ACHACREI MOT – A BLOODY CHAPTER
My first trip to Europe was many years ago, but I can still vividly recall two things from those ten days in Spain. The first was my attempt to speak Spanish to the Spaniards. On one occasion this resulted in me thanking a man who wanted to help with my luggage, telling him that his assistance was not necessary because I planned to eat my suitcase.
(On another trip, my wife called down to the hotel front desk, asking them for two pillows. After she’d hung up, I informed her that she’d just told them to send up two stewardesses.)
The second recollection was of seeing castles, churches, and cathedrals. Lots of castles, and lots of churches and cathedrals.
On subsequent trips, we visited cathedrals in Italy, France, and elsewhere. Some of these were incredible monuments to architecture, engineering design, and the fortitude of human strength it took to carry blocks of stone and place them where needed without the help of modern construction equipment and cranes.
Inside each cathedral resided the symbols, artifacts, icons, and remnants of Christianity, with religious services still being held hundreds of years after their construction.
There were, of course, a few synagogues scattered along the way, and that was satisfying to see. But few I saw were on the scale of the grandiose churches and cathedrals.
Eventually we traveled to Jerusalem where I stood at the Western wall and later walked through an ancient underground tunnel that had recently been opened to the public. In a gift shop, I bought a drawing of what the original Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to have looked like. I remember thinking, “Being in the Temple must have incredible.”
Upon my return to California, I mentioned this to a friend, and he looked at me with skepticism. “You know what Temple life was like 2000 years ago? With the Kohen Gadol and all the animal sacrifices! Are you nuts?”
I began to re-think the concept.
As we know, in Judaism animal sacrifice was long-ago replaced with prayer. (Prayer…animal sacrifice. Not really the same, are they?)
But here we are today, still reading, studying, and discussing the laws and details of animal sacrifice in the Torah, Haftarah, and Talmud. It would be an understatement to say that many of us have difficulty relating to this topic.
More than one contemporary rabbi has had to commiserate with the parents of a bar or bat mitzvah whose Torah portion is Acharei Mot. These chapters in Leviticus—16, 17 and 18, deal with the details of ritual slaughter of animals as well as the sending of the scapegoat, which carries the sins, iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, into the wilderness.
As if that is not enough, the Torah portion (parashah) also enumerates the laws of incest, sodomy, and other alleged sexual and carnal relations. It’s enough to make anyone cry, “Why did I have to get this Torah portion? It’s not fair!”
I decided to narrow the subject:
As it is written in Genesis (9:4), “…You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” The “life force of the flesh is in the blood.”
So, let’s speak about blood.
Editor and scholar Gunther Plaut tells us, “The ancients were just as much aware as we are that blood is indispensible for physical life. They thought of blood as a powerful and dangerous agent, endowed with uncanny, supernatural potencies. Many peoples have had taboos against seeing and touching blood, as well as against shedding or consuming it…
“Our chapter requires that the blood of wild animals or fowl, which are not used as sacrifices, be drained and covered with earth. This procedure is still followed in kosher slaughtering.”
Plaut goes on to tell us that before meat is cooked, Orthodox law “requires that it be soaked in water for a half hour, then salted and left standing for an hour, then washed again, so as to draw out all blood from the tissues.”
Blood seems to show up everywhere—in every corner of conversation, reading, writing, theater, and other media. Clichés, expressions, curses, books and stories, song titles and lyrics, poetry, nursery rhymes—you name it, there’s blood.
Bad blood; new blood; royal blood; blood and guts; blood and thunder; blood brothers; blood feud; blood sport. Blood, Sweat and Tears.
I want to remind you that the animals sacrificed in the Temple were indeed eaten. In fact, there were many animals being slaughtered in the Temple, and a lot of meat being eaten. Some accounts describe the Temple as an immense and very active butcher shop and meat market.
Today, much of the world, both industrialized and not, eats meat when it can. But in our own society, we often seem uncomfortable with the actual image of animal slaughter, which can often seem brutal or barbaric.
Wasn’t there a time when an all-beef patty said, “Moo?” Have you ever had to explain to a child where a lamb chop comes from, or that veal parmigiana begins with a calf?
On the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that we were undoubtedly less sensitive to animal slaughter. Raising chickens, cows, and other farm animals and later eating them was a necessary part of life and survival.
I once visited a colleague who lives near Eureka and raises ducks, geese, chickens, and vegetables. He also fattens up one hog each year and when it has achieved enormous size, some guys with a truck come and take it away for slaughter. Above the hog’s pen is a large sign that reads, “A well-fed hog is a good-tasting hog.” Personally, I wouldn’t know.
Even before the Ten Commandments, there were the seven Noachide laws, a set of moral imperatives that were given by God as a binding set of laws for the “Children of Noah” – that is, all of humanity. The sixth of these laws is a prohibition against eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.
When I think about blood in my personal life, three experiences come to mind.
The first involves Irving Harris, the kosher butcher.
Although the home I grew up in was not “strictly kosher,” I’d say it was “pretty kosher.” My mother used kosher meat in the Orthodox manner described by Plaut, and just about every Friday, after my Mom had lit the Shabbos candles, we’d have a roasted chicken for dinner. I never thought it odd to find a chicken soaking in a pot in the sink when I came home from school.
The kosher meat was delivered once a week by Irving Harris, who owned a butcher shop in Brooklyn but lived near us on Long Island. I’d be watching television and would hear his familiar knock—not at the front door, but at the door that separated our garage from our kitchen. He was the only one outside the family who came in that way.
I would call out, “Mom, it’s Irving Harris!” He’d say hello, and my mother would get her checkbook. Dressed in his stained white clothing, he’d chat with my Mom for a few minutes. He was a loud, friendly, guy, and had a unique smell. At some point, I connected that smell with its origin—the blood from his butcher shop. I once caught a ride with Irving Harris from Brooklyn to Long Island, and his car just reeked of blood. It was not a pleasant ride.
That said, I went to Hebrew school with Irving’s daughter and she smelled really nice.
In Acharei Mot, we read about blood:
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelite people and say to them: This is what Adonai has commanded: 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 Adonai, before the God’s Tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people.
And if anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: No person among you shall partake of blood, nor shall the stranger who resides among you partake of blood. ..Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off. (Leviticus 17:1-14)
As you know, certain experiences can make your blood run cold, or they can make your blood boil; as an athlete or soldier, you always want to draw first blood; no matter how you try, you cannot get blood from a stone…or a turnip; sometimes you feel like screaming bloody murder, and at other times you can just feel like spitting blood.
Here is my second story:
When I was in graduate school, I was homeless for several months. I was separated from my first wife, and had nowhere to go. I camped out on the living room sofas of friends and classmates, spent more than one night in my VW beetle, and during the summer I crashed on a mattress in the basement of a guy I knew. This friend of mine, for some reason, liked to go hunting. One Sunday afternoon, he returned from a weekend hunting trip, and yelled out to me that he needed my help for a few minutes. It was a hot day and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I slipped on my flip-flops and followed him out to his truck wherein lay the body of an animal he’d shot. He needed me to help him carry it into the garage, where he’d later butcher it.
When I saw the dead animal in the bed of his pickup truck, my own blood went cold and I became nauseous. Silently, I helped him lift the carcass of a very large wild boar. It was tied to a pole, and we slowly carried it into the garage. As we were about to put it down—and I will never forget this moment—I looked down and realized that was blood dripping onto my bare foot. Something deep in my brain stem snapped.
It was as if words of Torah were screaming in my ears.
It was quite a traumatic experience, and I’ve never really been the same. I do not eat treif, and now you know why I stopped.
A description of the second Jerusalem Temple can be found in what is called a Letter of Aristeas. Although its origin cannot be determined, many believe that it is a credible account by an eyewitness. Here is an excerpt from the letter:
“The whole of the floor [of the Temple] is paved with stones and slopes down to the appointed places, [so] that water may be conveyed to wash away the blood from the sacrifices, for many thousand beasts are sacrificed there on the feast days. And there is an inexhaustible supply of water, because an abundant natural spring gushes up from within the Temple area.
“There are, moreover, wonderful and indescribable cisterns underground…”
The Letter’s author makes reference to the altar and how there was a method devised to wash away sacrificial blood from the altar using water from a spring and a system of underground reservoirs that channeled water to the altar; the blood was washed out through discrete holes at the base of the altar through which the water would wash away the sacrificial blood… “Which is collected in great quantities,” and “is washed away in the twinkling of an eye.”
As they say: One thing you never want to have is blood on your hands; and don’t ever forget that blood is thicker than water. Try not to be involved with a blood feud, and don’t drink too many Bloody Mary’s. You might have seen the movie, “Blood on the Moon,” or know the song, “Hot Blooded;” you’ve certainly read or watched “In Cold Blood.” And some of you may remember Geritol, which you took for “Tired Blood.”
My third and final story is personal, but not secret.
After my first year in college, I became very ill. One of the aspects of my condition was that I was losing a lot of blood internally, and in spite of several blood transfusions, my blood count was declining rapidly. All the medical discussions were about blood. I was also losing a lot of weight, and was not retaining nutrients from food. What was happening was, I was bleeding to death, and I was dying. And I knew it.
One night I fell asleep but awoke a few hours later. What followed I can only describe as a personally spiritual, near-death experience. I was faced with a choice, and made the decision to live. The only reason I could think of at the time for deciding this was that I was too young to die.
Over the next few weeks, I began to improve, and a year and a half later, I returned to school.
Following that night in the hospital, I have never doubted the existence of God. Nor have I ever felt the need to argue with those who claim there is no God.
Originally delivered as a drash (sermon).