Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Yitro: Idols of Silver & Gold

February 13th, 2020


In this week’s parsha, we find one of the most iconic narratives of the entire Torah: revelation at Mt. Sinai. Newly freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have merited receiving the Ten Commandments from God, in order to perform the Divine laws upon entering the Promised Land. God is clear of what Israel is to become: “…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.1 ” The dramatic irony is nearly tangible – the Israelites will almost immediately violate the commands given at Sinai when they build the Golden Calf in next week’s parsha. Perhaps there was Divine intuition at play, as one of the closing verses of the parsha states that “…you shall not make any gods out of silver, nor shall you make gods of gold.2 ”

Nevertheless, we shall leave the golden calf for next week. Looking back to the verse regarding Israel’s status as a holy nation, the verse is immediately preceded by what should be an obvious observation by God: “indeed all the earth is Mine3 ” – why was this necessary? The simple answer is to restate fundamental Israelite and Jewish theology, however, it is obvious in our time that clearly humanity fails to understand this concept. Humanity is prone to believing that the earth is theirs for the taking, to be commodified, exploited, and capitalized. This is obvious when looking at the animal agriculture industry, in which animals are not seen as living beings, but as the sources of products for profit. The Jewish mystical tradition understands that all souls descend from Ein Sof, the Divine origin of all creation – such reverence for life and God is foundationally incompatible with the factory farming of today. Instead, it is a reflection of the golden calf itself, precisely the proverbial gods of silver and gold forbidden in this week’s parsha. 

Additionally, this parsha teaches us that animals are given the right to rest during Shabbat, same as humans of all social classes. Furthermore, the Ten Commandments forbid the commodification of animals through the prohibition of coveting, which includes one’s neighbor’s ox or donkey as well as their wife. Though contemporary readers are justified in their discomfort of women seeming to be equated with beasts of burden, perhaps it is valuable to flip this interpretation on its head: here the Torah is asserting that neither animals nor women – or any living being for that matter – should be objectified for status, which covetting most certainly accomplishes.

It is public knowledge that Big Agriculture worships these idols of silver and gold at the expense of other people. In addition to the animals they exploit, humans are affected by these cruel practices, from the undocumented immigrants who are paid far below minimum wage for their work at factory farms, to the American taxpayers, who spend billions of their hard-earned tax dollars for handouts to factory farms that dramatically overproduce their products. The icing on this poisonous proverbial cake is that these massive corporations masquerade as small family farms through their lobbying groups, when in truth these small-scale farms are most often the ones squeezed out of business by these massive factory farms, exploiting their financial struggles to line their own pockets with subsidies and bailouts by the government. 

Agriculture is one of the few industries in the United States that does not operate on the foundational economic premise of supply and demand, instead radically overproducing products in order to file claims for bailouts from the government. This prevents the public’s movement towards a plant-based diet from placing financial pressure on these industries to adapt to consumer demands, as the government routinely falls for the bluff and rewards these bad actors. It is anti-capitalist corporate socialism that does nothing but hurt workers, small farms, and most of all, the animals who are needlessly kept in cruel conditions to produce far too much product to ever sell. Truly no one wins in this situation except for the large farm producers who are lining their pockets with American tax dollars while hiding behind the struggles of small-scale farmers in America’s heartland.

The question remains – how do we respond? We respond by supporting lobbying groups like our partners at the Agriculture Fairness Alliance, who are working in Washington, DC to combat this cruel and wasteful scam of the public. Their first piece of proposed legislation is to transition at-risk farms to profitable, regenerative plant-based farms instead of environmentally and financially wasteful bailouts of their egg, dairy, and meat production. With their help, we can dismantle this corporate greed that is poisoning our planet irreversibly. Helping to further the AFA’s mission will lead to the sustainable future that is required if we are to prevent the most dire effects of the climate disaster.

There is a tension that exists in Jewish theology between compassion and justice, and the way that these characteristics manifest in both humans and God. However, there is a sweet spot within that tension in which both compassion and justice are one and the same, where it is obvious to follow that course of action. This is most certainly a glimmer of hope that is both compassionate and just. May we do the obvious and pursue that path! For if we do not, our fates are sealed, and nature will demonstrate the lack of compassion to us that we have shown it for centuries.

As the Torah states “I call as witness before you upon this day heaven and earth; the life and the death I have set before you, the blessing and the curse – and I urge you to choose the life, so that you live, you and your descendants.4 ” May we choose justice, compassion, and life, instead of apathy towards cruelty and death.

Shabbat Shalom.

  1.  Exodus 19:6
  2.  Ibid. 20:20
  3.  Ibid. 19:5 
  4.  Deuteronomy 30:19

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