Over-Burdened Oxen & “Eco--Kosher": This Week’s Torah

Two passages speak especially to me in this week’s Torah Portion, called “Sh'mini.” Or rather, the creative explorations of the two are what speak to me.

One is the shocking story (Lev. 10) of the High Priest Aaron’s two sons, who brought “strange fire” into their offering to the Breath of Life; and were instantly struck dead. Was their offering fatally improper? Or did they bring so much the fullness of themselves that there was no need for them to keep on living?

The Haftarah (prophetic passage) seems a commentary on that story, and its study bears a personal delight for me. So I will explore it first.

First you need to know that as the Coronavirus lock-down first took effect a year ago, my 19-year-old grandson Elior Waskow emailed me: “Granddad, you clearly know a lot of Torah. How about we make a chevrusa (partnership to study Torah) once a week?” I was immensely pleased by the invitation, and agreed. We alternated which of us would choose a passage to read from the Torah portion or its accompanying Haftarah.

When we got to Sh’mini, I chose the Haftarah (II Samuel 6). It is the story of what happened when King David tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his capital city, Jerusalem, hoping to add to his prestige as an upstart king. The Ark was carried in a cart drawn by a team of oxen. The oxen “stumbled,” according to most translations. (Everett Fox says they “let it slip.”)

Uzzah, one of the guards, grabbed the Ark to keep it from falling on the ground, and was instantly struck dead. This incident has traditionally been thought to point like the tale of Aaron’s sons to the inexplicably awesome tremendum of God’s presence so that touching the Ark, like bringing “strange fire,” brought death.

But Elior, closely reading the Hebrew, interrupted: “Granddad, here’s your favorite word in the whole Tanakh!”  “What?” said I. “Shmita! Your favorite word! Release, the seventh year when Earth is released from overwork and human beings are released from debt!”  -- See, right here, “Shamtu habakar”  --“The oxen made a release!”

 

[The death of Uzzah by  Giulio Quaglio the Younger in a medaillon in Liubljana Cathedral (1704)]

Wait a minute, I said. “The oxen didn’t stumble. The burden of pulling the Ark was too great, the burden of adding to the king’s prestige for his sake, not God’s, was too great. They tried to release themselves from the burden, and Uzzah tried to force them to bear the burden.” For this the  Breath of Life stopped breathing, for this God’s “nose was inflamed with anger,” for this was Uzzah struck dead. For the freedom of the ox from overwork was more important than housing the Ark in a fragrant cedar palace to make the king more powerful.

In an era when we humans are overburdening many species into their extinction, does the story speak to us?

Elior's discovery transforms the meaning of the passage, and I am “tickled pink,” as my mother used to say, that it was Elior who discovered it and knew that “shmita” was one of my favorite parts of Torah. One of those moments when a whole life-journey seems worthwhile; one is released from doubt. A moment of shmitah.

The other passage that attracted me in this week’s Torah portion is the recitation (Lev. 11) in great detail of animals that Israelites were permitted to eat, and those that were forbidden. I will explore Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s transformative exploration of kashrut into what he called “eco-kosher” in our own day.

The biblical recitation is not random. It follows the order of creation: Air, Sea, Land. But beyond that, it is hard to discern a pattern. Perhaps we are forbidden to eat some animals because they eat other animals -- while those we may eat make us “virtual vegetarians.” Perhaps some amphibians must not be eaten because they insist on crossing between land and sea, confounding the great divisions of Creation. Fastidious folk may be surprised to know there are even six species of grasshoppers and locusts that are kosher; other species are forbidden.

Maybe what seems irrational has a higher reason: If there is no simple general rule, everyone who eats must pay close attention to the food, making sure it is sacredly permitted.

When the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited raising sheep and goats in the Land of Israel, was that betrayal of Abraham’s heritage or an Abraham-respectful response to population growth that would denude the land and destroy its fertility if herding were permitted?

Today we are beginning to see efforts to say that beef is not kosher because huge herds of cattle threaten the planet by emitting methane gas. Or perhaps that beef can be kosher but only if its animals are grass-fed and because of this diet emit very little planet-scorching methane. Who decides? Each consumer? A religiously constituted court, for each religion? A national elected legislative body? Are these three possibilities part of an escalating process rooted in public opinion?If so, do religious bodies have an obligation to apply their ethical standards and move the process forward?

Even all this applies only to food we eat with our mouths. But today, is energy “food” that we eat with our whole bodies?  

Enter Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He went deeply into the roots of biblical kashrut. “Why these elaborate rules of what to eat?” he asked. “Because shepherds and farmers had to affirm a sacred relationship with Earth; and because food was the strongest connection between human earthlings and Earth; so rules emerged that specified what is sacred food and what is forbidden food. Now few of us are farmers or shepherds, and we take from Earth energy by way of coal, oil, natural and unnatural gas, uranium,  water-power from rushing tides or flowing rivers, wind, sunlight.

 Which of these – he coined a word – are “eco-kosher”?

 Though Reb Zalman’s coinage was explicitly not about food, the power of the “food” aura around “kosher” has brought almost all exploration of “eco-kosher” to discussions of food. 

When will we start developing standards and rules about eco-kashrut for energy? Who decides?

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Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! -- Arthur

 

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