This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Shelach Lecha, is another one of the Parshiot that does not mention water at all. Milk and Honey? Yes, but no water. The entire Parsha recounts the famous story of the 12 spies Moses sent into Israel to spy it out. The Spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, entered the Land of Israel and roamed it for 40 days to get a sense of its nature and topography. They saw how good it was and cut a cluster of grapes so big it had to be carried by two men on a pole.1 Indeed it was a land flowing with milk and honey (זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ) filled with grapes, pomegranates, figs, and more. However, even though God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the Amalekites were also there. The Spies, still imbued with the mentality of slaves, were afraid to go in and fight for the Land God had promised them. So, they spread an evil report about the Land throughout the camp and said:
הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת
“The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.” (Numbers. 13:32)
They said the people in the land were giants and that they (the Israelites) were like grasshoppers compared to them. From here, we fall into the pattern already established in the Torah that the people became afraid and complained about Moses and his bad leadership and wanted to return to Egypt. Moses cried to God. God became angry and wanted to destroy the entire nation… again. Moses calms God down and pleads on behalf of the people. God doesn’t kill them all… just a few, then punishes the rest for their lack of faith and insolence. Phew! The punishment was that the entire generation of slaves was forced to wander in the Sinai desert for 40 years until all the men of that generation died in the wilderness. Only the women and children, who after 40 years had grown and forgotten what it was to be slaves, were permitted to enter the Land of Israel.
While no water is mentioned in the Parsha, I can’t help but see a parallel between the story of the spies and the world today. In the Torah, God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. It was a good and fertile land, flowing with milk and honey, filled with grapes, figs, pomegranates, and more. It was a unique piece of land in a harsh, dry, and arid region. Likewise, God has given us humans a fertile planet covered with water that sustains life and makes it possible for a vastly diverse ecosystems to exist in a wondrous variety. Earth is unique in a solar system filled with barren rocks. Unlike the Israelites, however, we humans have taken what was given to us, not with humble thanks and appreciation but with wanton abandon, arrogance, and greed. The Israelites did not trust in God and were afraid to enter the land. We, humans, have placed ourselves above God and are destroying the very gift which keeps us alive.
When the Israelites learned of God’s anger and the punishment that was to be meted out against them, they quickly changed their minds and said:
הִנֶּנּוּ, וְעָלִינוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר יְהוָה--כִּי חָטָאנוּ
“OK, We’re Here. We know we’ve sinned, but now we’re ready to go up to that place that God promised to us.” (Numbers 14:40)
Unfortunately, it was too late, and there was no turning back the clock. The Israelites had sinned against God and had to pay the price.
We, too, have sinned against God by the way we have treated the Divine gifts of the Ocean and the Planet. The question is: Have we recognized our sin? And… is it too late?
Sure, environmentalists and scientists recognize it, but what about the average person? What about the average Jew? What about our communities? Our synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and day schools still serve fish at communal functions. We make such a big deal about Kashrut. Still, the kosher meat industry (actually the entire meat industry) uses more water and produces more waste than any of us can possibly comprehend. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep raised and then slaughtered for human consumption in 2022 alone numbered hundreds of billions.2 How much water does it take to sustain those numbers? Well, to give you a sense of how much water is used to support the livestock industry, producing one pound of beef requires approximately 1,931 gallons of water. It’s slightly less for chickens and pigs, but you get the idea. And how much fecal waste do hundreds of billions of cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and sheep produce? I can’t even imagine. And where does all of that fecal matter end up? I don’t even want to think about it! We can’t just talk about carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels without addressing the greenhouse gasses created by the meat industry.
From the perspective of the Jewish Community, however, we still serve meat and fish at every communal function. We talk about Climate Change and are calling on our communal institutions to install solar panels and tell people to drive electric vehicles, but we must always remember that the water creates the climate. Even if every Jewish institution installed solar panels and every Jew bought an electric vehicle, if we, as a community, don’t address the degradation of the aquatic environment and how we contribute to it, there may come a time when there will be more plastic in the Ocean than fish. There may come a time when our rivers and lakes are too polluted to swim in. If we don’t recognize that we as a community, no… as a species, have sinned against the greatest life-giving gift from God, then like our ancestors of old… it might be too late. However, if we acknowledge the broader facts beyond fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions and make the conscious choice to change our practices, both personally and communally, then indeed, we can make a difference, we can turn back the clock, and we can repair the Sea and repair the world.
1 A bit of Torah Trivia, this image of the cluster of grapes carried on a pole by two men is today the image used for the logo of the Carmel Winery, which is the oldest winery in Israel.