On Vegetating

On Vegetating

I like food, plant food, that is — I like to plant, grow and eat it. I like to serve it to others and recycle it to contribute to next year’s harvest. I like working and being outdoors, walking and hiking (and am not a fan of health clubs). I like to study Hebrew Bible, Tanakh, especially the first five books, the Torah. Most of all, I like to think about all these things and what they have to say about the meaning of life. I started my blog when I decided to explore veganism, and it has led not just to recipes and farming but to a reexamination of the biblical text from a different perspective and to thoughts about ethics, ecology, evolution, animal rights, the human place in creation and more. I explore and refresh my own spirituality through these projects.

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.

Potential payback and a conundrum

I watched a video this morning that amplified my growing understanding of how much that we do is shaped by our evolutionary history. That, in turn, is shaped by the drive to survive: http://www.ynharari.com/role-scientists-debate-animal-welfare/

Evolution is a topic that first interested me tangentially, in relation to food choices. The more I read, though, the more questions it answers…and raises.

This morning I heard a discussion about AI (Artificial Intelligence), the pros…and the concerns raised by some, including Stephen Hawkings, that these machines may become more intelligent than we are and behave in destructive ways or ways we don’t choose for them to behave. Could they ultimately destroy us?

This is not a fantasy concern. A scientist who supports research in AI points out that human beings succeeded as they did because they are smart. While I think this point is debatable — and in fact Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the video I link to here, suggests something different that makes more sense to me: humans beings survived and prevailed over all other animals because of their ability to imagine and persuade others to buy into a fiction. This ability allowed them to organize and cooperate in large groups, larger than any other species.

But back to the concerns. In this context, I wonder about the power of evolution and the desire to survive that drives it — and how that desire shapes “intelligence.” I wonder if a machine can ever show the same kind of intelligence as a human without having implanted in it that same drive to survive? Without that, a machine’s intelligence will evolve very differently.

At least two possibilities suggest themselves to me. And I’m sure there are more. Without the drive to survive, machines can’t be particularly intelligent. With it, they could well decide it is in their interest to destroy us. Isn’t that what we have done to other species and even other human beings? Destroyed them because of a perceived benefit to our survival?

Seems to me we face both potential payback and a conundrum.

No creature left behind

For some reason today, I thought about Zlateh the Goat, a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of this book, including the story of Zlateh, the New York Times says, “beautiful stories for children, written by a master.” But they are not just for children. This is a powerful story of love and compassion and communication at the most profound level between species, different animals, human and goat.

Zlateh the Goat struggles with the challenges of reality as does another child’s story, “Carp in the Bathtub” by Barbara Cohen, a story in which two young children “learn some very grownup lessons when they try to save the fish their mother bought to make into gefilte fish” for the Passover Seder.  One writer calls the story “an early lesson in mortality and heartbreak.” The kidnapped fish ultimately ends up where it is destined to be, fulfilling its purpose on the Seder table. The children’s father teaches them a lesson about the purpose of each life on earth, and the youngsters receive a “real” pet, a cat, after Passover.

Many of us, myself included, experienced the lessons of both books consciously or unconsciously at some time in our lives. We learned that animals are living beings with souls and compassion and an ability to communicate — and we learned that in our culture, they have a purpose, which is to entertain us or to end up on our plates or in our clothing.

But as we get older and explore the realities of life and death on factory farms and question the messages of culture, some of us wonder: Can any creature possibly be born with its purpose to be systematically slaughtered after a short, constricted and unnatural life separated from its home, family, friends and natural habitat? The answer of “Carp in the Bathtub” isn’t sufficient for our world today just as the message of kashrut is only the beginning of an answer left for us to update for this moment in which we live.

One lesson the Torah teaches is that but for the grace of G-d and not our own merits, we too could be prey. Perhaps it’s time to remember and reimagine our place in creation along the lines of the first chapters of Genesis.

Hierarchies and the meaning of “in the image…”

Part of what I want to understand as I read the Torah is how it rationalizes hierarchical relationships when its creation accounts share such an extraordinarily inspirational non-hierarchical vision, a vision in which no creature kills another for food and all of creation lives in harmony. I can’t help but think, or maybe I mean hope, that somehow I will discover that the Torah values all life equally, that the vision of the the first chapters of Genesis are meant to guide us, that sacrifice is just…a situational anomaly, something destined to end. Certainly not part of the plan of a compassionate G-d.

I thought I was making some small progress in that direction when I read Noach two weeks ago. The vocabulary suggested to me that animals, like humans, are both basar and nefesh, substance or meat as well as living beings sustained by the breath of G-d. Animals, like humans, are held morally accountable. Humans were violent before the flood — but animals were not guiltless. Both were implicated in unlawful bloodshed, humans directly and other animals by implication. All basar, flesh, is therefore punished. This theory would provide a moral foundation for G-d’s decision to annihilate kol basar, all flesh.

In the new world, humans are permitted meat-eating with the limitation that they remove the blood — and meat-eating among animals is assumed with the limitation that the animal they kill is not human. Hierarchical, yes. But animals still have a role in the story, self-determination.

Then I remembered that only human beings are “in the image” of G-d, although I’m not entirely certain what that means from the perspective of the Torah. And then came Lech Lecha, which confirms the permanent position of other animals on a lower level of the hierarchy the Torah sets out. They are no longer significant to the forward movement of the story, no longer self-determining.

Animals are not the only ones whose value is diminished. Vayera brings us a series of stories in which all individual personalities, all needs, all emotions, recede in significance and value in relation to the purpose G-d intends to carry out through Abraham and Abraham’s devotion to it.

I have read Genesis many times during my life from different situations and perspectives from sitting on our Massachusetts front porch as a five-year-old child browsing my Dad’s illustrated pulpit Bible to a post-graduate academic environment to my current reading in an Illinois living room in an age of factory farms and environmental devastation.

I was particularly struck this year in reading Vayera by the vast silence surrounding the uniqueness and value of life trajectories other than Abraham’s: Sarah’s silence as she is misrepresented to Abimelech and taken into his harem, Hagar’s silence as she is sent away into the wilderness with her child, Yitzchak’s silence as he is bound on the altar and his father raises a knife to kill him, the ram’s silence as Abraham seizes him where he is caught in a thicket and binds him on the altar and slaughters him.

I was struck by the fact that G-d ceases to speak directly to Abraham during those terrible moments on Mt. Moriah and instead, in the two communications that follow the near homicide, speaks through a messenger. Following that horrific moment, even if we grant that a human sacrifice was never intended but was, instead, a test as the text says, wouldn’t we expect more intimacy and compassion instead of less when Abraham demonstrates that he is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? After Abraham … silently … went through such an ordeal — and G-d was silent in response?

And far from inspired, I am repelled by the idea that any person would be so committed to anything that they would be prepared to set aside all compassion, all sense of connection, in order to fulfill that commitment, whatever is required.

I try to imagine myself in that home, the wife of this man, whose forward-driving impulse, his faith, leaves those around him buried in the pain, terror and silence of their lives and situations. Even if G-d knew Ishmael would not die and would become a great nation — and even if G-d knew Yitzhak would not die but would carry forward Abraham’s line into the future, Abraham didn’t know and was willing to sacrifice them.

And then there is the terror of the lamb, the horror of its actual death on the altar, its bleating that touches no soul, that we can’t hear through the text. We exalt this single-mindedness of purpose, this unwavering commitment to an ideal no matter what is required as a virtue, a demonstration of faith. Yet I’m very certain if that person stood before us today we would say he is an ideologue…or a terrorist.

As hard as I try, I can’t find a rationale for this kind of hierarchization of life other than to say, life in some situations is harsh and unforgiving, creating a constant awareness of life and death and forcing impossible decisions. As I think of the decisions life forces on us sometimes and in some situations, I am reminded of the movie, Sophie’s Choice, a story of a person whose life was also profoundly changed by a decision she had to make, a terrible dilemma that had no “right” answer. And she had to bear the burden of that terrible decision in every moment that remained of her life.

And when I arrive at this moment in which I can find no answers, I think of this statement and am filled with gratitude that through no merit of my own, I live in a moment and a place in the history of the world that I am not called upon to make impossible choices:

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?” ~ Pam Ahern of Edgar’s Mission

Torah Ecology: Vayera (Gen. 18:1 – Gen. 22:24)

Listening for the Sounds in Silence

Seven stories illuminate the character and path of Abraham…but five of the seven carry kernels of silence, words unspoken, sounds not recorded.  What meanings can we retrieve, buried in the silence?

Seven stories, five with silent spaces:

THREE VISITORS (18:1-18:15)
The three visitors arrive at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent, bringing the news that Abraham and Sarah will have a child…after agonizing years when they could not conceive. Almost all the conversation in this segment is between Abraham and the guests, establishing Abraham’s commitment to hospitality. When Abraham persuades the visitors to stay for a meal, he rushes to gather the food for the feast and commands Sarah to make cakes — quickly, a command she obeys without recorded comment. When the visitors make their announcement, Sarah laughs — silently, to herself. When the visitors question her soundless laughter, they inquire of Abraham, not Sarah. Frightened by the visitors’ ability to see into her deepest thoughts, she finally speaks, lying, saying she did not laugh. Does Sarah’s silent laughter hide years of pain and fear and frustration? The future for a childless woman is uncertain and fragile in a time when a woman is supported first by her father, then her husband, and if widowed, her inheriting son — a time when a woman’s purpose, in her community and for herself, is defined by bearing children.

ARGUMENT WITH G-D (18:16-18:33)
In one of two stories without an actor who doesn’t speak, Abraham carries on an extended conversation directly with G-d, establishing Abraham’s sense of justice. He pleads eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, asking G-d to spare them if fifty innocent are found, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten.  The story is remarkable for Abraham’s volubility as well as the content of his message, questioning and reminding G-d to be just by not punishing the innocent with the guilty. For all of Abraham’s anxious volubility, what we don’t hear is, what in Abraham’s history and experience with G-d would make Abraham feel the need to “argue?” Why does he question the justice of an outcome, whatever it is? Still, this is one of two stories in seven where all those present, Abraham and G-d, speak and hear.

Abraham’s visitors move on, but now they are two. They arrive in Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s, home town, Sodom. Lot’s action when he sees them parallels Abraham’s in some ways when the three visitors arrived at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent. He urges the visitors to come in and enjoy food as Abraham did…but Lot prepares the food himself, including the bread. Where are the women of the household? We see and hear nothing of them until Lot offers his daughters to the men and boys of Sodom in place of the visitors whom they demand. Lot says, “I have two daughters who have not known man…do to them as is good in your eyes.” This is the first mention of anyone in the household other than Lot, and no words are recorded from the daughters. Whether or not Lot’s action was praiseworthy in the context, imagine the terror the daughters must have felt. Their lives were about to change radically, probably end, if they became substitutes for the visitors as the objects of sexual assault. And finally, after the destruction, Lot’s wife comes into view momentarily as she looks back on the destruction and turns…silently…to a pillar of salt. Her sorrow and terror are also not recorded.

The daughters who were silent as their father offered them up for assault in place of the visitors are now talkative as they discuss and carry out a plan to fulfill their lives’ meaning in their restricted circumstance. Noah sleeps after too much wine, knowing nothing, the silent victim of his daughters’ strategy. Would he have agreed to the plan consciously? How would he have fulfilled the commandment, p’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply)? What a sad and desperate situation, living in a cave overlooking the devastated landscape, isolated from the society he so desperately wanted to join, without even the wife who bore their children and shared a life with him.

Once again, Abraham presents his wife, Sarah, as his sister to prevent attacks because those more powerful than he might want his wife and would take her by force. This time, unlike the earlier occurrence with Pharaoh, Abraham doesn’t speak with Sarah, requesting her cooperation. He just presents her as his sister, and King Abimelech of Gerar “had Sarah brought to him,” that is, brought to his harem.  G-d comes to Abimelech in a dream, warning him of Sarah’s real status and the punishment that will come to him and his kingdom. Abimelech reproaches G-d in similar terms to those Abraham uses in his Argument with G-d: “Will You slay people even though innocent?” He pleads ignorance, and G-d commands him to return Sarah to her husband.

Abimelech speaks to his servants, telling them what happened, then summons Abraham, demanding to know why Abraham brought this guilt on Abimelech and his kingdom. Abraham explains himself, saying, “I thought…surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife…And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s.” Abimelech gifts Abraham with sheep and oxen and restores his wife, inviting him to settle where he wishes in Abimelech’s land. And to Sarah, he says, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” Is there a hint of sarcasm when Abimelech refers to Sarah’s husband as her brother? In any case, events swirl around Sarah, she is transferred household to household, and throughout, her words and thoughts are never reported. She is silent as her husband misrepresents her and another man takes her into his household.

BIRTH OF ISAAC (21:1-21:21)
Sarah conceives and bears a son, as G-d promised her through the three visitors to the tent. Abraham names his son Isaac, connecting him to Sarah’s silent laughter, and at eight days old, Abraham circumcises him. Then Sarah finally finds her voice, expressing her joy after all these years of disappointment and pain: “G-d has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Further, she demands that Abraham cast out “that slave-woman and her son,” Hagar, to whom Sarah sent her husband when Sarah was unable to conceive, and Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Suddenly Sarah, a woman who remains silent through two occasions when her husband passes her off as his sister, allowing her to be taken into the harems of others, and who laughs to herself when told she would conceive in her old age, then lies about her silent laughter out of fear…has a lot to say. She is concerned for her son, Isaac’s, inheritance. The story reports Abraham’s feelings of distress, and G-d speaks to Abraham telling him not to be distressed, to follow whatever Sarah tells him to do, a reversal of their roles.

The next day, Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water to carry along with her child, Ishmael, and he sends her away. Hagar wanders, with her son, in the wilderness of Beersheba until the water runs out. Despairing and unable to bear watching her son die, she leaves the child under a bush and sits down at a distance, bursting into tears. In the next line, the story tells us, “G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d calls to Hagar from Heaven and says to her…” Hagar, silent throughout her ordeal, finally weeps with fear and despair, and G-d hears…not Hagar, but her son, although the story reports no sounds from him. G-d speaks to Hagar, giving her G-d’s promise for Ishmael’s future and showing them a well of water.

In The JPS Torah Commentary for Genesis, editor Nahum Sarna notes how Yishmael recedes into the silence of history with verbal cues. In the course of this story, which unfolds from Gen. 21:1-21, Yitzhak’s name appears 6 times. The root of his name, ts-h-k (associated with laughter), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. Conversely, Yishmael’s name appears not at all, although the word “boy” with reference to Yishmael appears 6 times. The root of the name Yishmael, sh-m-‘ (associated with hearing), occurs “suggestively” 3 times. These skillful verbal cues elaborate the silent theme associated with Yishmael in this story…the boy left under a bush by his despairing mother, a mother who weeps for her son and G-d who hears her silent son.

In a brief transitional story, the second of two without a silent actor, Abimelech once again meets with Abraham, this time bringing along Phicol, chief of his troops. On this occasion, equals meet, with King Abimelech seeking a pledge of loyalty from Abraham, the sojourner in his land. Abraham makes that pledge, then reproaches Abimelech for the well Abimelech’s servants seized. Again, Abimelech pleads his innocence on the basis of lack of knowledge. Abimelech and Abraham now make a “pact,” sealed by a gift from Abraham to Abimelech of sheep and oxen. Abraham then pays Abimelech with seven ewes as proof that he, Abraham, dug the well. Their business together concluded, Abimelech returns to the land of the Philistines, and Abraham plants a tamarisk at Beersheba, invoking the name of the Lord.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s final test of faith, climaxes this seemingly unrelated series of seven stories which are, nonetheless, intimately linked through verbal cues and parallelisms. The story is filled with silences, beginning with the somber silence that pervades the scene of Abraham preparing to go on a journey to sacrifice his son. Despite the eloquence of his pleas on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is silent in response to G-d’s command that he “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. Four identifications to make certain there is no doubt. G-d is demanding that Abraham sacrifice his future, a promise finally fulfilled late in his life. Abraham already unwillingly gave up his first son, Ishmael, on G-d’s instruction. Now he is being asked to give up his son, Isaac, the one he favors, a repository of his love and hope for the future — and he must do that in a most horrifying way — he must tie him down, put a knife through him and burn him on the altar. Abraham’s response is fiercely and dutifully silent.

Imagine the buried pain in the conversation between Abraham and his beloved son, Isaac, as they walk toward what Abraham believes will be his awesome duty, the sacrifice of his son. “Father!”…”Yes, my son…” “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”…”G-d will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

What did Isaac think as his father, Abraham, bound him and laid him on the altar on top of the wood? As Abraham picked up the knife with the intent of killing him? We don’t know. The moment is buried in silence. And then, in this awful moment, a moment suspended in silence, G-d, who spoke with Abraham directly, who conversed with him, with whom Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, sends a messenger to hold Abraham back from the terrible deed. Abraham looks up, and his eye falls on a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Without hesitation, Abraham goes and takes the ram and offers it as a burnt offering in place of his son.

But the silence continues. Imagine the terror of the ram, first trapped, then bound on an altar for slaughter. It’s hard to imagine the ram’s terror wasn’t finding expression in bleating, that there wasn’t a struggle. The story doesn’t report that — the scene remains submerged in a deep, impenetrable silence.

G-d speaks with Abraham one more time…and again, after so many direct meetings, real conversations, this last one, following the horrifying silent moment on Mt. Moriah, is through a messenger.

Everything changed in that terrifying moment, as much as it changed when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree or Noah entered the Ark with his family and fellow creatures. We are a long way from the vision of the Garden.

Time for Fall Soups…This One’s Perfect for Fall CSA Veggies!

Published in Bob’s Fresh and Local Newsletter, 10/25/2017.

I found this recipe last year on The Green Panda’s Kitchen. A group of women made it outdoors in Kenya, and when I read that, I started dreaming of making beautiful meals outdoors with veggies from Farmer Bob’s fields. The squash at this time of year is plentiful, and the fall weather has been amazing…just right for cooking outdoors. A cast iron Dutch oven, some heat, a place to cut up my veggies, and that’s all I needed.

But you don’t have to cook outside! You can use your kitchen cutting board and put a soup pot on your kitchen stove. I halved this recipe for the two of us, and I usually bump up the seasonings a little when I taste it toward the end.



  • Chickpeas, 1 lb., rinsed and cooked until just tender
  • Butternut squash, washed, remove seeds and fibers, cut into 1.5 inch cubes (Don’t peel – I tried this! It really works!)
  • Carrots, 1 lb., washed and cut into medium dice
  • Onions, 1 lb., cut into medium dice
  • Tomatoes, 1 lb., cut into medium dice
  • Swiss Chard, 1 large bunch, remove leaves from stems, finely chopped
  • Garlic, 1 head, peeled and chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • Smoked paprika, 1 TB
  • Cinnamon, 1 TB
  • Cilantro, 1 bunch, washed and coarsely chopped
  • Lemon, 1/2 – 1, juiced
  • Cumin, 1 tsp. (Most recently I used 1 TB and no coriander)
  • Coriander, 1 tsp.
  • Salt, to taste (I usually use about 1 TB per gallon of soup)
  • Hot paprika, 1-2 tsp. (Opt.)
  • Water to cover (between the chickpea liquid and water, about 5 quarts)


  1. Prepare the chickpeas by rinsing, covering with plenty of water, and cooking covered on low heat until tender (1-2 hours). Check periodically to make certain there is still sufficient water. Set aside with the remaining water.
  2. Prepare the veggies (squash, carrots, onion, tomatoes chard, cilantro) and set aside. Note: you can replace the fresh tomatoes with one-half of a 19 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes if you’re in a hurry)
    Mince the garlic.
  3. Add 2 TB extra virgin olive oil to a large soup pot. Saute the garlic and onion until softened.
  4. Add the squash, carrots and tomato (or one-half of a 19-oz. can petite diced tomatoes) and the reserved chickpeas with their water.
  5. Add additional water until all is cover — less for a more “packed” soup, more for a brothier soup.
  6. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until the veggies are tender.
  7. Add the seasonings and lemon juice and check the taste. Adjust seasonings if needed.
  8. Stir in the cilantro and chard.

I hope you enjoy this delicious, aromatic soup.

Tonight I’m making pumpkin and black bean patties for dinner. I’d love to share the results with you next week, but we’ve reached the end of the season! I hope the winter isn’t too hard on us this year, and I’ll look forward to connecting with you all again when we start getting Farmer Bob’s veggies again in the spring.

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

The 10 Most Important Things I’ve Learned About Healthy Eating Over 50 Years

I’m not a scientist, nor am I a medical professional. I just love well-prepared food and a feeling of good health. I like to read and test out on myself theories that make sense and judge them based on experience.

These are the 10 things I’ve learned about healthy, satisfying eating over more than fifty years of experimenting with myself, my family and friends and in my cafe:

  1. Eat real food. By real food, I mean whole foods from the earth as little manipulated as possible other than by your own preparation and cooking processes.
  2. Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed. There is a delay before the satisfaction message reaches your brain. Allow for that.
  3. If you’re not satisfied after meals and if you experience cravings, something needs adjusting in your diet.
  4. Be careful about eliminating categories of food from your diet. There’s a lot of “fake news” about the disaster that will overtake you when you eat certain foods. There’s also a lot of imperfect nutritional knowledge.
  5. Be careful about eliminating “food” categories, that is, except for added sweets of all kinds, natural and artificial. Get rid of those as much as you can. That includes most commercially processed foods.
  6. Eat fiber. When appropriate and possible, buy organic and don’t peel things.
  7. Don’t let the excuse that you can’t afford organic fruits and veggies stand in the way of eating them. It’s much more important to consume those whole foods than it is to avoid chemical residues. For the path of moderation, ewg.org provides a Dirty Dozen list of the worst offenders, updated each year.
  8. Aim for at least 80% plant foods in your diet.
  9. Nuts and seeds and avocados are your friends. They are the best source of healthy fats.
  10. Enjoy your meals! Remember, it’s always a work in progress. You learn more, we all learn more, we get lazy and need system rechecks and adjustments, perfection is never a possibility, and if you put healthy whole foods on your table, you can savor the taste and experience instead of counting calories or “carbs.”

I have found the best way for me to experience healthy, satisfied pleasure from what I eat is to work with my CSA. On the days I spend out in the field, I often accumulate 15,000 steps or more. I feel the wind and the sun and the rain. I enjoy the beauty and the colors that surround me. I have my hands in the food chain and can’t imagine much that is more satisfying than knowing I have a direct relationship to the food I eat and feed my family.

Best of all, I am challenged to use 3/4 bushel of seasonal produce and more every week. I try things that are new to me, that I’ve seen in stores but haven’t bought because they were unfamiliar. There just isn’t a way to eat more healthfully than by using up my box of beautiful whole foods that I had a hand in producing.

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