Plant-Based Torah: Parashat Ki Tavo – The Illusion of Prosperity

September 19th, 2019


“The LORD will establish you as a holy people…if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in His ways…The LORD will give you abounding prosperity in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil.”
-Deut. 28:9,11

The Israelites are given a choice in this week’s parsha: do good and live, or be compelled by greed and wealth and suffer. Blessings and curses are the majority of Parashat Ki Tavo. If the Israelites live according to God’s command and live righteously, they will thrive – and if they do not, they will suffer. Contemporary readership may be alarmed by the all or nothing predicament with which the Israelites presented.

Even those who feel disconnected from normative Jewish theology can connect to the fundamental ideas of walking in God’s ways, which are most comprehensively laid out in the 34th chapter of the book of Exodus: “A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness… [and] forgiving.” These are universal ideals, in addition to the values of justice and humility.1  (Ultimately, Jews are commanded to emulate these values in order to inspire other nations into adopting and prioritizing these ideal characteristics themselves. This is the true meaning of the Jewish people serving as the Light Among the Nations.

Judaism recognizes humanity’s capacity for forgetfulness, which is why it is a religious order rich with ritual and symbolism that must be performed with proper intention. Rather than simply relying on people to passively remember to be all of those wonderful characteristics, Jewish observance gives numerous opportunities for reminders on a daily basis. The mitzvot surrounding treatment of other people and animals are not one and the same – Judaism recognizes this distinction – nevertheless, the Jew is forbidden from exploiting other people, as well as animals.

To those who see the climate disaster and ask what Jewish tradition could have done to stop it, I answer that if halacha and Jewish values had been applied in widespread fashion, the greed of the factory farming industry would not have led to our planet’s current predicament. In no way is the current animal production system an indication of the above verse coming true! We have not been graced with bounty from Upon High (“The LORD will give you abounding prosperity…in your cattle’s offspring”) – rather, the divine gift of human ingenuity has been bastardized to exploit animals by artificially inseminating livestock repeatedly until they simply cannot have any more calves or produce any more milk, at which point they are rendered economically useless and swiftly slaughtered to be replaced with a younger, fertile cow. 

The factory farming system has maximized “efficiency” to a science to ensure that every last proverbial drop is squeezed out of an animal before they are slaughtered for no longer retaining any more economic value. Though we can be horrified at the reality that the average “broiler” chicken lives little more than a few weeks, the reality is that these chickens tragically cannot live much longer than that anyway. The have been bred and genetically modified to the point that their breasts and thighs are so large that their skeletal structure and internal organs cannot handle the stress. The fact is that these creatures couldn’t survive for much longer than the approximately 80 day lifespan of the average organic chicken (only 35 for intensively ranged chickens that make up the vast majority of the chicken market) if someone wanted them to. Even for these chickens who are given access to larger outdoor areas, these poor creatures struggle to move at all. Between the quality and length of life, the life of the average chicken in the meat aisle looks nothing like the one of their wild counterparts, who live between five to ten years.

Is that the best of what human ingenuity has to offer? Are we a society comprised of individuals who support these practices? Do we shrug our shoulders while the animal agriculture industry pumps our atmosphere with greenhouse gases while simultaneously devastating natural habitats in order to expand production even further?

Though the theological themes of Ki Tavo may make some feel uncomfortable, the reality is that each of us make choices and those choices have consequences – both for us, as well as for future generations. In another passage that makes some readers uncomfortable, God states that God “does not dismiss all punishment, but visits the transgressions of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7). That seems unjust!, says a contemporary reader, but nevertheless our choices today will allow one option or another: to leave a world behind that is inhabitable for our children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations, or not.

Just as the Israelites faced a choice with either vibrance and comfort or impending doom, so do we. We must awaken from the illusion that our creature comforts and seemingly endless consumption are what we are entitled to! We must make better choices, and continue to make better choices – or else our fate is sealed. Just as the Israelites made the wrong decision and were tempted by the idols of foreign nations, our blind consumption of animal agriculture and fossil fuels are the biggest threat to the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and likewise to all of humanity and the planet, that has ever been presented.

And yet – what is the major theme of Jewish history? Just as things look darkest is when the greatest change and growth can occur. We have a choice to make, and there is no time to wait for the great light of compassion, gentleness, and forgiveness to overtake the great, messy family that is the human race. May the light of the Merciful One light the flame of love in the hearts of us all as we light the Shabbat candles this week. In this season of change, may our actions and attitudes turn towards what is right and good: justice, lovingkindness, and walking humbly with our God2 .

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