I have long struggled between my love of animals and, to be blunt, my love of meat. I cry tears of sadness during the ASPCA commercials and tears of joy when my Uncle Larry ships us a salami from Romanian Kosher Sausage in Chicago. Of course that’s hyperbole; I am in no way suggesting any similarity between humane food processing and the unthinkable animal cruelty that regrettably still exists in the world.
I do have many vegetarian friends who offer strong cases for their lifestyle choices, but I myself have never been compelled to be a vegetarian. However, my regard for my food choices and their sources has its roots in the Torah and its requirements that we show respect to animals both as food and as living creatures.
This week’s parshah, parshat Emor, teaches us the value of intention. We learn specifically about the laws surrounding the role of the priest and the extra steps the priest must take in order to remain eligible for that position. Each of these steps requires heightened sensitivity, first to what is ingested in the body, then to special times of the year such as holidays. These laws require a keen awareness of how our days and weeks are spent, and theparshah ends by enumerating the punishments for those who do not adhere to this way of life.
What strikes me about each of these sections is how specific the text is. Here is what Vayikra 22:27-28 says on the topic of kindness to animals: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a gift to the Lord. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”
Following are two different interpretations on the verses that talk about how we are to treat animals.
RAMBAM (1135–1204): From the acronym of Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, rabbinic authority, codifier, philosopher, and royal physician.
RAMBAM’S POINT OF VIEW: “The Torah wanted to prevent cruelty and suffering to animals. Since animals show affection for their young, killing them in the presence of each other would be very cruel. There is no distinction between the suffering of a human being and that of a beast in this respect, since feelings of maternal affection belong not to the intellectual faculty, but to the emotional faculty, which is common to humans and animals alike.”
RAMBAN (1194–1270): From the acronym of Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman, Spanish rabbi and scholar and one of the leading authors of talmudic literature in the Middle Ages. Philosopher, kabbalist,biblical exegete, poet, and physician.
RAMBAN’S POINT OF VIEW: “If God had deep pity on the animals, their slaughter would be entirely forbidden. This commandment is in place to help humanity develop the quality of mercy. The primary concern of the law is not with the animal’s feelings, but with the cultivation of kindness and compassion in the heart of the human being. It is not because God pities the animal, but in order that the people of Israel should not practice cruel habits.”
Much of living a life of integrity is about putting thought behind our actions. As Dr. Wayne Dyer would say, we have “the power of intention.” One of the first areas we learn to place this emphasis is what we put – or don’t put – into our bodies. Respecting animals as living creatures and a food source for much of the world is one way to honor our tradition and acknowledge that we can act with compassion.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Parshat Emor also instructs us in the counting of the omer, which isthe epitome of deliberate action. Why is it important to physically count the days to a holiday or big event? What does it suggest to you about how to use the in-between time?