Would the Matriarch Rivka be a Vegetarian Today?

I believe so. And I think this week’s Torah portion would say so as well.

We are first introduced to Rivka as a caretaker of animals, as one whose kindness and thoughtfulness extends beyond her own family and beyond the human species to include all of God’s creations. The one test chosen to ascertain if Rivka is fitting to marry the world’s first child to be born monotheistic in faith, the lone offspring of the visionaries and revolutionaries Avraham and Sarah, is her attitude and actions towards animals.

Not towards a poor person. Not towards the sick. Not towards a human at all.

But, rather, towards animals.

Which makes me think:

What would the biblical Rivka think about our world today and how we treat the animals we raise for human consumption?

What would she think about the small suffocating cages in which chickens raised for their eggs live out their lives? About the fact that millions of chickens destined to become dinner never see the outside world, the world of nature into which God created them, living instead in overcrowded factory-like warehouses filled with excrement and sickening odors?

Would Rivka eat a shawarma in Jerusalem or a shnitzel in Tel Aviv, knowing that the meat she would be consuming is the result of an industrial approach to animals that looks at them as a product to be “made”, sold and consumed, with little to no regard to how they are treated along the way?

If Rivka visited a kosher slaughter house today, what would she say about cows being killed at a rate of one per minute in full sight of other animals despite the fact that Jewish law states that this is prohibited.

What would she say about male chicks being thrown into industrial-sized grinders, killing them minutes after they are born, as the meat industry has no profitable use for them?

Rivka was chosen to be the partner of Yitzhak based on her sensitivity to all human and non-human creatures alike and her understanding that animals too have a place and purpose in Creation, a fact that demands our compassion and kindness towards them.

Rivka is brought into the developing tribe of Am Yisrael because her innate sense of care and concern are exactly what God’s Chosen People will need to do the work they have been chosen to do in this world.

It’s been said that a nation is judged based on how it treats its animals. Rivka lives this as her truth and is chosen to actively take part in the formation of the Jewish nation precisely because of this trait.
Was Rivka a tree-hugging hippie vegetarian of the ancient world? I think not. Rather, she was a woman who sensed the deep and real truths by which one should live her life. She gleaned the life lessons of the Torah from the world around her, generations before it was actually given, lessons that speak of sensing the G-dly spark in all things and, as result, treating all things with deep and sincere honor and respect.

Each week’s Torah portion has a message for every generation, no matter how fast or dramatically the world is changing. This week’s Torah portion is no different as it beseeches us, even demands us, to engage in a process of personal and national heshbon nefesh (self-accounting) and look at the way we relate to and treat animals, especially those we raise for food. If, after observation and contemplation, we find our actions are not in line with the values of our ancient tradition, then it seems to me that we would have a Jewish ethical obligation to change how we eat, or how we raise the animals that we eat, in order to towards create a better world…for all creatures in God’s creation.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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