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Parshat Achrei Mot 5779

Dairy cows are prodigious producers. You pump about one hundred pounds of feed into a dairy cow over the course of a day; usually a mixture of hay, grain, soybean meal or some other protein, and silage, which is fermented wet grass or grain. While it sits there placidly ruminating, all sorts of machinery starts whirring in its belly, and before you know it, it’s ready to give you a few gallons of milk. It’ll do that twice a day, generally hooking you up with six to seven gallons of milk total. That milk can then be used to make dozens of products, from skim milk to butter, cottage cheese to brie. Cows have been doing this for millennia and seem to be perfectly ok with their job, but just like us humans see ourselves rapidly being replaced by robots and machines, the dairy cow knows that her days are numbered.

Walk into any Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s and you will see dozens of competitors to that dairy milk. You’ve probably tasted almond milk, there’s nothing new about that product, it was talked about already in the Jewish Code of Law (SA, YD, 87:3), which was first published in 1565. But today, we’ve gone way beyond almond milk; we have soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, cashew milk, walnut milk, tiger nut milk, coconut milk, spelt milk, quinoa milk, pea milk, flax milk, hemp milk, and oh so many more.

These milks are far cheaper to produce because instead of feeding Betsy a hundred pounds of food a day, including soy beans, oats, spelt etc, you can just turn that food straight into milk, cutting out the middlemoo. A pound of soybeans can make 1.8 gallons of soy milk, thirty almonds can make a half gallon of almond milk, and a few cups of oats can make a half gallon of oat milk. On top of that, after making the milks, you still have a valuable product in the leftover mashed up soybeans, almonds or oats!

It is not just manufacturers that are looking to bring more alternative milks to market due to their lower costs, the demand side is growing as well. The world of alternative milks is exploding in popularity. In the spring of 2018, hipsters from Brooklyn to Boise, soccer moms from San Mateo to Savanna, and millennials from Nashville to Norfolk were all united in their outrage that there was simply no Oatly to be had. The trendy Swedish oat milk company had ramped up production tenfold, but it still could not meet the insatiable demand for the trendiest of alternative milks. Sainsbury, a popular grocery chain in England stocks seventy different alternative milk options, and in the US nearly half of all consumers add an alternative milk to their baskets at the supermarket.

Betsy’s favorite offering on the other hand, is plummeting in popularity; since the year 2000, over 42,000 dairy farms have shut down in the US, and while some of that is due to consolidation of farms into megafarms, a lot of that is due to the fact that Americans simply don’t drink as much milk. In the last thirty years, per capita consumption of milk in the US is down by about 33%! The only thing that Betsy has going for her right now, is that no one can make ice cream like Betsy, and we still do love ourselves some ice cream!

But it is not only the dairy cow that is under attack, her cousins the meat cattle are as well. By the time it is brought to the slaughterhouse, a cow is usually between 1000-1350 lbs, and all that cow had to come from somewhere. An enormous amount of resources go into producing a pound of meat, and surprisingly water is one of the most important ones, especially when we consider the vast amounts of beef being raised in Western states that have undergone droughts recently. Meat production currently sucks down 8% of the world’s water supply! Producing a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water, which contrasts to a pound of soybean which takes 216 gallons or a pound of corn which requires only 108 gallons.

Part of this is because a cow will eat thousands of pounds of corn or soybean before going to market, and part of this is because such a high percentage of a cow is inedible. But the primary reason is that cattle lives the longest lives of any protein. A chicken typically lives between five to seven weeks, a lamb six to eight months, but a cow will consume food and water for fifteen to eighteen months before being finally converted to beef. Most of the food will be grass, beef cattle are usually grazed for the first nine months of their lives, until they are brought to a feedlot where they fatten them up with a diet more heavy in grains and corn. But once they start fattening them, they will dine on a couple thousand pounds of feed. What if we could just turn the grains into meat and cut out the middlemoo?

Today, there are dozens of companies producing meat alternatives. Some are vegan, made entirely of plants, such as the “meat” produced by Impossible Foods, which uses heme, an iron-containing molecule that they claim gives meat its meaty flavor. Their products require 75% less water, and create 87% less greenhouse gases when compared to standard meat. The Impossible Burger, their signature accomplishment is kosher, made primarily of potato, soy, and heme, and even looks like a real burger; brown on the outside, red and “bleeding” on the inside. I’ve had a few Impossible Burgers, and they are actually really good. I wouldn’t say they taste exactly like meat, but they are miles ahead of the soyburgers we’ve been eating until now.

Another company, Beyond Meat, bases its soy-free, gluten-free, GMO-free product on peas. They have a massive laboratory in California where they do extreme scientific testing on every aspect of meat, from mouthfeel, to chew-feel, to smell, and looks, and are constantly tweaking their product to make it ever closer to the meat they are imitating. Beyond Meat and Beyond Sausage is available at thousands of locations around the world, including Whole Foods Market, Target, Kroger’s and they recently inked a massive deal with Burger King. They just had their IPO yesterday, and in one day it rose 163%, making it the most successful IPO-day for any company in almost twenty years! Unfortunately, they are currently not kosher (I’ve sent them an email asking them to please get certified, please feel free to do the same!), so I can’t taste score them, but they are getting rave reviews all over the press, and can’t keep up with the surging demand for their product.

But the more cutting-edge meat alternative companies, are creating actual meat, but not from a walking breathing cow. These companies start with meat cells, and stimulate them in a lab to keep growing. As of right now, the costs are prohibitive, but Tyson and Cargill, the two largest producers of meat in the country have invested in Memphis Meats, the front runner in the cell-based meat development here in the US.

So milk no longer comes from a cow, meat no longer come from a cow. Dorothy, we are no longer in Kansas.

Many people find this development disconcerting. They feel like we are playing G-d, and trying to change the natural order of the world. They will cite the long list of ingredients in almond milk, many with strange sounding chemical names. In my refrigerator, we have regular milk and almond milk. The regular milk has three ingredients; milk, vitamin A, and vitamin D. The almond milk (unsweetened) has 11 ingredients including some I have can barely pronounce; gellan gum, locust bean gum, ergocalciferol, DL-Alpha tocopherol acetate, tricalcium phosphate.

When it comes to meat, the difference is even starker. While a regular burger contains one ingredient: cow, the Impossible Burger contains: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

People fear that when we start messing with nature, bad things will happen. But that’s not necessarily how we see it from a Jewish perspective. We believe that G-d created the world in such a way that we were supposed to be partners with Ha-shem in the creation of a perfect world. When Ha-shem finishes creating the world, the Torah says (Genesis 2:2-3), “And God completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did. And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He abstained from all His work that God created to do.” The commentators ask that the last two words of that verse seem to be just hanging there with no purpose, why not just say that on the Seventh day, G-d abstained from all His work that God created?

But the commentators explain that the Torah is telling you here the purpose of the world, G-d created the world for us to do. G-d created a perfectly imperfect world, so that we could be His partners in perfecting the world. G-d created 99.9%, and then endowed us with His image, His ability to create, so that we too could create further and make the world better.

G-d created wheat, we make bread, G-d created grapes, we make wine. The natural world has cancer, G-d gave us the ability to develop chemotherapy. The natural world is dark at night, G-d gave us the wisdom to discover electricity and light up the night. The natural world has pneumonia, which used to often be a death sentence, but He gave us humans a job to do, and we created antibiotics. In every generation, people face different challenges, and in every generation G-d beckons us to use the wisdom He endowed us with to meet and best those challenges.

We live in a generation that is facing a host of environmental challenges, feeding 7.5 billion in an environmentally conscious way high among them. When I see people creating alternatives to traditional foods, alternatives that are often healthier and better for the environment, it fills me with pride to see humans carrying out their role in this world, to do.

May Ha-shem continue to endow us with His infinite wisdom, and may we continue to use that wisdom to partner with Him in creating a better world!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, we find a mitzvah that seems very difficult to understand.

“When you will enter the land and you will plant any food-bearing tree, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23)

With this mitzvah known as orlah, G-d commands us to desist from using the fruit of any tree for the first three years after its planting. This mitzvah, which is not limited to a geographic location such as Israel or to a particular time period such as the Temple era, is still in force today, and is meticulously observed by religiously observant farmers worldwide.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), of blessed memory, notes that this mitzvah seems inconsistent with the Torah’s prohibition of wastefulness. That principle, derived from two verses in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) that warn against wantonly cutting down fruit trees in time of war, is expanded to include a host of laws aimed at preventing wastefulness. It is surprising therefore that the Torah tells us to dispose of all fruit of the tree’s first three years!

Rabbi Feinstein explains this curiosity with the well-established principle that we will not incur a loss by following the mitzvot. He says that this is especially true with the mitzvah of orlah and with the additional mitzvah of netah revai (the law that fruit of the fourth year, from trees grown in Israel, be brought to and eaten in Jerusalem). With regard to these two mitzvot, the Torah assures us that, “On the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, so that it will increase its produce for you, I am Hashem, your G-d” (Leviticus 19:25).

Rashi quotes the famed Rabbi Akiva who says that this verse addresses any reservations a farmer might have about keeping this mitzvah due to financial considerations. Not only will he not incur a loss, but also he will in fact gain from keeping these mitzvot. G-d will actually cause his trees to become even more bountiful, to the benefit of all mankind! What initially appears to be wasteful is actually the source of tremendous blessing!

This conflict between a mitzvah and conventional wisdom can be seen with other agricultural mitzvot as well. Shmittah, for example, demands that we put down our tools and let our land lie fallow every seventh year with no agricultural input or personal investment. Once again, G-d guarantees that this display of self-discipline will result in an exceptionally bountiful harvest, proving that neither toil nor improved seeds nor enhanced fertilizer are responsible for man’s financial success.

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom was once in the office of an organization that helps farmers observe shmittah when a phone call came in from a farmer shouting about a miracle that had occurred with his crop. Rabbi Bloom decided to take a trip to northern Israel to get a first-hand glimpse.

When he arrived, the farmer, a secular Jew who first committed to observing the shmittah laws that year, explained that a devastating frost had lingered in the area for a number of weeks, totally destroying the many local banana plantations that cannot withstand temperatures below the freezing point. When he came to inspect his fields, he found that his was the only plantation in the region unscathed by the frost! Rabbi Bloom personally inspected the neighboring plantations and was overwhelmed by the stark contrast. (See story and pictures here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/2545.)

Like shmittah, the laws of orlah reinforce the message that G-d is the source of all success. Forgoing three years worth of produce may not seem logical, but it’s an investment in the tree’s future bounty and productivity.

While the Torah demands that we put in a good day’s work, there are times when we are told to put down our work tools (or shut down the computer) and take the time to reflect on the idea that there’s much more to the end-product than our inadequate efforts. This message is vital, even for those who don’t have plans to plant a fruit tree in the near future. Mistakenly believing that their success is exclusively dependent on their own efforts, many people add hours upon hours to their workday – almost always at the expense of their family and their spiritual growth. Stepping back and realizing that G-d’s manual for life is the ultimate plan for true prosperity will likely not only result in even greater success, but also in a happier and more meaningful life.

 

Parsha Summary

This weeks parsha, Achrei Mos starts of with Ha-shem telling Moses the proper way for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to enter the Holy of Holies which is only done on Yom Kippur. This commandment was given after Aaron’s two eldest sons died after entering the Holy at an improper time. The lesson is that Holiness requires preparation and cannot be jumped into off the cuff, and the Holier the place, the more groundwork required. Everyone understands that it would be foolish to buy a house without checking it out properly first, or sign a contract without going over the details, all the more so in the spiritual world whose effects are more far-reaching do we have to prepare properly before rushing in.

The Torah describes the Yom Kippur service in detail but one interesting item to note is that the Kohen Gadol first brings a sacrifice to atone for his personal and his families sins, then a sacrifice to atone for all the Kohanim (his tribe), and only after that does he bring an offering to a atone for the entire Jewish community. This is very much in synch with the concept of preparation mentioned above, in that one before trying to change the world must first change himself and then work outward in concentric circles personal-family-tribe-community at large.

The Torah then discusses the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple or eating their parts out of their boundaries. (Yep, in case you didn’t pick up on it, this is also about showing respect for the act of sacrifice and understanding that you can’t just sacrifice it anywhere or anytime that you feel like it, there is a system that you must follow. So if you have that Tyco altar in your backyard, its time to fold it up, and wait for the Messiah when we will have a real Temple again!)

Then the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood. The blood is considered to be the seat of the soul of the animal hence we offer it on the altar, as a sign that we want one soul to be offered to atone for another, and therefore it would be profane to eat it in any other medium. (I know this week is a tough one, you have to fold up the Tyco altar, and stop your membership with the Vampires R Us club.)

In fact the Talmud learns a great lesson from this. If we get reward for not eating blood or other forbidden insects that one naturally loathes, how much greater is our reward for holding ourselves back from doing things that we are attracted to! This is why the forbidden relationships juxtaposed to this topic in this same Parsha to help us realize this lesson.

Here the Torah also commands us to cover the blood of non-domesticated animals or birds that we slaughter. The reason for this is that if the blood contains the soul of the animal it would be improper to eat the animal while its lifeblood and soul are lying exposed on the ground. This shows two things. One, that even animals have some sort of soul, as do even plants and rocks each to a lesser extent, as everything is an emanation from G-d and to exist must have some sort of soul or life to it. This is evidenced by Psalms talking about how different inanimate objects sing the praises of G-d, which is not just a metaphor. (Now we begin to understand the crazy Pet Rock fad of the 70’s!) Another lesson is the incredible sensitivity the Torah displays even toward animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to people’s feelings.

After this the Torah enumerates many of the forbidden sexual relationships including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Right after this the Torah write a warning not to commit certain forms of idol worship. The juxtaposition is explained as follows; both the idol worshipper and the person committing adultery are being treacherous to one who deserves their loyalty, whether it be G-d or one’s spouse.

At the end of the parsha the Torah enjoins us not to commit these immoral acts, as they were the cause that the dwellers of Canaan (Israel) to be expelled from it. If we contaminate ourselves with them, we will also be banished from our land as the Holy Land itself has holiness and it can’t contain impurity. This concludes the Parsha, and now we have come full circle because the same concept of preparation and respect we see applying to the Holy Land as it does to the Holy of Holies that the Kohen Gadol enters on Yom Kippur! That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Spirituality is like a bird: if you hold it too closely, it chokes. And if you hold it too loosely, it escapes!

Random Fact of the Week: There are more than 10 million bricks in the Empire State Building.

Funny Line of the Week: Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.

Have a Stupendous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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