Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Vaetchanan: A Heaping Portion of Love

August 16th, 2019


“The love of all creation comes first, then comes the love for all humanity, and then follows the love for the Jewish people…all these loves are to be expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are required to love, and to seek their advancement.” 
​- Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook

As we light the Shabbat candles tonight, it will mark the conclusion of Tu B’Av, the day of love on the Hebrew calendar. To Jews, love is not just a pleasant ideal – it is a religious obligation, as it is written: “and you shall love the LORD your God” (Deut. 6:5); “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Levit. 19:18); “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Time and again, the Jewish people are commanded by God to love. As my teacher and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mel Gottlieb so frequently observes, the Torah begins with the letter bet, and ends with the letter lamed. Together this creates the word lev, Hebrew for heart, signifying the Torah’s fundamentally loving nature.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vaetchanan, Moshe recounts the Ten Commandments as they were revealed at Mt. Sinai. The fourth commandment is to observe Shabbat and to make it holy, as a day of rest to be observed by “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your donkey, or any of your cattle or the stranger in your settlements” (Deut. 5:14). Shabbat is to be observed by one’s family, one’s slaves, one’s guests, and even one’s animals. Even in its foundational command at Mt. Sinai, there is a common thread running through who must keep Shabbat. It’s not only people that get the privilege of observing a day of rest, it’s animals too, and it is clearly stated that it is our duty to love them as well.

Though the commandment to love animals is less explicit regarding the loving relationship between humanity and animals than the above examples (Deut. 5:16, Exodus 21:5-6, Deut. 10:19) it is heavily implied. God commands Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and master it…rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Sadly, this verse has been perverted throughout the generations to justify the heretical pursuit of greed, most recently by the fossil fuel and factory farming industries. The intended rulership of humanity over animals was not as ruthless demagogues, but as the gentle shepherds of creation. Humanity was created in the likeness of God, and therefore was intended to rule in alignment with God’s goodness: compassionate, merciful, kind, and forgiving. In short, humans are supposed to be loving to all creation.

Humanity has failed severely in this regard. Factory farms have plagued the global food supply with the products of cruelty, inhumanity, indignity, and greed. Multiple sources indicate that over 150 billion animals are killed for food every year, with significant percentages of which go unused as food waste. As the great biblical commentator, the Ohr HaChayim, wrote “We have no right to kill an animal needlessly” (Ohr HaChayim on Levit. 17:11), and current poskim (legal decidors of Jewish law), including Rabbi Dr. David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, have ruled that the contemporary meat production render all meat unkosher, under the grounds of causing excessive waste and cruelty towards animals.

As we learn in a Midrash, God warns Adam in the Garden of Eden not to allow the world to spoil and be destroyed, for there will be no one to fix it. We humans have done irreversible harm to biodiversity in our world, and we are on pace to further decimate the grandeur of God’s creation. Our consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs play a major role in deforestation, soil erosion, and the steep carbon emissions that present an existential crisis to humanity in the coming decades. Let us reject the blasphemous greed of the factory farming industry, overcome our inner desire for destruction, and return to our fundamental purposes: justice, love, and walking humbly in the ways of our creator (Micah 6:8).

Shabbat is an inherently loving occasion: the blessing of the children, a delicious family meal, and even intimacy between spouses is strongly encouraged on Shabbat evening. This Shabbat, let us commit to sustaining ourselves and treating all of creation exactly as God intended (Genesis 1:28): with a heaping portion of love.

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