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Vayikra - Acharei Mot

I don’t know about your household, but there’s a certain time in the year which is “too soon” to talk about the Chagim. The Torah has no such hesitance! Pesach has just finished but this week’s sedra plunges us into the world of Yom Kippur, with instructions for the “Avodah” - the service in which the Cohen Gadol enters the kdosh kdoshim (holy of holies) for the only time of the year, the various sacrifices carried out. It’s an episode which has been beautifully spiritualised in Ishai Ribo’s song Seder HaAvodah, which I highly recommend listening to (and playing on repeat in the run up to Yom Kippur!)

After this our parasha turns to correct ways to sacrifice and eat meat. Then the third section of the parasha deals with lists of “arayot” - forbidden sexual relationships. This third and final section includes “that line” about “a man who lies with another man”. Kehillat Nashira has had a tradition of meeting on parashat Acharei Mot or Kedoshim, and addressing these psukim (verses) head on, recognising the damage they have done to living people throughout history and today. I invite you to join us next Shabbat, 7th May, when we will once again mark these psukim and consider how to heal some of the wounds made in the name of religion.

Correct practice with atonement, meat and sex - the three sections of our parasha, are summarasied by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie as three ways to ensure “safe access to the sacred” after the rupture of Aaron’s sons’ death (Acharei Mot means “after the death”).

For today, I’d like to share a thought about the meat section. It falls in the middle of the parasha, which is in the middle of Vayikra, which is the middle book in the whole Torah. Rabbi Raphael Zarum teaches that this section is the pinnacle of the Torah. And while so many of us find Vayikra gory and alienating in its animal sacrifices, this section has something vital to teach us about the life of animals, and all of our lives:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם

For the soul of the body is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar

There is a sudden pivot in verses discussing food to a point about animal sacrifices. Somehow an animal’s soul is seen as located in its blood, and so blood has a holiness to it. When it comes to sacrifice, it is only the blood which has a function in “making expiation”, in atoning for wrongdoing. And when it comes to eating meat, it is specifically the blood which Jews are forbidden from eating.

The Ramban has a beautiful commentary on this verse: “one creature possessed of a soul is not to eat another creature with a soul, for all souls belong to God. The life of humans just as the life of the animal are all God’s… If one were to eat the life of all flesh [blood]… the result would be a thickening and coarseness of the human soul so that it would closely approach the nature of the animal soul which resided in that which he ate”.

We are what we eat and we are how we eat. While the Torah allows eating meat, it is within the parameters of deep respect for the soul of the living being who has died to be our food. The act of pouring out the blood is an act of mindful recognition that animals have souls, and that we could so easily grow “thick and course” as a result of losing that mindfulness. These verses throw out big questions about our contemporary industrialised meat industry, which may technically tick the boxes of kashrut, but which do not seem to respect the consciousness, life-force and soul of each animal in its process.

May we all learn to eat more mindfully, to make responsible decisions when we buy food, and to work towards more holy conditions in the production of the food we eat.

Shabbat shalom

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