As a recently lapsed vegetarian (after 20 plus years), I read the Torah’s instructions about sacrifices in a different way than I once did. The Book of Leviticus opens with the very gory details of animal sacrifice with instructions down to the last entrail. For close to 2,000 years, since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we have been trying to make sense of the ancient sacrificial system.
When I didn’t eat meat, I was appeased by the grain offerings mentioned in the parashah that are seldom mentioned, gifts of wheat mixed with olive oil and frankincense burned on the altar. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the early chief rabbi of Palestine and a vegetarian, imagined a future time — so wholly different from the present — when there will be no need to shed blood: “In the future, the abundance of knowledge will spread to and penetrate even animals … and the sacrifices, which will then be from grain, will be as pleasing to God as in days of old [when there were animal sacrifices] …,” he wrote.
As a vegetarian, I was drawn to interpretations of the Book of Genesis suggesting that the allowance of humans to eat meat was a concession, while the ideal state was our pre-meat existence in the Garden of Eden.
Then a medical condition led me to start eating meat again. Now, as I reluctantly bite into a hamburger, I think about how little I connected to this life that was lost for me. I didn’t raise it. I didn’t kill it. I didn’t clean it of its lifeblood or even package it. It appeared on my plate in its present, perfectly round form.
We dread the Book of Leviticus, we are outraged by the sacrifices, yet we are responsible for the killing of animals every day. As much as we struggle when our Torah readings ask us to step into the worldview of our ancestors, at least in the sacrificial system there was sanctity in blood and appreciation for life and death. They faced the blood that was shed, and perhaps they even thought about their own fleeting days as they sacrificed the animal, marveling at the mystery of mortality. Do we think about mortality as we devour our food? Perhaps something we can glean from the complicated, ancient sacrificial system is the acknowledgment that we are so removed from the loss of life necessary for us (carnivores) to be sustained.
The decision and process to begin eating meat was difficult. I looked to my Jewish spiritual tradition for guidance. The lack of a specific prayer to offer before eating meat saddened me. There is only the catchall brachah that is said for any food or drink that doesn’t fit into the major categories. But no acknowledgment that a living, breathing being has given its life to sustain me, without its consent and without a covenant. Brachot bring us into connection with our food as we trace its path before it magically appears on our plates. Did it fall from a tree (ha’-etz)? Sprout from the ground (ha’adamah)? Or did it require human hands to transform it from one thing (wheat) to another (bread)? If my vegetarian spiritual practice yielded such introspection, how could there not be a similar way for me to connect with the more intense life-and-death process of eating meat?
Before taking my first bite, I wrote a brachah for eating meat: Nevarech et ayn ha chayim, ruach ha’olam, ha noten/et lanu et hanefesh hazot l’hachayoteynu. (Let us bless the Source of Life, the Spirit of the Universe, whose gift of this living soul gives us life.) I take this moment before eating another animal to honor its soul, grieve the loss and face our shared mortality.
Unfortunately for the cow, the hierarchy of living beings placed it in the horribly unjust position of possessing a nutrient that makes my body function better. Admittedly, a brachah does not do that animal any good. But it does a lot for me. If eating meat after we left the Garden of Eden was a concession, then as a carnivore, I should live in a constant state of awareness of that gift and the blood that was shed for me. May I never take lightly the responsibility of taking another’s life for my own nourishment, and may my blessings of gratitude keep me from taking that gift for granted.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of the new book “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.