Plant-Based Torah: Parashat Lech Lecha – The Promised Land is Burning

November 7th, 2019


When my stomach dropped upon hearing my phone “ding” with a local emergency alert two Fridays ago, it was out of remembered trauma, not out of surprise. Evacuations advised, yet again, for my town of Forestville, for my old workplace’s town, even the next city over. As the hours passed, our advisories turned to mandates, and more towns were included, until nearly all of Sonoma County was in gridlock on the freeway headed anywhere else. The reason was the Kincade Fire, which sparked in Geyserville, just eighty miles north of San Francisco. The fire was blazing violently and bearing down on hundreds of thousands of peoples’ homes and livelihoods. The remembered trauma lighting up every nerve in my body was caused by my community being regularly beaten down by increasingly catastrophic environmental disasters over the last few years. But what do we do when the land to which we belong is not a safe place to live? In a small detail in Lech Lecha, the parsha for this week, Abraham and Sarah experience exactly this. G-d leads the family to the land of Canaan, a holy place where they will be safe and provided for. But upon arriving there, they immediately evacuate due to famine.

The Tubbs Fire, in late October of 2017, caused a similar mass evacuation, and led to the complete loss of over 5,600 homes and buildings. Twenty-two people were killed, and many lost everything. Homemade sheet-flags hung from the freeway overpass semi-permanently: “Thank you, First Responders!”, “#SonomaCountyStrong”, and “The Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke”. The following autumn saw the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearly 19,000 homes and buildings in nearby Butte County, killing an estimated 85 people. Many elderly folks lost their homes and all of their possessions.  When the evacuation orders were lifted, they returned home to a flattened landscape that they would never see recover in their lifetimes. California communities are now regularly fractured by massive loss of property and human life. I came to California looking for home and a new start, directed, I believed, by G-d. But what do I do now that this land is less and less hospitable to human life?

When I graduated college on the East Coast, I felt the call to move west. I had been a dedicated vegetarian since the age of 3, and I had been an animal-loving nature-worshiper for decades. Soon after moving, I transitioned fully to veganism, unifying inseparably my spirituality and my love of nature. I escaped to the forest to pray among the trees; I went camping on weekends; I watched spiders creep around my ceiling for hours. As I embroidered myself into the Jewish environmentalist community in the Bay Area, my Jewish identity and my environmental activism deepened as my sense of home increased.

In the parsha Lech L’cha, G-d famously tells Abraham to go forth from his birthplace to an as-yet-unknown land that G-d would show him. Based solely on his faith and trust in G-d, Abraham is led into the mystery based on G-d’s word. Abraham has work to do in the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, and G-d would take care of him and his family there. But Abraham, Sarah, and Lot experience a deep famine in the land of Canaan. As soon as they arrive, they must leave. The natural disaster of famine forces them to Egypt to seek help. This is notable — Abraham and his family had barely even entered Canaan before they were driven out due to terrible famine.

I felt the call to move West and I trusted G-d. I was led to a place of community and love — where I could meet deeply spiritual friends over organic veggie burgers at urban farm hoedowns. But as my time here went on, and as the novelty of this environmentally progressive place wore off, the underbelly of industrial agriculture in this state was revealed. I started forming community in Southern California, which brought me to bi-monthly drives down the I-5 freeway. Once you leave the city of San Francisco en route to Los Angeles, or vice versa, you begin to see and smell some upsetting things. The first time I experienced driving past the Coalinga exit and one of the biggest feedlots in existence, the stench hit me just before the tears. I wanted to pull over to cry, but I didn’t want to linger in this hellscape. I fought the urge to look away as my eyes met those of thousands of cows, huddled together in unsettling density, in a “field” of mud and excrement. They looked overweight, discolored, and ill; they were distressed. The macabre and horrific scene of animals in pain is just one example of the ranches that make up 38 million acres of land in California. In the state, there are 1.78 million dairy cows and 600,000 beef cows on any given day.

The promised place I came to now feels angry. The land has been over-grazed; desertification is spreading. The millions of cows in California each need to drink between twenty and thirty gallons of water per day. They need to eat between twenty-five and fifty pounds of grain per day, depending on size, which takes up even more acres of land to grow with water that is less and less abundant. As has been proven, greenhouse gases such as methane (which is much more powerful than CO2 in absorbing heat and thus damaging the atmosphere) are hastening climate change, which causes extreme weather — unseasonable winds, heat, low humidity in the summer, and devastating, overwhelming rains that flood the hard ground in the winter.

Horrific fires, devastating storms, and floods are no longer an imaginary or potential future event. Extreme and disastrous weather events are happening right now all over the world — not just in the United States. Factory farming, especially the resource-heavy industry of meat & dairy production, is unsustainable and extremely dangerous for the health of the earth. G-d said to Abraham, as G-d said to me, leave home and go forth to a new land — one that I will show you. But what do we do when that land becomes unlivable?

My prayer is for more people to wake up to the reality of factory farming and livestock production. Instead of spending money supporting the destructive meat industry, support local organic vegetable, fruit, and mushroom farmers. Shop at businesses that support the life of all creatures and sustainable, small-scale agriculture. The cost of animal agriculture may be our lives.

We are witnessing the evidence of the climate catastrophe. The solutions are before us — the question is whether we will choose to use them before it is too late.

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