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One of the most dramatic and meaningful stories in the Bible is read this week in synagogues around the world.
It is a food-related story and it merits our attention, yet it is seldom discussed. Or depicted in movies.
The story, found in Numbers 11, describes part of the Israelites’ journey in the desert, before their thunderous encounter with God at Mount Sinai.
As you likely know, the Torah tells us that God sustained the Israelites on a diet of manna. And manna was described as similar to coriander seed. A vegan dish, to be sure.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that some of the Israelites complained about the fare and demanded meat, never mind that the manna was filling and healthy.
So who were these meat-lovers? The Torah described them, in Hebrew, as ha’asafsoof. The Jewish Publication Society translates that as “the riffraff.” Not exactly a neutral description. Just another case of the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating.
Moses, who consulted public-opinion polls long before there was Gallup, heard the riffraff and relayed their concerns to God.
If The Beet-Eating Heeb can be so bold as to paraphrase God Himself, His response was something like this:
They want meat, do they? I’ll give them some meat, alright … until it’s coming out of their nostrils.
Actually, that’s pretty close to a direct translation.
God then called forth a mighty wind that deposited quails – yes, quails – throughout the Israelites’ camp.
Fire up the barbecue!
In normal circumstances, the fat and cholesterol might have killed the riffraff, but not for a few years. God decided to cut to the chase. The Torah says:
“The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah.
Kibroth-hattaavah? That translates to, “the graves of craving.”
Did The Beet-Eating Heeb say something about the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating?
Nothing subtle here. First, God tells us explicitly, in Genesis 1:29, that we are to eat plants and only plants. Then, as if He hadn’t made His point perfectly clear, meat-eaters are described as “riffraff” who are struck down by a plague and buried in the “graves of craving.”
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He would never refer to today’s meat-eaters as riffraff. That’s a little too harsh.
And BEH would be the first to acknowledge that there is another, albeit complementary, interpretation of this story. Some theologians say the Divine wrath was provoked simply because some Israelites were not content with God’s beneficence. They wanted more. That the “more” was “meat” is not the key to the story, per this interpretation.
However, viewed in the context of the entire Torah, the fact that meat was involved appears significant. Very significant.
Consider this: In Numbers 11:4, the Hebrew word used to describe the riffraff’s desire for meat is “ta’avah.” JPS translates that as “gluttonous craving.”
Now fast forward to Deuteronomy 12:20, when the Israelites are getting their final instructions before entering the Land of Israel. They are told that they can eat meat, if they have the urge to do so. Well, not urge, exactly. Here again, the desire for meat is described as “ta’aveh.” A gluttonous craving.
So what’s going on here? Is the Beet-Eating Heeb crazy, or does it seem that God would prefer that we not kill animals for food?
To put this in contemporary perspective, God has given us an Earth with an incredible bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains to sustain us. Yet we succumb to our “ta’avah” and kill billions of animals a year.
As we recall from the recently observed holiday of Shavuot, it’s worth noting that the Israelites were only deemed spiritually worthy of receiving the Torah after they had returned to a diet of manna, not meat.
Interesting story, eh?
It takes a lot to make The Beet-Eating Heeb cry.
He can chop onions and watch Brian’s Song, simultaneously, with dry eyes.
But he shed a tear last week at the Hazon Food Conference.
What caused this stoic beet-eater to show some emotion – at a conference, of all places?
The killing of a goat.
On a cold, dreary morning, Hazon presented a demonstration of the schechting (kosher slaughter) of a young goat in front of about 30 conference attendees, including The Beet-Eating Heeb.
It is true that the goat was raised humanely and that he suffered for only a few seconds.
But BEH still found the slaughter of this beautiful, golden-furred animal to be troubling. Deeply troubling. On many levels.
It was particularly disconcerting to see Jews killing an innocent, gentle, affable animal – in a completely Jewish context, no less.
Judaism is about celebrating life, not about causing unnecessary death. At least as The Beet-Eating Heeb understands his religion.
But here were Jews, taking a goat in the prime of his life and slitting his throat. Panicked and anguished, the goat immediately lurched forward and dropped to his knees as blood gushed from his neck. The shochet’s assistants then threw a tarp over the goat – and a tear streaked down The Beet-Eating Heeb’s cheek.
The goat’s corpse was then strung up in a shed, skinned and disemboweled.
Savage. How else could you describe this entire scene?
And to think this was the gold standard of slaughter. As good as it gets. Try to imagine the scene in an industrial slaughterhouse, where the vast majority of farm animals are killed and dismembered, often by the thousands in a single day.
But, ironically, had BEH witnessed the slaughtering of an animal in that kind of slaughterhouse, it would not have bothered him as much.
To see Jews engaging in an act of unnecessary violence and chilling betrayal . . .
This goat had been raised by young Jewish farmers who had engendered the animal’s trust with their humane care. Then, in an instant, these same Jews turned on the unsuspecting goat and killed him.
If that isn’t an act of supreme betrayal, what is? Is this any way for members of a religious community to act in relationship with one of God’s fellow creatures?
And for what purpose was this animal killed? That’s an easy one: Because some people like the taste of goat meat. Never mind that we live in an era and in a country in which an incredible variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are available – all you need for optimum health.
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He supports Hazon’s decision to conduct a slaughter at the conference, if only because meat-eaters should be confronted with the reality of their dietary choices.
The demonstration helped BEH realize that the whole kosher- meats business is a morally problematic enterprise, to put it mildly.
So what’s the solution?
Should Jews get out of the slaughtering business and eat non-kosher meat?
Of course not.
The only solution is for Jews to abstain from meat altogether, which just happens to be the Torah ideal, anyway.
Vegans are excelling at the highest levels of a wide range of sports, from ultramarathon running (Scott Jurek) to boxing (Tim Bradley).
But if one sport lies beyond the reach of the March of the Vegans, it would seem to be auto racing.
Let’s face it. Stock-car racing is the sport that is most closely identified with the South, with Dixie, and with all the shredded pork, barbecued beef and fried chicken that clogs arteries down there.
So The Beet-Eating Heeb is particularly happy to report that this fortress of bad-for-you, bad-for-animals, bad-for-the-planet food has been breached. Meet Leilani Munter. Vegan. Stock-car driver.
Munter may not be challenging Dale Earnhardt Jr. for supremacy in the NASCAR standings. In fact, her most recent racing has been on the lower-level ARCA circuit. But she is lapping most of her competitors in the most important race of all: the race to save the planet. And she has received more media attention than most other drivers and for all the right reasons.
A longtime vegetarian and relatively new vegan, Munter is a staunch advocate for animal welfare, clean energy, and other environmental causes. In fact, she is perhaps best-known for racing four months ago at the famed Daytona International Speedway in a stock car decorated with images from “The Cove”, the Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin slaughters.
More recently, she has been working to line up sponsors for a vegan-themed race car. (Tofurkey, are you reading this?) You won’t see huge decals for Exxon or Burger King on her vehicles.
When she races, Leilani offsets the carbon emissions by donating money for rainforest preservation.
While she might not be Jewish (yet), she is a living, breathing, racing manifestation of the concept of tikkun olam. Certainly, more Jews, more of everyone, should aspire to live to a life of such moral integrity.
Leilani paid a short business trip to The Beet-Eating Heeb’s hometown of Pittsburgh recently and took time out to give BEH an hour-long interview. Among other things, The Beet-Eating Heeb learned that Leilani’s eldest sister is married to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. (In contrast, The Beet-Eating Heeb’s eldest sister is married to an HMO administrator. )
Here are a few other highlights of the interview:
BEH: You’re a trailblazer as one of the very few female race-car drivers. But you’ve also distinguished yourself by using your high-profile status as a racer to promote causes, including environmentalism and veganism.
LEILANI: “I’m a messenger and I’m a race-car driver and I’m not what you would expect. People relate to me because they like race cars, so when I talk to them about veganism or clean energy or alternative fuels, there is a chance they will listen.
“You cannot have a green movement, you cannot have an environmental movement and leave behind 75 million NASCAR fans. It’s wonderful to go to vegan conferences and restaurants and be around people like you. But you’re not moving the needle by talking to people who already get it. You have to talk to the people who don’t agree with you yet.
“My goal is to make veganism mainstream. And you don’t get any more mainstream than NASCAR.
“Not everyone is going to go vegan or vegetarian, but I’m asking everyone to give it a shot. I’m hoping they’ll try Meatless Mondays and it will spill over into the rest of the week.”
LEILANI: “Not at first. What prompted me to become a vegetarian is that I love animals. I didn’t want to be any part of the torture and killing of them. It’s just an inhumane and cruel industry and I don’t want any part of it.
“I just switched to vegan in the past year, after reading “Diet for a New America” (by John Robbins), watching (the documentary) “Forks Over Knives,” and watching Gary Yourofsky’s “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear.”
“It’s not only about animal cruelty. You have the health benefits of being vegan, you have the fact that it’s a much smaller carbon footprint for our planet, and then you have the world hunger issue.”
BEH: As a passionate environmentalist, you do make it a point to draw the connection between animal agriculture and climate change.
LEILANI: “Yes. Unfortunately, most people don’t associate their carbon footprint with the food that they eat. They really associate their carbon footprint with their traveling. For some reason, that connection between the food you’re eating and its impact on the environment hasn’t taken off yet.”
BEH: So The Beet-Eating Heeb has to ask, what’s it like being a vegan in the stock-car-racing world?
LEILANI: “There were definitely a lot of raised eyebrows when they found out I was vegetarian. I even had NASCAR people say that the lack of meat in my diet must have stunted my growth. But I’ve had many events in my house where I’ve had meat eaters in my house and I’ve fed them all kind of meat substitutes. In some cases, they didn’t even believe it wasn’t meat.
“More and more people are discovering that you don’t need to put dead animals in your body to live, you can be perfectly healthy and happy without that, and enjoy it.”
This shouldn’t surprise you: Leilani Munter is The Beet-Eating Heeb’s favorite race-car driver. Shouldn’t she be your favorite, too?