[Bar Mitzvah Speech given by AJ Adkins, June 16, 2012, at the West End Synagogue, New York, NY]
This week, we have reached the point in the Torah in which the Israelites have escaped from Egypt, where they were slaves. They have received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, and have come to the threshold of Canaan, the Promised Land. God tells Moses to send 12 spies, a chief from each tribe, to see what kind of place the land is: How many people are there? Are they strong or weak? Are their towns open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor, wooded or not? These spies were also asked to bring back some of the fruit of the land. After 40 days, the spies come back carrying fruits from the land: grapes, pomegranates, and figs. They show Moses and Aaron the fruit of the land and say, “We came to the land you sent us to. It does indeed flow with milk and honey and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.”
Then one of the spies, Caleb, hushes the people, for they were protesting, and says, “Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” This seems to indicate that the people were wondering whether they could make it into the land if the inhabitants were so powerful. Then the rest of the spies say, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we are .. we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them.”
Then the people started protesting and saying things like “We would be better off to die, and be slaves in Egypt: Let’s head back to Egypt.” Joshua and Caleb try to tell the people that they were meant to go into the Land and that God would not have brought them there if they could not make it. They should not be afraid and should go up to the Land and defeat the people there.
God threatens to destroy the Israelites and make for Moses a great nation instead. But Moses convinces God to forgive the people. Instead, that generation who disobeyed God won’t see the Promised Land. They will wander in the wilderness until a new generation is born who won’t have known the trauma of being slaves in Egypt, so they won’t be as afraid to go and conquer the Land.
I believe that the message of this story is to be brave and have confidence in yourself even when you think you cannot do something. In the case of this Torah portion, the Israelites were not brave enough to go and conquer the land because they didn’t have confidence in themselves. Instead, once they heard that the people of the land were powerful, they didn’t believe that they could conquer them.
In today’s story, the spies bring back fruit to show that the Land does have good food. So food is an important aspect of this parashah. Today, most our processed food and much produce contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOS. When foods are genetically modified, it means that animals, fruits and vegetables have been bombarded with genes from other organisms such as bacteria and viruses to give them special properties.
Such properties include being immune to the vast amounts of herbicides that are sprayed on them that would normally kill them, and making cows and fish grow bigger, faster. The companies argue that GMOs will increase the yields of crops.
But GMO foods and their herbicides have been shown to be bad for the environment. They reduce biodiversity, pollute water, and are unsustainable. They lead to more allergies, birth defects, sterility, cancer, and death. Unlike safety evaluations for drugs, the FDA does not require human clinical trials of GMOs.
In spite of many studies showing the dangers of genetically modified foods, the FDA only requires companies to say that they believe they are safe. Anyone can create a new genetically modified food in their basement and put it on the market tomorrow with no oversight.
We have no choice in what we put into our bodies because there is no federally required labeling of GMO food as there is in most western countries, again due to corporate influence. In fact, it is forbidden to label GMO’s because the FDA has decided that they do not “differ substantially” from natural food! Every state legislature that has tried to pass a law to label GMOs, has been threatened with lawsuits from the giant biotech corporations like Monsanto.
If you think this is just a luxury problem for people in wealthy countries, you are mistaken. There are tens of thousands of farmer suicides each year in India because the farmers are duped into buying genetically modified seeds on the promise of increased yields and becoming wealthy. Not only do the yields not increase, but the farmers have to buy pesticides they never needed, and expensive seeds each year instead of the ones from their crops. This has led to massive debt and despair.
I care a lot about this issue because it affects human health, the environment, and social welfare, and many people are not aware of the problem. Genetically modified foods should be labeled, so people can know they are buying something they might avoid if they knew what it was. I also encourage you to buy non-GMO foods. All organic food does not contain GMO’s. We also have non-GMO shopping guides available today in the lobby to let you know what foods are free from genetic manipulation.
Here are some other actions I am taking: In the fall, I will help my mom give a slide and video presentation at WES about the dangers of GMO’s, which will be sponsored by the Social Action Committee. I am also donating a percentage of my bar mitzvah money to the Institute for Responsible Technology, and the Organic Consumers Association, which educate policy makers and the public about genetically modified foods and crops, and investigate and report their risks. Even the candy you have thrown at me today is non-GMO. I hope that now you understand this issue better and are more aware of its dangers.
In the Torah portion today, the powerful people are the giants in the land of Canaan. Most of the spies said that the Israelites could not conquer the land – they were too afraid and cynical. In the story we are living today, the powerful people are corporations like Monsanto. Many people say that it’s impossible to eliminate GMOs, because of the powerful companies behind them. But I say, that even though it will not be easy to eliminate GMOs, it can be done — if enough effort and courage is put into this issue.