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Shabbat Parshat Re’eh 5778

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The Prohibition of Eating Blood

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Thursday morning (in 5769) I went to the website of the Yeshiva that I attended in Israel, Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut and on the homepage I read the following:                                                                                                            

Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the death of our dear student, Staff Sgt. Uriel Peretz Liverant z”l, who perished in an IDF training accident in the Golan. We extend our sympathy and condolences to his entire family. Ha-Makom yenachem etkhem be-tokh she’ar avelei Tzion vi-Yerushalayim.

It threw me for a loop. A yeshiva is a place of Torah learning, a place where you grapple in search of religious and spiritual peace and serenity and this reminder of the violence and the enemy seemed terribly out of place.

The following idea is dedicated to this soldier and to all of the soldiers defending our land as it is directly applicable to their lives and challenges.

We are all familiar with the prohibition of eating blood. A Jew is forbidden to eat or drink blood and the blood must even be extracted through salt or fire before we consume any meat or fowl. One would expect to find that prohibition simply listed – do not eat blood and that’s it.

One glance at the verses and prohibition make it very clear that there is more to it than that.

דברים פרק יב

כג) רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר

כד) לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶנּוּ כַּמָּיִם

כה) לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְקֹוָק

23. Only be sure that you eat not the blood; for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh.

  1. You shall not eat it; you shall pour it upon the earth as water.
  2. You shall not eat it; that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, when you shall do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.

A number of issues present themselves from this text:

  1. The command is repeated three times in three consecutive verses.
  2. We are not just commanded to refrain from eating blood, we are encouraged to strengthen ourselves in order to not violate this commandment.
  3. We are given the reason for the prohibition, which itself is rare.
  4. The reason itself is far from clear, is the dam really the nefesh?
  5. There is a general reward associated with the performance of this mitzvah and it relates not only to you but to your children after you as well.

After staring at the page for a while it seemed to me that these psukim and this command can only be understood with an appreciation of the context in which they are written. The parsha before speaks directly to the nature of our God worship. It details the command to wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel. That is a command that calls for violence and destruction at some level. But then we find an all important and critical contrast. Immediately following the command to destroy the other forms of worship we are told how to correctly worship our God. Seek out God in his sanctuary. Bring your sacrifices and your Terumah and your tithes to that place that God has chosen. And rejoice there before God with your family We worship God through sacrifice, service, sharing with those who don’t have (tithes) and in happiness. We seek peace and tranquility and joy before God. Yes there are times that we must resort to violence and fight, but be very clear says the Torah that we don’t turn violence into a form of worship to God. Violence is to be abhorred. Immediately after that the Torah tells us when and how we can eat meat. Originally it was only before God on an altar, and later when the people entered Israel and they spread out and it was not feasible to come to the temple every time a chicken or cow needed to be slaughtered we were given permission to shecht animals outside of the temple and then the Torah tells us strengthen yourself and do not eat the blood.

Why would we try to limit the place of slaughter to the temple and sacrifice? And why when the dispensation is given is it immediately followed by don’t eat the blood?

I would argue as follows: there is an obvious and critical distinction between animal and human life and thus we are forbidden to kill a person created in God’s image but allowed to kill an animal for constructive purposes as they are not created in the divine image. Nevertheless when an animal is killed we have spilled its blood. We have taken a life, in a certain sense and the Torah wants to ensure that we don’t ever become insensitive to the taking of life and is concerned with the effect and impact that is could have upon us.

Thus originally shechitah was only done in the temple, in the presence of God and the Kohanim, where the lessons taught were of proper service to God etc.

Once that was no longer possible we needed to emphasize and teach this lesson of non-violence and guard against a temptation to such activity. The animal of course it slaughtered in as painless a manner as possible and says the Torah, Do not eat the blood! In the words of Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, the Torah “sought to induce an aversion to blood”. 

The prohibition of eating blood becomes a safeguard against becoming cruel and insensitive to the spilling of blood!

With that I think we can answer some of the earlier questions:

  • It is repeated for emphasis, because it is that important. God wants us to have that aversion to bloodshed.
  • Strengthen yourself so that you won’t be affected by the act of killing and the spilling of animal blood.
  • That recognition is good for you.
  • In terms of the children, I am not sure how much to make of it but it is fascinating that the very next paragraph brings us full circle, by taking us back to other forms of worship and mentions that they worship God by burning their sons and daughter in fire. Maybe the peaceful blood abhorring worship is good for the children very literally as they don’t become pawns in the service. Lest we think this is something from 3000 years ago, the same thing happens today as Arab children are sent to their death in the service of God.

We strive to serve God in peace and happiness and without violence. We do not glorify violence and death, we abhor blood and bloodshed.  Yes we fight, but only when we have to and begrudgingly.

Those ideals are lived at some level by every soldier in the Israeli army. Staff Sgt. Uriel Peretz Liverant wanted to learn in Yeshiva and serve God through study. After yeshiva he would head to university and then to work and live in the land of Israel. But that was not to be. He was killed preparing for the fight that has to be fought. Not that fight that he wanted to fight, but the one that he had to.