Learn forestry from Yaakov-avinu

What is common between the sin of the Golden Calf and modern mass beef production?

cows 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cows 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Mishkan (Sanctuary), the traveling “House of God” built by the Israelites in the desert, is an elaborate structure built of royal and expensive materials. Reading the passages that describe its construction, one could easily be led to ask, “What does such a grandiose and this-worldly building have to do with God?” Yet the Mishkan is the epitome of Divine presence. The word Mishkan means “dwelling place” and is also inherently connected to the word Shechina, “presence.”
Parshat Terumah opens with an elaborate list of the materials that will be used in the building of the Mishkan and instruments within. About the wood, specifically, the Midrash Tanhuma on the Parshat tells us that Jacob (Yaakov) received a prophecy that his descendents, while in the desert, would be instructed to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for God. He subsequently planted saplings in the land of Israel and instructed his children to diligently transplant them to Egypt. By making this wise decision, Yaakov prepared a whole forest that would later supply the Mishkan with at least 800 cubic feet, or twenty tons, of usable wood.
Yaakov longed to participate in the building of the house of God, and took the necessary action to ensure his own involvement. Perhaps more significantly, Yaakov’s actions express the teaching of our sages “Who is wise? Those who foresee the consequences of their actions." Yaakov had the wisdom to project the need for large amounts of wood in the Sinai desert, an environment that could not sustain wood. He therefore looked ahead and created a sustainable solution for the sacred needs of the Israelites.
We too, must look ahead and ask ourselves if we are creating sustainable environments for the needs of our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren. Since the industrial revolution, our predecessors have not taken forest management seriously enough to warrant the respect that Yaakov earned for his foresight. In fact they, and we, have acted all too foolishly with the resources of God’s creation. Humankind, and in particular the industrialized West, has imprudently plundered one of earth’s most precious and critical resources.
Scientists give us some idea of what has been happening to the world’s forests: Half of the Earth’s land surface was once covered by forest, yet now half of those forests are gone; of all of the original forests that once covered the Earth, only 20 percent remain untouched; in North America alone, half of the coastal temperate rainforests that once stretched from Alaska to California have been destroyed...
Repercussions of such overuse and misuse include, in brief, an increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, a major contributor to the greenhouse effect; disruption of the water cycle resulting in drier climates; soil erosion leading to the silting of water courses, lakes and dams; and the extinction of species that depend on the forest for survival.
The Midrash Tanhuma also analyzes the choice of acacia wood in the construction of the Mishkan, and explains that the Hebrew root of the word shitim, meaning acacia, shares the same root as the word shtoot, meaning folly. A connection is made: by building the Sanctuary out of this particular wood, we are reminded to rectify the folly that the Children of Israel pursued with the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Midrash’s link between acacia and the Golden Calf presents an almost funny, yet poignant connection to the current real-world correlation between deforestation and beef production. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, cattle ranching for beef has caused the majority of felled forests in Latin America, tens of thousands of square kilometers each year! The overwhelming majority of that lost forest becomes pasture, and most of that pasture is used for grazing cattle, intended for eventual export on the international market. Modern-day beef consumption may thus represent the pursuit of our own material comfort at the expense of our forests.
We must ask ourselves: “Is God present in our consumption?” If so, then even the most ostentatious and elaborate materials that were used in the construction of the Mishkan are warranted. But if we have no awareness of our actions, and our consumption is a product of the pursuit of golden and flashy gods of consumer society, then we have not created a dwelling place for God in our actions or in the world.
 Suggested Action Item:
•    Seriously limit your intake of meat as part of your commitment to avoid deforestation and other environmental “folly.” If and when you do buy meat, choose locally produced, organic meat from a source you trust.
Ariel Shalem is currently learning for Rabbinical ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel’s Judean Hills.