In this week’s parsha, we read that on the mountain of Sinai, G‑d communicates to Moses the laws of the Sabbatical year: every seventh year, all work on the land should cease, and its produce then becomes free for the taking for all, man and beast. Seven Sabbatical cycles are followed by a fiftieth year—the Jubilee year, when work on the land ceases, all indentured servants are set free, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land that have been sold revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands are established, and the prohibitions against fraud and usury, are also given.
This week’s parsha is fixated on calling a sort of awareness to ecological matters. The calling of our people to observe a sabbatical year, a time when our land may heal, seems relevant to our time and place. Our planet is in need of healing. We are currently dealing with the impacts of overexploiting its natural resources in several ways. We have driven some animals to the brink of extinction. The Torah remarks on how many animals of its time, went into extinction in the wild. Most relevant to our people were the skins used of a creature to build the Ark described in Parshas Terumah.
As noted, the exact animal used for the construction has been lost to us. Targum Onkelos, Aramaic translation names the animal as sasguna, a word that combines two words (“six” and “colors”) in Aramaic, but not specific to any animal. By the era of Rashi, the identity of the creature was a mystery. Rashi’s commentary notes that whatever the animal was, since the word has fallen out of use, the animal was likely no longer in existence. Modern academic research suggests the animal may have been a dugong, Mediterranean sea lion, or possibly even a giraffe.
The mystery of this animal highlights the theme of the problems of extinction. What we are experiencing in the text here is suggestive of a real problem. Without this animal, the Israelites would have been unable to create a sanctuary for G-d. We have a sacred responsibility to ensure the survival of the sustainable wild and domesticated animal populations.
This is a real problem in Israel today. Syrian brown bears, leopards, lions, hippos…these are just a few of the animals mentioned in the Torah that once lived in the Land of Israel, but today are extinct in the wild.
The last Arabian leopard captured in Israel was in 2002 as it chased a house cat into a home in the Northern Aravah of Israel. The leopard was so malnourished that it was captured with ease. It died in 2007. The last sighting of an Arabian leopard was in 2011. As of last year, they have been officially documented as extinct in Israel’s wild.
Our responsibility to protect animals is highlighted in this week’s Torah portion insofar as it serves as a reminder of the consequences if we avoid this responsibility—a sanctuary for G-d here on earth cannot be built by ourselves. Animals must be a part of it and therefore they must be protected.
But overexploitation of natural resources is not a problem confined to ourselves. It doesn’t only limit our ably to build a piece of heaven on earth, rather it is also at the root of the current COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on our world. It is immediately clear that the virus emerged from the wet markets of China. There is no greater example of overexploitation and cruelty practices than these markets where fresh meat and seafood and other perishable goods are sold.
The past couple of months have brought national attention to the cruelty of the operating practices at wet markets. It has also stirred up memories of my experiences in Vietnam and what I learned there: that the practices of wet markets were born out of food insecurity and scarcity concerns. Today, the markets are beyond the cruel, unsustainable, inhumane, and unsanitary practices elsewhere. But the argument against wet markets mustn’t be structured as a purely ethical argument. Because along with protecting endangered animals, it is also about sustainability and public health. Note that these markets do specifically target endangered animals. In the aftermath of the recent brush fires of Australia, Koala meat began to appear in wet markets at unprecedented prices.
In 2011, while living in Vietnam, I saw wet markets, and what I saw horrified me. The experience was eye-opening. I saw animals being butchered and living in confined spaces. I saw dogs, snakes, and other reptiles together in cages. Many endangered species were being prepared for consumption in unsanitary conditions.
I hope and pray for a tomorrow without animals abuse in any market (industrial or small). The argument against wet markets should be structured on sustainability and the public health model. In wet markets, the sanitary conditions and proximity of so many different types of animals make them an unprecedented public health concern, as we have seen. The targeting of endangered animals at these markets also makes them an unprecedented sustainability concern.
I believe the message from Leviticus is something we need to move forward with in the many months ahead as we rebuild from the rubble left behind by COVID-19. We need to pay closer attention to animals, to our planet. We should look to the wisdom of our Torah and think about how to shift from our current dangerous treatment of animals to a path more in accord with the teachings of our tradition, respecting animals and thinking about our role as stewards for our planet. The Torah calls us to be caretakers of our planet and the creatures in it, L’ovda u’l’Shomra—to serve and to protect. This is the message that we must take to our hearts from our parsha this weeks.