigned to some basics of human and animal nature and promises never to destroy the earth again. “Savage” beasts did kill people on occasion, and it was not difficult to deceive Jacob with the bloody garment.

But there is another aspect to this action: the brothers not only fail to take responsibility for themselves, they blame their evil action on a made-up “savage” (non-domesticated) animal and kill a real (domesticated) animal, a kid, to carry out the subterfuge. In the Judah and Tamar story, a kid stands in for Judah’s responsibility with Tamar, and when the kid doesn’t reach Tamar, it represents Judah’s failed responsibility.

Now all this may be subconscious and accidental, but in such an artfully woven story, one wonders if the animal substitution motif might not be intentional? This theme is, after all, also major in the Torah, animals standing in for humanity’s sin, as atonement for transgression.

So once again, just as I wonder how human beings imagined that they were superior to animals and could kill them to eat them…I also wonder how human beings arrived at the idea that animals could substitute for them as payment for failed responsibility and wrongdoing?

Torah Ecology: Vayishlach (Gen. 32:1-36:43)

Part I: Speciesism

I’ve spent most of the last year focused on the broader Torah story, its worldview as I understand it through my study. This worldview is expressed primarily through a human lens and involves the relationship of human beings with Transcendence, Creation, and Other Life, which further divides into Other Living Creatures and Other Human Beings. Recently I have come to focus more narrowly on the relationship between human beings and their fellow creatures. Although the move was intuitive, it was generated by my growing certainty that our complex relationship with our fellow creatures signifies our core moral problem: speciesism.

Speciesism requires two fundamental mental and spiritual dispositions: 1) the way in which we, personally, see the world is reality and is true, and 2) “the other,” any living being who is different from us, is inferior to us. In reality, neither disposition has any evidence to support it.

Our attitude toward other living creatures inspires — or infects — our attitude toward other human beings. Our vocabulary shows how we made that link subconsciously over centuries. Any group of humans we want to degrade we refer to as animals.

The act of minimizing “the other” occurs first with animals. As we subconsciously learned not to question the assumption that we are superior to the animals, it became easier to thoughtlessly apply that same assumption to our fellow human beings. Further if factory farms have taught us nothing, they have taught us that when things happen out of sight, it is much easier to escape any sense of moral responsibility that results from our unchallenged assumptions.

So for me, one of the practices I have tried to strengthen in myself as I study is to discover and set aside any assumptions I hold — about the Torah, about animals, about other people — and to set aside any conscious or unconscious judgments that one kind of life or one idea or one time in history is superior to any other. I have wanted to look at what is in front of me and simply try to understand what it says, what was the worldview or life experience that produced these ideas and stories and practices? How could the mind that gave us the creation story, a world of harmony in which no creature, including humans, killed another for food, in which there was no violence, also bring us the idea that we could kill and sacrifice an innocent animal for sins that we committed? What made us think that our lives were so much more valuable than theirs that they should pay for something we did? What made us think we were superior to other creatures and so could eat them?

It is our human tendency to judge ourselves superior that is at the root of any problem I can think of in the world today.  And that tendency was hinted at in the creation stories themselves, that beautiful vision of a world in harmony where animals were vegan and had moral responsibility and snakes talked and reasoned and planned. Right there in those creation stories, we have statements about human dominance over animals. Although there are other ways to understand these statements than as statements of superiority, for the most part, we have chosen to understand them exactly that way, and that has created a cultural blind spot.

One of the things I love about the Torah is that it presents revolutionary  ideas, that it often even seems to contradict itself — but it offers these amazing perspectives in such a nuanced, subtle way that we are drawn up short, and we start to pay attention: men  dominate women, or so some interpreters would say… but wait, in the original Hebrew it actually suggests something different. G-d has no body… but if you read carefully, it’s not so clear. The Land of Israel was given unequivocally and forever to Israel… but read that again, and you’ll discover that too isn’t so clear. We are supposed to dominate and can kill other creatures for food, no problem. Again, look more deeply, and the picture isn’t so sharply drawn. I am continually invited by these ancient texts to dig more deeply, and the more deeply I dig, the more I find that it’s not quite as black and white as it seemed.

Part II: The Ethical Path…Not Always Easy to Find

And so it is with this week’s portion which includes the Rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s only daughter. It is a story that at first glance seems to present a series of actions that are clearly, undoubtedly morally repugnant. But then the details of the story draw us in to look more closely, to consider questions under the surface of the text.

Now I’m going to do something I don’t usually do because I had the opportunity to see this point demonstrated so beautifully on Shabbat. I’d like to share with you the highlights of our discussion, led by Rabbi Tom Samuels. The text is Gen. 34. The rabbi provided several texts to help us parse the text, and you will find them here. 

As we discovered, not one character in the story comes out with clean hands “ethically.” Each character is both good and bad, and there are many unanswered questions which, if answered, would change the nature of the story.

  • Leah, Dinah’s mother: where was she when her daughter “went out to visit the daughters of the land?” It would have been something major for a young woman from a nomadic temporary settlement to leave her group and enter an alien town alone. But perhaps she didn’t know or was assisting her daughter in pursuing her dreams.
  • And how about Dinah? What did she have in mind? Did she consider the consequences of her action for so many others in light of what she knew about her group’s codes and the possibilities of what might happen to her in an alien setting where in all likelihood those same codes were not in operation? Or should we admire her for her agency and boldness? Was she raped and terrified, or did she love Shechem?
  • Jacob, the family patriarch, says and does virtually nothing except complain that his sons’ actions endangered his standing in the area and caused the group to have to flee to another location. Jacob doesn’t take steps to rescue his daughter, nor does he call into question the morality of his sons’ actions. Yet his job as patriarch is to keep his group safe and to provide sustenance, and he does this in abundance.
  • Most of us would immediately judge the action of Jacob’s sons highly immoral — using the ruse of requiring circumcision as an opening to massacre all the men of Shechem and take their wives and children and livestock and household belongings as booty. But only they took action to retrieve their sister and require justice from the perpetrators of an alleged crime and the community that sheltered the alleged criminal.
  • Like Jacob’s sons, Shechem was highly immoral in committing assault…but it’s not so certain that assault was what happened. The translation reads that he “took her and lay with her by force.” The Hebrew, however, reads “וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ”. The word translated “by force” or in other translations “humbled her” is וַיְעַנֶּהָ (va-y’aneha) and means either defiled her or lay down with her. The second is far more neutral than the first, and neither necessarily means he forced her. And “took her” is the phrase commonly used for any sexual union between a man and a woman including marriage. Certainly many of those unions involved love. According to the story, Schechem loved Dinah: “Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly.”
  • Hamor seeks a peaceful relationship, but he evidences little concern for his son’s action and its questionable morality nor for Dinah’s situation or the profound offense caused to his neighbors. He never attempts to restore the young woman to her family nor to brings his son to justice. His wish is only to fulfill his son’s request. In joining his son and reporting to his people the agreement he thought he had reached with Jacob and his sons, this phrase creeps in: “Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms…” Yet this was not part of the agreement the men made. What does this mean?

As we discussed, the text reflects the kind of moral complexity we often face in life, situations where there is no perfect or good or right answer, where no person is perfect, where each acts in ways that are good and bad and ambiguous, where the lines of responsibility are like shifting sands. Yet decisions are made. No decision is a decision. Life and death continue, and history moves forward.

Part III: The Animals’ Story

Now I want to take just a moment to explore the ongoing story of the animals, the subtext, in my opinion, of the biblical story. What happens with them in this section of the text?

There are eight references to animals in this portion:

Gen. 32:6 – As Jacob returns to Canaan, he instructs his messengers to go before him and say to Esau: “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.”

Gen. 32:8 – As Jacob contemplates facing his brother, we learn, “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’”

Gen. 32:14-22 – Jacob sends before him gifts for his brother, Esau, including “200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 mulch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 20 he-asses. These he put in the charge of his servants, drove by drove, and he told his servants, “Go on ahead, and keep a distance between droves.” The servants are to present the gifts in droves, saying with each drove, Your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.”

Gen. 33:13 – After the brothers meet, Esau wishes to accompany Jacob to Seir with his family and flocks. Jacob ambiguously dissuades him saying: “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

Gen. 33:17 – Instead of going to Seir, though, Jacob camps at Sukkot and “built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle.”

Gen. 34:27 – After Simeon and Levi (Dinah’s full brothers) kill the men of Shechem, the other brothers “seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty.”

Gen. 36:6 – “Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock.”

Gen. 36:24 – Esau’s Horite relation, Anah, “discovered the hot springs in the wilderness while pasturing the asses of his father Zibeon.”

So where does our story of the animals take us in this Torah portion? The steady presence of flocks in these narratives signals a semi-nomadic existence. Many flocks, like wives, children and servants are a sign of prosperity. Perhaps most characteristic in this portion, however, is the way the animals are negotiable “items” to preserve the lives of Jacob and his family — or they are booty in war. In either case, they are valuable commodities and the way Jacob uses them demonstrates his lifelong skill in negotiation, as I suggested in another post, his adaptive behavior.

We see a hint of Jacob’s grandmother, Rebekkah, in Gen. 33:13 when Jacob expresses his concern for the well-being of his animals, but this concern, too, is ambiguous. The concern seems “staged” during Jacob’s negotiation to travel unaccompanied through the land with a promise to join Esau in Seir, which he does not do, and we understand he never intended to do. Ultimately Jacob’s holdings allow him to dominate the land of Canaan, according to the promise, as Esau leaves with his flocks to find more room.

In Vayishlach, the animals serve to illustrate more fully Jacob’s character as a negotiator and bargainer, even a trickster. They are commodities … and they are booty — or stolen wealth. But what is stolen, and what is protection? As with so many other elements of the story, the ambiguities leave us wondering, who is right and who is wrong? Perhaps taking the cattle in Shechem was just payback for Hamor’s “real” plan and intention in his offer, a plan the brothers anticipated, to steal everything that was theirs. Hamor hints at this possibility when he tells his people, “Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms…”

These are domesticated animals, living creatures who become commodities and props for the drama, magnifying Jacob’s persona.

Torah Ecology: Vayeitze (Gen. 28:10-32:3)

In Toledot, we saw Jacob engaging in adaptive behaviors, the result of a “quiet man, dwelling in tents” growing up with a brother like Esau, favored by his father, strong, active, a hunter. Jacob’s tendency to strategize and plan, even resort to trickery to achieve his/G-d’s end, can be seen as the result of continually confronting forces stronger than he.  He has to figure out a work-a-round.

In Vayeitze, we learn more about Jacob through an almost intimate portrait. I picture Jacob as a man who is smaller in stature, perhaps likes poetry, cooks — and when left to choose what he wants, prefers vegan food. Jacob and Esau are two very different personality types, and Jacob’s brother, Esau, has a profound effect on him. Almost certainly Jacob also had a profound effect on Esau, but one suspects that Jacob’s more quiet demeanor, perhaps greater sensitivity, allows him to be more aware of the strengths of Esau’s character than Esau of Jacob’s.

In Vayeitze, we see him again overcome the relatively greater power of those with whom he comes into contact: “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock. That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night. Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes. Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wages time and again…” (Gen. 31:38-42). And yet, through strategies and cunning, Jacob prevails.

We also learn that Jacob has a bit of a temper. When Rachel despairs because she doesn’t bear children and cries out to her husband, Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Gen. 301), Jacob was “incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:2) When Laban’s men search for the household idols Rachel stole, Jacob “became incensed and took up his grievance with Laban.” (Gen. 31:36).

Yet Rachel was the woman Jacob first loved, the woman he worked to win for 14 years when Laban substituted her sister, Leah, after the agreed upon 7 years. One can only imagine the pain Rachel felt not only from her infertility but from watching her sister bear children to the man she, Rachel, loved. Instead of responding with empathy and compassion, though, Jacob responds with impatience and anger.

His similar response to Laban looking for his lost household idols, reported with the same word, “incensed,” shows that even Jacob, the planner and strategizer, can become imprudent when angered. Not knowing that his beloved wife, Rachel, had taken them, he says, “But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). What if the idols has been found in Rachel’s possession? Of course, we learn that Rachel, like Jacob, also has the ability to be cunning, engaging in trickery for her own survival.

But perhaps the most telling scenes defining Jacob’s character are the two that involve animals: the first, at the well when Jacob meets Rebecca, and the second as Jacob evolves a plan to prevail over the trickery he anticipates from Laban with regard to dividing the flocks.

In the first scene, Jacob comes upon a well and after speaking to the shepherds whose sheep were gathered in the vicinity, he learns he has arrived at Haran, the home of his uncle, Laban. Although a newcomer to the area and therefore not familiar with local custom, when he hears that Rachel is coming, he suggests that the shepherds leave since it is still too early to round up the animal. They should water them and take them to pasture. The shepherds respond that they cannot roll the stone off the well until all flocks are rounded up. As Rachel arrives, Jacob leaps to roll the heavy stone off by himself, then kisses her and breaks into tears as he tells her he is her father’s kinsman, Rebekah’s son.

What do we make of this? It depends on how we understand the details. Jacob suggests to the shepherds that they leave — just after they point out to him that Rachel is arriving. Does he want them gone as he introduces himself to Rachel? They, too, seem to be waiting for her, planning to roll the stone off the well for their sheep and hers. And then when she does arrive, Jacob leaps to do it single-handedly. Further, when Jacob kisses Rachel, it is the only report in the entire Bible “of a man kissing a woman who is neither his mother nor his wife.” (Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 203).

Yair Haklai • CC BY-SA 3.0

Sarna interprets the kiss innocently because Jacob already knew her to be his cousin, and I tend to share that interpretation, although it is somewhat startling in the context, especially since Jacob ultimately marries Rachel. I chose the Featured Picture that I did for this story because it communicates to me more of the idea of a humble man, a man who takes a more quiet path through the world — not a predator. In contrast to Isaac’s servant, Eliezer, who waits while Rebekah draws water for all of his camels, Jacob leaps to help Rachel. But others interpret it differently, as in this sculpture. Look at the body structure and positions. Jacob is a larger man with good muscle tone, lunging forward, suggesting that he seizes Rachel. Her position suggests that she pulls away as she turns from him and pushes him back, defending herself.

Similarly we have an ambiguous possibility in Laban’s conversation with Jacob. As Sarna suggests, when the text tells us “He told Laban all that had happened,” (Gen. 29:13), Jacob could hardly have told him that he cheated his own brother and father. On the other hand, perhaps there is a slight note of sarcasm or at least foreshadowing when Laban says, “You are truly my bone and flesh,” for they are both tricksters. But then it could just be a commitment to the bonds of kinship and all that represents.

Sarna also suggests multiple possibilities involved in the story of Jacob creating speckled and streaked goats to his advantage, including sympathetic magic or folklore and selective breeding with a smokescreen to hide his activity. Either possibility, though, communicates a central feature of Jacob’s personality and a central theme of the story: Jacob is a strategizer who even resorts to trickery to achieve G-d’s/his end; and G-d’s plan for history prevails regardless of the obstacles and the apparent relative weakness or unsuitability of the man G-d chooses to move history forward.

One more thing we learn in this parshah: the animals are incidental to the story. They are manipulated by their human stewards. There are no more snakes with minds of their own who talk back to their fellow inhabitants of the planet. It is unusual for a woman to be a shepherdess in Israel (Sarna, p. 202), a sign of Rachel’s strength and independence — or of the idea that “even a woman” rules over animals?

Torah Ecology: Toledot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Toledot is “the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.” (Gen. 25:19) — yet it turns out to be the story of Esau and Jacob, even Rebekah, moving the story forward, while Isaac, old and blind, sits helplessly in his tent.

After taking Rebekah to wife following the death of his mother, Isaac pleads with the Lord on her behalf “because she was barren.” When she conceives, the children struggle in her womb. G-d tells her two separate peoples will issue from her body, one mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.

In Toledot, much of what we learn about Esau, the older of the twins born to Rebekah, is through contrast with his younger twin, Jacob.

Esau emerges “red, like a hairy mantle all over.” Here, red may refer to his ruddy complexion. In any case, “red” is a constant theme of the story. The detail about the “hairy mantle” presages the remainder of the story and Jacob’s trickery. It suggests something else as well, though.

We remember that Gen. 3:1 describes the serpent as the most arum of all the wild beasts the Lord G-d had made. In this context, with reference to the serpent, the Hebrew arum translates to “shrewd.” The same word, arum, translates to “naked” with reference to Adam and Eve’s awareness after they eat from the tree. In other biblical contexts, arum generally translates “prudent.”

A Hebrew speaker hearing arum would associate all these meanings and nuances: shrewd, cunning, naked, prudent — and would sense, even recognize, the parallel between serpent and human, elevating the snake to be more like the human, characteristically “naked,” without fur or a “hairy mantle.” Through this description, Esau, not “naked” even as an infant but rather born with a “hairy mantle,” is more like the beasts of the field whom he hunts as an adult.

This verbal parallel between Esau and the animals he hunts reminds us of a biblical subtext, that humans are animals and but for the grace of G-d may, like their fellow creatures, become prey (Num. 14:3). In his hairiness, his consequent closer similarity to the beasts of the field and his preference for the outdoors, Esau contrasts with his younger twin, Jacob, a “mild man who stayed in camp,” favored by his mother, Rebekah.

Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JTS Torah Commentary to Bereishit/Genesis that hunting was frowned upon in Israel, and “no Israelite or Judean king or hero is ever mentioned as indulging in the sport.” Nonetheless, since certain biblical passages describe how to prepare for food an animal caught in the hunt and include some wild animals in the list of animals that can be eaten, clearly there was some hunting due to economic necessity.

The fact that Esau was a hunter, though, sets him apart from normative Israelite society, as does the fact that he chooses his own wives from among the Hittite women rather than allow his parents to arrange a marriage for him as was the custom. When he overhears his parents talking of their dissatisfaction with his wives, he once again chooses wives, this time from the Ishmaelites.

Again, the details of the story highlight Esau’s character in contrast with Jacob’s: his closer kinship to the creatures he hunts accord with his independence from civilization, from the community of Israelites, from convention. Esau is associated with a more instinctive lifestyle, even a more impulsive lifestyle. Not only does he marry whom he wishes without parental consultation and seemingly without much consideration — but he thoughtlessly sells his birthright for short term gain, some red, red stuff (lentil stew) to “gulp down.”  As Sarna points out, the Hebrew for “gulp down,” l-‘-t (ha-l’iteni), usually refers to feeding animals. Here it also associates Esau with his fellow creatures, beasts of the field, more than with his Israelite community.

In contrast, we have his mother, Rebekah, and his brother, Jacob, whose focus is on the future, who plan and strategize even to the extent of trickery. We might even say they are arum, “prudent,” unlike impulsive Esau, who spurns his birthright, then bursts into “wild and bitter sobbing” when he learns he lost his father’s blessing. (Gen. 27:33)

One final detail further highlights the contrast between Esau and his brother, Jacob, and that is the “red, red stuff” Jacob cooks up one day for no particular reason, at least not one the text provides: “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew…” Esau arrives on the scene, coming in “from the open, famished.” (Gen. 25:29) Esau is an emotional man, driven by his instincts and short term needs; Jacob is more complex, a mild man who stays in camp, who cooks … what? apparently a vegan meal, bread and lentil stew.

And so the story returns us to the Garden narrative in yet another way, choosing as the progenitor of G-d’s people a man who is arum, prudent, who makes conscious choices, who is not driven by instinct and desire but is, instead, thoughtful, considering consequences (Gen. 27:12). It is a man who does not hunt, who does not “smell of the fields” but prefers to stay in the camp, in his community, and left to his own devices, cook up a simple and delicious vegan repast of bread and lentils.

Torah Ecology: Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1 – 25:18)

In the biblical narrative, Chayei Sarah is a bridge between the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The story begins with Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in Hittite territory so he can bury his wife, Sarah. After caring for the dead with a permanent place in the land, Abraham turns his attention to the future and the living, sending his unnamed servant to go to the land of Abraham’s birth to “get a wife” for Isaac.  The section concludes enumerating the lines of Abraham’s progeny through Keturah and Hagar (the line of Ishmael).

There are so many features of interest in this story, but in keeping with the task of this series, exploring the relationship between human beings, the rest of creation and G-d, the ecology of cosmos, I’m going to zero in on chapter 24. Rebeka’s character in chapter 24 serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the Esau’s character described  in chapters 25 (his birth) and 27 (losing his birthright), both in the next portion, Toledot.

In chapter 24, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family of origin. Abraham requires an oath from the servant not to take Isaac back to the land from which he came. Rather an “angel of the Lord” will lead the servant. Should the woman he choose refuse to leave her home and come with the servant, he will be cleared of the oath.

Taking ten of his master’s camels and ”all the bounty of his master,” the servant set out on his journey to Aram-Naharaim, to Nahor. When he arrives at the city, he causes his camels to kneel by the well outside the city at evening when the women of the city come out to draw water. The servant prays that he will find success on behalf of his master, Abraham. The words of the servant’s prayer provide the specifications for Isaac’s betrothed, as Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JPS Commentary to Bereishit:

“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Gen. 24:13-14).

Sarna points out the significance of this first record in Hebrew scripture of an individual praying for guidance at a critical moment. It “implies the concept of the individual as a religious unit in his own right, as distinct from the community.” The servant’s prayer is answered immediately and completely.

At least as significant, though, is the extent to which Rebekah demonstrates the features of character the servant requires, leaving no doubt in the servant’s mind that not he but G-d chose this woman to move history forward. As Sarna points out, the criteria the servant establishes for the ideal wife are, “must be hospitable to strangers, kind to animals, and willing to give of herself to others.” — that is, responsive to a human community, to “outsiders” and to fellow creatures.

The extent to which Rebekah fulfills this ideal can only be understood from paying attention to the details of the text. As Sarna explains, “a single camel requires at least twenty-five gallons of water to regain the weight it loses in the course of a long journey. It takes a camel about ten minutes to drink this amount of water.” Remember, though, Gen. 24:10 provided the detail that the servant took ten of his master’s camels. Rebekah saw those ten camels and, undaunted, volunteered to draw water for the camels “until they finish drinking.” She emptied the water “quickly” into the trough and “ran” back to the well to draw more.

When the servant asks Rebekah if there is room in her house for “us” to spend the night (referring to himself and the men with him, mentioned in Gen. 24:32), she responds first (and gratuitously) on behalf of the camels, saying, “There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night.” Similarly her family extends their hospitality to the camels equally with the men, preparing a place for the camels, unloading them and giving them straw and feed.

Rebekah cares for a stranger, extending hospitality and giving generously of herself — but it is her energetic labors on behalf of the ten camels that distinguishes her and provides us with a Torah ideal: while domesticated animals may work for humans (carrying them and their goods, as later in the story during the return to Isaac), they deserve full and compassionate care according to their needs. In this story, their care is at least as important as their human masters’ care, sometimes even coming before it.

Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways — but a test of character is the extent to which one respects their service and cares for them with energy and compassion.