August 23rd, 2019
“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God and fail to keep God’s commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, built fine houses to live in, your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware that you do not let your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth…If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you will certainly perish.” -Deuteronomy 8:1-15, 18-20
In this week’s parsha, Moshe presents the Israelites with the chilling warning above. Among their many benefits, the mitzvot are vehicles for humility and recognition of one’s place within creation. Humanity at large has been given incredible gifts of creativity, ingenuity, and innovation – gifts that have been corrupted by humanity’s most primal urges of destruction and greed. Our divine commandments are intended to refine humanity towards reflecting God’s best characteristics: mercy, kindness, forgiveness, etc. To paraphrase Rabbi Heschel, goodness is not enough for the Jew – goodness is secondary, a vehicle towards holiness, the pathway towards the reunification of Shamayim u’varetz.
Through remembering our place in creation, we radiate God’s light throughout the world; conversely, pursuing our worst impulses of greed and consumption leads to death. We are seeing the latter today, as the Amazon rainforest, one of the most incredible displays of the majesty of God’s creation, has been burning for over 2 weeks straight. Scientists have been very explicit about the need for global concern regarding the Amazon: without tropical rainforests, there is no solving the climate disaster.
Despite this reality, the Amazon rainforest is being deforested at record rates. How and why could this be?
Very simple: the idolatry of greed. Over the last 30 years, the Amazon has lost an area larger than the entire country of Germany by ranchers illegally burning sections of the forests to clear the land to produce meat, dairy, and eggs to sell internationally. The lamentable policies of Brazillian president Jair Bolsonaro will only increase the rate of decimation. By threatening to dissolve the ministry of environment, to dismissing top scientists within his own government, Mr. Bolsonaro and his wealthy supporters exploit the desperation of ranchers in the name of slight economic gain – while at the expense of irreplaceable biodiversity in the Amazon.
Though the crisis in the Amazon is one particular example of paramount importance, the use of land for meat and dairy production worldwide is growing unsustainably, utilizing far too much carbon & water to justify, in the worship of the idolatry of Greed. All of these consequences for the name of short-term profit – and that’s before addressing the inhumanities towards these animals.
The legendary Rav Kook (1865-1935) was a major proponent of Jews adopting plant-based diets – nevertheless, he did note that prioritizing animal welfare over human welfare was unjust. However, Rav Kook did not live in our time, in which we are aware of the ramifications that the factory farming industry has upon all of creation! It decimates biodiversity, the majesty of God’s creation; it leads to the economic prioritization of growing crops to feed livestock instead of the 821 million people globally who are undernourished; and it is one of the leading global producers of carbon emissions, while our planet is hurtling towards the cliff of environmental disaster.
In our time, we are faced with the same warning that Moshe gives the Israelites: we recognize that creation is not a commodity for our disposal, and choose to live up to our fundamental purpose as stewards of creation, rejecting the abominations of factory farmed animal products in favor of the plants provided by our creator for our consumption (Genesis 1:8).
Many people wrestle with the notion that, in addition to being merciful, compassionate, and kind, God “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). The climate crisis is precisely this phenomenon: the consequences of greed and excess of 150 years of industrialization are coming to fruition today. These same material excesses are enjoyed in our generation as well – the question is will we recognize the perils we face and take comprehensive steps, or will our lust for cruelty, greed, and excess lead to our mutually assured destruction?
As the month of Elul approach, let us do some reflecting of our own actions, and have the humility to fully repent by changing our behaviors. No longer can we line the pockets of the heretical factory farming and fossil fuel industries. We must end our consumption of products and services that grow the profits of the people in our generation “who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground…and thereby profane My holy name” (Amos 2:7), purging their influence from our communities and governments alike, removing these festering wounds from our society and world. May we overpower their blasphemous greed with our righteousness, love, and truth.
In our time, the fate of the world is truly at stake.