“The Tongue Reaches Out for Apples” Shabbat April 29, 2016 — Last Day of Pesach 5776


Here we are as the week of Passover draws to a close, and the sweet new memories of seders and celebrations from Passover 2016/5776 take shape in our minds and hearts, including, I hope, this service tonight with its Yizkor memorial, and moving music. And while we’re still in the holiday of Passover — that holy day of questions and questioning and sometimes seemingly endless discussion — I want to ask a few more questions, to which I have no certain answers.

Some Biblical commentators and historians and anthropologists point out that the Pesach lamb — the Passover offering that the Israelites are instructed to sacrifice and eat on the evening they left Egypt forever — was not just an offering that would fill their empty bellies while they headed out on a journey where matzah and manna would be their main food supply for a while. And it wasn’t just a Thanksgiving offering to God for bringing us out of slavery. It was also another of God’s “zingers” to the Egyptians — as if the 10 plagues weren’t enough — for the lamb was among the animals sacred to Egyptians. Though some argue that the Egyptians may also have eaten these animals, it would have been an insult to see their slaves do so.

You might recall that the Paschal lamb — the Passover sacrifice offering— the one whose blood spread on the doorposts of the Israelite homes to save the lives of the firstborn of the Israelites — is described in the Book of Exodus as a centerpiece of the first Passover. Even though the Book of Exodus tells us we are to observe this holy day every year, and the Israelites did so on that first Passover in Egypt, and on the first anniversary of that day in the wilderness, and again in the 39th year in the wilderness, before they entered the Holy Land it’s not so clear in Torah or in history whether the lamb was sacrificed each year or only that first. And at least since the destruction of the 2nd Temple it seems that slaughtering a Passover lamb is a tradition kept only by a small number of Jewish communities. Already by the time of the mishnah, written down in the second century of the Common Era, and from which we glean most of seder traditions, no Paschal lamb was sacrificed or eaten, it is symbolized only by the shankbone (z’ro’a) on the seder plate and referenced only briefly when we explain the symbols on the seder plate. It is forbidden to eat the meat on the shankbone (although one can certainly eat meat during the seder meal).

Lest you think we’re about to do a whole other seder — we are not!!!
I bring it up because I want to talk for a few minutes tonight about Judaism’s relationship to eating meat.

We seem to be ambivalent about it at best, at least since we stopped offering animal sacrifices (in the first century of the common era when the Temple was destroyed).

The comments I make tonight and the questions I want to ask are about veganism. And you should know that I make them as someone who, though I’ve been a vegetarian since 1989 (27 years – yikes), and I don’t eat eggs because I am allergic to them, I am not vegan — yogurt and ice cream and even milk are among my favorite and reliable sources of protein. And even though most of my many pairs of shoes these days are not leather, I do still have some leather shoes and I wear leather ambivalently (and not for kinky purposes – not there’s anything wrong with that!).

All of this is to ask us all to at least learn a little bit more than we already know about veganism, to understand some of its advantages, and in learning to consider the possibility of it for ourselves even if we don’t choose it for ourselves right now.

By the way, are there any vegans in the sanctuary tonight? Would you stand a moment if you are? Anyone on their way to becoming vegan? Also stand. Others of us — feel free to ask questions of these folks during the oneg tonight — which is pesadich and vegetarian — and has some vegan choices — as well as gluten free choices, even on this last night of eating matzah!

It may surprise you to know (or not) that Tel Aviv has more vegan restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world, and once you know that, then it shouldn’t surprise you to know it also probably has more vegans per capita (though that’s harder to determine). The reasons why though — also not always easily discernible. Part of it is environmental – the Israeli population in general, a tiny country amidst vast oil rich countries, by necessity pays heed to many environmental issues, including food production issues. According to an article in the Washington Post:

Any way you slice it, beef has the highest environmental cost of just about any food going, and the cow’s digestive system is to blame. Ruminants — cows, sheep, goats and also yaks and giraffes — have a four-chambered stomach that digests plants by fermentation. A byproduct of that fermentation is methane, a greenhouse gas with some 20 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon. One cow’s annual output of methane — about 100 kilograms — is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline.
[Tamar Haspel March 10, 2014

The environmental impact of raising beef to a small country such as Israel may be easier to discern than a place like the United States with our vast land in which to raise cattle or other animals, or to farm, for that matter.

And of course in Tel Aviv as elsewhere, vegans are motivated in part by personal health.

As well, it is an easy way to accommodate lots of religion-influenced diets — veganism is the simplest way to keep kosher or the dietary traditions among Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Jains. And if Tel Aviv in particular wants to be a destination for people of many cultures and traditions from all over the world, many vegan restaurants may help make it so.

As I mentioned, many people choose veganism for health reasons. Their own health, that is, although the famous 20th century Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was a vegetarian long before it was popular, when asked if he was a vegetarian for his health, would reply,
“no, for the health of the chickens.”

Beef, meat, dairy, eggs — partly induced by the way the animals who provide these foods are raised — have been linked to many chronic ailments, and many vegans report feeling much better once they became vegans. It’s easy to find information about health matters and veganism on the internet, so I won’t go into detail here — but do ask some of the advocates in the room later tonight.

For some of us, myself included, it is the treatment of animals that most influences our leanings toward vegetarianism or veganism. My brother knew a 3 year old (who must be in his 40s now) who became a vegetarian the night he asked his mother what he was eating. “Chicken,” she said. To which he cheerfully replied, “Hey, there’s an animal called chicken.” “Yes, honey,” she said, “that’s what this is.” His mother said she will never forget seeing the sadness and shock that came over his face, nor cease to be impressed by his absolute insistence that he never again eat an animal.

I recall that story so often.

And yes, I eat dairy, and sometimes wear leather, and I even sometimes kill mosquitoes and flies. I suppose I consider myself to be on the path “toward something” and not already arrived. And even if I do arrive, I suspect I will always be willing to kill mosquitoes and other things that threaten my health or the health of people or dogs or cats. I do have a hierarchy in my heart, whether God wants me to or not.

And speaking of God. I wanted to spend just a few minutes on what Judaism does say about all of this. And of course I won’t cover it all tonight, and in fact, I want to invite those of you who are interested to come study with me perhaps later in the summer — when we can really take time to explore some of the fascinating teachings in Jewish tradition — from the Bible and Talmud and later commentaries about humans relationship to other of God’s creatures as well as about how we treat our own bodies. There are some fascinating conversations in our tradition.

Tonight I’ll just note a few in brief:

When God first created the world, what did God give to humans to eat? God took the new formed human creatures on a tour saying, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” [Gen. 1:28]
Only after the flood, still in the time of Noah, did God give permission to eat animals. Perhaps it was a compromise. As one commentator wrote, “eating meat would be a later concession to their willful appetites.” [Etz Hayim Commentary, p. 10-11, about Gen. 1:29]

For me, one of the most moving calls to veganism is the Hebrew term, modern and biblical, for animals: ba’alei chayim — “owners of life.” Tzar ba’alei chayim — the mistreatment of animals is strictly forbidden in Torah and in Talmud. If an ox falls under the weight of the load it carries, commands God in the Book of Deuteronomy [22:4] “you must not hide yourself; you must help raise it up.” And in Exodus “even if it is the ox or donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping, you must help,” [Ex. 23:5] [Talmud Baba Metzia 31a].
And from the Book of Exodus, as God hands down rule after rule, comes this simple concern for animals: Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order (l’ma’an) that your ox and your donkey may rest (ya-nuach), and that your servant and the stranger may be refreshed (v’yinafash).”[Exodus 23:12] I love that the commandment to rest is not for our benefit here (it is elsewhere) but for the sake of our animals and the people over whom we have authority.

Shortly before we eat the festive meal at the seder, we finally! Bless the matzah and come to another delicious part of the seder — Korech. In the first century, as Judaism moved away from the Temple and its tradition of sacrificing animals, Hillel was among the sages who helped establish new traditions, including the leaving out of the Pesach offering — the lamb sacrificed as a remembrance of the first Passover and our exodus from Egypt. Without the sacrificial lamb, we were left at that point in the seder to eating matzah and maror – the bitter herb. Hillel, it’s said, put them together so the bitter would not be so bitter and the matzah – the dry cracker bread — would not be so dry. Some time later – we’re not sure when – another much tastier tradition was added — not meat — but charoset — that delicious mixture of apples and nuts and honey (some add figs and raisins and wine and other delicacies) that came to our seder plate to try to sweeten the symbolism of slavery. In honor of Hillel, we add the charoset to the matzah and maror and call it a Hillel sandwich — it’s also called Korech, sandwich. Strictly VEGAN — you might notice, and delicious.

A few years ago, poet Debra Cash, wrote a poem about Korech, the Hillel sandwich:


The scholar Hillel
took matzah and bitter herbs
and bit down.

The rabbis amended this practice
so that we smother the bitter
in the sweet.

It is still there,
but the tongue reaches out for apples.

Apples are the quintessential vegan food, with all their echoes of the Garden of Eden and the trouble and the wonders that came from eating that first one. Apples, one of the foods that can be eaten without killing the plant from which it came. Apples, Sir Isaac Newton’s nemesis and inspiration. As the end of Passover draws near and with it our temptation to return to eating as usual — without restriction and sometimes without real care for ourselves or those who helped to get it to our table — may we take the opportunity this year to pause and do it differently. This year and from now on, may our tongues too reach out for apples — to eat and to talk about. May the simple APPLE inspire us to contemplate in new ways all the fruit of God’s creations — the food that sustains us in life and allows us to reach this moment and the next and the next, partners with the Holy One who created us to care for this place in which we live: God’s world and ours.

Shabbat shalom

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