Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Vaera: Crushed Spirits & Hardened Hearts

January 23rd, 2020

ALEX WEISZ

In this week’s parsha, God instructs Moses to present a message of hope to the Israelites – that God will free them and bring them to the Promised Land. However, when Moses speaks to the Israelites, “they would not listen to [him], their spirits crushed by cruel bondage”1 . At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses’s initial appeal to Pharaoh leads to harsher labor given to the Israelites. Despite an additional message of hope, the Israelites have already become demoralized to the point of ignoring Moses.

Psychologists have found that a state of depression is an evolutionary response found in most animals to give up in truly hopeless situations, effectively accepting inescapable conditions until they literally lay down and die. Effectively, the Israelites are depressed, left hopeless by their worsening conditions at the hands of the Egyptians. This is an entirely justifiable response by the Israelites – their situation was certainly dire, with effectively no agency to do anything about it. Even Moses and Aaron, their chief advocates, express quite a bit of doubt throughout this narrative. Nevertheless, God does not back down until the Israelites are freed.

Likewise, another familiar phenomenon can be seen with Pharaoh’s response to the several plagues that take place in Vaera. Despite a water crisis, crops decimated by locusts, hail, a plague that wipes out all of Egypt’s livestock, just to name a few – Pharaoh will not address the underlying behavior that will stop the plagues that are punishing his people. Despite the economic model of rational choice theory that humans are rational beings who make rational decisions, certainly, Pharaoh’s choices here do not reflect this.

In our world today, there are many Pharaohs and many Israelites – some of us are both at the same time. In the midst of the impending Climate Disasters, many of us are left with crushed spirits; others of us may be making decisions that are not in the best interest for ourselves or the people we care about, but we do them anyway. Once again, it’s likely that many of us experience both approaches. How can we not feel hopeless? As the fires in Australia continue to burn, Greenpeace International has just reported that just 24 financial institutions have invested approximately 1.4 trillion dollars into fossil fuels in the five years since the signing of the Paris Agreement. That is nearly the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.4 billion people in the world had collectively in 2018. Just $1 trillion could buy 640 GW of solar power, more than the current global capacity. Meanwhile, Forbes reported last June that the United States government spends ten times more money on fossil fuel subsidies than it does on educating its children – $5.2 trillion in 2017 alone. 

However, there is room for optimism! With that information in mind, informed voters can certainly contextualize that when considering proposed renewable energy subsidies. The myth that renewable energy “simply isn’t economically viable” is, in the words of a certain Vice President seeking a promotion, malarkey. Likewise, government subsidies of the dairy industry, which a study showed that a staggering 73% of dairy producers revenue came from said subsidies, resulted in 1.4 billion pounds of unsold American-made cheese left in storage. We can feel powerless to the nonsensical, irrational, and unspeakably wasteful decisions of the ultra-wealthy that are mortgaging the planet’s future – nevertheless, there is hope! We live in a democracy, and there are candidates up and down the ballot in 2020 who are making these issues front-and-center. Simply because certain candidates and parties attempt to monopolize opposition to wasteful government spending and government redistribution of wealth, there are candidates and parties who are genuinely attempting to do that – to make the government work for the people and to make informed, rational policy decisions that will significantly support the work of individual actions to combat the Climate Crisis. Despite our best efforts to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels, animal products, and plastics, sweeping government action needs to take place for widespread adoption and change for the sake of humanity’s survival. If we remain depressed with our crushed spirits and stay home from the polls, those with hardened hearts will continue hammering away at the nails in our coffins.

We have agency. We have power. We can make a difference, despite our internal doubts and feelings of inadequacy to rise to the occasion. We can dismantle the cruel factory farming industry that is decimating family farms and the land that they have tilled for generations, and commodifies the lives of billions of living beings. We can terminate the factory farming & fossil fuel industries that has poisoned and lit aflame our world. We can choose to lead the world in the future of sustainable energy & food supply – if we rise up and make our voices heard at the ballot box in addition to our individual rejection of these goods.

At times, we may feel like the Israelites, and at others we may be unintentionally Pharaoh-like. In spite of these natural human inclinations, we must rise up like Moses and Aaron – a little uncertain, but strengthened with Divine righteousness.

Wishing you all a Shabbat, and 2020, of strength and righteousness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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