There is an old ditty that I remember from my childhood that went like this:
For lack of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For lack of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For lack of a horse, a rider was lost.
For lack of a rider, the battle was lost.
For lack of a battle, the war was lost.
For loss of the war…. The Kingdom was lost.
It was based on a passage from the preface to Poor Richard's Almanac of 1758 by Benjamin Franklin and teaches about the interconnectedness of everything. For want of a single, simple nail in the shoe of a horse… the Kingdom was lost.
As I write this, the news is filled with reports about heat waves and record-breaking temperatures around the world. In the Florida Keys, the water temperature has risen to over 100 degrees, and a massive coral bleaching event is occurring. Maui is being ravaged by fire. New Zealand has been inundated by unprecedented flooding, and glaciers are melting in Norway. If anyone can seriously deny the reality of Climate Change now, they are either happily oblivious or willfully ignorant.
It must be noted, however, generally speaking, when the subject of climate change is addressed, it is almost exclusively coupled with "fossil fuel" and "carbon emissions." At least in the Jewish environmental community, it feels like the rallying cries are "reduce our carbon emissions," "reduce our carbon footprint," "divest from the financial institutions that support fossil fuel corporations," etc., etc., etc.
We ask; Why is the Ocean getting warmer? We are told…Because there's too much carbon in the atmosphere. We ask; Why are glaciers and the polar ice cap melting? We are told…Because there's too much carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon Emission has become the one size fits all response to the complex issue of climate change, and we cannot solve something so complex and critical with a one size fits all approach.
Addressing climate change only from the perspective of carbon emissions without addressing the human impact on the Ocean is like dealing with a heart attack without addressing diet and exercise. We have to remember that the Ocean creates the climate on Earth. It all comes from the water.
We cannot speak about the tremendous amount of carbon absorbed by the Ocean without addressing the trillions of fish the fishing industry removes every year, which are critical to the absorption of that carbon.
We cannot speak about the tremendous amount of carbon absorbed by the Ocean without addressing the hundred million sharks brutally slaughtered every year that are critical to a healthy marine ecosystem that absorbs that carbon.
We cannot speak about the tremendous amount of carbon absorbed by the Ocean without addressing the industrial harvesting of krill that are critical to the absorption of that carbon.
AND… we cannot speak about the tremendous amount of carbon absorbed by the Ocean without addressing the hundreds of billions of animals raised for "food" whose feces, urine, blood, and waste that pollute the rivers and streams that run to the Sea that is critical to the absorption of that carbon.
And how does all of this relate to this week’s Torah Portion? This week’s Parsha, Parshat Re’eh says:
כִּי-יַרְחִיב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לָךְ, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר, כִּי-תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר--בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ, תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר
כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְהוָה לְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ--וְאָכַלְתָּ, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּכֹל, אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ.
When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border, as promised, and you say: 'I will eat flesh', because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul.
If the place which the Lord your God chooses to put the Divine Name is too far from you, then you may kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat within your gates, after all the desire of your soul.
According to the Torah, there is no question that the consumption of meat and fish is permitted. This passage is the foundation for the practice of Shechitah, the ritual slaughter of animals for food. The phrase "you may kill of your herd and your flock…… as I have commanded you" is the basis for Shechitah. The Talmud clarifies "as I have commanded you" to mean the slaughter process used for the Sacrifices in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple.
A standard translation of this text is: "You shall eat (the meat) within your gates, after all the desire of your soul." The problem is that the word "desire" in Hebrew is רצון. The word in the Torah text is תְאַוֶה which literally means "lust." Now, of course, lust is a desire, but a desire with decidedly negative connotations. Merriam-Webster defines lust as 1) intense or unbridled sexual desire and 2) an intense longing or craving. In Christianity, lust is one of the Seven Deadly sins. Indeed, lust is very different from desire. It's more intense. Lust is a desire that is out of control. Lust is when the desire controls the individual, as opposed to the individual controlling a desire. Lust almost always has a negative impact.
And what does the impact of our lust for meat produce? In 2011 David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences until his death in 2019, wrote, "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million." He added that the seven billion livestock in the U.S. consumes five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire U.S. population. This was in 2011, and it has continued to increase since then.
The same article continued: "Livestock are typically fed corn, soybean meal, and other grains which have to first be grown using large amounts of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water, and land. The Environmental Working Group estimates that growing livestock feed in the U.S. alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year across some 149 million acres of cropland. The process generates copious amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while the output of methane from cattle is estimated to generate some 20 percent of overall U.S. methane emissions." No, we cannot talk about climate change and carbon emissions without addressing our lust for meat.
Desire and Lust are two sides of the same coin. Yes, the consumption of meat is permitted in Judaism, but only when our desire for it is so strong that it controls us. The Torah never meant for meat to be consumed every day, and until the Industrial Age, meat was never produced at the levels we see today that are so damaging to the environment and the Ocean. Levels that would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors.
In Pirkei Avot 4:1 Ben Zoma said:
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ
Who is strong? The one who controls his (her, their) passion.
As the Torah said: רַק חֲזַק - Just be strong. By controlling our lust for meat and fish, reducing our consumption of it, or even removing it from our diet completely, each of us can have a positive impact on the Ocean.
We can no longer view climate change solely from the perspective of carbon emissions. We need a holistic view that includes the food we eat, the cutlery we use, the water we drink, the cars we drive, and so much more. Everything is interconnected!
For want of a nail…. The Kingdom was lost.