Parshat Emor: Recognizing Animal Lives

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My son argued that we should eat fewer animal products. While being a vegan was better for the world, people’s health and the animals, he said it was unrealistic that more than a fraction of people would make such a major change.

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Instead, if large quantities of people reduced their meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption, even by a little, the cumulative effect would be substantial.

For his bar mitzvah project, he and his sister developed an app that tracks what people eat and helps them lower their animal consumption. My kids have continually challenged me on the downsides of eating animal products and, in recent years, we have moved dramatically closer to veganism. My children understand that taking the life of an animal or using the animal for our own pleasure should not be taken lightly.

In parshat Emor, God also instructs us about the significance and sacredness of an animal’s life. Our priests are to be “scrupulous” about animal sacrifices to avoid profaning God’s Name. (Leviticus 22:2) Furthermore, a person who sacrifices must be in a “pure state.” (Leviticus 22:3-7)

God says that animals can be eaten but wants us to eat them in a way that is cognizant of the gravity of ending a life. God seeks for us to honor the animal’s neshama, or life force, by restricting how we make and eat the sacrifice. The Temple, where we performed sacrifices, no longer stands. Because of that, many of these laws appear to be irrelevant.

But as we consider the effects of industrialized meat production on animals’ lives and on climate change, Emor’s teachings are deeply relevant and vital.

What does it mean to be “scrupulous” about the eating of animals today? We would ensure that animals live humanely by residing in spaces where they have freedom to move, to socialize and to eat.

Poultry farming, slaughterhouses and dairy farms are typically designed to maximize profit without regard to the well-being of the animal. These places could be reimagined to center the fact that the animals are sentient beings whose existence is holy. We must recognize that animals do not exist exclusively as a source of enjoyment for humans.

After our parshah examines how we treat the animals, we are commanded to examine ourselves. How can we put ourselves in a “pure state”? Being in the right frame of mind when consuming animal products can elevate the experience (and further honor the animal).

Ideally whenever we consume any food, we should be conscious about what we are doing. Saying a bracha (blessing) makes us pause and think about what we are eating. This is the opposite of just stuffing our mouths mindlessly.

We should be particularly aware when we are eating meat or other animal products. Are we conscious of the animal who was “sacrificed” for us to be able to eat a particular meal? Are we mindful of what the animal gave up so that we could enjoy this dairy? Are we filled with gratitude for this sustenance?

If we view eating animal products with the sacredness that the Holy One insists on, then it would follow that our consumption would decrease. We would be scrupulous about our eating habits, and we would try as rigorously as we could to be in a pure state as we ate. Meat and dairy products would rise in cost as conditions become more considerate of the animals.

Recognizing each life would remind us of the specialness of the sacrifice the animals make for our benefit, and we would naturally make eating animal products more rare.

For the sake of the planet, our health and the animals, may we integrate these teachings from Emor into our lives.

Rabbi Beth Janus is a chaplain at Lafayette Redeemer in Philadelphia and performs life cycle rituals.

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