The Torah’s Disturbing Message

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Each Friday night, Jews all over the world rise to greet the Sabbath Bride. And so we begin our celebration of Shabbat, a day of resting from work, enjoying good food, and connecting with loved ones.

But another element of Shabbat can be unsettling, even disturbing. The weekly Torah reading, or parshah, sometimes delivers stern messages in startling language. 

Case in point, this week’s parshah, Beha’alotecha. 

This Shabbat we read one of the most dramatic and disturbing stories in all of the Torah, a story that is more relevant today than ever before. The story, recounted in Chapter 11 of the Book of Numbers, finds the Israelites wandering after the Exodus. They have been living on manna, described in the Torah as “like coriander seed.”

Coriander seed? Bring on the kvetching. A group of the Israelites – referred to pejoratively as hasafsoof, or riffraff – begin clamoring for meat.

Moses then relays the request to God. That’s when things really get interesting.

God tells Moses, and this is a direct translation, “The Eternal will give you meat to eat…. until it comes out of your nostrils.”

Then, strong winds blew quails into the Israelite camp. The riffraff feasted.

Here’s the disturbing part.

God smote the quail-eaters with a deadly plague – and as if the message were not clear enough, the Torah tells us that the dead were buried in Kibroth-hattaavah, the Graves of Lust.

It is tempting to interpret this story in a very general way, as merely a warning against being ungrateful for God’s beneficence. But there is a specific meaning that is highly relevant to our contemporary condition, a meaning that becomes crystal clear when the story is viewed in the context of the entire Torah.

God’s first dietary instructions to us, given in Genesis 1:29, were to eat plants and only plants. In other words, we were commanded to be vegetarians, or even vegans. Only after humanity had sunk into a state of spiritual depravity did God grant us limited permission to kill animals for food, in Genesis 9.

After the Exodus, in the desert, God tried again to impose a plant-based diet, only to be frustrated by the riffraff.

Fast forward to Deuteronomy 12. God gives the Hebrews their final marching orders before they enter the land of Israel, and tells them that they may eat meat based on their ta’aveh, their lust. The linguistic link to Numbers 11 has not escaped the notice of some of our greatest rabbis. Killing animals for food, they tell us, is a manifestation of human lust, not of the Divine will.

What does this have to do with today? With us?

Today, the treatment of animals in modern industrial agriculture is so abhorrent that no ethical system, especially ours, can justify it.

Any one of us would be horrified to experience firsthand the conditions in a chicken farm, where literally tens of thousands of birds are crammed together in a windowless warehouse, never to experience fresh air or sunshine, never mind even a minute with their mothers.

Moreover, because of the human preference for white meat, the chickens are bred to grow such enormous breasts that their skeletal and cardiovascular systems often cannot support the weight, causing crippling pain and even heart attacks.

And in recent weeks, farmers have intentionally suffocated millions of chickens in an attempt to contain yet another outbreak of bird flu. 

The good news is that we can do more than just lament the situation. At the grocery store and in restaurants, we can make compassionate choices from among the ever-growing array of plant-based options. 

Then we will be living up to the Divine will and enjoying delicious food and peace of mind —  undisturbed.

About the Author
Jeffrey Spitz Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Veg, an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and assist our fellow Jews to transition to plant-based diets.