Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Acharei-Mot/K’doshim 5781

One of the curiosities of pandemic life in our synagogue is that time is jumbled, juxtaposing Torah portions that would never otherwise be read together. Today we contemplated Bereishit, the first parasha in the Torah, with Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, today’s double Torah portion which, as Jane taught us, is at the very center of the Torah. This creates for fascinating possibilities of analysis.

Mason, you taught us, from the story of the creation of the world, about the human relationship to other living things and the earth itself, arguing that in our position of dominion, we must take responsibility for stewardship, and find a way to live in balance with other living things and the earth itself.

In particular, you’re concerned about the Torah’s command that humans rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and the whole earth, raising the issue of animal cruelty and climate change as it relates to meat consumption. It turns out that this week’s double Torah portion is concerned about that very thing: Leviticus 17 teaches: “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Eternal, before the Eternal’s Tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people.”

Did you know that when God told us to rule over the animals in Bereishit we were supposed to be vegetarians? Only when God saw how violent human beings were, in Parashat Noach, did God begin to allow us to kill animals for food. It was an outlet for our violence without killing other humans, and it was allowed only with very strict rules. We could not eat the blood of the animal, for the blood represented the nefesh or the life force which we were to honor; we could only eat very specific categories of animals, and as this week’s Torah portion teaches, in order to eat an animal at all, we had to first sacrifice it to God.

There was no such thing as buying a steak at the market. There was no such thing as a value pak of chicken wings. If you wanted to eat meat, you had to raise the animal and personally bring the animal to the Tabernacle to the priest for slaughter. You had to consciously elevate and sanctify the act of slaughter, recognizing that the animal was a creature of God and honoring its life accordingly. As Nelly Altenburger teaches, “killing a herd animal for food is an act of taking a life in God’s eyes, and sacrifice serves as the only mechanism that renders it morally acceptable. Sacrifice…is the returning of the nefesh, the life-force, to God.” The Torah, she continues, “challenges us to relate to animals as living creatures, not walking food. We are permitted to take their meat for eating purposes, but we cannot own or consume their nefashot, which belong to God. Eating meat should be done with consciousness, personal involvement, and on special occasions.”

Also in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, we read of the laws of peah and leket, which require us to exercise restraint when we harvest fruits and vegetables and grains from the earth—we must leave a portion of them for the poor and the stranger, recognizing that we are not the owners of the earth, but residents and stewards. We are meant to act with restraint and reverence in our relationship to the entirety of creation, even as we have the power to rule over it.

Jane, you lifted up from this portion the idea that hating one another or bearing a grudge against another is not only forbidden, but is the easy way out. Instead Torah commands us to do the difficult thing, which is to challenge and even confront other people for behavior that’s wrong, but to do so in a way that both protects ourselves and doesn’t shame the other. Like with the issue of killing animals, the shaming of other people is seen by the rabbis as taking their blood. In the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b, we learn that “one who shames another in public, it’s as if that person shed blood.” The rabbis note how when we are embarrassed, our faces become red and then drain of color, and this they compare to the shedding of blood.

Jane, you, like Mason talked about the difficult quest for balance. The balance between preventing harm to others and protecting ourselves, between our own safety and the safety of the whole society, between saving our own lives and saving the lives of others, between rebuking others and shaming them. None of this is easy—Torah requires us to do hard things. You ended with this line: “Important things are worth the struggle.”

On this last Thursday, Earth Day, our President, President Biden, called upon us and the entire world to do the difficult work of rapidly and dramatically cutting carbon emissions in half to mitigate the great harm of climate change. He gathered 40 leaders from around the world. In their presence he made a commitment to aggressively address climate change, and he called upon them to do the same. Bold promises are necessary in this moment crisis, and they are relatively easy to make. Much more difficult, much more of a struggle, is the implementation. It will require a great deal of rebuke—telling people that what they are doing is wrong—but without shaming. It will require everybody taking a stand for our own safety and our society’s safety. It will require dramatic behavior change for all of us, including in relation to what we eat. It will require the kind of restraint in consumption that today’s Torah portions are demanding of us. It will require a whole new attitude toward creation, a new kind of stewardship rooted in the awareness of the life force in every living thing and reverence for the entire living system that is the earth.

This will not be easy, but as Jews we know not to take the easy way out. We know to do the difficult thing when it is right and when it is good.

Important things are worth the struggle. And what is more important than this?