June 17th, 2021
Animals are front and center in Parashat Chukat, which begins with the laws regarding the famed red heifer, a flawless red cow sacrificed in the purification process after one has come into contact with a dead body. It is an extremely consequential commandment, as the Jewish people’s inability to perform this sacrifice since the destruction of the Second Temple has left the Jewish people ritually impure for nearly two millennia! In addition to the red heifer, snakes return to the Biblical foreground. The Israelites begin to complain yet again, this time that they have come to despise the taste of mannah and wish to eat something else. As a result of their behavior, God sends serpents to bite the Israelites, killing some but wounding them all. Seeing the error of their ways, they confess to Moses and beg for mercy. God commands Moses to make a copper statue of one of the snakes, as any snakebitten Israelite who looks upon it will be healed.
This week’s parsha highlights a few interactions that animals have towards humans: purifying them, killing them, wounding them, and healing them. These are but a small number of the possibilities, to be sure, and they range from very positive to very negative, such as loving them or killing them, respectively. It is important to remember, however, that any relationship is shaped by the interactions that flow between both parties. Furthermore, it is not only the nature of those interactions, but the quantity of them. Though the animal kingdom has certainly caused numerous human wounds and fatalities, they are a small drop in the bucket compared to the other way around. According to the Population Reference Bureau, an estimated 117 billion humans have ever lived. According to the very conservative figures reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 636 billion souls have been slaughtered to satiate the human desire for meat over the last decade – and those are just the numbers for chickens. The same conservative figures reported that 785 billion land animals were intentionally slaughtered for meat consumption between 2010 and 2019. Nearly eight times as many land animal souls were destroyed for human consumption in the last decade than human souls that have ever existed. To be clear: these figures do not include the fatalities from the dairy or egg industries; these figures do not include fish and other marine life killed for food; nor do these figures account for the fatalities and extinctions from habitat disruption and destruction directly or indirectly caused by human activity.
To be sure, there are numerous animals who have had their lives improved by humans! There are humans who do tremendous good for animals individually. The truth cannot be found by looking exclusively at the bad, and the scales of justice have two sides. Unfortunately, in regards to humanity’s treatment of animals, the scales of justice are beyond damning for humanity at large.
With these mind-numbing figures, who are we as Jews to begin and end each day praising the Blessed Holy One’s infinite creative genius? Just as King David was forbidden from building the Temple in Jerusalem due to the blood on his hands, who are we to delight in the majesty of Creation with the unthinkable amounts of blood upon our own? Certainly the Jewish people cannot be credited for all of these numbers, that would be absurd – but we have unquestionably done our part. Of any country in the world, Israel has the highest per-capita figures of chickens slaughtered. How can we joyously praise God’s Creations in shul while we feed ourselves through the unholy mechanism of Factory Farming? Surely no single blessing can rectify the damage we have done.
We are no different than our ancestors, who complained about the food God blessed them with, wanting meat instead. Though they were referring to mannah in their context, the Torah is unambiguous about what the Blessed Holy One has given for us to eat, as it says in the very first chapter of the Torah: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food.’” Though we are not being punished by snakes, we too are being punished for our actions, as the incredible world crafted by the will of the Ineffable fights back for its own survival. Perhaps if we, like our ancestors before us, openly repent and change our ways, the consequences will be severely lessened, and the damage will begin to heal. Unlike our ancestors, however, the Jewish people cannot stop the destruction to come by ourselves. But perhaps if we lead the way, we can live up to our challenge to be or goyim, a light among the nations, and shomrei adamah, guardians of the Earth and all of its creatures, we may bring forth redemption speedily in our days.
Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.
1. Population Reference Bureau, “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?”
2. Genesis 1:29