Author Archives: Aviva Presser Aiden

Aviva Presser Aiden

About Aviva Presser Aiden

Aviva Presser Aiden is a student at Harvard Medical School. She co-founded Bears Without Borders, an organization fostering economic opportunities among developing-world artisans, and is co-founder and CTO of Lebone, a social enterprise developing microbial fuel cells as an off-grid energy and lighting solution for Africa.

The Ban on Tereifah

Amidst the myriad commandments in Parashat Mishpatim, we find a curious law: You shall be holy to Me; therefore, you shall not eat any ‘tereifah’ in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.

This mitzvah is puzzling, both in its content and context. The first question raised is, of course, what does the verse actually mean? The meaning of the word ‘tereifah’ here can be derived from its context in the Joseph narrative. When Jacob sees Joseph‘s bloody cloak in the hands of Joseph’s brothers, Jacob cries out, “A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” The words Jacob uses to describe Joseph’s presumed demise at the teeth of wild beasts (tarof taraf Yosef) contain the same root as tereifah. This suggests that when the text forbids the eating of tereifah, it specifically refers to the carcass of an animal killed by predators.
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Given that the commandment appears to simply forbid the scavenging of meat–an apparently mundane topic–the juxtaposition to holiness is surprising. Of the many commandments set forth in this parashah, why is this one specifically connected to holiness?

Being Conscious of What We Eat

When eating meat, life must be taken. Perhaps the prohibition of tereifah suggests that when we consume meat, we must have a conscious appreciation for the gift the universe has given us. We are prohibited from eating a carcass that an animal killed in the field because the predator had no such appreciation for the loss of life. This sentiment is common throughout human cultures, both real and fictitious, from the Navajo of the American Southwest to the Na’vi of planet Pandora. When an animal is killed, words of appreciation are recited in acknowledgement of that gift.

This prohibition of tereifah is intimately linked with holiness because its internal effect is what defines it. Other commandments, such as those calling for law and order, prohibiting usury or forbidding the affliction of the widow or the orphan, all have practical societal benefits. Unlike these and many other commandments in the parashah, the sole purpose of prohibiting tereifah is to highlight our humanity.

The Corruption of Water

Parashat Vaera describes part of perhaps the most famous narrative in Jewish history–the Exodus. Moses and Aaron were appointed as Divine emissaries to Pharaoh, demanding the release of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt. Refused, Moses and Aaron were then tasked with bringing plagues upon Egypt, ostensibly to compel Pharaoh to release the Jewish people. The first of these plagues was the plague of blood.  
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Regardless of the chemical dynamics the Nile underwent during the plague of blood, it was doubtless an impressive and awful sight–the waters of the life-sustaining river running red. Not only was the Nile plagued, but in God’s instructions to Moses, all the bodies of water in Egypt were affected–from the mighty river down to the water contained in vessels of wood and stone. The text specifies that the waters of the Nile were undrinkable, and the plague caused the death of all of the fish in the river. The Egyptians, bereft of their ordinary sources of drinking water, tried to dig wells beside the Nile, in an attempt to reach potable water.

They Lasted Seven Days

Midrashic sources indicate that each of the Egyptian plagues lasted seven days. In the case of most plagues, we see Moses requesting a cessation of the plague on Egypt’s behalf, and the plague is subsequently removed from the land. But the biblical text gives us no such description of this plague’s end. The text merely suggests that after seven days, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh with a warning of the upcoming plague of frogs.

The never-ending corruption of water still plagues many areas of the Global South today. Over a billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water which often has severe and deadly consequences. Cholera and other water-borne diarrheal diseases are among the leading causes of child deaths worldwide–greater than HIV or malaria. Indeed, they are responsible for twenty-five percent of deaths in that demographic in the Global South.

Lack of Sanitation

One of the major causes of water contamination today is lack of effective sanitation. In fact, in about a third of all African countries, less than 50 percent of people have access to toilet facilities that do not need to be emptied by hand. Similar rates plague many Asian nations such as India, Nepal and Mongolia. Those without adequate facilities often turn to a nearby river or stream for washing, cooking and disposal of human waste, making entire communities vulnerable to cholera and other diseases.

A Lack of Empathy

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In Parashat Vayishlah, Dinah is captured and raped by Shechem, a local prince. Her father Jacob’s reaction is both puzzling and disturbing; he does nothing. Silent, he sits and waits for his sons to return from the pasture, where they are tending the family flocks.
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We can conceive of reasonable ways to explain Jacob’s behavior. Perhaps he wishes to confer with his family before entering a tricky, potentially danger-fraught negotiation or retaliation. Perhaps Jacob feels too weak to counter his daughter’s attacker alone, and so waits for his sons to produce a show of strength.

Out of Character

But these explanations seem out of character for the patriarch, for whom self-assured, individual action is the norm. Earlier in Vayishlah, when Esau confronts him with an army, Jacob acts decisively, strategically and without conferencing with his sons. In the following chapter, Jacob battles a Divine being entirely alone, and though he is injured in the process, Jacob wins, suggesting a great personal power. And if we should think that Jacob’s injuries weakened him, leaving him unable to face Dinah’s attacker, the text informs us that “Jacob came complete to the city of Shechem.”

Given his history, it seems unlikely that, in the case of Dinah, Jacob feels the need for counsel or fears a lack of strength. This suggests another, more troubling reason for Jacob’s lack of response. Perhaps he simply does not care enough for Dinah to feel responsible for acting on her behalf. The text’s introduction of Dinah as “the daughter of Leah” hints at Jacob’s indifference towards her. Though outside her family she is viewed as Jacob’s daughter, perhaps Jacob did not feel compelled to defend the daughter of Leah, a wife he did not want and did not love.

Jacob’s apparent lack of empathy is not reserved exclusively for Dinah. He regularly disregards the safety of Leah’s other children. When Jacob is faced with famine, he sends her sons on a dangerous mission to acquire food, but does not send Benjamin, Rachel’s son. Later in the narrative, when Leah’s son Simon is taken captive in Egypt, Jacob leaves him to his fate, rather than complying with the demand to send Benjamin in order to save Simon. Jacob’s apparent indifference to these children of his unloved wife can explain his silence in the face of Dinah’s rape. He does not feel the empathy and connection that would have forced him to respond.

Lament of a Barren Woman

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In Parashat Lekh L’kha we encounter the first of what will become a common refrain in the book of Genesis, the lament of the barren woman. The opening verse of Chapter 16 informs us that “Sarai, the wife of Abram, had borne him no child.” This theme of infertility is repeated with each matriarchal generation–Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.

The Importance of Children in the Bible

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It is telling that in this part of the Bible, the primary female voices are anguished cries about the inability to conceive. The Matriarchs repeatedly lament that without offspring, they lack stature and worth in their families. Sarai, after years of barrenness, is so desperate for a child that she offers her maidservant to her husband, effectively introducing a competitor for Abraham’s affection, in order that “perhaps I [Sarai] can build a family through her.” Rachel equates the value of motherhood to life itself, begging her husband to “give me children, or I am dead.”

Even Leah, the only one among the four Matriarchs who does not appear to struggle with infertility, expresses her belief that her status in the family and the love of her husband is dependent upon her bearing children. She names two of her first three sons using words that express the hope that with each birth, her husband will surely come to love her.

The biblical text poignantly demonstrates the importance of children to the women of that time and the emotional and social distress caused by infertility. In developing countries today, the anguish is compounded by social stigma and economic repercussions. Lacking universal health care, adequate social services and financial insurance like Social Security, many African women depend on children to sustain them in their old age. Barren women frequently see their husbands leave them for other wives. They are often cut out of family inheritances, become social outcasts and, in extreme cases, may even be driven to suicide.